Before criticizing Calvinism or Arminianism, KNOW WHAT THEY REALLY THINK!

Isn’t it annoying when someone insists they know what you believe, and won’t take your word that you do not?

A friend of mine who worked in a Muslim setting often heard, “You Christians believe in a trinity of Father, Son, and the Virgin Mary!” In this case, the Christian should have the first say, given that, “I think I know my own faith!”

Non-Christians have said to me, “Oh, you are Evangelical, thus you believe XYZ.” Or “You voted for so-and-so. Therefore, you must believe in ABC!” When I politely suggest that they are mistaken, that “You must be thinking of someone else,” they seem dubious!

The other day, someone accused Presbyterians of being “Catholic”, because they baptize their infants. A Presbyterian responded that that was not the case, and that he well the basis of his own theology.

Such mischaracterizing of someone else is the “straw man” fallacy: where someone claims to be attacking an opponent’s beliefs, but in fact is attacking something that he himself has made up. It is fundamentally dishonet and unethical. It is the opposite of “speaking the truth in love,” being neither truthful nor loving.

In Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities (2006), Roger Olson tells a long tale about how he has come under frequent criticism for believing an Arminianism that he does not hold to; or even being told that he is basically Catholic or even not a Christian at all.

HE WRITES:

“… when I enrolled in an evangelical Baptist seminary and began to hear Arminian used in a pejorative sense. In my studies there my own theology was equated with the heresy of semi-Pelagianism…Throughout the 1980s and 1990s as my own career evolved I discovered that my evangelical world was being affected by what one Reformed friend called ‘the revenge of the Calvinists.’ Several evangelical authors and publications began to attack Arminian theology very caustically, and with misinformation and misrepresentation. I heard and read my own form of evangelicalism called ‘humanistic’ and ‘more Catholic than Protestant.’”

These “straw men” of “misinformation and misrepresentation” form the basis for his book, where he debunks ten straw men about Arminianism. To my delight, I found that some of those myths were notions that I had long suspected to be false or decontextualized.

These myths include:

Myth 4: The Heart of Arminianism Is Belief in Free Will 

Myth 5: Arminian Theology Denies the Sovereignty of God  

Myth 8: Arminians Do Not Believe in Predestination  

Myth 9: Arminian Theology Denies Justification by Grace Alone Through Faith Alone 

To focus on one: Myth 4 is a straw man, but to be fair, Arminians themselves present a confusing message. Many Arminians have told me – and perhaps yourself – that they believe that human beings, though sinful, have the ability in themselves to “pull the trigger” and throw themselves on Christ for salvation. To put it another way, God has one vote, the Devil one vote, and you cast the deciding vote as to whether you will be saved. Not so! Olson shows that this common “folk Arminianism” is not Arminianism at all: all solid Arminian theologians reject it and properly label it as semi-Pelagianism. But semi-Pelagianism and Arminianism are not the same: the informed Arminian knows that without the doctrine of “prevenient grace”, no-one would accept Christ! They believe that every human, unable in himself to choose Christ, has received as a divine gift the power to choose the righteous way. The Calvinist view of “irresistible grace”, of course, states that it is the elect who receive that gift. But at the least both groups declare that divine intervention is an absolute necessity.

Olson is keen to build bridges: “Having argued here that Calvinism and Arminianism are incompatible systems not amenable to hybridization, I do not want readers to forget that the two systems have much in common. Both affirm divine sovereignty, even if in different ways and to different degrees; both embrace the absolute necessity of grace for anything truly good in human life. Both believe salvation is a free gift that can only be received by faith apart from meritorious works of righteousness. Both deny any human ability to initiate a relationship with God by exercising a good will toward God. Both affirm the divine initiative of faith (a technical term for the first step in salvation).”

The conclusion contains several profitable “rules of engagement.” “Adherents of both sides [emphasis added] within evangelicalism should agree on some basic rules of discourse.” In other words, God gave you two ears and one mouth – don’t dialogue with a straw man. Get the truth.

“First, before speaking or writing about another theology, we must be sure we have read it and are able to describe it as its own best representatives describe it. In short, before saying ‘I disagree’ we must be able to truly say ‘I understand.’”

“Second, critics should always be sure they are not assaulting a straw man. That happens whenever Calvinist critics of Arminianism aim their polemical weapons not at real Arminianism but at evangelical folk religion, [a semi-Pelagianism] which sometimes vaguely resembles Arminianism in a very distorted way.”

“Third, both Calvinists and Arminians should admit the weaknesses of their own theologies and not pretend that the other one alone contains tensions, apparent inconsistencies, difficulties explaining biblical passages and mysteries. We should strictly avoid double standards. If we point out apparent inconsistencies in the other party’s theology and argue that inconsistency shows weakness, we should not pretend our own theology is free of such flaws.”

“Finally, both Calvinists and Arminians should strictly avoid attributing beliefs to adherents of the other side that those adherents explicitly reject. This often happens because critics think they see where certain beliefs of the others must logically lead and then attribute the ‘good and necessary consequence’ (as they see it) of a belief to the others even though the others deny it. For example, Calvinists often say that Arminians believe the free will decision of faith is the decisive factor in salvation. That is how Calvinists see it, but Arminians neither say nor believe this. Similarly, Arminians sometimes say that Calvinists believe in fatalism, but Calvinists reject fatalism. Both sides should learn to say, ‘This is the logical consequence of their belief,’ and follow up with, ‘But they don’t follow the logic there.’”

By reading Olson, I not only came to understand Arminianism better – and yes, the many points where I disagree with it – but also my own Calvinistic beliefs. Ironically enough, he interacted often with Edwin H. Palmer’s The Five Points of Calvinism: a Study Guide (1972). I say “ironically”, because Palmer’s book was what convinced me to become a Calvinist while in Bible college. I picked it up again, and sure enough, he had many errors about Arminianism, although I am relieved to find that it did not destroy the foundation of his argument.

Every Arminian and Calvinist should put Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities in the must-read pile. The English and Spanish versions are available on Scribd. The year is drawing to a close, and it’s possible another contender will win my blue ribbon for Best Theology Book I Read in 2022. If so, Olson has set a high bar for the competition.

“Before criticizing Calvinism or Arminianism, KNOW WHAT THEY REALLY THINK!” by Gary S. Shogren, PhD in New Testament Exegesis, University of Aberdeen

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