Theological method Theology Proper

Choose your theological mystery or conundrum

If we hear most loudly in Scripture the description of a world in which God has given moral creatures significant control of how things turn out, why would we thank and glorify God when good things occur?

But if we hear most loudly in Scripture the description of a world in which God has maintained meticulous control, why would we feel responsible when evil occurs rather than holding God accountable?

The synergist conundrum

“I would strongly reject the charge that Molinism or Arminianism leads to some kind  of synergism where we are partly to credit for our salvation.” So said William Lane Craig in a discussion with Paul Helm on Unbelievable at about 43.07 in the audio. Their conversation was fascinating to me, as Craig, of course, defended the Molinist concept of middle knowledge and Paul Helm insisted that God knows counterfactuals as part of his necessary or natural knowledge. No one familiar with my own thought will be surprised that I concur with Helm, but I have gained so much from Molinism in constructing my own “hypothetical knowledge Calvinist” model of divine providence that I have a soft spot for Craig and his work on this subject.

What Craig’s statement and Helm‘s response reminded me of, however, is what I will call the “synergist conundrum.” Craig is responding to a very common objection from Calvinists about all theologies that believe that humans usually have libertarian freedom (that is, the ability to have acted differently in exactly the same circumstances), which God gave to moral creatures even though it curtailed his own ability to have everything turn out exactly as he desired. I have often made that objection myself, as in Who Can Be Saved? (p. 238):

 From the Calvinist perspective, the effect of the synergism in Luther’s, Wesley’s and Molina’s approaches is seriously problematic precisely because it makes the decisive factor in a person’s salvation that person’s own decision. It seems to us that if salvation is realized through cooperation between God and the person saved, the absolute graciousness of salvation is compromised. Since the difference between those who are saved and those who are not lies within the action of the believer, it seems that these believers have cause for self-congratulation and that God’s glory in salvation has been compromised (Eph 2:8-9). Thus, Ardel Caneday and Thomas Schreiner complain that “if we are ultimately responsible for our faith, then we can brag about our decision to believe” (The Race Set Before Us, 318).

In his discussion with Helm, Craig was careful to assert that Scripture nowhere states that faith is a work by which we merit salvation, so we have no reason to brag about it, even though he denies that saving faith is God’s direct gift. In his view and that of most evangelical synergists, God graciously enables everyone to believe but individuals are  free to accept or reject that gift.

I am delighted that evangelical synergists give God all the glory for their salvation and so, taking them at their word, I do not charge them with “works salvation,” as many of my fellow-Calvinists do. But this is a conundrum for me. I am unable to see why their theology prevents a Molinist or Arminian from congratulating another believer on their wisdom in trusting in Jesus, given that in spite of all that God had done for them they could have chosen not to trust. The critical decision to believe or not to believe was theirs, not God’s, so I find their insistence that all the glory should go to God and his grace incoherent with their theological foundation. This is a case in which I think that their theology entails a belief in salvation merited by the act of faith, but I am happy that they do not let it take them there. I suggest, however, that they have chosen to believe the mystery of synergism, even though it is finally inexplicable, because of a very healthy grasp of the preeminence of God’s grace and glory. Nevertheless, I consider their synergism a conundrum but I’m glad that they affirm it, rather than resolving it in the direction of “works salvation.”

The monergist conundrum

In a blog post on Feb 3, Scot McKnight complained that “The Pesky Calvinists are Back,” and he told of “three different people troubled by pesky, young Calvinists.” This is a message I’ve heard quite a bit lately, and I am disturbed by it. I have welcomed the resurgence of Calvinism in recent decades, and I’ve rejoiced at the way in which many younger people have come to delight in the message of God’s sovereign grace. But I am also aware of how obnoxious Calvinists can be, and how little their behavior commends the grace of God which their theology magnifies.

The third person McKnight encountered was “a young man troubled by both the confidence of pesky young Calvinists and the implications of that theology on how we view God” (emphasis mine). McKnight identifies what look to him to be the alarming implications of Calvinist theology:  “This, as my friend Roger Olson has often said, is the core issue: What kind of God meticulously determines all things and then holds people accountable for what was predetermined? What does the love of God mean in such systems of thought?”

McKnight recounts what a reader “concerned about the pesky Calvinists” wrote to him:

 “After much restlessness, I just cannot accept a couple of these things as a reality…

1. A notion that the way God governs the world is by absolutely controlling every single thing… And yet, He is not the author of evil (when the very reason that the angels and the people offended God was precisely because of God Himself predetermining [them] to do so). I just sincerely cannot accept this as merely a “mystery.”

The will of decree being whatever that actually does take place, and the will of command being almost secondary to the former will seem to break down for me when I say, “If a boy went home, indulged himself in pornography and acted upon his sinful nature, it was matter-of-fact a will of decree! God desired the boy not to sin in a ‘narrow sense’ but He did in the ‘wider sense’!  God’s ultimate will was that the boy sinned!”

2. Despite being able to make every person come to Him, God chose not to. This was so probably in order that those who are chosen by God would be grateful as they look at those who are eternally damned. This does not fill my heart with gratitude… It fills my heart with bitterness towards God…

For these reasons, more than any other issue (inerrancy v.s. infallibility, women in leadership, baptism, communion, etc.),  this is the most important issue for me…”

What we hear described in this instance is the “monergist conundrum.” Notice the reader’s statement that he “cannot accept this as merely a ‘mystery’.” This is the flipside of the synergist conundrum or mystery. Calvinists cannot understand why synergists do not congratulate believers for their wise choice to believe in God, or why they say that all the glory must go to God and his grace. But synergists can not understand why monergists hold people accountable for their decisions which were predetermined by God before he created anything or anybody. Why, they wonder, is God not culpable for all the evil that is done in history? Compatibilism looks to McKnight’s correspondent like a conundrum so severe that it has gone beyond being a mystery. It is dangerously irrational.

I am surely not alone among Calvinists in my sense of the mysteriousness of compatibilism, but I sense that not all of them feel it as keenly as I do. I laid out the “planks of my compatibilist platform” some time ago, but I understand why synergists don’t find my perspective plausible, because I live with tension but not with a sense of incoherence. That is as well as any of us can do, I think, whether our theological construction is synergistic or monergistic.

How can we decide which of these competing theological mysteries is true?

It is impossible to avoid mystery in Christian theology, and the church has long granted that doctrines like the Trinity and the incarnation of the Word are mysteries. We believe them to be true but we do not fully comprehend them. But those are mysteries about which the church has agreed and formulated creeds which Christians all over the world, for many centuries, have recited together. The dispute between monergism and synergism, however, has never been resolved, and I do not expect that it ever will be, this side of the consummation of God’s kingdom.

Many of us have had theological conversions in this regard, moving from synergism to monergism or vice versa, through coming to hear the Word of God differently than before. Some people have made that move more than once, going back and forth. It is not an inconsequential choice; the ramifications of the conviction we reach on this watershed question are very widespread in our belief systems and in our daily lives. But the matter is complex, and it is not surprising that so many people choose to live eclectically and inconsistently. For instance, I meet many evangelicals who are monergistic in their doctrine of providence but synergistic in their doctrine of salvation.

Even within a person’s soteriology, we sometimes find held together a doctrine of justification that is monergistic and of sanctification that is synergistic. I have observed that Arminians often feel the tug of monergism with regard to justification, but that Calvinists often wander into synergism with regard to sanctification (see my earlier post about this issue). I did it myself. But it won’t work, either the salvation of an individual is determined by God from beginning to end or it is determined by the individual. It cannot be both/and, though one occasionally meets people who choose that as the mystery they believe – an affirmation that both God and the individual determine the outcome, even though it is impossible for us to understand how this can be. They sometimes call themselves “Calminians.” The monergist conundrum, in regard to sanctification, is how it can be that we are all as holy as God has chosen to make us, but we are morally culpable for not being more holy.

I think this is an issue concerning which we have to prioritize the big picture of Scripture and its narrative. Individual texts can be cited which sound like support for both monergism and synergism, but what is the big picture into which these texts fit? Our reasoning abilities will work very hard in regard to this matter, but I’m convinced that none of us will evade an ultimate concession that we are in the face of a mystery. If we hear most loudly in Scripture the description of a world in which God has given moral creatures significant control of how things turn out, why would we thank and glorify God when good things occur? But if we hear most loudly in Scripture the description of a world in which God has maintained meticulous control, why do we feel responsible when evil occurs rather than holding God accountable? Those are the synergist and monergist conundrums.

We cannot, however, resolve not to decide which of these conundrums, synergism or monergism, is true, because our actions are based on our choice in this matter continually. Every time we ask God for something in prayer, we must work from an assumption about what God has chosen to control and what he has chosen to put in the control of others. Similarly, when bad things or good things happen to us or to others, we must understand them in the light of God and his action in the world. Is this good something for which we should thank God, or might there be someone else who acted in the determinative way? Can we say that a particular evil occurred by the specific will of God, or are we able to assert that God is even more upset about it than we are, but that he valued human and angelic freedom more than he wanted to be meticulously in control?

For the sake of coherence in our lives, we must reach a conclusion and live accordingly. Precisely because the conclusion we reach will be a puzzlement to us, and because some other godly people will be convinced that we are wrong, we must hold our synergism and monergism with a measure of tentativeness, even though we have to live constantly within the framework which appears to us to be the most plausible.

Living with others who reach a different conclusion from us

What a blog post like Scot McKnight’s should remind us all is that, by virtue of our conceding that the position we hold is mysterious, that we are dealing with a conundrum, we must be charitable to those who settle upon a different mystery as true. We should discuss it, but we must do so lovingly. We must commend the truth of our faith in sweet reason, not aggressively and combatively. It is a tremendous tragedy when unbelievers are alienated from Christian faith by the disputatiousness they observe between Christians. If we want the world to know us by our love, then grace and patience and humility must characterize our theological controversy. The church needs to be a place in which it is safe for people to change their theological minds about issues where there is no Christian consensus, even when the issue is as momentous as synergism/monergism. The freedom of religion that Protestants rightly champion must be real within Protestant churches and within theological discussions between those of us who delight in our understanding of God and who believe it to be true. Strong theological conviction is a very good thing, but if it is not accompanied by humility and grace, something is wrong with the theological framework within which that conviction is held.

We don’t need “pesky Calvinists,” but we don’t need “pesky Arminians” or “pesky Molinists” either. We need people who love the Lord their God with all their hearts, souls, minds, and resources, but who, for that reason, love their neighbor (even the one whose convictions are equally strong but different from theirs) as themselves.


By Terrance Tiessen

I am Professor Emeritus of Systematic Theology and Ethics at Providence Theological Seminary, Canada.

6 replies on “Choose your theological mystery or conundrum”

Certainly, Gene. You are always to pass on any of my posts that you think someone else would profit from.

Hi Terrance,
I stumbled across you at purple and then got directed here. As a fellow Canadian and conditionalist (and rethinkinghell FB member) I have to say that I am impressed by your irenic (think Canadian 🙂 ) posture in discussion. As I have pondered the Calvinism/Arminian debate, I am particularly intrigued by the synergism/monergism element of that debate. In this post you state: ” Calvinists cannot understand why synergists do not congratulate believers for their wise choice to believe in God, or why they say that all the glory must go to God and his grace.” Of course, I have seen that statement before, but I have to say that I am perplexed by any suggestion that I would congratulate myself for my wise choice. My perception is that I was in a desperate state, I was offered a chance to be rescued and I responded. There was no other choice and for that offer, I am eternally grateful. Here’s an analogy (I hear you saying, “oh no – not another one”): Let’s say I am about to have my mortgage foreclosed upon. The bank is going to finalize the process unless I pay today. I have no means to pay so I resign myself to the inevitability of the process. However, at the eleventh hour a benefactor comes forth and declares to me that he will pay my debt in full. All I have to do is meet him at the bank to expedite the process. I do so and the deal is done and I get to keep my house. There is no way that I will ever give myself credit for any part of this “salvation” – even though I did have a small part (meeting at the bank). This may be a weak analogy (as most are) but I think it adequately conveys my true understanding of the salvation process. I liked Austin Fisher’s explanation of the math of salvation: “I don’t think that if salvation is by grace, through faith, and faith itself is a gift from God, and yet I have to respond to this gift in some way, this means I was the decisive factor in my salvation (of course lots of this hinges on what is meant by “decisive”). That math will never add up for me. So if the math of salvation has to equal 1, with no room for human boasting, then I’m just fine saying the equation I see in the Bible is 1 (God) + 0 (Me) = 1, and that while my 0 contributes nothing, it is still necessary. I think this tends to be the way the Bible handles this, admittedly, mysterious issue of divine grace and human repentance/discipleship/faith”. Honestly, I struggle to see how Calvinists argue against this depiction of understanding and was hoping you could help me. Many blessings. Peter

This isn’t likely to help you, Peter, but if the benefactor that offered to pay your debt in full made the same offer to your neighbor and you took the offer but the neighbor refused it and was forced to move out of his house, I would congratulate you, and I would doubt your neighbor’s wisdom. Furthermore, the decisive factor in your continuing to live in your home, but your neighbor being homeless, is certainly not the benefactor’s offer, it is the difference between your decision and your neighbor’s. Certainly, I would understand your immense gratitude to the benefactor who paid your debt, but I can’t ignore the fact that your decision was the critical difference between your having a house and your neighbor not having one. On the other hand, I do think it is a very healthy response to the situation that your gratitude to the benefactor so overwhelms your awareness of your key role in accepting the offer that you express no self-congratulation. Were I the benefactor, however, I’d commend you and tell you how amazed I am at how many other people lacked your wisdom and paid a heavy price for their folly or pride or whatever it was that made them unwilling to accept the offer.

As I said in my post, I am thankful that I’ve never met an Arminian who manifested God’s saving grace in his life, who did not give God all the glory for his undeserved kindness. So, although I think that the difference between monergism and synergism is significant, I see evidence of God’s grace at work in the fact that Arminians are as grateful to God as Calvinists are that God forgave their sin and counted them righteous on account of Christ’s substitution for them. This is why nothing need hinder our worshiping the gracious God together.

Perhaps the difference becomes more clear when we consider it from God’s standpoint than from ours. In the Arminian construct, God has done everything he can possibly do to get everyone saved, and he has done no more for one person than for any other, but he is helpless to bring about the salvation of any individual. He has chosen to leave that in the hands of his creatures and he must accept their decision about the population of the new earth. It seems to me that, if I were God, in that situation, I would be profoundly grateful to every sinner who accepted my offer, making it unnecessary for me to destroy some whom I had done my utmost to deliver from that fate.

Hello Dr. Tiessen. I just found this blog in the year 2020 lol
but I thought this was a really wonderful, balanced writing.
Thank you for your insights 🙂

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