Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities
By Roger E. Olson
Downers Grove, IL
Reviewed by Dr. Andrew Snider
20.1 (Spring 2009) : 116-117
Calvinists and Arminians are not famous for having fair, balanced dialogue about the real issues that separate them. In light of this, Roger Olson perceives the need for a straightforward presentation of classical Arminianism’s true distinctives, and has written this book to meet that need. In doing so he shows by example that cordial, even edifying, critical interaction is possible between these two traditions.
As the title suggests, Olson’s strategy is to debunk key myths propagated by classical Arminianism’s detractors. Each chapter is devoted to one of these myths. Olson begins each chapter by citing those who have popularized the myth; then he proceeds to show that it is not something that “true” Arminians would affirm. Olson’s goal is to show that “true Arminianism,” far from being outside the pale of Christian orthodoxy, is in fact located within the evangelical stream of Reformation theology.
Before addressing his list of ten myths, Olson provides a helpful and rather extensive introduction to Arminianism. After tracing the history of his tradition from Arminius to the present day, Olson sets out to define clearly what he will be defending in the book. He calls this “true” or “classical” Arminianism, which he distinguishes from liberalism, semi-Pelagianism, Socinianism, and open theism.
Olson deals with myths such as “The Heart of Arminianism is Free Will” (Myth 4) and “Arminians Do Not Believe in Predestination” (Myth 8) as he seeks to disprove thoroughly Myth 3, “Arminianism is Not an Orthodox Evangelical Option.” In each chapter, to establish a consistent testimony that disproves the myth under consideration, Olson adduces evidence from the writings of Arminius himself, as well as luminaries of that tradition such as Simon Episcopius, John Wesley, Richard Watson, William Burt Pope, John Miley, J. Orton Wiley, and Thomas Oden. Olson does not shy away from key embarrassments to the Arminian tradition, such as the theological errors of Charles Finney. He rather admits these weaknesses and proceeds to demonstrate that they are not representative of the classical Arminian tradition as a whole.
Olson frequently expresses his frustration with how Calvinists have misrepresented Arminian doctrinal formulations. But he generally keeps his tone cordial as he seeks to set an example for Calvinist-Arminian dialogue. He ends the book by suggesting ground rules for these polemics, emphasizing the responsibility of each side to listen to and understand the other carefully and charitably.
The book seems to hit most of the major distinctives of Arminian theology and does not seem to shy away from any of them save one—eternal security or perseverance of the saints. Olson skirts this issue a few times, but does not devote a chapter to it as might be expected.
Since this is not a highly technical book, it is valuable as a resource for almost anyone who wants to know what Arminians believe. However, the book will be limited as a polemical resource, since Olson does not engage in detailed argumentation against Calvinist doctrine. Olson’s fairly consistent irenic tone and his call for cordiality and patience should be heeded by Calvinists and Arminians, and those particularly narrow Calvinists. Those who regard classical Arminianism as heresy should receive Olson’s rebuke and acknowledge that Arminians are fellow members of the body of Christ. Overall, Olson’s book is highly recommended for those who want to understand the Arminian-Calvinist controversy better.