Roger Olson is professor of theology at George W. Truett Theological Seminary, Baylor University, in Waco, Texas. Olson is an Arminian theologian, and recently on his blog he called for Arminians to find something of their own John Piper to spearhead a robust Arminian theology, someone to capture the attention of young Christians today.
In speaking of you, Pastor John, Olson writes, “Unfortunately, Arminians have not produced such a spokesperson in recent decades.” He goes on to say, “Much of the blame for the rise of the ‘new Calvinism’ is ours — Arminians. We have failed to provide our young people with our theology.” But is it as simple as finding their own version of John Piper — as finding a leading spokesman to spread their theology? Or is there something fundamental in Arminian theology that undermines passionate and persuasive preaching? What would you say, Pastor John?
Entertainers, Not Shapers
Well, there have been some very passionate and persuasive and powerful preachers of Arminian theology: John Wesley, Charles Finney, Francis Asbury, and lots of influential preachers in our day who are not Calvinists. Some of them are so doctrinally indifferent — and this is what Roger Olson is concerned about — that they would not want to be known as Arminians either.
They don’t want to be known by any doctrinal label, and they don’t focus on doctrine. They are always trying to be practical. They are always trying to avoid controversy. Frankly, I think that makes them really effective entertainers and very ineffective shapers of the theology of the world, which is what lasts in the long run and shapes a culture and guides a people.
Glory Shines Through Clouds
Jesus is so glorious that even if you have only a partial view of his greatness — which is what all of us have — or even a distorted view, he is enough to thrill you and to empower your preaching if you are sensitive to his greatness. Now, I say that because I don’t want to be so naïve as to say the only people that can have passion for Jesus are Calvinists. That is just not true.
“Jesus is enough to thrill you and to empower your preaching if you are sensitive to his greatness.”
Anyone who sees a part of Jesus in addition to the other part that they may have a distorted view of — that is what I think an Arminian does. Arminians have a distorted view (just like they think I have a distorted view of part of Jesus).
There is enough that Arminians are seeing that they are blown away by, that I would be the last person (I hope) to say that a person who doesn’t share my full-blown Calvinist theology can’t have a rich, deep, powerful, amazed, worshipful relationship with Jesus.
Because Jesus is so great and so glorious, if you just capture a fragment of his truth, it is enough to blow your brains out. So, I wouldn’t want to in any way minimize what God is able to do through a person with a fragmented or imperfect view of Christ’s glory.
Still, it is never the point to say, “If God blesses some non-Calvinists with power and fruitfulness, and if there are Calvinists who are weak and immature and unkind, then what is the point of theology?” I think a lot of people ask that question: “If there are effective Arminians and ineffective Calvinists, who cares about theology?” Well, both Roger Olson and I think that is ridiculous.
I mean, that is just a bad way to think, because I stand with Roger in saying, “Theology does make a difference.” One of the things I like about Roger is that he is relentless in believing that theological affirmations should be met with theological affirmations, not with pragmatic reductionism. And so I stand watching Roger on the Arminian side, pleading for Arminians to wake up and take theology seriously like he does, and I think that is a worthy calling.
In answer to your question — “Is there something more than the absence of some charismatic spokesman to make Arminianism more effective in our day?” — I think the answer is yes. There is something more fundamental standing in the way of a great resurgence of Arminianism than the absence of a key voice.
Here is what I think it is: Arminianism, at its essential, distinguishing core, gives man the final, ultimate, decisive role in who gets saved. Let me say that again. Arminianism, at its essential, distinguishing core, gives man the final, ultimate, decisive role in who gets saved. This is not the kind of thing that produces wonder and worship. This essential, distinguishing core is not the kind of truth that blows people away with wonder and amazement and worship.
Manning the Core
So, let me be more specific. Calvinists and Arminians both believe that Jesus is the only objective foundation for our imputed righteousness and, thus, our justification. We both agree that the only instrument that God uses in connecting this work of Christ with the undeserving sinner is faith, which is an act of the human soul. Faith is a human act. It is an act of the human soul, faith is.
“Arminianism, at its essential, distinguishing core, gives man the final, ultimate, decisive role in who gets saved.”
They diverge upon this question: “What is the final, ultimate, decisive reason why one person has that faith or believes, and another doesn’t?” The Calvinist says, “The sovereign grace of God.” The Arminian says, “The free will of man,” meaning, the final, decisive power of self-determination.
Now, I think that is precisely what stands in the way of a great worship gathering — a great worshipful and God-exalting conference that celebrates the distinctives of Arminianism. At the core, it is about the powers of human self-determination. There are worthy efforts among Arminians to make this sound glorious, but in the end, it cannot bear the weight of worship and wonder, I don’t think.
No Truth, No Worship
Born-again Arminians truly worship God, but here is the interesting thing: I think born-again Arminians truly worship God not by focusing on their essential, distinguishing core, but on focusing on the great things that they share with Calvinists.
So Charles Wesley, you sing, “And can it be? . . . Thine eye diffused a quickening ray . . . I rose, went forth, and followed thee.” Calvinists love that song, because it so gives God the power to reach into our imprisoned lives and rescue us.
In Arminianism, the core of their theology — I am talking about that essential, distinguishing core — is based on a philosophical presupposition that man cannot be accountable if God has final control of his will.
Well, that is not based on the word of God. That presupposition is not taught in the Bible. I will say it again. The philosophical presupposition that man cannot be accountable if God has final control of his will — that presupposition is not taught in the Bible. That is brought to the Bible by Arminians from outside.
Therefore, I don’t expect a great, God-centered, biblically rich, exegetically rigorous, robust worshiping resurgence of Arminianism. Its distinguishing core is man-centered and biblically unfounded and, therefore, worshipfully uninspiring.
Let me end by saying that when I say that, I don’t mean that Roger Olson or any other Arminian is not a genuine worshiper of God. I just mean that when that genuine spirit of worship grips any of us, we are not focusing on the fact that we have final say in our salvation. We are focusing on the glory of the grace of God. They are, and we are, which is why I think at its core, there is this stumbling block, this governor that is going to keep Arminianism from having the kind of resurgence that Calvinism has had.