So I was looking through Alpha and Omega ministries looking for a concise presentation of Dr. White’s view of Romans 9, for reference purposes, when I came across a primer in their blog roll. Now, I had read a primer on their site before, and I was greatly disturbed by its lack of theological accuracy, so I thought I would give this one a read. I was equally disappointed. Then I noticed that it was written by the same author, Alan Kurschner. Now I’m not saying that everything that Kurschner writes is bad, but whenever I find something really bad on A&O it ends up it was written by Kurschner. So maybe I’m just picking low hanging fruit here, but considering the clout of A&O I thought it was worth responding.
So at this point I decided to go back to Kurshner’s original primer and my response as a refresher, and lo and behold, it was basically the same thing with a couple of edits. Sigh. So again, is it worth responding to? I don’t know, but I figured if he can spruce up his original rubbish primer, I am justified sprucing up my response.
The Calvinism-Arminianism debate is substantially a debate between what is called “synergism” and “monergism.” For those who are new to this debate, the following is a primer on the two perennial branches of theological systems within Christianity. Or to put it another way, there are two very different ways for believers to understand their salvation.
So this is a gross oversimplification. The most obvious is that there are more beliefs than just Arminianism and Calvinism. What about Catholics? Or the Eastern Orthodox Church? What about heretical positions like Pelagianism and Semi-Pelagianism and the Gnostics? This is especially true if you look at the idea that these are the “perennial branches” of Christianity. There are other lines by which the church is split, such as sacraments, ecclesiology, the charismatic movement, and other issues.
So right out of the gate, Kurschner’s claims are extremely suspect, and designed more for rhetorical strength than theological clarity. But let’s try to interact with his actual point, and that is the important distinction between synergism and monergism. Now are synergism and monergism “very different ways for believers to understand their salvation”?
Well… yes, but synergism and monergism are not positions. They are descriptions of positions. It’s like the terms carnivore and herbivore. They don’t actually describe animals. And we can’t use those words alone to determine the value of a particular animal. I have very different feelings about a lion than I do a dog, even though they are both carnivores. Likewise, I have different feelings about a cow verses a gopher. Likewise, synergism and monergism merely points out the spectrum that is involved in the process. They don’t tell us who is on that spectrum or their value. I have just as much issue with Pelagianism, a monergist position, as I do with Semi-Pelagianism, a synergist position.
So far this isn’t turning out very good. Perhaps it gets better.
The first type is the Arminian-Synergist. They affirm synergism. It teaches that two forces in the universe are necessary to bring about regeneration in the life of the sinner. Specifically, the two forces at work (cooperation) that are necessary to bring about regeneration, or spiritual life, is the human will and the Holy Spirit (grace).
First of all, this definition of synergism is quite flawed. Arminians, at least, do not believe that humanity’s role in salvation is “necessary” (note how he even takes the time to italicize this word). Indeed, one of our main points is that God’s plan for salvation is not necessary. Historically Arminians have often referred to Calvinists as necessitarians precisely because we reject the notion that things are necessary. It is Calvinists who view things as necessary, not us.
Second, he is clearly intentionally implying that we view the human will as a force which rivals God, which is also clearly wrong. The power of the human will only exists and only continues to exist by the will of God. While we think we have libertarian free will, God could have created us without it, for He has created other things without it. Additionally, while we believe that God saves the faithful, He didn’t have to condition salvation in that manner. Calvinists talk about what God must do; we merely speak of what He has chosen to do.
To put it another way, the work of the Holy Spirit is dependent on the creature’s will; hence, “synergism” (working together). These individuals will sincerely say, “I believe in grace alone.” But the truth is they believe that grace is not alone (sufficient); rather, the human will is necessary for regeneration to be effective.
Again, gross misunderstanding. The human will is autonomous, but in order to do good it is dependent on the Holy Spirit. Imagine a wounded soldier who can barely stand. A lieutenant comes over and lifts him up, puts the soldier’s right arm across his shoulders, and supports him as they walk across the field. Apparently Kurschner would view the lieutenant as the dependent one in this scene.
Additionally, man’s will is not necessary for regeneration to be effective, but God chooses to only regenerate the faithful. Man cannot even be faithful without grace! It is by grace through faith that we are saved, and apparently Kurschner forgets that Sola Fide is just as important as Sola Gratia.
Many people do not like being labeled “Arminian” (e.g. “I am neither Calvinist or Arminian!). The reality, however, is their theology functions synergistically. Thus, how they identify themselves is inconsistent with what they teach and believe. At the end of the day, they are Arminian, whether they like it or not.
As I said before, I am comfortable with the label, though I reject Kurschner’s definition. The reason why many Arminians reject the label is because of Calvinist straw men like this one that Calvinists assign the label. But it is also worth noting that not all synergists are Arminian. This is an attempt by Kurschner to collapse all positions that aren’t Calvinism into one lump so he can dismiss them. But this is intellectually unethical and foolish.
The second group is Calvinist-Monergist. They affirm monergism. They (including myself) believe that there is only one force in the universe (grace alone) that brings about regeneration in the life of the sinner. In specifics, because of the deadness of the spiritual human will (i.e. moral inability), the Holy Spirit performs the miracle of spiritual resurrection (regeneration) in that person. Thus it is monergism (one work). Grace is sufficient to be effective, and does not depend on some action of the human will.
I don’t have any issues with how monergism is defined here, other than comparative implications, but I’ve already talked about that where he states those implications explicitly, so I won’t belabor the point.
In other words, the Holy Spirit does not merely “whisper” in the hardened sinner’s ear and hopes that the rebel sinner will “cooperate.” Instead, while the sinner is in a state of hardness and rebellion, the Holy Spirit penetrates into the human will and performs the miracle of spiritual life (regeneration). That is grace alone. That is what the Bible teaches. Faith does not precede regeneration, regeneration precedes faith.
OK, let me explain a few things. First, Arminians don’t claim that the Holy Spirit “merely whispers in the hardened sinner’s ear”, but instead we claim that the Holy Spirit irresistibly awakens the will of the hardened sinner enabling them to have faith. However, He does not irresistibly cause them to have faith itself. This is standard Arminianism. Second, the Protestant concept of Grace Alone is that salvation cannot be earned by good works, pursued through sacraments, or bought by way of venerated objects, and that humans cannot take the initiative. Arminians affirm this. The Calvinist idea that grace alone must require no human reaction to grace is extreme and unnecessary.
Third, Faith precedes regeneration.
He quotes three verses, though he does not interact with them. However for the purposes of this analysis I will only discuss them very briefly. Ephesians 2:4-5 is discussed in the link above, and I have also briefly treated the verses myself here.
John 1:12-13 being mentioned here is odd to me since it explicitly says that regeneration comes to those who believed in His name. Thus to me, it seems to support faith preceding regeneration. When one focuses on the highlighted section, we see that Kurschner is taking the concept of “not by human decision” to mean “not faith”. However, faith doesn’t cause regeneration, so I don’t think his interpretation even applies. However, I don’t think his interpretation is accurate either since it is clear to me that John is using synonymous parallelism (a common Hebraic figure of speech) to compare spiritual birth with physical birth. This is a main theme in the book of John.
Another main theme of the book of John is that only those Jews who were truly loyal to God could recognize Jesus as the Messiah. John 8:47 addresses this theme. Those not understanding Jesus failed to understand him because of a prior lack of commitment to God, not because of a lack of sufficient grace. This is similar to what is going on in John 6.
Arminians cannot affirm grace alone. They must always have the creature’s will as the final determiner of their destiny, not God.
One final note.
Arminians pray inconsistently. They pray unknowingly as a Calvinist:
“God, change the unbeliever’s heart.”
I have never heard an Arminian pray:
“God, only whisper in the unbeliever’s ear, but don’t change their heart unless you’ve been given permission by the unbeliever.”
The Calvinist prays and affirms biblical truth consistently.
First, as previously demonstrated “grace alone” does not equate to monergism. Second, when Arminians pray for God to change a person’s heart, we aren’t praying Calvinisticly because we affirm the fact that God does affect the hearts of humans. Prevenient grace is basic Arminianism. This is to be compared to Calvinists whose prayers don’t make any sense at all (since what’s going to happen is going to happen regardless of whether they pray or not).
Finally, I always found this “final determiner” rhetoric to be odd. It admits that God is part of the process of determining one’s fate. Otherwise the human will would be the “only determiner” not the “final determiner” (some Calvinists also say “only determiner”, but that’s clearly fallacious). However, if God is a determining factor, and the human is a determining factor, how does one identify the final determining factor? I would assume it would be the last factor which acts. But in Arminianism that would be God. After all, regeneration comes after faith. Well, then maybe it means that the human is the main determiner. But again, God is the one who allows and actually causes the atonement; so on Arminianism God is the main determiner as well. Therefore, clearly, God is the final determiner.
The only way to claim otherwise is to view God’s actions as automatic, as if He couldn’t do otherwise once a person has faith. But Arminians don’t view it this way. We trust that God will save us if we have faith because He has promised it, not because He will be compelled to in some manner. However, since Calvinists often see God as compelled by His own nature, I guess I can understand why they would assume this. But if this is the reason, then they are importing Calvinist presuppositions onto Arminian thoughts and, unsurprisingly, it merely causes them to misunderstand.
The one thing that this “primer” really shows is Kurschner’s complete inability to properly assess anyone’s perspective other than his own. While he is good at explaining his own position, he seems to be incapable of thinking outside of it. The biggest shame is people who will read his material and actually believe his descriptions of Arminianism.