Monergism, Synergism, and Hermeneutics

Monergism vs. Synergism: God thowing a lifeline vs. using a fishhook.

Monergism vs. Synergism

One of the key issues in the Protestant Reformation is whether humans cooperate with God in their own salvation. Early Protestants denied, with different emphases, that humanity had any role in their own salvation. This view is known as Monergism, which means that Salvation is all God’s work and has nothing to do with man’s efforts. Later Protestants split into two camps on this issue. Lutherans and the Reformed (a.k.a. Calvinists) affirming that God alone was responsible for humanity’s salvation. Methodists and many Baptists and Pentecostals adopt a position known as Synergism, which means that humanity cooperates with God in its own salvation. While this is a huge debate among Protestants, Synergism is the default position of (to my knowledge) all other Christian communions.

Having grown up as a Fundamentalist, the idea that humanity cooperates with God was an affront to the saving work of Christ. The battleground between Monergism and Synergism was fought using proof texts from the New Testament. Each side had their own supporting scriptural texts and explained away those of the opposing side. Even as a boy, however, I struggled with this. As a Monergist who believed Scripture means what it says, I found it hard to explain away passages like: “For whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.” (Ro 10:13) On the other hand, Jesus says: “No man can come to me, except the Father which hath sent me draw him.”

The argument seemed to be along the lines of which came first: the chicken or the egg? Does salvation have anything to do with a person seeking after God, or is it God who causes people to seek after Him? Scripture itself resolves this problem, and in a rather explicit fashion. The prophet Zechariah writes: “Thus saith the Lord of hosts; Turn ye unto me, saith the Lord of hosts, and I will turn unto you, saith the Lord of hosts.” (Ze 1:3)

Given that Protestants hold to the principle of Scripture Alone,[1] how do we move from the clear statement of Zechariah to the Protestant teaching of Monergism? For this, we have to discuss the subject of hermeneutics which Protestants use as a control on the interpretation of Scripture.[2] Hermeneutics consists of a number of rules which govern the interpretation of Scripture. Given this, some speak of hermeneutics as a science.[3] However, these rules can be applied differently by different people, which is why it is sometimes called an art. The idea of the pastor and theologian as an artist implies that they bring something of themselves to the text that guides their application of the rules. David Jasper writes:

Hermeneutics is about the most fundamental ways in which we perceive the world, think, and understand. It has a philosophical root in which we call epistemology — that is, the problem of how we come to know anything at all, and actually how we thing and legitimate the claims we make to know the truth.[4]

Hermeneutics, then, is not a scientific endeavor, nor can the rules be applied with mathematical rigor. It might be helpful to think of hermeneutics not as rules, but as a set of tools that can be applied to the job at hand. A skilled carpenter knows to use the right tool for the job, while an unskilled homeowner might cause damage by using a tool inappropriately. But even skilled carpenters vary in their approach to the job, using different tools and techniques for the same job.

Getting back to the subject of Monergism vs. Synergism, it would appear that Protestants approach the Scriptures with a particular worldview that guides their search for truth. To me, the passage in Ze 1:3 is clear that a person’s turning to God is required for God to turn to them. I would argue the following hermeneutical rule applies: “Interpret the obscure in light of the clear – not vice versa.”[5] However, Richard D. Phillips seems to apply a different set of rules in his commentary on Zechariah when he applies this text to Christians only. He writes:

If you are a Christian, but backslidden into sin and spiritual decline, remember the history lesson Zechariah placed before his generation. Your sin will not bring blessing but ruin, however sweet its deceptive song in your ears. If you persist in sin you will at the least bring upon yourself God’s chastisement, and at the worst you will prove that you have really not believed at all.[6]

Note that the author’s Reformed Theology forms the basis for his interpretation of this clear passage. He interprets this passage both in the light of Irresistible Grace and the Perseverance of the Saints.[7] For Richard D. Phillips, this passage illustrates the wrath of God upon sinners. By contrast, St. Gregory Palamas uses this passage to demonstrate the mercy of God. He writes:

Do you see the extent of God’s wrath? Yet, “He is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness, and repenteth him of the evil of men” (Joel 2:13, Jonah 4:2), though only for those who repent and turn from their wicked ways. “Turn ye unto me and I will turn unto you, saith the Lord” (Zech. 1:3). “Thou shalt turn”, it says, “to the Lord thy God, and shalt be obedient unto his voice; for the Lord thy God is a merciful God; he will not forsake thee, neither destroy thee, but thou shalt find him, the Lord thy God, an help, if thou seek him with all thy heart and with all thy soul in thine affliction” (cf. Deut. 4:30–31, 29).[8]

Different presuppositions, different toolsets, different interpretations of what is, on the face of it, a very clear passage.

Endnotes

  1. “The doctrine that the Bible alone is the only infallible rule for faith and practice, and that the Bible alone contains all the knowledge that is necessary for salvation.” (Trenham 2015, 263)
  2. “Hermeneutics is defined as: The science and art of interpretation. …Hermeneutics is required to provide adequate controls for interpretation.” (Carlson 2014, 1)
  3. “Hermeneutics is considered a science because it has rules, and these rules can be classified in an orderly system.” (Henry A. Virkler 2007, 16)
  4. (Jasper 2004, 3)
  5. (Carlson 2014, 72)
  6. Richard Phillips also addresses this passage to non-Christians, but fails to address the obvious issues of Monergism vs. Synergism. (Phillips 2007, 15)
  7. Note, too, that this is what Protestants call an “application” derived from his use of hermeneutical rules. For a Protestant, the “application” of a passage is, in essence the last three of the ancient four senses of scripture: The allegorical, the moral, and the analogical.
  8. (St Gregory Palamas 2013, Kindle Locations 148-153)

Bibliography

Carlson, Norman E. 2014. Hermeneutics: An Antidote for 21st Century Cultic and Mind Control Phenomena. Colorado Springs: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform.

Henry A. Virkler, Karelynne Ayayo. 2007. Herneneutics: Principles and Processes of Biblical Interpretation. 2nd Edition. Grand Rapics: Baker Academic.

Jasper, David. 2004. A Short Introduction to Hermeneutics. Louisevill: Westminster John Knox Press.

Phillips, Richard D. 2007. Zechariah. Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing Company.

St Gregory Palamas. 2013. On Bearing Difficulties: To Those Who Find Hard to Bear All the Different Kinds of Difficulties Which Come Upon Us From All Sides. Kindle Edition. Edited by Christopher Veniamin. Dalton: Mount Thabor Publishing.

Trenham, Josiah. 2015. Rock and Sand: An Orthodox Appraisal of the Protestant Reformers and Their Teachings. Columbia: Newrome Press LLC.

Ambiguam I – The Monad and the Triad

The Holy Trinity by the hand of Andrei Rublev

The Holy Trinity
by the hand of
Andrei Rublev

From Saint Gregory the Theologian’s First Oration on the Son:

For this reason the Monad from the beginning moved toward a dyad and at the Trinity came to a halt.

And again, from his Second Oration on Peace:

The Monad moved on account of its abundance, the dyad was surpassed — for it is beyond matter and form, out of which bodies are made — the Trinity was defined, on account of its perfection.

If, while considering the apparent contradiction, O servant of God, you were at a loss regarding the real agreement, it would nevertheless not be possible for two statements to be more unified in meaning than these. for the phrase “the dyad was surpassed” means the same thing as “not coming to a halt in the dyad,” just as the phrase “the Trinity was defined” means the same thing as the “movement of the Monad comes to a halt in the Trinity.” For we believe in a monarchy that is neither begrudging of its bounty (in the sense of being restricted to a single person), nor disorderly (in the sense of being poured out ad infinitum), but which is constituted by a Trinity that is equal in honor by nature: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, “whose wealth is their identity of nature and the single manifestation of their splendor,” and whose “divinity is neither poured out beyond these three, lest we introduce a multitude of gods, nor bounded within them, lest we be condemned for poverty in divinity.”

This is not, however, a causal explanation for the cause of beings, which is itself beyond all being, but the demonstration of a pious opinion about it, since the Godhead is a Monad (but not a dyad), and a Trinity (but not a multitude), for it is without beginning, bodily form, or internal strife. For the Monad is truly a Monad: it is not the origin of the things that come after it, as if it had expanded after a state of contraction, like something naturally poured out and proliferating into a multitude, but is rather the inherently personal reality of the consubstantial Trinity. And the Trinity is truly a Trinity, not the sum of a divisible number, (for it is not an aggregation of monads, that it might suffer division), but the inherently essential subsistence of the three-personed Monad. The Trinity is truly a Monad, for such it is; and the Monad is truly a Trinity, for as such it subsists, since there is one Godhead that in essence is a Monad and in subsistence a Trinity.

And finally, having heard the word “movement,” you wondered how the Godhead, which is beyond infinity, is said to “move,” understand that movement is something that happens to us, and not to the Godhead. For first we are illumined by the principle of its being, after which we are enlightened regarding the mode of its subsistence, for the fact of being is always grasped before the manner of being. Thus the “movement” of the Godhead is the knowledge — through illumination — of its existence and how it subsists, manifested to those who are able to receive it.

St Maximus the Confessor, The Ambigua to Thomas

On Difficulties in the Church Fathers: The "Ambigua," Volume I

How can the impure lay hands on the pure?

Icon of St Maximus the Confessor, making his defense before the imperial court.

Icon of St Maximus the Confessor

But as for me, how can I say Jesus is Lord, when I have not yet received the Spirit of holiness? How can I speak of the Lord’s powers when I am mute, having firmly closed my intellect through attachment to corruptible things? How can I render audible even some of His praises when I am deaf? For the ear of my soul, on account of my love for the passions, is entirely turned away fro the blessed voice of the Word. How will the Word, who by nature conquers` the world, but does not appear to the world, appear to me, conquered as I am by the world, since He is essentially unknowable to minds enamored of material things? How would it not be an act of insolence for a profane man to rush in among sacred things, and for the impure to lay hands on the pure?

St Maximus the Confessor, The Ambigua to Thomas

On Difficulties in the Church Fathers: The "Ambigua," Volume I

The Ineffable God

The Holy Trinity by the hand of Andrei Rublev

The Holy Trinity
by the hand of
Andrei Rublev

For of God we speak not all we ought (for that is known to Him only), but so much as the capacity of human nature has received, and so much as our weakness can bear. For we explain not what God is but candidly confess that we have not exact knowledge concerning Him. For in what concerns God to confess our ignorance is the best knowledge.

But some one will say, If the Divine substance is incomprehensible, why then dost thou discourse of these things? So then, because I cannot drink up all the river, am I not even to take in moderation what is expedient for me? Because with eyes so constituted as mine I cannot take in all the sun, am I not even to look upon him enough to satisfy my wants? Or again, because I have entered into a great garden, and cannot eat all the supply of fruits, wouldst thou have me go away altogether hungry? I praise and glorify Him that made us; for it is a divine command which saith, Let every breath praise the Lord. I am attempting now to glorify the Lord, but not to describe Him, knowing nevertheless that I shall fall short of glorifying Him worthily, yet deeming it a work of piety even to attempt it at all. For the Lord Jesus encourageth my weakness, by saying, No man hath seen God at any time.

What then, some man will say, is it not written, The little ones’ Angels do always behold the face of My Father which is in heaven? Yes, but the Angels see God not as He is, but as far as they themselves are capable. For it is Jesus Himself who saith, Not that any man hath seen the Father, save He which is of God, He hath seen the Father. The Angels therefore behold as much as they can bear, and Archangels as much as they are able; and Thrones and Dominions more than the former, but yet less than His worthiness: for with the Son the Holy Ghost alone can rightly behold Him: for He searcheth all things, and knoweth even the deep things of God: as indeed the Only-begotten Son also, with the Holy Ghost, knoweth the Father fully: For neither, saith He, knoweth any man the Father, save the Son, and he to whom the Son will reveal Him. For He fully beholdeth, and, according as each can bear, revealeth God through the Spirit: since the Only-begotten Son together with the Holy Ghost is a partaker of the Father’s Godhead. He, who was begotten knoweth Him who begat; and He Who begat knoweth Him who is begotten. Since Angels then are ignorant (for to each according to his own capacity doth the Only-begotten reveal Him through the Holy Ghost, as we have said), let no man be ashamed to confess his ignorance. I am speaking now, as all do on occasion: but how we speak, we cannot tell: how then can I declare Him who hath given us speech ? I who have a soul, and cannot tell its distinctive properties, how shall I be able to describe its Giver?

For devotion it suffices us simply to know that we have a God; a God who is One, a living, an ever-living God; always like unto Himself; who has no Father, none mightier than Himself, no successor to thrust Him out from His kingdom: Who in name is manifold, in power infinite, in substance uniform. For though He is called Good, and Just, and Almighty and Sabaoth, He is not on that account diverse and various; but being one and the same, He sends forth countless operations of His Godhead, not exceeding here and deficient there, but being in all things like unto Himself . Not great in loving-kindness only, and little in wisdom, but with wisdom and loving-kindness in equal power: not seeing in part, and in part devoid of sight; but being all eye, and all ear, and all mind: not like us perceiving in part and in part not knowing; for such a statement were blasphemous, and unworthy of the Divine substance. He foreknoweth the things that be ; He is Holy, and Almighty , and excelleth all in goodness, and majesty, and wisdom: of Whom we can declare neither beginning, nor form, nor shape. For ye have neither heard His voice at any time, nor seen His shape, saith Holy Scripture. Wherefore Moses saith also to the Israelites: And take ye good heed to your own souls, for ye saw no similitude. For if it is wholly impossible to imagine His likeness, how shall thought come near His substance?

Cyril of Jerusalem (2013-03-08). The Catechetical Lectures of St. Cyril of Jerusalem (Kindle Locations 1445-1447; 1474-1480; 1481-1505).  Kindle Edition.

 

The Method of Godliness

Saint Cyril of Jerusalem

Saint Cyril of Jerusalem

For the method of godliness consists of these two things, pious doctrines, and virtuous practice: and neither are the doctrines acceptable to God apart from good works, nor does God accept the works which are not perfected with pious doctrines. For what profit is it, to know well the doctrines concerning God, and yet to be a vile fornicator? And again, what profit is it, to be nobly temperate, and an impious blasphemer? A most precious possession therefore is the knowledge of doctrines: also there is need of a wakeful soul, since there are many that make spoil through philosophy and vain deceit.  The Greeks on the one hand draw men away by their smooth tongue, for honey droppeth from a harlot’s lips:  whereas they of the Circumcision deceive those who come to them by means of the Divine Scriptures, which they miserably misinterpret though studying them from childhood to old age, and growing old in ignorance . But the children of heretics, by their good words and smooth tongue, deceive the hearts of the innocent,  disguising with the name of Christ as it were with honey the poisoned arrows  of their impious doctrines : concerning all of whom together the Lord saith, Take heed lest any man mislead you.  This is the reason for the teaching of the Creed and for expositions upon it.

 

Cyril of Jerusalem (2013-03-08). The Catechetical Lectures of St. Cyril of Jerusalem (Kindle Locations 819-831).  . Kindle Edition.

The Anaphora of the Apostles Addai and Mari

King Agar receiving the Mandilion from Thaddeus

King Agar receiving the Mandilion from Thaddeus
Encaustic painting.
Saint Catherine’s Monastery, Mount Sinai
Date: after 944 A.D.

The Anaphora, or Elevation, is the part of the Divine Liturgy where the gifts of bread and wine are offered to God the Father and are sanctified by the Holy Spirit, Following the Anaphora is the Epiklesis, the prayer for the Holy Spirit to come down and change the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ.

The Anaphora and Epiklesis are essential parts of the earliest liturgies. Although the words used vary, the basic form has changed little from the time of the Apostles. One of the most ancient examples of the Anaphora is found in the Nestorian liturgy of the Chaldean Church. Although there are other antiquarian Anaphoras in existence, this Anaphora is unique in that it alone is in liturgical use today. It is thought that its current form comes from 3rd century Edessa, a town in upper Mesapotamia, an area which today is the nation of Turkey.

The Anaphora of the Apostles Addai and Mari is interesting both because of its antiquity, and because of its association with the seventy disciples of Christ. One of the seventy was named Thaddeus, and was sent by Thomas the Apostle to Edessa. Addai is the Syriac name of Thaddeus, and Mari was a convert and associate of Addai. Together, Mar Addai and Mar Mari were apostles to Syria and Persia. It is said that Thaddeus/Addai brought with him to Edessa the Holy Mandylion, a cloth imprinted with the image of Jesus.

The structure of the Anaphora should be familiar to anyone who has participated in the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom. It has three basic parts: the Sanctus, the Intercessions, and the Epiklesis. It is unique in that it does not contain the words of institution, something that is a fixture in later liturgies, and featured most prominently in the Western Rite. It is also interesting in that the Epiklesis is not so much an invocation of the Holy Spirit upon the gifts, but rather within the community.


 THE ANAPHORA OF THE APOSTLES ADDAI AND MARI

—      The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God the Father and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with us all, now and at all times and for ever and ever.

—      Amen.

—      Let your hearts be on high.

—      To thee, the God of Abraham and of Isaac and of Israel, the glorious King.

—      The offering is being offered to God the Lord of all.

—      It is meet and right.

 

Worthy of praise from very mouth

and thanksgiving from every tongue

is the adorable and glorious

Name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit,

who created the world in his grace

5      and its inhabitants in his loving-kindness,

and redeemed the sons of men in his mercy,

and dealt very graciously with mortals.

Thy majesty, o my Lord, a thousand thousand heavenly beings

and myriad myriads of Angels adore

10     and the hosts of spiritual beings, the ministers of fire and of spirit,

glorifying thy Name

with the Cherubim and the holy Seraphim, ceaselessly

crying out and glorifying

and calling to one another and saying:

15     Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty:

the heavens and the earth are full of his glory.

Hosanna in the highest! Hosanna to the Son of David!

Blessed is he who has come and comes in the Name of the Lord.

Hosanna in the highest!

20    And with these heavenly hosts we give thee thanks, o my Lord,

we also thy unworthy, frail, and miserable servants,

because thou hast dealt very graciously with us in a way which cannot be repaid,

in that thou didst assume our humanity

that thou mightest restore us to life by thy divinity,

25    and didst exalt our low estate,

and raise up our fallen state,

and resurrect our mortality,

and forgive our sins,

and acquit our sinfulness,

30    and enlighten our understanding,

and, our Lord and God, overcome our adversaries,

and give victory to the unworthiness of our frail nature

in the overflowing mercies of thy grace.

And for all thy benefits and graces towards us

35     we offer thee glory and honour and thanksgiving and adoration

now and at all times and for ever and ever. R/ Amen.

Do thou, o my Lord, in thy manifold and ineffable mercies

make a good and gracious remembrance

for all the upright and just fathers

40    who were pleasing before thee,

in the commemoration of the body and blood of thy Christ,

which we offer to thee upon the pure and holy altar,

as thou hast taught us,

and make with us thy tranquillity and thy peace

45    all the days of the age,

that all the inhabitants of the world may know thee,

that thou alone art God the true Father,

and thou didst send our Lord Jesus Christ thy Son and thy Beloved,

and he, our Lord and our God,

50    taught us in his lifegiving Gospel

all the purity and holiness of the prophets and apostles

and martyrs and confessors

and bishops and priests and deacons,

and of all the children of the holy catholic Church,

55    those who have been signed with the sign of holy Baptism.

And we also, o my Lord, thy unworthy, frail, and miserable servants,

who are gathered and stand before thee,

and have received by tradition the example which is from thee,

rejoicing and glorifying

60    and exalting and commemorating

and celebrating this great and awesome mystery

of the passion and death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ.

And let thy Holy Spirit come, o my Lord,

and rest upon this offering of thy servants,

65    and bless it and sanctify it

that it may be to us, o my Lord,

for the pardon of sins and for the forgiveness of shortcomings,

and for the great hope of the resurrection from the dead,

and for new life in the kingdom of heaven

70    with all who have been pleasing before thee.

And for all thy wonderful dispensation which is towards us

we give thee thanks and glorify thee without ceasing

in thy Church redeemed by the precious blood of thy Christ,

with open mouths and unveiled faces

75    offering glory and honour and thanksgiving and adoration

to thy living and holy and life-giving Name,

now and at all times and for ever and ever.

Amen.

 

English translation: A. GELSTON, The Eucharistic Prayer of Addai and Mari, Clarendon Press, Oxford 1992, 48-55

 

The Anathemas against the Iconoclasts (the Image Breakers)

Looting of the Churches of Lyon by the Calvinists in 1562 by Antoine Caron.

Looting of the Churches of Lyon by the Calvinists in 1562 by Antoine Caron.

In reading the Acts of the Seventh Ecumenical Council, the claim is made that the veneration of images protects the doctrine of the incarnation of Christ. The reason is that the person of Christ was both fully God and fully man; that the Christ had both a divine nature and a human nature, a divine will and a human will, that He was consubstantial with the Father according to His divinity, and consubstantial with us according to His humanity. Thus the depiction of Christ according to His humanity is a confession of orthodoxy over and against the heretics.

It is truly startling to read the anathemas of the Seventh Ecumenical Council, and to realize how, for many years, I would have fallen under these anathemas. Lord have mercy.

Seventh Ecumenical Council

Extracts from the Acts.
Session I.

Anathema to the calumniators of the Christians, that is to the image breakers.

Anathema to those who apply the words of Holy Scripture which were spoken against idols, to the venerable images.

Anathema to those who do not salute the holy and venerable images.

Anathema to those who say that Christians have recourse to the images as to gods. Anathema to those who call the sacred images idols.

Anathema to those who knowingly communicate with those who revile and dishonour the venerable images.

Anathema to those who say that another than Christ our Lord hath delivered us from idols.

Anathema to those who spurn the teachings of the holy Fathers and the tradition of the Catholic Church, taking as a pretext and making their own the arguments of Arius, Nestorius, Eutyches, and Dioscorus, that unless we were evidently taught by the Old and New Testaments, we should not follow the teachings of the holy Fathers and of the holy Ecumenical Synods, and the tradition of the Catholic Church.

Anathema to those who dare to say that the Catholic Church hath at any time sanctioned idols.

Anathema to those who say that the making of images is a diabolical invention and not a tradition of our holy Fathers.

Percival, Henry R (2013-06-23). The Seven Ecumenical Councils (pp. 670-671). Veritatis Splendor Publications. Kindle Edition.