Phillip Cary on Monergism and Synergism

The question of whether Augustine is a monergist or a synergist is more complicated. For one thing, even at his most monergistic, Augustine does not deny that we are active in our own salvation. Augustine is a monergist with respect to the origin of faith, for instance, in that he sees it as resulting from prevenient or “operating grace” rather than “co-operating grace” (his terms). But for Augustine this does not take away the role of human free will, for what prevenient grace does is precisely to move our wills so that they freely will the good. Hence for Augustine grace never undermines or replaces free will. In that sense he is never a radical monergist, as if the human will had no active role to play. On the other hand, he is indeed a monergist in a less radical sense, because for him the gift of faith is wholly the work of God, since even our freely willing to accept God’s gift is a work of grace alone.

So in that sense, Augustine is clearly a monergist with respect to the gift of faith, unlike the Arminians. Ultimately it is up to God, not us, whether we freely choose to accept what God has to give us. However—and here is the real complication—this does not make Augustine a monergist with respect to salvation. The reason why is that Augustine does not have a Calvinist concept of saving faith. For he does not share Calvin’s distinctive new doctrine about the perseverance of the saints, according to which everyone with true (i.e., saving) faith is sure to persevere to the end and be eternally saved. For Augustine, you can have a perfectly genuine faith but not persevere in faith to the end of your life. There is no guarantee that believers will not lose their faith and thus ultimately be damned. Hence no matter how true your faith presently is, that does not mean you are sure to be saved in the end. Consequently, Augustine’s monergism about faith does not make him a monergist about salvation.

Read the rest here. Ben Myers gives some thoughts on the question here. I am increasingly coming to the conviction that the whole monergism/synergism debate is wrong-headed and that a more refined understanding of creation as divine gift is needed. What we have in relationship with God is a unilaterally established reciprocity. Much of what I encounter in contemporary Calvinistic doctrines of salvation can be regarded as a collapse of reciprocity in a suffocating form of monergism, suggestive of a weak grasp of the significance of our faith in a Triune God.

About Alastair Roberts

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University) writes in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespasses beyond these bounds. He participates in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, and tweets at @zugzwanged.
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7 Responses to Phillip Cary on Monergism and Synergism

  1. garver says:

    Just a few quickie additional comments.

    First, Michael Hanby in his work on Augustine says some interesting and helpful things about how Augustine’s ontology (i.e., way of conceiving the relationship beween God and the world as created) is different from that of modernity (which would include much of Reformed thinking, like it or not, intentional or not). Thus in turn affects questions of monergism vs. synergism. You already note this. Hanby might be a resource for thinking it through further in relation to Augustine.

    Second, turning to the Christian East, I’m impressed by how thinkers like Maximos the Confessor situate their overt “synergism” within christology as analogue to their doctrine of two wills in Christ where the human is assumed by the divine Person and deified without, nonetheless, any confusion between the two natures.

    What I don’t see Cary talk about in what he says here is Augustine’s recurring references to “the gift of perseverance” which seems, in some way, to push him more in the monergistic direction. There is a guarantee for Augustine that those who have the gift of perseverance (i.e., the elect) will not ultimately lose their faith. And if that’s so, Augustine’s on Calvin’s doorstep, it seems.

  2. Al says:

    Thanks for the comments, Joel. They are very helpful.

  3. I hope in the process of growing in understanding we can avoid the pitfall of something like Barthianism, which makes semantical shifts but doesn’t offer anything really new in substance (I mean specifically in relation to this doctrine).

  4. Phillip Cary says:

    Indeed, Augustine writes a whole treatise on the gift of perseverance, which is a gift of grace. The crucial difference from Calvin is that for Augustine, no one knows whether they are given this gift until they actually do persevere to the end.

    Calvin’s doctrine of predestination, by contrast, involves a radical and new epistemic thesis: believers are supposed to know they will be given the gift of perseverance. For they are supposed to know they are predestined to be saved, because they are supposed to know they are eternally saved. Augustine denies all these points: we are not saved yet (for we are saved in hope but not yet in reality, as he often put it) precisely because we do not know whether we will persevere in faith until the end.

    So I would not say Augustine is on Calvin’s doorstep. Rather, Augustine’s doctrine of perseverance is the proper context in which to see what is new and unprecedented in Calvin’s doctrine.

  5. Pingback: alastair.adversaria » Active and Passive in Salvation

  6. garver says:

    Well, the comment about being “on Calvin’s doorstep” was more with regard to the issue of monergism as describing the ontology of salvation rather than how that might register itself epistemically for the believer.

    I certainly think there’s a difference between Calvin and Augustine on the epistemic issue (more of a difference than Calvin himself would probably be willing to admit), though I’m not quite sure I entirely accept your description of Calvin’s views.

  7. Christian Anderson says:

    “Much of what I encounter in contemporary Calvinistic doctrines of salvation can be regarded as a collapse of reciprocity in a suffocating form of monergism, suggestive of a weak grasp of the significance of our faith in a Triune God.”
    – This sounds fascinating. Please could you expand on this in another post!

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