Monergism/synergism, compatibilism/incompatibilism and the nature of human freedom.

Recently I have had some correspondence with a gentleman who has read a bit of what I have written and who has had questions. Among his recent inquiries was this one:

Could you please explain to me the difference between compatibilism and monergism? Similarly, what’s the difference between synergism and libertarianism? I tried looking it up, but I can’t seem to really understand the differences in these concepts.

His questions are common, and quite natural, given the complexity of this critically important subject. So I thought I’d also post here the impromptu thoughts that I sent him in response, just in case someone else might find them helpful, or might wish to contribute other ideas.

Monergism and synergism are comprehensive theories in regard to the meticulousness of God’s control in the world.

  • Monergists believe that everything that occurs happens according to the will of God’s eternal purpose. (You can hear this in the New City Catechism’s answer to Q2: “What is God? A: God is the creator and sustainer of everyone and everything. . . . Nothing happens except through him and by his will.”)
  • Synergists believe that God has chosen to limit his control, giving creatures the ability to determine at least some of the outcomes in creaturely history.

Only monergists are compatibilists, because compatibilism asserts that God’s meticulous control of history is compatible with human moral responsibility.

By contrast, synergists are necessarily incompatibilists. They think that if God determines all outcomes then creatures have no moral responsibility.

Not all monergists are compatibilists, because theistic fatalists assert that God is meticulously in control but they often deny human moral responsibility.

Evangelical monergists are all compatibilists, but in order to maintain the compatibility of divine determination with human responsibility, many (most?) of them describe human freedom as not libertarian. They asssert (following Jonathan Edwards, for instance) that we act responsibly if we act willingly, without coercion. It is not necessary that we could have done otherwise than we do (i.e. that we have libertarian freedom). In fact, most compatibilists deny that such is the case. Consequently, soft-determinists often speak of “compatibilist freedom.” This is a bit misleading, because Thomas Aquinas was a monergist (believed in meticulous divine control) but he also affirmed libertarian freedom. Following John Martin Fischer, I call that “hard compatibilism,” and I call the compatibility of divine determination and the creaturely freedom of spontaneity “soft compatibilism.”

It would be nice to be a hard compatibilist, because people in western cultures characteristically assume that genuine freedom is libertarian. Outside of Thomism, however, hard compatibilism seems rare. J. I. Packer may be a hard compatibilist, but he simply appeals to mystery, he does not try to define how it works. It is, he says, an antinomy, but it is not a paradox (or contradiction in terms).

So compatibilism and monergism are not exactly the same thing, though they often go together.

Similarly synergism and libertarianism are not exactly the same thing because Aquinas (and probably Packer) put monergism and libertarianism together.

How do we reach a conclusion on these issues?

I think that the place to start when working on this very important topic is with the extent of God’s control, and the way to reach a conclusion is not from particular biblical texts (both monergists and synergists have their key supporting texts), but from the big picture of the biblical narrative. What picture do we get from the whole biblical narrative – a picture of God’s being continually in control, or a picture of God’s having voluntarily limited his control, so that sometimes things turn out contrary to God’s will and despite his utmost attempt to bring about a different outcome?

If we arrive at a monergistic big picture, we must ask whether or not Scripture portrays any creatures as morally responsible for their actions. If we conclude that it does, then we can pursue the mechanics of compatibility. Paul Helm has posited that Scripture does not define human freedom, and I think that this is correct. It tells us that God is meticulously in control, and it tells us that humans are morally responsible, but it does not tell us what sort of freedom God has given humans. On that topic, our conclusion has to be reached primarily through philosophical rather than biblical analysis.

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