Today, we continue our Interview with Dr. Roger Olson, Professor of Theology, Truett Theology Seminary, Waco, Texas. This is part three of a four part series.
Professor Olson is both an accomplished theologian in the Arminian tradition as well as a renowned historian of Christian Theology. His many books include The Story of Christian Theology, Who Needs Theology?, The Mosaic of Christian Belief, 20th-Century Theology, Pocket History of Theology, and under discussion today, his latest book, Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities. Welcome Dr. Olson...
Professor, what does Classic Arminianism teach concerning the “P” in the Calvinistic Tulip?
What I say in the book is what I found in my research—there is no one Arminian view of the Perseverance of the Saints. Arminius himself never came to a definite conclusion about that subject. Arminius said several times in his various writings that Scripture wears two aspects—two things about Perseverance that we haven’t figured out yet how to reconcile—there are the warnings passages against apostasy such as Hebrews 6 and the assurance passages like Romans 8.
How to reconcile those two types of Scriptures, Arminius did not figure out. So, he left them as an open question. He adamantly insisted he did not deny Eternal Security. However, some later Arminians did reject Eternal Security—many of the Remonstrants, for example—and opt for the belief that a Christian can reject the grace of God. They used such examples as Paul’s warning to the Galatians who turned back to the Law that they would “fall from grace” (Gal 5.4).
So Arminianism probably by and large has rejected the doctrine of eternal security of the believer. However, among Baptists in particular, Arminians have often kept that doctrine—the “P” in the Tulip. Not all Arminians who are Baptists do. For example, you have the Free Will Baptists who do not.
On the other hand, most Southern Baptists, in my experience with them, are Arminians who believe in eternal security of the believer. There’s nothing wrong with that. You can be an Arminian and hold to eternal security.
In your view, Dr. Olson, is Arminianism squarely within Reformation theology or is it an attempt to bring back some of Rome’s teachings into the Protestant movement? For example, Arminianism embraces synergism and Calvinists, who rightly point out that Catholicism teaches synergism, adamantly hold to monergism.
Well, there are exceptions. If you go back to the Reformation itself, there is Melanchthon, who kept up the Reformation when Luther died and who was Luther’s “right hand man” throughout the Reformation, who was a synergist not a monergist. And all of the Anabaptists—the Radical Reformers--were synergists including Menno Simons, Balthasar Hubmaier, and others who were Trinitarians and not rationalistic were all synergistic, evangelical believers.
So, as an historian, I dispute the Calvinist claim that monergism—that is, God is the sole agent active in salvation—is part and parcel of being Protestant. I would argue that there were Protestant synergists from the very beginning of the Reformation. Zwingli’s followers in Zurich in 1525—Conrad Grebel & Felix Manz, the early Anabaptists—they were synergists.
Thus, I simply do not accept the premise that you have to be a monergist to authentically be a Protestant. I just don’t agree. I think Arminianism is Protestant. It teaches justification by grace through faith alone and I spell that all out in the book, utilizing many sources to that effect.
One Myth you appeared to be so passionate about exposing was Myth #3: Arminianism is not an evangelical option. Dr. Olson, do you sense there seems evidence that Arminians are being squeezed out of the Evangelical movement? Why or Why not?
Definitely (laugh). Definitely. That’s why I wrote the book. I remember what a shock it was to me in seminary when one of my beloved professors pulled me aside and said to me “Remember. Arminianism always leads to Liberal Theology.” And I thought to myself, well how can that be true? I’m Pentecostal. We Pentecostals—I was Pentecostal at that time—we were very conservative, theologically.
And I could name many denominations that have been part of the National Associational of Evangelicals from the very beginning—Free Methodists, Wesleyan, Nazarene and many others—who are Arminian but have never flirted with Liberal theology.
Yet I have encountered among many Calvinist evangelicals, over and over again the idea that Arminians are not authentically evangelical. When I first read the magazine “Modern Reformation” it really struck a cord with me or touched a nerve is a better way to describe it, because some of the articles implied that Arminians can not be genuine evangelicals.
So, I began a dialog with the editor of the magazine, Michael Horton, and through that dialog I think we both came to see the other’s point of view more clearly. I think he still holds to the view—as many evangelical Calvinists do—that being evangelical is synonymous with the monergist view of salvation. Or that monergism is necessary to authentic evangelical theology.
Some Calvinists do grant that Arminians are evangelicals but inconsistently so. My argument would be that we are just evangelicals period, not inconsistent evangelicals. We need to simply get along in the evangelical community of ours whether we are Calvinist or Arminian.
Dr. Olson: The heart of Arminianism is the belief in Free Will. Everybody knows this is so. Could you comment on that?
That’s what people think they know. That’s the major myth I expose in my book. It’s perhaps the core myth about Arminianism. Well, it’s wrong. The heart of Arminianism is not free will. The heart of Arminian theology is the goodness of God. The character of God is unconditionally good, is benevolent, is loving.
That’s not to erase God’s wrath at all. Arminians believe in God’s wrath. John Wesley, for example, and so many Arminians throughout the ages spoke of His wrath. It is to say that God is good in a somewhat analogous sense to what we understand goodness to be. In other words, God does not set out to will anyone to be damned for eternity. If someone is damned for eternity, it is against God’s wishes. God does not want that to be the case.
How do Classic Arminians view God’s Sovereignty?
God’s Sovereignty is viewed in Arminianism as God’s ability to control all events. But we distinguish between God’s Sovereignty de jure—which is His right and ability to control all events—and God’s Sovereignty de facto—which is His self-limitation so that He does not control all events. We do this because if God were controlling all events, sin and evil would fall under that spectrum.
At the heart and core of Arminianism is the revulsion that God would be the Author of sin and evil. And though Calvinists don’t say He is…Jonathan Edwards wrote an entire treatise denying God was the Author of sin and evil...But Arminians cannot see how it is avoided that God is not the Author of sin and evil in the overall Calvinist understanding of Sovereignty.
So we say it is God’s Sovereign right and ability to rule but it is compatible with His self-limitation so that He doesn't control everything that’s happening. He could but He doesn’t.
Thank you, once again, Dr. Olson.