Roger E. Olson
Reviewed by: Carl R. Trueman
Date posted: 12/09/2007
Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities, by Roger E. Olson. Published by Intervarsity Press, 2006. Hardcover, 250 pages, list price $25.00. Reviewed by Carl R. Trueman, Professor of Historical Theology and Church History, Westminster Theological Seminary.
Given the choice, I would always rather have my opinions presented and explained by a competent opponent than an incompetent friend, but my strong preference is for a competent friend to undertake the task. Thus, it is always useful to have those views with which we disagree explained to us by someone who is competent and sympathetic to them. That is true of Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities, by Roger E. Olson (IVP Academic, 2006). While few readers of New Horizons will have much sympathy for Olson's theology, it is still useful to have a book on Arminianism written by an Arminian.
Olson's purpose is twofold: to clarify Arminian theology by refuting ten myths about this theological tradition, and thus to promote rapprochement and dialogue between Calvinists and Arminians. He is basically successful in achieving his first goal, but I think the very clarity of his presentation will leave readers with a renewed appreciation of how great the divide is between the two camps.
The myths that Olson refutes are:
There is much to be gleaned from Olson's discussion, but I will confine myself to several points of criticism.
First, a number of Olson's points, while true, really indicate little more than a common terminological basis for Reformed and Arminian theology. Arminians do believe in "grace" and "predestination," but the real question is what they mean by those terms.
Second, Olson is right to distinguish classical Arminianism from Open Theism and also from denial of justification by faith. But the question in both cases is whether this is coherent. If God knows the future, but human agents act freely within that future, we have a problem to which Reformed theology and Open Theism offer different responses. I am not convinced that the classic Arminian solution does anything other than combine the apparent difficulties of both approaches into a singularly problematic mix.
Furthermore, there is a close connection, both theological and historical, between the development of Arminian theology and significant modifications of the doctrine of justification by faith (for example, in the ways in which imputation was reconstrued by Arminius, Piscator, and others). Of course, an individual Arminian can hold to a classic Protestant understanding of justification and also to the decisive role of the human will in faith, but whether those beliefs are really compatible is another matter.
Third, Olson fails to understand a number of key points in the development of sixteenth—and seventeenth—century theology. For example, he objects strongly to the drawing of connections between Arminianism and Socinianism. Now, it is true that Reformed polemicists have not on the whole been careful and charitable in the way they have accused Arminians of Socinianism, but it is an established fact that there were close theological and personal connections between the two groups from early in the seventeenth century, as the case of Conrad Vorstius, Arminius's abortive successor at Leiden, demonstrates. The work of Oxford historian John E. Platt (not a Reformed scholar) and other modern scholars has confirmed this. That the connection has been overplayed in an unpleasant and unfair way by some does not mean that it can be entirely dismissed.
Further, Olson misunderstands Richard Muller's analysis of Arminius, which is considerably more nuanced than he allows—an unfortunate fault in a book that criticizes others for lacking this virtue. Muller does argue that Arminianism was a "full-scale alternative to Reformed theology," as Olson states (p. 45), but his criticism that Muller places the two at opposite ends of the theological spectrum is incorrect. First, Muller presents an extended critique of the idea that God's sovereignty is the central dogma of Reformed theology, which Olson seems to attribute to him (p. 45). Second, Muller demonstrates how Arminius's thought is really a modification of Reformed theology and that the relationship between the two is complex and subtle. The results of this modification were dramatic, and it cannot be denied that Arminianism became a major challenger to confessional Reformed orthodoxy, but the case Muller makes is far more intricate than Olson's account allows.
Then there is the strange implication that Muller's characterization of Arminius as a "modified Thomist" is designed to distance him from the Reformed tradition. Actually, both Reformed and Arminian theology in the seventeenth century involved modified Thomism—a point recently made, for example, about the theology of John Owen. Olson also expresses doubt about Arminius's use of Molinist notions of middle knowledge (pp. 195-96), but seems to be unaware of the magisterial work of Eef Dekker (a sympathetic commentator on Arminius!) on the subject, which would seem to me to close discussion of the subject in the affirmative. Indeed, Olson seems at times to read the scholarly historiography through the lens of polemic and conspiracy theory, and this is not really helpful.
One final point: Muller is described as a "Reformed" scholar. Muller's confessional commitments are no doubt significant for him as an individual, but Olson nowhere demonstrates how these commitments affect his reading of primary historical texts. It would seem to be the kind of argument based on innuendo which the book as a whole tries to refute. Muller's views are confirmed by such scholars as John Platt, Eef Dekker, and Willem Van Asselt, not one of whom would describe himself as Reformed in the sense intended by Olson.
One final criticism: the heavy didactic tone of the book comes over at times as rather patronizing. However, if you can cope with this and are also aware of the serious mistakes in Olson's understanding of the scholarship on seventeenth-century thought, this is a useful guide to how a leading contemporary Arminian understands his own tradition.