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Redefining Arminianism

I thought it would be interesting to contrast two books I have received in the past weeks. The first quote is from Steve Lawson’s Foundations of Grace which I wrote about a couple of days ago. In this quote he contrasts Calvinism and Arminianism:

Never have two systems of thought been more polarized. The first system, Calvinism, is a God-centered, Christ-exalting way of viewing salvation. God alone is the Savior and, thus, God alone is the object of praise. In the other system, Arminianism, a completely opposite perspective is presented. Arminianism, also known historically as Semi-Pelagianism and Wesleyanism, divides the glory between God and man in the salvation of the human race. As a result, it diminishes the glory given to God. In the first system, that of the doctrines of grace, salvation is completely of the Lord. God alone supplies all that is necessary, both the grace and the faith. But in the latter scheme, salvation is partly of God and partly of man. Here God supplies the grace and man supplies the faith. Man becomes his own co-savior. In the first system, all glory goes to God alone. But in the latter, praise is shared by God and man. The only problem is, God will not share His glory with another.

In his recently published work Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities, Roger E. Olson says that typifying Arminianism as being Semi-Pelagian is unfair. He distinguishes between Arminianism of the heart and Arminianism of the head.

Arminianism of the head is an Enlightenment-based emphasis on free will that is most often found in liberal Protestant circles (even among liberalized Reformed people). Its hallmark is an optimistic anthropology that denies total depravity and the absolute necessity of supernatural grace for salvation. It is optimistic about the ability of autonomous human beings to exercise a good will toward God and their fellow creatures without supernatural previent (enabling, assisting) grace; that is, it is Pelagian or at least semi-Pelagian.

Olson distinguishes himself and other “true” Arminians from the charges of Semi-Pelagianism that have often been held against those who hold to Arminian theology. He speaks of “Arminians of the heart:”

Arminianism of the heart—the subject of this book—is the original Arminianism of Arminius, Wesley and their evangelical heirs. Arminians of the heart emphatically do not deny total depravity (even if they prefer another term to denote human spiritual helplessness) or the absolute necessity of supernatural grace for even the first exercise of a good will toward God. Arminians of the heart are true Arminians because they are faithful to the basic impulses of Arminius and his first followers as opposed to later Remonstrants (who wandered away from Arminius’s teachings into early liberal theology) and modern Arminians of the head who glorify reason and freedom over divine revelation and supernatural grace.

In distinguishing between Arminians of the heart and Arminians of the head he seems to fall into an all-too-common practice among Christians, setting himself apart as a member of a select group who “get it.” According to Olson’s definitions, the vast majority of those who consider themselves non-Reformed Christians would be Semi-Pelagian. However, there is a small group that have held to the true principals of Arminius. “When conservative theologians declare that synergism is a heresy, they are usually referring to these two Pelagian forms of synergism. Classical Arminians agree. This is a major theme of this book. Contrary to confused critics, classical Arminianism is neither Pelagian nor semi-Pelagian! But it is synergistic. Arminianism is evangelical synergism as opposed to heretical, humanistic synergism.”

Such claims always make me nervous. Much like those who hold to Open Theism or the New Perspective on Paul, their claims depend on suggesting that other theologians of the past and present just haven’t properly understood. When Steve Lawson, R.C. Sproul and countless others have examined Arminianism and declared it to be Semi-Pelagian, they just haven’t quite understood the details. They unfairly typified Arminianism, confusing it with Semi-Pelagianism. Or so men like Olson have to conclude. Careful and skilled researchers that they are, I think this is unfair and uncharitable to the large number of Reformed scholars who, based on honest assessment, have reached such a conclusion. To redefine Arminianism before defending it seems more than a little disingenuous.

According to Olson’s definition, I’m sure he could, in many ways, agree with Lawson’s comments. He would simply state that Lawson is reacting against the Arminianism of the head that has become predominant in evangelicalism. But I doubt Lawson and most other Reformed scholars would care to make such a distinction.