I've been following with some interest the posts of Scot McKnight regarding the books by Roger Olson and Michael Horton, Olson's Against Calvinism and Horton's For Calvinism.
I haven't read either book, so I'm mainly reacting to Scot's summaries of the books and his reactions to them. I'm no fan of Calvinism and it doesn't seem that Scot is either (at the very least he has serious reservations). So I've been sympathetic to Scot's worries, questions, and concerns about Calvinism as he's reviewed the two books.
The most recent post caught my attention as it wades into the issues of monergism versus synergism and resistible versus irresistible grace.
For those needing to get up to speed, a quick primer. Simplifying greatly, synergism is the view that humans cooperate with God in the act of salvation, that human will has a part to play. God offers grace and humans have to respond. Synergism is the view held by Arminians. Monergism, by contrast, is the view that only God acts in salvation. This is the doctrine of election, where no bit of human agency is involved in salvation. God alone acts and saves. Monergism is the view held by Calvinists. Crudely, we can make the contrast by asking "How many wills are involved in salvation?" One? Or two? Is it God's will alone? Or God's will plus our will?
Monergism and synergism sit behind the debates regarding resistible and irresistible grace. Arminians, in their endorsement of synergism, believe in resistible grace. This makes sense. If two wills are involved--God's and my own--then it's possible that I can exercise my will to reject God's offer of grace. Grace can be resisted. Calvinists, by contrast, in their endorsement of monergism, believe that grace is irresistible. And this makes sense as well. If human agency isn't involved in salvation then the person can't "resist." If God alone is working and God elects you then grace happens automatically, it's irresistible.
The point being, given their assumptions about the role (or lack thereof) of human agency/choice in salvation, the Arminian and Calvinistic views of grace are internally consistent.
The debates, therefore, aren't about the logical consistency of the two views but the sort of God they portray. And that's the main worry Scot expresses in his latest post: If monergism is true what sort of God would pick some and not others? Doesn't it make more sense, in light of the claim that God is love, that God elects all of us but it's up to us to respond?
Another way of thinking about this is that monergism is good at preserving God's sovereignty where synergism is good at preserving God's love. So take your pick. Do you want your God sovereign or loving?
(I, personally, as a universalist, don't think we have to choose. We can endorse both. Universalism is the view on offer where we can endorse the best of both Calvinism and Arminianism. God wills to save everyone (the best of Arminianism) and God gets what God wants (the best of Calvinism).)
But all this is just background for why I want to draw your attention to Scot's post. Again, I grew up in an Arminian tradition so I agree with Scot's worries about monergism, about the implications it has for our view of a loving God. But where I differ a bit from Scot is in regard to the second worry he expresses in the post, the worry about God overriding our free will and coercing us into salvation.
This concern is easily seen. If monergism is true, if humans have no choice in the matter of salvation, then isn't the doctrine of election a form of coercion? Isn't God forcing you into heaven? Here is Scot expressing his concern:
I will put my cards on the table first: I believe those Calvinists who push hard for irresistible or effectual grace sketch a God who coerces and I am convinced, regardless of their contentions, that they effectively (and effectually) deny free will. If grace is irresistible, it is not chosen; if it is irresistible, humans aren’t free to say No to God.This is the bit I want to respond to.
As regular readers know, I've gone off a time or two about the use of free will in theological debate. I've teed off on Rob Bell, N.T. Wright, Greg Boyd and I'm about to say a few things about Scot's argument above.
But let me be clear. I'm in complete agreement with Scot's concern. In my opinion he is 100% right. So my quibbles aren't about the theology. We agree on that. My quibbles are about the psychology.
As I've written about before, I think it's problematic to put so much theological weight on such a sketchy anthropological concept like "free will." I could ask Scot the same sort of question about free will that I asked of other theological advocates of free will:
Why would you build any theological argument upon a philosophically contested, scientifically disputed, and perennially controversial anthropocentric abstraction?The problem, as I've articulated before, is that I don't like to see conversations about God dependent upon anthropology, particularly a philosophically and scientifically contested bit of anthropology. A theological reliance upon free will seems sketchy to me, like building on quicksand. Personally, I'd like to see theology come out right because we are getting God right rather than getting humans right. And I think that's where Scot is positioning himself. He wants to make a claim about God but he's using a claim out humans--an extraordinarily contested and controversial claim--to get there. That's my worry. Why base your soteriology on a dubious and hotly contested theory about human anthropology? It makes your theology so fragile and open to critique. Particularly in this Age of Neuroscience when more and more people are going to be expressing doubts about free will. This is, one might say, the neurological equivalent of being a Young Earth Creationist.
Now, to be clear, this isn't to say Scot's general worry about coercion is wrong. It isn't. My point is, rather, that when you are building a theological structure free will isn't a brick you should be reaching for.
So let's rework Scot's worry with different psychological bricks. Let's get at his theological concern using a more coherent and scientifically plausible anthropology. Let's put free will to the side and build with some better material.
To recap, Scot is worried about God's election overriding human "free" will, that monergism effectively marginalizes human agency and that, from an experiential standpoint, this would leave the human person doing something he or she didn't "choose" to do. Hence Scot's use of the word coercion--doing something you didn't want or choose to do.
As longtime readers know, Scot isn't actually talking about "free will" here. He is talking about what the philosopher Harry Frankfurt calls volitional unanimity, when my choices are aligned with my desires. The experience of human freedom comes when we are doing what we want to do, when volition lines up with caring.
So Scot is right to say that a feeling of coercion is experienced when our choices become misaligned with what we care about, about what we want and desire. This inner state of conflict is often experienced by addicts or by those with compulsions. But we all experience this state to greater or lesser degrees when we give in to temptation. We feel internally overthrown. This is the experience of volitional wretchedness that Paul describes in Romans 7.
So, yes. If, as monergism claims, God makes us choose things we do not want to do we'd experience a feeling of coercion, of volitional violation. We'd experience choice as coming from outside of ourselves overriding our goals, desires, and life story.
But let's be clear. We don't need to describe this as a violation of free will (whatever that this). The feeling of coercion--election as an experience of volitional violation--is real, but it's produced by breaking volitional unanimity, introducing a disjoint between choice and caring.
So far, so good. But the Calvinist has a response. And some people in the comments of Scot's post make this point: What if God isn't just affecting volition, what if God is also changing our affections, what we care about?
This is a great point. As I've often said, the issue when in comes to human choice isn't volition but affection. Our choices go where our affections go. We don't really choose God. Rather, we fall in love with God. And most spiritual biographies (see the lives of the saints) have this sort of character. A love story, of pursuit and resistance and ultimate union. It's a journey of the heart, not of the "free will." It is as Augustine said, "Our hearts are restless until they rest in You."
So it seems that all the monergist needs to do is to suggest, at the moment of election, that God changes both will and heart, volition and affection. Such a change would preserve volitional unanimity. With a change of the heart our new God-given will would line up with it: We would be both choosing God and wanting to choose God. And that unanimity is the experience of freedom. We'd feel no coercion.
So is monergism saved if we posit that God's election is both volitional and affectional? Not quite. The problem comes when we think about the nature of selfhood. Specifically, "the self" isn't just about affection. It's about memory, story, biography, integrity, and time. For the self to be the self it has to be recognized, named and embraced. In a certain sense, the self is a story we tell about ourselves over time. And that story has to have a plot, some narrative coherence and integrity. The person I was yesterday has to have some narrative connection with the person I am today. Otherwise we'd slide into insanity.
A simple example of this is waking up in the morning. As we regain consciousness one of the first things that happens is that the self is gathered and reorganized. We find the bookmark in the story of the self and get ready to move the plot forward. We wake up thinking, "What was I going to do today? Ah, yes. I have that important meeting." We remember ourselves. Our story comes back to us as we prepare to go forward in time. (And, if you're me, you need some coffee to get this process jump-started in the morning. Before your story kicks in we are, almost literally, zombies. That's what a zombie is--a human being with no narrative, no story, so self. That's what I'm like shuffling toward the coffee machine...a narrativeless zombie)
All this to say that humans are biographical creatures, that the self is narratological.
So what would happen if we woke up one day and found our affections radically disconnected from who we were the day before? We, quite literally, wouldn't recognize ourselves. The prior self would be a stranger, an alien doppelganger.
A first blush, that might sound really biblical. A perfect description of putting to death the "old man" and putting on "the new." But as I recall from those texts we are called to do this over and over. Day and after day. It seems that "putting on the new man," "not grieving the Holy Spirit," "presenting yourselves as living sacrifices" and "working out your salvation in fear and trembling" appear to be pointing to the ongoing work of sanctification, which fits better with synergism than with monergism.
But my concerns here are still mainly psychological. Waking up one day with radically new affections would traumatically fracture the narrative flow of the self. We see this sort of fracture in a variety of psychological disorders from amnesia to Dissociative Identity Disorder (Multiple Personality Disorder) to dementia. True, this narrative fracture might not be experienced as coercion, but it does create a catastrophic disruption of the self. It is still a phenomenological violation of the individual, the worry Scot is expressing in his post.
The point being, I think Calvinists are being psychologically naive when they say that God radically changes us in the moment of election. What they are positing isn't psychologically plausible. We wouldn't see joy or illumination at the moment of transformation but panic and psychological disorientation. The narrative flow of the self would be so traumatically ruptured that the person would struggle, and often fail, to make sense of their memories and life story.
All this presupposes that the transformation is quick. But what if this process happened more slowly, over years and years? Truth be told, as a universalist I actually think that is what is happening. That God is slowly bringing each of us along, each at a different narrative pace. A pace mainly set by God's patience--God's concern to preserve our volitional integrity, to not coerce us, to bring us to grace in a way that keeps our selfhood as biographical creatures intact. Some of us are moving rapidly home. Some of us are taking journeys like the Prodigal Son, walking away from God at this point in the story
But if this is the case, we return to Scot's point: surely human agency is involved in this process. That there is synergism between God's will and my own. Truly God is shaping us, choosing us, and electing us. It's just that this election is occurring at every moment of our entire life story.
A story, I believe, each of us is helping God to write.