Can synergists confess, in answer to the question “What is God?”: “Nothing happens except through him and by his will”?
I am enthusiastic about the New City Catechism which Timothy Keller and others have developed for use in their congregation. For various reasons, they have kept it to 52 questions, and I’m planning to memorize it a week at a time, which puts me at the second question this week. Among the reasons for having only 52 questions has been the desire to formulate a confession which is more generically Christian (or at least Protestant, I presume) than the Heidelberg, whose 129 questions and answers were specifically intended to catechize people into the Reformed expression of Christianity.
I am particularly interested in the doctrines of providence and salvation, and I think that there is a very significant theological watershed between synergism/risk/indeterminism/incompatibilism and monergism/no-risk/determinism/compatibilism. So I am wondering whether it is possible to write a catechism which can satisfactorily serve both of these ways of conceptualizing God’s relationship with his creatures. That wondering was aroused very early for me, by the answer to the second question. I am wondering whether synergists will want to affirm that “nothing happens except through him and by his will.” What do you think?
I think that it can be done, but I’m wondering what others think. The statement will have quite different outworking in people’s experience and theology, but the terminology is not specifically monergist. I suspect, however, that many Calvinists will think that it is an affirmation of monergism and will doubt that synergists can say this. Here is what I think the statement will mean, as affirmed by 4 groups of evangelicals:
Calvinists: In God’s meticulous providence, the will of his eternal purpose is always accomplished, in everything that happens.
Molinists: God weakly actualizes everything that occurs in world history, because he has chosen to actualize this particular world, even though libertarianly free human beings decide much of what takes place in its history.
Classic Arminians: God could have determined everything meticulously, but he wanted people to be free (in a libertarian sense), and so he sustains them in their actions, even though they often decide to act in ways which he is doing his utmost to prevent. God knew eternally what free creatures would do, and so it is true, in general, that everything which occurs is according to God’s will.
Open Theists: God could have determined everything meticulously, but he wanted people to be free (in a libertarian sense), and so he sustains them in their actions, even though they often decide to act in ways which he is doing his utmost to prevent. God does not know ahead of time what a free creature will choose, but he has willed to give them the power to determine their own actions, and he is resolved to work continuously for the good of his creation, in whatever situation creatures bring about.
In short, the answer to Q2 will not mean the same thing to all evangelicals who affirm it, but monergists and synergists can say it “together.”
What do you think?
2 replies on “Synergism and Q2 of the New City Catechism”
Thanks for these comments on the NCC (which I too am just beginning to explore). I agree that all evangelicals can affirm the answer to Q2 (as you nicely explain). However, whether they want to will depend on the circumstances. For eg., if this is a catechism that a local church adopts as some type of official document that must be adhered to by its leadership team, then of course, we all can for the sake of unity. However, some evangelicals may want to use different wording to express how God’s providence works. (Hint: This might not be an academic question for me 🙂 ).
re: your comment that:
“Among the reasons for having only 52 questions has been the desire to formulate a confession which is more generically Christian (or at least Protestant, I presume) than the Heidelberg, whose 129 questions and answers were specifically intended to catechize people into the Reformed expression of Christianity.”
my initial take is that the NCC is pretty reformed rather than generically Christian (or even broadly Evangelical). Can you comment on that? Is this something that TGC claims somewhere (maybe I missed it).
I picked up the generic intention in comments made by Tim Keller in a blog item. I did a search for it just now and did not locate it. I am now suspecting that I gave those comments too much weight. The intro to the catechism notes very specifically that it is based on Reformed Confessions and catechisms (Geneva, Westminster, Heidelberg), and the web project was done in cooperation with the Gospel Coalition, which, despite its generic name, is obviously a coalition of people with Reformed orientation.
Nothing in the Introduction or the FAQ says anything about a desire to serve the Christian community broadly. So, I am now thinking that the comment made by Keller was a one-off, and was not seriously a statement of the formers’ intent to prepare a catechism which would serve people of non-Reformed theological orientation as well as the Reformed.
Thanks for raising the question. I’ll keep my eyes and ears open for similar statements in future, but I now think that you are right. This is basically a new Reformed expression of Christian faith, in the line of explicitly Reformed catechisms of the 16th-17th centuries.