03 November 2006

More Calvinists in the Hands of an Angry Arminian

A Brief Response to Roger Olson
Part 2 of 3
by Gary L. W. Johnson
Pastor, The Church Of The Redeemer in Mesa, AZ


oger Olson's recent book, Arminian Theology: Myth and Realities (IVP, 2006) is a diatribe against "crusading Calvinists" whom Olson considers a major threat to Evangelicalism as it enters the twenty-first century. See his The Story of Christian Theology, IVP, 1999, where he declares:

Whatever the future of the story of Christian theology brings forth, it is bound to be interesting. It always has been. And there are as-yet unresolved issues for theological reformers to work on. The major one, of course, is the old debate between monergists and synergists over God's relationship with the world. New light from God's Word is badly needed as the extremes of process theology and resurgent Augustinian-Calvinism polarize Christian thought as never before. While I am neither a prophet nor the son of a prophet, I predict (with fear and trembling) that this issue will be the all-consuming one in Christian theology in the twenty-first century and that new insights and suggestions for resolving it will come from non-Western Christian thinkers. All the options of Western (European and North American) thought seem to have been proposed and have led only to reactions rather than resolutions. If this particular problem of theology is ever to be solved—even in part—the crucial insights will almost certainly need to come from outside of Western culture, with its dualistic mindset that insists on seeing divine and human agencies as in competition with one another (p. 612).
In his most recent effort, Olson sets out to show that Calvinists, especially the contemporary ones whom I listed in the first installment, are all guilty of misunderstanding, misrepresenting, and distorting the true nature and distinguishing features of Evangelical Arminianism. As a result, Olson's book is heralded by the various endorsements on the back of the dust jacket as having once and for all cleared away all the Calvinistic distortions and half-truths.

As I read through the book, however, I began to notice that with the exception of Warfield's review of Miley, the Calvinists Olson chooses to engage are his contemporaries. (And may I be so bold as to speculate, since Olson does this, that Olson's knowledge of Warfield comes from Kim Riddlebarger's article "Fire and Water," which appears in the issue of Modern Reformation [May, 1992], which greatly incensed Olson. In reference to Riddlebarger, Olson snidely remarks "I wonder whether the author even read Miley or only B. B. Warfield, his critic" [p. 40]).

Missing from Olson's book is any mention, much less interaction with, the standard Calvinistic critiques of Arminianism. Surely Olson is aware of these. Why did Olson not engage the great John Owen and his A Display of Arminianism (in volume 10 of his works)?

Nor does he mention Pierre du Moulin's The Anatomy of Arminianism (English trans; London, 1620). This is regarded as the best early Calvinistic response to Arminius and his early followers. Why did Olson by-pass this?

Likewise, Olson fails to interact with Jonathan Edwards' classic work, The Freedom of The Will, making only a passing reference and dismissing Edwards's concern by restricting the kind of Arminians that Edwards had in mind, calling them "Arminians of the head."

Augustus Toplady, John Wesley's arch-foe, wrote extensively on Arminianism of the Wesleyian type. Why no mention of his works? (Toplady's Complete Works in one large volume was reprinted a few years back by Sprinkle.)

John Gill, the acclaimed Baptist theologian and one of Spurgeon's predecessors (he pastored the congregation that later moved to New Park Street), produced a lengthy critique of Arminianism entitled The Cause of God and Truth. Why was this ignored?

The noted Southern Presbyterian theologian of the nineteenth century, John Girardeau, deserves special mention. His very substantial book on the subject, Calvinism and Evangelical Arminianism: Compared as to Election, Reprobation, Justification and Related Doctrines (reprinted by Sprinkle, 1984), specifically addressed what Olson likes to call "Arminians of the heart." This would have been a perfect foil for Olson. Listen to how Girardeau lays out the very issues that concern Olson:

The ground covered by the controversy between Calvinists and Evangelical Arminians has not been completely occupied. John Owen's Display of Arminianism, and similar works of the Puritan period, antedated the rise of Evangelical Arminianism. Jonathan Edwards was a contemporary of John Wesley. Principal Hill's comparison of Calvinism and Arminianism had reference mainly to the Remonstrant system, as developed by Episcopius and Curcellaeus, Grotius and Limborch. The same is, in a measure, true of Principal Cunningham's comparative estimate of Calvinism and Arminianism in his Historical Theology. (VI)
Wonder why Olson chose to ignore Girardeau?

In addition to these older works, Olson conveniently overlooks two significant contemporary Calvinistic critiques of Arminianism. The first is J. I. Packer's "Arminianism" which appears in Through Christ's Word: A Festschrift for Dr. Philip E. Hughes, eds. W. R. Godfrey and J. L. Boyd III (P&R, 1985). Olson is aware of this, since he makes two opaque references to Packer, saying, "An influential evangelical theologian suggested that satanic deception may lie at the root of Arminianism" (p. 21) and "One noted evangelical Calvinist [who] noted Wesley's agreement with Calvinism (and Protestant theology in general) declared him a 'confused Calvinist' rather than Arminian" (p. 55). Why did Olson not footnote Packer's article and take issue with it?

Perhaps the most glaring omission is the two-volume work, The Grace of God, The Bondage of The Will: Historical and Theological Perspective on Calvinism eds. T. R. Schreiner and B. A. Ware (Baker 1995). These volumes were designed to answer the two works edited by Clark Pinnock that defended Arminianism (the two volumes edited by Pinnock are repeatedly cited by Olson). Why no interaction here as well? This omission leave one with the impression that Olson would just as soon his readers not know about these Calvinistic works least they find them convincing!

Finally (and this is purely the passing observation of a student of the Calvinist/Arminian conflict), Olson omits from his discussion two of the greatest champions on the Arminian side. The noted puritan Arminian John Goodwin (whom Owen considered a worthy foe) and the highly respected Scottish exegete James Morison, whose labors in Romans my mentor S. Lewis Johnson (who taught through the Greek text of Romans for over thirty years) considered the best Arminian treatment available.

(To be concluded...)

Gary L. W. Johnson

25 comments:

Highland Host said...

If I wrote a paper like that for my former New Testament tutor at seminary I would be reprimanded! Fancy not looking at Girardeau on the Calvinist side or Morison on the Arminian side!

But I gave up on IVP a while ago. They'll publish any old tosh (and frequently do).

centuri0n said...

This bibliography is, in itself, worth the price of admission. Holy Mackerels! I have often been asked by people confused by this debate which books are available to represent each side clearly and fairly, and now -- I have that list!

I feel like it's Christmas and Santa left exact what I asked for!

Phil Johnson said...

Host: "tosh"

tosh n. 1 Criminals' slang. M19. [Origin unkn. Cf. TOSHER1.] Valuables retrieved from drains and sewers.

Good word.

Douglas McMasters said...

Move to England, Phil, and you'll soon find a whole treasury of words kept current that aren't a part of the US venacular.

Come on over!

Martin Downes said...

Good to see Packer's essay being referred to. It is in fact entitled "Arminianisms" (the plural is deliberate). Packer deals with one of the points that Gary raised yesterday. For Packer good Arminianism is inconsistent Calvinism. Packer quotes from the Puritan William Ames' assessment of the Arminianisms of his day:

"The view of the Remonstrants, as it is taken by the mass of their supporters, is not strictly a heresy that is, a major lapse from the gospel, but a dangerous error tending toward heresy. As maintained by some of them, however, its is the Pelagian heresy, because they deny that the effective operation of inward grace is necessary for conversion."

DJP said...

Another great read. Thanks Gary.

This makes me think of Robert Lightner's The Death Christ Died. It was touted as an answer to Owen's vol 10. I'd read, and been mightily persuaded by, Owen. Owen made me feel as if had taken a toothpick and painted me inescapably into a corner, stroke by meticulous stroke.

So I was very interested to read a response to him -- since I'd certainly had none.

I was so disappointed when I finished the book. Not only was it no response at all, but it seemed to me that Lightner didn't even really understand what Owen was saying. He didn't merely fail to answer Owen; he failed even to engage him seriously.

Your description of Olson sounds similar.

Keith said...

Gary, in my view, when you evaluate an author, you have to judge him on what he is attempting to do. You seem to be declaring that Olson's book fails because it doesn't accomplish things it never set out to accomplish.

Olson isn't attempting to provide an all-inclusive defense of Arminians from all its Calvinist critics, tackling every major Calvinist critique that has been put forth. He says in his preface that his goal is simple: "to explain classical Arminian theology as it really is." He also says, "My aim...is to reach as wide an audience as possible, so the book is not primarily written for specialists...I have purposely held back from following tangents too far away from the main arguments of the book."

In other words, he has written a very narrowly focused book, aimed at the average reader, with a very narrow line of argument: to present a clear picture of what Arminians actually believe. You seem to be faulting him for not engaging with all of the great Calvinist criticisms that have arisen through history. But his goal wasn't to provide a defense of Arminianism from all its great critics throughout history. It's not a comprehensive defense, covering every angle and every base. It's goal was to offer clear picture of what Arminians believe and clear up some of the myths about those beliefs.

That's what he does. He lists ten myths in ten 20 page chapters. In the first two pages he gets the myth on the table, and then he spends the next 18 or so pages looking at primary sources from Arminians to show that the myth does not fit the reality of Arminian belief. At the end of each chapter--after having worked through the primary Arminian sources--you have a clearer picture on what Arminians actually believe.

In short, Olson's book does exactly what it was designed to do. To criticize it for not doing something that it was never intended to do is to miss the point of the book and to not engage with it properly.

In my mind, the best way to evaluate this book would be to see if Olson's arguments about the myths are right or not. For example, Olson argues that the claims that the heart of Arminianism is a belief in free will, that Arminians denigh the sovereignty of God, that Arminianism is a human-centered theology, and that Arminians do not believe in predestination are all myths. He then looks at primary Arminian sources and shows that they're myths. If you're going to engage with his book, the best way would be to either (a) show that the myths that Olson debunks are actually reality or (b) accept that these myths are really myths. Either path would require engaging with Olson's actual argument about what Arminians believe. But in two posts now, for whatever reasons, that is not what you have done. You've left the arguments he actually makes throughout the book to the side.

DJP said...

So, Keith, if a writer sets out to disprove the "myth" that one can be evangelical and deeply thoughtful, but doesn't interact with (say) Francis Schaeffer, Carl F. H. Henry, Ronald Nash, John Stott, and a host of others -- it would be wrong to criticize him, because his purpose wasn't actually to interact with anyone who demolished his premise?

sparrowhawk said...

This all comes as no surprise to those of us in Texas having followed (and suffered through) the theologically liberal shift that characterized much of Texas Baptist life for 30 years. He teaches at Baylor's Truett Seminary, is the featured theological voice of the moderate/liberal Baptist Standard newsletter, and is a member of a Baptist church in Waco with a feminized pulpit. If he consistently turns Scripture on its head on so many areas, he'll continue doing so in others.

Beware his leaven as many of us in Texas have learned to do.

Mathew Sims said...

About 3-4 days before the first review I began reading Olson's book. I appreciate the insights you are bringing about. I was going to provided my own brief book review, but I think I will link to yours as they are far fuller and scholarly than mine would be!

Good work.

MBS
Soli Deo Gloria

Pastor Rod said...

Keith is absolutely right.

Olson did not write his book in an attempt to prove that Calvinism is wrong or even that Arminianism is better.

The purpose of his book is to explain what Arminianism actually is.

I find it very interesting that Calvinists respond to this book defensively. Somehow Calvinists seem to be threatened if Arminianism is presented in a favorable light.

Rod

GeneMBridges said...

On the contrary, Keith, it is common to note the gaping lacunae in a work that purports to present Arminianism or Calvinism for that matter.


What he wishes to do is distinguish between "Arminianism of the head" and "Arminianism of the heart" and wed the latter to classical Arminianism.
Here, then, we have a case of an Arminian who is ignoring the critiques of Arminianism from the classical period itself. I've read some Arminian blogs that praise this book and proceed to extol Arminius himself, all the while blissfully unaware of De Moulin's work.

He chooses particular foils, but why those particular foils? Why not the ones that interacted with the very Arminianism he wishes to present? This is particularly grievous where he interacts with Warfield. Brother Gary is correct, he does not interact with Warfield, rather, he interacts with Riddlebarger on Warfield. He mentions Packer, but doesn't bother to interact with him.

What's worse, he doesn't present the best case scenario for Arminianism as devised by its best minds. Rather, he ignores some Arminians by way of prejudicial classification. If this is the best that Arminians can offer, then we Calvinists should thank Dr. Olsen for doing us a great service, for there is a certain amount of damage that only one from the inside can inflict.

farmboy said...

Thanks for the article and the book references. At Amazon.com I was able to find the referenced works by Toplady, Gill and Girardeau - all in stock and ready to ship. The "to be read" stack continues to grow - yes, it is a good day in west Texas.

The first post in this series provided evidence of Mr. Olson's misrepresentation of Warfield's interaction with Arminians. Today's post provides evidence of Mr. Olson's failure to interact with some of the most effective, able critiques of the Arminian position. Given this - and assuming that Mr. Olson was only attempting to provide an able, readable defense of the Arminian position - one has reason to wonder about the quality of the defense provided by Mr. Olson.

If Mr. Olson is convinced of the superiority of the Arminian position, then he should subscribe to and defend that position. That's what I'd expect. However, I'd also hope that Mr. Olson would have an accurate understanding of the Arminian position - both its strengths and weaknesses - and that his defense of the Arminian position would reflect an accurate understanding of these strengths and weaknesses.

As an educator who can still back a wagon into the barn fairly well, I'm concerned both with the positions my students ultimately adopt and the quality of the argument they can make in defense of those positions. For example, I take no comfort from a student who supports free market economies but cannot make an able case for the superiority of free market economies over centrally planned ones. Similarly, I take no comfort from someone who only defends his position in front of friendly crowds where his inability to make an able case for his position never comes to the surface.

Keith said...

Gene, as best I can tell, you're making the same sort of argument Gary made by arguing that Olson fails because he did not respond to particular Calvinist critics. As I said in my comment, that is criticizing the book for not doing something it never set out to do. Olson's goal was "to explain classical Arminian theology as it really is" for a general audience. He is not trying to provide the once-and-for-all defense of Arminianism against every criticism that has been leveled at it. He's simply clearing up myths about Arminian theology by explaining what classical Arminians believe from the primary sources.

To me, it is an error to criticize a book for not doing something that it never intended to do. If you really want to engage with a book, you should respond to the argument that it actually makes. I haven't seen that happen yet with Olson's book.

The "Arminians of the head" and "Arminians of the heart" distinction that Olson makes has parallels in Calvinism as well. No Calvinist would want Calvinism as a whole to be judged by the theology of Fredrich Schleiermacher (who thought of himself as a Calvinist). You have to draw a distinction between Schleiermacher and other Calvinists who held onto the tenets of Calvinism more firmly. Olson's distinction makes the same move. Some Arminians went off track and bought into classical liberalism (head), while others stayed true to the teachings of Arminius (heart). He makes the distinction to simply say: to judge Arminianism as a whole by what the liberal Arminians say would be like judging Calvinism as a whole by what Schleiermacher said. Yet that's what many critics do, and that leads to incorrect accounts of what classical Arminians actually believe. Olson makes the distinction to clear up those myths. Once people see what classical Arminians actually believe, then they can make arguments against it. But until then, more often than not, they're not really arguing against true Arminianism at all.

Scott Shaffer said...

Keith,

I think you are off-base in your criticism of Gary Johnson's critique. Olson attempts to set the record straight, asserting that Calvinists have historically misunderstood and misrepresented Arminian theology. Yes, his focus is on presenting "true" Arminianism, but nevertheless his claim stands and is fair game to be challenged. Johnson does that. Does Olson have to interact with every critique of Arminian theology? Of course not, but it is reasonable to expect him to evaluate the most scholarly or well known.

étrangère said...

highland host, re tosh you must admit that IVP UK are a lot more on-gospel in publishing policy than the IVP on the other side of the pond! Even if frustratingly you can get some bad IVP US stuff through our lot =-z

Keith said...

Yes, his focus is on presenting "true" Arminianism, but nevertheless his claim stands and is fair game to be challenged.

Scott, the problem is that I haven't seen any of Olson's claims about what true Arminians believe challenged at all.

Pastor Rod said...

Scott,

Why wouldn't those who are members of a "tradition" be the ones to define what it is? Why should an outsider be the one to define it?

Rod

Scott Shaffer said...

Rod said:
Why wouldn't those who are members of a "tradition" be the ones to define what it is? Why should an outsider be the one to define it?

I agree, but Olson's argument is that Warfield and other's misunderstood or distorted Arminian theology. Why should he get a free pass, especially if his claims are arguably weak? I don't want to beat this thing to death, but when a scholar writes a book of this sort, he is fair game to criticism provided it is done in the proper spirit.

Scott Shaffer said...

Keith said,

Scott, the problem is that I haven't seen any of Olson's claims about what true Arminians believe challenged at all.

And I don't think you are going to because Johnson said in his initial post " I instead will have a somewhat narrower focus: (1) Olson's assessment of Warfield, (2) his neglect of some of the most important Calvinistic critiques of Arminianism and (3) his evasive tactics concerning the charge of semi-pelagianism.

So just as Olson's book has a focus, so does Johnson's critique.

Phil Perkins said...

Gary,
This problem will NOT be solved. The problem is really one of human pride. Even the best Christians seem to come to a full understanding and acceptance of the sovereignty of the Potter only with time in the Scriptures and with maturity.

God's sovereignty is a humiliating slap in the face of each of us. And that's hard to take.

One caveat: cultures that do not major on linear thought have it easier, since they are not stuck by the fallacy of the single cause.

Phil Perkins.

Highland Host said...

étrangère, indeed, IVP US (a completely different company from the UK one) is a lot worse in terms of publishing tosh than IVP UK.

And if Olson says that Calvinists have misrepresented Arminianism, he either has to qualify that with 'some', or explain how Packer, Gill, Toplady and Girardeau are guilty of misrepresentation.

Alando Franklin said...

Why do you guy's do this in light of Scriptures like 1 Cor. 12 or 2 Tim. 2 presuming that many of you are elders/pastors/teachers, etc. from your abundance of knowledge? Are not these passages relevant today or just the one's supporting the Doctrines of Grace?

For even as the body is one and yet has many members, and all the members of the body, though they are many, are one body, so also is Christ. 13 For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free, and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.

14 For the body is not one member, but many. 15 If the foot says, "Because I am not a hand, I am not a part of the body," it is not for this reason any the less a part of the body. 16 And if the ear says, "Because I am not an eye, I am not a part of the body," it is not for this reason any the less a part of the body. 17 If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? 18 But now God has placed the members, each one of them, in the body, just as He desired. 19 If they were all one member, where would the body be? 20 But now there are many members, but one body. 21 And the eye cannot say to the hand, "I have no need of you"; or again the head to the feet, "I have no need of you." 22 On the contrary, it is much truer that the members of the body which seem to be weaker are necessary; 23 and those members of the body which we deem less honorable, on these we bestow more abundant honor, and our less presentable members become much more presentable, 24 whereas our more presentable members have no need of it. But God has so composed the body, giving more abundant honor to that member which lacked, 25 so that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. 26 And if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; if one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it.

Now in a large house there are not only gold and silver vessels, but also vessels of wood and of earthenware, and some to honor and some to dishonor. 21 Therefore, if anyone cleanses himself from these things, he will be a vessel for honor, sanctified, useful to the Master, prepared for every good work. 22 Now flee from youthful lusts and pursue righteousness, faith, love and peace, with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart. 23 But REFUSE foolish and ignorant speculations, knowing that they produce QUARRELS(obviously not a good thing). 24 The Lord's bond-servant MUST NOT be quarrelsome, but be kind to all, able to teach, patient when wronged, 25 with gentleness correcting those who are in opposition, if perhaps God may grant them repentance leading to the knowledge of the truth(Is this the underlying motivation for critique the "opposition"?), 26 and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, having been held captive by him to do his will.

Highland Host said...

Alando Franklin. Contrary to popular prejudice, Calvinists actually read the Bible. And surely you cannot believe that it is wrong to CORRECT a brother or sister if he or she is mistaken.
DEBATE is not the same as quarreling. Some of my best friends are Arminian. Recently I preached at a Wesleyan Church. Did I 'quarrel' in the pulpit? Of course not! That would be unseemly.

But secondly, is the Arminian/Calvinist debate a matter of 'foolish and ignorant speculation'? And if so, on which side?
Surely what Paul is commanding is that all such debate ought to be in love and that our language ought to be moderate. Which is what I have always tried to do.
HOWEVER, we are ALSO commanded to 'Contend earnestly for the faith once delivered to the saints' (Jude 3). In other words, there is 'quarreling' (bad) and 'Contending' (good).
So what was Paul writing about in II Timothy 2. 23? Probably what he wrote to Timothy about in I Timothy 1.4. The question is, is this a Jude 3 or a II Timothy 2. 23 question?

And remember that it was Mr. Olson in his book who started this debate, not the Pyromaniacs.

Alando Franklin said...

You have got to be kidding me!

I'll repost this again which is from the BIBLE that you read! In fact it's from the very passages that I quoted initially.

with GENTLENESS(the very title of this post does not set forth a precedent of anything gentle, but rather quarrelsome, if you deny that my friend you are not a rational man) CORRECTING those who are in opposition, if perhaps God may grant them repentance leading to the knowledge of the truth(Is this the underlying motivation for critique the "opposition"?)

Second, I'll let the Apostle Paul answer you here: (I Cor. 1:13)It was the precious blood of Christ that was shed for us. Our divisions are an offense to the work of Christ because it is the work of Christ that has purchased us for Himself. We are His personal property. Taking any other name, saying we are disciples of any particular preacher or theologian is an offense to the very work that Christ has done on our behalf. Believers have no relationship even to inspired teachers such as to justify being called by their names. We are called Christians because we belong to Christ.


Third, please reread Jude in context. Taking the passage out of it's intended context to justify "contending" with a fellow believer over the extent of the atonement is eisogesis at it's best. The passage has nothing to do with contending for Calvinism against a fellow believer.


Lastly, get the book and READ IT FOR YOURSELF! Nowhere does Olson set out to began a debate, but to clear up some misconception that WE often levy against brothers whom we disagree. The fact of the matter is that he says a lot that's simply true. I am guilty and have personally witnessed it more than I like to admit in the Reformed community.

Eph. 4:29-32,

Alando Franklin