Monday, October 09, 2006


“If we accept that the human being has been created by God, endowed with freedom, and made responsible for his or her own life, and even if we accept in addition that there are limits to freedom and responsibility, and especially that through the weakness of sin no human being can attain wholeness of life through effort that is unaided by divine grace-- even Kant in spite of his insistence on autonomy conceded as much-- yet we are still bound to say that there must be some human contribution to the work of redemption, even if it is no more than responsive and never of equal weight with the grace of God.

While the champions of sola gratia have concentrated their attention on some passages of scripture and have probably interpreted even these in a one-sided way, there are other passages, even in the writings of Paul, where the element of cooperation in the work of salvation seems to be clearly recognized. It is Paul who, after the magnificent hymn in praise of Christ’s redeeming work, in his letter to the Philippians, goes on immediately to say to the Christian believers: “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for God is at work in you” (Phil. 2:12). The thought here seems clearly to be that God’s work and man’s work go on side by side in the realization of salvation. In another epistle, he writes: “Working together with him, then, we entreat you not to accept the grace of God in vain” (2 Cor. 6:1). A straightforward interpretation of these words seem quite incompatible with any rigorous doctrine of sola gratia. For what does it mean “to accept the grace of God in vain” but to fail to make any response to this grace, to refrain from any answering work? The expression “working together with him,” which has also been translated “as co-workers with him,” is in Greek synergountes, from which we derive the English word “synergism,” cited at an earlier stage in the discussion. This word “synergism” is the usual theological term for the point of view I have been commending, namely, that human salvation is accomplished neither by man’s own unaided efforts nor by an act of God entirely outside of man, but by a synergism or co-working, in which, of course, the initiative and weight lie on the side of God, but the human contribution is also necessary and cannot be left out of the account.

Before we leave the New Testament on these questions, let us call to mind in addition to the Pauline material the letter of James. Luther was so unhappy with this letter that he questioned whether it should ever have been included in the canon of the New Testament. It seem inconsistent with Paul’s insistence that we are justified by faith, not by works, or perhaps we should say, with Paul’s view of these matters as interpreted by Luther. But one could say that the apparent tension between James and Paul should not be taken to mean that James should have been excluded from the canon, but rather that the inclusion of his letter is a much needed corrective to some of the more one-sided Pauline pronouncements as they have been commonly understood. “What does it profit, my brethren,” asks James, “if a man says he has faith but has not works? Can his faith save him? If a brother or sister is ill-clad and in lack of daily food, and one of you say to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled,’ without giving them the things needed for the body, what does it profit? So faith, by itself, if it has no works, is dead” (Jas. 2:14-17). Or perhaps one should say that faith, as decision, is itself the beginning of the work.

Luther’s friend and associate, Philip Melanchthon, was the principal theologian of the Lutheran Reformation. It is often claimed that he taught a doctrine of synergism, though some Lutherans have tried to play down this side of his teaching. But others have accused him of betraying the Lutheran cause and of subverting even the key doctrine of justification by grace alone. The truth is that Melanchthon retained a strong humanistic bias through the passionate controversial years following the Reformation, and therefore he could never feel at ease with doctrines which seemed to him to threaten such essential human characteristics as rationality, freedom, and responsibility. So he was obviously unhappy with such notions as predestination and irresistible grace. He could not accpet that, as he put it, “God snatches you by some violent rapture, so that you must believe, whether you will or not.” Again, he protested that the Holy Spirit does not work on a human being as on a statue, a piece of wood or a stone. The human will has its part to play in redemption, as well as the Word of God and the Spirit of God. Such teaching might seem to us to be common sense, but in the highly charged atmosphere of Melanchthon’s time, it needed courage to say such things, and it brought angry rejoinders from other Lutherans. But Melanchthon shows that even at the heart of Lutheran theology an effort was being made to find an acceptable place for synergism or co-working between God and man in the work of salvation.”

-Dr. John Macquarrie, Anglican Philosopher and Theologian.

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