N.T. Wright on synergism as a bogey word

James Spinti quotes N.T. Wright, in his 2009 book Justification (not sure why it is listed as “Not Yet Published” at this Eisenbrauns page which he links to), including the following parenthesis:

(what damage to genuine pastoral theology has been done by making a bogey-word out of the Pauline term synergism, “working together with God”)

I don’t know if Wright has explained this in more depth. But he is right that “synergism” is a term and concept used by the Apostle Paul.

In fact Paul uses sunergos “co-worker” twelve times and sunergeo “work together” three times, and there are respectively one and two other New Testament occurrences of these words. Some of these refer to human co-workers. But in 1 Corinthians 3:9, 2 Corinthians 6:1 and 2 Thessalonians 3:2 a human is a sunergos of God. And even more startlingly, in Romans 8:28, also in the textually doubtful Mark 16:20, we apparently read that God works together (sunergeo) with humans. Compare also Philippians 2:12-13, where the same concept is expressed in different terms.

Now when Paul and Mark write of this working together, they are not referring to salvation. So they are not teaching the doctrine of “synergism” disparaged at the Calvinistic site Theopedia as

the view that God and humanity work together, each contributing their part to accomplish salvation in and for the individual. This is the view of salvation found in Arminianism and its theological predecessor Semi-Pelagianism.

(This is by the way a misunderstanding of Arminianism, which does not in general teach that human works have any part in salvation.)

I’m not sure why Wright singles out “pastoral theology”. But certainly “synergism” is being used as a bogey word among Calvinists. And I can only agree that this kind of usage is theologically damaging by the way it is commonly misunderstood as denying the responsibility of Christians, already saved, to do works together with God as he calls us to.

0 thoughts on “N.T. Wright on synergism as a bogey word

  1. Peter,

    Thanks for the link. I fixed the web site; it got overlooked when the book was published…

    I don’t understand why Calvinists consistently misrepresent/misunderstand Arminianism. Classic Arminianism is, as Wesley put it, a hair’s breath away from Calvinism. I like to explain the difference as Calvin believed in apportioned grace, Wesley believed in free grace.


  2. Thanks, James. On the difference between Calvinism and Arminianism, perhaps I should also have included your Bonhoeffer quote:

    When Peter stepped out of the boat in faith, was it works?

  3. Thanks Peter for clarifying this. I don’t know much about N.T. Wright but I want to learn more about his New Perspective. I find that Arminians are misunderstood when one puts the emphasis on how the human will plays a big part in the sanctification process. They falsely assume that Arminians are saying that it also has a part in justification, but that’s just not so. The human will can play a part in the sanctification process but not in justification.

  4. Well, Kevin, I think you may find that Wright turns upside down your concepts of justification and sanctification, and of what the human part in either might be. But read his book. I haven’t, so I don’t know the details of what he thinks.

    I think Arminians do allow for human will and decision to play a part in justification (as traditionally understood), but would distinguish this from works, human effort.

  5. Peter, I stand corrected by you in your distinction between human will and human effort. I along with many people often fail to distinguish between the two and we end up making false accusations.

    Too bad that synergism (“sunergos”) has become such a bogey-word. It’s such a useful word. I don’t know if it can still be redeemed from a Calvinist context.

  6. Thanks, Kevin. I certainly see a real distinction here. I could consider seriously a Calvinist argument that the distinction is meaningless, but not a Calvinist failure to understand that others are making a distinction.

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