As some of you who have been my long-time readers know, Austin Fischer is my protégé even tough I can’t take credit for his intelligence or writing skills. He’s a brilliant thinker, teaching pastor (The Vista Community Church, Temple, Texas) and excellent writer. His book “Young, Restless, No Longer Reformed” (Wipf & Stock) has sold very well and is making a real impact among young Christians who have doubts about Calvinism. But I count Austin as more than a protégé or former student; I’m proud to call him my friend. He has provided guest posts here before. This is his newest one–offered without prompting by me.
“Monergism: Maybe True, Definitely Unnecessary”
by Austin Fischer (Author of Young, Restless, No Longer Reformed)
Monergism (“one work”) is the belief that God works alone in salvation. It’s usually set against synergism, which is the belief that while God alone does everything in working for our salvation, humans must cooperate with grace in some form or fashion (the cooperation itself, of course, is possible only because of grace).
Monergism is an integral part of Reformed soteriology, because without it Reformed folks feel humans could boast in their salvation and steal God’s glory—two unpardonable sins. As James Montgomery Boice has said it, those who reject monergism cannot give God alone the glory: “They cannot say ‘to God alone be the glory,’ because they insist on mixing human power or ability with the response to gospel grace.” One gets the sense that for many, monergism is not only true but also necessarily true.
I’ve discussed monergism in other places (in my book in particular), used to affirm it, and I understand how people think the Bible teaches it. I think they’re wrong and find it curious the early Church Fathers didn’t teach, especially it if it was so essential and if Paul, allegedly, clearly taught it. As the great Calvinist theologian Loraine Boettner states, with laudable honesty: “The earlier church fathers…taught that salvation was through Christ; yet they assumed that man had full power to accept or reject the gospel…They taught a kind of synergism in which there was co-operation between grace and free will.”
I know of very few historical theologians who would even begin to contest Boettner’s claim (and again, Boettner was a Calvinist), so I think advocates of monergism have a good bit of explaining to do here. But again, in all sincerity, I understand how people think the Bible teaches it.
But what I would like to point out is that you don’t need monergism to prevent human boasting or protect God’s glory. Nope—all you need is a healthy doctrine of creatio ex nihilo (creation from nothing)…or better yet, creatio continua (continuing creation).
From early on, Christianity affirmed God created the universe from nothing and without necessity and that the whole of space-time is dependent, moment by moment, on the superabundant source of being that is God. Existence itself is grace—a gift, unforeseen and unnecessary and gratuitous, given anew in the unfolding of each moment in which there is something instead of nothing:
“It is the condition of absolute contingency that defines creaturely existence. Every finite being is groundless, without any original or ultimate essence in itself, a moment of unoccasioned fortuity, always awakening from nothing…”
“The power of life stands outside us and is given to us.”
God doesn’t need creation.
Creation actualizes no latent potential in God.
God, from all eternity, is an infinite, vibrant, dynamic, and endlessly creative triune community of abundance, delight, peace, feasting, revelry, and joy.
As such, all that is exists in an irreducibly gratuitous fashion and creation is an expression of God’s primordial generosity; a generosity Jesus taught us to call love.
Which brings us back to monergism.
I am deeply grateful for the Reformation. Several harmful trajectories had formed and the Reformation was a much-needed corrective to them. But the dogged focus on the inner mechanics of the soteriological mystery set, in my opinion, another harmful trajectory in which the horizons of the gospel were narrowed and monergism started attempting to say what creatio ex nihilo had already said far better; namely, that EVERYTHING is a gift of grace, to be received with open hands and wide-eyed wonder.
Because creatio ex nihilo and creatio continua prevent human boasting and protect God’s glory far more effectively than monergism, accomplishing and exceeding what monergism aspires to with effortless beauty and grace. Because when one realizes every creature—not to mention space-time itself!!!—is sustained, nanosecond by nanosecond, by the wild and unconditioned generosity of God, monergism is simply unnecessary. It might still be true, but it is not necessary. The infinite God, Being behind all being, does not need monergism to protect his glory.
This won’t end any debates on monergism and you can still make a biblical case for it (though I think you can make a better case against it), but perhaps it can help Reformed folks understand why, to a great many of us, monergism is well-intentioned but misguided small potatoes in a universe breathing grace.
 Whatever Happened to the Gospel of Grace?, 167.
 The Reformed Doctrine of Predestination, 365.
 See Langdon Gilkey’s outstanding Maker of Heaven and Earth for an examination of the historic consensus on creatio ex nihilo.
 David Bentley Hart, The Beauty of the Infinite, 250.
 Arthur Peacocke, The Music of Creation, 7.
 Walter Brueggemann, Genesis, 137.
 I’m reminded of Kevin DeYoung’s review of my book, wherein he was a bit miffed that I so easily shrugged off the supposed importance of monergism. I can only say that in any theological world where there is a robust doctrine of creatio ex nihilo, monergism simply isn’t essential.