Inerrantists who ignore Scripture: who killed biblical synergism?

One of Calvinists’ staple arguments in favor of monergism is the inference that positing God as relying, in some sense, upon our decision to participate in salvation is actually a demotion of God, a heinous and (usually) heretical inversion of man’s sovereignty over that of God’s. On Facebook today, a Calvinist posted the following statement:

It is no less blasphemous to proclaim Allah to be god than to proclaim the one true God to be a slave of your own will and whim.

I’m pretty sure he meant to state it in reverse order: it was an attack on non-Calvinists rather than Muslims. I think his point was that those who “proclaim the one true God to be a slave…” are no better than Muslims.

One of his friends concurred, asking rhetorically, “Where in the whole Bible does [God] give man authority over Him?”

That brought me into it.

I responded that, while I might quibble with the specific formulation of this question, the whole concept of prayer changing things, Moses changing God’s mind about killing the whole mass of the children of Israel, Abraham bartering with God over Sodom, etc. clearly portrays God as allowing people to decisively influence His actions. Why is it spitting in His face to entertain the belief that this same economy prevails even in the area of salvation? Even though I dislike it being framed in terms of “authority”, it is no less true that delegating authority is not ceding authority, but a mark of authority.

Someone else responded to my comment succinctly: “So, for God, the future changes?”

Without wanting to get into Open Theism, I responded that the fatal problem is in saying that because God has apparently (as Scripture presents it) chosen to respond to human action that He is therefore being forcibly enslaved to our own will and whim. These sorts of conclusions are based off of overreaching desires to systematize that disregard much of Scripture’s testimony.

The chief “faults” of non-Calvinists are that they don’t take their logical systems too seriously when applying them to God’s sovereignty and man’s will, and that they take the depictions of God as He interacts with man throughout Scripture too seriously.

Non-Calvinists see no need for fancy footwork to explain away the fact that the biblical authors are clearly trying to portray God as “repenting” of certain actions based upon some factor, such as pre-Flood mankind’s sinful behavior or Moses’ prayer. They see no reason to deny that “Ye have not because Ye ask not” means anything other than “God’s giving is actually contingent upon your asking.” They have encountered no logical rationale necessitating the conclusion that soteriologically related petitions such as “Choose life!” and “Repent!” were imperatives merely chosen to sound exactly like they demand human response, when all the while they were simply code phrases for “Just hang tight while I enact my plan to redeem and damn whomever I already decided I was going to.”

Yes, the Bible says that it is God who called and predestined; it says that some are, whensoever He wills, just plain SOL. If, as I doubt, it does indeed logically and necessarily follow from those propositions that our actions cannot influence God decisively, then you’re stuck with Scripture contradicting itself — which I’m fine with, by the way, but most Calvinists aren’t! We shouldn’t rely so heavily on our logic and our ability to systematize away the tensions in Scripture that, when we consequently run roughshod over clear depictions like I mentioned above, we end up excommunicating those who aren’t willing to do so despite their honest confession of God as sovereign. That is my main beef with the majority of Calvinists I have encountered.

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  • atimetorend

    Funny:
    then you’re stuck with Scripture contradicting itself — which I’m fine with, by the way, but most Calvinists aren’t!

    and right on:
    …then you’re stuck with Scripture contradicting itself — which I’m fine with, by the way, but most Calvinists aren’t!

    Nice post, I wish I could have read stuff like this when I was at a strictly Calvinist church. I wish they had taught their calvinism as their theology rather than as the only theology. Yuck.

  • travisjacobs

    Steve I read a lot of this whole conversation and I got to say. It just exhausts me with Christianity.

    • I know what you mean. The thing is, it’s a wonderful and harmless exercise
      to try to wrap our minds around how God works, how to interpret Scripture,
      etc. It interests me in much the same way as the issues surrounding the
      placement of neanderthalensis or erectus within the Homo phylogeny. It’s all
      quite contentious, but you don’t see anthropologists denying that their
      opponents are scientists.

      I don’t think that Reformed

  • I know what you mean. The thing is, it's a wonderful and harmless exercise
    to try to wrap our minds around how God works, how to interpret Scripture,
    etc. It interests me in much the same way as the issues surrounding the
    placement of neanderthalensis or erectus within the Homo phylogeny. It's all
    quite contentious, but you don't see anthropologists denying that their
    opponents are scientists.

    I don't think that Reformed people all just woke up one day and thought, “I think I'll condemn a Christian's belief to hell today. I know: I'll become a Calvinist and condemn Arminians!” If they remain true to their belief system, there is probably good enough reason to think that non-Calvinists are blaspheming God. I just don't think that their system pays adequate attention to the whole counsel of Scripture. And unless it does, they shouldn't be under the impression that they stand on a firm enough foundation to call others heretics.

  • I know what you mean. The thing is, it's a wonderful and harmless exercise
    to try to wrap our minds around how God works, how to interpret Scripture,
    etc. It interests me in much the same way as the issues surrounding the
    placement of neanderthalensis or erectus within the Homo phylogeny. It's all
    quite contentious, but you don't see anthropologists denying that their
    opponents are scientists.

    I don't think that Reformed people all just woke up one day and thought, “I think I'll condemn a Christian's belief to hell today. I know: I'll become a Calvinist and condemn Arminians!” If they remain true to their belief system, there is probably good enough reason to think that non-Calvinists are blaspheming God. I just don't think that their system pays adequate attention to the whole counsel of Scripture. And unless it does, they shouldn't be under the impression that they stand on a firm enough foundation to call others heretics.

  • Well said, Steve. I've always thought it strange that Calvinists presume they occupy the “logical high ground”.

    I was a T-U-L-I-P Calvinist for a few years while in College, but ultimately found it to be contrary to reason, contrary to multiple Scriptures, but mostly, just plain boring. There is much drama in a human existence that interacts synergistically with God, upon whom the success of God's ventures rests to some degree, who therefore matter to God. All of that drama and significance is stolen away by the bland, static, and oh-so-logical approach of the Calvinist.

  • There is a lot of arrogance out there in the Calvinist camp; I should know, living in Calvinist Mecca (Jackson, MS). The facebook statement you quoted is almost–almost–laughable in its arrogance; the authority by which he identifies different levels of blasphemy is staggering. I am not sure whether I am a still Calvinist or not, but at this point, I sort of embrace two seemingly opposite strains (God chooses us and we choose him) and move on.

  • Tensions in the Bible, and let's not forget life, are important issues that we must be able to hold if we want to reach others with the love of Christ. The cut, dried and digested ideas of so many while sometimes helpful to get our minds around difficult things must be kept in balance with the sticky realities God leaves us in.

    In other words: Yes, friends, I think there are reasons people still disagree on these topics [smile].

    ~Luke

  • There is much drama in a human existence that interacts synergistically with God, upon whom the success of God's ventures rests to some degree, who therefore matter to God.

    Brilliantly said. Thanks.

  • Thanks for your comment.

    Most Calvinists agree that Scripture talks of our choosing God, but they make sure we know the caveat that it is only because God chose us to choose Him. Yet I don't know of any non-Calvinist who believes, or who thinks that any biblical author ever believed, that God is merely a reactor to our whim and will. “In Him we live and move and have our being.” Insofar as He reacts to our “whim and will”, it is because it is His prerogative to do so. This is a bit of a red herring, but all's fair in love, war, and heresy hunting, it seems!

    • Steve,
      First timer. If you don’t mind, I would like to share with you my own blog post regarding what I call ‘Biblical synergism’. I am coming at this as a rather eclectic member of a Reformed denomination, I would appreciate your take…

      Andy

      2 Corinthians 7:5-6
      Outside were conflicts, inside were fears. Nevertheless God…

      “I sought the Lord, and afterward I knew—He moved my soul to seek
      Him, seeking me. It was not I that found, O Savior true; no, I was found
      of thee.” The first verse of this 19th century hymn (author unknown),
      expresses a biblical synergism at work in our salvation.

      Synergism is a word that needs some unpacking. The World English
      Dictionary defines synergism as the working together of two or more
      agents to produce an effect that is greater than the sum of their
      individual effects. Thus, in a theological context, it has to do with
      the way in which, or the extent to which, one’s eternal salvation is the
      result of both divine and human activity.

      From the beginning, the church catholic has held that man cannot save
      himself by simply doing good deeds. The kerygma has always been,
      “Repent of your sins; believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be
      saved.” Furthermore, she (the church catholic) has always maintained
      that it is even beyond man’s ability (in some autonomous way) to decide
      to place his faith in Christ for salvation. Rather, God must take the
      initiative. He must act first, or all is futile.

      The essence of the gospel is that God has acted first, in sending his
      Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, to be our Savior. And God has acted first,
      in sending his Holy Spirit, to stir the hearts of men to believe and
      embrace the gospel.

      God’s actions call for a response, one that it is incumbent upon us to make. Choose you this day whom you will serve (Joshua 24:15).
      Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you
      double-minded (James 4:8). Come unto me, all you who labor (Matthew
      11:28). Seek the Lord while He may be found (Isaiah 55:6). When I
      choose, when I cleanse, when I come, when I seek, I am actually,
      self-consciously, doing something. I am not in a trance.

      God acts first. He takes the initiative. While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us (Romans 5:8) Then I act. I respond in faith unto salvation. This is a synergy that is surely biblical, is it not?

      Yes, it is, but there’s a bit more unpacking to do. God and I may be
      the two agents in this synergy, but it’s not the kind of synergy where
      two agents bring their independent work together to achieve a greater
      result. We are never independent of God. How could we be? “For in Him we live, and move and have our being (Acts 17:28).
      Or, to paraphrase, “in Him we live, and move, and choose to follow Him,
      and cleanse our hands, and purify our hearts, and come unto Him sinful
      though we are, and seek Him as He commands.”

      This is synergism of a kind, but not of a kind that detracts from
      God’s sovereignty. The domain of our hearts is the very kingdom of
      God. The kingdom of God is within you (Luke 17:21). This is
      also monergism (God acting alone) of a kind. “He moved my soul to seek
      Him, seeking me.” And yet it is not of a kind that detracts from man’s
      responsibility. Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish (Luke 13:3).

      The salvation of God, wrought through the atoning sacrifice of Christ
      and by the working of the Holy Spirit in hearts that are wide open, is
      ultimately a mystery—a wonderful mystery which cannot be fully explained
      by any fine-grained theological system.

      Perhaps synergism and monergism thus understood are just two ways of expressing the same ineffable reality.

      • I certainly appreciate the attempt at reconciling these, Andy. I welcome it in theory.

        But the emphasis in Reformed circles is clearly and unequivocally on God’s role; treating man’s response as anything but the direct effect of God’s intervention to change the human will despite itself is typically decried as Pelagian synergism. For them, if a man does anything good, it is really God; if a man wants to do anything good, it is really God.

        Now, I don’t have problem with this in one sense, but not because of Paul’s quotation of Epimenides, which if applied here would also attribute all the bad I do to the divine will; rather, I am glad to credit God for any good that I do because anything good done by anyone is by definition God’s work, since He is the source of all goodness. That is not the Calvinistic understanding of monergism, however: God gets the glory from programming the things He wills into our operating systems, which He has to hack because of our corrupted software, so that any crediting of the robot’s performance to the robot ludicrously and blasphemously robs the designer of all deserved glory. In synergism, the relationship is parent/child: the source of our being comes from God, and He is the one who instructs us to do as we ought, and takes all delight from our willfully sitting at His feet to learn what He wants to teach us to do and then doing that out of our own individual will.

        Put another way, receiving a free gift steals no glory from the giver, yet in mainstream Calvinist theology, the very reception of the gift is accomplished wholly by the Spirit’s work within the recipient: regeneration precedes repentance (n.b. in Calvin, not Luther).

        There may be dissenters amongst Calvinists, and I’ve seen attempts at trying to chalk the tension up to mystery, but this is central to Calvinist logic because of the Augustinian understanding of original sin as fully corrupting our will and even our reasoning.

        Am I missing anything?

        • Thank you for responding so very quickly! (I wasn’t even sure I’d get a response.)

          I’m afraid monergism is a closed system. My pastor (reformed, PCA) didn’t like my post either.

          I was trying to articulate what I feel in my gut so to speak—that both things are happening. I’m choosing and God is choosing. But it is not as if it’s a zero-sum game. We are dealing with the interplay between the infinite (the infinite!) and the finite.

          The New Testament story that works for me is the one about the man with the crippled hand. The Lord passes by and says to him, “Stretch out your hand!” (God’s initiative.) Now the man could have said, “Na, I don’t think it’ll do any good.” (He could have resisted.) But instead, the poor man stuck out his hand, and it was healed! (A contrite spirit. A miraculous change. A conversion.) Now, no one in the crowd gave any kudos to the man. He just stuck out his hand. But he stuck it out! All the credit, amazement, etc. went to the Lord instead. This is how I think it works.

          Your comment about receiving the free gift from the giver. Same thing.

          Synergism is not Pelagian, or Semi-Pelagian. In fact, I personally believe that no true saint in church history, of whatever stripe, would want any of the glory for themselves. “‘Tis mercy all”, as the song goes. What are the twenty-four elders doing in Revelation anyway. They are given crowns, and they toss them back! The Psalmist said, “Not unto us O Lord, not unto us, but unto thy name give glory.” You get my drift.

          The best soteriological statement I’ve seen was written by an Eastern Orthodox bishop, Kallistos Ware (I’m drawn to Eastern Orthodoxy in many ways), who wrote:

          What God does [in saving us] is incomparably more important than what we humans do; yet our voluntary participation in God’s saving action is altogether indispensable. Our cooperation with God is genuinely free, but there is nothing in our good actions that is exclusively our own. At every point our human cooperation is itself the work of the Holy Spirit. The inter-relationship between divine grace and human freedom remains always a mystery beyond our comprehension.

          Andy

          • Haha…thanks for noticing my mistake (wrong heresy!).

            Yes, I too have a PCA pastor whose depictions of the Reformed view I was trying to represent in my comment. It is indeed rather tightly closed off. At least Lutherans say that repentance precedes regeneration, which helps a bit.

            BTW, if you were to look at some of my more recent posts, you’d see my own attraction to Orthodox theology. One thing they make a point to say is that the imago dei is not so marred by the Fall that we cannot will or choose the salvation offered to us.

  • The cut, dried and digested ideas of so many while sometimes helpful to get our minds around difficult things must be kept in balance with the sticky realities God leaves us in.

    Another brilliant quote generated in response to this post!

    Because forms of both monergistic and synergistic thought are found in Scripture, those who will admit no tension between or lack of clarity within the minds of its authors are forced to iron it out one way or another. Seeking the truth on these issues is admirable and worthwhile, but their professed high regard for Scripture is contradicted by their willingness to contort bits of it to make it mean what they think it should.

    • Yes. I wonder if this tension is why the Church fathers seem to be saying different things at different times.

  • Amen!

  • the whole counsel of Scripture

    The more I read the Bible, the more human its origin appears to be. (Which is not to say that I believe the Bible isn't divinely inspired.) As such, I am having an increasingly difficult time believing that there is such a thing as “the whole counsel of Scripture.”

  • Certainly agreed. I am being ironic. I see no reason to believe there is a
    unitary counsel of Scripture at all. We should look at the “whole”
    thing in the terms of its constituent parts. In order to take one passage
    seriously as inerrantists claim to, we should not seek to cram it into the
    cubby hole another passage belongs in; if they end up in the same spot,
    that's fine, too.

  • the whole counsel of Scripture

    The more I read the Bible, the more human its origin appears to be. (Which is not to say that I believe the Bible isn't divinely inspired.) As such, I am having an increasingly difficult time believing that there is such a thing as “the whole counsel of Scripture.”

  • Certainly agreed. I am being ironic. I see no reason to believe there is a
    unitary counsel of Scripture at all. We should look at the “whole”
    thing in the terms of its constituent parts. In order to take one passage
    seriously as inerrantists claim to, we should not seek to cram it into the
    cubby hole another passage belongs in; if they end up in the same spot,
    that's fine, too.

  • duncan

    the Bible in arabic-speaking countries uses “Allah” as the term for “God”. surely no blasphemy in proclaiming that “Allah is God”.

  • Good point. As I understand it, Allah no more a proper name than “God” is; we refer to “gods” with the same word as God. Hebrew did the same, even using the same “God” word elohim to refer to human beings.

  • aviya

    synergism is all over the bible!! Jesus said that by Your faith be it done unto you and come unto me all you who labor and are heavy laden and I will give your rest; Do you believe I am able to do this Jesus want us to cooperate with him!!