St Augustine and the Varieties of Monergism

by Phillip Cary, Ph.D.

Synergism is just a Greek way of saying “co-operation,” which in turn is just a Latin way of saying “working together.” Paul uses the corresponding Greek verb when he describes himself and his colleagues as “co-working” (2 Cor. 6:1) with God as ambassadors for Christ, through whom God urges people to be reconciled to himself (ibid., 5:20). Monergism, a much more recent term, means to work alone, having no co-worker. So monergists are those who think that in some respect God works alone.

The crucial question is: in what respect? The standard Protestant view is monergism with respect to justification: God alone renders us just or righteous in his sight, without our co-operation. But most Protestants would add that sanctification is a co-operative enterprise in which our will and work have a necessary role to play, working together with the grace of God. So most Protestants are monergists about justification but synergists about sanctification. And since justification by faith alone is all that is necessary for salvation, most Protestants are also monergists about salvation.

Of course in order to be thoroughly monergist about justification one must also be monergist about the faith by which we are justified, understanding it to be a divine gift resulting from grace alone and not from human work. Luther, in effect, insisted on this type of monergism when he excoriated the medieval nominalist notion of “congruent merit,” according to which sinners work to acquire the gift of “first grace” (meaning roughly, the gift of conversion and true faith) by praying as well as they can, trying their best to “do what is in them” (facere quod in se est) even without grace. The term “synergism” seems to have come into use for the position rejected by the Lutheran orthodox theologians when they reaffirmed Luther’s doctrine in the Book of Concord in 1580 (see especially article 2). Later, Calvinists used it to describe the Arminian position that our free will has an independent role to play in accepting the gift of grace. Synergism, for both Lutherans and Calvinists, means the teaching that grace does not simply cause us to have faith, but rather makes an offer of salvation which it is up to us to accept or reject. Both Lutherans and Calvinists reject this synergism, and thus can aptly be labeled monergists with respect to the gift of faith.

The question of whether Augustine is a monergist or a synergist is more complicated. For one thing, even at his most monergistic, Augustine does not deny that we are active in our own salvation. Augustine is a monergist with respect to the origin of faith, for instance, in that he sees it as resulting from prevenient or “operating grace” rather than “co-operating grace” (his terms). But for Augustine this does not take away the role of human free will, for what prevenient grace does is precisely to move our wills so that they freely will the good. Hence for Augustine grace never undermines or replaces free will. In that sense he is never a radical monergist, as if the human will had no active role to play. On the other hand, he is indeed a monergist in a less radical sense, because for him the gift of faith is wholly the work of God, since even our freely willing to accept God’s gift is a work of grace alone.

So in that sense, Augustine is clearly a monergist with respect to the gift of faith, unlike the Arminians. Ultimately it is up to God, not us, whether we freely choose to accept what God has to give us. However—and here is the real complication—this does not make Augustine a monergist with respect to salvation. The reason why is that Augustine does not have a Calvinist concept of saving faith. For he does not share Calvin’s distinctive new doctrine about the perseverance of the saints, according to which everyone with true (i.e., saving) faith is sure to persevere to the end and be eternally saved. For Augustine, you can have a perfectly genuine faith but not persevere in faith to the end of your life. There is no guarantee that believers will not lose their faith and thus ultimately be damned. Hence no matter how true your faith presently is, that does not mean you are sure to be saved in the end. Consequently, Augustine’s monergism about faith does not make him a monergist about salvation.

About salvation Augustine is a synergist, explicitly drawing a contrast between “operating grace” (i.e., the grace that works in us), which is monergistic in its granting the gift of faith, and co-operating grace (i.e., the grace that works with us), with which we are co-workers in the journey of faith, hope and love by which we come to eternal life in the end. In Calvinist terms, Augustine is a synergist about sanctification like most Protestants, but because he thinks sanctification is necessary for salvation unlike most Protestants, he ends up being also a synergist about salvation—despite being a monergist about faith.

A good illustration of Augustine’s distinction between operative and co-operative grace is the late treatise On Grace and Free Will, 33. Addressing the issue of how a person comes to love God (in Calvinist terms, the issue of sanctification rather than justification) he asks, “Who was it that had begun to give him his love, however small, but He who prepares the will and perfects by his co-operation [synergism!] what He initiates by his operation [monergism]? For in beginning [i.e. in the initial choice to have faith, from which charity springs] He works in us that we may have the will, and in perfecting works with us when we have the will.” In Augustinian terms: prior to any co-operation of our will, operative grace produces faith (i.e., a good will) in us, then from faith springs charity, which works together with the (co-operating) grace of God in the journey to eternal life. In Calvinist terms, again, this amounts to monergism about faith, but synergism about salvation.

However, as I mentioned above, there is a radical sense of the term monergism in which Augustine is not a monergist at all. This is the sense in which “grace alone” excludes any exercise of human free will, even one which is wholly a gift of prevenient grace. One reason often given for this radical monergism is a yet more fundamental monergism—call it “absolute monergism”—in which the answer to the question “monergism with respect to what?” is: “absolutely everything.” This amounts to a denial of the existence of what the Christian tradition calls second causes. It means that only God, the First Cause, has real power, and that neither human free will nor anything else in creatures is a real cause of anything that happens.

This absolute monergism could thus also be called “mono-causalism.” It is contrary not only to Augustine and the whole Catholic tradition, but also to the Westminster Confession, which teaches that the eternal decree of God by which he does “ordain whatsoever comes to pass” works in such a way that “neither is God the author of sin … nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established” (3.1; cf. also 5.2). The point of this teaching, which is couched in the language of Thomas Aquinas and agrees with his doctrine, is that God’s working in all things does not mean that creatures have no power to work, but rather that the creatures’ power, will and work derive from the work of God, and precisely for that reason are real, just like all God’s works. God’s primary causality therefore does not undermine or replace the secondary causality of creatures, including their free will. God has ambassadors, apostles and other servants with a will of their own and work to do, even while he is always indispensably at work in them. The two forms of causality are not incompatible or in competition with one another.

Mainstream Calvinism is thus at one with Catholicism in rejecting absolute monergism. The place to locate the difference between Catholicism and Calvinism concerning monergism is rather in the fact that the whole Roman Catholic tradition since Augustine is synergist about salvation. For Catholicism our works of love (made possible by operative grace in the beginning and aided by co-operative grace throughout) are necessary for salvation. That’s precisely the purport of Trent’s denial of the sola fide: faith alone is not enough for salvation without works of love (Decree on Justification, articles 10-11).

However, there is a division within Catholicism on the point about monergism with respect to faith. Whereas one important strand of Catholic theology, including Aquinas and the Dominican tradition, promotes an Augustinian monergism about faith, another strand, most powerfully represented by the 16th-century Jesuit Luis de Molina, defends a form of synergism about faith. Molinism is thus something like the Catholic form of Arminianism. In the De Auxiliis controversy around 1600, the Pope adjudicated between these two positions, decreeing that both were legitimate and neither side could accuse the other of heresy. This was of course not a relativist move: the two positions are probably irreconcilable, and if so then at least one of them is in error in some way. But the pope’s decree meant that such error is not heresy and does no harm to the faith, so the debate may continue but must do so in mutually respectful terms.

There is of course no one on earth to adjudicate between Catholics and Protestants. But perhaps it will help to be aware, at least, of the difference between absolute monergism and the more modest monergism about faith, justification and salvation which is the legacy of Luther and Calvin.

(Originally published on my old Pontifications blog on 31 October 2006)

Dr Phillip Cary is Professor of Philosophy at Eastern University. He is the author of several books on St Augustine, including Augustine’s Invention of the Inner Self, Inner Grace: Augustine in the Traditions of Plato and Paul, and Outward Signs: The Powerlessness of External Things in Augustine’s Thought.

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14 Responses to St Augustine and the Varieties of Monergism

  1. Dallas Wolf says:

    I may be naïve, but my reading on Augustine is that he may have been an ardent supporter of the Church, but a theologian he was not.
    Augustine is a saint (West) and Origen, who plowed so much new theological ground and did so much to fight off Gnosticism, is not.
    The institutional church is strange, indeed.


  2. RVW says:

    I’m struggling with this line: “Ultimately it is up to God, not us, whether we freely choose to accept what God has to give us.” Maybe (probably) I’m missing something, but this seems to make non-sense of the term “freely.” Does he mean that in the morass of Adamic corruption, none of our choices are free by definition, so we need a prevenient grace to even have a “real” choice? Or is he saying (and this is what he seems to be saying in the context) that God produces faith in us that because of said production is inherently free? It really seems to be this later statement, but I cannot make heads or tails of it.

    I also wonder, on another note, whether or not a healthy dose of Athanasius would clarify this whole problem. If the world is enslaved to sin, as St Paul teaches, then choices are by definition not free. However, in the Incarnatio Verbi, St Ath. argues that since Christ has come, the world is fundamentally free again (the idols have been muted and so on). If the world has experienced some sort of ontological liberation (not total, by any means, but something), it places the question of our wills’ ability in a new light.


    Liked by 1 person

  3. phillipcary says:

    Yes, “God produces faith in us that because of said production [i.e. by the power of God’s grace] is inherently free”. Augustine does not think this makes nonsnse of the term “free,” because he does not think of grace and free will as if they were in competition with one another. In philosophical terms, Augustine is a “compatibilist” about grace and free will. No amount of grace “takes away” free will, because the two are always compatible, just as God’s creative power and our created power are always compatible, precisely because the one establishes the other.

    So God’s grace moves our will toward the good in such a way that we freely choose the good. For what God’s grace does is give the will a taste of the true beauty and happiness that it was made for and that it has always longed for, so that we fall in love with God, his beauty and goodness. We can no more say “No” to this grace than we can resist falling in love once it has happened to us–especially since in this case what we have fallen in love with is the source of supreme and eternal happiness.

    And yes, this is a restoration of our true freedom, lost in Adam. What it is not is merely an offer which it is ultimately up to us to accept. Rather, it is an offer that causes us to accept the offer, precisely by overwhelming us with its loveliness. From an Augustinian perspective, one could ask: who could possibly WANT a “freedom” that could resist such a beauty and its offer? Such a freedom is not freedom at all, but only bondage to sin, which God (thank God) overcomes by his grace.


    • easternprotestant says:

      Thank you for the response; I need to chew on this more. Does this then entail that God offers this irresistible grace to only some, since only some believe?



    • easternprotestant says:

      I think my initial reply missed the force of saying St Augustine is a compatibilist. I’m so used to thinking of the will and grace as a zero-sum game that I responded in terms of “irresistible grace.” It is hard for me to imagine it any other way. Could you recommend an entry-level discussion of compatibilism that I might peruse?



    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Phillip, could you briefly describe for us the difference between Augustine on the monergism of faith and the synergism of Eastern theologians. Do they contradict each other?


  4. infanttheology says:

    Great to see you commenting on this blog. Enjoyed the article and appreciated your work here. I am a serious Lutheran.

    “In Calvinist terms, Augustine is a synergist about sanctification like most Protestants, but because he thinks sanctification is necessary for salvation unlike most Protestants, he ends up being also a synergist about salvation—despite being a monergist about faith.”

    Interesting to note that while confessional Lutherans might be labeled “monergists” on justification they are (or should be) “synergists” re: sanctification. Even as, like you mention above, we would not insist on saying that “good works are necessary for salvation” (while we would simply say “good works are necessary” – because we want to safeguard the comfort of the Gospel). For this reason, we might also be hesitant to say that “sanctification is necessary for salvation” even though we certainly believe that no one who is not sanctified, or transformed (the beginnings of transformation) will be saved (a person who has no good works but does call out in desperation to Christ at the end of their life really will be saved, – and they have in fact, began to be sanctified in spite of a lack of good works).

    Another great article I thought about while reading this post, available for free online: Predestination, Grace, and Free Will in the Thought of St. Prosper of Aquitaine and C.F.W. Walther: A Comparison and Evaluation. It turns out Lutherans track almost perfectly with St. Prosper on predestination.

    Also, I have done a fairly extensive treatment of the issues you discuss on my own blog – here is one post in a series on these issues that dovetails nicely with many of the things brought up in your article here:



  5. Ronald MURPHY says:

    Strange, though, that Augustine was the major theologian that started teaching the heresies of a limited atonement and everlasting punishment for the lost! He admitted in his writings that he knew little Greek and had no desire to accept anything but Latin perverted translations. He even admitted that a great many Christian scholars and Church Fathers before him and during his lifetime didn’t accept everlasting punishment and believed in the final reconciliation of all. Augustine either copied the Manichiesm heresy of the eternal dualism of good and evil–or he practiced the “doctrine of reserve” (preaching a lie to the pagans and unbelievers and holding some biblical truths to the “esoteric few scholars”)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      I agree. Driven by his dispute with Pelagius, Augustine’s logic took him into serious theological error–particularly with regard to limited atonement and (almost) double predestination.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    I forgot to mention that this article is best read in conjunction with Dr Cary’s article “St Augustine and Justification by Grace,” which I posted two weeks ago.


  7. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Thank you for reposting these two articles!

    Do you know MacDonald’s Robert Falconer? There is a striking passage in chapter 12 which I hope you will excuse my quoting at length:

    For now arose within him, not without ultimate good, the evil phantasms of a theology which would explain all God’s doings by low conceptions, low I mean for humanity even, of right, and law, and justice, then only taking refuge in the fact of the incapacity of the human understanding when its own inventions are impugned as undivine. In such a system, hell is invariably the deepest truth, and the love of God is not so deep as hell. Hence, as foundations must be laid in the deepest, the system is founded in hell, and the first article in the creed that Robert Falconer learned was, ‘I believe in hell.’ Practically, I mean, it was so; else how should it be that as often as a thought of religious duty arose in his mind, it appeared in the form of escaping hell, of fleeing from the wrath to come? For his very nature was hell, being not born in sin and brought forth in iniquity, but born sin and brought forth iniquity. And yet God made him. He must believe that. And he must believe, too, that God was just, awfully just, punishing with fearful pains those who did not go through a certain process of mind which it was utterly impossible they should go through without a help which he would give to some, and withhold from others, the reason of the difference not being such, to say the least of it, as to come within the reach of the persons concerned. And this God they said was love. It was logically absurd, of course, yet, thank God, they did say that God was love; and many of them succeeded in believing it, too, and in ordering their ways as if the first article of their creed had been ‘I believe in God’; whence, in truth, we are bound to say it was the first in power and reality, if not in order; for what are we to say a man believes, if not what he acts upon? Still the former article was the one they brought chiefly to bear upon their children. This mortar, probably they thought, threw the shell straighter than any of the other field-pieces of the church-militant. Hence it was even in justification of God himself that a party arose to say that a man could believe without the help of God at all, and after believing only began to receive God’s help—a heresy all but as dreary and barren as the former. No one dreamed of saying—at least such a glad word of prophecy never reached Rothieden—that, while nobody can do without the help of the Father any more than a new-born babe could of itself live and grow to a man, yet that in the giving of that help the very fatherhood of the Father finds its one gladsome labour; that for that the Lord came; for that the world was made; for that we were born into it; for that God lives and loves like the most loving man or woman on earth, only infinitely more, and in other ways and kinds besides, which we cannot understand; and that therefore to be a man is the soul of eternal jubilation.


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