Response to another misrepresentation of Arminianism

And here we go again…another case of Calvinist misrepresentation of Arminianism

Twenty years ago I picked up and read the first issue of Modern Reformation magazine. It was a special issue on Arminianism. On the cover was a reproduction of a popular tract that showed a ballot with a sinner’s eternal destiny at stake in the election. God voted for the sinner; Satan voted against him and he got to cast the deciding vote. Every article in the issue blasted Arminianism and Arminian theology as semi-Pelagianism. I answered those accusations and corrected those misrepresentations in Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities.

Over the years I have had many conversations with Modern Reformation’s editor Mike Horton and we have become friends in spite of our disagreement over “the doctrines of grace.” I THINK I have convinced him that real, classical Arminianism is not semi-Pelagianism. He even invited me to write an article for MR on the prosperity gospel and its roots in New Thought—the 19th century positive thinking movement.

The current issue of MR (21:1, January 2012) celebrates twenty years of MR. I congratulate them. I have seen a lot of progress in MR’s fairness toward other theologies over the years. It has matured a great deal. Much of the time I actually enjoy reading it and I agree with much in it.

The current issue contains a few lines from me about Arminianism and for that I’m grateful. Also, it contains a lead article entitled “Grace, Sin, and Will: The Structure of the Debate by “The Modern Reformation Staff.” It is a fair representation of the various viewpoints in Christian history: Pelagianism, semi-Pelagianism, Arminianism and Augustinian-Calvinism (monergism). This is the kind of nuanced description I have been arguing for among Calvinists (and Arminians) for years.

However, the issue also contains an article entitled “Dead Men Can’t Dance” by Scott E. Churnock, pastor of Christ Presbyterian Church in St. Louis. This one goes backwards—to misrepresenting Arminianism. I wish the editors of MR would forbid this sort of thing or at least publish the usual line that “views expressed in this publication do not necessarily reflect the editor’s). For example Churnock writes that “When tested against the biblical standard, Arminianism displays a faulty anthropology. It frequently attributes to unbelievers spiritual abilities they do not possess.”

The author also describes the “run-of-the-mill evangelical Arminianism” as “a philosophical position.” It, he says, “affirms that all people have ‘free will.’ To be truly ‘free,’ a person’s will cannot be constrained in any way. ‘Free will’ is the freedom to choose apart from any influence other than a person’s will.” (p. 32) And on and on.

Has Rev. Churnock not read my book? Or any book of Arminian theology? No real Arminian believes that about free will. In fact, I don’t know anyone who believes that about free will. Especially classical Arminianism doesn’t believe that. What about prevenient grace? Doesn’t Rev. Churnock know about that crucial Arminian doctrine? Even if he doesn’t agree with it, it’s wrong not to at least mention it as part of Arminian doctrine. He clearly doesn’t understand classical Arminianism’s affirmation of total depravity.

Probably Rev. Churnock would defend himself by saying that he is talking about “popular, run-of-the-mill Arminianism” and not “classical Arminianism.” How many of his readers will understand that? Not many. Most will read the article and think that is what Arminianism teaches. At one point in the article the author tips his hat to “classical Wesleyan Arminianism” which, he says, “still [has] a place for grace.” But, he goes on, “the popular Arminianism of contemporary evangelicalism is in fact semi- or even full-blown Pelagianism. I’ll call this ‘pop Arminianism’.” But then, later in the article, he drops the “pop” and just calls it “Arminianism.” Sorry, that’s not good enough.

To Rev. Churnock  I pose this question: What if I published an article describing Calvinism as belief that God is the author of sin and evil admitting that certain types of Calvinists “have a place” for God’s love but go on to write about “Calvinism” as if it teaches that God is hate and not love? Wouldn’t they howl in protest? I would expect them to. So why do they continue to do that (or allow it in their publications) to Arminians? Isn’t this bearing false witness?

I appreciate MR’s progress in fairness and in its normal description of Arminianism as different from semi-Pelagianism. It’s a huge leap from 1992’s Arminianism issue. But this article is a setback.

I have one other complaint about Rev. Churnock’s article. At least I assume he wrote it. It’s a side bar in his article called “Difficult Passages.” It attempts to show that 2 Peter 3:9 does not really teach that God desires all to be saved. (In my opinion it engages in some pretty tortuous exegesis.) But why doesn’t it even mention 1 Timothy 2:4 which clearly states that God desires everyone to be saved? Sure, some Calvinists also try to get around that with tortuous exegesis, but to ignore it altogether as if 2 Peter 3:9 is the only verse Arminians can mention to support belief in God’s universal will for salvation seems strange at best.

Again, I applaud MR for its commitment to serious, if not sound, theology and its desire to be fair in describing other theological views. But I urge the editors to refuse to publish articles that fail the test of fairness.

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  • James Petticrew

    Roger I know it must feel like you are banging your head off a brick wall with this kind of thing but I don want to thank you for your persistence. When the authors of these kind of articles finally realise that someone will call them out when they write this kind of misrepresentation maybe they will become more careful and fair in their writing.

    • rogereolson

      Thanks. It doesn’t hurt too much! 🙂

  • Mikael Stenhammar

    Keep on, Dr. Olson, to remind people to be fair and scholarly even about views they do not agree with!
    Also, is there a way to get your article on the Prosperity Gospel? Sounds like a great read.

    • rogereolson

      Look for it at Modern Reformation’s web site. I’m not sure if it has archives or not.

  • drwayman

    Stay with it! I appreciate your fairness, even with those whom you disagree.

  • Without trying to sound too antagonistic, this complaint seems a little misplaced given your treatment of compimentarians not too long ago. You were all too eager to categorize all complimentarians as being primarily concerned with subjugating women to men. You left essentially no room for an intelligent, fair-minded complimentarianism. Churnock’s token reference to a theologically viable Arminianism was more substantial than your facile allowance for a complimentarianism that doesn’t see women as children relative to men. Do you think that your treatment of complimentarianism passes “the test of fairness” that you wish articles on Arminianism to pass?

    My point really isn’t to try to dredge up other posts so much as to focus on the question of this post, which seems to me to be even treatment of positions with which we disagree. If there is enough to commend Calvinism or egalitarianism or any -ism to our hearts and minds, then there should be no reason for two-dimensional caricatures of our opponents’ positions.

    • rogereolson

      Then, if you disagree with my characterization of complementarianism, why don’t you cite some well-known complementarian theologians to prove that complementarianism does not imply that wives are children vis-a-vis husbands. Give us some clear citations from: Piper or Grudem, the founders of contemporary evangelical complementarianism, that contradict how I have characterized complementarianism. That’s what I did in Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities. I proved that the common Calvinist characterization of Arminianism is wrong. All you or any other complementarian here have done is assert that I’m wrong. Prove it. I’m open to being corrected. But it had better be clear and unequivocal and not contradicted by other things they have written. So have at it.

  • Wendy

    I realize I am only one person in the midst of millions of perspectives out there, but I have seen many in my generation struggle greatly with this topic, myself included. I think I have a perspective on why the Arminian view has been perhaps represented poorly.

    See, I was raised by parents who were saved in the 70s Jesus movement, and while they did a lot to teach me the Word of God, a lot of holes were left wide open in my understanding. I was taught Christ died for our sins, but His fulfillment of the Law for me was completely left out. As someone who was saved at five years old, (and ended up learning many lessons the hard way as I grew up) I constantly had this fear that my “asking Jesus in my heart” prayer as a five-year old no longer applied and I hadn’t *really* accepted Him. (You can probably guess how many times I’ve “prayed the prayer” in my life… as have many of my friends.) I was taught grace, but really only to the extent that after salvation, grace was basically replaced by relationship… and my ability to pursue God in it. So while works were always taught as *bad*, the ideals presented to me even regarding relationship with God left me back in a hopeless place of… works. Hence, I was often left depressed, hopeless, and defeated… even to the point that I just gave up when I was in my 20s. I knew I could never pursue God as much as I *should*. It was a struggle I dealt with, but when I came back to the church, I just “tried my best” for years. Many answers to difficult questions I’d had were just answered with “just pray more” or “just read your Bible more” answers… none of which helped this utter inner struggle of “did I choose God or not?” I figured if I could supposedly accept God on my own accord (if it were up to “me” and “my decision”) then I could equally reject God, so I just hoped I didn’t die in a moment when I was struggling. I felt like I was in a spin-cycle, subject to my own feelings, moods, hormones, and whatever else was going on… Both my parents had radical transformation experiences, having been saved as teenagers. I had… my little 5-year old self praying a prayer she really had no clue about…. there was no radical transformation I could comprehend. So every time I tried to look back on that experience… I had none. Basically it was left to my understanding that if I was being “good” then I was “in”. That’s how I could know if I was saved or not.

    Fast forward and eventually (last year) we left for a reformed church. I’d been digging into theology and doctrine for some time (because I realized no matter how good I could think I wanted to be, I knew ME) and I realized that I’d only had half the puzzle (half the Gospel!). The part missing was that not only did Christ die on the cross for my sins, but that He LIVED for me as well, in perfect righteous obedience to the Law, for *me*. That was what made me realize His grace truly covered my “here and now” – even my fallible ability to pursue Him in relationship. It was then that the GOOD things (works!) became clearly defined as the result of the Holy Spirit working, not as a means to point me back to trying to make sure I was on the right side of the “saved” line. I realized that what was supposed to be a good thing (relationship with God) had been morphed into a works – effort thing in every church I’d been in (Baptist, non-denom, charismatic….).

    I think the frustration we newly-reformed folks have had with (what we would call) Arminian-leaning churches is that we’ve just basically never been taught the Gospel properly in the first place. I’ve been wondering why it is that every time I turn around, I see or hear of someone new that has left for a reformed church. Well. I’m in my 30s and it took until last year before anyone (my brother, who’d also left for a reformed church) explained Christ’s life for me. (I even attended a Bible college for a year, but that’s another story…) At any rate, my understanding was rocked to the core as things became clear and I realized that this was what was lacking all along: the WHOLE Gospel. In some ways I think the Gospel had become about me and how transformed I was… because that’s what I’d always heard.

    I have spent the last year pondering the issues I’ve personally gone through with church and doctrine, (and what I’ve seen my friends go through) and I think the problem lies not in motive (my parents were passionate about God) but in how truth is portrayed and taught. Church Sunday School was a lot about Bible stories of “heroes” and graduating to adult status had me sitting in church learning “10 steps to a fabulous marriage” or “how to pursue relationship” kinds of topics. I could go to Bible studies, but often the leaders weren’t equipped with good doctrine to begin with. Doctrine and theology were considered “bad” (especially if you’re a woman and ask questions) and basically you’re left to just trying to weed through it on your own.

    I feel very fortunate to have found myself where I am… primarily because I’ve found that Calvinism (the way I’ve come to understand it) doesn’t reject man’s will, nor does it use grace as a license to do “whatever”… but that God’s grace always and ultimately trumps our fallibility in “bootstrapping” ourselves up the ladder to God. And I guess that’s given me the most hope I’ve had in a long time… that God would actually love me to grab MY own hand when I could barely look up to see where He was standing to grab His.

    So… like I said, I’m just another voice out here in the crowd, but I know my story is common. I think people such as yourselves would be a great benefit to teaching what Arminianism does and doesn’t say so we know what is true and what is… added to it. We may still ultimately differ in bottom lines, but I also believe God gave us our minds and abilities to make decisions as a gift to challenge each other and come to a greater understanding of Him through it all.

    If you’ve made it this far, thank you. I just wanted to share why it might be such a difficult topic, even still, to this day. I think the bottom line we would all agree on is to GOD be all the glory and honor.

    Have a blessed day. 🙂

    • rogereolson

      I have always agreed with my friend Mike Horton, a staunch five-point TULIP Calvinist that most of American “evangelical” Christianity is semi-Pelagian. It’s not wrong for Churnock and others to criticize that theology; what’s wrong is to call it Arminianism. Arminianism hardly exists in American church life except on paper. But what I want to say to you is that I have met many a person who grew up Reformed who felt like you did in another kind of church–that they would never be sure of their election. So it can go both ways. Many Reformed churches are just as legalistic as the semi-Pelagianism you describe. It just takes a different form. “Signs of grace” are required to be assured of your election. Okay then, how many? What quality? (Etc.) I’m convinced you can find legalism in all kinds of churches.

      • Wendy

        I’ve actually never heard it said (in my church) that “signs of grace” are required to be sure of election, I would say that’s what I heard prior to the reformed church. I will ask my pastor his thoughts on that, thank you.

        I’m interested to know what Arminianism (historical? classical? not sure what the correct word is) teaches… simply because I think the understanding (of people like myself) is truly lacking. And I’m curious to know more… in some ways I think it would help me understand what it was that was attempted to be taught that somehow got misconstrued in my understanding.

        Do you have an article that has a basic summarization by chance? I know people get all up in arms about being on one side or another, but there are those of us out here that just want to understand for our own peace of mind.

        Thanks again!

        • rogereolson

          I wrote an article in Christianity Today that they (CT’s editors) titled “Don’t hate me because I’m Arminian.” Google the title and you’ll probably find it in CT’s archives. Then I wrote the book Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities (IVP). It’s readily available at many Christian bookstores and at It’s not expensive or difficult to read. I have posted several descriptions of classical Arminianism here. Look for them in the archives. One was “Arminian Theology is God-honoring Theology.” The current issue of the Wesleyan Journal of Theology contains an article by mean entitled “Arminian Theology is Evangelical Theology.” So, yes, I’ve written a lot about classical Arminianism. I hope these pointers help you find what you’re looking for.

  • Erik

    Just to piggyback on Roger’s comments, I think Wendy’s experience outlines why I think a lot of people who have turned to Reformed theology have done so recently- they see it as the only solution to the problems they see (and rightfully so) in the theology of many churches today. They see unbiblical aspects of semi-Pelagianism and then think that their only alternative is to then turn to Calvinism. Such not need be the case. These problems usually include that modern theology is man-centered, lacking grace, doesn’t glorify God, and is unscholarly/not intellectual.

    During Bible College, I had several friends who saw the above problems, and so turned to Reformed theology as what they believed to be the only solution to them. These friends comforted themselves in their dismissal of classical Arminianism (a moderate way) by writing it off as man-centered, works-based, lacking grace, not concerned for the glory of God, not intellectual, etc. Yes, Reformed theology rightfully emphasises the glory and grace of God, but I don’t think it should be viewed as having the monopoly on these emphases. A moderate theology or classical Arminianism is God-centered, emphasizes the glory of God, and emphasizes not only the importance of grace in salvation, but also the enjoyment of it in the Christian life.

    Wendy, there are many modern churches out there (like many Baptist and SB churches) who emphasize the primacy of the glory and grace of God, without going to the other end of the pendulum in Reformed theology. For example, I grew up in Calvary Chapel (many vary) who emphasize the sovereignty and grace of God, as well as the importance of comprehensive and in-depth Biblical teaching. Chuck Smith wrote a book years ago called, “Why Grace Changes Everything” that shows the necessity of relating to God by grace and in His grace. I think a misunderstanding of the alternative to Reformed theology has been a major impetus for the modern Reformed resurgence.

    Reformed theology’s not the only place where you can enjoy a rich understanding of the grace of God. I recommend you continue to check out the more moderate path as well before making up your mind. (for example check out Roger’s books!)