The False Antithesis Between Monergism and Synergism: A Lesson from Historical Theology

, posted by Eric Landstrom

A false division exists within theological discussions that centers on monergism and synergism. Within Reformed circles, on a lay-level, monergism is considered to be Reformed orthodoxy and synergism heterodox to Reformed theology. However this is not the case among the “informed Reformed” when monergism and synergism are properly framed.

As in non-scholastic faith traditions, scholastic faith traditions hold that God’s ministry of grace is given so that the persons He works on will do the things of God. However, synergy is a controversial word in the scholastic traditions where it is emphasized that salvation is by God alone. It is commonly held by the scholastic traditions that God saves monergistically (God alone) rather than a combined effect between God and man (called synergism). As evidenced on the web, if a search is conducted for either monergism or synergism, one will find web site after web site loaded for bear, ready and willing to vilify the “evil” synergists and their deceptive hubris of cooperating with grace for salvation. Curiously, those same monergists generally believe that persons cooperate synergistically throughout the never-ending process of sanctification post-justification (a theological discrepancy I discuss elsewhere on this web site under the title “What are those Arminians Thinking?” in the Grace section). Observing this distinction within the scholastic tradition, non-scholastic faith traditions generally see doctrines of non-cooperation as something of an insult because God is a person and deals with other persons in personal ways and not in the abstract way they consider monergists view God’s saving acts. As such, synergists view God giving grace with results in mind and people as the medium that grace causes to act. Specifically, these non-scholastic faith traditions ask “How are we healed?” instead of the scholastic traditions who ask, “Who does the healing?”

When the questions “How are we healed?” and “Who does the healing?” are asked, we are able to place the doctrines of monergism and synergism into their proper contextual framework. Here monergism and synergism are not viewed as competing theologies but complimentary theologies where Christians are all able to acknowledge the Who that saves as solely God and the how God saves as a work of God that brings about faith and repentance in persons.

In the Augustinian tradition, both non-scholastic and scholastic faith traditions hold the God gives grace preveniently. Prevenient grace goes before enabling the will to do good, and calling persons to salvation, inviting those buried in sin to awaken and rise to new life: “Awake thou that sleepest, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give thee light” (Eph. 5:14). “Behold, I stand at the door, and knock: if any man hears my voice, and opens the door, I will come in to him” (Rev. 3:20). Prevening grace enables those seeped in sin and dead to God to hear the voice of God and answer the call of salvation. Prevening grace illuminates and liberates minds from sin. God acts upon the person before the person can act. But God acts on the person not so that the person will do nothing, but namely, so that the person will see and do the things of God.

      Prevenient grace goes before the soul can cooperate and works without us because it works before us so that we can then respond to God’s call of salvation. “God thus operates in the hearts of men and in free will itself, so that a holy thought, a pious plan, and every motion of good will is from God” (Oden,

The Transforming Power of Grace

    , p. 51, quoting Gregory the Great).

Augustine was the first to develop a distinction between prevening grace (who saves?) and cooperating grace (how are we saved?) writing, God “begins His influence by working in us that we may have the will [prevenient grace], and He completes it by working with us when we have the will [cooperating grace]” (Oden, ibid., quoting Augustine p. 52).

Philippians 2:12-13 is the classic text for cooperating grace: “Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure” (NKJ). On the dynamic of synergistic cooperation Oden noted Augustine’s thoughts on the subject, quoting,

      It is we that will when we will, but it is He who makes us will what is good, of whom it is said… “The will is prepared by the Lord” [Prov. 8:35]…. It is certain that it is we that act when we act; but it is He who makes us act by applying efficacious powers to our will, who has said, “I will make you walk in my statutes” [Ezek. 36:27]. It does not, therefore, depend on the man’s desire or effort, but on God’s mercy [Rom. 9:16] (Oden,

ibid.

      , quoting from Augustine’s

On Grace and Free Will

    , p. 53).

The big idea that we can pack away from studying theological history on this subject is that modern attempts to pit monergism against synergism are little more than the result of theological reductionism whose summary does injustice to historical Christian thought through the creation of a false dichotomy that pragmatically works to hinder the proclamation of the gospel through needless in-fighting.

Godspeed,

Eric Landstrom