Below is the continuation of the interview I had with Arminian theologian, Roger Olson, in 2006. Part 3 will be posted later this week (my questions are emboldened).
Dr. Olson, in the Introduction to Arminian Theology: Myths & Realities, you write: “The thesis of this book is that Arminianism is at a disadvantage in this controversy because it is so rarely understood and so commonly misinterpreted both by its critics and its supposed defenders.” But Dr. Olson, I hear so often that Arminianism is rampant in America’s pulpit--usually by Calvinist apologists. What do you make of that?
Well, it’s a misunderstanding. What’s rampant in America’s pulpit and pews are not Arminians but semi-Pelagians. But what has happened is that Calvinist spokesmen have equated those two, mistakenly in fact. Arminianism is not semi-Pelagianism. But over the years, many Calvinists have come to equate them and to simply use them interchangeably.
The difference is this: in classical Arminianism--in real Arminianism--if someone gets saved, it’s because God came to them first; the initiative is God’s. God calls them and God enables them. That’s called prevenient grace.
But you don’t hear that in pulpits a lot. What you hear in pulpits and pews is what scholars call semi-Pelagianism; although they don’t know it’s called that.
And that is a very different idea in that God is kind of standing at a distance, waiting for us to take the initiative and, if we take the imitative, take one step toward God, then He will come near to us, and perhaps save us if we do the right thing. That is not Arminianism.
Arminianism is that God comes to us first, through the gospel which can be efficacious in our lives—through a sermon, a song, a witness, or reading the Bible. But that God the Holy Spirit reaches into our lives first, through prevenient grace, and partially regenerates us, then we have to actualize that with our free will decision which God’s grace makes possible.
Without God’s prevenient grace, we would not be free, so we don’t believe in Free Will, we believe in the Freed Will. Pelagianism and semi-Pelagianism believe that humans have inherent free will apart from any supernatural grace. So, there is a very important difference there.
One surprise in your book I observed, Dr. Olson, was your taking Charles Finney to the theological woodshed. Since he is so often cited by Calvinists in poster-boy fashion as representing Arminianism, could you tell us a little about Finney’s soteriological beliefs and how they differ from Classic Arminianism?
(laugh) And that is so wrong. Well, in the book I quote Finney. Finney said of Jonathan Edwards--I don’t remember the exact quote but it’s in my book--something to the effect that Edwards the man I adore, but his mistakes I deplore. And he was saying that about Edwards’ Calvinism.
In other words, Finney respected Edwards’ preaching and his revivalism, but he deplored his Calvinism. And that’s what I would say about Finney from my Arminian perspective. I adore his revivalism but I deplore his semi-Pelagianism.
Finney was not an Arminian; Finney was a semi-Pelagian. Or, you might say he was inconsistent. Some of the time he was a semi-Pelagian, some of the time he was an outright Pelagian and some of the time he was perhaps Arminian.
But more than anything else, he believed in the natural ability of human beings—even apart from any special work of grace— to obey God and respond to the call of God without prevenient grace. That’s semi-Pelagianism.
Dr. Olson, one interesting distinction in your book was one you picked up from Calvinist theologian Allan Sell regarding “Arminians of the heart” vs. “Arminians of the head”. Could you explain that distinction for our readers?
Well, I don’t think that Finney fits into that distinction. Finney—(laugh) if I can say it— was a semi-Pelagian of the heart. Since he was not an Arminian, I would not put him into the category of an “Arminian of the head” or an “Arminian of the heart”. He was a semi-Pelagian--in other words, a heretic of the heart. He had good intentions, but he was very wrong about his theology.
Now, the distinction of the Arminian of the “head” and of the “heart” has more to do with the Remonstrance after Arminius died in 1609. He left his work unfinished and a group of about 10 pastors in Holland wrote up a document called the Remonstrance and they became known as the Remonstrants.
And they divided over time throughout the 1600s and into the 1700s between those who had a very pietistic attitude--and we would call them Evangelicals today-- and those who were more rationalistic and lean more toward Deism and eventually Unitarianism.
Now one of the things Calvinists have always said about Arminians is that Arminians often went off into Deism and Rationalism and Liberal Theology. Well some did; but not all did. Wesley certainly didn’t. Wesley was an Arminian.
Others such as today—the Nazarenes are Arminians, the Pentecostals, the Free Methodists, Wesleyans, Church of Christ all are Arminians…Evangelical Arminians…Arminians of the heart. And so you have to recognize that distinction.
In fact, I would say there is the same distinction among Calvinists. Friedrich Schleiermacher, the Father of Liberal Theology in Germany, was a Calvinist of the head—a Liberal Calvinist. But not all Calvinists are.
Thank you, Professor Olson.