Rowboating with God: The Mystery of Synergism

A few years ago I called a well-known Orthodox theologian and asked him to elaborate on the Orthodox doctrine of synergism. He pointed me to the well-known words of the Apocalypse: “Behold, I stand at the door, and knock: if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me.” (Rev 3:20). He explained that God does not force himself upon us. We have free-will. Christ knocks on the doors of our souls, but he will not break down the door. Such would be a violation of our personhood. We must freely open the door and invite the Savior into our lives. Until we do so, Christ and his Spirit remain “outside” of us. In the words of St John Chrysostom: “God never draws anyone to Himself by force and violence. He wishes all men to be saved, but forces no one” (quoted in Kallistos Ware, The Orthodox Church, p. 222).

At first glance synergism seems all quite straightforward. Human beings cooperate with the Creator to accomplish their salvation. But it’s not hard to see how this explanation might be distorted into a kind of works-righteousness against which the Protestant Reformation so powerfully protested: God does his part; we do our part. Divine agency and human agency are severed, compartmentalized, separated. It doesn’t matter if we qualify ourselves by saying that God does all the hard part, leaving the easy part to us. We might even assign a percentage: God accomplishes 90% of the work of salvation; but now it’s up to us to complete the remaining 10%. Once we phrase it as crudely as this, all thoughtful Christians will quickly reject the distortion.  This is not what synergism means. It’s not as if God carries us 90% up the holy mountain, sets us down, and then leaves us to finish the climb on our own, cheering us on from the sidelines. Kallistos Ware rightly corrects this misconstrual:

When we say that what God does is incomparably more important than what we humans do, this should not be taken to mean that our salvation is partly God’s work and partly our own—for example that it is sixty per cent the work of God and forty per cent our work; or eighty or ninety percent God’s work and twenty or ten per cent our own. Any attempt to compare in this way the respective contributions of the divine and the human partners, assigning percentages to each, is utterly misguided. Instead of thinking in terms of shares, equally or unequally distributed, we should consider that the work of our salvation is totally and entirely an act of divine grace, and yet in that act of divine grace we humans remain totally and entire free. (How are we Saved?, pp. 38-40)

Ware’s correction also excludes another popular image of synergism—God and the believer sitting in a rowboat, each with an oar, both needing to do their part for the boat to reach the shore. As a metaphor, the rowboat is no doubt superior to the mountain climbing image above, yet if taken literally it too misleads as a way to think of the interaction between God and humanity.

The transcendent Trinity is not an inhabitant of our universe. His causal activity is not exercised on the same plane of existence. Divine action and free human action do not compete with each other precisely because God is the transcendent source and cause of our free human actions. Hence relationship of divine agency to creaturely reality is quite literally inconceivable, as Austin Farrer explains:

We may say of the Hebrews, that they commonly saw divine effects as having creaturely agents, but found it needless to enquire how the divine hand wielded its instruments; they were content to use the simplest pictures. And the modern Christian is really in no worse or better case. He begins with the assumption that certain events, within himself or without, are divine effects. He does not doubt that they are the immediate act of natural agents, for if they were not, how would they be in this world of ours? If he speculates on the way in which the divine control takes effect, he probably goes no further than to tell himself that there is room for it to act; for the grid of causal uniformity does not (to any evidence) fit so tight upon natural processes as to bar the influence of an over-riding divine persuasion. If asked what on earth he can mean by ‘persuasion’ or ‘influence’ in such a connexion, he may simply refuse the challenge. What sense is there in demanding an exact account of an action which, by hypothesis, is outside our knowledge?

If he is up on traditional philosophy he can elaborate his refusal by an appeal to the doctrine of analogy. According to this doctrine, we believe that God’s way of acting is the infinitely higher analogue of our way, but we cannot conceive it otherwise than in terms of our own. God’s agency must actually be such as to work omnipotently on, in, or through creaturely agencies without either forcing them or competing with them. But as soon as we try to conceive it in action, we degrade it to the creaturely level and place it in the field of interacting causalities. The result can only be (if we take it literally) monstrosity and confusion. (Faith and Speculation, p. 62)

In other words, there must be a way for our free actions to be simultaneously attributed to God and his creative operation, without compromising one or the other. As we have seen, Farrer calls this “double agency.” We may not be able to explain how this works. The causal joint may be quite inconceivable to us. We are, after all, talking about the intersection of infinite and finite realities. Synergism is mysterious and incomprehensible.

But in the actual practice of our faith, we do not need to know how it works. As Farrer remarks, “The causal joint (could there be said to be one) between God’s action and ours is of no concern in the activity of religion; the very idea of it arises simply as a by-product of the analogical imagination, as we explained above. Surely it is nothing new that imagination should fall over its own feet, or symbolism tangle into knots” (p. 66). We do not need a plausible theory of the union of divine grace and human freedom in order to be proficient believers. We just need to believe and pray and obey and do and not do.

And yet … perhaps it is possible to say a little bit more about the mystery.

(Go to “Divine Agency and Human Freedom”)

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12 Responses to Rowboating with God: The Mystery of Synergism

  1. “God does all the hard part, leaving the easy part to us.”
    I remember growing up exceptionally low church, Evangelical Protestant. You would think sola fide antinomian fashion would be the easiest doctrine of Evangelical Protestantism to explain to people. Wrong.

    The idea of God doing the hard part leaving us for the easier part was the one doctrine in my Evangelical Protestant upbringing my atheist and agnostic friends constantly attacked. Why? Because it permits one to go cuckoo with all sorts of ugly and still make it to a place called “Paradise”.

    Under my Evangelical Protestant upbringing, I would constantly read parts in the Bible that repeated on and on how I must do “x” to be saved (which was precisely this response to God). I constantly pondered if my life the way it was (getting into fights at school, screaming at the occasional teacher, expulsions in elementary school, expulsion from middle school, a suspension and an ISS (several suspensions in my elementary era)) would damn me to Hell.

    Hence, every Sunday I would hear that whole, “just believe!” (actual hokey pokey nonsense) and then I would be saved. But I never actually believed my life was in a genuinely saved state. I often wonder as of recently, if I had grown up in a Catholic or Orthodox setting where it is taught that God is constantly HELPING US (something that my Evangelical Protestant upbringing NEVER TAUGHT) if I would have had the occasional struggles here and there but would have made it through grade school, middle school, and high school in a much safer manner.

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  2. mkenny114 says:

    I once had this explained to me in light of John 15:5 – ‘I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in me, and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.’

    One cannot say that it is simply the vine that produces the fruit, nor can one say it is simply the branch. The vine has precedence insofar as the branch stems from it, and a separated branch could indeed do nothing. But together, as one organism, they are both involved in producing the fruit. This certainly doesn’t reduce the essential mystery of God’s working through and with us, but looking at it in terms of an organism (or indeed, a Body) is, I think, much more fruitful (pun intended).

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      I agree that the organic image is more helpful than the rowboat image. The problem is when a few of us just become fruits. 😉

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  3. mkenny114 says:

    Haha – yes, pondering the relationship between Providence and Free Will/ Nature and Grace is a well-established and tested recipe for fruitcake 🙂

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  4. orthodoxchristian2 says:

    This is one of the most misunderstood doctrines for non-eastern churches. Synergism, Theosis and Hesychasm are indeed unique to the Orthodox Church. One must submit their wills to God’s Divine Will, to participate in His synergies, and become like gods in the adopted sense, though not in the true sense, as God is only truly uncreated and eternal. “God became man, so that man might become gods,” as Saint Athanasius of Alexandria once said. It is talked about extensively in the Bible, and yet Western Christians, especially Protestants, keep on ignoring it!

    To say that faith saved us alone, without the aid of works, is preposterous! One must become like God in goodness and virtue, and sin has no place in God’s Kingdom. I cannot believe that someone with faith, but without the works, could go to Heaven. Salvation is of the body, mind and soul, and not just the soul. Humans are made up of Nous, which is both logos and dianoia, as well as souls. The whole person must be saved, so faith is simply not enough. Even the demons know who God is, but this does not make them virtuous. For, faith without works is dead, as it was said in the New Testament. Faith saving one alone is one of the biggest flaws in Protestant theology and Sola Scriptura. Works proves our faith is living, and that we are growing in Christ. It is one of the fruits of the Holy Spirit. And nowhere does it even say in the Bible that we are saved by grace and faith alone! It talks of grace and faith, but not in isolation from the works that prove what we believe in.

    As you said, we have free wills, and God leaves the decision to us, though He does offer the Grace first before we accept Him as the Divine Logos. If this all came about through force, we would no longer be independent human beings, but automated machines.

    God loves it when we turn to Him, but it is much more meaningful if it is through our own free choice, since we love God and His holy ways.

    Protestants also do not understand that salvation is continuous, and is not a one-off moment in time. I heard that even when we are in Heaven, we become more and more like God in His energies, and discover more and more about His Nature and Will.

    Thanks for writing this post, and keep on informing us!

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    • “This is one of the most misunderstood doctrines for non-eastern churches. Synergism, Theosis and Hesychasm are indeed unique to the Orthodox Church.”
      Not true at all. Hesychasm is ingrained into Eastern Catholic Churches of the Byzantine Rite. The Catholic Catechism fully cites Sts. Irenaeus, Athanasius, and Aquinas on theosis in paragraph 460, “The Word became flesh to make us “partakers of the divine nature”: “For this is why the Word became man, and the Son of God became the Son of man: so that man, by entering into communion with the Word and thus receiving divine sonship, might become a son of God.” “For the Son of God became man so that we might become God.” “The only-begotten Son of God, wanting to make us sharers in his divinity, assumed our nature, so that he, made man, might make men gods.”” And the Council of Trent fully addressed Calvinism as heresy and enforced synergism.

      The understandings of theosis differ between Eastern Christians and Western Catholics but nonetheless, the teaching of theosis is fully embraced by the Catholic Church. However, due to theosis, is why I prefer the Eastern Rite Catholic Churches for to be perfectly honest, save for the Popes and Cardinals, most Roman Catholics are totally clueless (regrettably) when it comes to manners of doctrines.

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      • orthodoxchristian2 says:

        I was talking more about the beliefs of Protestants. You would agree that their belief in faith as justification alone is absurd, right? We need the works to prove our faith, too!

        But aren’t Eastern Rite Catholics considered Eastern Christians by some? They seem more Western compared to us Orthodox Christians, but maybe to a Latin Rite Catholic, they seem more Eastern.

        It is good that the Catholic Church agrees that we need both faith and works to get into Heaven. I knew this already. But I still think Theosis and Hesychasm is more Eastern, regardless. The Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, for example, is operating in a mainly Orthodox Christian country. Maybe some of these ideas were transferred when they left the Orthodox Church, and became Catholics?

        Scholasticism is one of the more common ways for the Catholics to explain Theology and God, with the likes of people like St Thomas Aquinas and St Bonaventure. I know synergism is espoused, but Hesychast methods of prayer are not common, as far as I know, in the Catholic Church. A more legalistic style of understanding seems to be common to that Church. Rosaries, stations of the cross, and other such things, are how Catholics are known to pray. We do not pray like this in the Orthodox Church, though. And we do not rely on theories like Scholasticism in order to explain our theology or understanding of God. We does this more through experience of God in real life, and this explains to us more what God truly is like, though not perfectly. The Orthodox Church does not try to define every single little thing about God that cannot be possibly known by mankind, and we use a more apophatic way of describing and understanding God, since we know more about what He is not, than what He is. There is not much that can be said positively about God, apart from how we experience Him here on Earth.

        I hope you did not get offended. And I am not accusing the Catholics of being anything like Calvinists. That is a whole other level of heresy.

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        • Hardly transferred. Even Jaroslav Pelikan admits that St. Augustine held to theosis.

          Hesychast is not common in the Latin Rite. We still pray the Jesus prayer quite frequently in Eastern Rite.

          I’m not offended. I just think your accusations are xenophobic and re-affirm for me why I’m not “Orthodox” (xenophobia is heresy).

          Some Protestants I’m certain would find your accusations against them to be bizarre I’m certain.

          There was a student in my class on the reformations in Europe who sought to inform our professor of the real presence of Jesus in the eucharist not taking into account that our professor is a high church Lutheran (hence, already affirmed the real presence of Jesus in the eucharist).

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        • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

          I’m going to exercise my authority and redirect the conversation back to the question of synergism. Thanks, guys.

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  5. Andy says:

    Fr. Kimel,

    “We are, after all, talking about the intersection of infinite and finite realities. Synergism is mysterious and incomprehensible.”

    Thank you for this post. Looking forward to your next one on this subject.

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  6. My apologies Fr. Kimel.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      No apology necessary. No one has crossed the bounds of civility. I just want to keep the discussion on track and germane to the article. Thanks!

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