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Nobody likes criticism—especially when criticized for things they didn't actually say or do. This explains the resonance of the popular '60s lyric "I'm just a soul whose intentions are good / Oh Lord, please don't let me be misunderstood."

That could be Roger Olson's theme song in defending the theological stream that flows from Dutch theologian Jacob Arminius (1560-1609). Arminius raised questions about Reformed teachings attributed to Calvin. A group known as the Remonstrants took up his cause. They objected to the ideas that (1) God unconditionally elects some to salvation and others to damnation, (2) Jesus' death atoned only for the sins of those elected to salvation, and (3) God's grace is irresistible. Positively, they taught that God loves the whole world and everyone in it; thus he restores by grace the free will of all, enabling people to accept or reject salvation.

Those were the key points of genuine difference between early Arminians and their Calvinist contemporaries. What came later under the Arminian label—ranging from revivalism to liberalism—has been the source of much confusion.

Olson, a Baptist theologian who teaches at Baylor University's Truett Theological Seminary, does not hesitate to disclaim later distortions. For example, he says the influential 19th-century revivalist Charles Finney "rejected high Calvinism in favor of a vulgarized version of Arminianism that is closer to semi-Pelagianism."

Olson, responding to a handful of contemporary Reformed critics who exclude Arminians from the evangelical family, asserts that real Arminian theology is, historically speaking, a form of Calvinism. Arminius "retained fundamental features of Calvinism," Olson writes, including "emphasis on the sovereignty ...

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In the Magazine

January 2007

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