Roger Olson’s– ‘Arminian Theology’– Part Ten


BEN: How would you distinguish the Calvinist notion of God’s providence from the Arminian one? It is interesting to me that if one reads Wesley’s Journal, one finds the phrase ‘a singular providence of God’ cropping up again and again in regard to both incidental things and significant things. So for instance Wesley sees the crowd pressing together in Wednesbury so that the rotten eggs in the pockets of some scoundrels are crushed by the crowd as a sign of God directing things so Wesley’s preaching would not be interrupted or cut short.

ROGER: I agree with Wesley on that. I believe God does exercise “singular providence” on occasion but does not exercise universal meticulous providence. I believe, and I think Arminius believed, that nothing can happen without God’s permission and even cooperation (humans being creatures and therefore having no autonomy of power to act). God must “concur” with human decisions for them to result in acts. But God’s permission and concurrence with regard to evil is always only consequent, never antecedent. That is, evil is never God’s design, plan or intention. I do believe that God controls some situations—to prevent evil from happening. He frustrates human designs and organizes circumstances to prevent some evils from being done. Why God doesn’t always do that is a mystery we will only understand eschatologically, but I do not believe God is arbitrary. There are limits to God’s ability to prevent evil that we are not told about and can only guess at (see Greg Boyd’s book Is God to Blame for some pretty good guess work).

BEN: One of the things that has struck me since the time when the Wesley Works project got underway at Duke when I and Frank Baker were there at the beginning of the 80s, is that genuine Arminian theology has not been well served in the 20th century, in that unlike Luther or Calvin studies, we had no critical editions of Wesley’s Works, and indeed many of his works were out of print or simply reprinted from older inadequate editions, and of course the same can be said for the works of Arminius, at least if we mean English editions, and also Richard Watson. I was astounded when I was at Duke Div. school that Watson was hardly known even by the professors of Wesley Studies there ( I was asked to give a lecture on him and I was just a student), and of course his Institutes were and are out of print. I mention all this to make the point that Arminians have been their own worst enemies in some regards because they have neglected the academic study and discussion of their crucial theologians from the most part until late in the 20th century. We had a lot of catching up to do with the Calvinists and Lutherans, and still do. I think, and I wonder if you agree, that this is one of the reasons for: 1) caricatures of Arminian thought by Calvinists, even scholarly ones; 2) the tendency to see Arminianism as a sort of lay theology, but not theology proper, and so on.

ROGER: Yes, and I have said so on my blog—something John Piper picked up on in one of his podcasts. But I happen to think that true Arminianism is very rare. Even people who call themselves Arminians often are not. The “defult theology” of America outside of conservative Lutheran and Reformed circles and some Wesleyan circles is Semi-Pelagianism if not outright Pelagianism. Yes, Arminians have not been very good at promoting our theology. My book Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities has been criticized by some Arminians for being semi-popular (as opposed to scholarly). I could have written a more technical, scholarly book but it wouldn’t have been read by non-scholars. There are too few non-scholarly (by which I mean avoiding technical jargon understood by only a few scholars) books Arminian theology. One I highly recommend is Thomas Oden’s The Transforming Power of Grace. Unfortunately, it’s not widely known as a book of Arminian theology. Even Oden himself (a Methodist!) told me he’s “not Arminian.” I think “Arminian” has become such a stigmatized term (note all the Southern Baptist Arminians who won’t admit they’re Arminian!) that Arminianism itself suffers from a bad, undeserved, reputation. Therefore, many people who are Arminian just avoid even exploring or attempting to explain it to others. They hide the fact that they are Arminian! I am one of the very few non-Wesleyan Arminians who has dared to “come out of the closet” among evangelicals and proudly announce that I am Arminian. I have suffered a great deal for it—including ridicule, unbelief, rejection and marginalization. Most often I have simply been asked if I’m Wesleyan what am I doing being a Baptist and teaching at Baptist institutions? There is the widespread assumption that “Arminian” and “Wesleyan” are the same.