Rowboating with God: The Mystery of Synergism


Several years ago I telephoned a well-known Orthodox theologian and asked him to elabo­rate on the doctrine of synergism. He pointed me to the words of the  Apocalypse of John: “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 Christ is always knocking on the door of our souls, but he wants us to cooperate with him. He does not force himself upon us. 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.”

At first glance synergism seems quite straightforward. Human beings cooperate with the Creator to accomplish their salvation. We work with God and he works with us. But it’s not hard to see how this explanation might be distorted into a kind of self-help Pelagianism against which the Protestant Reformation so vigorously protested: God does his part, we do ours. Divine and human agency are compartmentalized and separated. It doesn’t matter if we qualify ourselves by saying that God does 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, thoughtful Christians will quickly reject the distortion. Synergism cannot mean that God carries us most of the way up the holy mountain, sets us down, and then leaves us to climb the remaining inches on our own, no doubt cheering us on from the sidelines. Met Kallistos Ware rightly corrects the 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 entirely 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 shore. As a metaphor, the rowboat is no doubt superior to the mountain climbing image, yet if taken literally it too misleads as a way to think of the interaction between God and human­ity. The transcendent Deity is not an inhabitant of our universe. His causal activity is not exercised on the same plane of existence as our own. Divine action and free human action, therefore, do not interact in any way we can formulate or picture. The “causal joint” must always remain ineffable to us, 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, without compromising one or the other. As we have seen, Farrer calls this “double agency.” We cannot explain how this works; all we can do is state how it does not work. The causal joint of divine and human agency is quite literally inconceivable and therefore always apophatically qualified. We are, after all, talking about the intersection not only of infinite and finite realities but of transcendent Person and created persons. Synergism is mysterious and incomprehensible.

But in the actual practice of our faith, we do not need to know how synergism works:

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 listen and obey.

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

(30 January 2014; rev.)

(Go to “God, Synergism, and Human Freedom”)

This entry was posted in Philosophical Theology and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Rowboating with God: The Mystery of Synergism

  1. Dale Crakes. says:

    Glad to see your plugging in Fr Farrer. If I remember correctly he offered daily Mass when able and was an active confessor. Of course he was a stole and surplice man.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. dianelos says:

    Without the grace of God we have not the power to even move a finger, so we can leave behind the discussion about how to compare God’s action with ours.

    As for salvation I’d like to suggest a simple understanding: By God’s grace we are given the power to choose to follow Christ’s commandments and thus transform ourselves into His likeness. Which is what “salvation” means: to be close to God. And one comes close to God when one transforms oneself into the likeness of Christ.


  3. AristotlesJedi says:

    Fr. Kimel,

    An appropriate post to comment and note of thanks for the help you’ve given me.

    Thanks! You’ve been a gent

    Liked by 1 person

Comments are closed.