Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Tim Challies on Roger E. Olson's Arminian Theology

I was trying to move on to topics other than divine election for a while, but Tim Challies' recent post has sucked me back in again.

In his book, Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities, Olson distinguishes between what he calls Arminianism "of the head" (the more radical Remonstrants and liberal theology in general) and "of the heart" (Arminius himself, Wesley, and their evangelical heirs). The former group are frankly semi-Pelagian, the latter are truly in the evangelical Protestant camp. About this distinction, Challies writes:
[Olson's] claims depend on suggesting that other theologians of the past and present just haven't properly understood. When Steve Lawson, R.C. Sproul and countless others have examined Arminianism and declared it to be Semi-Pelagian, they just haven't quite understood the details. They unfairly typified Arminianism, confusing it with Semi-Pelagianism. Or so men like Olson have to conclude. Careful and skilled researchers that they are, I think this is unfair and uncharitable to the large number of Reformed scholars who, based on honest assessment, have reached such a conclusion.
At first blush, this made my blood boil: Challies appeared to be setting up such Reformed scholars as Sproul and Lawson as the standard, and calling anyone such as Olson "disingenuous" if he dares suggest that they are wrong.

On a second reading, I recognized that Challies thinks Olson is pulling a fast one: distinguishing himself and the small minority of "good Arminians" from the "bad Arminians" whom Challies assumes are the mass of non-Reformed Christians. And if that were what Olson was doing, Challies would have a point. But Challies is wrong: Olson is simply distinguishing between Evangelical Arminianism and liberal theology. Should we not do this? Or perhaps we should lump all Presbyterians together into one group? There are a lot of Wesleyans, Pentecostals, and conservative Methodists who are solidly evangelical and yet don't buy into the Reformed doctrines regarding election. It is this group that Reformed critics attack and it is this group that Olson is defending; he shouldn't have to extend his defense to theological liberals any more than Mark Roberts should have to defend the theological liberals of the PCUSA.

Challies thinks it is "unfair and uncharitable" for Olson to suggest that Reformed scholars may have misunderstood and mischaracterized evangelical Arminianism. Well, Olson had the grace to suggest that Reformed scholars may have misunderstood Arminianism; he could have suggested that they were "disingenuous" and set up a straw man to knock down. Challies approvingly quotes Steve Lawson's characterization of Arminianism that "salvation is partly of God and partly of man. Here God supplies the grace and man supplies the faith. Man becomes his own co-savior." The fact is that no Arminian that I have ever known believes that. That is what Olson is saying: that Arminianism is being unfairly mischaracterized by Reformed scholars, who (to be charitable) have misunderstood the views of evangelical Arminians. Challies actually repeats the precise mischaracterization that Scot McKnight is currently discussing on his blog.

When I was in (a predominantly Reformed) seminary, I was told that the debate between Calvinists and Arminians was an in-house debate among evangelicals; it was not a test of orthodoxy. For the most part, Arminians have conducted that debate in that way: they have not questioned the salvation and integrity of Reformed believers. But Calvinists are increasingly treating Arminianism as though it were a heresy. I don't mind a debate among brothers. But I don't much like the feeling of being excommunicated.


  1. Keith,

    Interesting. Thanks for informing me of Tim's article. I posted a few remarks there.

    I am reviewing a book I recently got. It contains a great chapter on Pentecostal Christianity. The authors call them "The Ultimate Conservative Chtistians". I intend to make a few remarks about their findings in the future.

    I trust your day goes well. With that, I am...


  2. I get tired of a debate that characterizes Arminians as heretics and Calvinists as just people who make God the Author of Evil.

  3. So do I, GREV. Thanks for stopping by.

  4. Schooley I dig this post, and blog! I truly appreicate that excellent post. Great apologetic for the arminian perspective. Everything you stated in your critique of the so-called calvinist position is exactly what drove me out. They are not only that way with arminians, they are that way with other calvinist that claim to hold the four point perspective of calvnism.

    Beautiful post man. Just beautiful.

  5. Welcome, Donald, and thanks much for the kind words.