I am deeply grateful for Olson's book. It helped me clarify my own position in relation to Arminianism and Calvinism and provided resources for further study. Although I'm not an Arminian, I definitely share the heart of Arminian theology which embraces and defends God's loving and just character. In company with them, I reject Calvinism because I think it logically leads to the unconditional divine damnation of some which impugns God's character. Olson considers himself a "classical Arminian," a follower of the teachings of Protestant theologian Jacob (or James) Arminius (1560 - 1609). The term "Arminianism" derives from his name and theology. However, as Olson points out, there are many who use that term that do not have a clear understanding of Arminius' theology. This is true not only of many who claim to oppose it but also of many who claim to support it. There are also, according to Olson, theologians such as Henry Thiessen and Thomas Oden who embrace and teach Arminian theology although they don't consider themselves Arminians.
One reason Arminianism is misunderstood is the failure to distinguish between what Olson calls "Arminianism of the heart" and "Arminianism of the head". Both use the term, but the former is considered true, classical Arminianism in terms of Reformed, conservative theology. The latter, on the other hand, incorporates some naturalistic, liberal theology that's influenced by Enlightenment rationalism and has more in common with the older, rejected theologies of Pelagianism and semi-Pelagianism. The term "Pelagianism" is derived from the theology of Pelagius (c. 354 - c. 420/440), an ascetic monk who affirmed human freedom but denied original sin, an inherited sinful nature from Adam. Semi-Pelagians don't deny original sin as Pelagians do, but they generally define it in such a way that denies the bondage of the will (integral to the doctrine of total depravity) to allow for a natural human freedom to obey God. According to Olson, semi-Pelagianism was a theology condemned by the Second Council of Orange in A.D. 529 because "it affirmed human ability to exercise a good will toward God apart from special assistance of divine grace; it places the initiative in salvation on the human side, but Scripture places it on the divine side" (pg. 81). Olson reveals that unlike semi-Pelagianism, classical Arminianism embraces the doctrine of total depravity (including the bondage of the will). However, it is mitigated by God's supernatural prevenient grace and, therefore, includes the doctrine of the "freed will," a will that is libertarian in nature (i.e., it is free to resist God).
Philip Limborch (1633 - 1712) is used by Olson as an early, prime example of a defector of classical Arminianism, one who embraced a type of semi-Pelagianism while associating himself with the Arminians. Charles Finney (1792 - 1875), the influential revivalist-theologian, is also given as an example of "a vulgarized version of Arminianism that is closer to semi-Pelagianism" (pg. 27). Classical Arminianism is often erroneously associated with Pelagianism or semi-Pelagianism by opponents, usually Calvinists (those who embrace, in some form, the theology of John Calvin [1509 - 1564]). This is one reason why many Christians don't want to wear the Arminian label. Olson wrote his book as an attempt to define the orthodox parameters of true Arminianism to distinguish it from the counterfeits while also allowing for variety among Arminians within those parameters. He deserves respect for the effort.
Although Olson provided clarity on some issues, his book raises questions regarding others. One issue involves the Arminian idea of two types of redemption through Christ's atonement: "one universal for all people and one especially for all who believe" (pg. 33). According to Olson, "Arminians believe that Christ's death on the cross provided a universal remedy for the guilt of inherited sin so that it is not imputed to infants for Christ's sake." Therefore, "all children who die before reaching the age of awakening of conscience and falling into actual sin (as opposed to inbred sin) are considered innocent by God and are taken to paradise." How does this doctrine of universal redemption from the guilt of original/inherited sin which results in infant salvation relate to the doctrines of divine election and grace? Olson does not clearly answer this. Arminians are adamant about their rejection of the Calvinistic doctrines of the unconditional election of some and irresistible grace, yet here appears to be a case of both unconditional election and irresistible grace for infants, especially those who die. This is also a clear case of inclusivism where a volitional faith in Christ is unnecessary for salvation. Some Christians try to get around this by either denying that all infants are elect or affirming a post-mortem opportunity to have the requisite faith that conditions election (or, more precisely, predestination).
Another questionable issue involves the doctrine of sin. The Arminian doctrine of two types of redemption through Christ's atonement is based on a distinction between two types of sin: original sin and actual sin. Universal redemption via prevenient grace covers the first whereas particular redemption through a volitional act of faith, which God foreknows and conditions the individual's destiny on, covers the second. As a non-Calvinist, I share the classical Arminian belief that God is not the author of sin and evil. However, this belief requires a lucid doctrine of sin that Olson failed to provide. To teach, as some Arminians do, that "actual sin is always an expression of original sin" (pg. 58) fails to provide the lucidity we need in terms of moral freedom and responsibility. Some actual sins are caused by moral freedom of the libertarian type, not original sin. They are avoidable, and that is why we are obligated not to commit them and guilty if we do. Clarity on this issue is crucial to understanding how anybody is damned, including those who have never known the gospel, when it is God's desire that they be saved. Clarity regarding sin is also critical for Arminians in their defense against the idea that God unconditionally damns some to hell for sin they could not avoid. It is also crucial for those Arminians who believe that salvation can be forfeited. According to Olson, "Arminius himself never settled the matter" on this issue (pg. 187). However, even among those who believe in "once saved always saved," there is disagreement regarding the nature of sin in a believer's life and how to determine whether one is a true Christian. Living a life of holiness, as well as having assurance of salvation, requires clarity on the doctrine of sin!
Olson states in his introduction that his book is not so much a defense of Arminian theology as a true statement of it. It is intended to address ten common misconceptions or "myths" about Arminianism, not provide in-depth biblical exegesis to support it. The book is also not a polemic against Calvinism, its primary historical opponent, although it does provide reasons why Arminians are not Calvinists. I repeat again that I am grateful for Olson's book. It is one of the most important books in my library! Like Olson, I was raised in a Pentecostal environment where Arminianism to some degree was assumed. However, it was through asking serious questions about certain issues like the ones I've raised in this review that I came to realize that many who call themselves Arminians don't have satisfying answers to them. May continued dialog bring them to the fore and may quality Arminian and Arminian-influenced books continue to be written.