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.