Monday, April 03, 2006

The Philosophy of Monergism

Synergistic theology has offered prooftexts such as 2 Peter 3:9 and 1 Tim 2:4 for centuries; consistent exegesis of the text of Scripture has refuted the synergistic agenda from the very beginning. I have provided exegesis for these passages previously. But today I’d like us to consider the philosophical implications of the synergist agenda.

Does God really will that every individual be saved? Why, then, is not every individual saved? The answer that is given is that God did not will to save every individual monergistically, but willed to save them synergistically. In other words, rather than saving every individual–or any individual–efficaciously by sovereignly altering the sinful will, God chose to save men–if any man–by granting to him the authority of his eternal destiny. In short, God desired to save people through their “free will.” This concept raises a few philosophical–as well as a number of Biblical–questions. First, given this theology, it is a wonder if God truly wills for anyone to be saved. A Biblical doctrine of the complete depravity of man assures us that the idea that God would leave salvation open to the unaltered, “free” will of man is one that is destined for a failure. If our perspectives are Biblical, no one would be saved. But synergists, of course, deny this perspective.

However, let’s grant the synergistic understanding of what it means to be dead in sin. We are still caused to question whether or not God really wills that anyone be saved. Apparently, his will to allow people to authoritatively choose their own condemnation trumps his will to save them. In order to avoid universalism, hidden beneath the apparently (as in appearance) noble principle that God wills to save every individual is God’s somehow-stronger will to grant them autonomy. While synergists love to promote the emotion-targeted viewpoint that God does not have the freedom to love and save whom he pleases, as he pleases, what they really love about synergism is the synergism; though they claim that the supposedly “chief attribute” of God is love, what they really like about God is the notion that he has released them from the absolute sovereignty of his will and replaced it with a will that desires most to see man exercise his will autonomously. For the synergistic God, what he wants most is not to see everyone saved, but to see everyone exercise his will in an ultimately authoritative manner–whether that results in their condemnation or in, if by some reason in them, their salvation.

Of course, the God of monergism loves to see people exercise their wills. He has created them with wills. But the God of monergism is also a theologically-informed God; he knows the reality of depravity. Therefore, the God of monergism deemed it fit that he would save whom he pleases efficaciously. When God wants to save them, he wants to save them. And he does save them. He saves them through their choice, but their choice is based in his choice. He alters their wills. He controls both the ends and the means that is required to save whom he wills.

The God of synergism, however, is a God that controls neither the ends nor the means. Or, he acts like he controls both, but, in reality, controls neither. He speaks as if he has the power to control the ends: “I desire that everyone be saved.” But both he and man know that such a decree is not control, but merely a hopeful statement. If such a decree concerned a matter of control, or, put another way, if God meant what he says, it would be accomplished. But the God that cannot control the ends is also the God that cannot–or at least does not–control the means. God has removed control of the means from his hands and placed it in the hands of sinful creatures. It is a wonder why the synergist God is so unwise as to believe that sinful creatures can control salvation better than he can. But because God has given up control of the means; because for some reason the will of his which carries the most weight is his will to give up control over accomplishing his will, he has lost all control over the ends. The synergist God isn’t a God that wills to save everyone; it is a God that wills to save no one. The mere chance that someone is saved is not because God has fully and completely accomplished his will; the mere chance that someone is saved is because man was somehow able to do that which God could not do–or, at least, for some unholy reason, did not do.

But synergism finds this pleasing to the eye. Perhaps even now some of my synergist readers are responding to this with a confused mind, wondering what the problem actually is. “So what?” they might think. “What’s wrong with the notion that God loves man so much [yeah, right] that he wanted to give them free will?” But this is the fundamentally flawed, unbiblical assumption upon which all synergism is based. Giving to man the authority over his eternal destiny is not love; If I were to give the keys of my car to my toddler and say “drive,” that would not be love. But it would be even worse if I gave the keys of my car to an escaped convict, put a grandmother in front of the car, and said “drive.” It takes an overly-exalting view of man to be at ease with the notion that God would hand over the “keys of salvation” to man. It is only after radically redefining the depravity of man, so that man comes out looking like someone fully capable of initiating a will to be saved, when the concept of “free will” becomes comfortable. And if such is the case, it is any wonder why men are condemned. If men are so capable of handling such autonomy, it makes me terribly curious why some use their autonomy in such an extremely foolish manner. “Ah, but you forget the reality of sin” might be the response. Exactly! Synergists cannot have their cake and eat it too; they can’t argue that man has the ability to handle autonomy but then argue that he lacks the ability to handle autonomy at the same time. Surely God is not ignorant of this.

Then what excuse does the God of synergism have? How can this God, knowing these facts, still tell us the joke that he wills for everyone to be saved but then act in this manner? Synergism is the goal of synergism; autonomy is the chief end of man. Steve Hays rightly notes:

[Synergists] … say that the Augustinian tradition subordinates the love of God to the will of God … But this is not what distinguishes the Augustinian tradition from the Arminian tradition. The distinction is between intensive and extensive love, between an intensive love that saves its loved ones, and an extensive love that loves everyone in general and saves no one in particular. Or if you really wish to cast this in terms of willpower, it’s the distinction between divine willpower and human willpower. Or, to put the two together, does God will the salvation of everyone with a weak-willed, ineffectual love, or does God love his loved ones with a resolute will that gets the job done?

The God of Calvin is the good shepherd, who names and numbers his sheep, who saves the lost sheep and fends off the wolf. The God of Wesley is the hireling, who knows not the flock by name and number, who lets the sheep go astray and be eaten by the wolf. Which is more loving, I ask?

Evan May.


  1. Evan,
    Great post. I think for me (before I came to a Reformed understanding) and for others that hold to a synergistic view, it is easy to forget that God can have several emotions or feelings (to put it in human terms) at once. They cannot see that God can on one hand "desire" that all men be saved, and yet decree or will that only some will be saved. Our pastor quite astutely pointed this out yesterday, in addition to the fact that while he decrees that only some men be saved, he does not necessarily rejoice in those who perish in hell. For humans, this would seem inconsistent--but for God, He is simultaneously loving, yet righteously judging, and it is all so that His glory and holiness are upheld.

  2. This reminds me of a particular story in a book, "The Smell of Sin." A family have gone on a picnic, and the parents have set all sorts of good food before their child. But the child refuses it and chooses to chew on some rocks, causing her mouth to bleed, etc. This might be a fair illustration of the terrible nature of sin, but then the story went further: The parents, lovingly, weep and plead with their child to stop harming herself and to eat the good food they have for her, but they do not stop her from chewing on the rocks! Their desire for her freedom of choice trumped their desire for her well-being, and this was presented as what God does with us!