In Christ, there is neither Monergist nor Synergist

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In a beautiful paragraph from Church Dogmatics IV.3.2, Barth states carefully the dual truth that,

1) Jesus Christ accomplishes the work of salvation without the cooperation of any other human; and yet,

2) We are not simply “passive receptors” without a significance or will of our own.

Read this portion carefully. If it is difficult to follow,  just read the underlined portions in sequence to get the flow.

We now turn to what must be thought and said concerning this union of [Christ’s] with Christians from their standpoint. There is, of course, no one, apostle, saint or the Virgin, who can contribute in the very slightest to what is accomplished for all by the one Jesus Christ in His life and death. In relation to His high-priestly and kingly work even a Paul can only know what has been done for us by God in Him (1 Cor. 2:12). But those to whom He reveals and makes known this life and death of His as the act of God for their salvation and His own glory do not confront this act of revelation, this work of atonement in its prophetic dimension, as hearers and spectators who are left to themselves and ordained for pure passivity. What kind of vocation, illumination and awakening would it be, what kind of knowledge, if they were merely left gaping at the One who discloses Himself to them? No, as surely as He does not will to tread alone His way as the Proclaimer of the kingdom, so surely they for their part must be with Him, companions of the living One who are made alive by Him, witnesses in His discipleship to that which He wills to reveal to the world as having been effected in Him, namely to the reconciliation accomplished and the covenant fulfilled in Him. This is what He makes them as He calls them to Himself, as He does this really and totally, as He does not leave them to themselves, as He does not remain outside them, as He gives Himself to them, as in the divine power of His Spirit He unites Himself with them. That they may become and be those with whom He unites Himself by His Word; that they may be those who are born again from above by His presence and action in their own lives; that they may be continually nourished by Him—this is, from their standpoint, the ratio of Christian existence. (Church Dogmatics IV.3.2, p. 542)

In short, Barth brings Christian discipleship fully into the work of salvation, not as something subsequent and secondary to reconciliation.

All too often I detect and am bothered by a sense of “human passivity” in certain monergistic accounts of salvation where one is left feeling that the human is “saved” in complete passivity. The old Keswickian “Let go and let God” slogan so common in the evangelical mind betrays this kind of human passivity.

But Barth insists our reconciliation to God is simultaneously wholly the work of God and the active engagement of the human in discipleship from the very first. In other words, I think Barth’s way of putting it helps us to avoid having to choose between the false dichotomy of “monergist” and “synergist” accounts of salvation, for though salvation is entirely the work of God, it is a work, from the get-go, that makes us spiritual partners with him, even in the event of reconciliation itself.

HT: Dustin Resch for “unknowingly” pointing this passage out to me…

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3 thoughts on “In Christ, there is neither Monergist nor Synergist

  1. Alan Thomson

    Hi David,

    Thanks for this post because it brings to the fore a question I have had at the back of my mind for a while. I am a latecomer to Barth who really enjoys him (a good preaching theologian) but I have some reservations and this post reveals one of them. I can see the application of witness here however I am not convinced it overcomes the passivity it contends against – is it not setting Christians up as passive demonstrations?

  2. Hi Alan. Thanks for dropping by. I guess I would need to hear more about what you are thinking as to what you see as putting Christians into passivity as Barth construes it. However, one thing that Barth continually (especially throughout CD IV) emphasizes is that salvation of the human is a salvation to freedom to be…human, including the exercise of a genuinely human freedom to live in obedience to Christ.

    But tell me more of why you see this as leading to passivity…

  3. Keith Pearson

    I am not apt to leaving remarks on these blogs because I usually find myself way in over my head. But since it is relevant to my own reading these days and possibly to Alan’s question I feel compelled to jump in with both feet.

    There is quiet a similar discussion by Barth in the very beginning of his Church Dogmatics. Now, of course, he is addressing a different topic (The Word of God and Faith) within a different setting (The Knowability of the Word of God) but it would appear to assist in the monergist/synergist discussion.
    The most pertinent section, thus far, is found in CD I/1 section 6. In speaking of the real experience of the Word of God in faith he expresses a similar idea in regards to our discussion.

    ” It is the Word, Christ, to whom faith refers because He presents Himself to it as its object, that makes faith faith, real experience. Let it be clearly understood: because He presents Himself to it as its object. For faith is not faith by the mere fact that it has or is a reference — it might well be in reality a pointless reference to an imagined object. It is faith by the fact that the Word of God is given to us as the object of this reference, as the object of acknowledgment, and therefore as the basis of real faith” (230).

    He goes even further to state that, ” The believer is the same ungifted and idle or gifted and busy man he was as an unbeliever and may become again” (237). What he is suggesting here is that there is no natural, or I might even say, new born position where man finds himself speaking of his faith or knowledge of the Word of God.

    To be sure Barth does discount mans possibility of true experience of the Word of God but it is a possibility found in the object, Christ, that is given to the sinful man. He connects the previous two ideas well in this footnote:

    ” The reconciliation of man with God in Christ also includes, or already begins with, the restitution of the lost point of contact [image of God]. Hence this point of contact is not real outside faith; it is real only in faith. In faith man is created by the Word of God for the Word of God, existing in the Word of God and not in himself, not in virtue of his humanity and personality, not even on the basis of creation, for that which by creation was possible for man in relation to God has been lost by the fall” (239).

    Right from the beginning of Barth’s Dogmatics we see that he addresses this similar issue of God and man’s role in relation to the experience of the Word of God here and salvation in CD I/V 3.2. Could it be better stated that man has actively fallen away and continues in darkness, rather than understanding man as a passive receptor? Would this be more faithful to Barth? Or perhaps, the active part of salvation comes post or simultaneously in the event of granted faith?

    There are some meager thoughts and truthfully spur of the moment ones at that. At any rate you can read these sections for yourselves and come to a more clear understanding.

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