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.

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