This book discusses ten myths that are commonly held about Arminians, especially by its critics but oftentimes even by its advocates. Olson, though not systematically arguing for or defending the Arminian viewpoint, simply purposes to reveal the fundamental nature of the theology over and against the prevalent myths.
The ‘Arminianism versus Calvinism’ debate can be very passionate, and the risks for misrepresentation of the opposing view are high, even amongst academics. Arminian theology receives many harsh criticisms, often stemming from mistaken notions about what that theology entails. For example, it is often labeled as ‘man-centered,’ moreover, it is sometimes claimed to diminish God’s sovereignty, eliminate justification by faith, minimize or eliminate the role of grace in salvation, and to deny the Biblical teaching of predestination. As a result, the theology is absolutely lambasted in some circles, considered outside the scope of evangelical Christianity, deemed ‘barely Christian,’ and even denounced as heretical.
Thankfully, Olson’s clear analysis reveals these to be total misunderstandings, often betraying and almost total ignorance of contemporary or classical Arminian theology. Olson clearly acknowledges that some within the Arminian tradition have often slipped into dangerous theological territory. Nevertheless, the theology of Arminius himself was free from these errors, and a majority of major Arminian thinkers (including John Wesley) have kept true to Arminius’s heritage. As he points out, the fact that some individuals within the tradition have strayed away from evangelical thinking does not mean that the tradition itself should be jettisoned, just like hyper-Calvinists who take Calvinism too far should not discredit the theology of Calvinism altogether. Olson substantiates his arguments thoroughly, providing extensive quotations from Arminius and his followers to demonstrate that their theologies are certainly orthodox, within the evangelical tradition, and not fair targets for the types of criticisms mentioned above.
Perhaps the best part of the book was its emphasis on the character of God being the primary motivation for Arminian theology. Many critics see the theology as motivated by a desire to keep “sacred” the human free will, but Olson wisely points out that this is not the main point of affirming the reality of human free will. The primary motivation is to protect the character of God. Since God is not the author of evil, Arminians seek to place the blame for sin (including the Fall of Adam), evil, and unbelief in the hands of free human creatures. In fact, this reflects my intuitions as well. When I read Calvinistic theology, I find myself deeply troubled by the character of God implied by such a system, not repulsed at the idea that I might not have ‘free will’ in the way I think I do. In fact, I would have no problem with Calvin’s theology if everybody were in fact saved or if there were no horrendous moral evil in the world, but given the presence of these undesirable features of the universe, I find the temptation to endorse Arminian theology strong.
Olson’s book did suffer from one major flaw when it came to discussing the nature of God’s foreknowledge. The problem is this- how can God foreknow the future free actions of human agents if they are really free? It is difficult to see how He could possibly know these free decisions. Moreover, if He did know them, it would obliterate free will.
There are two major lines of thought to address this question. The first idea is Molinism, the view of Luis de Molina who argued that God knows, before He creates the world, what any possible free creature would freely choose to do in any possible circumstance (See, for an exposition and defense of this view, The Only Wise God). I find this solution to be very compelling because it also explains how God can exercise His providential control despite deciding to create free creatures. However, Olson brushes off this possibility rather quickly, offering a few brief criticisms that (in my opinion) are rather weak. He also dismisses the idea that Arminius embraced this model, which I find dubious.
The other line of thought is commonly termed open theism. According to this view, it is impossible to know the decisions of free creatures in the future because there are no such facts to be known. Since they haven’t decided yet, there simply is no fact of the matter! Thus, God does not have complete foreknowledge of everything that will occur in the future. Olson does not adopt this model but seems much more sympathetic to it than he does to the Molinist account.
While I agree with Olson (against many others) that open theism is a genuine evangelical option, I am surprised that Olson is prepared to give it more credibility than the Molinist account. Open theism, by denying God full foreknowledge of the future, is a very radical position that is regarded by many as not only outside the realm of evangelical thinking- but outside the realm of classical (and perhaps even orthodox) Christianity! Given Olson’s attempt to remain within classical evangelical thought, I am surprised by his soft treatment of this view. In my opinion, it presents at least as many problems as the Molinist account and may require a radical revision of our conception of God. Indeed, many critics of Arminianism blast the theology by contending that it ultimately leads to dangerous views like open theism!
Other than this regrettable flaw, Olson’s book succeeds in its goal admirably. By overcoming myths and refuting unjust criticisms of Arminianism, Olson opens the door for irenic discussion of this often controversial topic. This book is therefore appropriate for individuals on both sides of the fence. Arminian Theology does not provide a systematic defense of Arminianism or a critique of Calvinism, but it should help to further the debate in the spirit of Christian charity.