I recently had Dr. Roger Olson, of Truett Seminary, on the program to discuss his work on soteriology and some of our theological differences, which you can watch here.
Dr. Olson is a scholar I have admired from afar for quite some time and I felt our conversation was very fruitful despite some of our differences. Many of you who follow the blog and podcast are aware that I have taken issue with some of Dr. Olson’s views regarding mankind’s innate moral inability due to the fall and the subsequent need of prevenient grace to repair it, which you can read about here.
In his most recent blog article, Dr. Olson, without mentioning my name, cordially addressed our conversation and outlined the “gist” of our disagreement in this manner:
Here’s the “gist” of the issue that keeps coming up in these conversations. I argue that Arminius himself, and all faithful, classical, historical Arminians (among which I count myself) believe that prevenient grace (enabling, assisting grace that goes before conversion making it possible) is supernatural and a special work of the Holy Spirit freeing the will of the sinner which is otherwise bound to sin (unbelief). I have presented the alternatives as Calvinism (irresistible grace) and semi-Pelagianism (the initiative in salvation is human).
First, we all agree the initiative in salvation is God’s, not man’s. We disagree as to the means and sufficiency of God’s initiative. So, none of us meet Dr. Olson’s definition of “semi-Pelagianism.”
Second, the term “prevenient grace” probably needs to be defined in more specific terms so as to draw out the distinction between us, because I would argue that the gracious gospel (along with all of God’s self-revelatory means) would be considered “enabling” and an “assisting grace that goes before conversion.” I would also consider anything that the Holy Spirit does to ensure these means are brought to pass a “supernatural and a special work of the Holy Spirit.”
Inspiring, preserving and dispersing the gospel throughout the world by the Holy Spirit indwelled Bride of Christ is a “supernatural and special work of the Holy Spirit,” is it not? If it is, then the burden is on Dr. Olson, and other Arminians, to demonstrate that work in and of itself is insufficient to accomplish the purpose for which the Bible itself says it was sent to accomplish (John 20:31). And the Arminian must show us in scripture (not merely in the historical writings of Arminius) where it plainly says that an EXTRA or ADDITIONAL supernatural work of grace must accompany/precede the gracious revelation of the gospel appeal.
“Some argue that the gospel is not sufficient to enable the lost to believe without the work of the Holy Spirit. I argue the gospel is always sufficient to enable the lost to believe because IT IS a work of the Holy Spirit.”
Dr. Olson speaks of “a special work of the Holy Spirit freeing the will of the sinner which is otherwise bound to sin (unbelief).” Notice his presumption that “bondage to sin” is equal to being “unable to believe in God,” but where is that established in the Bible? It seems to me that Scripture calls those bound to sin to humbly confess their bondage in faith so as to be set free, not the other way around:
1 Peter 5:5-6: “God opposes the proud but shows favor to the humble.” Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time.
James 4:10: “Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up.”
2 Kings 22:19: “Because your heart was responsive and you humbled yourself before the Lord when you heard what I have spoken against this place and its people—that they would become a curse and be laid waste—and because you tore your robes and wept in my presence, I also have heard you, declares the Lord.”
Zephaniah 2:3: Seek the Lord, all you humble of the land, you who do what he commands. Seek righteousness, seek humility; perhaps you will be sheltered on the day of the Lord’s anger.
Matthew 18:4: Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.
Luke 14:11: For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
Luke 18:14: “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
Dr. Olson continues,
Apparently, from what I have been able to detect and understand, the “traditional Baptist, non-Calvinist” view is that the gospel itself naturally, without any supernatural work of the Holy Spirit, is all that a sinner needs to respond freely and positively and be converted. It seems to me that this view of prevenient grace as “only the gospel communicated” is insufficient to ward off semi-Pelagianism. I’m not going to label it as semi-Pelagian, but I worry that it is too close to that for comfort.
First, I should note that even among traditional Baptists there are those who would side with Dr. Olson on this point. I do not speak for all traditional Southern Baptists, just as Dr. Olson does not claim to speak for all from within his tribe.
Second, he says, “the gospel itself naturally, without any supernatural work of the Holy Spirit, is all that a sinner needs to respond freely and positively and be converted.” Notice the presumption of that statement. Dr. Olson seems to assume the gospel itself cannot be considered a “supernatural work of the Holy Spirit,” but the Bible seems to indicate otherwise:
“For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart” (Heb. 4:12).
This penetrating work into the “soul and spirit” sounds like the work of “prevenient grace” described by my Arminian brethren, yet the author of Hebrews simply refers to “the word of God” as accomplishing this work, not some extra working of grace that aids the otherwise incapacitated nature of fallen man. Do God’s gracious means really need more grace to work?
Here are other passages that seem to teach that the scriptures, God’s inspired words, are sufficient even for the lost:
“…you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:15-16).
“Consequently faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes through the preached word of Christ” (Rom. 10:17).
“The words I have spoken to you—they are full of the Spirit and life” (John 6:63)
The Early Church Fathers likewise seemed to agree with this understanding:
Athanasius wrote, “The Holy Scriptures, given by inspiration of God, are of themselves sufficient toward the discovery of truth.”
Irenaeus, (130-202) wrote, “We have known the method of our salvation by no other means than those by whom the gospel came to us; which gospel they truly preached; but afterward, by the will of God, they delivered to us in the Scriptures, to be for the future the foundation and pillar of our faith,” (Adv. H. 3:1)
Dr. Olson continues,
It seems to me that the Bible does teach that the sinner [is] incapable of responding to the offer of saving grace with repentance and faith without a supernatural work of God, the Holy Spirit, enabling him or her to do that. “Dead in trespasses and sins” (Ephesians 2 and Colossians 2) seems to imply that.
Again, the inspiration and sending of the gospel itself is set up as being something other than “a supernatural work of God” and I’m simply asking is that a biblical idea or one created by a faulty theological system?
Also, in our discussion, I did address the idiomatic use of deadness in the scriptures and have yet to see any indication that the biblical authors mean to suggest an innate moral incapacity to respond to God’s life-giving truth. That is discussed more in depth here.
Finally, Dr. Olson asks an important question:
How important is this difference? Is it a distinction without a difference? Are both really Arminians? Is the “Arminian umbrella” large enough to shelter both classical Arminians (who follow Arminius himself about supernatural prevenient grace) and non-Calvinist “traditional Baptists?” Sometimes it seems to me that if two Christians who seem to agree about something talk long enough they will inevitably find that they disagree about it on some point—however minor. But is this a minor point? I have to admit that sometimes it seems so to me and other times it seems major.
In my conversation with Dr. Olson, it certainly seemed that I considered the distinction more significant than he did, as he did not seem to want to “get into the weeds,” which is understandable. But, the reason I have written and spoken about our differences a number of times is that I do believe it is a point worthy of our consideration, whereas the Arminians I’ve encountered thus far seem to want to play down the differences or pretend they are unimportant. I’m happy to hear that Dr. Olson would like to further explore the importance of this distinction.
I could be mistaken, but it seemed to me that Dr. Olson’s views on this issue were more driven by tactical and historical motivations than biblical ones. When I would bring up the scriptural arguments he would either appeal to the necessity of avoiding the Calvinistic boogeyman label of semi-Pelagianism (a label created by Beza in the 16th century to silence dissenters), or the historical teaching of Arminius himself – neither of which have much influence on me. While there is value in understanding the historical debates over these matters, I consider it a weakness to allow the leftover baggage of 16th-century debates to keep us from seeking the original intention of the biblical authors in their first-century context. I suspect that Dr. Olson would agree with me in principle on this point, but will he demonstrate that by addressing our differences exegetically rather than just historically? I hope so.