Saturday, May 23, 2009

Ground Rules

This summer, I am starting a new project here at The Center for Theological Studies. Owning another blog has taken away from my time needed for further theological study, but I’m putting it off no longer.

The next three months will serve as an exciting time for CTS, since we’ll be tackling the issue of the Arminian/Calvin debate. I know that a great deal of my viewers may be a lot more informed on these issues than am I; but over the next few months, the readership here will watch my knowledge grow, as we’ll work our way through both Arminian and Calvinist texts. While I am starting with Olson, an Arminian (include the fact that I have been raised an Arminian), I plan to dive into Calvinism as well. I also intend to engage both the works of Arminius and Calvin’s “Institutes.”

In order to start this research off in a godly manner, some ground rules must be laid. Having read Olson’s Introduction, I noticed that Olson gives us a groundwork principle to keep in mind:

“One principle that ought to be observed by all parties to this debate is BEFORE YOU DISAGREE MAKE SURE YOU UNDERSTAND. In other words, we must make sure that we can describe another’s theological position as he or she would describe it before we criticize or condemn” (“Arminian Theology” by Roger Olson, page 41).

Olson writes this in his introduction section called “Myths and Misconceptions About Arminianism,” where he shows the reader how, whether Calvinist or Arminian, theologians have trampled the Arminian view—all based on lack of knowledge. Olson’s example is startling:

“Several authors in the Arminianism issue of Modern Reformation contrast Arminianism with evangelicalism and deny the possibility of evangelical Arminianism. At least one blatantly calls Arminianism a ‘NATURAL, GOD-REJECTING, SELF-EXALTING RELIGION AND HERESY.’ Throughout the issue these mostly Calvinist authors (one is a Lutheran) treat Arminianism as the heresy of semi-Pelagianism but NEVER DEAL WITH THE KEY DOCTRINE OF PREVENIENT GRACE OR QUOTE ARMINIAN THEOLOGIANS’ MANY STRONG AFFIRMATIONS OF THE PREEMINENCE OF GRACE. The common tendency is to impute to Arminianism EVERY FALSE BELIEF that the authors see lying at the bottom of an imaginary slippery slope” (“Arminian Theology,” page 41).

Olson shows us in the above quote is that Arminianism is being labeled something that it is not—semi-Pelagian. But in order to distinguish Arminianism from semi-Pelagianism, we have to know what semi-Pelagianism is. Olson provides such a definition:

Nazarene theologian Wiley correctly defines semi-Pelagianism by saying, ‘It held that there was sufficient power remaining in the depraved will to initiate or set in motion the beginnings of salvation but not enough to bring it to completion. This must be done by divine grace’” (30).

So semi-Pelagianism states that man initiates salvation, but God completes it. Imagine the implications of such a thought! Semi-pelagianism sounds to me to be a theology of “Helping God,” that God needed help in the plan of salvation—so He turned to humans and asked them, “Can you help me get this thing started?” What’s most disgusting about the heresy of Pelagianism is that it makes God out to be a weakling, an impotent Creator—and the act of salvation itself to be one that can be HALF-complete because a person can start the work but must wait until God gives His grace. So until God gives the divine grace, the person is in a “half-saved” mode. There is no such thing as being “in the middle” of salvation: we’re either saved or not. Christ hung on the cross in the middle so we wouldn’t have to “hang in the middle” of salvation and wait for His divine grace. It’s already there. We just have to receive it and have faith in
the work of Christ at Calvary.

This, then, doesn’t sound like Arminianism at all! To see the difference, let’s look at the definition of Arminianism:

“Arminianism teaches that all humans are born morally and spiritual[ly] depraved, and helpless to do ANYTHING good or worthy in God’s sight without a special infusion of God’s grace to overcome the affects of original sin…Classical Arminianism agrees with Protestant orthodoxy in general that the unity of the human race in sin results in all being born ‘children of wrath.’ However, Arminians believe that Christ’s death on the cross provides a universal remedy for the guilt of inherited sin so that it is not imputed to infants for Christ’s sake” (33).

From the base of Arminianism, we can see that, unlike semi-Pelagianism, humans CANNOT START the work of salvation: they are unable to because they are helpless, totally incapable of coming to faith without God. In order for a person to come to faith, Arminians believe that God must give them His grace.
Simply put, Olson wants the critics of Arminianism to take time to understand the view first—without criticizing that which they rarely know. Despite what seems to be his disgust with the Calvinists, Olson just wants Arminianism—like Calvinism—to get a proper seat at the theological table.

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