Theological Identity Crisis (B)

December 23, 2010 — 2 Comments

Yesterday’s post was originally intended to be a stand alone, but once I got into it, there was more than a single post could contain. To recap briefly, I tried to argue that depending on how you qualify your understanding of TULIP, you may actually be more of an Arminian than a Calvinist. This is not necessarily the argument Roger Olson is making in his Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities but it emerged to me as an implication as I read the book.

I will admit my understanding of Arminianism was tainted by bad Calvinist caricatures. Looking back through some of the stronger condemnations of it, it is rather plain to see that some of the accusations against Arminianism by vocal proponents of Calvinism are misguided in one of two ways. Either they attribute to Arminian theology ideas that are not held by its founders and subsequent theologians, or they draw implications from Arminian thought that no Arminian would teach.

In some ways this sword cuts both ways, as Arminians are not completely innocent in doing the same thing with Calvinists. It would seem that historically Calvinists have been the more frequent antagonists, but both parties could stand to be more gracious with their detractors. After reading Olson’s book, I see my own need to be a bit more gracious now that I actually understand from historical exposition what real Arminian theology is.

The book itself is structured around debunking 10 myths, and I thought it might be helpful to list those here, and if you’re interested, get Olson’s book and see his exposition of them for yourself. I’ll re-word them a little to state the thesis he is presenting in each chapter:

  1. Arminian theology is not the opposite of Calvinist/Reformed theology
  2. A hybrid of Arminianism and Calvinism is not possible
  3. Arminianism is an orthodox evangelical option
  4. The heart of Arminianism is not a belief in free will
  5. Arminian theology affirms the sovereignty of God
  6. Arminianism is not human centered theology
  7. Arminianism is a theology of grace
  8. Arminians believe in predestination
  9. Arminian theology affirms justification by grace alone through faith alone
  10. The majority of Arminians affirm penal substitutionary atonement

Most of these were surprising to me, as I have heard otherwise. But given Olson’s exposition (of what Arminianism has historically taught) I would have to agree with his conclusions on the matter. The first 3 points are demonstrating that Arminianism is not heresy or the red headed step child of evangelical theology (although it tends to get treated as such). Points 4-10 were either taught by Arminius himself or found in seed form in his writings, and for the most part were perpetuated by subsequent Arminian theologians. Olson points out a distinction between the folk theology of some lay Arminians and people like Charles Finney and what true Arminianism taught. This is similar to the distinction between what Calvin and the Reformed scholastics and subsequent Calvinist theologians have taught, versus what you may find believed in the pews of your average Presbyterian church (or taught by someone like Karl Barth who thought of himself as Reformed, but is not particularly claimed by most Calvinist theologians today).

Again, the two questions from yesterday’s post are important to keep in mind. When getting into a theological discussion or debate (or heated argument) there is the question of what a theological system’s proponents actually affirm, and then there is the question of whether or not it in agreement with Scripture. Before running roughshod over how wrong a theological position is, you need to at least reckon with what it’s defenders actually say. Then you can raise the Scriptural question.

This leads to the soapbox behind both of these posts:

Don’t call yourself a Calvinist/Arminian and beat people up with it if you don’t know what Calvin/Arminius actually taught.

This cuts both ways, and Calvinists I think are the more guilty of the two parties. If you have never read Calvin’s Institutes, don’t presume to speak for Calvinists/Calvinism. I realize some people say that Calvinism doesn’t follow a man, but it follows Scripture and to an extent that is true. But if you’re gonna use the name, you need to be pretty familiar with what the man taught and how he thought. Otherwise, you are just as hypocritical as the people that call themselves Christians but don’t know the Bible and live like everyone else around them Monday through Saturday. Don’t be a Sunday Calvinist.

From there, if you are going to condemn Arminians as wrongheaded, you need to at least be familiar with what Arminius taught. Your authority to vocally oppose Arminianism at all costs is directly proportional to how honestly you’ve wrestled with the Arminian theological literature out there. If you’re theologically illiterate in that regard, it might be best to keep your mouth shut until you are able to prove yourself a little less ignorant. I am certainly guilty of this myself, so I don’t speak with a perfect record. But I have been convicted about being less than gracious in this matter, and I am tired of most people’s opposition to Calvinistic theology being the Calvinist jerks they know.

Being a seminary student, at Dallas Theological Seminary no less, I have the opportunity to talk to great repositories of theological knowledge on a semi-daily basis (and sometimes even to professors too!). It has been said you can tell a man from Dallas Seminary, but you can’t tell him much. An implication of this is that many of us think we know much more than we actually do. Honestly, I think this follows the stereotypical college path. First year Th.M students know they don’t know much. Second year students think they know a lot. Third year students are starting to get impressed with how much they know. Fourth year students either come out of it and are bewildered by how little they actually know, or they think they are destined to be the next Luther. If no one will play the pope, then they’ll just have to appoint someone to have 95 theses nailed to their door.

In some ways, this reminds me of the Dave Chappelle sketch where he plays a white supremacist (didn’t see that coming did you?). The problem with this of course is that Dave Chappelle is black. But, the character he plays is blind, so he’s not aware of his own blackness, and in his ignorance has become a very staunch white supremacist, authoring a book and then going on a speaking tour where everyone, himself included, finally discovers the truth. Rather than come to terms with this, he divorces his wife (because she married a black man) and continues on in his position. He is so committed to his ideology, even the realization that he is what he hates cannot shake him.

Don’t do this theologically. Calvinists have a bad history of being theological supremacists towards other theologies. What we need to realize is that you can disagree without being a racist, and that under the hood, some Calvinists are really more Arminian than they want to believe. They either prove this in the doctrines they actually hold to, as we’ve been discussing, or in the way they live their life. But that, is another post entirely, and one what will have to wait until after Christmas break to come together.


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I'm an avid reader, musician, and high school Bible teacher living in central Florida. I have many paperback books and our house smells of rich glade air freshners. If you want to know more, then let's connect!

2 responses to Theological Identity Crisis (B)

  1. Powerfully written Nate. Now, what are we to do with the Wesleyan’s 😉

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