Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Roger Olsen, Classical Arminianism and Evangelical Arminianism

They [the Methodists] call themselves Arminians; but it is perfectly obvious that their theology differs widely from that of Limborch, and Whitby, and Warburton, and all the recognized Arminian divines of Holland and England ... They differ widely and radically in principles and in results; whereas when we hear the gospel preached by a Methodist, we feel that it is the very same to which we love to listen, and are accustomed to hear as Presbyterians. ... Man's ruin by the fall, his native depravity and alienation from God, his absolute need of a Saviour, and utter inability to save himself, the necessity of regeneration by the Holy Spirit, justification, not by works, but by faith alone in the blood and righteousness of Jesus, the free offer of the gospel to every human being without money and without price, the necessity of holiness, not to merit heaven, but to become meet for it — these articles constituted the very burden of their preaching.

[Review of Annals of the American Pulpit (Methodist), in the British and Foreign Evangelical Review, vol. xi (London, UK: Nisbet, 1862), pp. 301-2. As cited in Iain H. Murray, The Old Evangelicalism: Old Truths for a New Awakening (Carlisle, PA, USA: Banner of Truth Trust, 2005), p. 156]

The Remonstrant controversy was a battle of giants. In its earnest grapple, the movement tentatively begun by Arminius tended rapidly toward its level in a distinctively Pelagian anthropology and Socinian soteriology. But in the great evangelical revival of the last century, the Wesleyan leaders offered to the world an Evangelicalized Arminianism. The rationalism of the Remonstrants, they affirmed, was not due to their Arminianism but to their Humanism. The essential elements of Arminianism, they asserted, were in no wise inconsistent with the great Evangelical doctrines of sin and atonement. On the contrary, they declared, the Arminian construction alone gave their full rights to the catholic doctrines of the condemnation of all men in Adam and the vicarious satisfaction for sin in Christ. An Arminianism zealous for these doctrines might well claim to stand on a higher plane than that occupied by the Remonstrants

[B.B. Warfield, Selected Shorter Writings of Benjamin B. Warfield II, ed. John E. Meeter (Phillipsburg, N.J., USA: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1973), p. 314]

I have been reading Roger E. Olsen's book entitled Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities. As a description of modern Evangelical Arminianism, it is indeed helpful. What is not helpful however is his view of Classical or historic Arminianism, which seems to be more of the historical revisionism done by certain Wesleyan Arminians contradicted by primary sources from people of that era.

A few years back, Pastor Gary L. Johnson, of the Church of the Redeemer in Mesa, AZ, USA, did a three part guest post on the Pyromaniacs blog reviewing Olsen's book and showing forth the flaws in Olsen's reasoning and thesis. They can be found here, here and here. What is pertinent for our post can be seen here:

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 ...

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. ...

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.


Johnson focused more on the fact that Olsen did not interact with the critique of Arminianism by earlier Calvinists, which is in fact a legitimate criticism. What my focus however will be is on Olsen's failure to read the Classical Arminians in their own light, instead of assuming some form of historical continuity of beliefs between the "early Remonstrants" and the "evangelical Arminians". As the quotes given by Iain Murray and BB. Warfield should have shown, there is a distinct difference between "Classical Arminianism" on the one hand and "Evangelical Arminianism" on the other, a theme which I shall explore in more detail in the next post.

Olsen's thesis of differentiating between the "early Remonstrants" and "later Remonstrants" however hits a snag from a tiny bit of historical datum: the case of Conrad Vorstius (1569-1622), the premium Arminian theologian of his day who was appointed to be professor at the University of Leiden in 1609 upon the death of Jacobius Arminius, before being kicked out for political reasons in 1612. Besides Johannes Uytenbogaert and Simon Episcopius, Conrad Vorstius was one of the leading figures of the Armininan party and was definitely one of the "early Remonstrants", being contemporarous with Jacobius Arminius himself [1]. Olsen suprisingly, or perhaps not-so-surprisingly, ommitted this important Remonstrant figure, for the simple reason that Vorstius just before his death in 1622 worked out his Arminianism into full blown Socinianism.

The case of Conrad Vorstius thus constitutes a blow to Olsen's thesis of the difference between the "early Remonstrants" and the "later Remonstrants". Vorstius being contemporarous with Episcopius and Uytenbogaert and Arminius himself means that no such distinction can take place. No doubt Arminius, Episcopius and Uytenbogaert did not embrace Socinianism, but the fact remains that Classical Arminianism has nothing evangelical (both capital and small 'e') about it. Just because later Evangelical Arminians starting with John Welsey can extract excerpts of orthodoxy from the works of Arminius etc does not make Arminius or the early Remonstrants evangelical. Heretics are seldom 100% in error. As the Church matures, no heresy that wants to pass itself off as the truth will appear as truly errant, or even slightly errant if possible. Errors creep in best when mingled with lots of truth, and it should not surprise us that the writings of Arminius etc contain much truth in them.

In the next post, we would do a brief contrast between Classical Arminianism and Evangelical Arminianism, according to authoritative sources instead of 'quoting from Wikipedia'.

[to be continued]


[1] Simon Kistemaker, Leading Figures at the Synod of Dordt, in Peter Y. De Jong (ed.), Crisis in the Reformed Churches: Essays in Commemoration of the Great Synod of Dordt 1618-1619 (Grandville, MI, USA: Reformed Fellowship, 1968, 2008), pp. 69-71


Gary said...

Some estimates are that over 50% of evangelical teenagers repeat their born again experience due to a lack of assurance of salvation. Do we see that kind of insecurity regarding salvation anywhere in the New Testament? Doesn't that high a level of insecurity regarding Christ's FREE gift of salvation indicate a problem with Arminian evangelical theology?

Could this be the reason why your Arminian evangelical young people are stampeding to Calvinism?

Read more:

Daniel C said...

*My* Arminian evangelical young people?

What on earth are you talking about?