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Arminian Theology

An Interview with Roger Olson

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Arminianism has always stressed and emphasized the initiative of God by prevenient grace.

In February 2007, editor-in-chief Michael Horton interviewed Roger Olson, a professor at Truett Seminary at Baylor University (Waco, Texas) and author of several books, including The Mosaic of Christian Beliefs: Twenty Centuries of Unity and Diversity (InterVarsity Press, 2002) and The Story of Christian Theology: Twenty Centuries of Tradition and Reform (InterVarsity, 1999). His most recent book is Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities (InterVarsity Press, 2006).

First of all, what provoked you to write a book titled Arminian Theology?
Well, the subtitle is important, too, and that is "Myths and Realities." The idea for the book goes back a long way. I grew up Pentacostal and we were always Arminian, of course. I first encountered the term in college from one of my teachers. When I went to a Baptist Evangelical seminary, a couple of my professors spoke to me about Arminianism in fairly disparaging ways. And yet they didn't seem to be Calvinists, really, and so I was kind of confused. One of them said to me, "Arminianism always leads to liberal theology," and that provoked some thoughts in my mind because I knew that we Pentecostals weren't liberal, and I knew Nazarenes and other Holiness people who were Arminians that weren't liberal theologically, so I began the journey of trying to understand what would cause someone to say that. Years later I picked up an issue of Modern Reformation and read it, and it was the issue on Arminianism. And I read right through it, all the way, and said to myself, "No, this isn't Arminianism as I know it," so the book began to formulate in my mind right then. I don't know if it's ironic or serendipitous or providential, probably, that I'm being interviewed by this magazine.

[laughter] Well, first of all, Roger, if you could give us a historical sketch of Arminius. Who was the Arminius behind Arminianism?
In the late 1500's, Jacob Arminius grew up in Holland. He was away at school when his whole family was slaughtered by the Spanish who were occupying Holland at that time, or what was called United Provinces, Holland being one of them. When Spain was occupying the United Provinces, there was a great deal of fear of Roman Catholicism there. Jacob came back to the Netherlands and pastored for a while and soon received an appointment as professor of theology at the University of Leiden, and there he was a colleague of Franciscus Gomarus, who was a Calvinist of a particular sort, I would say, not just a garden variety Calvinist, but a supra-lapsarian, and they came into conflict with each other. The story is that Arminius was asked to refute the teachings of another theologian-I think his name was Dirck Coornhert, who had rejected some of the major tenets of Calvinism, and in that process, Arminius came to believe that Calvinism was incorrect. Actually, that's probably a myth. He studied under Theodore Beza at Geneva and probably never did fully agree with some of the Calvinist tenets that he learned there and that he knew from growing up in the Netherlands. And so when he began teaching theology at the University of Leiden, he began to object to some of the more stringent (he thought), beliefs of Calvinism there and argued for a view of people having free will given to them by God through prevenient grace and so forth. Arminianism then became launched and he died in the middle of the heat of the discussion over it and his followers called the Remonstrants picked up from when he died and continued it. Often the two terms are equated, Arminianism and the Remonstrants.

Is it true, Roger, that one of the things that began to draw controversial fire was Arminius' interpretation of Romans 7 as not referring to the life of a believer?
Right. One of his earliest writings, a commentary of Romans 7, argued that this is the testimony of someone who is not yet saved, and that when Paul is talking about the struggle between the flesh and the Spirit and so forth in Romans 7, he means before he became a Christian. Most people in that time, and many people today, interpret it otherwise, that it describes the Christian condition of the typical believer, the struggle between flesh and Spirit, the "always righteous and sinner at the same time." In that essay, and I've read it very carefully, Arminius argues what John Wesley later argued. In fact, if I could just insert here that I have been unable to find any significant disagreements between Arminius and Wesley theologically. Arminius was a Wesleyan before Wesley-he believed in Christian perfection; he did believe it was possible by the grace of God, not by our own effort, to live a sinlessly perfect life in the sense of not sinning presumptuously. He didn't claim that for himself, he didn't name anyone he knew who did that, he just thought it was a possibility. Yes, that provoked a lot of controversy.

Arminianism-as you point out, a lot of debate swirls around what Arminius himself taught, but don't things get even more dicey when you talk about Arminian-ism, since there seem to be so many descriptions not only by non-Arminians, but so many different versions of Arminianism professed by people who call themselves Arminians?
Exactly. And that does create a problem, and it's complex trying to describe Arminianism. You have to wade through a lot of that, but I don't see it as any different, really, from Reformed theology which has many branches to it and many interpretations of it from outside and from inside. And so what I do in the book is just go back to Arminius in every chapter and ask, "What did Arminius say about this?" and then go to the Remonstrants-the leading ones, like Simon Episcopius, who was Arminius' successor and founded the Remonstrant Seminary in Holland, and then go to Philipp van Limborch, who was a little more left-wing I would say. My main distinction throughout the history of Arminianism is borrowed from Alan P. R. Sell who was the theological secretary of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches for years and is still an active theologian. He distinguishes between "Arminianism of the head," which I trace back to Philipp van Limborch, a Remonstrant in the 1600's, and "Arminianism of the heart," which was typified by both Arminius and Wesley. I call Arminianism of the heart "evangelical Arminianism."

Yes, one of the things you point out that I thought was interesting was that the kind of Arminianism that leads to liberalism pretty easily is the "Arminianism of the head" rather than the "Arminianism of the heart." Could you explain that a little?
Yes. Well I think the story there begins with Philipp van Limborch, although I've read some Reformed critics who want to trace it back to Simon Episcopius, but I've been unable to find this "Arminianism of the head" in him. I believe Philipp Limborch taught at the Remonstrant Seminary and with him we see the beginnings of something new in the stream of Arminian thought, and that is what I would consider a semi-Pelagian tendency, a more optimistic view with regard to human nature, minimizing the necessity of grace, elevation of reason as the main thing people need in order to become converted and live a Christian life. And it isn't a total shift, but you see the beginning of a shift leftward that did, I think, lead to deism, perhaps Unitarianism, but strangely enough to Finney. And when I read Limborch and Finney, who lived a couple hundred years apart, they were saying the same thing.

I thought that was fascinating in your book. It's always nice to be able to quote an Arminian pointing out how heterodox Charles Finney was. He was definitely not your garden-variety Arminian, was he?
I don't call him an Arminian at all. In fact, in the book I quote Finney himself about Jonathan Edwards. Of Jonathan Edwards Finney said, "The man I adore, his mistakes I deplore." And I say that of Finney: "The man as an evangelist I adore, but his theological mistakes I deplore." And I do not consider him an Arminian.

You point out in your book that you think most of American evangelicalism tends toward Finney's brand of semi-Pelagianism more than Arminianism.
Right. In fact in the book, near the beginning I say, with my Reformed friends, that garden variety evangelicalism in the pews-and too often in the pulpits-is semi-Pelagian, not Arminian. And yet it gets called Arminian by many people. The whole point of my book is to distinguish between those, between semi-Pelagianism and Arminianism, and I agree with critics who say that American evangelical Christianity is by and large semi-Pelagian-in the sense that they believe we take the initiative. I call it the theology of "Touched by an Angel." In that TV show, many times the angels would say to people, "All you have to do is reach out toward God, and then he'll come down and reach out to you." And there are songs, of course, that say much the same thing. And that's not Arminianism. Arminianism has always stressed and emphasized the initiative of God by prevenient grace.

You've nicely spelled out the difference between Arminianism and semi-Pelagianism. As we get to the differences between Reformation Christianity and Arminianism, would you say that the most basic difference is monergism versus synergism-in other words, God alone saving versus our cooperating, enabled by grace, even willing, by God's grace?
In other words, enabling our cooperation with his grace by his grace.

Right.
You and I have had these talks before, of course, and I don't know that we'll ever totally agree on what Reformation theology was. Luther was a monergist-I certainly agree with that-Calvin was, of course... But if you look at Melanchthon, Luther's right hand man and real successor theologically, after Luther died, Melanchthon came out very publicly as a synergist and creates a controversy and Lutherans divided over that and have ever since.

But it was rejected in the Book of Concord.
Right. I agree with you.

One of the things that I thought was very interesting, Roger-and this will come as no surprise to you-was, first of all, how eager you were in the book to make the case that Arminianism is in the mainstream of evangelical Reformation Christianity. And I guess it depends again on what our definitions are of "evangelical" here. If we're talking about the broad evangelical movement, then certainly we would all agree that Arminianism has had a very long lineage in the evangelical movement. But if it's defined in terms of its relation to the Reformation, justification is clearly at the heart of that. And one of the points you make, the last chapter of the book, is that you think there is a myth that Arminians don't believe in justification. Can you explain that?
Yes, it's the ninth chapter. The tenth chapter is about the atonement, and so it's the penultimate chapter. There I say that Arminian theology does not deny justification by grace through faith alone. The chapter subtitle is "Classical Arminian theology is a Reformation theology." It embraces divine imputation of righteousness by God's grace through faith alone and preserves the distinction between justification and sanctification. And I give quote after quote after quote from Arminian theologians-the main voices of Arminianism have all said as much. Now, it's possible for someone to argue that they're inconsistent in that, and that they're not logically allowed to say the things they say, but of course we Arminians feel the same way about Reformed theology, that there are inconsistencies there. So what I'm arguing in the chapter is not so much that they were entirely logically consistent in everything, but that they did at least affirm that salvation is totally by God's grace through faith alone.

Okay, I have to tell you, Roger, the thing that really threw me off in that chapter, which I read with great interest, was that the main point in the chapter was to say: Arminians believe in justification, we may dot the I's differently and cross the T's differently, but no one can say that Arminians hold a view of justification that is different in its main points from the view that was held by the reformers in the Reformation.
Wesley himself said that.

Right. But what I found so striking was that every Wesleyan and Arminian theologian you mentioned of the nineteenth-century, you yourself quoted sections of them where they denied the imputation of Christ's active and passive obedience. And so I scratched my head and I thought, how could we say that Arminians hold exactly the same doctrine of justification as the Reformation when the very thing the whole Reformation was over, justification as the imputation of Christ's righteousness, was the very thing that was denied by the people you mentioned?
We're getting into very fine points here, and it would take a long time to parse things out, but my argument in the chapter is that all of them-Richard Watson, all those nineteenth-century Methodist theologians-did affirm the imputation of Christ's righteousness. What they didn't necessarily affirm, and sometimes quibbled among themselves, was whether Christ's active righteousness was imputed to us, or whether it was his passive righteousness in the atonement and suffering on the cross that was imputed to us.

But didn't you say in some of those instances that it was a question of whether any righteousness of Christ was imputed?
No, I think that is a misreading of the chapter. If I wasn't clear, I apologize. My intention in the chapter was to argue, based on quotations from them, that they did believe that Christ's righteousness is imputed to us, though they sometimes falter in the way they said it. And that's a crucial thing because a lot of critics have said that the imputation of faith, of righteousness for faith, is actually making faith a work. But if you read them carefully, they deny that. The language is unfortunate-I admit that-but when you look at it carefully, what they're really saying is it's Christ's righteousness that is imputed to us on account of our faith. And that's what I believe, and I'm an Arminian.

Okay, but then it can be construed that their formulation of justification would be that faith itself is the ground of justification.
But they all deny that in the sense of... they all argue that faith is the instrumental cause, but not the effectual cause of justification.

Okay, how about the atonement? That was your last chapter and you point out that there is an emphasis on other theories of the atonement, but substitution is certainly there.
Yes. I can't find the governmental theory-even a hint of it-in Arminius. He clearly affirmed the satisfaction theory. When you move on from him to the Remonstrants, Simon Episcopius, you see the beginnings of the governmental theory influenced by Hugo Grotius, who was a statesman and theologian of the time, who influenced Arminianism. So Grotius, as I argued, really developed the governmental theory, but it was never picked up by all Arminians. Wesley didn't believe in the governmental theory, and in the nineteenth-century, two of the four leading Methodist theologians that I discussed rejected the governmental theory in favor of the substitution theory.

But for some, at least, the governmental theory was-and certainly for Finney-the preferred view of the atonement.
Yes, and it remains so for some Arminians. My only argument is it's not the Arminian doctrine of the atonement because many Arminians have rejected it, and are quite critical of it, in fact-some of those nineteenth-century Methodist theologians are extremely critical of the governmental theory.

Roger, when push comes to shove on our respective interpretations of God's saving work, would you say that monergism is the real obstacle between Calvinists and Arminians?
That's a difficult question to answer...At first blush I guess I would say so, but then as I argue in the book, there is a monergistic impulse in classical Arminianism that's often missed by readers of Arminius. In other words, one cannot resist the initial coming of grace to a person's life. It comes. There's nothing you can do about it. It comes through the hearing of the Word, for example, according to Arminius. And this is another difference among Arminians-just as Calvinist, Reformed people disagree-Arminians disagree about just exactly how prevenient grace comes. I find in Arminius an emphasis on the hearing and the preaching of the Word, so when the Word is proclaimed or read, prevenient grace begins to change a person by liberating them from the bondage of the will and sin and enabling them to make a free choice to accept that grace unto salvation-or to remain in their sins, rejecting it. There's a monergistic element in that.

However, at the end of the day, why is it that some people are saved and others are not?
That's an unanswerable question, just like Reformed theology can't answer why some people are elect and others are not.

We can answer that as Reformed Christians by saying, "Because we have only ourselves to blame if we don't. We have only God to thank if we do." It's not just because I resisted less than this person over here, but because God granted me the life.
Yeah, of course perspectives intrude here. You and other Reformed people are looking at Arminianism through Calvinist eyes; Arminians looking at Calvinism are looking at it through Arminian eyes. To us, the whole idea that God passes over some people when he could save everyone because salvation is always unconditional, makes God look arbitrary and, perhaps, capricious, and perhaps even that he has an evil side. So we know that Calvinists don't say any of that, but our thought is that if we were to become Calvinists, that's what we'd have to believe, and we can't believe that. And then when Calvinists look at us, they say, "Well, if we were going to be Arminians, we'd have to believe that the human person has a meritorious role in salvation." But we don't believe that.

Roger, we really appreciate you taking the time to give us a thumbnail sketch of your book, and even though I don't necessarily agree with all of the characterizations of Calvinist interpretations of Arminianism that you point out, and we have our remaining differences over the material content of God's work in Jesus Christ, I am very thankful that you took the time to be with us and to help explain Arminianism in the light of some of the misrepresentations.
Yes, well thank you for giving me that opportunity. I appreciate it.





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Issue: "Grace: How Strange the Sound" July/August 2007 Vol. 16 No. 4 Page number(s): 38-41

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