* Local News: The Presbytery of Mississippi’s annual Kaleidoscope retreat weekend has been scheduled for February 10-12 at First Trinity Presbyterian in Laurel, Mississippi. To learn more about the event, check out the web site.
Synergism. For many evangelicals, especially those from a Reformed background, this word spills over with negative connotations. Defined simply, synergism refers theologically to God and man cooperating together. In Reformed circles, monergism is used in place of synergism when discussing salvation, in an effort to emphasize that, as far as redemption is concerned, the only thing we bring to the table is sin. Whereas synergism emphasizes God and man cooperating, monergism emphasizes the one-sided work of God on our behalf. There is a sense in which people must cooperate with God’s grace, but Scripture describes even man’s ability to cooperate as itself a gift of God. Faith, Paul says, is “not of yourselves; it is a gift of God” (Ephesians 2:8-9).
- Synergism in Western Christianity: Man’s effort to merit salvation
Reformed Christians, understandably, have historically been very uncomfortable with synergism because, as Western Christians, it conjured up memories of trying to accumulate merit before God. In the medieval Western church, the teaching that humans must merit eternal life by cooperating with God’s grace became front and center of the 16th century Reformation. Protestants protested this idea, arguing that Biblically the only merit that we can rely on for salvation is Christ’s, not our own. It’s not an overstatement to say that this controversy is singularly responsible for the split in the Western church.
Despite the profoundly important reforms that have taken place in the Western Catholic Church over the last 500 years, the doctrine that man merits eternal life through cooperation with God’s grace offered in the sacraments is still explicitly laid out and affirmed in the 1994 Catechism of the Catholic Church. The doctrine that tore Western Christendom asunder still divides us.
As Protestants are products of western Christianity, it’s understandable that they understand Scripture through a western lens. Unfortunately, we often project that western lens onto Eastern Orthodox Christians, assuming that when they use the same words as western Christians, they must intend the same meaning. However, this is a mistake. Is the doctrine of synergism, in the East as well as the West, always accompanied by a belief in human merit and a denial that we are justified by Christ’s merit alone?
- Synergism in Eastern Christianity: Emphasis on work, but not merit
There are important differences between Eastern synergism and Western synergism. If one looks at one of Eastern Orthodoxy’s most important councils from recent centuries, the 1672 Synod of Jerusalem, on the surface much of the council’s decisions conflict with evangelical theology. Church historian Phillip Schaff went so far as to say the Jerusalem Synod is the Eastern equivalent of the Western Catholic Church’s Council of Trent, which anathematized Protestantism. Cyril Lucar, who had served as Patriarch of Constantinople—the highest ranking bishop within Eastern Orthodoxy, the “first among equals”—from 1601 to 1620, had been heavily influenced by the Reformation and had produced a confession that was not only Protestant in tone, but moderately Calvinistic. Lucar’s confession created such a firestorm that the Synod of Jerusalem was eventually held to repudiate Lucar’s “errors.”
The Synod denounced the doctrine of justification by faith alone, emphasizing the human cooperative element in salvation—synergism. This must mean that the Eastern Orthodox Church, like the Western Catholic Church, teaches that man must merit salvation through cooperating with God’s grace, right? Given the Synod’s harsh denunciation of Protestantism, it may come as a surprise to many Protestants that the Eastern Orthodox Church has never embraced a doctrine of merit comparable to what Roman Catholicism teaches.
Last year, Father Paul Yerger of Holy Resurrection Orthodox Church in Clinton, Mississippi said plainly in a sermon on Galatians 2: “We don’t have any merit before God.” Though Eastern Orthodoxy is uncomfortable with the language of “faith alone”, it is equally uncomfortable with language about human merit. Bishop Kalistos Ware explained the Eastern perspective best of all in his book, The Orthodox Church, when he said that though we cannot merit eternal life, we must nevertheless work for it. He went on to quote James 2, which teaches us that faith without works is dead. To paraphrase the comment in a manner more digestible for Protestants, Ware was saying that we must work and obey Christ, but we must not think that our work merits anything before God, or earns anything from God.
The final paragraph in St. Philaret’s Russian Orthodox Catechism says that whenever we feel confident that we have kept any commandment of God’s we must remind ourselves of the words spoken in Christ’s parable: “We are unworthy servants; we have merely done our duty.” Martin Luther would’ve have no quarrel with that sentiment.
The Jerusalem Synod really did repudiate certain things that Cyril Lucar had taught, but on the point of justification, they repudiated more of a caricature of the Protestant doctrine than the doctrine itself. What the Synod of Jerusalem condemned was the notion—not formally taught by any Protestant church—that we are saved by a faith that doesn’t produce any sort of works. In other words, the Synod wanted to repudiate antinomianism, the lawless idea that if one professes Christ as Savior, it’s unimportant whether one begins to obey Christ.
- Conclusion: Room for an evangelical/Eastern Orthodox consensus
What’s the significance of all this? The point is to draw attention to the fact that evangelicals and Eastern Orthodox Christians may be closer to each other than they had previously realized. Of course, substantial differences exist regarding the sacraments, Tradition, the role of the saints, etc… But on the specific point of justification, evangelicals and Eastern Orthodox Christians agree that God saves sinners without any merit of their own.
Unless evangelicals understand this, they will misunderstand what Eastern Christians intend by praying to the saints. Luther and the other reformers repudiated invocation to saints largely because praying to saints in 16th century Europe was perceived as a way to tap into the accumulated merits of the saints. The doctrine of the treasury of merits, which the medieval Catholic Church officially pronounced, gave Christians the impression that they could somehow get the saints to use the merit they had accumulated before God in order to ensure blessings for those on earth. Mary, who was the holiest human of all and had accumulated the most merit, was understandably the saint who was petitioned the most. That Mary would benevolently intercede for those still struggling on earth was a perpetual hope of medeival European Christians.
If an evangelical visits an Eastern Orthodox service and hears prayers offered to the saints—especially Mary—it’s easy to think that an effort is being made to benefit from the saints’ merit. However, the doctrine of the treasury of merits was never embraced in the Eastern Orthodox Church, nor was any similar doctrine ever promulgated. That isn’t to defend venerating or praying to the saints—apart from the doctrine of the treasury of merits, there are sound reasons to avoid such a practice—but it is simply to clarify what Eastern Orthodoxy intends. Just as believers on earth can ask each other for prayers, Eastern Orthodoxy defends the practice of asking departed saints for prayers on the grounds that, though dead, they are still a part of the church and since even death cannot tear asunder the mystical “communion of the saints.” The East describes Mary as sinless, but nevertheless ascribes no merit to her. Remember, even if one hypothetically did everything God commanded (which, of course, in practice, is impossible), one would still only be an “unworthy servant.”
Luther repudiated monasticism because in his experience in Western Christendom monks hoped to merit God’s favor through their austere lives and flesh-mortifying vows. It would be a mistake, though, to think that Eastern Orthodox monks perceive the monastic life as a means to merit God’s favor. Monasticism and merit are not inseparably linked (as is further evidenced by the fact that monasticism exists within pockets of the Anglican Communion, which officially accepts the doctrine of justification by faith alone—see Article 11 in the 39 Articles). There is a Biblical precedent for asceticism—think of John the Baptist and Elijah, for example.
Almost all of the distinctively Roman Catholic doctrines and practices opposed by the reformers were opposed on the grounds that they attributed merit to humans or obscured the truth that we are saved by Christ’s merit alone. What one finds in the East are a number of practices that appear identical to those in Western Catholicism, but with the all-important distinction that the doctrine of human merit is absent, thereby giving the practices a radically different meaning.If we are to have healthy dialogues about what we disagree on, we must be realistic about what we do agree on.
Finally, though it would be an overstatement to say both sides are monergistic, it should be remembered that even in Western Christendom, synergism isn’t always synonymous with human merit; evangelicalism has historically been an umbrella broad enough to include not only Lutherans and Calvinists, who are emphatically monergistic, but Wesleyans also, who are more synergistic. The synergism of Eastern Orthodoxy is, when closely examined, not that different from historic Wesleyanism which, of course, preaches justification by faith alone. It would be fair to say, then, that Eastern Orthodoxy and Wesleyanism alike affirm synergism but deny human merit.
It is Jackson Presbyterian Examiner ’s contention that substantial agreement exists between evangelicals and Eastern Orthodoxy on how man is justified before God. Both sides agree that we have no merit before God, both sides agree that God saves us by grace through faith in Christ, and both sides agree that saving faith must produce obedience.