Does Cooperation Limit God?

Over the years I’ve received some negative push-back for disagreeing with Watchman Nee (1903–1972) in my Colson Center article on will-power. I argued that Watchman Nee’s negative orientation to things like struggle, human effort and will-power, reflected Keswickian assumptions that were not in keeping with what Scripture has to say about will-power. In this post I want to revisit my earlier comments and then make some more general observations about the doctrine of cooperation.

Here is a selection of what I said in my original article,

Watchman Nee

“…a host of…familiar evangelical teachers have [been]… asserting that there is essentially a short-cut to sanctification which completely bypasses human effort and struggle. I… went through a period where I tried to apply the basic categories of Keswick thought. But I could never understand the actual mechanics of how to overcome sin without trying to overcome sin. In fact, I didn’t even know how to get up from a chair—let alone keep to a routine of Bible reading—without using some degree of will-power. Yet I kept being told that will-power was displeasing to God. One person told me that my problem was that I was trying to stop trying to stop trying, which showed that I didn’t really get it.

In my early twenties I turned to the writings of Watchman Nee (1903–1972), since I had been told that he had written the best explanation of the ‘let go and let God’ process. In Nee’s book The Normal Christian Life, he argues that God can only get the glory for a person’s sanctification when no human effort is involved. Though Nee denies it, the human agent becomes essentially passive in the work of sanctification since will-power and struggle play no part in the normal Christian life. …Nee believed that phrases such as ‘human effort’, ‘willpower’ and ‘trying hard’ were words of the devil.

When I turned to Nee’s book Release of the Spirit, I began to understand that these ideas arose out of a Platonic-like anthropology. In this book, Nee makes clear that we need to not only escape from the will, but also from the body, the mind or the soul—in other words, everything that makes us human! That’s when I saw that the life Nee was describing was not the normal Christian life at all, but a very abnormal Gnostic one. The problem with Nee’s anthropology was aptly summarized by Ranald Macaulay and Jerram Barrs in their excellent book Being Human: The Nature of Spiritual Experience: ‘According to Nee, the person is composed of three parts: the inner man (the spirit), the outer man (the soul) and the outermost man (the body). Because they belong to the outer man, neither the emotions nor the mental thoughts have the same nature as God. Only the spirit relates to God. …He seems to be rejecting not merely the sinful nature but the self, for is not the self constituted by the emotions, the mind, the will—Nee’s ‘outer man’? Consequently he devalues the human. He says that natural compassion and tenderness are still sinful because they are only human. These too must be broken to allow the Spirit to do his work.’

“The antithesis that Nee and some of the Keswick teachers have posited between the ‘natural’ and the ‘spiritual’ often arises out of a deep discomfort acknowledging that God works through natural processes and means. According to this line of thought, if God is to get all the credit, then man’s will cannot be involved, not even as an instrument used by the Holy Spirit. If God is to get all the glory, then the involvement of man’s will must be reduced to nil, or at least consigned merely to ‘choosing to believe’ or ‘choosing to trust.’ The idea is that it is somehow more spiritual for God to work when we are passive than when we are actively struggling.

“Behind these notions of monergistic sanctification is the same assumption which animated much of ancient Gnosticism, namely that the divine and human are quantitatively rather than qualitatively distinguished, so that they must be negotiated or rationed between God and human persons. If that is your starting point, then of course we want God to swallow up the human, and for God to be glorified by us losing our identity. Gnosticism took this to the extreme of teaching that we had to shake off the shackles of the physical body, whereas teachers associated with the Keswick tradition merely teach that we must shake off the shackles of the will to become passive instruments of the divine. Both ideas are essentially Gnostic.

“By contrast, when we understand that God works through means, then it is non-problematic to assert that one of the means or instruments He uses for our sanctification is human will-power, just as one of the instruments He uses for our justification is human faith. (I say ‘one of the means’ because will-power is not the most important aspect of sanctification. But it does play a crucial part.)

“This isn’t about trying to earn favour with God through ‘works righteousness’—heaven forbid! Indeed, God is the one that makes it possible for us to exercise will-power in the first place, just as He is the one who makes it possible for us to exercise faith (Philippians 2:13). Remember that we’re talking here about children of God who already have faith, already love God and who are therefore already filled with the Spirit in some sense.

“The point is that in both sanctification and justification, God’s sovereign work occurs through the vehicles by which He sovereignly chooses to work. The believer works because God works. It’s not a question of either/or but both/and, as the human and the divine co-operate synergistically.

“The Bible is full of this synergistic both/and approach to sanctification. Indeed, for the apostles, one of the ways you surrender yourself completely to Christ is precisely through God-directed will-power and human struggle. Indeed, throughout the New Testament the apostles frequently speak of human struggle as a good thing. See Rom 7:14–25; 1 Cor 9:24; Gal 5:17; Eph. 6:18; Col. 4:2; 1 Tim, 4:7-8; 1 Tim. 6:11–12; Heb 12:1–3; 2 Pet 1:5–7, for just a few of the numerous references. Moreover, we know from the gospel narratives that Christ’s time on earth was full of struggles, especially towards the end when He wrestled with the Father’s will in the Garden of Gethsemane.

See Also

Since the time when I wrote the above article, I’ve had further opportunity to reflect on the larger context of this faulty theology, as well as other areas where Nee’s dialectic emerges even among those who consider themselves his theological opponents. Indeed, even though the evangelical community now generally considers Watchman Nee (as well as the Keswick movement in which he was situated), to be outliers, the antipathy to co-operation that underscored his false teaching is still very much alive and well.

Consider the situation within the tradition of reformed Christianity. The antipathy behind any real cooperation between the divine and the human found acute expression in the type of Monergism associated with the early twentieth-century Princeton tradition. This can be seen in the way authors like B.B. Warfield ended up eliminating secondary causation from the soteriological schema. The contemporary heirs of the Princeton tradition are people like Terry Johnson, who assumes that for humankind’s experience of the divine to be mediated (i.e., to reach human beings through such things as ornate churches and beautiful liturgies) is for it to be rendered less authentic as a result.

Even among reformed teachers that have more continuity to the Dutch and English traditions, we can still often detect the ubiquitous assumption that the spiritual potency of God and creation are quantitatively opposed rather than merely qualitatively distinguished, so that more for creation is less for God. It has been shown that such dynamics underscore much of the architectural and liturgical minimalism that became a dominant feature of the quest for immediacy that characterized the continental reformation, and I would add that similar dynamics have created the plausibility structures for trendy liturgical movements like the Covenant Renewal Worship fad. Moreover, I have shown elsewhere (see here and here and here) that the metaphysics of predestination are often (not always) underpinned by explicit appeals to this type of zero-sum way or ordering the relations between God and man in which the operating assumption is that in order for God to get all the glory, the involvement of humans must be reduced to nil. Glory, activity, responsibility and credit for good things must all be negotiated between God and human persons, and it is up to us to make sure God always comes out on top.

While these impulses often arise from an Ockhamesque angst about God being bound by creation (see my earlier articles on nominalism for more about that), the result is that God ends up being significantly limited through the insistence that He cannot work effectively through natural means. This has disastrous pastoral implications, some of which I’ve discussed here and here. In its most extreme form, this zero-sum approach necessitates that creation be divested of any sense of the sacred; glory and spiritual potencies come to be conceived like pieces of a pie, and it seems axiomatic that God must have all the pieces.


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