Monergism: Maybe True, Definitely Unnecessary

By on Oct 3, 2015

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Monergism (“one work”) is the belief that God works alone in salvation. It’s usually set against synergism, which is the belief that while God alone does everything in working for our salvation, humans must cooperate with grace in some form or fashion (the cooperation itself, of course, possible only because of grace).

 

Monergism is an integral part of Reformed soteriology, because without it Reformed folks feel humans could boast in their salvation and steal God’s glory—two unpardonable sins. As James Montgomery Boice has said it, those who reject monergism cannot give God alone the glory: “They cannot say ‘to God alone be the glory,’ because they insist on mixing human power or ability with the response to gospel grace.”[1] One gets the sense that for many, monergism is not only true but also necessarily true.

 

I’ve discussed monergism in other places (in my book in particular), used to affirm it, and I understand how people think the Bible teaches it. I think they’re wrong and find it curious the early Church Fathers didn’t teach, especially it if it was so essential and Paul, allegedly, clearly taught it. As the great Calvinist theologian Loraine Boettner states, with laudable honesty: “The earlier church fathers…taught that salvation was through Christ; yet they assumed that man had full power to accept or reject the gospel…They taught a kind of synergism in which there was co-operation between grace and free will.”[2]

 

I know of very few historical theologians who would even begin to contest Boettner’s claim (and again, Boettner was a Calvinist), so I think advocates of monergism have a good bit of explaining to do here. But again, in all sincerity, I understand how people think the Bible teaches it.

 

But what I would like to point out is that you don’t need monergism to prevent human boasting or protect God’s glory. Nope—all you need is a healthy doctrine of creatio ex nihilo (creation from nothing)…or better yet, creatio continua (continuing creation).

 

From early on,[3] Christianity affirmed God created the universe from nothing and without necessity and that the whole of space-time is dependent, moment by moment, on the superabundant source of being that is God. Existence itself is grace—a gift, unforeseen and unnecessary and gratuitous, given anew in the unfolding of each moment in which there is something instead of nothing:

 

“It is the condition of absolute contingency that defines creaturely existence. Every finite being is groundless, without any original or ultimate essence in itself, a moment of unoccasioned fortuity, always awakening from nothing…”[4]

 

“All-that-is and all-that-has-been and, indeed, all-that-will-be is given existence by an Ultimate Reality that is other than what is created.”[5]

“The power of life stands outside us and is given to us.”[6]

 

God doesn’t need creation.

 

Creation actualizes no latent potential in God.

 

God, from all eternity, is an infinite, vibrant, dynamic, and endlessly creative triune community of abundance, delight, peace, feasting, revelry, and joy.

 

As such, all that is exists in an irreducibly gratuitous fashion and creation is an expression of God’s primordial generosity; a generosity Jesus taught us to call love.

 

Which brings us back to monergism.

 

I am deeply grateful for the Reformation. Several harmful trajectories had formed and the Reformation was a much-needed corrective to them. But the dogged focus on the inner mechanics of the soteriological mystery set, in my opinion, another harmful trajectory in which the horizons of the gospel were narrowed and monergism started attempting to say what creatio ex nihilo had already said far better; namely, that EVERYTHING is a gift of grace, to be received with open hands and wide-eyed wonder.

 

Because creatio ex nihilo and creatio continua prevent human boasting and protect God’s glory far more effectively than monergism, accomplishing and exceeding what monergism aspires to with effortless beauty and grace. Because when one realizes every creature—not to mention space-time itself!!!—is sustained, nanosecond by nanosecond, by the wild and unconditioned generosity of God, monergism is simply unnecessary. It might still be true, but it is not necessary. The infinite God, Being behind all being, does not need monergism to protect his glory.

 

This won’t end any debates on monergism and you can still make a biblical case for it (though I think you can make a better case against it), but perhaps it can halt some of the hand-wringing and help Reformed folks understand why, to a great many of us, monergism is well-intentioned but misguided small potatoes in a universe breathing grace.[7]

 


[1] Whatever Happened to the Gospel of Grace?, 167.

[2] The Reformed Doctrine of Predestination, 365.

[3] See Langdon Gilkey’s outstanding Maker of Heaven and Earth for an examination of the historic consensus on creatio ex nihilo.

[4] David Bentley Hart, The Beauty of the Infinite, 250.

[5] Arthur Peacocke, The Music of Creation, 7.

[6] Walter Brueggemann, Genesis, 137.

[7] I’m reminded of Kevin DeYoung’s review of my book, wherein he was a bit miffed that I so easily shrugged off the supposed importance of monergism. I can only say that in any theological world where there is a robust doctrine of creatio ex nihilo, monergism simply isn’t essential.

 

  • John Thomas

    The only issue is that I don’t see creatio ex nihilo in the Bible. The earliest writing that talks about it (that I could find) were in the writings of Philo who held lot of ideas not found in the Bible in his writings and many of early church fathers showed a fascination for his writings as they developed lot of his ideas in their writings. Regarding the Aristotelian idea of creation continuously being dependent on God as ground of being, one could quote Acts 17:28. But in fact Paul is quoting there a pagan philosopher Epimenides.But anyways.

    • Austin Fischer

      I think it’s a similar phenomenon to what we find with the Trinity. It is not explicit but an inevitable theological and rational explication of what Christians are talking about when they talk about God.

      • Br.d

        Thanks very much Austin for: (creatio ex nihilo and creatio continua) on boasting.
        I have a rudimentary understanding of those things and really appreciated what you pointed out!

        One of the uses of Monergism that I seem to notice is that it is sighted as corresponding to “good” events.
        While synergism is sighted for “sinful/evil” events.
        I’ve found this use of language slightly dishonest given the underlying premise in the system.
        If Calvin rejects the idea that God “allows” events to come to pass, calling them “repulsive” (in his vernacular odious).
        And Sproul says not one molecule can move without God controlling it.
        And Helm backs that up with “not only every molecule, but every thought and intent of man”.
        Then it seems to me the underlying construct within the scheme is that everything is monergistic.
        And in that case, the use of the term synergism is a slick camouflage.
        But perhaps I’m missing something?

        • Austin Fischer

          No I think you’re on the right track. Thanks of the kind words! Glad the post was helpful.

          • Br.d

            Thanks very much Austin.
            Does it seem logical to say then that due to the underlying proposition of universal meticulous casual determinism, one can’t rationally have irresistible grace without irresistible damnation, and one can’t rationally have unconditional election without unconditional reprobation?
            If so…to say:

            “I saved the 1 blemished sheep and damned the 99 blemished sheep, because the 99 were blemished”

            would seem irrational to me.

            Instead of glorifying the Lord, it makes him appear to speak nonsense, which I would see as a compromise to his holiness and perfection.

            An Anglican theologian “Ferrer” once stated, “when ever man attempts to define God with causal terms, locating God within a chain of causal sequences, he risks creating a monstrosity, and confusion.

          • Austin Fischer

            Most consistent Calvinist thinkers affirm double predestination, so yes, both election and reprobation are unconditional. Though to be fair, most would want to affirm that they are unconditional in different ways; hence, the language of God’s election is very active whereas the language of God’s reprobation is typically very passive. God chooses the elect but God passes over the reprobate and leaves them to the damnation all deserve. Of course this damnation all deserve is deserved because God willed it so in order to fully glorify himself. This is the real nub of the issue, regardless how one attempts to explain or avoid explaining the mechanics of causation.

          • Br.d

            Exactly! It seems that much of the system is highly reliant upon ambiguous language.
            Do they really want to say that God’s decrees are “Passive”?
            Somehow that wouldn’t make sense and would seem to compromise assertions of absolute sovereignty.
            For God to pass over something, would seem to entail God “allowing” something.
            Is there a possibility they have two great urgencies.
            To assert God’s monarchical absolutism would allow one to assert one’s doctrine as superior to all others (i.e. my dog’s bigger than your dog)..
            But that same assertion back-fires when its taken to its logical conclusion, and the big dog looks pretty ugly.
            Which results in one being forced to walk a semantic tight-rope.
            Again Austin, please let me thank you for all you’ve done here.
            Your experience, skilled understanding, and honesty on this subject help to fill the critical need for blowing away the fog that typically hovers over this subject.
            ur frnd, :-]
            br.d

          • Austin Fischer

            Of course! Glad to be of whatever help I can.

  • RonnyTX

    Austin,the way I see it,you use monergism to mean what I would call Calvinism/Reformed and you use synergism to mean, what I would call Arminianis/free willism. Is that close enough to be right? And I see you used to be Reformed/Calvinistic in belief and so was I. Why? Because I was brought up from an infant, in a Baptist church where it was believed and taught that way. So to start with,I would simply say I was not Calvinistic,because God taught me that;but instead,I was Calvinistic because some men taught me to believe that way. And I believed that way,until just 5 years ago. I’m 60 years old now. Why did I change and what changed about my beliefs? I changed because for the first time in my life,I ran upon a fellow Christian who was what some would call,Christian universalist in belief. Now at first,I thought what he said and the scripture he cited,sounded too good to be true! :-) Yes,I hoped it was true;but at first,I couldn’t see how it was,given the way I’d been brought up in church and taught to believe Calvinism. But with this,as with some other things,I did what God taught me several years ago. That is,I read what these people had to say,to see why they believed the way they did and the scriptures they cited,to show why they believed this way. And that is how,I became what some call a Christian universalist in belief. So no,I no longer believe in a Jesus Christ created hell of eternal torment. And yes,I still know it is God who saves the lost sinner. But I now see that God has chosen to save every person,from Adam on down and that by way of Jesus Christ and the cross.

    P.S.
    Good to meet you. :-) And I found out about you and your blog,several months ago. Thought to post something then;but for some reason,I never did? Thought I better now. One reason being,when you get to 60 years old,you never can be sure how much more time you’ve got! :-) See you later. Hopefully online and surely, in the next life! :-)

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  • Saturn5Dad

    Off topic, but wanted to THANK YOU for your book! Don’t know why I’m engaging with this topic again. Tried shelving, shelving didn’t work. As Tim Keller said in a Q&A I found online, once you’ve opened the Pandora’s Box of predestination/election, you’re done for. The choices for me seem to be grapple or give into despair and shelve the whole Christian project, run up an agnostic banner. Your problem with Calvinism is my problem with Calvinism. The god of Calvinism isn’t a god of love, isn’t the God my parents taught me to love and trust. He’s remote and unapproachable, instead of a shepherd out looking for lost sheep. And worship in a Calvinist church (albeit worship with beautiful, truly Christian people) doesn’t reflect His beauty in the same way I’ve found it reflected in Episcopal, Anglican, Eastern Orthodox, worship. It’s dry and all about a certain, careful definition of sovereignty. The implications of this limited (ha!) “sovereignty” (where God is not permitted to grant His subjects freedom to choose or act) for “the reprobate” are horrific and never openly discussed. But there’s a sadness underneath the praise songs and three point sermons (no matter how good). At least for me. Because the god of Calvinism’s “perfect” plan is to torture the majority of humanity, the majority of his beloved children, eternally to underline his glory. His ways are higher than our ways, of course, but that’s unimaginably cruel (and unnecessary). You speaks about this plainly. I find that helpful. It’s easy to go down the rabbit hole after the Calvin vs. Arminius academics. When I do, I always wind up needing two Tylenol. That’s NOT helpful. Again, THANKS.

    • Beakerj1

      Apparently we share the same brain on this! If only someone would do a book called ‘Coping with Calvinism’ that shows in easy steps how one would cope with that perspective if true. Sigh.