Roger Olson on Calvinism and Arminianism

Although I’ve become an increasing fan of the Reformed tradition (partly through my engagement with Calvin directly, but especially through modern Reformed theologians like Karl Barth and Jurgen Moltmann), I am Wesleyan-Methodist in background, which will always be in my theological DNA. And Wesleyans are, generally speaking, Arminian (not Calvinist) in their soteriology.

Roger Olson is probably the most prominent articulator and defender of Arminianism today. I have benefited much from his blog and from his book Against Calvinism (to be fair, the companion book by Michael Horton, For Calvinism, is great too!)

A while back I watched a video Q&A with Roger Olson on Calvinism and Arminianism.  (http://vimeo.com/62468956).

One of the most frequent accusations against the Arminian position is that it is semi-Pelagian if not full-blown Pelagian. This is in part due to misrepresentations of Arminianism by its critics, and poor articulation of it by some of its proponents. And in much pop-theology out there these days there truly is widespread semi-Pelagianism. (As Jurgen Moltmann has quipped, “Pelegius is the patron saint of American Christians.” Ouch!). To this characterization, Olson counters that Arminianism is the middle ground between Calvinism and semi-Pelagianism. He explains the difference between Pelagianism, semi-Pelagianism, Calvinism and Arminianism using a helpful illustration of “pits” (this is around the 35 minute mark in the above linked video). The pit represents man’s situation before God, and how he gets out is “salvation.”


With Pelagianism, man is standing at the bottom of the pit; God throws a rope (law) into the pit but it is up to man to climb out (via obedience).

With semi-Pelagianism, man is broken and fallen at the bottom of the pit. Again, God throws a rope into the pit, but this time God says to man “grab hold of the rope, and i will pull you out.”

In both cases, the initiative for salvation belongs to man. In contrast, both Calvinists and Arminians agree that the initiative in salvation always comes from God. So to continue with the “pit” illustration… 


In Calvinism, man is dead at the bottom of the pit. God throws a rope down into the pit (law) but man is unable to do anything with it… because, well, he is dead. So God goes down into the pit, and carries man out. Grace is given to those God carries out of the pit, while those who are not saved left on the bottom.

With Arminianism, man is again dead at the bottom of the pit. Again God throws down the rope (law) but man is unable to do anything with it. This time, God floods the pit with water (grace), designed to bring man to the surface. All man need do is relax (not resist the upward pull), and let the water lift him up.

He uses a very simialr illustration in Against Calvinism, p 171-172 (see snip here).

2 thoughts on “Roger Olson on Calvinism and Arminianism”

  1. In the last point, in regards to Arminianism, how does a dead person resist or relax? All dead bodies are stiff and they float when submerged in water. So it seems that his definition of Arminianism is collapsing into Calvinism.

    1. Hi Wyatt
      I agree with your point that how can the dead be relaxed? I think it is the weakness of that illustration. Dr. Olson should have considered that part, it is better to say God gave the dead to be arise again to be relaxed on the water.

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