Today I offer the final installment on the interview series with Dr. Roger Olson, Professor of Christian Theology and Ethics, Truett Theological Seminary, Waco, TX. We talked in this final section on many issues raised in his latest book, Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities. I trust your understanding of Arminiansim has deepened as a result.
Do you think the historic debate between God’s Sovereignty and human Free Will is where emphasis should be placed in discussions between Calvinists and Arminians, or are there other more significant discussions to pursue?
Well, definitely there are larger issues. The people who engage in this discussion often are a little myopic and they go around in circles arguing about subjects that are not the central issue. While they argue about predestination and free will without realizing that the reason Arminians emphasize free will and the reason Calvinists emphasize predestination is different views of God’s sovereignty--God’s ability to control all events. So sometimes we just need to step back and say, OK, now what is this really all about?
And that’s what I do in my book--I argue for the larger picture, which is God Himself--Who is God and what is God like and what does God want. Arminians are simply Christians who believe passionately in God’s love. And Calvinists are Christians who believe in God’s love, but think things like, God loves all people in some ways but only some people in every way. Arminians recoil at that. We believe God loves everyone in everyway.
Many charge Arminianism with being works oriented because it is not a theology of grace. Dr Olson, what is meant by “prevenient grace” and where in Scripture is it taught?
John 6 is the classical passage I would point to, but Calvinist dispute the Arminian interpretation of it and vise versa. It talks about God’s calling or the callings of God; Arminians believe that is prevenient grace. Wherever the Bible talks about God calling people to himself, it is referring to prevenient grace. Now, "prevenient grace” is not a term in the Bible but neither is "Trinity". So the fact that the term itself isn’t there, for me, does not say anything for it or against it.
I believe in the Trinity even though it’s not spelled out in the Bible. Why do I believe in it? It’s because it’s the only concept that makes sense of all that the Bible says. And that is the way I believe in prevenient grace; it’s a concept that is the only one that, to me, makes sense of all that Scripture says.
For example, Scripture says that salvation is a free gift. Paul says to the Corinthians, what do you have that you have not been given. How do we reconcile those things that are Calvinists’ favorite passages with other passages that talk about choosing and make dire warnings against not choosing rightly? Well the only way that reconciles those that makes sense to me is the concept of prevenient grace. That is, God comes and gives us the ability to choose.
So Paul’s statement that says, “faith comes through hearing and hearing by the word of God“, that’s prevenient grace. The word of God is the vehicle of prevenient grace. Where the word of God is preached, God’s Holy Spirit works in the lives and the hearts of the hearers, and begins to create in them a power to overcome the bondage of the will, and liberates the will from bondage to sin so that people can make a choice. Now it doesn’t make the choice for them, it just gives them the liberty and the ability to make the choice that they may not have had otherwise.
Dr. Olson, John records in the first chapter of his Gospel “In him was life, and the life was the light of men…The light shines in the darkness…that all might believe through him…The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world“(1.4-9). Would these verses be speaking of ‘prevenient grace’?
Well, now you are asking a question Arminians have never settled among themselves. Just as Calvinists disagree about some things among themselves, so do Arminians disagree. Wesley believed that God is an equal opportunity Savior. He believed that John 1 is referring to prevenient grace and God gives everyone born in the world some measure of grace that makes them accountable and able to respond to God’s offer of salvation.
Arminius himself--as I read him anyway--believed that prevenient grace is tied to the message of the Word of God--the Gospel--and wherever the Gospel is preached or taught or communicated in anyway, that’s how prevenient grace works in the hearts and lives of people. He left it an open question as to whether the people who never hear the gospel have any measure of prevenient grace working in their lives.
Wesley did not leave that an open question. He definitely believed that God reaches out to everyone through conscience, through nature, through the unwritten word of God imprinted on the hearts of people so that everyone is given a supernatural ability. And that’s the key thing--to keep faith a supernatural ability. It’s not a natural ability. God restores supernaturally their ability to reach out to Him and to receive salvation.
Today, Arminians still disagree about that. Some Arminians believe that God is an equal opportunity Savior. I think Clark Pinnock probably believes that. I personally, along with some other Arminians, believe that we can’t know that and all we can know is that “prevenient grace” works through the Gospel. And that is why missions and evangelism is so urgent because that is how “prevenient grace” works in people’s lives.
Dr. Olson, in many dialogues I have with convictional Calvinists, the repeated assertion is that Arminians do not believe in Election nor Predestination which Calvinists rightly point out is plainly Biblical. Does Arminianism deny the Biblical doctrine of either Election or Predestination?
Well that would be impossible because for Arminians, both of them are Biblical concepts. Predestination is in the Bible--Ephesians 1, Romans 8 and other places. So, of course Arminians--being Biblical Christians--cannot reject election and predestination. We simply have a different interpretation of them than Calvinists have.
Calvinists believe that election is unconditional and they virtually equate election and predestination. However, Arminians believe that election is corporate, that God has chosen to have a people and that predestination is God’s foreknowledge of who will freely choose to be among God’s people. So it’s not that we reject those concepts, we simply interpret them the way we think the Bible means them.
Professor, what does Arminianism hold pertaining to the extent of the Atonement? Was the atonement limited or unlimited or are those categories outdated?
Well Arminians believe that the atonement is unlimited in scope from God’s perspective, and that Christ died for all humanity. In fact, the guilt of original sin is forgiven for everyone through the cross of Jesus Christ. So that no one goes to hell for Adams’ sin because of Jesus Christ.
But we believe that the atonement is limited in the sense that we actualize it through our decision of faith. So unlimited from God’s perspective--in His intension, it’s for everyone. But it’s limited in that it’s only actualized in those that receive it by faith. It’s a both/and for Arminians.
As far as theories of atonement go, there is no essential difference. You often hear people saying that Arminians believe in the governmental theory of atonement. There was a letter to the editor of Christianity Today, a couple of issues ago, that said that in response to a larger article about the atonement, and I disagree with that.
I am certain that Arminius believed in the satisfaction theory of atonement which we call generally the substitutionary theory. Wesley certainly believed in the substitution view did as did most of the 19th century Arminian Methodist theologians. There was some debate among them about governmental theory of atonement but even that is a form of substitution theory of atonement. It’s not a rejection of the substitution theory. It simply says that Christ did not take the punishment of everyone but took an alternative punishment to uphold the government of God--His holiness, righteousness and justice.
To a non-specialist, it is a very fine distinction. So I would say, that in Classical Arminianism, they do hold to the substitution view of the atonement.
I want to pick up on something you mentioned a moment ago. You indicated that Christ’s death actually paid for the ‘original sin” of all such that no one goes to Hell because of Adam’s sin. Is that the way Arminians as distinct from Calvinists apply the Cross to the death if an infant, for example?
It seems to me that a Calvinist would have to say of an infant that dies, “We don’t know what happens.” That, of course, would depend on whether they are elect or not and I have heard some Calvinists say that. Arminians can confidently say that all infants who die before the age of accountability go directly to Heaven. The only sin an infant could be guilty of is Adam’s sin but the guilt of Adam’s sin is washed away by Christ’s blood.
We base that on Romans 5 and the universal aspect of Christ’s atonement and the equivalency between Christ and Adam in terms of the effect between disobedience and obedience. Arminians have historically believed this as well as Anabaptists such as Hubmaier and Simons.
In your view Dr. Olson, what do you feel is the “weakest link”, if I can say it like that, in the Calvinist understanding of salvation? Which letter in the “TULIP” seems easiest to refute?
The first thing that comes to my mind is Limited Atonement. And I realize that some Calvinists say they don’t believe in Limited Atonement. But I think that makes Calvinism inconsistent. But if we are talking about consistent Calvinism, it would be Limited Atonement.
Simply, Scripture is crystal clear on that--Christ died for all. In fact, so clear that Paul warns the Corinthians about the weaker brother and not to cause him to stumble through their liberty, causing someone’s destruction for whom Christ died. Now in consistent Calvinism, that’s not possible because Christ died for the elect only and the elect will never be destroyed. So that would be an empty warning.
Clearly, Paul believed that Christ died for some who might very well end up not being saved. I think that Limited Atonement is so unbiblical and that’s why some Calvinists just cannot swallow it. But the problem is, they then have to answer why would Christ die for people predestined not to be saved. For me, that does not make sense. There is a real problem there--theological as well as Biblical.
Dr. Olson, can Arminianism & Calvinism co-exist in future Evangelicalism?
Yes, within the larger Evangelical movement, they can and have for a very long time. Whitefield and Wesley had their ups and downs and disagreeing with one another but also ministered together in the Great Awakening in Britain. And Wesley gave a very laudatory message at Whitefield’s funeral.
Ever since then, evangelical Calvinists and Arminians have founds ways to cooperate and have fellowship and we need to continue to do that. However, we probably won’t be able to go to the same Church.
And that’s what many people might find shocking toward the end of my book. I argue that thinking Christians will simply not be able to endure the cognitive dissonance of sitting under a Calvinist Pastor if you are an Arminian or sitting under an Arminian Pastor if you are a Calvinist.
I think it inevitable that thinking Christians will tend to go to a Church where the Pastor tends to agree with their theology on God’s sovereignty. That does not mean that a Calvinist Baptist church and an Arminian Baptist church, for example, cannot cooperate. They can cooperate on many things and have fellowship.
Is there one final comment that you would like to say to our Calvinist readers that you feel may assist them in understanding Arminians better?
I would appeal to them to open their mind to the possibility that I argue in the book that Arminianism is a part of Reformed theology. Arminianism is one part of it and Calvinism is another part but we are all part of the same family theologically. I offer evidences for that in the book. Simply put, I try to open their minds to the idea that Arminianism in its classical manifestation is a part of the Reformation.
Thank you, Professor Olson. This chat enriched my appreciation for theology in general and especially the contirbution Arminian thinkers have historically offered the Church in knowing the Lord of Scripture better. May His Body and their belief continue to reform.