Monday, April 11, 2011

Called to Confusion twice confounded

It’s been a while since I visited Called to Confusion, so I moused over there last night and saw a post by Andrew Preslar:

From what I can tell, Preslar is one of the more agreeable contributors to that site. So let’s see what he has to say:

Monergists, i.e. Calvinists and some Lutherans, claim that man cannot cooperate with God in salvation, because that would detract from God’s glory. I think that by God’s glory they mean something like “God appearing very impressive to everyone.” They probably mean additional though related things, like God doing whatever he wants. But let’s stick with that, the idea of God’s glory as God being impressive.
First, imagine a man rolling a large stone up a hill. If someone else helps him out a little bit, gives a little shove, then the man does not appear as impressive as he would had he rolled alone.
Now, imagine a man holding a little child in his arms. This man essays to roll the stone up the hill. The child, having comparatively no strength and being absolutely unable to even reach the stone unless his father holds him up, reaches out to push as well. What would be more impressive, for the father to set the child aside and push alone, or for the father to let the child put his hands on the stone and join in the task of rolling the stone up the hill? The answer is obvious. A man who can hold a child, let the child “help,” and still roll the stone up the hill is far more impressive.
Now, there is a sense in which the father does all the work. The child really makes an effort, wills what the father wills, but his little push does not add any strength that was lacking in the father. But there is also a sense in which the child really joins in the father’s work. What would be lacking, without the child’s efforts, would be the element of participation, the agape, friend of the father dimension of moving the rock. Got it?
Now you have the gist of synergism.
God is not a sissy, or a Sisyphus. He moved the stone, and it cannot be rolled back. God does not “need” us, but for that reason he is not afraid to let his children participate in the work of salvation, such that “he will render to every man according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life.”
This prospect of participation, and good works, might fill some with dread, as though you had to start tabulating and chewing fingernails and dreading the day of judgment because, I mean, are any of us really all that swell? Don’t worry. Our Father has you in his arms. Stay there, and all will be well. Your heart will grow to be like his heart, and you will love to walk in his ways.
Several issues:

i) No, that’s not the “gist of synergism.” And “synergism” isn’t synonymous with “cooperation.” “Synergism” is a technical term in historical theology. It involves several notions. In Catholicism, synergism includes the notion of congruent merit. It also involves the notion of libertarian freewill. The outcome is open-ended, for sacramental grace is resistible.

ii) Calvinism doesn’t deny a “cooperative” aspect to salvation. Monergism strictly applies to regeneration, not sanctification.

At the same time, Calvinism eschews human merit. And the outcome is not open-ended in the case of the elect/regenerate.

iii) Preslar also trots out the business of judgment according to works, as if Calvinism has nothing to say in that regard. He also fails to explain how judgment according to works entails “synergism” in the technical sense of the world.

iv) To say “stay in God’s arms and all will be well” is naïve, worthless advice. Sure, you’re safe as long as you stay in God’s arms. But that’s not the issue. The issue is whether God keeps you in his arms. After all, Preslar believes that some born-again Christians lose their salvation. You are safe as long as you are willing to stay in God’s arms. But that doesn’t make you safe. For you yourself are the weak link in that chain (to vary the metaphor).

v) Then there’s the larger problem of his thought-experiment. An illustration is an analogy. The illustration is only convincing to the degree that it’s truly analogous to the issue at hand.

vi) Apropos (v), we are even more dependent on God than a young child is on his parents. God is responsible for our being and well being. For our physical and social environment. For our very thoughts. For everything that happens to us, from the cradle to the grave, and beyond.

To be a creature is to be contingent. Everything we have, everything we are, we owe to God. Therefore, we couldn’t assist God even if we wanted to.

This isn’t about God having bragging rights. This is simply about the frank reality of what it means to be a creature, what it means to be the Creator. To know our place in the great scheme of things. To have an honest, accurate perception our inherent limitations. That can be humbling. And many people find it offensive. 

To take a comparison, suppose a mediocre, overconfident chess player challenges Capablanca (in his prime). He loses every time. No contest. The loser hasn’t a fraction of Capablanca’s talent. 

Capablanca doesn’t beat him to impress anyone. Rather, Capablanca beats him because Capablanca is better. Simple as that. He wins every time, not to wow the public, but because he’s a superior opponent. Vastly superior.

In theory, Capablanca could let the weaker opponent win. Capablanca could make calculated “mistakes” to give the weaker opponent an artificial advantage. Help him win. But that would be a charade. Even if he “lost,” Capablanca would still be controlling the outcome just as surely as if he won.

vii) So this is not, in the first place, about appearances (“appearing to be impressive"), but bedrock reality.

Now, there may also be occasions when it’s useful to impress others. If a man suffers from delusions of grandeur, it can be useful to cut him down to size. To deflate his inflated self-image. To set the record straight.

viii) Over and above the metaphysics of contingency is the issue of morality. We are sinners. We are guilty. As sinners, we can’t merit God’s approval. We deserve to be punished. 

Going back to #29, yeah, I had the other side of the Lordship Salvation divide in mind when I suggested that the Reformed doctrine of perseverance / inexorable santification–bottom line, if you don’t synergistically produce good works then you will go to hell–does not sound much like resting in God assurance of heaven sort of good news. The idea that Jesus does it all for you, all the ad intra stuff worked out in love, so do not fret over your sanctification any more than your justification, was a huge draw for me, into the OPC.

i) I don’t see how that would draw him to the OPC. The opponents of “Lordship Salvation” weren’t Calvinists, but antinomian fundamentalists. They were militantly opposed to Calvinism. Calvinism doesn’t take the position that sanctification happens all by itself. Rather, that involves the “means of grace” (broadly defined).

ii) Moreover, Calvinism doesn’t take the position that all professing believers persevere. Likewise, it doesn’t take the position that sanctification is inexorable for all professing believers. Rather, God preserves the elect. God sanctifies the elect. 

But my burgeoning Reformed faith ran off the rails on exegetical grounds. The exegesis of the “warning passages” seemed pretty fudged, and the “God will bring it to completion” passages did not sufficiently counter-balance that deficiency so for me to remain persuaded. Not that I have a pat interpretation of the “inexorable perseverance” verses. Probably something like an implicit “that is, of course, if you do not jump ship.” This seemed (seems) like less of a stretch than the “warnings refer to non-possibilities” harmonization.

Once again, Calvinism doesn’t deny the possibility that professing believers will commit apostasy. To the contrary, Calvinism grants that possibility. However, the elect cannot lose their salvation. That’s the difference.

Does Preslar consistently misstate Reformed theology in this post because he’s ignorant? In that case he didn’t know what he rejected. Or does he know better, but can’t be bothered to truthfully state the opposing position? 


  1. Good post.

    The perserverance of the elect and the sins of the person are obvious places where trouble can brew up for someone attempting to understand these things.

    I like the following passage when I consider these matters:

    Philippians 2:12 "So then, my dear friends, just as you have always obeyed, not only in my presence but even more in my absence, continue working out your salvation with awe and reverence, 13 for the one bringing forth in you both the desire and the effort – for the sake of his good pleasure – is God. 2Cor 3:5"

    The very person who wrote these words also considered the struggle he had to do the things he wanted to do and the failure he had at avoiding to do the things he did NOT want to do. See Romans 7:14 to end of chapter.

    Salvation is of God's calling and for the purpose of His glory.

    The level of sanctification that we obtain -- being transformed into His likeness -- is dependent upon our obedience.

    Hence the reason why all of us shall suffer loss at the Judgement because our rewards were dependent upon our obedience.

    Whether this person you are interacting with was ignorant or being intentionally misleading, one does not know.

    The Internet is such a temptation for the trumpeting of opinions that often lack careful reflection.

  2. Steve wrote, “Monergism strictly applies to regeneration, not sanctification.”

    From a Calvinist point of view, could sanctification also be considered monergistic in the historic sense of the term (even though the term monergism, strictly speaking, was used historically of regeneration and not sanctification per se)?