Over the last few years I’ve taken to reading patristics a good deal. I’ve detailed some of my reading here in terms of surveys on various topics on this blog but probably the biggest change is my soteriology. This isn’t a massive secret and perhaps is most explicit in my concluding part of my survey of baptism in the earliest centuries of the church. In which I felt that whilst theology, perhaps best represented by Augustine, that emphasised a monergistic soteriology came to typify Western Christianity the earlier consensus, and I think historically in Eastern Christianity, seems to reflect a form of synergism. That is to say:
In Paul’s words, ‘We are fellow-workers (synergoi) with God’ (1 Corinthians iii, 9). If we are to achieve full fellowship with God, we cannot do so without God’s help, yet we must also play our own part: we humans as well as God must make our contribution to the common work, although what God does is of immeasurably greater importance than what we do.Timothy Ware, The Orthodox Church
In this context someone like John Cassian, a contemporary of Augustine, can stress the ‘fellow-working’ of man with God provided he has experienced the ‘grace of illumination’ so described by those like Clement of Alexandria. That one can say with Augustine that “sins alone separate between men and God; and these are done away by Christ’s grace, through whom, as Mediator, we are reconciled” and with Justin Martyr “Neither do we affirm that it is by fate that men do what they do, or suffer what they suffer, but that each man by free choice acts rightly or sins” and can agree with both in condemning those like Pelagius who argued that we are capable of drawing close to God independent of the grace he extends to us.
You might think, so what? Why does this matter? Isn’t this a distinction without a difference? Well I do think it matters, it informed my view of baptism for starters. More than this, pretty much every Western Christian tradition is generally monergistic, and that includes Protestantism and this informs how we act, how we think. I experienced this personally because for ages when I wanted to experience sanctification, to draw closer to our Father, and to put aside the things that kept me from him. I realised, in retrospect, that I had been approaching this in an incredibly passive way. I hoped the change would come via enough exposure to communion, prayer, in short grace as some sort of abstract quantity. That it wasn’t my actions that mattered ultimately but what God did in me as a passive recipient. I experienced a Christian version of what the author Milan Kundra called ‘an unbearable lightness of being’. This isn’t something all Monergists experience, far from it, but I did.
Yet in reading that Fathers I did feel a change in my how I viewed the subject of holiness. It gained a greater sense of gravity. I found that in learning to work with what God had planted within me, to cultivate it, I could experience a small and yet ‘persistent goodness’ of God’s grace in my life that was empowering to not just be passive but active. Cyril of Jerusalem in his catechism talks about instruction in the faith being like planting a tree, or building a house. I have an internal cathedral being constructed brick by brick with the help of God in order to worship him, a tree which might in bear sweet fruit that is his love. As per the parable, God provides the talents, the means for this to happen, but he teaches us like the good Father he is how to walk the path he intended for us. None of this is possible without God’s first intervention in our lives. To speak plainly this has helped me grow closer to God and experience great joy.
None of what I am saying is to be taken against Monergists or particularly Reformed believers. Yet I think this leaves me in something of a situation given the tradition I’m raised in and found myself in is Reformed. I’m unashamedly Protestant by conviction and whilst happy to cohabitate with Mongerists the feeling does not come always across as mutual and does, admittedly, mean we might approach certain practices differently. Two of the most frequent criticisms by Reformed polemicists against a Synergistic theology include:
Synergism Is Man Centered or Deprives God of Sovereignty
This was the critique I’ve heard most frequently. That God, in his sovereignty has decreed all things to pass and that a synergistic view deprives him of this. Yet in the earlier fathers we see God’s sovereignty and human will and enjoined together. Like a Monarch whose ‘word that proceeds from his mouth will not return to him empty’ is such precisely because those subject to it obey over any other voice. Gregory of Nyssa wrote:
God created the world by His reason and wisdom; for He cannot have proceeded irrationally in that work; but His reason and wisdom are, as above shown, not to be conceived as a spoken word, or as the mere possession of knowledge, but as a personal and willing potency. If the entire world was created by this second Divine hypostasis, then certainly was man also thus created; yet not in view of any necessity, but from superabounding love, that there might exist a being who should participate in the Divine perfections. If man was to be receptive of these, it was necessary that his nature should contain an element akin to God; and, in particular, that he should be immortal. Thus, then, man was created in the image of God. He could not therefore be without the gifts of freedom, independence, self-determination; and his participation in the Divine gifts was consequently made dependent on his virtue. Owing to this freedom he could decide in favour of evil, which cannot have its origin in the Divine will, but only in our inner selves, where it arises in the form of a deviation from good, and so a privation of it. Vice is opposed to virtue only as the absence of the better. Since, then, all that is created is subject to change, it was possible that, in the first instance, one of the created spirits should turn his eye away from the good, and become envious, and that from this envy should arise a leaning towards badness, which should, in natural sequence, prepare the way for all other evil. He seduced the first men into the folly of turning away from goodness, by disturbing the Divinely ordered harmony between their sensuous and intellectual natures; and guilefully tainting their wills with evil.Gregory of Nyssa, The Great Catechism, Summary: Chapters V. and VI ‘Reasonableness of the Incarnation’
This image of God as Monarch points to a view of delegated sovereignty. The idea of God as a Monarch holding court, by both Angels and Men, is alluded to repeatedly throughout scripture:
And the heavens will praise Your wonders, O Lord;
Your faithfulness also in the assembly of the saints.
For who in the heavens can be compared to the Lord?
Who among the sons of the mighty can be likened to the Lord?
God is greatly to be feared in the assembly of the saints,
And to be held in reverence by all those around Him.Psalm 89:5-7, NKJV
The ‘sons of the mighty’ are the Angelic hosts, God is called the ‘Lord of Hosts’ precisely because of the heavenly court he holds amongst the Elohim. This is even more explicit elsewhere:
Then Micaiah said, “Therefore hear the word of the Lord: I saw the Lord sitting on His throne, and all the host of heaven standing by, on His right hand and on His left. And the Lord said, ‘Who will persuade Ahab to go up, that he may fall at Ramoth Gilead?’ So one spoke in this manner, and another spoke in that manner. Then a spirit came forward and stood before the Lord, and said, ‘I will persuade him.’ The Lord said to him, ‘In what way?’ So he said, ‘I will go out and be a lying spirit in the mouth of all his prophets.’ And the Lord said, ‘You shall persuade him, and also prevail. Go out and do so.’ Therefore look! The Lord has put a lying spirit in the mouth of all these prophets of yours, and the Lord has declared disaster against you.”1 Kings 22:19-23, NKJV
The Lord put a lying spirit in the mouth of the prophets, and yet this was a delegated action given the spirit exercised its own will in executed God’s command. God is sovereign in like a sovereign. A Monarch or Sovereign does not do all things himself and that is the privilege of the station. This throws passages in the New Testament into a new light. Paul writes in Romans:
Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God. Therefore whoever resists the authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will bring judgment on themselves.Romans 13:1-2, NKJV
Which is a continuation and outworking of this Monarchical view of Sovereignty that explicitly addresses the reality that people could disobey. There is a recognition here that individuals possess real agency, in both the ability to obey the ordinances of God and to disobey. That through the help of the Holy Spirit we can pursue virtue:
O man of God, flee these things and pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, patience, gentleness. Fight the good fight of faith, lay hold on eternal life, to which you were also called and have confessed the good confession in the presence of many witnesses. I urge you in the sight of God who gives life to all things, and before Christ Jesus who witnessed the good confession before Pontius Pilate, that you keep this commandment without spot, blameless until our Lord Jesus Christ’s appearing, which He will manifest in His own time, He who is the blessed and only Potentate, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone has immortality, dwelling in unapproachable light, whom no man has seen or can see, to whom be honor and everlasting power. Amen.1 Timothy 6:11-16
Synergism is Works Based Salvation
The other criticism frequently leveled at synergism is that the pursuit of virtue is the pursuit of works as a foundation of faith. This criticism is only a problem, however, if the proponent is open to claiming the title ‘antinomian’ in turn. That there is no relationship between works existing at all. Synergism is completely consistent with the Protestant distinctions between Justification and Sanctification. James 2:22 reads:
Do you see that faith was working together with his works, and by works faith was made perfect?James 2:22, NKJV
Faith precedes works, moreso that faith without works is dead (v20). Works are the fruit of faith and occur successively in response to God’s initial act of grace. The phrase ‘working together’ is this word συνήργει (synērgei) which is the same word Timothy Ware quotes of Paul in 1 Corinthians 3:9 (For we are God’s fellow workers; you are God’s field, God’s building.). This is not possible without God’s first move. Faith, in light of this isn’t just belief but allowing those beliefs to bear fruit in the form of action. This means that inaction itself cannot be said to not be a type of action, all our conduct emerges from within what the Kuyperian philosopher Herman Dooyeweerd calls a ‘Religious Ground Motive’. The real question is what is the organising principle behind our actions. This is what Jesus talks about in Matthew 15:
The things that come out of a person’s mouth come from the heart, and these defile them. For out of the heart come evil thoughts—murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. These are what defile a person; but eating with unwashed hands does not defile them.Matthew 15:18-20
Jesus says similar things in Matthew 6 and we realise the real significance our actions take, not just in showing the fruit of our lives but also that which we allow to shape us. The implicit assumption in all this is that an authentic exercise of agency is possible. The fundamental question then is how will this agency be exercised? It’s not so much a question of ‘if’ we have works but ‘what’ do our works look like? In the words of James KA Smith ‘You are what you love’.
This criticism, to me, isn’t so much a legitimate critique of synergism but an incomplete view of the conjugated relationship that exists between our actions and beliefs. Believing God is the author, founder, and sustainer of our faith can be affirmed by both Monergists and Synergists.
A related critique is that synergism undermines unconditional election. Yet I think this places the emphasis in the wrong place. John Cassian in his conferences wrote:
We can very clearly perceive that God brings salvation to mankind in diverse and innumerable methods and inscrutable ways, and that He stirs up the course of some, who are already wanting it, and thirsting for it, to greater zeal, while He forces some even against their will, and resisting. And that at one time He gives his assistance for the fulfilment of those things which he sees that we desire for our good, while at another time He puts into us the very beginnings of holy desire, and grants both the commencement of a good work and perseverance in it. Hence it comes that in our prayers we proclaim God as not only our Protector and Saviour, but actually as our Helper and Sponsor. For whereas He first calls us to Him, and while we are still ignorant and unwilling, draws us towards salvation, He is our Protector and Saviour, but whereas when we are already striving, He is wont to bring us help, and to receive and defend those who fly to Him for refuge, He is termed our Sponsor and Refuge. Finally the blessed Apostle when revolving in his mind this manifold bounty of God’s providence, as he sees that he has fallen into some vast and boundless ocean of God’s goodness, exclaims: O the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How inscrutable are the judgments of God and His ways past finding out! For who has known the mind of the Lord? Romans 11:33-34 Whoever then imagines that he can by human reason fathom the depths of that inconceivable abyss, will be trying to explain away the astonishment at that knowledge, at which that great and mighty teacher of the gentiles was awed. For if a man thinks that he can either conceive in his mind or discuss exhaustively the dispensation of God whereby He works salvation in men, he certainly impugns the truth of the Apostle’s words and asserts with profane audacity that His judgments can be scrutinized, and His ways searched out. This providence and love of God therefore, which the Lord in His unwearied goodness vouchsafes to show us, He compares to the tenderest heart of a kind mother, as He wishes to express it by a figure of human affection, and finds in His creatures no such feeling of love, to which he could better compare it. And He uses this example, because nothing dearer can be found in human nature, saying: Can a mother forget her child, that she should not have compassion on the son of her womb? But not content with this comparison He at once goes beyond it, and subjoins these words: And though she may forget, yet will not I forget you. Isaiah 49:15John Cassian, Conferences : 13:17 ‘Of The Inscrutable Providence Of God’
So whilst Cassian wouldn’t necessarily assert election to be unconditional, salvation is entirely the prerogative of God and is ultimately an inscrutable mystery to us. Our election ultimately isn’t without cause but because of God’s foreknowledge of how we’d respond (Romans 8:29). Cassian elsewhere compares Paul, as an example of someone brought to salvation by God’s direct intervention, to Zaccheus, who appealed to the Lord of his own desire, both are the work of the Holy Spirit he affirms. In reviewing their cases, and those of others, he concludes: ‘the grace of God and free will seem opposed to each other, but really are in harmony, and we gather from the system of goodness that we ought to have both alike’ which seems the essence of συνήργει.
Writing this feels like confessing to something shameful. I know a good many Protestants who’ve come to similar views after reading patristics and yet its a favourite punching bag topic for many preachers. Historically its been in a minority position amongst Protestants and that leaves me with questions considering where I fit in as a layman who operates in overwhelmingly Monergistic circles. That doesn’t leave me wondering whether I should leave those circles but it is sobering considering the sometime unbecoming rhetoric employed against this perspective by people I otherwise respect. I don’t presume me coming to this view is going to settle any long-standing debates on soteriology in the Church, or really change anyones mind, but I do hope we can reach a point, God willing, where we can become more irenic rather than polemic on such subjects.