Thursday, November 02, 2006

Augustine and Monergism

Al Kimel over at Pontifications has posted a short article on Augustine and monergism (monergism being the idea that God works alone in respect to an individual’s salvation). The article is written by a Dr. Phillip Cary who argues that Augustine maintains monergism in relation to faith, but is a synergist in relation to perseverance (synergism meaning that both the human will and the divine will co-operate in the securing of final perseverance). Thus Carey concludes that Augustine is not a strict monergist in relation to salvation as a whole. He contrasts Augustine’s hybrid synergism with that of Luther and Calvin (who he portrays as strict monergists) and with Molina and Arminius (who are strict synergists) and argues that Augustine is a bit of an anomaly. The article is well written and worth reading. Here are a couple of thoughts:

First, I’m not entirely sure of Carey's larger point, but I can’t help wondering if he is ultimately suggesting something similar to TeSelle, who tries—vainly, I think—to argue that Augustine’s view of grace is different in the realm of perseverance than it is in the realm of justification. If Carey is merely pointing out that Augustine is a synergist in respect to salvation—then point well taken. But if Carey is suggesting that somehow Augustine’s view of grace in respect to perseverance is more congruous with Molina and Arminius than that of Calvin and Luther, I think he is mistaken.

Clearly Augustine is a synergist when it comes to perseverance. (I'll take up Carey's suggestion regarding Augustine's monergism at the end of this post.) Carey's article is helpful here, in as much as many in the Calvinist tradition forget just how readily Augustine embraces human merit. But the more important point worth noting however, is not that Augustine is a synergist (which he is) or even that Augustine maintains that one can loose his salvation (which he does maintain), but rather that Augustine insists that God has unconditionally extended infallible grace to the elect. This is something that Molina and Arminius do not maintain. While for Augustine it is true that the human will always wills of itself, co-operates with God and is not “overridden” by God (Augustine is not an occasionalist), he nonetheless insists that God’s grace infallibly secures the free movement of the human will. Augustine writes,
It is certain that it is we that will when we will, but it is He who makes us will what is good (On Grace and Freewill, ch. 2).
And again,
If God wished to have mercy on them, He could call them in a manner apt to move them so as to understand and follow. It is true, therefore, that many are called but few are chosen; they are chosen who are called in a fitting manner. . . . Whomever He has mercy on He calls in such a way as He knows suitable for him that he not spurn the caller. (On Various Questions to Simplacian 1, 2.)
So while I agree with Carey’s assessment of Augustine's synergism as far as it goes, I’m not certain that the monergism/synergism distinction is a particularly helpful way of distinguishing between the various schools of thought. Augustine maintains an Augustinian synergism that incorporates infallible grace, while Molina and Arminius maintain a libertarian synergism that utilizes fallible grace. To me, the dividing lines do not fall alongside the issue of synergism/monergism, but rather over fallible/infallible grace.

Further, I’m not convinced by Carey’s conclusion (which is not Carey’s alone) that the Reformers advocated a strict monergism in respect to salvation. Even Luther, who denied the freedom of the will, nonetheless maintained that a man always wills in accordance with his own desires and that his will is not “forced” or overridden by God. For Luther (and I believe, Calvin also) the individual co-operates with God's grace in both justication and perseverance. To be sure, such co-operation comes about by virtue of grace, but our co-opoeration is nonetheless our opertation. It is we who accept grace. It is we who exercise saving faith. The failure to recognize this aspect of Luther's thought led Luther's opponents (most notably Erasmus) to accuse Luther of maintaining a strict monergism/occasionlism in which the individual does not not will at all in respect to salvation. This is a mischaracterization of Luther. In discussing the operations of the will--which for Luther is basically the same in regard to virtue and vice--Luther defends himself against this mispresentation and writes,
But as it is, since he is impelled and made to act by his own willing, no is done to his will; for it is not under unwilling constraint, but by an operation of God consonant with its nature it is impelled to will naturally, according to what it is . . . (The Bondage of the Will, 212).

And yet again,

Are we now discussing compulsion and force? Have I not put on record in many books that I am talking about necessity of immutability? I know that the Father begets willingly, and that Judas betrayed Christ willingly. My point is that this act of the will in Judas was certainly and infallibly bound to take place, if God foreknew it. . . . I am not discussing whether Judas became a traitor willingly or unwillingly, but whether it was infallibly bound to come to pass that Judas should willingly betray Christ at a time predetermined by God (The Bondage of the Will, 220).

So for Luther, the faith of justification is ours, though it is brought about by God’s infallible grace. Which brings me to one additional point: I'm not convinced that Augustine can be fairly characterized--as Carey has done--as a monergist in respect to faith and initial justification. Carey rightly acknowledges that Augustine is not a "radical" monergist in relation to faith, since for Augustine God justifies the sinner in a way that does not abolish his free will. But it's not clear to me what difference there is between a "moderate" monergist (as Carey characterizes Augustine) and a synergist. Either God works alone or he does not. For Augustine (as for Luther) the believing/faith by which we are justified is ours, even though it is drawn forth infallibly by a congrous call of the Gospel. The elect believe because they have been summoned to believe--yet their belief is truly their own. God does not believe for us, or justify us inspite of ourselves. He justifies us because we believe. Sounds synergistic to me.

If we define monergism as "God working alone independent of, and without cooperation from, the individual," then I'm not certain that there are any true monergists, be it in Protestantism or Catholicism. Which is another reason I don’t find the category particularly helpful in distinguishing between theological systems. Now, if we were to define monergism as "God's initiation of infallible grace on the indivual's behalf completely independent of any merit, congruent or condign, foreseen or actual, whereby the sinner is certainly justifed" then perhaps the term would be more useful. But then that doesn't seem to be how most use the term, as far as I can tell.


Pontificator said...

Gerald, my last name is spelled "Kimel." :-)

Phillip Cary said...

Actually, I agree that the monergism/synergism terminology is not all that helpful. But Al Kimel--who also finds it pretty unhelpful--asked me to see if I could sort it out a bit, so I gave it a try.

What makes it unhelpful is the pervasive compatibilism of the Augustinian tradition, which insists--even in Luther's Bondage of the Will, as you rightly point out--that grace does not undermine free will but preserves and restores it, freeing it from sin. So the Augustinian sola gratia is compatible with the activity of our free will, even though (and this is the sense in which he is monergist) this free human activity is caused by the gift of grace that saves us, and could not come about unless it were caused in this way.

So far as I can tell, both the people who are enamoured of the term "monergism" and those who endorse a libertarian doctrine of free will (including Molinists and Arminians) don't understand or at least can't accept this Augustinian compatibilism. Yet it is this Augustinian position which is actually the backbone of the Western theological tradition, endorsed in different ways by Aquinas as well as Luther and Calvin.

Ultimately, my guess is that both the monergists and their libertarian targets don't have a proper understanding of the relation of primary and secondary causality, how the one does not undermine the other but creates and preserves it--the key example of this relation being, of course, grace and free will.

Gerald said...


Sorry for the extra "m." I have made the correction. By God's grace, I pray and hope that it won't happen again. (Though in deference to Augustine and the Catholic tradition, I won't presume upon grace.)


Gerald said...

Dr. Phil, (boy, I bet you get sick of that)

Well said.

And after reflecting a bit, I think that you are correct in your initial post to assert that the Reformed tradition affirms a strict monergism, but I would locate the monergism in relation to regeneration rather than justification. For many Reformed thinkers (I’m not sure about Calvin himself) regeneration occurs prior to faith (at least in the order of logic, if not time), and makes the faith of justification possible. So though Reformed thinkers of this stripe do not affirm a strict monergism in relation to justification (since it is we who believe as a result of being regenerated) I think that a case could be made that they do maintain a strict monergism in relation to regeneration, since it occurs without any co-operation from the human will. I have often heard the story of Lazarus used as a parallel for spiritual regeneration—in other words, we play no part. It is something that happens to us, completely independent of us and our will.

And I think you are exactly right that both sides of the monergism/synergism debate don't fully understand Augustinian compatibilism, nor have an adequate understanding of primary and secondary causality.

Thanks for the comments. Blessings to you!


P.S. And I see just now that I spelled your name wrong in my post as well. Correction forthcoming.

Gerald said...


Corrections made. And that is just one more example, my friend, of why we must not presume upon grace.


Pontificator said...

I particularly appreciate the distinctions Dr Cary has made regarding monergism/synergism. They help us to see Augustine in his own right and not through Calvinist/Lutheran glasses. Augustine is a synergist in a way that Calvin and Luther were not. Yet all three were committed to absolute predestination, which logically entails that the elect will necessarily come to faith and love and will persevere in faith and love to the end. Right?

The philosopher, of course, wants to know how one reconciles this divine determinism with Augustine's equally emphatic assertion of the freedom of the human will in Christ, yet even if we finally come together on a double-agency theory, does that really help us in our preaching and teaching of the gospel?

I have already advanced my concerns in an earlier series of blog articles and will not bore you with my arguments. I am coming to believe strongly that Augustine took a wrong turn and that we all have to retrace our steps. As von Balthasar wrote, "What a story of misery Augustine set in train, all the way to the Reformation and beyond, with his idea that, in practice, only some are 'predestined' to heaven."

Gerald said...


I agree that Augustine is too often read through Calvinistic lenses. And you are correct that Augustine is a synergist in ways that Calvin is not (though I think Luther is closer to Augustine than many presume). So in this respect I will concede that the synergist/monergist distinction is helpful. But in as much as I tend to think that even Calvin and (especially) Luther are incorrectly characterized as mongerists I just think it is better to talk about the nature of grace. But enough said about that.

In respect to your second paragraph . . .The philosopher seeks to explain how a revealed truth is true (double agency, in this case), but faith compels us to believe it whether the philosopher is successful or not. As for me, I do think that Augustine is successful in explaining double agency. But you are correct to ask the important question of how it helps in preaching and teaching the gospel. I think that (as you allude to in your last paragraph) the position that one holds on election and grace very much serves as a fulcrum for subsequent theological reflection. For me, my understanding of grace, sense of dependency upon God, humility before him, reverence for his majesty, and trust in his sovereignty (all things which comprise the gospel) have been deeply and positively influenced by the Augustinian tradition. Quite simply, I love God more now that I am an Augustinian, than when I did as an Arminian.

And lest one mistakenly believe that the logic of Augustine would impede gospel proclamation, history has shown other wise. The vast majority of foreign missions within the evangelical Protestant tradition have been initiated by devout Calvinists. From my perspective, the Augustinian tradition sweeps one up into the awesome glory and love of God--thereby securing a greater devotion--than the Molinist/Arminian alternative. Far from finding it morally repulsive (which, I think, tends to be the underlying reason that most reject it), the Augustinian tradition is to me a thing of profound beauty.

Yet we disagree. Somehow in spite of our flesh (both Augustinian flesh and Molinist flesh) God meets us where we are and causes us to love him. I propose the Augustinianism is a better, more sure way to love God, but my Augustinianism compels me to conclude that God himself has not deemed it so for all his children. Eternity will sort these things out, I suppose.

Sincere Blessing