Providence Theology Proper

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.


By Terrance Tiessen

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

8 replies on “Monergism/synergism, compatibilism/incompatibilism and the nature of human freedom.”

Thanks for the article. I have a question thought.
Is it possible that a synergist holds to a compatibilistic view? I often hear from evangelical synergists that they affirm Gods sovereigny but they also affirm mans responsibility at the same time. Is this consistent? After reading your article I’ve arrived to the conclusion that this view is not arminian, more a kind of inconsistent compatibilistic monergism or a kind of inconsistent synergism.

Second question: You mentioned Thomas Acquinas and that he held a monergistic view. I discovered that in the 16th century was a huge dispute between the Jansenist and the Jesuits and the Dominicans and the Jesuits. Do you have written on this subject? It interests me a lot.

Maurice, you would probably be interested in the chapter on “The Thomist Model” of divine providence, in my book Providence and Prayer: How Does God Work in the World?

Maurice, it is important to note that synergists affirm only general divine sovereignty, not the meticulous form which monergists affirm. In the synergist perspective, God sovereignly chose to limit his ability to have everything in detail occur as he desired, so that moral creatures could be libertarianly free.

Thank you for your answes. I received your book last week and look forward reading it!

I have one more question:
If the synergist affirms “only” general divine sovereignty, not the meticulous form, than his definition of Gods omnipotence would differ from the monergistic one. Now, wouldn’t the synergist call himself -within his system and with his definitions- a compatibilist? (He would affirm that “libertarian free will” is compatible with his definition of Gods omnipotence.)

Yes, Maurice. all orthodox Christians consider the components of their various doctrinal beliefs to be compatible with one another. So synergists do consider themselves compatibilists, in a general sense. This is the complicated thing about descriptive terminology, we have to know how a particular user understands the term.

In the ongoing discussion between synergists and monergists, therefore, the critical thing is to define what sort of control God retains and what sort of freedom he has given to creatures. To facilitate intelligible conversation with people who read my blog posts, I have constructed a “Glossary” of terms as I use them. Here are my definitions of “compatibilism” and “incompatibilism” and synergists often use the terms with the same meaning, but we have to discern whether or not that is the case, when engaged in discussion together.

Compatibilism contends that a person can act freely even though that action is determined by God. This is affirmed in 3 different ways:

1) To the soft compatibilist, actions are free if the actors do them voluntarily or willingly, without coercion by anything outside of themselves., even though their actions may be predictable as an expression of their own desires.
2) Hard compatibilists, on the other hand, affirm that moral creatures are libertarianly free but that their freedom is consistent with God’s determination of all their actions.
3) Mysterian compatibilists may be agnostic about the nature of the freedom God has given to human creatures, but they are sure that humans are morally responsible even though they always act according to God’s eternal purpose, and they affirm that Scripture does not explain how these truths are compatible with one another.

Incompatibilism insists that people do not act freely if their action is determined by God even if they act willingly. It posits that genuine freedom must be libertarian and indeterminate.

I hope this helps.

How does this relate to the view of the will espoused by Richard Muller (in Divine Will and Human Choice, for instance)? If I’m reading him correctly, he seems to land between hard and soft compatibilism – He distinguishes it from both libertarian freedom and from Jonathan Edwards style strict determinism. He labels it “dependent freedom,” I believe.

Thank you for your question, Taylor. I’m sorry to say that Muller’s book is one of the many very worthy works which I have not (yet?) had the benefit of reading. Muller is clearly a monergist, believing that the whole of human history has been sovereignly chosen by God in his eternal purpose or decree. But I gather that Muller does not fit neatly into a dichotomy between hard and soft compatibilism. I have a hunch that Muller’s perspective fits best into what I speak of as “soft compatibilism,” but I am definitely too ignorant of his work to answer your question. I wonder if he might actually fall even better into what I have dubbed “mysterian compatibilism.”<a href=""

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