The Heresy of Monergism
If all Calvinism were to be encapsulated by a single term it would be the word Monergism. The term comes from the Greek mono meaning “one,” and erg meaning “work,” and describes the notion that salvation is affected by only one agent, namely God. As R.C. Sproul explains it, “A monergistic work is a work produced singly, by one person… A synergistic work is one that involves cooperation between two or more persons or things.”
While there is certainly a sense in which the Bible teaches that God is the only agent effecting salvation, Monergism goes wrong in denying that human beings are able to co-operate in the process of regeneration and salvation.
Monergism arises out of the fact that Calvinists are deeply uncomfortable acknowledging any synergy between the divine will and the human will. Indeed, a Calvinist will say that when a man or woman appears to co-operate with God, this is only because the Lord first predetermined that he or she should do so, thus preserving the sense in which only one agent is operative.
Some Calvinists teach that Monergism only applies to regeneration, and that sanctification is synergistic. Reformed Baptist Andrew Naselli expressed this view when he wrote, “A monergistic view of regeneration is biblical, but a monergistic view of sanctification is not.” Other teachers have been more globalist in their application of Monergism, applying it to every level of the Christian walk. For example, one Calvinist professor I had (who is actually considered a moderate) went so far as to assert that I don’t even have free will when it comes to deciding whether to have honey or raspberry jam on my toast in the morning, because whichever choice I make results from God’s prior will-act in making the choice for me. There no real synergy between the divine and the human, for God remains the only true agent that is working.
Monergism isn’t entirely bad, because it arises from at least three good theological impulses. First, it takes seriously the fact that God is in complete control of everything that happens (Matthew 10:29). Secondly, it takes seriously the fact that we cannot earn our salvation by works and we can never have anything to boast about before God (Romans 3:27). Thirdly, Monergism recognizes that in all the good that we do, it is God working in us (Philippians 2:13). Where Monergism needs to be critiqued is when it takes these truths and formalizes them into a tight system, drawing further extrapolations which end up excluding important Biblical teaching about the role of human co-operation in the salvation process.
Interestingly, the thing that first alerted my wife and me to the problems in a Monergistic approach was when we saw how it tinctured various practical areas of the Christian life. Again and again we were seeing that the Monergistic mentality essentially sets up the relationship between God and man (as well as grace and nature) like two transactions in a zero-sum game. In a zero-sum game, the gains of one side will always correlate to the losses of the other side. So for example, the Monergistic mentality feels that if too much freedom or efficacy is granted to man or nature then there is that much less left over for God’s own freedom, sovereignty or glory. What results is partly analogous to the kind of Apollinarian dualism discussed by Colin Gunton in Yesterday and Today: A Study of Continuities in Christology or again by Demetrios Bathrellos in The Byzantine Christ. The Apollinarians “could not conceive of a coexistence and cooperation between the divine and the human natures and wills in Christ that would respect the particularity and integrity of both” (Bathrellos, p. 15). The Apollinarian discomfort preserving the particularity and integrity of the human is echoed again and again in Calvinist treatments of the relationship between the human and the divine. For example, in James White’s book Debating Calvinism, he argues that “the first element of the Bible’s teaching of monergism is the absolute freedom of God.” For God to be truly free, He must be the only energy operating.
Similarly, in R.C. Sproul’s classic Chosen by God, Sproul goes so far as to assert that anything short of total Monergism leaves God less than God. On this scheme of things, Monergism is not merely true, it is true necessarily, for it is no more possible for God to create a non-monergistic universe than it is possible for Him to cease being God. Ironically, this is meant to free God, although it actually ends up significantly limiting Him. For as David Bradshaw observed,
on this view the Augustinian interpretation of predestination is not only true but is necessarily true, since God could not create creatures who are capable in any way of affecting his judgments regarding salvation and damnation. Yet the Augustinian position began precisely as the attempt to exalt the divine will over all necessity…. It is problems such as these that led Pascal to exclaim that the God of the philosophers is not the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The Augustinian-Thomistic God, who is perfectly simple and fully actual, seems to be locked within a box from which he cannot escape in order to interact in any meaningful way with his creatures.
By contrast, Saint Maximus the Confessor argued that because humans are made in the image of God, they possess the same type of self-determining power as God. “As regards the way in which self-determination must be understood, it is noteworthy that, for Maximus, the basis and archetype of man’s self-determination is the self-determination of God. As we have seen, Maximus argued that man is self-determining because he is made in the image of the divinity, which is self-determining…” (Bathrellos, p. 167).
Monergism and Prayer
One practical area of the Christian life where we saw this playing out was when it came to prayer. While attending Calvinist churches I frequently encountered the idea that prayer doesn’t actually change things. This came up again and again in conversations I had with Calvinist elders or lay people concerning blessing the food we eat. No one was ever willing to admit that when we asked God to bless the food that anything actually happened as a result of the prayer. One person told me that if prayer made a real difference then God wouldn’t be truly sovereign and our prayers would therefore be a ‘work’.
Consistent with this framework, in the Calvinist church we attended for five years, I never remember the pastor once praying and asking the Lord to bless the Eucharist before administering it, even though the church considered itself to be liturgical and to hold an exalted view of the Eucharist. James Jordan goes even further and declares that “By refusing to consecrate the bread and wine, we affirm that the grace of the sacrament comes from the Spirit, the Lord and Giver of Life.” Once again, this is the zero-sum mentality which assumes that any role we play (even praying a prayer of consecration) must necessarily subtract from God’s portion of the pie.
This Monergistic approach to prayer permeates countless books and articles by Calvinist authors when handling the topic of prayer. For example, in Arthur Pink’s discussion of prayer in his book The Sovereignty of God, he takes violent exception to an article on prayer where the author had declared that “prayer changes things, meaning that God changes things when men pray.” Calvinist Joseph Wilson argued similarly in his 1991 article “Does Prayer Change Things?” He wrote, “No man can believe in the glorious, Biblical doctrine of absolute predestination, and believe that prayer changes things. The two are incompatible. They do not go together. If one is true, the other is false. Since predestination is true, it follows as night follows day, that prayer does not change things.” Calvinist David West made the same point, “Prayer does not change things, nor does it change God or His mind.” Similarly Calvinist Dan Phillips commented, “prayer does not change things.”
Monergism and Pastoral Ministry
The Monergistic idea that “everything has to be 100% God” can bring normal Christian duty into a condition of atrophy. One of the most disheartening expressions of this is when there is a de-prioritization of helping those who fall away from the faith, since if the person is elect we can be sure God will bring them back, but if they are not elect, then there is nothing we can do anyway.
Some Monergists I know have told me that because everything is 100% God (meaning there is no divine/human synergy at work), the only way to help troubled people is to preach to them and let God do the rest. When a Monergist says, “only God can engineer a change in that person’s heart”, nine times out of ten he means “only God, independent of any human instrumentality, can change that person’s heart.” In practice, this means we have to sit back and “let go and let God.”
Some elderly Calvinists I have known have appealed to Monergist principles when explaining why we should stay clear of disciplines like psychotherapy. When human instrumentality is involved, there is always a lurking suspicion that man rather than God is at work. This finds expression in the common notion that the only way to help a troubled person is to preach to them and then let God do the rest. Such a view is the cornerstone of a type of counseling practiced in many reformed churches known as called ‘Nouthetic Counselling.’
I have been using some extreme examples to illustrate my point about the problems of Monergism. Yet these same principles are usually assumed or implied even in the writings of mainstream Calvinists. For example, a standard Calvinist treatment of the problem of evil is to assert that God is not responsible for moral evil precisely because the sin He foreordained all comes to pass through secondary causes. This basic argument permeates most Calvinist theodicies. However, the ramifications for understanding God’s relationship with the world like this are far-reaching. I started to realize that this theodicy was problematic when the men’s group at our former church was studying a book in which a Calvinist author asserted that a problem with the libertarian view of free will is that it makes God directly responsible for our evil decisions since evil would then be happening through the primary causation of God. Now regardless of whether this is a legitimate implication of the libertarian position, it clearly implies that God is not responsible for the acts He performs through means, and that He can only get the credit for what He does directly and immediately. But as soon as we claim that the reason God is not responsible for evil is because His predetermination of evil occurs through means, we have implied that whenever God works through means the responsibility for what is done rests with agents other than Him, namely the creature. However, if the credit goes to the creature for anything that God accomplishes through means, then we are left with a system in which we can take the credit for most of the acts God performs in this world, since God accomplishes most things through means.
Take this out of the realm of theodicy and into the realm of pastoral care, and see what happens. If our basic paradigm is that the credit goes to the creature for anything God accomplishes through means, then of course we’ll want to take a hands-off approach when it comes to helping people so as not to subtract from God getting the glory for it. Only when God acts in someone’s life ‘out of the blue’ and not through visible human instruments, does He get the glory for it, at least if we follow out the logic of this argumentation.
(For further discussions about the evangelical quest to eliminate instrumentality, see the articles ‘Is Will-Power Good or Bad?’ and ‘B.B. Warfield and the Quest for Immediacy’ and ‘8 Gnostic Myths You May Have Imbibed.’)
Making salvation 100% “a God thing” (rather than a matter of synergistic co-operation) seems at first glance to be a liberating doctrine, as does Calvinism’s insistence that you can never lose your salvation. I have sat under many Calvinist sermons in which the pastor will declare how liberating it is to know that you will persevere to the end. However, this teaching on perseverance comes at a heavy price. In exchange for being able to lose your salvation, Calvinism offers the possibility that you may not really be one of the elect. If pressed on the question of how one can know whether he or she is among the elect, a good Calvinist will either tend to say “Don’t think about that” or he will enjoin the person to take comfort in the fruit of his life. The first option is a dodge, for what comfort can there be in a system that proclaims “You are elect of God, but don’t think too hard about whether what I’m saying is true”? The second option—to gain confidence from the fruit of one’s life—is only semantically different from those modalities to which Calvinism claims to be an alternative. In a functional sense (stripped of metaphysics), it puts salvation in our own hands as much as into God’s. And how is one to know if that “fruit” is authentic or enough to be a clear indication of election?
Monergism and Free Will
When my wife and I began to observe the practical liabilities of Monergism, we backed up to rethink the whole paradigm. We saw that our Calvinism had set up a duality between grace and nature, sovereignty and freedom, the divine and the human, as if these are related like two teams in an American football field. If one team controls forty of the hundred yards, then the other team necessarily controls the other sixty. When this is our basic paradigm, of course we always try to set things up so that it will be 100% God and 0% man.
The alternative, however, is to affirm that it is actually 100% God and 100% man. Once we realized this, we saw that there is space for nature to have a qualified autonomy. After all, if it doesn’t undermine God’s sovereignty for Him to make dogs doggy or for Him to make chickens with chicken-ness, then there is no reason that God’s sovereignty should be thrown into question because man has free will.
(As an aside, I should point out that by ‘free will’ I do not simply mean it in the compatibilist sense that we are free to choose what we want without coercion. Naturalist philosophers who believe that our minds are completely conditioned by biochemical laws have no problem affirming that human beings have free will in this sense. Indeed, the most radical materialist determinists all agree that we are free in the sense that we can choose according to our inclinations. However, if this is all we mean by ‘free will’, then we have conflated the distinction between determinism and freedom, thus expelling any coherent meaning from the latter. Both naturalist determinists and Calvinists can agree that the will is the effect of desires that could never have been otherwise, but only the Calvinist will add to this the sophistry of suggesting that this is compatible with ordinary notions of human freedom.)
Monergism and Worship
Another problem with the Monergist paradigm is that it is out of step with the church’s experience as it has unfolded over time in the life of the worshiping community. Archaeological evidence has now firmly established that the earliest forms of Christian worship were intensely material. The early Christians used lots of things (from icons to relics of departed saints) as aids in worship. This tradition has continued down to the present day in all the oldest branches of Christendom. By contrast, Calvinist worship has usually been barren, stripped of all physical accoutrements.
This is something that goes back to Calvin himself, not merely his followers. There’s been a lot of good scholarship explaining why this was in light of Calvin’s historical context and his broader theological commitments, but one central reason can again be located in Calvin’s Monergism. After all, if our starting assumption is that there is an unspoken tension between God and creation, and between grace and nature (an assumption on which Monergism feeds), then this tension can only be resolved by moving everything over into God’s department. We will then instinctively feel that it is more honoring to God when we can approach him immediately, that is, without any intermediaries rooted in the created realm. The bare walls of reformed churches are animated by this Monergistic impulse. They want to emphasize God by de-emphasizing the stuff of creation, and hence the color, vibrancy and stuff-ness of historic Christian worship is evacuated from the sanctuary. Using stuff as aids to worship is then reconfigured to be a species of idolatry, even though God prescribed things to be aids of worship in the era of the old covenant. (See my article ‘Are Calvinists Also Among the Gnostics?‘)
Once we appreciate that God’s employment of intermediaries does not subtract from His glory, there is space for a greater appreciation of the role that the saints have in helping us. Monergists are uncomfortable with the saints directly helping us because, given their zero-sum mentality, this subtracts from God’s 100%, just as psychotherapy subtracts from God’s glory by denying Him the ability to work directly. (To read more about why it is important to honor Mary and the saints, see ‘Putting Mary Back into Christmas.’)
Objections and Answers
Objection #1: Many of your observations about Monergism are problems with Calvinism rather than John Calvin himself. The problems you diagnose occur as Calvinists have taken certain latent tendencies within Calvin’s thought to an extreme that Calvin himself would have discountenanced. The solution therefore is not to reject Calvinism so much as to return to a proper and more authentic form of Calvinism.
Answer to Objection #1: It is true that many of my observations about Monergism have arisen as Calvinists have taken Calvin’s teachings to an extreme, abandoning the dialectical balance that Calvin himself was able to preserve. Nevertheless, Calvin’s own theology cannot be entirely insulated against the criticisms I have raised, especially with regard to the zero-sum contest between God and creation. While Calvin may not have gone to the extremes of his later followers, he did provide the basic framework that, once accepted, legitimizes the excesses I have diagnosed. This especially becomes apparent if we consider Calvin’s debt to the tradition of medieval nominalism, which is a topic I have begun to explore and will be published on in the near future. However, since this is ultimately an historical rather than a theological question, I have not included information about it within these reflections.
Objection #2: You have presented a caricature of Calvinism. The Calvinist ideas you discuss are not Calvinist ideas at all. To give one example, the quotes about prayer represent a minority position among Calvinists, as most serious Reformed thinkers will follow Calvin in asserting that prayer does actually change things. Similarly, many of your concerns about the zero-sum approach will be shared by most serious Calvinists. If you have a problem with Calvinism you would do better with critiquing the Reformed Confessions (Westminster, Belgic, etc.), rather than looking for extreme statements among those professing to be Calvinists.
Answer Objection #2: In critiquing Calvinist ‘ideas’, I am not simply talking about ideas that are necessarily taught from the pulpit in an explicit way. Rather, I am using the term “ideas” in the broad sense that Charles Taylor has described as the “social imaginary” in A Secular Age or that James Davison Hunter talked about with the language of “pre-reflective frameworks” in To Change the World or that James K.A. Smith articulated as being the ‘adaptive unconscious’ in Desiring the Kingdom. What these and other authors have tried to focus our attention on is not ideas that exist as disengaged concepts in a person’s head, nor ideas that can be reduced to a set of propositions on paper; rather, they are all urging us to give attention to ideas that exist as unstated understandings that make up the ‘background’ to how a people make sense of their world. Such “ideas” exist as implicit understandings and may not ever be explicitly articulated or cognitively recognized. They are, as Taylor describes it, the largely unfocussed background which gives cohesiveness to group experience, “something much broader and deeper than the intellectual schemes people may entertain when they think about social reality in a disengaged mode.”
Now take these categories and apply them to the zero-sum approach. What I am arguing is that Calvinist communities are easily tinctured by the zero-sum approach on this deeper and more implicit level. It is irrelevant that Calvinists will read this paper and say, “I don’t recognize the type of reformed theology you are describing, because you are presenting a caricature of Calvinism.” The reason this is irrelevant is because I am diagnosing concepts embedded in the adaptive unconscious of Calvinist communities rather than simply doctrines explicitly expounded from the pulpit or lectern. I am addressing a network of inchoate practices, assumptions and conventions which implicitly ‘carry’ certain notions, even while the doctrinal formulations may not explicitly affirm them. Put another way, I am dealing with an implicit theology which comes out of the fingertips of the laity as much as the official theology that is taught at the seminaries or in the lecture hall. Thus, when I object to Monergism, I am objecting to the whole package, including the type of excesses it implicitly encourages and the background narratives made plausible by Monergistic categories. These narratives unconsciously tincture the general mood of Calvinist communities because they affect how the laity unconsciously imagine their world.
- Why I Stopped Being a Calvinist (Part 1): Calvinism presents a dehistoricized Bible
- Why I Stopped Being a Calvinist (Part 2): Calvinism Destroys God’s Justice
- Why I Stopped Being a Calvinist (Part 3): Calvinism Dislocates God From our Experience of Him
- Why I Stopped Being a Calvinist (Part 5): A Deformed Christology
- Links to all my Articles on John Calvin or Calvinism