One more quick sidebar about clarifying Arminianism

One more quick sidebar about clarifying Arminianism August 22, 2010

I have forwarded posts with which I strongly disagree, but I don’t have time to correct every misconception or misrepresentation of Arminianism or other theological systems.  However, I would like to clarify a couple points about classical Arminianism. 

Classical Arminianism does NOT say God never interferes with free will.  It says God NEVER foreordains or renders certain evil.  This relates to the issue of Arminianism and inerrancy.  An Arminian COULD believe in divine dictation of Scripture and not do violence to his or her Arminian beliefs.

Contrary to what a couple of posters here have implied, Arminianism is not in love with libertarian free will–as if that were central in and of itself.  Classical Arminians have gone out of our way (beginning with Arminius himself) to make clear that our sole reasons for believe in free will AS ARMINIANS (a person might at the same time have philosophical reasons) are 1) to avoid making God the author of sin and evil, and 2) to make clear human responsibility for sin and evil.

Arminianism is completely orthodox Christologically.  Classical Arminianism affirms the two natures of Jesus Christ.  To say otherwise is simply to display ignorance of classical Arminianism.  And to say that orthodoxy denies Jesus’ human free will (even to resist God) is to ignore the entire monothelite/dyothelite controversy and its outcome at the Third Council of Constantinople in 678 (the sixth ecumenical council).  There and at later councils the unified church condemned belief in one will and affirmed as orthodox belief in two wills of Christ.  The major interpreters of dyothelitism such as Maximus the Confessor and John of Damascus taught that although it was theoretically possible for Christ’s human will to resist God’s will it could not actually happen in practice because of the deification (theosis) of the humanity of Christ.

One does not have to affirm the later councils to be classically Arminian.  (Luther and Calvin and other leading reformers affirmed only the first four councils as orthodox.)  However, to argue that orthodoxy denies that Christ, in his humanity, could resist the will of God is to go against historical orthodoxy.  One is more orthodox in affirming that he could (theoretically).

Please be careful about charging any opposing viewpoint held by evangelicals as unorthodox.  To accuse classical Arminianism of being Christologically unorthodox is so far off target as to border on incivility (because it could mislead evangelicals who hire and fire to think Arminianism is actually against historic Christological orthodoxy when it is not).

Finally, about libertarian free will: Arminians generally do NOT believe in what is usually labeled “libertarian free will” (in the strong philosophical sense of the term).  We do believe in situated free will–free will within limits and within contexts.  No Arminian believes that a person with free will (restored by prevenient grace) is capable of doing simply anything he or she wants to do.  Calvinists who argue that incompatibilist free will is incoherent need to decide whether they believe God has that kind of free will or not.  Jonathan Edwards (again) was most consistent in denying it.  The result, of course, is that God’s creation of the world is not of grace but of necessity AND that God is in some sense dependent on the world (thus inadvertently denying God’s aseity which most Calvinists claim to believe).  Now, neither Edwards nor contemporary Calvinists admit all these things, but they seem to us to be logically entailed by any denial of God’s incompatibilist free will.  And if God has it, it can’t be strictly logically incoherent.  It may be mysterious, but that’s a different matter.

Every theology affirms mystery at some point.  The issue often comes down to which mysteries one can live with.  I, for one, can live with the mystery of free will much more easily than the mystery of how God can be good and predestine a significant portion of humanity to hell even if only by “passing over” them (as explained in an earlier post).

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  • Prathab

    Preach it brother! I just wish more people will just read Arminius’ writings and see for themselves about its strong committment to being biblical, rather than merely making wild assumptions.

    God bless,

  • Aaron

    Thank you Roger for taking this on! I am a youth pastor and am continually discouraged and feel beat down by Calvinists. I am so glad to have you blog on my book marks bar – you and your books have been a breath of fresh air to me!

  • Hi Dr Olson. You mentioned earlier that you’re new to blogging, so I want to make a recommendation. Categorize your posts. For example, when you do a post on Arminianism, categorize it as Arminian. When you do one on inerrancy, categorize it as inerrancy, etc. When you do this the “categories” on the right side of your blog page will list all of your blog entries by topic. This makes it much easier for readers to search your blog for specific topics that they’re interested in reading up on. You can see an example of a populated category list on my blog.

    The way you do this on WordPress: when making a new post, on the right side there is an area called categories. “Add new category” and then check the box. A post can have more than one category. For example you could tag a post with both Arminianism and Calvinism, if relevant. You can also go back and categorize old posts by editing them.

    By the way, I’m thoroughly enjoying your blog and am amazed at the frequency you have been able to post.

    God bless,

  • W B McCarty

    Dr. Olson: “An Arminian COULD believe in divine dictation of Scripture and not do violence to his or her Arminian beliefs.”

    The reference to “dictation” may establish a straw man, which must be demolished before addressing Dr. Olson’s main point. Few, if any, Calvinists believe in a mechanical dictation theory of inspiration. To emphasize that fact was the purpose of my reference to the personalities of the authors of Scripture, which are not subverted by the process of inspiration. Instead of dictation, the Calvinistic concept of inspiration involves a concursus of the divine and human wills that, despite the human element, produces an error-free Scripture.

    Now to the main point. Contrary to Dr. Olson’s claim, I do not see how it is possible for God to bring about a Scripture free of error (whether by divine dictation or concursus) without exercising control, not merely influence or direction, over the human authors. Mere influence or direction would entail at least the _possibility_ of error. But, Dr. Olson has previously made affirmations that seem to me entirely inconsistent with God’s exercise of the necessary control. For instance:

    “In fact, Arminians do not object to the idea the God ‘directs’ human choices and actions. All Arminians object to is belief that God controls human choices. . . .” (_Arminian Theology_, p. 98).

    How might an Arminian affirm a belief in the infallibility or inerrancy of Scripture (in this context, it doesn’t seem to me to matter which term is used) and yet remain consistent to a view that denies God’s control over the choices of the human authors? To say it can be so is well and good. But, is that position coherent? I can’t see that it is.

    Dr. Olson: “Finally, about libertarian free will: Arminians generally do NOT believe in what is usually labeled “libertarian free will” (in the strong philosophical sense of the term).”

    By “Armininian” here, I assume “classical Arminian” is meant. Just as the majority of today’s self-styled Arminians are actually semi-Pelagian or Pelagian, it appears to me that they are also libertarian as to free will.

    Now, I gladly defer to Dr. Olson’s characterization of classical Arminians’ belief in free will as non-libertarian. Nevertheless, I find this characterization difficult to reconcile with certain of his previous statements. For example:

    “Arminians believe such libertarian free will in spiritual matters is a gift of God through prevenient grace–grace that precedes and enables the first stirrings of a good will toward God)” (_Arminian Theology_, p. 20).

    “Because of their vision of God as good (loving, benevolent, merciful), Arminians affirm libertarian free will. . . . ” (_Arminian Theology_, p. 75).

    I suspect that my juxtatposition of Dr. Olson’s statements may entail some equivocation on the meaning of “libertarian free will.” Dr. Olson has clarified what classical Arminians _do not_ believe concerning free will; namely, that it consists of the libertarian form, rather than some more situated or contextual form, of free will. But it seems to me that some additional clarification would be helpful. What _do_ classical Arminians believe concerning free will?

    • David Rogers

      Dr. Olson: “Finally, about libertarian free will: Arminians generally do NOT believe in what is usually labeled “libertarian free will” (in the strong philosophical sense of the term).”

      I think the key is in Dr. Olson’s parenthetical qualifier “in the strong philosophical sense”.

      Hard libertarian free will or soft libertarian free will.

      Hard libertarians assert freedom from external influences.

      Soft libertarians assert external influences may determine a range of choices rather than a specific choice itself. (Helpful explanation found in Kenneth Keathley’s Salvation and Sovereignty, pp. 69-79; Keathley is not an Arminian however but a Molinist).

      • Robert

        David writes:

        “I think the key is in Dr. Olson’s parenthetical qualifier “in the strong philosophical sense”.
        Hard libertarian free will or soft libertarian free will.
        Hard libertarians assert freedom from external influences.
        Soft libertarians assert external influences may determine a range of choices rather than a specific choice itself.”

        I appreciate what David is trying to do here. He is trying to explain how Dr. Olson can deny libertarian free will ““in the strong philosophical sense” while at the same time affirm libertarian free will (note the quotes provided by McCarty showing that Olson held to LFW in his book).
        David makes this distinction more clear by distinguishing between “soft” and “hard” libertarianism (borrowing the distinction from Keathley’s book).

        I think we can clarify things a bit my making some simple points here.

        First, whenever someone says “I believe in X” we need to see what **they** mean by X. Take myself as an example. I hold to LFW, I believe that we often experience LFW. But you need to ask what does Robert mean by LFW?

        The strong philosophical sense of LFW posited by some philosophers is the claim that we can do whatever we want to do, choose however we want to choose with no limitations and no exceptions whatsoever. This is what I would call the ABSOLUTE version of LFW. The problem is that this does not exist for anyone living in the real world. It is a theoretical construct or description of our ability to choose between different options.

        From my own observation and experience, our choices are clearly situated and occur in specific contexts. That means our LFW, our ability to choose from different options is RELATIVE. It is not absolute because lots of other factors can intervene or be present that prevent or take away our options from which to choose.

        I suggest that we make a distinction between our ability to make choices from alternative possibilities (an ability that God designed us to have) and our range or choices. Our range of choices is very contextually dependent: our range or choices depends, it varies from person to person and from context to context.

        If my wife and I were designed by God to be capable of making our own choices, then we have that capacity. On the other hand, say my wife and I are considering whether to go to a Mexican restaurant or an Italian restaurant for dinner tonight. Further assume that we have our favorite Mexican and favorite Italian restaurants in mind. At first glance it may seem that we now have a choice between either restaurant (we can choose to go to either one, both options are accessible and available to us). But suppose that unknown to us, the Mexican restaurant is closed for remodeling tonight (or Clint Eastwood is renting the place so it is closed for his private party to which we were not invited, 🙂 or . . .). Do we still have this choice to go to either of these two restaurants for dinner tonight? No. Does that mean that we no longer ever have a choice, ever have free will? No. It means that in regards to our range of choices regarding our two favorite Mexican and Italian restaurants we don’t have that choice it is not within our range of available choices for tonight. And that may be true tonight, but what if instead we were planning to go out for dinner on Friday night when both restaurants will be available for us? My point is that the range of choices that we face may vary, may change, may fluctuate depending on circumstances and contexts.

        What libertarians mean (at least myself and other Christians that I know who hold to LFW) when we assert that we have free will is that we SOMETIMES HAVE CHOICES. “Sometimes” because our range of choices can change, circumstances can change. “Have choices” because every libertarian believes that you do not have a free will choice unless you have a choice between at least two different options from which you may choose (if only one option is available as is true if everything is exhaustively determined, then we do not have a choice, we do not have free will).

        It should also be kept in mind that Arminians who hold to LFW are quite aware that God can and sometimes does intervene in situations and these interventions directly impact human wills. Take one clear example: Nebuchadnezzar in the Old Testament. One minute he is king over a vast empire, his range of choices is very large, he has all sorts of options available to him that the common person does not have. He clearly has choices and makes choices and so is experiencing libertarian free will. But then he gets arrogant about his free will and power and God intervenes and has the great King on his hands and knees eating grass like an animal! Did God intervene on his will? Sure looks like it to me. Was Nebuchadnezzar’s’ range of choices dramatically altered by God’s intervention? I’d say so. 🙂 But then he repents of his pride and gets restored. Once restored he had his ordinary free will back, and his range of choices as king returns. Same thing happens with all of us, we have a range of choices, we have free will when we have a choice and make a choice. And yet everything is relative for us, because other people can intervene, circumstances can intervene, and of course God can intervene in our situation.

        Now when most people talk about having “free will” they are operating from the ordinary understanding of “free will”, not the philosophical construct, they mean simply that they sometimes have choices. Only the completely unrealistic or arrogant would claim that they always can do whatever they want without any possibilities that their plans may be altered by circumstances or other persons (including God).

        It seems clear to me that when Dr. Olson distanced himself from LFW in the strong philosophical sense, he meant positing LFW without considering circumstances, without considering that other people or God may intervene in a situation. Dr. Olson affirms the ordinary understanding of free will, that we sometimes have and make choices. But Dr. Olson clearly recognizes that free will and choices operates contextually (“We do believe in situated free will–free will within limits and within contexts. No Arminian believes that a person with free will (restored by prevenient grace) is capable of doing simply anything he or she wants to do. “).


      • W B McCarty

        David Rogers: “I think the key is in Dr. Olson’s parenthetical qualifier ‘in the strong philosophical sense’.”

        Subsequent to Dr. Olson’s clarification, I came to the same conclusion; that is, by “libertarian free will” (when it appears in _Arminian Theology_ without qualification such as “in the strong philosophical sense”) Dr. Olson apparently means what is sometimes called “incompatbilist free will” (in distinction from my own Calvinistic view, compatibilist free will).

        As a matter of courtesy, I didn’t want to state his view for him. Thanks for confirming that my revised understanding at least makes sense to the two of us. 🙂


  • Of course there is mystery, but in the sense that there are things we don’t know about God – not in the sense that revealed truths about God are self contradictory.
    Let’s say I hold up an object. One person says it is an apple and another says it is an orange. If it has characteristics that don’t quite match up with either, should we assume those are the only two options? Maybe it’s not either. Maybe it’s a nectarine.
    I wonder if the Calvinist/Arminian debate isn’t a little like that. If both options are rife with contradiction (either conceptual or pragmatic), why have we decided those are the only Biblical options? Is it just because that’s the best we’ve come up with so far?

  • On Dictation… Actually no, a search of Calvin’s works will produce a generous supply of examples where he says at times Scripture was dictated by the Holy Spirit.

    For example:
    But because the Lord was pleased to reveal a clearer and fuller doctrine in order better to satisfy weak consciences, he commanded that the prophecies also be committed to writing and be accounted part of his Word. At the same time, histories were added to these, also the labor of the prophets, but composed under the
    Holy Spirit’s dictation. I include the psalms with the prophecies, since what we attribute to the prophecies is common to them. Institutes, 4.8.6.

    For Calvin and others, that the Spirit dictated the very words of God did not mean that the writers were mere humanless, personless conduits for this revelation. Dictation for Calvin was not mindless or mechanical and inspired men did not become automatons.


  • Steve

    I am so glad that I have discovered your blog! I look forward to your future postings.