Wednesday, September 06, 2006
Roger Olson's Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities (part one)
The most recent issue of Christianity Today addresses the resurgence of Calvinism among younger evangelicals. Accompanying any such Reformed resurgence is the re-appraisal of the status of Arminians within the Evangelical camp. Although it seems odd to even question whether Arminians are welcome among some of the very institutions they established, the question is being raised and cannot be ignored.
Roger E. Olson's timely book Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities offers a sustained description of Arminianism as a genuinely Evangelical and Protestant tradition. His motivation is both theological and sociological. Theologically, he intends to clear up misunderstandings about what Arminians actually believe. Sociologically, he aims to prevent any impending squeeze-out of Arminians from the Evangelical camp that the recent Reformed resurgence may entail. The result is an accessible introduction to Arminian theology that could be used in both Arminian and Calvinist circles: as a formative textbook for the former and as a supplemental text promoting generosity among the latter.
I am in the process of a reviewing an advance copy of this book for Koinonia Journal. I am half way through it and would like to "think out loud" about its strengths and weaknesses. I may continue these thoughts next week after I finish reading the rest of the book.
Myth-Busting Structure. The structure of the book is particularly interesting. Instead of laying out a deductive presentation of Arminian theology, Olson walks through ten common myths about Arminian theology. This "response-to-critics" approach reveals the polemical context which generated this book (Olson works at Baylor, a moderate Baptist institution that has become a haven for fallouts of the fundamentalist forms of Calvinism in the recent SBC takeover). Unfortunately, some may read this book as overly defensive and so miss the alternative vision Arminianism offers. This defensive position may serve to perpetuate the assumption that Calvinism is the gold standard by which all theologies are to be judged. However, a generous reader will discern that Olson is wisely engaging in a strategy of ad hoc apologetics: address the common objections to one's position in order to show that it has been misunderstood. Thus read, Olson's book is less a defense of Arminianism than it is a description of Arminianism. Such an accurate description is much needed for all the parties involved.
Historical Mode of Argumentation. Within each chapter, Olson dispels the myth at hand by tracing the "true" Arminian position as exposited by Jacobus Arminius, Simon Episcopius, John Wesley, 19th Century Methodists, and 20th Century Evangelical Arminians (esp. Nazarenes). Thus he offers a historical mode of argumentation: he is identifying the tradition of genuine Arminian thought, distinguishing it from Calvinism on the one side and its supposed bad reputation on the other. Such a historical approach allows the classical authors to speak for themselves through copious quoting, and accordingly initiates the reader into the Arminian tradition. However, Olson's approach tends to give the impression of a united Arminian theological heritage that may overlook the genuine diversity of Arminians. Arminius, Wesley, Miley, and Dunning are all different thinkers working in different contexts with different approaches and assumptions. They form more of a web than a line, both in their relationship to each other and vis-a-vis Calvinism. Furthermore, the construction of a "true" Arminian line requires the exclusion of the "false" Arminians. For Olson, this includes the later proto-liberal Remonstrants, the "vulgarized" Arminianism of Finney, and contemporary process theology. The complex historical relationship of Arminianism to Protestant liberalism, progressive revivalism, and process philosophy is very real, and these marginal figures cannot be simply set aside as aberrant or fallen Arminians. Olson's explicit exclusion of Finney is particularly suspect. Can such a significant and influential evangelical Arminian can be so easily excised from the story of Arminian theology? This story serves Olson's ends well by distancing Arminian theology from figures and movements on the current Evangelical hit-list. But such exclusionary tactics beg the question: on what basis does Olson differentiate a "true" from an "false" Arminian? It seems that for Olson the current strictures of American Evangelical identity are in the driver's seat, rather than anything inherent to Arminianism. Thus, Olson ironically engages in the very theological politics practiced by Calvinists which drove him to write this book in the first place.
I hope to follow up these methodological comments with more material discussions of Olson's ten myths in the following week(s). In the meantime ...
What do you think of Olson's approach?
Is myth-busting the best way to present Arminian theology?
What are benefits and costs of constructing a history of the "best" of Arminian theology?