Last week, I blogged on the topic “Is Synergism Necessarily Semi-Pelagian?” I did so with some hesitation. I do not like to blog about issues related to Calvinism and Arminianism because I don’t like the turn these discussions often take on the internet. However, the blog post received a lot of (mostly) positive feedback from folks across the theological spectrum. I have been asked by several readers to follow up by addressing the question of whether or not monergism is necessarily fatalistic, since synergists sometimes unfairly claim it is. Angels, I apologize once again. Please don’t put me on “the list.”
I do want to offer one caveat up front: while this is something of a parallel accusation to the one I addressed in the previous post, there is an important dissimilarity. Semi-Pelagianism is a theological position that arose at a particular point in church history and then was condemned as error. Fatalism is not a theological position per se, but is more an unhelpful philosophical outlook. So while monergists who equate synergism with semi-Pelagianism are at least implicitly charging synergists with heresy (or at least heterodoxy), synergists who equate monergism with fatalism are at least implicitly charging monergists with embracing a totally non-Christian position.
Some synergist theologians and philosophers accuse monergists of being fatalists. Sometimes, this is a nuanced argument that simply suggests monergism has fatalistic tendencies. Other times, the ignorant and slanderous accusation is made that the “god” of Calvinism is closer to Allah than Yahweh. As with the synergism accusations, often folks on blogs are far worse than scholars. For some reason, the internet seems to raise the temperature of the ill-informed with a theological axe to grind. While God may have foreordained some monergists to be jerks, nasty synergists, of course, choose to act out in nastiness by a free exercise of their will.
Strictly speaking, monergists are not fatalists. Fate, at least as traditionally understood, is purposeless and arbitrary. A sense of hopelessness and inevitability characterizes the one who is the victim of fate. No matter what you do, your choices are meaningless. You are captive to forces beyond your control and comprehension that have no personal interest in your wellbeing.
This is absolutely not what monergists believe. It is true that monergists understand God’s providence to mean that he has in some way sovereignly foreordained all that comes to pass, yet without being the author of evil. This would include, of course, who will be saved. But this is not fate for two reasons. First, providence is not purposeless and arbitrary—in fact, it’s pretty much the opposite. Providence is the outworking of a particular plan by the Lord of all creation. Second, providence does not render our choices meaningless. Nearly all monergists affirm that, while God’s providence is “prior” to our choices, it works in tandem with our choices.
So, when we look to conversion, the monergist believes that God has chosen who will be saved as part of his wider providential plan. But monergists also believe that we make real choices for which we are really accountable. Nobody will be saved apart from God’s predestining him or her for salvation. Nobody will be saved apart from a conscious choice to turn from his or her sins and trust in Christ as Lord and Savior. From an eternal perspective, which we only have glimpses into, God has a plan that is infallibly being executed through his providence. From an earthly perspective, of which we have a clearer picture, every moment of one’s spiritual journey is based upon decisions that he or she makes. Though it can irritate some synergists, most monergists do not hesitate to appeal to mystery when it comes to the question of God’s sovereignty and human responsibility. Calvin did this frequently.
Just as some synergists are semi-Pelagian, some monergists are fatalists. Certain forms of High Calvinism, often called hyper-Calvinism, eliminate meaningful human response. Some of them argue for eternal justification, or the idea that we are already saved before the foundation of the world. Some of them deny the necessity of a faith response to the gospel. Some of them are antinomian, arguing that God’s moral commands are irrelevant for the elect. Some of them argue that God is the author of evil. But these fatalistic ideas are not necessary to monergists; few, in fact, advocate them.
In the same way that some synergists who are not semi-Pelagian sound like semi-Pelagians when they are being incautious or sloppy, some monergists who are not fatalists sound like fatalists when they are being incautious or sloppy. I have heard several monergists say fatalistic things and then backtrack upon being lovingly confronted. I have only ever met one honest to goodness fatalist in a Southern Baptist or other evangelical context. Almost no monergists wear Tobias Crisp jammies to bed at night.
If you know a monergist who sounds like a fatalist, do the Christ-like thing and assume he is not, in fact, a hyper-Calvinist or antinomian, but rather is not really thinking about what he is saying. Instead of making pointed (and perhaps harsh) accusations, have a real theological conversation with your brother. Press him as you would want to be pressed if you were unwittingly saying heterodox things in your own teaching.
This is the bottom line for me: while monergists and synergists can’t both be right, most folks in both camps are not so wrong that they are off the orthodox reservation. The vast majority of evangelical monergists and synergists are preaching the same gospel, even if they nuance aspects of it differently. So let’s talk to each other like grown-up brothers and sisters in Christ rather than treating those with different views like theological lepers.
One more thing: I want to challenge my synergist friends to take the lead in lovingly confronting folks who say abberant things in your own camp at least as often as you debate your monergist friends. And the same goes for monergists—lovingly confront those in your camp who advance unhelpful views at least as often as you debate synergists. I sincerely believe that this sort of self-policing will help reign in some of the most unhelpful voices in our wider discussions about Calvinism, Arminianism, Molinism, Traditionalism and all the other “isms” that represent our honest attempts to wrestle with what the Scriptures teach us about the nature of salvation.