September 23, 2020

Recommendation: Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities by Roger Olson

Arminian Theology: Myths And RealitiesUPDATE: If you can get past the accent, Travis Prinzi is blogging the book. I believe Scot McKnight has blogged it in ten posts under the heading “Do Calvinists Understand Arminians?”

UPDATE II: “….Roger Olson’s recent book, Arminian Theology: Myth and Realities (IVP, 2006) is a diatribe against “crusading Calvinists” whom Olson considers a major threat to Evangelicalism as it enters the twenty-first century. See his The Story of Christian Theology, IVP, 1999….” [Insert puzzled expression here.] A diatribe?????

The reaction to Roger Olson’s outstanding, readable and enlightening new book, Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities, is so perfectly predictable that an observer could be forgiven for thinking that the reviews describing Olson angrily attacking hapless Calvinists are all part of a vast, multi-layered conspiracy to promote the book.

Olson does what one simply isn’t allowed to do in the reformed blogosphere: he tells the world that the Calvinist presentation of Arminianism is often deeply flawed and uncharitable, frequently awash in ignorance and generally historically clueless. He explains Calvinism and Arminianism plainly. He states and explores their similarities and differences. He makes it clear that both are evangelical and Biblical, but that they are neither compatible nor transcendable. A choice must be made, but mutual respect is owed to both sides. He sees the center, maps out the extremes and traces the evolution of the current stand-off. He’s eminently fair, warm, irenic, scholarly, generous, straightforward, without venom, honest and engaging. He’s well read, generously footnoted, contemporary, eloquent and considerate. It’s the best book of it’s kind, because, really, its the only book of it’s kind. It deserves a wide reading from all sides, simply in the name of decency and fair play.

So, of course, Olson is being reviewed by some in the reformed blogosphere as an angry Arminian, running down Calvinist pedestrians minding their own business. (Actually, I’m just happy that someone actually read all of Olson before reviewing him. That’s a break in tradition.) When you read that it’s an angry, anti-Calvinist diatribe, that’s as untrue and as misrepresentative of the book as it’s possible to be. Get it and READ IT FOR YOURSELF.

Olson needs to be required reading for Calvinists not because he will change their mind. He won’t. He should be required because he will demonstrate how many boneheaded errors are being perpetuated all over the reformed movement today by people who have no idea what Arminius said, no idea what Wesley said, and no idea that Arminianism isn’t semi-Pelagianism or rank heresy. Olson compliments the fair critics and footnotes the unfair ones. He puts Lutherans in their proper context. He quotes Arminus, Miley, Wesley and a host of Arminian scholars to show the evolution and variety of Arminian thought.

I can’t imagine why any Calvinist wouldn’t want to read this book, particularly those young reformed bloggers who are always stating their opposition to Arminianism as if it were Unitarianism….which some probably think it is.

One could fill up a day just typing in quotes from Olson that 98% of reformed Christians couldn’t identify as Arminius because they are such beautiful examples of what all reformation Christians believe. If you come away unconvinced by Arminianism, you will do so after having the clearest presentation of the subject in print.

When choices need to be made, however, Olson is no shrinking violet. He advocates his position and states where he believes Calvinists are wrong. Without rancor or ridicule he lays out the essential and secondary differences in how Calvinists and Arminians consider the topics of free will, sovereignty, grace and salvation. Unlike Geisler, he has no time for a Calminian option. Unlike many Arminians, he knows what evangelical, Biblical Arminianism sounds and looks like.

This is a book that every Arminian should read as well, for Olson critiques the evolution of Arminianism away from its reformation roots to more extreme, and far less defensible, forms. How many Arminians know their own systematic theologians and doctrinal history? Olson decries the ignorance and cowardice among Arminian pastors and Christians who have let the reformed critique dominate without answer because they were unequipped or unwilling to respond in a time when Arminianism is under suspicion of heresy.

Olson’s survey of myths and realities is helpful, but the basic approach of the book, and its thorough presentation of both positions, is at the core of every chapter. If nothing else, Olson should have the result of informing the discerning, honest reader that much said about Arminianism- by both sides- has simply been wrong.

I fully expect reformed critics to disagree with the Arminianism in the book. But who can disagree with Olson’s contention that the presentation of Arminianism by reformed critics has often been deplorably deficient and that a fairer understanding of both sides can do nothing but benefit everyone?

Here’s my version of the conspiracy theory: some reformed reviewers will present Olson as an acidic bully so as to excuse the reformed fanclub from any danger of actually reading the book and finding out that a good bit of what is routinely bantered about among Calvinists is inaccurate, often embarrassingly so. “Olson is a bitter Arminian attacking Calvinists” will be a line soon appearing on a blog near you.

Does Olson present every Calvinist accurately? I’m sure he doesn’t, but one won’t come away from this book in the dark. Flawed or not, there is plenty of needed information, corrective and irenic truth in this book. Read it as soon as possible.

[A copy of this book was provided to the reviewer, but no brownies, so I wasn’t in all that good a mood when I wrote this.]


  1. Thank you, Thank you, Thank you for finding this book!

    I have only just started educating myself on theology and chruch history. I have wanted to find a book that spelled out the differences between Calvinism and Arminianism for some time. However, after being exposed to the very real meaness of the Truly Reformed Blogosphere, I was afriad that I might get ‘brainwashed’ by reading the wrong book. I know it sound ridiculous, but it is a very real fear of mine. This book sounds perfect. Thanks again, and I look forward to educating myself without looking over my shoulder for a large peapod hiding behind my reading chair.


  2. Thanks for this review – I would love to hear some examples of the ways that Arminian theology is often misunderstood by Calvinists.

  3. Believe it or not, my accent doesn’t really come through in printed type…

    Excellent review.

  4. Travis, I wonder if iMonk meant your Calvinist accent 😉

  5. A representative theology book of Arminianism is probably about as accurate for your average joe-Arminian as a Calvinist theology book is for your average joe-Calvinist.

    If all Arminians lived like Wesley, and all Calvinists like Carrey, Judson, or Spurgeon, then everything would be peacefully wonderful. But you have your fair share of open theists, and “win them by whatever means you can” Baptists, and you have hyperCalvinistic churches that think “go and preach the Gospel in all nations” means read AW Pink for discipleship training year round. And both those poles are at constant enmity, drawing more moderate members of both camps into their melee by portraying the heart of each system as the “straw man” extreme caricature I have just portrayed. Books like this I’m sure would help cool that down as you said.

  6. Histrion (Jay H) says

    iMonk writes: But who can disagree with Olson’s contention that the presentation of Arminianism by reformed critics has often been deplorably deficient and that a fairer understanding of both sides can do nothing but benefit everyone?

    Well, obviously, anyone who’s interested in promoting and defending accurate (i.e., Calvinist) belief, that’s who. What’s the point of illuminating what Arminians actually historically believe if it might tempt people into agreeing with it?

    Have you learned nothing from all those pre-election political ads on TV?


  7. I am neither Arminian nor Calvinist. I don’t consider myself “in the middle,” but a third category, which is closer to Calvinist than Arminian. However, what strikes me when I read literature from both sides are the similarities more than the differences. I think I’d like to check out this book. Thanks for the recommendation.

  8. Hey Michael,
    Thanks for the review. Does Olson talk about the impacts (actual or supposed) on mission activity or missiology from Arminianism vs. Calvinism? Just wondering.

    Brian Coffey

  9. Not that I recall, Brian. I think that argument usually gets into the subjective pretty quickly. Some “Arminians” can claim bazillions of converts and some Calvinists will say that you don’t have any idea what God is doing anyway.

  10. Great review, Michael. I have a Wesleyan background and attended a Reformed seminary, so I can see through both lenses of the spectacles, and I think you are right about the mean-spiritedness and lack of concern for accuracy in much of the Reformed blogosphere. (I would be willing to offer the same critique of the Arminian blogosphere, except, well, there isn’t an Arminian blogosphere.)

    And I think you are right: Calvinists should read Olson’s book, not to be convinced, but to be able to conduct their side of the debate in a convincing manner. If they’re actually interested (quite debatable) in convincing anyone, rather than just getting attaboys from their Calvinist buddies, then they should realize that misrepresenting someone else’s opinion is not the way to go about getting a fair hearing from someone who doesn’t agree.

  11. Patrick Kyle says

    Great book review. I’ll have to read it. I must admit that I long ago tired of an existence caught in a world that was bound exclusively by the dual horizons of the Calvinist/Arminian debate. There is a real third option-Lutheranism. Instead of starting with the sovereignty of God, or the freedom of man, as the first and underlying principle of a theological system,(In reality two very arbitrary starting points) start with God reconciling the World to Himself in Christ. That starting point creates a system that is on a totally different trajectory and in many ways really transcends the Calvinist/Arminian debate.
    Honestly, it saved my faith.

  12. chrisafari says

    I’ve been keeping up with Scot McKnight’s post on Olsen’s book. I found many of them helpful, i.e. they helped me better understand the Arminian position. But I also found that McKnight and Olsen often misrepresent the Calvinist position, as well. So, while Olsen complains about Arminians being misunderstood by Calvinists, maybe Calvinists should complain about Olsen misunderstanding Calvinism.

  13. Great review of a great book. If anyone wants to see how Calvinist misrepresent the Arminian position and this very book, then go to Rev.JAB takes several unfounded jabs, but he is not realize that he is shadow boxing.