I was challenged recently to read what many consider to be the definitive book on true Arminianism: Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities, by Roger Olson (InterVarsity Press, 2006). So I bought it on Amazon and just finished it last night. From an historical perspective I thought it was a thorough and well written presentation. The author’s intention was not so much to prove or argue for Arminianism, but rather to define it with a view to dispelling the many misrepresentations around this particular theological scheme.
Olson points out that Arminians share many truths in common with Calvinists, such as a high view of Scripture, belief that man is a sinner in need of redeeming grace, and justification by faith alone in Christ alone. He also clearly outlines the differences between Arminianism and Calvinism. Arminians hold to a synergistic view of salvation (salvation as cooperation of two parties) and Calvinists adhere to a monergistic position (salvation unilaterally dispensed by a single party). Armininism teaches libertarian free will and rejects determinism, whereas Calvinists teach a view of free will that is compatible with determinism. The crux of the matter for Arminianism, says Olson, is that Arminians see the love and goodness of God as His regulating or governing attributes, while Calvinists emphasize the sovereignty of God. While Calvinists believe in irresistable (efficacious) grace that is particular in scope, Arminians teach a universal prevenient grace that can be rejected once offered. Arminians reject the Calvinist doctrine of unconditional election and define predestination and election in several ways. Predestination is based on God’s foreknowledge of the future choices of sinners; election is corporate–that is, Christ is the elect one and those who believe in Him share in His election; and passages like Romans Nine are seen not as referring to the salvation of individuals, but the selection of nations for service and blessing. So far pretty standard Arminianism.
Like many Arminians Olson tries to distance himself from the “heresy” of Semi-Pelagianism. He goes so far as to say that most modern evangelicals at the popular level who fancy themselves Arminian are in fact Semi-Pelagian. To me that sounds like Olson is saying most evangelicals are heretics, but I doubt he would go that far. Real Arminians, according to Olson, believe as Arminius did–which is to say, they reject Semi-Pelagianism. Of course this means many if not most of the early Arminians (Remonstrants) who carried the torch after the death of Arminius were, by definition, not true Arminians because they held to a more Semi-Pelagian view of sin and total depravity. This is like saying many so-called Calvinists are not real Calvinists because they do not adhere to the letter of the Geneva Reformer. This seems to me to be hair splitting.
The differences between Semi-Pelagians and Arminians are more theoretical than real, more quantitative than qualitative. Semi-Pelagianism came into existence after the British Monk Pelagius did battle with Augustine in the Fifth Century and was condemned for his denial of original sin. Semi-Pelagianism teaches that man is indeed corrupted by sin, but he retains a spark of ability with which to believe the Gospel. Arminius and later Wesley taught that fallen man in the natural state is totally unable to exercise saving faith without the prevenient grace of God. This is grace that goes before salvation and restores the sinner to a place where he is able to believe the gospel. Most Arminians frame the sinner’s acceptance of the gospel as non-resistance or passive submission to the grace of God. Many, after Wesley, teach that prevenient grace is universal in scope, which is to say that there are no totally depraved sinners in the natural state–all humans have the ability to either accept or reject Christ before they are born again.
So what’s the difference in practical terms? Suppose a man is dying of a deadly disease. He is as good as dead, but barely clinging to the last ounce of life in him. He is offered a cure, and he is able to either accept it or reject it of his own free will. This is an illustration of Semi-Pelagianism. Classic Arminianism would say the man has already died and is totally unable to make any choice until he is made able supernaturally. He is free to not resist the cure or to reject it if he so chooses. If he passively submits he will be cured.
Here is where it gets muddy. According to Classic Arminianism the dead sinner is partially regenerated or made sort of alive, but not fully. In fact he is neither dead not alive, but in a kind of transitional state between life and death. While in this state he is fully able to yeild to or resist the prevenient grace of God. Personally I believe this teaching is utterly alien to the Word of God. Moreover it is really not much different at the end of the day from Semi-Pelagianism. One can argue that God in His common grace restrained the power of sin after the fall to allow for a residue of free will necessary for saving faith; or he can pay lip service to total depravity, knowing that the presence of universal prevenient grace means there are in fact no humans on earth in the natural fallen state. The bottom line is that bothSemi-Pelagianism and Classic Arminianism believe that all living humans possess libertarian free will. In my view both positions share too many features in common to be separated into distinct categories.
All in all Olson has done a service by spelling out the tenets of Classic Arminianism. His documentation is excellent. While I disagree with his view of saving faith as mere non-resistance and his strained attempt to distance himself from Semi-Pelagianism, I appreciated his warm irenic spirit. I would that all Calvinists would follow his example in that regard. With Olson I agree that there is no middle ground between Arminianism and Calvinism, and attempts at forming a Calminian hybrid will prove as futile as mixing oil and water. But there are true believers in each camp who share too much in common to make these soteriological systems a test of fellowship.