Monday, March 30, 2009

Book Preview: Arminian Theology

I've recently been reading the book, Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities by Roger E. Olsen. I'd highly recommend this book to Calvinists and Arminians alike. The author rightly distinguishes popular Arminianism (which is actually Pelagianism) from classical Arminianism, and then proceeds to dispel common myths about Arminianism. The table of contents will give you a taste of the substance of the book:

Myth #1: Arminian Theology is the Opposite of Calvinist/Reformed Theology
Jacob Arminius and most of his faithful followers fall into the broad understanding of the Reformed tradition; the common ground between Arminianism and Calvinism is significant.
Myth #2: A Hybrid of Calvinism and Arminianism is Possible
In spite of common ground, Calvinism and Arminianism are incommensurable systems of Christian theology; on issues crucial to both there is no stable middle ground between them.
Myth #3: Arminianism is Not an Orthodox Evangelical Option
Classical Arminian theology heartily affirms the fundamentals of Christian orthodoxy and promotes the hallmarks of evangelical faith; it is neither Arian nor liberal.
Myth #4: The Heart of Arminianism Is Belief in Free Will
The true heart of Arminian theology is God's loving and just character; the formal principle of Arminianism is the universal will of God for salvation.
Myth #5: Arminian Theology Denies the Sovereignty of God
Classical Arminianism interprets God's sovereignty and providence differently from Calvinism without in any way denying them; God is in charge of everything without controlling everything.

Myth #6: Arminianism Is a Human-Centered Theology

An optimistic anthropology is alien to true Arminianism which is thoroughly God-centered. Arminian theology confesses human depravity, including the bondage of the will.

Myth #7: Arminian Theology is Not a Theology of Grace
The material principle of classical Arminian thought is prevenient grace. All of salvation is wholly and entirely of God's grace.

Myth #8: Arminians Do Not Believe in Predestination

Predestination is a biblical concept; classical Arminians interpret it differently than Calvinists without denying it. It is God's sovereign decree to elect believers in Jesus Christ and includes God's foreknowledge of those believers' faith.
Myth #9: Arminian Theology Denies Justification by Grace Alone Through Faith Alone

Classical Arminian theology is a Reformation theology. It embraces divine imputation of righteousness by God's grace through faith alone and preserves the distinction between justification and sanctification.
Myth #10: All Arminians Believe in the Governmental Theory of the Atonement
There is no one Arminian doctrine of Christ's atonement. Many Arminians accept the penal substitution theory enthusiastically while others prefer the governmental theory.

The book is a historical explanation of Arminian thought in which the author moves easily from Arminius himself, to Wesley, and finally to modern Arminian thinkers. He explains Arminian thought and judiciously shows how it compares and contrasts to Calvinist thought. This book is needed because Arminianism is often demonized by neo-reformed thinkers who equate Arminian thought with the heresy of Pelagianism. It can be embraced by Calvinists for at least three reasons: (1) Calvinists will be educated as to not misrepresent Arminianism so that genuine dialoge and critique can take place, (2) Calvinists can earnestly hope that the large number of people who Olsen rightly recognizes to be Pelagians will be converted to classical evangelical Arminians, and (3) Calvinists may realize that they are closer to Arminian thought than they once realized. Arminians will appreciate this book as an excellent historical statement of their views which will dispel the Pelagianism that has infiltrated our culture. And finally, those who read this post without an understanding (or perhaps only a vague understanding) of the terms "Arminian," "Calvinist," and "Pelagian" will appreciate this book because it will help them grow in their understanding of theology, salvation, and God Himself.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

New Gospel Tract: A Wonderful Life?

Apparently, Campus Crusade rejected this one. ;)

Actually, after thinking about it, the statement "God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life" remains true even in circumstances as dire as above. The key difference is a difference of perspective. How do we define "wonderful?" The problem is that for many, "wonderful" is synonymous with "pleasant." But it's false that God has a pleasant plan for my life. A non-Christian might define a "wonderful plan for my life" in many ways: finding a spouse, having a nice family, being financially sound, having friends, no hell, etc. But as a Christian, my definition of a "wonderful life" must be reoriented to a paradigm in which God is the center of the universe and the Person for Whom everything exists. When we become Christians, we must undergo a Copernican revolution in which we realize that the Son is the center of the universe, not my life here on earth. Let me say this again. We are not the center of the universe. God is not circling around us. We are circling around him. This will immediately change our definition of a "wonderful life." A wonderful life is a life that glorifies God and fulfills His purposes in this world. A wonderful life is a life "worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory" (1 Thes 2:12). It is one in which the Lamb that was slain receives the reward of His suffering. If God's purpose for my life is for me to stand for Him, empowered by His Spirit, as a ferocious lion devours my flesh, and for thousands of onlookers to watch as I glorify God in my death, then that would be a wonderful life.

Consider the examples of the wonderful lives we are given in Hebrews 11:32-38:
And what more shall I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets—who through faith conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, were made strong out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. Women received back their dead by resurrection. Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, so that they might rise again to a better life. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated—of whom the world was not worthy—wandering about in deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth. (ESV, emphasis mine).
These were truly wonderful lives.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Justification Debate: Wright versus Piper


Yesterday I received a new book by N.T. Wright entitled Justification: God's Plan and Paul's Vision. This book is the most recent addition in an ongoing debate between John Piper and N.T. Wright on the issue of justification. In 2007, John Piper wrote a book entitled The Future of Justification: A Response to N.T. Wright. Since Wright had never written a full treatise on justification, Piper was responding to a number of things Wright has written including his books, What Saint Paul Really Said, Paul: In Fresh Perspective, Wright's commentary on Romans, as well as a number of articles Wright has written. Wright's most recent installment in the debate is a focused treatment of the doctrine of justification, including a section which details his exegesis on important selected passages of Scripture.

N.T. Wright is probably the most important theologian and biblical scholar of our times. He's written a number of massive tomes, the most important being his projected 6-volume series, Christian Origins and the Question of God. In addition to being a prominent biblical scholar, he is also pastoral in his approach as he is the presiding Bishop of Durham. Piper, on the other hand, is the influential pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, Minnesota. He is probably the best model of a pastor that I know, and has written some scholarly works, but for the the most part has focused on popular level works. The scholarly works he has written tend to be idiosyncratic and so are not widely regarded in academic circles. In terms of their scholarly influence Piper is clearly the underdog. I don't say this to be demeaning to Piper. On the contrary, I believe that Piper has some good points that need to be taken seriously. One reason I respect him so much is that he is an excellent pastor who thinks it is important to interact with the highest levels of biblical scholarship.

Wright initially responded to Piper's book in an interview saying, "Piper’s criticism is very interesting. I warmed to him. He sent me a copy of it with a charming hand-written dedication, so on. He has clearly bent over backwards to try to understand where I and others are coming from. Sometimes he does and sometimes he doesn’t. He nearly gets to the point where he sees what I’m trying to say, and then the old worldview reasserts itself and he just can’t see through those lenses. I don’t want to say this patronizingly, but it is very frustrating." Wright has a tendency to write-off people who disagree with him as simply misunderstanding him. However, having said that, when I read Piper's book I was continually struck by the thought, "I don't think that's an accurate assessment of Wright's view." Wright was recently interviewed regarding his newest book which can be accessed here for those interested. I have been unable to find a response by Piper to Wright's newest book. If anyone finds a response please leave a comment.

In any case, it's clear from the reviews that Wright's newest book is an important contribution that should help clarify the issues, and could possibly push all of us towards a closer reading of Scripture. Scot McKnight said of Wright's book, "Tom Wright has out-Reformed America's newest religious zealots--the neo-Reformed--by taking them back to Scripture and to its meaning in its historical context. Wright reveals that the neo-Reformed are more committed to tradition than to the sacred text. This irony is palpable on every page of this judicious, hard-hitting, respectful study."

I'm excited to read the new Wright book and watch as these two great pastor/theologians spar. One thing that makes these books a joy to read is the irenic spirit that both Piper and Wright continually exhibit. This is how an issue ought to be debated among Christians. Everyone who wants to understand the doctrine of justification by faith ought to read these two books.