J. Matthew Pinson, “Are Arminians Necessarily Synergists?”

, posted by SEA

[This post was taken from Dr. Pinson’s blog.]

Recently I read a blog post by Roger Olson on how one does not have to agree with Arminius to be an Arminian. It can be found here.

Olson made several good points in the article, and he is certainly correct in his main assertion that one can differ from the finer points of Arminius and still be an Arminian. Despite his desire to carve out a place for Open Theists in the Arminian camp, which of course would have been very troubling to Arminius, it’s a good and thought-provoking post. I agree especially with his view that Molinism is inconsistent with Arminianism.

Yet the main thing that stuck out to me about Olson’s essay was his comment about Arminius’s views being a kind of “evangelical synergism” (a term he borrows from Donald Bloesch). Thus he says, more than once, that Anabaptists like Balthasar Hubmaier and Menno Simons were precursors of Arminius in this “evangelical synergist” mold.

I used to think in this same vein. One of my first published articles was entitled “A Free Will Baptist in the Reformation,” and it was about the fifteenth-century Anabaptist Balthasar Hubmaier—that great feet-washing, believer-baptizing, libertarian-free-will-affirming Anabaptist who also had a view on church and state much more like Thomas Helwys and the English Baptists in the following century than the mainstream Anabaptists of his own century.

But it was when I was doing a doctoral seminar paper on the soteriology of the first Baptists, John Smyth and Thomas Helwys, for Prof. Richard Greaves at Florida State University that I began to see a difference between the synergism of John Smyth, who became a Mennonite soteriologically, and the much more grace-oriented views of Thomas Helwys. He parted ways with Smyth in large part because the latter had embraced Mennonite views and left behind more Reformed views of original sin and of justification by the imputed righteousness of Christ.

Helwys would never have wanted to be called a synergist. He wanted to eschew any hint of cooperating or working together with God in salvation. He even disliked the term free will! I began to see, largely through the work of Alvin Beachy’s The Concept of Grace in the Radical Reformation, that Anabaptist notions of grace, including those like Hubmaier’s, Menno’s, and Smyth’s, were semi-Pelagian, unlike those of Helwys or Jacobus Arminius [1].

I began to shy away from the use of the word synergist, and came to believe that thinkers like Arminius and Helwys, who had a much more gracious emphasis in their soteriology and doctrines of human depravity and inability than the Anabaptists, would have done the same.

Recently I came across a book, Jacob Arminius: Theologian of Grace, that argued that Arminius himself was a synergist. The authors, Thomas McCall and Keith Stanglin, say, “Some scholars have denied that Arminius is a ‘synergist,’ yet his definition of subsequent grace is precisely ‘synergistic,’ which is simply the Greek equivalent of ‘cooperative’ (derived from Latin).” Their main culprit, whom they cite in the footnote, is me [2].

Like my colleague at Welch College Robert Picirilli, I do not think Arminius called himself or would ever have called himself a synergist because of the semi-Pelagian implications of the term. It implies that people are working together with God in bringing about their salvation. Stanglin and McCall themselves quote Augustine himself a few paragraphs later using the same language of subsequent cooperating grace as Arminius used. Arminius’s use of this same phrase does not render him a “synergist,” and he wouldn’t at all have been comfortable with the term.

I would say of Arminius what Gregory Graybill says of Martin Luther’s associate Phillipp Melanchthon in his recent monographEvangelical Free Will. Conversion for Melanchthon, Graybill insists, “was a passive reception of merit rather than an active cooperative work that earned merit. It was not synergism!” Graybill distinguishes Melanchthon’s view from that of Peter Lombard, which “required God and the human working together in synergism.” Just as it is unfair for Lutheran theologians to attribute a term to Melanchthon that was readily associated with his later followers, it is even more unfair to saddle Arminius with a term that he did not employ which was foreign to his theological context [3].

Stanglin rightly chides scholars for importing decontextualized dogmatic categories into their understanding of Arminius that are far-removed from his context. But I think to saddle Arminius with the designation “synergist,” when it was so far-removed from his own Reformed theological categories and terminology, is to de-contextualize Arminius’s thought.

I think Picirilli and Arthur Skevington Wood’s approach is preferable: that Arminius’s views do not represent “a form of synergism in which God’s work and man’s work cooperate, but rather a relationship in which God’s will and work within man [are] welcomed in an attitude of trust and submission” [4]. Arminius would have been much more comfortable with the language used by my colleague at Welch College, Leroy Forlines, who, in his book Classical Arminianism, uses the terminology of “conditional monergism” rather than synergism [5]. This approach is shared by Arminius scholars such as Carl Bangs and William den Boer, as well as Episcopius scholar Mark Ellis [6].

This same train of thought is pursued by scholars such as Southeastern Seminary professors Kenneth Keathley and Jeremy Evans, and Notre Dame’s Richard Cross. In various writings, these gentlemen make the case for “monergism with resistibility of grace.” Both Evans and Keathley have latched onto Richard Cross’s argument in his article “Anti-Pelagianism and the Resistibility of Grace.” [7]

Cross asks, “Suppose we do adopt . . . that there can be no natural active human cooperation in justification. Would such a position require us to accept the irresistibility of grace?” (Evans, 260). Cross, along with Keathley and Evans, thinks it would not. Evans calls this “monergism with resistibility of grace.” Keathley and Evans cite Cross’s “ambulatory model,” according to which the sinner is like an unconscious person who is rescued by EMTs and wakes up in an ambulance and does not resist the EMTs’ medical actions to save his life.

This attempt to maintain a libertarian free will posture on divine sovereignty and human freedom while avoiding the notion of synergism reminds me of Arminius’s desire to maintain “the greatest possible distance from Pelagianism.” [8] Evans remarks that this approach means that “the only contribution the person makes is not of positive personal status, as strands of Pelagianism and Semi-Pelagianism hold,” because salvation is “wrought by God (Eph 2:8-9). So people do not “pull [themselves] up by [their] own bootstraps.” Instead, saving faith is a “gift freely given from above and does not reside in any natural capacity of the person (Phil 1:28-29).” Furthermore, Evans maintains, affirming monergism together with resistible grace “helps explain how God desires that none perish (1 Tim 2:3)” (Evans, 261).

So I think it’s a good idea for Arminians to find ways to avoid the terminology of synergism. I think scholars such as Forlines, Picirilli, Wood, Bangs, den Boer, Ellis, Cross, Keathley, and Evans have good instincts in wanting to stay away from it. And I think Arminius (and Helwys) would have agreed.
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[1] Beachy, The Concept of Grace in the Radical Reformation (Nieuwkoop: B. De Graaf, 1977).

[2] Stanglin and McCall, Jacob Arminius: Theologian of Grace (New York: Oxford UP, 2012), 152-53.

[3] Graybill, Evangelical Free Will: Phillipp Melanchthon’s Doctrinal Journey on the Origins of Faith (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2010), 297.

[4] Picirilli approvingly quoting Wood in Grace, Faith, Free Will (Nashville: Randall House, 2002), 162. See Wood, “The Declaration of Sentiments: The Theological Testament of Arminius,” Evangelical Quarterly 65 (1993), 111-29.

[5] F. Leroy Forlines, Classical Arminianism: A Theology of Salvation (Nashville: Randall House, 2011), 264, 297.

[6] Bangs, “Arminius and Reformed Theology” doctoral dissertation, University of Chicago, 1958 (where he boldly states, “Arminius was a monergist” [166]); den Boer, “‘Cum delectu’: Jacob Arminius’s Praise for and Critique of Calvin and His Theology,” Church History and Religious Culture 91 (2011), 83-84; see also den Boer, God’s Twofold Love: The Theology of Jacob Arminius (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2010); Ellis, Simon Episcopius’ Doctrine of Original Sin (New York: Peter Lang, 2006), 84. This perspective concurs with what Richard Muller said in an earlier work: “It is difficult to label [Arminius’s approach] synergism” (Muller, “The Priority of the Intellect in the Soteriology of Jacobus Arminius,” Westminster Theological Journal 55 [1993], 70. In a more recent article, however, Muller characterizes Arminius as a synergist: “Arminius and the Reformed Tradition,” 29).

[7] Cross, “Anti-Pelagianism and the Resistibility of Grace,” Faith and Philosophy 22 (2005), 199-210; Keathley, Salvation and Sovereignty: A Molinist Approach (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2010), 88, 103-08; Evans, “Reflections on Determinism and Human Freedom,” in Whosoever Will: A Biblical-Theological Critique of Five-Point Calvinism (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2010), 253-74; cf. Kevin Timpe, “Grace and Controlling What We Do Not Cause,” Faith and Philosophy 24 (2007), 284-99.

[8] The Works of James Arminius (Nashville: Randall House, 2007), 1:764.

J. Matthew Pinson is Welch College’s fifth president, having served in that office since 2002. He is the author or editor of numerous articles and books, including Perspectives on Christian Worship (B&H), Four Views on Eternal Security (Zondervan), and A Free Will Baptist Handbook (Randall House).