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.

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