Previously, I wrote a post about why some people become accessibilists and others gospel exclusivists. This will have alerted you to my interest in theological differences and the reasons why they occur. Few theological choices are more influential in our thinking and practice than the choice between monergism and synergism, so that is an area where the differences within the church particularly intrigue me.
In my reading of Roger Olson’s Against Calvinism, I was struck by a thought in this regard, and I figured I’d put it in writing and bounce it off others.
I think I have mentioned previously how I recommend people arrive at a decision regarding monergism and synergism. Both positions have key texts that they can trade with one another in debate, but these get interpreted within a larger framework and so they rarely serve as effective “trump cards.” I think, therefore, that it is the larger framework which needs to be our focal point. We need to read Scripture in large chunks, and regularly, looking for the overall picture that emerges. I’m not suggesting that this will inevitably produce consensus one way or the other, but I think that it is the best way to reach our own position. After that, of course, we continue, for the rest of our lives, to pursue the hermeneutical circle, moving from whole to part to whole again etc. Since I came to see the big picture monergistically, almost 50 years ago, my reading of Scripture has reinforced my sense that God is completely in control in his creation and has not chosen to limit himself. Needless to say, since this perspective is so regularly confirmed to my own mind, it sometimes puzzles me that everyone doesn’t see it.
Reading Roger’s book slowly and reflectively, I’m seeing a dynamic at work, and I wonder if others are seeing it as I do. Both Arminians and Calvinists are convinced that humans are morally responsible, but we disagree about whether God has chosen to be meticulously in control. Why so?
I have noted on a number of occasions already that I see behind Olson’s choice of synergism an overwhelming conviction that compatibilism is incoherent. He knows that humans are morally responsible and that God is good; he believes that neither of these could be true if God were meticulously in control, as monergists assert. I think that this informs his reading of all the texts in which Calvinists see divine determination, necessitating that he interpret them differently.
Now, here is the thing that prompted my most recent ruminations on this methodological conundrum, something that took me quite by surprise. In his chapter on double predestination (which we will soon discuss), Roger mentions his intention to speak about the issue of free will in a later chapter, but then he says: “I admit libertarian free will (the will not entirely governed by motives and able to act otherwise than it does) is somewhat mysterious, but I do not think it is impossible or illogical. Nor do many philosophers. And I do think, with Cottrell and Wesley and other non-Calvinists quoted here, that without libertarian freedom, which presupposes divine self-limiting sovereignty, we are right back in divine determinism with all its deleterious good and necessary consequences” (133-34 [emphasis mine]).
Well, yes, we would be right back there, if compatibilism were incoherent!
In the previous chapter, Roger had asserted that we must choose between “God’s absolute determining sovereignty and humans’ sole responsibility of evil,” we cannot affirm both of these except through “a sheer act of will power to embrace what is unintelligible. . . . One cannot really embrace both without falling into contradiction. Appeal to mystery is not appropriate; contradiction is not mystery” (98 [emphasis mine]).
This puts us back in the territory of which I wrote yesterday, in my post about theological formulation. How do we discern when something is contradiction and not just mystery? I ventured to enunciate the planks of the platform that supports my own compatibilism on March 1, but I would be the first to admit that, after all of that has been stated, I am still left with some mystery. What I laid out there enables me not to see contradiction, but it does not make the situation so logically obvious that I can say no mystery persists.
What I am puzzling about is this: why is it that I hold to compatibilism while granting that there is some ineffable mystery remaining in the concept, but that this is not contradiction, whereas Roger holds as firmly to incompatibilism, leading him to deny divine determination, even though he admits that some mystery remains in regard to libertarian freedom, which he is sure is not contradiction? When we considered the difference between accessibilists and gospel exclusivists, factors such as temperament and culture were identified as possible contributors. Now, in this much more far-reaching difference between monergists and synergists, regarding the shape of the biblical metanarrative, what is going on?
We are not finished with Roger’s book yet, and more light may dawn before we are done, but in the meantime, knowing that both synergists and monergists read my posts from time to time, I welcome your observations.