by Matthew Pinson
A Theological Dirty Word
Recently I’ve noticed that, over the past century, Arminians have increasingly used the word “synergist” to describe themselves, rather than seeing it as a negative epithet, as most Christian theologians have. I have blogged before here about how Arminians are “not necessarily synergists,” and reprinted here some kind dissent from my friend Brian Abasciano of the Society of Evangelical Arminians. As I’ve said before, I believe Carl Bangs was absolutely right when he said that Arminius would never have described himself as a synergist ! Synergism has always been a theological “dirty word” associated with semi-Pelagianism.
I’ve been reading a lot of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Lutheran dogmaticians lately, and the fear of being labeled synergists is especially true of them. Despite the fact that we moderns neatly divvy Lutherans into “monergistic” and “synergistic” Lutherans, no good Lutheran ever wanted to be known as a synergist. This includes famous scholastic Lutherans such as Aegidius Hunnius, Johann Gerhard, and Johannes Andreas Quendstedt.
It might surprise us evangelicals who rub shoulders with Missouri Synod Lutherans that most Lutherans throughout history have believed that election is intuitu Christi meriti fide apprehendi (in view of the merit of Christ apprehended by faith). In other words, election and predestination, as described for example in Ephesians 1, are always in view of Christ and his mediatorial work, which is of course apprehended by the individual’s faith.
Most of the Lutheran scholastic theologians of the seventeenth century believed in the personal election of individuals in eternity past intuitu Christi meriti fide apprehendi. This is precisely what Arminius believed. Scholars such as the Danish Henrik Frandsen are helping us see the fluidity between Lutheran Scholasticism and the less-Calvinistic wing of Reformed Scholasticism in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century .
It’s no surprise that the Lutherans who opposed unconditional election in the Lutheran Predestinarian Controversy of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries weren’t fond of the label “synergist.” Their opponents called them that because of their belief that God elected individuals in eternity past in view of the merit of Christ apprehended by faith. They also believed that divine grace could be resisted even after conversion, and that one could fall completely from grace. Yet they strenuously contended that they were not synergists .
At any rate, I have picked up on an increasing tendency of self-described Arminians who view the term “synergism,” not as a term of opprobrium to be avoided at all cost, but as a word by which they wish to describe themselves positively.
So often, when a large chorus of Arminians begin to repeat the same thing, we Reformed Arminians start to wonder, “What’s wrong with us?” just because we’re hearing so many people echo the same thing—e.g., “Arminians are synergists,” “Election is corporate,” and so forth.
But Reformed Arminians shouldn’t really be surprised to see that our good Arminian friends are aghast and open-mouthed when we don’t want to be called names like synergist, or when we want to say that election is individual. It’s not always fun being in the minority of a movement. But, quite simply, it’s where Reformed Arminians are. So we shouldn’t be surprised when our good Arminian brothers and sisters find our views on these matters odd.
Wesley and Synergism
However, Reformed Arminians aren’t the only Arminians who have been averse to being labeled synergists. Wesleyans like John Wesley himself as well as John Fletcher of Madeley would have been concerned about such a label. I recently came across a little comment from the eminent Wesleyan theologian Kenneth Collins that confirmed my suspicions that Wesley himself wouldn’t feel comfortable being called a synergist. Collins avers:
“Wesley, as with Luther and Calvin, understood quite well that God is remarkably gracious and at times acts alone in the face of human impotence, for not only is justification not a human work but also the gift of grace is not given on the basis of a prior working. . . . The conjunctive style of Wesley’s theology is not, after all, fully or aptly expressed in the divine and human roles found in an overarching synergistic paradigm even if the stress is on divine initiative (as in the model of responsible grace). . . . On the contrary, more accurate readings suggest that a synergistic paradigm, which contains both divine and human acting, must itself be caught up in an even larger conjunction in which the Protestant emphasis on the sole activity of God, apart from all human working, is equally factored in—not simply co-operant or responsible grace. . .” .
W. F. Warren on Synergism and Wesleyan Theology
This was strongly confirmed in a Methodist Review article I recently came across by the famous Methodist theologian and founding president of Boston University, W. F. Warren. He argued that synergism contradicts the Wesleyan view that “no man can come unto Christ without a divine drawing; none can even call Jesus the Lord but by the Holy Spirit.” Further, he said, synergism “conflict[s] with all those representations of Scripture which trace our awakening, regeneration, and sanctification to a divine inworking.” It also militates against “the standing testimony of the Christian consciousness, which in all lands and ages bears witness to the truth of Christ’s declaration: ‘Without me ye can do nothing.’”
Warren says that, even though man is not “a passive material to be transformed and recast by simple omnipotence” and we can resist God’s grace, we “must not regard this great work as the product of a joint action of divine and human agency viewed as independent factors. God does not stand over against the natural man, and merely co-operate with him in precisely that degree in which the individual himself operates to secure salvation.”
“This is the error of synergism,” Warren warns. “It springs out of a false deistic conception of the relation of God to the creature, and of man as a moral agent. It predicates of man a natural and ethical independence which he does not possess; it ignores the fact that in God we live, and move, and have our being.” Warren describes various stripes of synergism, noting unequivocally that “All these varieties Methodism rejects as inconsistent with what the Bible teaches.”
Citing the Methodist Articles of Religion and the great Wesleyan theologian John Fletcher of Madeley for support, Warren emphasizes that “any undue stress upon the human element in the appropriation of salvation logically leads to a Pelagian anthropology, and a doctrine of salvation by the merit of good works,” and he says there are “fatal consequences” that result from the teachings of “Calvinistic monergists on the one hand, and by Pharisaic moralists and synergists on the other” .
Thinking Out Loud
These musings are offered for just what they are—thinking out loud about whether we Reformed Arminians should continue feeling insulted when our Calvinist friends call us synergists. These ramblings aren’t intended as definitive. They’re just a scratching of the surface. But the more I cast about, the more it seems we Reformed Arminians who are afraid of the word “synergist” are in good company. We learned this sensibility from Jacobus Arminius and Thomas Helwys and Thomas Grantham and Carl Bangs and Leroy Forlines and Robert Picirilli—but also, it seems, from some of Lutheranism’s and Wesleyanism’s leading lights.
 Bangs boldly states, “Arminius was a monergist.” (Carl Bangs, “Arminius and Reformed Theology,” Ph.D. diss., University of Chicago, 1958, 166).
 Henrik Frandsen, Hemmingius in the Same World as Pekinsius and Arminius (Praestoe, Denmark: Grafik Werk, 2013). See also Frederick Calder, ed., Memoirs of Simon Episcopius (London: Simpkin and Marshall, 1835).
 For a fun read on the Lutheran Predestination Controversy from the vantage point of the non-unconditional election side of the debate, see George H Schodde, ed., The Error of Modern Missouri: Its Inception, Development and Refutation (Columbus, Oh.: Lutheran Book Concern, 1897). Much of this book was translated from the German by the Lutheran biblical scholar R. C. H. Lenski. It contains a helpful compilation of anti-Calvinist material from the vantage point of Lutheran Scholasticism.
 Kenneth Collins, The Theology of John Wesley: Holy Love and the Shape of Grace (Abingdon, 2007). 163-64.
 W. F. Warren, “The Methodist Doctrine of the Appropriation of Salvation,” The Methodist Review 68 (July 1886), 594-97.
Continual Blessings to you all. I thank God for this website and hope to continue visiting it. Keep up the good work. C.T.S. in Linden,NJ will lift you up in prayers.
The problem with such a word is that it implies a action of two or more agents for a desired effect. I know there are different varieties of those claiming to be “Arminian”, but in classical Arminianism, salvation is unilateral. The ability to reject God’s grace and his free gift of salvation, doesn’t imply that one is saved by his own actions. This whole debate is really centered on God’s rule set. God made rules for this universe. Using Physics as an example: the strong force, weak force, gravity and electromagnetic force were purposefully designed by our Lord.
God’s rule set concerning his grace, is determined by him, not by what is convenient for a Calvinist or an Arminian. God could have logically created a world with or without double predestination. The logical fallacy of thinking that God is somehow not sovereign (if God’s grace is resistible) is what really annoys Christian mathematicians and physicists. This is an extreme example of the absence of logic.
Determining God’s rule set concerning salvation is about hermeneutics and exegsis. Classical Arminians are not Semi-Pelagian. God is perhaps even more amazing (if that’s even possible) if the Arminians are correct. I’ve met some Calvinists who are complete determinists, to the point they were they believe murder, rape and other wanton acts of violence are ordained by God.
Both sides believe in God’s omniscience, his intervention in human affairs and sustaining force that holds this Universe together, they just have a different exegesis concerning the nature of God’s grace. Sometimes I think Calvinists like to conveniently forget God’s omniscience, it doesn’t fit well within their narrative.
Thanks so much for your comments, Jack. I couldn’t agree more with you when you say that “Classical Arminians are not Semi-Pelagian.” I think this remark gets to the heart of my concern regarding describing Arminianism as a type of synergism, something that would have given Arminius the heebie-geebies. You’re so right that the “ability to reject God’s grace and his free gift of salvation doesn’t imply that one is saved by his own actions.” And that’s what synergism has always symbolized: human beings having “a hand” in their salvation. Arminius would want to distance himself as far as possible from such a notion, and I think Arminians today need to as well. Thanks again for your comments.