Sunday, July 5, 2009

Book Study at SEA

SEA, the Society of Evangelical Arminians, is currently undertaking a book review with its author, Roger E. Olson, who is also a fellow member of SEA. I have the pleasure of participation in this study, as each week, we study one chapter at a time, and then discuss it, together with the feedback of the book's author. Very nice!

I would like to review chapter 1, including the Introduction.

Olson: “The debate between Calvinism and Arminianism is often said to be based on a disagreement about predestination and free will. That is the common, almost folkloric myth about this entire subject.” (Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities, p.19)

I certainly agree.

The next quote fascinates me, in terms of the historical perspective:

Olson: “Arminius did not believe he was introducing anything new to Christian theology. Whether he in fact did is debatable. He explicitly appealed to the early church fathers, used medieval theological methods and conclusions, and pointed to Protestant synergists before himself.” (Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities, p.22)

Olson next discusses a myth concerning Arminian theology: “One of the most prevalent myths spread by some Calvinists about Arminianism is that it is the most popular type of theology in evangelical pulpits and pews. My experience contradicts this belief. Much depends on how we regard Arminian theology. The Calvinist critics would be correct if Arminianism were semi-Pelagianism. But it is not so, as I hope to show. The gospel preached and the doctrine of salvation taught in most evangelical pulpits and lecterns, and believed in most evangelical pews, is not classical Arminianism but semi-Pelagianism if not outright Pelagianism.” (Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities, p.30)

This is key. Arminians attempt to distance themselves from Pelagians by focusing on the necessity of intervening, preceding grace, Prevenient Grace, whereas the latter states that fallen man has, of himself, sufficient power to initiate salvation, irrespective of a “divine appointment” of grace. Of course, Pelagians may wish to dispute such a remark in their own book, Pelagian Theology: Myths and Realities. Of course, I haven’t seen such a book yet. Nevertheless, Calvinists are aware of this distinction, and make very little of it. Here is an excerpt from Calvinist, R.C. Sproul:

Calvinist, R.C. Sproul, writes: “Semi-Pelagianism salutes the necessity of grace, but under close scrutiny one wonders if the difference between Pelagianism and semi-Pelagianism is a distinction without a difference.” (What is Reformed Theology?, p.187)

The basis for this charge is because although God takes the first step in seeking, convicting, knocking and opening hearts to receive Him, “this step is not decisive, and can be thwarted by the sinner. If the sinner refuses to cooperate with or assent to this proffered grace, then grace is to no avail.” (What is Reformed Theology?, p.187)

So in other words, according to Calvinism, any theology whereby God sovereignly gives a person a genuine opportunity to respond to grace, is still Pelagian, as long as the offered grace does not conclusively determine action, but leaves the decision to the sinner to decide for himself:

Sproul continues: “The problem is this: If grace is necessary but not effectual, what makes it work? ... Why does one sinner respond to the offer of grace positively and the other negatively?” (What is Reformed Theology?, p.187)

In other words, if one person receives Christ, but another does not, what makes the difference? (To the Calvinist, God is the decisive difference, regenerating the one but not the other. To the Arminian, God makes the decisive difference, insomuch that reception of God’s grace is the act of non-resistance).

Sproul writes:Does grace assist the sinner in cooperating with grace, or does the sinner cooperate by the power of the flesh alone? If the latter, it is unvarnished Pelagianism. If the former, it is still Pelagianism in that grace merely facilitates regeneration and salvation.” (What is Reformed Theology?, pp.187-188)

In other words, according to Sproul, any decision left to man, either to accept or reject, is still fundamentally Pelagian, whether grace facilitates the decision or is absent altogether. That is a fairly hard-line standard, to which Olson has taken exception:

Olson: “I’ve been fighting this battle, to clear the good name of Arminian theology (by showing how it different from Semi-Pelagianism) for years now with very limited success. I find that most of the people doing the misrepresenting of Arminianism and aggressively asserting the sole theological correctness of Reformed theology (their version of it) have little or no interest in being educated about real Arminian theology. Their minds are already made up; don’t confuse them with the facts. Every year I have a group of Calvinist pastors from a local Reformed church come to my class and speak. One of them started out by saying “Arminianism is just Pelagianism.” After several such unfortunate encounters I gave them copies of Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities on the condition they read it. To the best of my knowledge they never have.” (SEA)

Olson also makes one statement that I wish to follow-up upon: “It is also the Arminian interpretation of 1 Timothy 4:10, which indicates two salvations through Christ: one universal for all people and one especially for all who believe.” (Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities, p.33)

Where in the context is Paul speaking of Jesus as a temporal Savior vs. an eternal Savior? My thought is that this is speaking of Jesus as Savior in the eternal sense alone, and that “especially” signifies the sole beneficiaries of the universal atonement. Obviously this is not Universalism, but that will do little to hinder the Calvinist chickens with their theological heads cut off. They want the only alternative to their interpretation to be Universalism, so that they can paint the opposition as heretics.

Olson: “A crucial Arminain doctrine is prevenient grace, which Calvinists also believe, but Arminians interpret it differently. Prevenient grace is simply the convicting, calling, enlightening and enabling grace of God that goes before conversion and makes repentance and faith possible. Calvinists interpret it as irresistible and effectual; the person in whom I works will repent and believe unto salvation. Arminians interpret it as resistible; people are always able to resist the grace of God, as Scripture warns (Acts 7:51).” (Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities, p.35)

I found this to be a good point. The issue is not whether Prevenient Grace is exclusively an Arminian concept, but how it is understood by Calvinists and Arminians, whether the enablement thereof is resistible or irresistible.

A very significant issue to Olson, in rejecting Calvinism, is over the Problem of Evil:

Olson: “The issue is most emphatically not a humanistic vision of autonomous free will, as if Arminians were in love with free agency for its own sake. Any fair-minded reading of Arminius, Wesley or any other classical Arminian will reveal that this is not so. Rather, the issue is the character of God and the nature of personal relationship.” (Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities, p.38)

Olson: “Arminians affirm that God is in charge of nature and history but deny that God controls every event. Arminians deny that God ‘hides a smiling face’ behind the horrors of history. The devil is not ‘God’s devil’ or even an instrument of God’s providential self-glorification. The Fall was not foreordained by God for some secret purpose.” (Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities, p.38)

The following is an excellent statement made by Olson, explaining how Calvinists, Arminians, and for that matter, any Christian theologian, is to engage polemics:

Olson: “Before you disagree make sure you understand. In other words, we must make sure that we can describe another’s theological position as he or she would describe it before we criticize or condemn.” (Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities, p.41)

Olson: “Much of the harsh polemics of traditional Calvinist-Arminian debate could and should be overcome simply by understanding each others’ real theological positions.” (Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities, p.59)

Now, of course, a Calvinist may charge you with failure to meet the standard set forth above, but make sure that you request specifics, otherwise consider the source, as the Calvinist may simply be slinging mud.

Speaking on Election, Olson states: “Election is corporate--God's determination of Christ to be the Savior of that group of people who repent and believe (Eph 1); predestination is individual--God's foreknowledge of those who will repent and believe (Rom 8:29).” (Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities, p.37)

Let me come right out and say that this statement isn't strong enough. Let me explain why, by providing a quote from a Calvinist:

Speaking on Arminianism, Calvinist Ron Rhodes writes: “This view says that God used His foreknowledge to look down the corridors of time to see who would respond favorably to His gospel message, and on that basis He decreed certain persons to salvation.” (Commonly Misunderstood Bible Verses, p.269)

That is an Arminian Myth that Roger Olson doesn't refute (at least, not yet in this chapter). In constrast, the Arminian perspective on Election is that God the Father has decreed salvation for those in Christ. John Gill famously asked if God perceives people receiving Christ, what point would there be in electing thusly. The problem is that Calvinist election focuses on getting people in Christ, whereas Arminian election deals with people from the standpoint of already being in Christ, and what they are predestined, corporately, to receive, on that basis.