Book Review: Arminian Theology-Myths and Realities by Roger E. Olson

Have you ever gotten completely fed up with debates between Calvinists and Arminians about eternal life? Have you read lots of Calvinist literature on Calvinism and Calvinist descriptions of Arminianism, but had a hard time finding a readable treatment on the subject from a distinctly Arminian perspective?

I am leading a seminar next week discussing Calvinism, Arminianism, and Free Grace theology as systems of salvation, and was really struggling with those very issues.  Not that Arminian theology is hidden in America, per se; it’s just fragmented and represented by such a varied tradition that it’s not easy to find a classical Arminian theology work that is not embedded in its’ own unique bent as well.

If you’re interested in a book along those lines, Roger Olson’s Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities is a great place to start. (go read the customer reviews on Amazon at the link…you’ll get a feel)  I recommend it highly and am going to offer it as an extra-credit book to my theology students and recommend it to my leaders at church.

The Good:

In any theology book, it must always in my opinion begin with approach.  Olson does a phenomenal job of being approachable to readers.  The book is easy to read, and arranged topically so that subjects of interest can be found quickly.  It’s also relatively brief at 246 pages!

I really appreciated Olson’s irenic approach to this discussion. Many times, Calvinists and Arminians like to throw rocks at one another from their respective camps.  Olson stays away from that and instead warmly interacts with 10 “myths” or misunderstandings of Arminianism that are popularly called “Arminian” but are more straw men than actual positions.  This quote is certainly worth thinking about:

One principle that ought to be observed by all parties to this debate is Before you disagree make sure you understand. In other words,we must make sure that we can describe another’s theological position as he or she would describe it before we criticize or condemn. (pg. 41)

Amen!

I loved the correction that Olson makes with regard to the difference between Calvinism and Arminianism.  For many Calvinists, the difference in their minds is that they say that the central interpretive motif in Calvinism is God’s sovereignty while the central interpretive motif in Arminianism is the free will of people.  Olson objects to this strenuously; instead, he says that Calvinists center their theology on the sovereignty of God, and Arminians center their theology in the goodness of God. (pg. 72-73) Both take their interpretive center from the character of God, which is a helpful corrective. As he says, “Each theology’s view of free will arises from and is based on more fundamental commitments.” (pg. 97)

I also think that Olson does a good job of discussing the difference between Calvinist monergism and Arminian synergism, especially showing that from an “Arminian of the heart” perspective that this is at least present in important Greek church fathers such as Athanasius.  This is a helpful discussion.  Even if you read and disagree (and many will, especially Calvinists!) having an accurate view of Arminian theology is significant and important.

I also found it helpful that Olson gave an historical treatment of each “myth” in the book.  He traces each doctrinal position from Arminius through to the present, citing each author and critiquing where some leave the classical path.  I find his treatment even-handed.

The Bad:

No book is perfect, and this one is no different.  It has several shortcomings that are puzzling.

First off, it has no bibliography! For a book that purports to deal with a scholarly topic this is just puzzling.  Further, Olson uses SBL footnotes but does so inconsistently and doesn’t always provide a full bibliographic reference for every work in the book! This should have been fixed before publication, though it may well just be a challenge with the publisher or an oversight. That doesn’t affect the content of the book, but it is nevertheless a shortcoming.

Next, Olson takes great pains in arguing that Arminianism is an orthodox evangelical theology.  Since there are multiple evangelical Arminian denominations in America today (Nazarene, Church of Christ, and all Pentecostal denominations for instance), this constant defense seems a bit redundant.  Only one “myth” directly addresses this, but it is mentioned on multiple occasions in other places and that does not help.

Finally, Olson takes great pains to talk about classical Arminian synergism as opposed to Calvinist monergism.  This is all well and good.  That said, there is an entire different system (known as Molinism) that he gives scant mention to. (pg. 195-197 are actually 2 pages of text, more than half of which is devoted to saying that Molinism is actually determinism)  His failure to interact with this system well is a weakness. (granted, this book came out in 2006 and Ken Keathley’s “Salvation and Sovereignty” not until 2010; nevertheless, Keathley leans heavily on WIlliam Lane Craig, who Olson quotes)

Another weakness is that Olson really does not discuss the Arminian understanding of security, i.e. whether justification can be lost.  This seems to be a significant area of disagreement with Calvinism, and while they end up in the same place (that only those who persevere in faith end up justified) there is significant difference in the instrumental cause and in the interim states that deserved discussion.

Overall:

In an overall sense, this is a very good book.  As Olson himself says, “this book attempts to fill a gap in current theological literature. To the best of my knowledge no book currently in print in English is devoted solely to explaining Arminianism as a system of theology.” (pg.12) In this sense, he has succeeded very admirably.  Despite any shortcomings, he does a wonderful job of laying out classical Arminian theology in a thorough, concise, and practical manner.

I recommend this book to all people interested in the discussion on salvation and how Scripture speaks of the intersection of divine sovereignty and human free will.  At the end of the day I am not convinced to become an Arminian, but I have been enlightened and encouraged greatly.  I think that this book is good reading for all theologically-interested Christians.

Book Review: Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince

Okay, I have sat on this book review for a couple of days because this book has made me think long and hard.  I am reading it with an eye to whether it is appropriate for my kids, not for whether it was entertaining or engaging.  It was definitely entertaining as an adult reader, and if you like fantasy books then this series is a good one.

But is it good for kids?

This book follow’s Harry’s sixth year at Hogwarts; a good plot synopsis, as always, may be found at Wikipedia. At over 650 pages this book is no small read, but it definitely had me turning pages throughout.

For a short-short-short plot synopsis (spoilers in this paragraph!), Harry once again tries to get through a year at Hogwarts.  Snape has taken over the job of Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher, and Harry gets lucky to be given an old copy of his potions book written in by an anonymous former student called “the half-blood Prince” (hence the name of the book), with whose help Harry becomes quite adept at potion-making.  During this book, Dumbledore finally lets Harry in on Voldemort’s past through several memories they get to see, and Harry finds out that Voldemort has tried to attain immortality by ripping his soul into pieces and putting it within magical devices known as Horcruxes.  Dumbledore takes Harry along to find a Horcrux, where Dumbledore is weakened considerably getting to it.  He and Harry hurry back to Hogwarts, only to find that Draco Malfoy has let Death Eaters into Hogwarts.  Upon finding Dumbledore, Malfoy is tempted to kill him but Dumbledore almost succeeds in convincing him to switch sides.  Right at the last moment, Severus Snape steps in and kills Dumbledore with the Avada Kedavra curse, and then tells Harry that he is the half-blood prince.  At Dumbledore’s funeral, Harry tells his best friends that he is not coming back to Hogwarts for his seventh year, but will instead seek out Voldemort to kill him.

The Good:

Again, this book has a lot going for it.  I thoroughly enjoyed reading it, and it was a real page turner.  Adults who enjoy fantasy will enjoy it immensely.

The whole theme of the book revolves around Voldemort tearing his soul apart by killing others (never in gruesome ways, but he definitely does it) in an attempt to safekeep it in magical devices.  There is a clear lesson in this story, in that murder is irreparably harmful not only on the victim, but also on the perpetrator. (Genesis 5, anyone?)

Voldemort’s quest for immortality is also an EASY play for parents to talk to their kids about death and life after death.  While Voldemort seeks immortality by evil, God says that it is only by faith alone in Christ alone that we can have eternal life. (Eph 2:8-9 among the many)

Professor Slughorn is a good character in the book.  Well, he is not good, but a good opportunity to look at the pitfalls of seeking popularity.  He is so obsessed with knowing important people and being a bit of a “king maker” that he inadvertently gives Voldemort critical knowledge that allows him to shred his soul in his quest for immortality.

Harry’s character growth in this book is good.  He is growing up and must begin to make the transition from boy to man.  In Harry’s case, that means that he must accept his place as “the Chosen One” who must fight Voldemort and has a good chance to defeat him.  This is, naturally, not an easy thing for Harry to accept! But he has to choose between easy and right, and in the end he realizes that it is his sense of right and wrong, of loyalty and love for his friends, that sets him apart from Voldemort.  That is an important story line.

I also think that Harry’s love interest is a good story here.  He has feelings for Ginny Weasley, but his friendship with Ron makes him very hesitant to say anything.  That is a clear indication that Harry understands Man Law, which is important for any man, teenaged or otherwise.  He finally dates Ginny with Ron’s consent.

I love the free enterprise in this book! Fred and George have a raving success with Weasley’s Wizard Weezes, and they profit handsomely from their entrepreneurial spirit!  That’s a good lesson for kids, that it is not necessarily the most highly educated who are financially successful. (and, with that lesson, it is not always financial success that indicates true success)

There is a strong undercurrent in the books that love is greater than hate and greater than lust for power.  This is not absolute in the books, but the love of the characters in the book for one another (not just romantic love, though that is there in an innocent manner) is good and right.

The Bad:

The bad here is not great.  Voldemort’s power is rising, the dementors are working for him, and he has a lot of access to Hogwarts through Draco Malfoy. (and perhaps through Snape as well)

There are several deaths in this book.  None of them are gruesome, though all of them involve magic and they are murders plain and simple.  Voldemort kills several people, and at the very end of the book Snape kills Dumbledore.  The lone slightly gruesome aspect of this is that Dumbledore falls from the tower at Hogwarts and is of course battered by the fall.  Though it is not described in detail, it is clear that his body is quite broken.

Dumbledore’s death is shocking and earth-shattering to Harry.  Dumbledore has functioned in the series to this point as a surrogate father figure to Harry, almost a God figure in the books.  He has been a guide, a mentor, and a protector, and while he has not been perfect in any of these roles he has provided Harry with a sense of security and protection that is shattered at the end of this book.  Dumbledore’s death, especially coming at the hands of a man that he defended as worthy of his trust again and again and again to many who doubted him, is hard to stomach in the series.

Snape is outed at the end as a Death Eater in his murder of Dumbledore. That is bad, but just as bad is Harry’s reaction.  He seems to want vengeance even more than he wants justice.  He hates Snape, and hates Voldemort, because they have taken people from him that he loves.  He loves, they hate and have killed those he loves, and so he is going to go get them.  This kind of vigilantism is not acceptable and should be addressed by parents.

Overall:

I had to take a few days to really think about this book.  Dumbledore’s death is earth-shaking to the series, and while it is so, it appears that Harry uses this to accept his role and take on the mantle of a grown man. 

That said, the book is intense at the end and a bit shocking.  I am going to rate this one PG-13SGDRF. (not recommended for kids under 13, and only for those kids who have a Strong Grasp of the Difference between Reality and Fantasy)  For those who meet these guidelines, it will be a book you can’t put down and that makes you IMMEDIATELY reach for book 7.

Gabriel, God’s “PR Man”

Have you ever wondered what it would have been like to be there with Joseph and Mary at Christmas? Every Christmas and Easter I preach in the first person as a character from the biblical accounts of those events.  This Christmas I preached as the angel Gabriel.  If you’re interested in it, here it is in all its goofy glory.

In a first-person message, the intent is to see a familiar story with fresh eyes and bring the importance and the truth of it to the hearers in a new way.  I would love your feedback on this sermon!

Exciting News!

It has been a whirlwind new year for me so far.  I had a great time teaching a 3-week Gospels intensive over the winter term at ACU, and got to preach as the Angel Gabriel on Christmas Eve which was a ton of fun.  We’ve made a transition in our worship service format at church which has been fantastic on our community, and I got to go to kenpo for the first time in 6 months last week!

In November, our worship pastor took a sabbatical to rest and recharge, to enjoy some family time and refocus his ministry on seeking Christ and seeking to lead people to Him.  We didn’t have a delineated sabbatical policy as a church for our pastoral staff, so our elders made one.  In a nutshell, every 5th year we give our pastors 2 extra weeks of paid leave that must be taken all at once and should be used for the purpose of spiritual renewal.

Since then (late October) I have been praying about a sabbatical, because this is my 5th year serving as the senior pastor of our church.  2012 will be a sabbatical year for me, and I have been praying and seeking God on how best to take my sabbatical this year.  I wanted it to be significant, and while 2 weeks alone in the woods with my Bible might be awesome I just sensed that would not really do what I wanted to do.  I wanted to really grow in Christ in ways that I normally couldn’t, knowing that meant getting away from my normal routine.

Here is where God stepped in.  Over the past several months I have built a friendship with the father of two of my previous students from ACU who is also a pastor in town, who pastors a very large congregation and whose heart for shepherding and for preaching lines up with mine.  He asked Laura and me to have dinner with him and his wonderful wife, and at dinner he asked us to join him next month on a pretty crazy trip.

He asked us to join him for 15 days in Israel! Surprised smile

I have never been to Israel, but having heard from many of the life-changing time that it is for pastors and professors I really want to go.  This will be an awesome time of spiritual growth and professional development, and will benefit me in the pulpit, the classroom, and as a shepherd.  Rather than try to explain it all to you myself, I asked Mark to explain why this makes a PERFECT sabbatical and why it is an important trip to take.

I am so excited to go and sit in a boat on the Sea of Galilee like the disciples did, to stand next to the wall that Nehemiah rebuilt, and to go back through the Gospels like I did over the past 3 weeks and see and touch and smell and taste what it was like in Jesus’ world.  I know it won’t be relaxing like a vacation and plan to wring every bit out of every moment that I can, but it’s invigorating just to think about the amazing opportunity to even go!

Pastor Mark has been incredibly gracious to offer us to come along with him not only for the big tour he is leading, but to spend a few days before and after with him there to see some stuff that a big group just can’t.  He’s also being very generous to help us go and to provide room in his personal schedule for us, and has been generous financially too.  He has been to Israel 10 times and is using the very best guides to really avoid the tourist traps and instead experience Israel in a life-changing way.

So if you would, please pray for us as we plan this trip. Just like with our trip to Rwanda in 2010, this one is on short notice.  Just like our opportunity there, we have 5 weeks until we leave. Just like Rwanda, I believe that God has orchestrated the events leading up to allow us to go, and that He has it all in His hands.  And just like our trip to Rwanda, we have no idea how we are going to make the trip work financially.  I know that finances are not a major concern to God, and that He has all the money He needs to do everything that He wants to do.  I also know that, looking at our finances, it makes no sense to me how He is going to make this trip a reality. 

The total costs for this trip, all things considered, will be around $7000. I believe that God wants us to go on this trip and that it will be a blessing on my own spiritual growth and on my ministry for the next decade or more, and we are stepping out in faith to go.  If you would, please, I have three requests of you that would make a world of difference to me:

  1. We cherish your prayers!  We need God’s guidance as we try to figure out all of the logistics.  Pray for how we will take care of the kids, for our home, for our church and my classroom at ACU as I am not there to shepherd. Pray for us to be transformed by God during this trip in seeing Him and His Word in a new way and to be able to bring that home with me and impact others in a greater way in my preaching and teaching ministry. Please pray for God’s hand to provide financially for us to be able to go, as that part is still a big source of anxiety.  I know that God hears His people in these regards.
  2. Please share this post with your friends and your church!
  3. If you feel led to help us in some way, we would absolutely love that! Whether that is feeding our pets or house-sitting for us, loving our kids while we are away, or providing financially for the trip we would be very grateful.  Please, I don’t want anyone to feel pressured to give or help; I know that times are tough for many and that life is busy.  That said, if you’d like to help with going financially or some other way that would be an answer to prayer.

We are really excited to share this news with everyone and looking forward to seeing God at work in this trip.

Thanks so much, and may God bless your 2012!

Book Review: Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

I finished the fifth Harry Potter book last night; it was another page-turner and kept my attention!  Allow me to also say, while these book review posts are aimed at parents who are considering reading them with their kids, adults could use them as well if they like reading fiction and fantasy in particular to think their way through the book.

Note as well that I did not say that this review was suitable for parents to just turn their kids loose on this series.  It is instead a guide for parents to read the book with their kids, either at the same time or just before the kids read it to be able to discuss the themes, plot lines, character development, and lessons.

For a plot synopsis of this book, as always head over to Wikipedia. At 860 pages this book has a lot of plot to cover, but here it is in a “way too short” formula: Harry and his friends complete their fifth year at Hogwarts with two major plot lines running simultaneously as intertwined issues.  First, a group of wizards led by Dumbledore organizes to combat Voldemort and his followers following his return, known as the Order of the Phoenix and including most of the “good” characters in the series. (Harry, Ron, and Hermione know of the order and interact with it but are not members because they are underage) Combined with that, the Ministry of Magic denies that Voldemort has returned and appoints Dolores Umbridge as Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher, who systematically undermines Dumbledore and his teachers and ultimately unseats him as headmaster of Hogwarts.  And naturally, Harry gets to show that he is competent beyond his years by fighting not only Voldemort but many of his senior followers.

“The Order of the Phoenix” is a good book but has been, as have the other books in the series, subject to mixed reviews from the Christian community.  Read the PluggedIn review here, while Christianity Today has come out generally in favor of them

In my opinion, this book has enough redeeming value for teens who understand that fantasy books have no bearing on reality.  It has plenty of good for those kids, and several interesting ethical angles that could be helpful to parents.  That said, there is enough violence in the book (though none that could not be on prime time TV in today’s world) that younger kids are best to wait awhile.

The Good:

There is a strong difference between good and evil in this book, and the main characters fight for good.  They endure a lot of personal cost for their willingness to fight for good against evil, and that is a redeeming theme.

The book also shows the consequences for actions.  Harry makes several rash decisions, and we get to see the results of those decisions.  He doesn’t control his temper and gets himself in trouble.  He lips off to Umbridge and gets banned from Quidditch. That ban is unjust, but that lesson is a good one in that Harry had a chance to avoid it by keeping his mouth shut.

This book shows Harry growing up and going through the trials of being a 15-year-old boy becoming a man.  From the perspective of a grown man it is not hard to see why Harry starts having some flashes of anger, of ego, and of romantic interest that he doesn’t understand.  Simply put, Harry’s testosterone levels are increasing and that causes him to make some significant mistakes and decisions that are not the best.  Why is that good? Because any young person reading this book can see it from the outside and therefore think about it in their life.  Boys can see that they are normal to experience some of this; girls can see that boys lose their mind in puberty too! Smile

Harry’s relationship with Cho Chang takes a turn in this book that can be helpful for young teens and their parents.  Harry has affection for Cho, but doesn’t understand her as a girl.  Hermione provides some insight into how Cho is thinking, but Harry doesn’t really get it.  This is good stuff to talk about the differences between men and women and how they relate!

Harry is also quite confused at times in this book, mostly by his suddenly changed relationship with Dumbledore and lack of having his most trusted friends around.  We watch Harry struggle alone with significant and difficult questions when he should have asked Dumbledore or Mr. and Mrs. Weasley, or even his godfather Sirius Black, for help and advice and explanation.  That is an important lesson for kids and adults alike, because we all struggle with asking for help when we need it.  Harry’s perspective on the events in the book is also sometimes suspect, and as the book wraps up the reader gets a fuller understanding that could have helped Harry see a lot more clearly and make better decisions.  What a great discussion for parents and kids to have!

The corollary discussion comes at the end of the book as well, as Dumbledore admits to Harry that he has made some significant mistakes in not telling Harry what he should have.  He had good motives for that, but admits it was wrong.  I love the opportunity this presents to parents to discuss with their kids that parents are fallible too, and that the only one who will never fail us is Jesus. 

This takes even MORE from a significant issue in the book with Harry’s dad, James Potter.  Harry has always idolized his dad, but in this book he gets to see his dad in a very unflattering light in a memory he sees of Severus Snape’s.  Harry has to come to the realization that his dad wasn’t perfect and was even mean-spirited at times as a teenager.  Parents were once kids, too!

There are plenty of plot lines in this book as well about outcasts and not judging a book by its cover. (thank you…thank you…I’ll be here all week) Luna Lovegood is a great instance of that.  Snape is another good instance of that, whose exterior is somewhat explained by the abuse he took as a student at Hogwarts.  While Harry hates him (and Snape treats him terribly), Dumbledore trusts him.  Umbridge hates half-breeds, so she hates Hagrid (who is a great guy).  There is racism in the book on the part of Voldemort and his Death Eaters, who hate half-breed and Muggle-born wizards.  There is hypocrisy as well which is well-explained, in that Voldemort is a half-breed himself.

The Bad:

Before I start, a quick note on “the bad.” I believe that these can also be redeemed if they are used correctly by parents, and that there is enough meat here to chew to make the bones bearable.

First off, of course there is a TON of magic in the book.  It is a bedrock of the world Harry Potter lives in.  It’s a fantasy book, so yeah.  But the magic in this book does take a bit of a sinister turn.  The kids get into the Department of Mysteries at the Ministry of Magic and find some stuff there that is a bit intense.

Divination is also part of the world of Hogwarts.  First Professor Trelawny and then Firenze the centaur teach the students divination.  The students mostly think that Trelawney is a fraud (and for the most part she is), which is helpful.  Firenze thinks that she certainly is, and also admits that centaurs search the stars to tell the future but they are not always right.  So a parent could talk to their child about the biblical dangers of divination and its origins to get away from it.

There is some violence in the book, but while the PluggedIn review said it was gruesome I just couldn’t see it.  The only death is Sirius Black falling through an arch and disappearing.  Voldemort is not a nice guy, and we learn from Bellatrix Lestrange that the Cruciatus curse (which causes intense pain) only works when the caster of the spell takes joy in causing pain to the target. 

Harry doesn’t listen to authority much.  Dumbledore tells him to study Occlumency to protect himself from Voldemort, but Harry doesn’t listen and is tricked into the climactic battle of the book, costing Sirius his life in the process. 

Overall:

The good far outweighs the bad in this book.  It is engaging and there are a lot of plot lines for parents to really talk about with their kids.  This is a tale of good and evil, of growing up and learning that you don’t know everything and turning from a kid into an adult.  It is a tale of overcoming injustice and challenging presuppositions.  Read it with your discerning kids 12 and older.