Arminian Theology: Prevenient Grace and Total Depravity (Including a Review of a New Book about Prevenient Grace)
Two of the most commonly asked questions about Arminian theology are taken up and answered by Arminian scholar W. Brian Shelton (Toccoa Falls College) in his just published book Prevenient Grace: God’s Provision for Fallen Humanity (Francis Asbury Press, 2014). This is a long-awaited and much-needed book. I know of none other that deals with prevenient grace in such depth and detail from an Arminian perspective.
Shelton begins the book by discussing why prevenient grace deserves a whole book and then defines it in Chapter 1 “What Is Prevenient Grace?” Chapter 2 is devoted to “Exegetical Theology: Scriptural Depiction of Prevenient Grace.” In Chapter 3 he surveys “Historical Theology: Approval and Dissent of Prevenient Grace.” Chapter 4 focuses on “Arminius and Wesley: Historic Artisans of Prevenient Grace.” Chapter 5 constitutes a “Systematic Theology: Final Validation of Prevenient Grace” and Chapter 6 concludes the book with “Implications, Applications, and Limitations” of prevenient grace.
Shelton’s book receives high praise from both Arminian and Reformed/Calvinist scholars. It is a very irenic but emphatic defense and recommendation of prevenient grace as resistible but enabling grace that precedes (“prevenes”) and makes possible faith.
I can heartily recommend this book to everyone who has questions about the Arminian doctrine of prevenient grace. In fact, I would say that anyone who dares to speak against the Arminian doctrine of prevenient grace without reading this book first is in danger of putting his or her foot in the mouth. It is such a widely misunderstood doctrine that anyone who speaks out against it is likely repeat misunderstandings and misrepresentations of it.
However, I have two qualms about Shelton’s own view—not so much of prevenient grace itself but of his interpretations of others’ views of prevenient grace and the closely related doctrine of total depravity.
In his chapter on Arminius and Wesley Shelton rightly claims that Wesley believed prevenient grace sufficient for saving faith is universal because of the cross of Christ. All people everywhere benefit from the atoning death of Jesus in that it makes possible their faith. Wesley did seem to believe that God is an equal opportunity Savior. Shelton argues (pp. 118-120) that Arminius believed the same—that “It is a grace bestowed on all people.” The only quote from Arminius that he offers for this is the following from The Writings of James Arminius: “This aid is afforded to all men, by innumerable methods both secret and manifest.” (I: 367) While this single quote does lend support to the belief that Arminius believed in universal prevenient grace, I am not sure one can place Arminius together with Wesley on this point.
Shelton strongly affirms the idea that through the cross event all people—past, present, and future—receive sufficient assisting but resistible grace to believe and be saved. While I recognize that many of my fellow Arminians are convinced of this, I’m not as certain of it. Romans 10:17: “Faith comes by hearing and hearing by the Word of God.” It seems to me that even if some measure of prevenient grace is given by God to all people, sufficient faith to believe and receive the saving grace of God through Jesus Christ is especially tied to the gospel message and its proclamation in some form. I would prefer to say that the gospel message is made available to many people in some form, even to those who are not reached by Christian evangelism.
My second qualm is about the concept of total depravity. On page 117 Shelton criticizes me for affirming it. He says “Arminius affirmed human spiritual helplessness but denied total depravity because of prevenient grace, which in turn complemented a gracious act of divine salvation. Olson’s word choice [viz., “total depravity” as part of Arminian theology] does not detract from the coherence of his position, but the term ‘total depravity’ forever smacks of Calvinism. One should avoid the use of the term among Arminian positions unless a disclaimer follows immediately, because of the potential confusion it easily offers unseasoned readers.”
I have always defined “total depravity” as extensive, not intensive. That is, “total depravity” simply means that all parts of every persons, except Jesus Christ, since Adam are corrupted by sin—reason not excepted. I have gone out of my way to say that total depravity does not mean, either for Calvinists or Arminians, that every person is as evil as possible. I affirm total depravity as spiritual helplessness apart from a special operation of God’s grace—whether universal or particular. Calvinists typically describe total depravity as being totally dead spiritually. I prefer to define it as being totally helpless spiritually, left to oneself, without prevenient grace. That’s because I believe the image of God remains, however damaged, in every person. Saying, as Calvinists do, that they are “all dead” (before regeneration) implies that they are not God’s special, loved creatures, possessing dignity and worth above all animals.
I have always been one to embrace good theological words even if they are misused by others. I prefer to rescue them from the dustbin of theological vocabulary rather than discard them. “Total depravity” simply means that there is no spiritual good useful for salvation and developing a strong relationship with God in any person born of Adam’s race (except Christ) that is not a super-added gift of God. With Calvinists I can affirm that we are all spiritually dead apart from supernatural grace, but I add only that 1) even the spiritually dead possess the formal image of God, and 2) supernatural grace heals that deadness so that sinners can at least make a decision to repent and trust in God and Christ or not.
Having expressed these two fairly minor qualms, I can nevertheless heartily recommend Shelton’s book and I urge everyone who is interested in the Arminian doctrine of prevenient grace and require everyone who dares to speak out about it to read it.