[K:NWTS 23/1 (May 2008) 70-82]
Roger Olson, Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities. Downer’s Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press, 2006. 255 pp. Cloth. ISBN: 0-8308-2841-9. $25.00.
Dr. Olson’s obvious gifts for teaching and writing are evident throughout the book. Written in a clear and straightforward manner, the book will be accessible to laypeople, but it is substantial enough to keep the interest of a seminary student. Olson’s thesis is to “explain classical Arminian theology as it really is” (that is, the theology of Arminius and his early followers), and to defend it as a valid trajectory of evangelical (and even “Reformed”) theology (10). His interest is not primarily exegetical, nor is it really theological, but rather historical-ecclesiastical. According to Olson, many modern Calvinists (particularly those associated with the magazine, Modern Reformation) accuse Arminians of being outside the bounds of evangelical Christianity. Against this thesis, Olson seeks to demonstrate that Arminianism ought to be considered a true and faithful branch of Protestant evangelicalism. To establish this thesis, Olson attempts to debunk ten so-called “myths” about Arminian theology, many of which have been manufactured by its Reformed critics.
For each of these ten myths, Olson provides a full analysis and refutation. Olson thus hopes to show that Arminianism, though by no means in full agreement with Calvinism, is not as bad as many Calvinists have made it out to be.
Olson’s work is dominated by a call to return to the original Arminian source (Arminianism ad fontes!). This Arminianism, he proposes, is the true Arminianism he seeks to defend: what he calls “Arminianism of the heart” not “Arminianism of the head.” According to him, the later “Arminians” departed in many ways from Arminius’s original positions, and developed them in a more semi-Pelagian and rationalistic direction. On the whole, Olson views Arminius and Simon Episcopius as the faithful proponents of true Arminianism, whereas Philip Von Limborch and Charles Finney, their later successors, significantly alter their system. It appears that we no longer have arguments in favor of “Calvin against the Calvinists,” but also “Arminius against the Arminians!” John Wesley, however, in the 18th century returned to the Classical Arminianism of Arminius, who is then followed by Richard Watson, H. Orton Wiley and others (including Olson).
For Dr. Olson, modern Calvinists have too often mistaken the “Arminianism of the Head” advanced by Limborch, Charles Finney, and others after them for the true Arminianism of the heart advanced by the original Remonstrants. However, we must note at this point that while it is true that there is a significant difference between some of the earlier and later Arminians, it would be historically inaccurate to define “Classical Arminianism” solely in terms of either Arminius’s or Episcopius’s writings. If Olson wants to claim that only Arminius and Episcopius represent his own views on the disputed “five points,” he is certainly allowed to. But the Remonstrants at the Synod of Dordt already included men who articulated a theology that much more closely resembled “the Arminianism of the head” from which Olson detaches himself.
For example, Stephen Curcellaeus (1586-1659), a contemporary of Episcopius, held to a modified governmental view of the atonement as well as the subordination of the Son and the Holy Spirit to the Father. Hugo Grotius himself (the father of the governmental view of the atonement) also consciously associated himself with the Remonstrants. Conrad Vorstius (who was associated with the Arminians) was also condemned by the Synod of Dordt, and spent the rest of his life translating the works of the Socinians. When the Synod of Dordt examined the doctrines of the Remonstrants, it looked at them as a group inclusive of more than the statements of Episcopius and Arminius. It does not seem that there is as much historical distance between “Arminianism of the head” and “Arminianism of the heart” as Olson would believe. The former was already essentially present with some of the first generation Remonstrants. Olson’s “Arminius against the Arminians” model could be subject to the same kind of trenchant critique that the so-called “Calvin against the Calvinist” theses are. It seems possible that a coherent and clear development can be traced from the first generation Remonstrants to their later followers. After all, Arminius was the teacher of Episcopius, and Limborch was Episcopius’s biographer and student.
Space does not permit us to present a full rebuttal of each of Olson’s arguments against these ten “myths.” Indeed, to correct every disputed historical or theological point would require a book in itself. But this is not really necessary for a critique of Olson’s book. In my estimation, there are several more fundamental considerations that underlie all of them and strike right at the heart of Olson’s take on this perennial debate.
First of all, we note what we regard as a most significant admission on Olson’s part: “After twenty-five years of studying this subject, I have concluded that appealing to Scripture alone cannot prove one side right and the other side wrong” (Olson, 70). He continues: “Equally reasonable and spiritually mature Christians have scoured Scripture and come to radically different conclusions about the relationship of election and free will, and the resistibility of atonement and grace.” Olson’s conclusion is somewhat shocking: appeal to Scripture alone cannot settle the debate! For him, the debate cannot be settled “by argument or dialogue,” and that it is simply to be left “to a matter of that mystery called perspective” (70).
Some Christians are Calvinists because when they read Scripture (and perhaps examine their own experience) they see God as almighty, supremely glorious, absolutely sovereign and the all-determining reality…Other Christians are Arminians because when they read Scripture (and perhaps examine their own experience) they see God as supremely good, loving, merciful, compassionate and the benevolent Father of all creation, who desires the best for everyone (72).
In fact, Olson seems to admit at one point that “clear and unequivocal exegetical proof for either system is lacking” (71). Apparently the Calvinism-Arminianism debate is simply a matter of man-made “bliks” or worldviews that “color” our reading of Scripture.
Olson’s epistemological analysis of the Calvinism-Arminianism debate betrays a more fundamental theological skepticism that lies at the heart of his approach. His thesis is that Arminianism should be considered a legitimate branch of Protestantism and a faithful member of the evangelical camp. Indeed, if there is no way to settle the debate by an appeal to sola scriptura, then what a superfluous and foolish debate it would be! To be sure, if Scripture did not speak clearly to these issues, we would most heartily agree. However, a quick glance at the writings of the Apostle shows that the issues of this perennial debate are developed by him at great length (Rom. 9; Eph. 1; etc). But if we follow Olson’s analysis, we have to argue that Paul’s writings (the Scriptures!) are essentially unclear on this issue. But this is really not anything new. Nay-sayers to classic Augustinianism in the Protestant tradition from Erasmus have always accused it of being an unclear speculation on subject matter that is essentially unbeneficial and unedifying for the church. Moreover, the history of the debate shows that it is not limited to one era of the church controlled by a particular historical-philosophical context, but has transcended the boundaries of all historical limitation. Indeed, from Paul, to Augustine, to Pelagius, to John Cassian, to Gottschalk, to the medieval scholastics, to the Protestant Reformation, to the Great Awakening (Wesley and Whitefield) and a whole host of others, this debate has preoccupied Christian theology. It seems strange, therefore, to reduce the Calvinism-Arminianism debate to philosophical-psychological predisposition. We don’t deny that presuppositions and psychological predisposition play a part in theology. But it is difficult for us to see how evangelical theology would not plunge itself into utter skepticism and subjectivism if we follow Olson in giving it what appears to be the ultimate place in theological analysis and formulation. The Scriptures, which are sharper than any two-edged sword, must still be able to penetrate within our self-constructed “bliks” and conform our philosophical-psychological tendencies to the revealed word of God.
Furthermore, Olson’s analysis of the debate does not really faithfully represent the classical Arminian views of Arminius and Episcopius. Both of them were certain that Calvinism of the Contra-remonstrants was unbiblical and harmful to religion. Indeed, Episcopius himself said in his address before the Synod of Dordt that the Calvinism had “deformed” “the purest and most beautiful face of the church.” Episcopius sounds fairly certain that the particular doctrines of Calvinism are downright ugly and unbiblical! Moreover, in his Confession of Faith of Those Called Remonstrants, Episcopius seems fairly convinced from Scripture that the Calvinists “…not only make God unwise…but also most unjust…[and] the alone cause of sin.” I think Olson would be hard pressed to convince Arminius or Episcopius that the whole debate cannot really be settled by Scripture, but is simple a matter of a philosophical “blik.” That was not the view of the “classical Arminianism” that Olson seeks to represent.
In the final analysis, an objective historical, theological, and exegetical comparison of Calvinism and Arminianism is not Olson’s chief concern. Indeed, the unspoken sub-text of his entire book is the need to develop what he elsewhere calls as “postconservative approach to evangelical theology.” In the final analysis this book tells us more about Olson’s desire for a broad, unified, yet theologically undefined post-conservative evangelical church than it does about the real exegetical and theological issues at stake in the Calvinism-Arminianism debate.
Second, Olson often decries Calvinists who misquote or misrepresent the Arminian position. One of the chief culprits (in his view) are the writers of Modern Reformation. In many of these instances, Olson is correct to point out some of the poor scholarship evident among many Reformed theologians. However, he would have been better served not only to speak of the “better way” of fairness of representation, but also to show it to us. In many places of his own work, he does not accurately represent the Reformed position. This quite often occurs in parenthetical statements as side jabs to his opponents. Some of them border on the ridiculous. What fair-minded human being (let alone one who is theologically trained) would accurately label Frederich Schleiermacher a “Calvinist” (242)? Such statements can only serve to prejudice the uninformed reader against the position the author is trying to critique.
However, the better Calvinistic treatments of classical Arminianism have not failed to quote from primary documents. In terms of 19th century Calvinists, one only need peruse Charles Hodge’s Systematic Theology or W. G. T. Shedd’s History of Christian Doctrines to see their familiarity with the Latin works of Arminius and Episcopius. Back in the 17th century, the works of John Owen and Pierre DuMoulin also contained substantial quotations from various Remonstrant theologians and their associates, including Conrad Vorstius, Johannes Arnoldus Corvinus, and others. While the Synod of Dordt is often vilified for dismissing the Remonstrants from the Synod before formulating its canons, it is often overlooked that they publicly read through nearly the entirety of the Apology of the Remonstrants while formulating their Canons (sometimes 50 pages a day). That in itself is quite an amazing feat. If anyone has read theology in the scholastic style of the period, they would know that it is no easy read! Olson seems bent on critiquing only the less nuanced popular presentations of Calvinism and Arminianism, and fails to interact with the more scholarly Calvnistic works upon which the former are built.
Third, Olson fails to deal in any substantial way with Richard Muller’s monumental study on Arminius’s theology, in which he argued in a programmatic way that “Arminius’ system…can only be interpreted as a full-scale alternative to Reformed theology.” His only substantive comment concerning Muller’s thesis is the following: “So much depends upon how we define Reformed theology. Overall it seems valid to include Arminianism within the broad category of the Reformed family of faith” (47). This is Olson’s tactic throughout—to redefine the terms of the debate to make them broad enough to accommodate both opinions. I don’t believe that if we defined Reformed theology as “that branch of Christendom which broke from Roman Catholicism in the 16th century,” anyone would disagree with it. However, the term “Reformed theology” has come to have a much more fixed meaning, quite often equivalent to “Calvinism” over against “Arminianism.” This is recognized by a wide variety of secular and Christian scholars. To redefine the terms at this point in history is to produce more confusion than theological clarity. However, if your goal is to convince people that Arminians and Calvinists should cooperate together as broadly evangelical, this theological confusion would seem to be a welcome phenomenon.
To return to our main point, such redefinition of terms fails to deal with the substance of Muller’s arguments—and I doubt Muller can be accused of failing to consult Arminius’s primary documents. In fact, Muller takes pains to point out that Arminius’s theology shared a great deal of affinity with the Roman Catholic and Jesuit theologians of his day: “Arminius, by moving away from this Reformed position toward the teaching of Suarez and Molina rejected the strict Augustinianism of Baius and the Augustinian language of grace resident in Banez’ Thomism” (Muller, 273). However, Olson makes no substantive attempt to critique Muller’s important work.
Likewise, no effort is made on Olson’s part to deal with the connection between Molina’s theory of “Middle Knowledge” and that of James Arminius. Eef Dekker has made a convincing argument that Arminius drew upon Molina’s theology, even showing how Arminius lifted exact quotations from Molina’s writings and incorporated them into his own. The entire question of the dependence of Arminius’s theology on developing Roman Catholicism goes almost entirely untouched by Olson. However, this is crucial for understanding the Reformed Church’s heavy reaction to his proposals. Indeed, the fact that Molina’s theology caused the same kind of stir in Roman Catholic circles helps us to understand the broader context in which Arminius was formulating his theology. Arminians are certainly free to view their theology as a correction/modification of broader Protestantism. But if they do so, they must be willing to admit that those “corrective” elements arise not from the genius of the Magisterial Reformers, but have strong precedent in semi-Pelagian Roman Catholicism. Arminius’s contemporaries, who accuse him of borrowing from the Jesuits, appear to be justified in that assessment.
The truth is, even where we find Arminianism at its “best” (that is, the “Arminianism of the heart” that Olson propounds), it is still found wanting in its faithfulness to Scripture. We do not have the space to subject all the key tenets of Arminianism to thorough theological critique. We will have to focus our attention on the Arminian view of original sin and total depravity. Examination of this doctrine is an important test of Olson’s thesis, for there is no doctrine that Calvinists have accused Arminians of rejecting more than “total depravity.” Indeed, my own understanding of the classical Arminian view of original sin was greatly nuanced by my study of Olson’s book. However, after careful consideration, I am still convinced that Arminianism is perilously wrong on this subject. Even with all of his insistence that Arminians believe in the doctrine, Olson cannot escape the fact that Arminius and Episcopius define their version of it in a way quite different from classic Augustinianism and the Bible. Although he affirms that mankind has been deprived of their “original righteousness” through Adam’s fall, Arminius does not affirm that man’s nature is thereby “positively corrupt” from birth.
Must some contrary quality, beside the absence of original righteousness, be constituted as another part of original sin? Though we think it much more probable, that this absence of original righteousness, only, is original sin, itself, as being that which alone is sufficient to commit and produce any actual sins whatsoever.
The difficulty with Arminius’s position is that if the privation of original righteousness is alone sufficient to commit and produce actual sin, then man must have had some natural propensity to sin prior to the fall. This may in fact have been his position. Indeed, one of the questions he thought worthy of consideration was the following:
Is original sin only the absence or want of original righteousness and of primeval holiness, with an inclination to commitsin, which likewise formerly existed in man, though it was not so vehement nor so inordinate as now it is, on account of the lost favour of God, his malediction, and the loss of that good by which that inclination was reduced to order?
This move seems to make logical sense. If the privation of original righteousness is sufficient to leave man in a state that will eventually lead him to actual sin, then the positive inclination to sin must have been present with man in creation. Where else could it have come from?
Carl Bangs, a biographer of Arminius, insists that these statements were not contrary to the Dutch Confessions, and that only later did the Reformed develop a distinction between privation and depravation. He concludes: “Arminius should not be judged by these later dogmatic developments.” However, the privation/depravation distinction was not simply a future development of the Reformed, but was in fact the view of many of the medieval Roman Catholics including Thomas Aquinas, Peter Lombard, and Henry of Ghent. Robert Bellarmine, however, the greatest of the papal polemicists of the Reformation age, explicitly taught the “privation-only” view of Arminius. It is no wonder that the Reformed began to question Arminius’s orthodoxy! He was taking clear sides in an old debate on which the Reformed had long before almost unanimously passed their judgment. Contrary to Bangs’s claims, Arminius’s view was flatly contrary to the Heidelberg Catechism, which Arminius always claimed to uphold: “Are we so corrupt that we are wholly incapable of doing any good, and inclined to all evil? Yes, indeed; unless we are born again by the Spirit of God” (Q & A #8).
Moreover, although the Arminians continued to use the language of original sin, they radically redefined it.
The Remonstrants do not regard original sin as sin properly so called, which renders the posterity of Adam deserving of the hatred of God; nor as an evil which by the method of punishment properly so called (per modum proprie dictae poenae) passes from Adam to his posterity; but as an evil, infirmity, injury (infirmitas, vitium), or by whatever other name it may be called, which is propagated to his posterity by Adam devoid of original righteousness…But that original sin (peccatum originis) is not evil in any other sense than this,—that it is not evil in the sense of implying guilt and desert of punishment (malum culpae, aut malum poenae),—is plain. It is not evil in the sense of implying guilt, because to be born is confessedly an involuntary thing, and therefore it is an involuntary thing to be born with this or that stain (labes), infirmity, injury, or evil. But if it is not an evil in the sense of implying guilt, then it cannot be an evil in the sense of desert of punishment; because guilt and punishment are correlated...So far, therefore, as original sin is an evil, it must be in the sense in which the Remonstrants define the term; and is called original sin by a misuse of the word ‘sin’ (kataxrestikos).
Episcopius could not be clearer: “original sin” is not a sin properly so called. Nor is it a punishment for Adam’s first sin. It is merely an infirmity or injury upon man’s nature which makes him “wholly unfit for, and incapable of attaining eternal life.”
Several inconsistencies arise for Episcopius in this formulation. First of all, the Arminians do not really escape the problem they see in the Calvinistic view of original sin. For the Arminians, the Augustinian doctrine of original sin makes God unjust. In communicating the guilt and corruption resulting from Adam’s first sin to his descendants, God is holding men guilty of a crime they didn’t personally commit. However, Episcopius's formulation leaves him in the same dilemma, if not a worse one. In Episcopius’s view, all men are born with an injury and infirmity that they did not themselves deserve. They are born into a situation in which they cannot produce the righteousness God requires of them. Indeed, there are infants who die in infancy from an injury and infirmity that they did not justly merit. How much more horrid does this make God than the Calvinist position! The Calvinist maintains that man is born wholly unable to attain to righteousness because he actually deserves to be born in such a condition. The Arminian maintains that man is born totally unable to please God even though he doesn’t deserve such a condition as a punishment for sin! Indeed, on the Arminian position infants who die in infancy must die unjustly. If they are born with only an injury that is not in itself sinful or deserving of the punishment of sin, they receive the punishment for sin (death), without actually deserving it. Arminianism tries to protect God from being unjust by denying the guilt and punishment of original sin, but in so doing it makes God more unjust by allowing man to suffer the punishment of sin without actually partaking of its guilt or corruption.
It is beyond dispute that the privation/depravation distinction does not appear explicitly in Scripture. The question then becomes whether or not the privation-only view of Arminius, Bellarmine, and others does full justice to Scripture. How does he account for Genesis 6:5: “...the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and…every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” (indeed, from “childhood,” as Gen. 8:21 says)? Or what about Romans 7:13: “Did that which is good, then, bring death to me? By no means! It was sin, producing death in me through what was good, in order that sin might be shown to be sin, and through the commandment might become sinful beyond measure.” Indeed, in these and other passages Paul never minimizes the effect of sin upon human nature, but rather maximizes the heinousness of the corrupt nature of man in his natural condition. In the Bible, sin is never merely a negative lack of righteousness, but also an utterly wicked positive power (depravation!) in the hearts of mankind (cf. Mark 7:20-21; Eph. 2:1-2; Jam. 1:14-15).
Many other points could be noted in criticism of this book. Our review to this point has been overwhelmingly negative. But there is at least one very good thing about this book. Olson continually calls Reformed Calvinists back to a study of the primary documents of classic Arminianism. He calls upon Calvinists, in fairness, to read Arminius for himself (as well as Episcopius, Limborch, Wesley and others). I for one have found this to be good advice. When these documents are weighed in the balance, Arminian theology is found to be what the Reformed church has always found it to be: Arminian, not Reformed. And a thorough theological and exegetical study of the classic critique of Arminianism, the Canons of Dordt, will find Arminianism to be what the Reformed church has always argued it was: unbiblical. In our opinion, Olson would have been better served to devote his time and obvious intellectual gifts to producing a serious exegetical and theological response to these works. This decisive judgment may be anathema to the post-foundationalist epistemology of the modern day, and unwelcome in the big-tent evangelicalism that Olson proposes, but it is the judgment of the classic, confessional, Reformed church. Yes! read Arminius, Episcopius, and Limborch for yourself. But then read the classic critiques of Arminianism from the 17th century period: the Canons of Dordt; Pierre DuMoulin’s Anatomy of Arminianism; John Owen’s Display of Arminianism; and Francis Turretin’s Institutes of Elenctic Theology, to name a few. And if the reader has the time and intellectual patience, he can pick up Jonathan Edwards’s greatest work, The Freedom of the Will, for a definitive critique of the Arminian view of the will. Olson fails to significantly interact with any of these foundational Reformed responses to classical Arminianism. We would ask Olson to do the same for Calvinists that he calls us to do for the Arminians: go back to the original sources and read the best proponents of Calvinism. And if he finds these lacking in places, he can always go pick up the men whom Calvinists have always regarded as the main source of their theology: the prophet Isaiah and the apostle Paul.
In spite of all these weaknesses, this book can still serve a useful purpose for a Reformed pastor. I myself have found it useful as I have been working on Sunday School lessons on the Canons of Dordt in that it provides a quick reference guide to many quotations from original Arminian sources which are otherwise very expensive (and/or) difficult to find. A Reformed pastor who is eager to “dig in” to many of the primary sources of Arminianism will find Olson’s book to be a good starting point. In the interests of fairness and historical accuracy, Calvinists will be able to reestablish their rich tradition of accurately critiquing Arminian theology from the primary sources. I myself have had a few of my own misunderstandings of Arminianism corrected by reading this book (particularly with reference to total depravity). Yet this has not drawn me away from Calvinism, but rather made me more firmly committed to it. An accurate knowledge of Arminianism will help the Reformed pastor to critique Arminianism at the actual points in dispute, and hopefully to silence some of Olson’s objections about modern Calvinists misrepresenting Arminianism.
—Benjamin W. Swinburnson
 In fairness to Olson, we must admit that some modern Calvinists do not do careful research into the primary documents of Arminianism, and are guilty of not properly articulating the latter’s position. But this was not true of the classic Calvinistic critiques of Arminianism noted below. Furthermore (as Olson admits), this same complaint can be leveled against many popular Arminian critiques of Calvinism.
 Stephanus Curcellaeus, Stephani Curcellaei opera theologica. Quorum pars praecipua institutio religionis christianae (1675) lib. v, chap. xviii, xix.
 Ibid., lib. ii, cap. xix
 Geeraert Brandt and John Chamberlayne, The History of the Reformation and Other Ecclesiastical Transactions in and About the Low-Countries (1720) III:53.
 The Confession of Faith of Those Called Arminians, or, A Declaration of the Opinions and Doctrines of the Ministers and Pastors Which in the United Provinces Are Known by the Name of Remonstrants Concerning the Chief Points of Christian Religion (1684) 104.
 Roger E. Olson, Reformed and Always Reforming: The Postconservative Approach to Evangelical Theology (2007).
 Let me at this point affirm my belief that my evangelical Arminian brothers do hold fast to many of the foundational doctrines of the Reformation, such as sola Scriptura. However, the debate is not simply whether there are certain “fundamental articles” Calvinists and Arminians agree upon. Indeed, the apostle Paul seems to suggest that there are those who err who nevertheless lay the foundation correctly (1 Cor. 3:15) and will thus themselves enter salvation. However, the apostle is equally emphatic that the structure of “wood, hay, and stubble” he sought to build will itself be “burned up” and he will “suffer loss.” We rejoice in the Pauline teaching that belief in the fundamental articles are sufficient for salvation (for which we joyfully give our evangelical Arminian brothers the judgment of charity). But we also are sobered by his warning that errors superimposed upon that foundation can be very harmful for the well-being, growth, and progress of the church.
 Richard A. Muller, God, Creation, and Providence in the Thought of Jacob Arminius: Sources and Directions of Scholastic Protestantism in the Era of Early Orthodoxy (1991) 271.
 Eef Dekker, “Was Arminius a Molinist?” Sixteenth Century Journal 27/2 (Summer, 1996): 337-352.
 Jacobus Arminius, The Works of James Arminius (1986) II:375.
 Ibid., II:717
 Carl Bangs, Arminius: A Study in the Dutch Reformation (1985) 340.
 The quotation is taken from Episcopius’s Apology for the Remonstrants (in his Opera, Book II, Cap. VII) as translated by W. G. T. Shedd, A History of Christian Doctrine (1875) 181-83.
 We leave to the side here the question of the salvation of infants dying in infancy. However, it would be helpful for the reader to have before him that actual decision of the Canons of Dordt on this matter: “Since we are to judge of the will of God from his Word, which testifies that the children of believers are holy, not by nature, but in virtue of the covenant of grace, in which they, together with the parents, are comprehended, godly parents have no reason to doubt of the election and salvation of their children, whom it pleaseth God to call out of this life in their infancy” (First Head, Article 17).