Arminius (and Arminians) on Monergism vs. Synergism

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Arminius’s comments are presented here in the first person, as though he were addressing you personally.

On the issue of Free Will, Grace, and Synergism, let me ask, “What liberty does the will have in a sinful state?” I distinguished between five kinds of liberty as applied to the will: freedom from control of one who commands, freedom from the government of a superior, freedom from necessity, freedom from sin and its dominion, and freedom from misery. The first two apply only to God; the last, to man, but only before the fall. As for freedom from necessity, it is the very essence of the will. Without it, the will would not be the will.

Let this be distinguished from Pelagianism. I say that the will which is free from necessity may not be free from sin. That is the point in question. Is there within man a freedom of will from sin and its dominion, and how far does it extend? Or rather, what are the powers of the whole man to understand, to will, and to do that which is good? The question must be further restricted to spiritual good. The question, then, is briefly: What is the power of free will in fallen man to perform spiritual good?

I answer, In this state, the free will of man towards the true good is not only wounded, maimed, infirm, bent, and weakened; but it is also imprisoned, destroyed, and lost. And its powers are not only debilitated and useless unless they be assisted by grace, but it has no powers whatsoever except such as are excited by divine grace. For Christ has said, “Without me you can do nothing” (John 15:6).

Sinful man, then, has free will, but not a will that is capable of accomplishing spiritual good (i.e., of doing a meritorious work). His free will in spiritual matters is in bondage to sin and needs deliverance from outside. I quoted with approval the following sentiment from Bernard of Clairvaux. “Take away free will, and nothing will be left to be saved. Take away grace, and nothing will be left as the source of salvation. This work cannot be effected without two parties ~ one, from whom it may come: the other, to whom or in whom it may be wrought. God is the author of salvation. Free will only is capable of being saved.”

There is nothing here of grace as an assistance given to a man who is only weakened by sin. All response of man to the divine vocation is the (monergistic) work of grace. The entire process of believing ~ from initial fear to illumination, regeneration, renovation, and confirmation ~ is of grace.

But one result of gracious renewal is the cooperating (synergistically) which man does in believing. When grace has kindled new light and love, &c., man loves and embraces that which is good, just, and holy, and . . . being made capable in Christ, cooperating now with God, he prosecutes the good which he knows and loves, and he begins himself to perform it in deed. The cooperation is not the means to renewal ~ it is the result of renewal. It is not a meritorious work. I explicitly disavowed Pelagianism: it is a heresy.

That I may not be said, like Pelagius, to practice delusion with regard to the word “grace,” I mean by it that which . . . is simply necessary for the illumination of the mind, the due ordering of the affections, and the inclination of the will to that which is good . . . I confess that the mind of a natural and carnal man is obscure and dark, that his affections are corrupt and inordinate, that his will is stubborn and disobedient, and that the man himself is dead in sins.

And the saving faith that is exercised in response to grace is peculiarly the act of a sinner. It is unnecessary to one who is not a sinner, and, therefore, no one except a sinner can know or acknowledge Christ for his Savior, for he is the Savior of sinners.

This raises the questions surrounding the topics of Monergism and Synergism. Arminianism has usually been described, by its friends as well as its foes, as Synergism proper. The foes have interpreted this to mean some kind of “co-earning,” or meritorious “work of faith,” which robs God of the glory in man’s salvation. The self-avowed Synergists have sought to avoid that meaning.

Arminian H. Orton Wiley speaks of Synergism as a “basic truth of the Arminian system,” and defines it as “the co-operation of divine grace and the human will.” He is careful, however, to refer the ability to cooperate to the effect of grace, but he ties that effect closely to a general human capacity. “The capacity for religion lies deep in the nature and constitution of man. The so-called natural conscience is due to the universal influence of the Spirit.”

A similar use of the term synergism is found in the nineteenth-century Wesleyan Arminians Miner Raymond and John Miley. Another Wesleyan theologian of the nineteenth century, William Burt Pope, distinguishes between Synergism and Arminianism. He feels that the word as used by the Lutheran Synergists implies the cooperation of man by virtue of a good nature in him not entirely affected by the fall, and this he does not regard as true Arminianism.

And true Arminianism it is not! It is not even true Lutheranism, as Martin Luther would have it. Monergism is not entirely false; for it is God’s own initiative to work in the heart of the sinner. He was neither forced nor obligated to stir man’s heart toward salvation. However, we cannot suggest that God makes a man believe in Christ, as Monergism unfortunately implies.

Material here has been revised and at times quoted almost verbatim from Carl F. Bangs, Arminius: A Study in the Dutch Reformation (Eugene: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 1971), 340-342.