Theological method

“Monergism” and “Determinism:” Are they useful terms?

I had brief correspondence recently with an evangelical theologian whom I am going to call “Peter,” so that I can cite some of our private conversation without putting him on public record. For my purposes here, what he said is the important thing, not who he is. Our brief interchange prompted me to ruminate about the terminology we use to describe a Calvinist understanding of God’s role and ours, in salvation and in history more generally. Specifically, I ask: “Do ‘monergism’ and ‘determinism’ describe well the meticulous divine sovereignty in which Calvinists believe?”

Here is how the conversation proceeded. Peter, a Calvinist theologian, had reviewed a book in which the doctrine of sanctification is very important. At one point, Peter spoke in a way that left me wondering whether he believes that sanctification is synergistic. (That issue was still on my mind, in the wake of my blog post that asked: “Is sanctification synergistic or monergistic?”)

I wrote to Peter:

 You accused ___ of caricaturing the Reformed view, and I gather that you think he misconstrued the Reformed view of sanctification. You contrast that view with the monergism of election, regeneration, and glorification, and you describe sanctification as “involving a human willful and active cooperation.” I am not sure of your intention here. You distinguish your Reformed view of sanctification from the synergistic construct affirmed by Wesleyan-Arminians, because you are compatibilist. What leaves me a bit puzzled is what you intend by your distinction between aspects of salvation which are monergistic and sanctification, which involves “active cooperation.”

Quite commonly, I read or hear Reformed theologians who teach that regeneration, and even justification, is monergistic but that sanctification is synergistic. I’m wondering if you are working from that framework yourself.

Peter replied:

While some Reformed thinkers have called sanctification “synergistic,” I purposefully avoid that term (and did not use it in my review). The reason is simple: “synergism” is typically understood in the Wesleyan-Arminian sense, as a cooperation with God, but one in which God’s purpose can be thwarted (and for WA this leads to their belief in the loss of salvation!). Obviously, as you say, this assumes incompatibilism. However, I also do not want to describe sanctification as “monergistic” either. I think that term is best reserved for effectual calling and regeneration where man is totally passive and spiritually dead and God alone works to bring about new life. In sanctification, however, things are much different. Now that the dead sinner has been made alive, he actively participates in his progress in godliness and holiness. He can obey or he can grieve the Spirit. However, for a compatibilist, God’s grace is primary and God himself is in complete control (hence, I don’t use the term synergism). In fact, I think the doctrine of sanctification is one of the best examples of compatibilism! See Phil 2:12-13.

All that to say, I do not like to use the word synergism to refer to sanctification because it gives the impression that our will trumps God’s will. In reality, while we are actively participating in sanctification (unlike regeneration), God is in control, bringing to completion what he has started in us (unlike Wesleyanism). So even in our victories, God gets the credit and glory.

. . . perhaps we need some new words/categories/labels to describe the phenomenon of sanctification from a Reformed perspective.

When reading Peter’s comments, I was reminded of a recent post by Roger Olson in which he mentioned that R. C. Sproul had objected to the identification of his view of God’s meticulous sovereignty as “determinism.” That intrigued me, because I have not hesitated to use that term to describe my own position, which is essentially the same as Sproul’s. But I distinguish between “hard determinism,” which is mechanistic and often materialistic, and “soft determinism,” which designates the compatibilism affirmed by Calvinists (as Peter clarifies above). Nonetheless, as I reflected on Peter’s comments, along with the protest by Sproul, it struck me that the synergism of classic Arminianism is also a form of determinism. The difference between Calvinism and Arminianism has to do with who determines the outcome, God or his creature (human or angelic). In other words, it is a distinction between divine determinism and creaturely determinism.

Thus, the term “determinism,” in the history of the discussion of this issue, both philosophically and theologically, has designated determination by God, i.e., divine determinism. The position asserted by those who believe that outcomes are often determined by moral creatures is therefore dubbed an “indeterminism.” The point is obviously not that no one determines the outcome, but that God does not. In both providence and salvation, Christian indeterminists believe that God has voluntarily limited himself so that much of the time, what happens includes God’s action, but it is the creatures’ action that decides the outcome.

In short, I grant that “determinism” and “indeterminism” seem, upon first hearing, rather strange terms to designate Calvinist and Arminian theologies. But, as with all technical terms, their use communicates effectively, provided we use them according to well established definition.

I reach the same conclusion in regard to the term “monergism.” I grant that, on the face of it, the term  appears misleading as a description of events in which God and other agents are active in morally responsible ways, because its etymology connotes that there is only one agent. The point of “compatibilism” is its assertion that morally responsible human agency is compatible with divine control, that God always achieves his eternal purposes in every event of history, but creatures who act voluntarily, without coercion, are morally responsible, even though their actions never foil God’s purpose.

I think that Peter has done well to avoid the term “synergism” for his understanding of sanctification. As his own comment indicates, he understands “synergism” in its traditional sense, not as describing a situation in which two or more agents are working together, but as indicating that, though God is actively pursuing his own goal, he has chosen to allow creatures to decide whether or not God’s will is achieved in a great many events. As a Calvinist, Peter believes that if the credit for human goodness is to go to God, the decisive agency in bringing about that goodness must be God’s. Believers actively pursue holiness, but if they achieve it, the critical reason is the efficacy of God’s gracious work, not the excellence of their own.

So, I commend Peter for not describing the process of sanctification as “synergism,” because of the way that term has come to be used technically within the theological discussion. But should he then hesitate to call sanctification “monergistic?” I think not. Admittedly, God’s action in efficacious calling, regeneration (in its narrow sense) and glorification, as understood by Calvinists, are starkly monergistic – there God works alone. But, as I observed previously, “monergism,” as used in this theological context, does not assert that God works alone, it affirms that even when other agents are actively pursuing their own purposes, the outcome is always as God decided it should be. So, given Peter’s own description of his understanding of sanctification, as he distinguishes it from the Wesleyan-Arminian view, sanctification is monergistic. Even in general history, God sometimes acts alone, causing things to happen without any creaturely involvement. But most of the time, the world’s history comes about through a combination of God’s actions and the actions of many of his creatures. What makes the total picture monergistic, is that both the outcome and the means by which that outcome is achieved was decided upon by God, before he created anything at all. Yet God has chosen to have much of world history brought about by creaturely action.

This is where we see the great importance of God’s knowledge of the counterfactuals of creaturely freedom, his hypothetical knowledge, a knowledge possible only if creatures are compatibilistically, or soft-deterministically, free. God chose this particular world from all the possible worlds he might have chosen to actualize. Knowing naturally how particular creatures would act in particular situations, God was able to choose a world in which most of its history comes about through the moral agency of God’s creatures, but it comes about in fulfilment of God’s eternal purpose. This is as true of salvation as it is of general providence.

When the terms are clearly defined, we can say that Calvinist theology is monergistic, deterministic, and compatibilistic. By contrast, relational theologies (Arminian, open etc.) are synergistic, indeterministic and incompatibilistic. Provided we make clear the way in which we use these terms, and provided all parties in the discussion use the terms with the same meaning, these terms will be useful. Calvinists can then affirm that justification and sanctification are no less monergistic than election and effectual calling. Human agency is different in these cases, and that needs to be explained, but God’s sovereign achievement of his purpose is no less certain.


By Terrance Tiessen

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

2 replies on ““Monergism” and “Determinism:” Are they useful terms?”

It seems to me that the comparisons are (1) between effectual calling and the sanctifying work of the Spirit (God’s action), and (2) conversion and holy lifestyle (human action). “Peter’s” point is that the holy lifestyle includes human agency, but so does conversion–it is we who repent and believe, not God. But both entrance into salvation and continuing outworking of salvation are rooted in efficacious works of God. Monergism does not deny that the effects of divine activity include real human choices at both the beginning and the continuance of new spiritual life. Thanks, Terry, for good insights.

We all see through a glass darkly , and while this does not mean any marked boundaries on what we can demarcate concerning “god”, it should suggest to us, in our finitude, that our understanding on this side of eternity, ( whatever exactly that us), is at best currently partial and incomplete. We can lay claim to knowledge but let it be done with humility as we remember eache our own finitude in the grandeur of that which our understanding only approximates now.

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