Arminian Theology

Paul Helm Articles

Election, grace, predestination, bondage of the will - these will be taken by many who read this review to be concepts whose meaning is drawn exclusively from Reformed theology, from its Augustinian heritage, and (of course) from the Bible and especially from the New Testament. In this book Roger Olson seeks to reappropriate these terms for Arminianism. The 'myth' is that Arminianism has no doctrines of election, prevenient grace, predestination etc. The 'reality' is that it does

In the book there are many matters which call for comment and discussion. In a brief review I shall restrict myself to two, which I nevertheless believe take us to the heart of the matter.

The first has to do with language. We are familiar with the following argumentative strategy: "We are all evangelicals. The trouble is that we understand the doctrinal consequences of evangelicalism differently. We have different theological models - of God, of the atonement, of conversion etc... Why is this? It is because we have different 'perspectives' on Scripture. However, to evangelicals all such models are live options. So let us live in evangelical harmony." Olson's approach is a variant of this. 'We Arminians are children of the Reformation equally as much as you Calvinists. We have different theological 'models' - of election, divine sovereignty, grace, and so forth. This is because we have different 'perspectives' on Scripture. But to children of the Reformation all such models are live options. So let us live in post-Reformation harmony."

Or, as Olson puts it, we each believe in predestination, or in prevenient grace, but in different senses. Why does this happen? Because, he says, the Bible warrants each. The Bible teaches predestination: the Calvinists teach unconditional predestination, the Arminians teach conditional predestination. The appeal to Scripture is thus equally valid in each case. 'Equally reasonable and spiritually mature Christians have scoured Scripture and come to radically different conclusions about the relationship of election, and free will, and the resistibility of atonement and grace. In fact this has been happening for centuries. Does one side alone honor Scripture? No.' (70)

But this is not quite correct, is it? It gets us off on the wrong foot. We pay for the admittance of such harmony by handing over the perspicuity and clarity of Scripture on the topics in question. Does Scripture teach a vague, ambiguous predestination, neither Augustinian nor non-Augustinian? Hardly. Or does it say, 'You can be an Augustinian or a non-Augustinian - suit yourself'? Hardly.

The second thing is that at certain crucial points Professor Olson misstates or misrepresents his own position. I shall use his remarks on prevenient grace to illustrate this. In line with his argumentative strategy, he holds that 'Arminius believed strongly in original sin as inherited corruption that affects every aspect of human nature and personality, and renders human persons incapable of anything good apart from supernatural grace'. (142) That is, Arminius held to the indispensability of prevenient grace, just as much as Calvin did: human co-operation is itself a divine gift. (143) But the question is, is prevenient grace effectual? May a person possess it and fail to co-operate with it? Arminius himself is clear on what the issue is: the vital question is: is grace resistible? And so it emerges 'Even repentance and faith are gifts of God in traditional Arminian theology, although they are gifts that must be accepted by a bare decision not to resist them '. (159, emphasis added). Does this amount to a natural power to co-operate or otherwise? Clearly it does. Does it yield a different account of the effects of sin on the will? Yes it does. Is this Semi-Pelagian? Yes it is, even if the stress is laid on the intrinsic power of the will to opt out, to innately resist the overtures of prevenient grace, rather than on its intrinisic power to opt in. Are such acts (or failures) of co-operation important? I'll say they are, for God suspends his decree of predestination on their divinely-foreknown outcome. (180)

The book is a strange mixture; it contains a good deal of interesting information about the history of Arminianism and of Arminian theologians. But it is somewhat unbalanced in its theological judgements and, for an academic treatment, too gossipy in tone. Yet it has this virtue: it makes clear that no amount of fudge can seal the gap between Arminianism and Augustinianism. (66) Some years ago Alan P. F. Sell wrote a book on the Calvinist-Arminian controversy, The Great Debate (Walter, 1982). So it is still.

Roger Olson
/ Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2006
Review by Paul Helm, Professor Emeritus of University of London