...are the ones that make the biggest difference


The trouble with monergism

I spent a goodly part of this morning at Border's doing some reading on Lutheranism, or rather, on Luther and his beliefs, and I must say I found what I read a little difficult to understand and accept. It seems that Luther is a bit of a monergist. I say "a bit" because both analyses that I read (one from Pelikan's masterful 5-part history of the church, this one being the 4th volume on the Reformation, the other The Cambridge Companion to Martin Luther) seemed a bit muddled on this point. Some of the stuff he said was apparently quite monergist and others a tad synergistic even though he expressly denied any form of synergism. But he also expressly rejected the monergism of Calvinism (speaking of which, I've gotten into a bit of a debate with Troy on the matter). The doctrine FAQ on the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod doesn't clear things up so well, either. Take this question and answer:

Q. Is it accurate to say that Lutherans believe that we are first given the ability to believe in Christ as Lord and Savior through the Holy Spirit and then it is our choice and responsibility to choose to believe in Christ, or am I off here?

A. Lutherans consistently and deliberately avoid using language of human "choice" when speaking of conversion, since we believe that faith is a gift of God created by the Holy Spirit through the Gospel, not a matter of human "choice" or "decision." From a human perspective, of course--especially in the case of adults or older children--conversion may at times appear to involve certain (mental and emotional) aspects of "choosing," but spiritually speaking faith is not a "choice" we make but a free gift of God's grace created by the power of the Holy Spirit working through the means of grace. Ultimately, therefore, conversion is a miracle and mystery that we confess in accordance with what the Scriptures teach and in which we rejoice, but which we do not claim fully to understand or attempt to explain in ways that "make sense" to human reason (e.g., the question why some who hear the Gospel believe and others do not).

But to another question the role of choice, this is part of the response:

All of this, of course, does not mean that when the Holy Spirit creates faith in our hearts we are not the ones who believe. On the contrary, Lutheran theologians have often spoken of faith as something that is "active" (fides activa) to emphasize that humans are active subjects in the believing. Paradoxically, then, faith is a purely passive act: God alone can give us the power to believe, while we are the ones who believe.

Thus, there is no contradiction between saying that we in our sinful, unregenerate condition cannot choose to believe, but that we can choose to reject God's grace.
(emphasis mine)

The last line of this section seems to contradict the last line of the above section in that it does seem to speak to the reason why some people hear the Gospel and yet disbelieve: they reject the gift of faith. But they (the LCMS) seem quite insistent on negating human choice while trying to maintain the capacity for it, at least in the sense that one may reject faith, at the same time. Like this:

Others answer this question by pointing to God's sovereign will: God himself predestines from eternity some to be saved and others to be damned. Lutherans reject this answer as unscriptural because according to the Bible God sincerely desires all to be saved and has predestined no one to damnation.

So how do Lutherans answer this question? The answer is that Lutherans do not try to answer it, because (we believe) the Bible itself does not provide an answer to this question that is comprehensible to human reason. Lutherans affirm, with Scripture, that whoever is saved is saved by God's grace alone, a grace so sure that it excludes all human "action" and "choice" but rather rests on the foundation of God's action in Christ and his "choice" (predestination) from before the beginning of time. Lutherans also affirm, with Scripture, that those who are damned are damned not by God's "choice" but on account of their own human sin and rebellion and unbelief. From a human perspective, there is no "rational" or "logical" way to put these two truths together. Lutherans believe and confess them not because they are "rational" and "logical," but because this is what we find taught in Scripture.

I'm certainly no critic of a good bit of mystery in our faith & theology - it was one of the things that drew me to Orthodoxy in the first place. I do not feel a constant need to define & clarify & dogmatize what can only be speculatively ascertained, particularly when in so doing we have to reject or severely modify passages of Scripture. For instance, 1 Tim 2:4 is pretty clear on God's desire for all men to be saved, yet Calvinists are forced to "clarify" the plain meaning of the text in order to maintain their double predestination, which is not explicit in the Bible. They dogmatize the uncertain due not to sound exegesis, but a value-laden eisegesis, carrying their nice-sounding ideas about God's sovereignty into the text. But this mystery, this uncertainty is troubling me. Maybe because its unfamiliar, maybe because it seems to be rejecting my personal experience and the experience of many of the Christians I know who all most certainly had a moment when they decided to repent, to acknowledge Jesus as Lord and throw themselves on His mercy. Maybe that was an illusion. Maybe it wasn't a positive choice, just the absence of a negative choice, ie, resistance to the faith the Spirit was quickening, but it sure didn't feel like it.

I still have more reading and study to do, but in the meantime, any and all are welcome to comment - I welcome the input and challenges as we sort through our choice of church home. But I especially welcome the input of any Lutherans reading this that may be able to better clarify their position for me.


Benedict Seraphim said...

For more, some of it very in-depth, on monergism, take a look at the soteriology diablog on my own blog:


Russell Smith said...

I must beg to differ on a few points here. First, not all Calvinists have a harsh double predestination stance (of course Calvinists nuance it quite a bit in a lot of different ways -- much the same way there is nuance in Orthodox circles regarding icons and nuance in Lutheran circles regarding the Lord's supper).

Second -- If we take a close look at Romas 9:10-22, I think we can make a pretty decent case for a nuanced double predestination. We have to find some way of reconciling tough passages like this with passages like I Tim 2:4 -- Calvinists find one way of reconciling while theologians in other camps find other ways of reconciling. It's a bit harsh to accuse a whole school of thought as engaging in eisegesis. Admittedly there are plenty of Calvinists out there who are attack dogs and insist you accept Calvin into your heart as your pesonal theologian. However there are others out there who have sincerely wrestled with the whole counsel of God and have come to peace with Calvinism's understanding of the Soveriegnty of God.

There are still plenty of us Calvinists who are willing to let mystery be.

Soli Deo Gloria

Rhirhok said...


If you want to know Luther's view on predestination, then I would recommend you pick up what Luther called one of his most important works "The Bondage of the Will." Luther is very clear about his views in this book as he responds Erasmus. There is a great translation by J.I. Packer and O.R. Johnston.

Chase Vaughn said...

"yet Calvinists are forced to "clarify" the plain meaning of the text in order to maintain their double predestination, which is not explicit in the Bible."

Hey, it's double or nothing. If it is true that God elects people to salvation and no one believes except the ones drawn by the Spirit in accordance with the Father's decree, then by electing only some he is thereby leaving others to perish (though it is passive predestination, it is just as sure and predestined). This view is the orthodox asymmetrical view of double predestination. Predestination is double or nothing.