Theological method

How do we choose between monergism and synergism?

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.


By Terrance Tiessen

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

3 replies on “How do we choose between monergism and synergism?”

I’ll bite this bait, I think you may be suggesting that temperment and culture inform, to some degree, those unspoken and implied ideas that are omitted but that the reader assumes. I am sympathetic to your understanding of compatibalism but I would be lying if I said that I don’t find it to be implicated in real contradictions. If, in reading scripture, you find it underlying the narrative and the grand scheme of what is revealed, I can only commend another to believe it.

For myself, I don’t find the scripture leading me to see compatibalism underneath the entire story, as a matter of fact, scripture alone seems to me to undercut it beyond retrieval. As an engineer, I’ve learned that when we ask the wrong questions of a phenomena then we get useless answers that shed no light, when we change our questions to those the event invites then we can move forward. I don’t think the monergist asks good questions and therefore the answers don’t seem to advance any relationship or intimacy.

But, to answer your question at the individual level, yes, I was raised and taught that responsibility does require an attendant amount of freedom to respond and I see compatibalism denying that only to replace it with a soft-shoe shuffle that ‘appears’ to me to be disingenuous. Could I have be raised and taught wrong? Sure I could have; but, I believe that it is compatibalism that is illogical and contradictory and I’ve not heard arguments that even get close to convicting me that I’m wrong.

As a young child of 9 and 10, I read the scriptures through and frequently and I never had Monergism, as is advanced in Calvinism generally, even occur to me. The special pleadings that ask us to logically make everything resolve to a monolithic scheme of rationally appealing theology I think lacks a subtle appreciation for God’s purposes in disclosing what He does in scripture.

What I find rather, is that those who find monergism compelling, reading of an encounter or statement of devotion and trying to universalize the application of that interaction as timeless principle when I think it was written to show us other people coming to know God. David prays something like, ‘Lord give em theirs’ and Jesus says, don’t pray evil on your enemies. David really was seeking God but still got confused about Who God is and we do as well so we can grow from this.

I also think monergism requires the proof-texting of scripture and is undone when the scripture is read as from a friend seeking to establish a relationship with the reader.

Anyway, I am sympathetic to monergism and beat my head against a wall for about 6 years trying to hold it as a belief; but, at the end of the day, debates and philosophy seem to underpin it more than anything in human experience and I think that makes it iffy as somewhere to hang one’s hat.

Love your blog, by the way. Your thoughts make me think..

I have as well pondered how intelligent people can use the same hermeneutical method, believe in the same God, read the same Scriptures and yet come to different conclusions.

And in that regard I do not find compatibilism at all difficult to accept. It nicely explains the requirement of faith and repentance in order to be saved while maintaining the sovereignty of God.

My conclusion at the moment is that is has somewhat to do with the angle from which you view the biblical narrative. Is it a story about us or is it a story about God? As a story about us, we are the main characters and we are the objects of affection. As a story about God, it is about his glory and what expresses that to the fullest extent. An understanding of libertarian free will diminishes the glory of God by placing power in the hands of the creation for its fate, undermines God’s divine decree that cannot be thwarted, destroys the necessity to pray for the lost and gives man a reason to boast.

I at one time was puzzled by many passages that tended to support a monergism reading and simply ignored them or explained them away. I found that there were many holes that I could not fill in my understanding. But since coming to a monergistic position these holes have been filled. I have also seen as I have encountered synergist is that the basis of their biblical position is based more in tradition than exegesis and they come to the text in such a way that diminishes the glory of God.
In fact most of the Arminian encounters I have had as we discussed the doctrines of grace is hostility and even anger.

In my own experience (which is informed by Scripture) and many others that I have encountered as they have moved from synergism to monergism is that they have been set free from fear and can have full confidence in their salvation and God’s ability to keep them as Scripture claims to do.

I do not intend to be pejorative and I do not question the sincerity of anyone’s faith, but I find that Scripture explains a monergistic view from the opening to the closing pages. But with that said, what remains is a mystery as to why many Christians do not see it.

A good and timely post. I have been working thru this topic for some time.
Lately I have been reading Norman Geislers ,CHOSEN BUT FREE,a balanced view of God,s sovereignty and free will. He does make a good argument in favor of his position. I was raised up in a synergism church for most of my christian life. Around 15 years ago I looked seriously at monergism and was compelled to agree that I had been missing some vital truth. If you find pleasure in sturring up a hornets nest with your Arminian bretheran then I recomened this path. I must admit that I became overly dogmatic with my new found monergism and caused myself a certain amount of wounds. Now that I’am older and hopefully wiser I cannot but hope and pray for a more peaceful way to dwell with both camps, hence I also have now moved towards ‘compatibilism’. I will for the time being leave the scriptural proofs for the reader to discover, but if I could bring in a physical model of this reconciliation , then here it is . The Bible seems to treat this issue like a Mobeus strip . If you take a strip of paper that is say one inch by one foot ,then you clearly have a peice of paper with two sides. However if you take one end of your strip and turn it 180 degrees and then tape it to the other end of the strip you will end up with a strip of paper with only one side ! I must admit that though I can clearly see that a Mobeus strip works, I don’t know how to put into words ,how it works. It is kind of like trying to explain the color red to a blind man. Likewise I don’t know how to tell you how ‘compatibility’ works , but I’am sure it does.

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