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.


  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)


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.