Ben Witherington’s Multi-Part Dialogue with Roger Olson’s Book, “Arminianism: Myths and Realities”

Here is the link to Ben’s blog posted on #1 in the series. The time you invest in it will have a big payoff.

My theological education is High Calvinism, studying at the Mecca, as it were, of Reformed theology, Westminster Theological Seminary. I never was easy with that theological yoke. The very word Arminian was a pejorative and was the primary point of theological attack at WTS. Day in and day out we knew who the enemy of the pure Gospel was, the synergist who compromised the doctrines of grace.

Later on, having read Arminius for myself and the primary sources, I was persuaded that the trajectory of Reformed Arminianism was my own. John Wesley’s “Predestination Calmly Considered” (which I am posting this week on my Scribd account) and Olson’s “Arminianism” and “Against Calvinism” have supported me in significant ways.

The label Arminian has fallen onto such bad times that even those who adopt its tenets often will not use the word. Once, when a Bible college contacted me for possibly teaching there, I used the word Arminian to describe my soteriology. I accept Total Depravity and Perseverance of the saints but deny unconditional election, limited atonement and irresistible grace. Those interviewing me kept trying to convince me I was a moderate Calvinist. No, I’m not, I kept saying. In the world of the theoretical there can be no such thing as a moderate Calvinist. This is a binary issue. It’s yes or no. A moderate Calvinist is a synergist.

As I have before mentioned, if you can look a nonChristian in the eye and tell him that he may be non-elect for the glory of God, suffering eternal perishing, it is enough to make the blood run cold. It also erases any meaningful definition of the good. To not save someone that you could save is by definition an evil. Ethical categories lose their meaning in High Calvinism. And, as Roger Olson puts it, harsh sounding though it be, there is no difference between God and the devil.

Anyway, follow Witherington’s interview and read Olson for yourself. Ben is a great NT scholar and a former student of mine when I served with IVCF at UNC-Chapel Hill.

Wesley’s Quadrilateral and SSM

I use the Wesley Quadrilateral in several of my courses, but most specifically in my Christian Tradition classes. It is a very useful model for moral decision-making as well as doctrinal development. The four corners of the quadrilateral are: Scripture, Reason, Tradition and Experience. Each of these impacts how we form conclusions and identify best ways forward.

For us Evangelicals the primary point of reference is what does the Bible say. But, of course, that is the crux of the issue. What actually is the Bible saying? We also bring to the table Reason, in the belief that reason does not contradict what is true. Even to read the Bible requires reason. If a conclusion being reached, supposedly based on the Bible, and it constantly grates against objective reason, we are warned to take a pause and look again. We also use reason in extrapolating from the Bible to our present circumstance. Christians have historically made great investment in education in order to hone the skills of reason so that the Bible can be best understood. Church Tradition brings to the table 2,000 years of Christian teaching from the best, the brightest and the holiest. To ignore them would be to make the mistake of what CS Lewis calls chronological snobbery. A knowledge of Church history is necessary for a full accounting of the Bible’s teaching. The last corner is Experience. This is the most subjective and yet plays a key role. The assumption here is that what contradicts human experience is likely false. We are part of creation and if our understanding of a biblical text constantly grates and squeals, then we are led back to the text to make sure we have it right. It is true that the Bible teaches that which the flesh abhors. But it also true that the Bible completes us and brings us into a flourishing humanity. If what I believe the Bible teaches depresses, diminishes and tortures the soul, in all likelihood I have taken a rabbit trail and need to return to the Bible.

I assign students test cases where they must employ the Quadrilateral in making a moral decision. Right now THE test case is SSM. The basic argument used for SSM is Experience. A few appeal to Scripture, for sure, but on the whole the exegesis offered is not intellectually satisfying. Church Tradition speaks clearly. Reason is demanding, but both induction and deduction make SSM suspect based upon Natural Law and Social Science.

In public argumentation (school boards, legislatures, etc.) we cannot expect Scripture to be the dominating lens with which to look at SSM. But the other three corners are game. But they require minds that are alive, informed and patient.

Here is a book that offers some help. The Wesleyan Quadrilateral: Scripture, Tradition, Reason, & Experience as a Model of Evangelical Theology. Unfortunately it is not available in a digital format.