The group of theologians commonly referred to as the Early Church Fathers, from just a few generations after the apostles until the time of Aurelius Augustine, taught a position concerning humankind that included the belief that Man has free will: the ability to freely choose between good and evil. This is particularly evident in the writings of the Apologists– those Church Fathers especially noted for defending the Christian faith from other religions and heresies– of whom Church historian J.N.D. Kelly observed, “they are unanimous that man is endowed with free-will” (J.N.D. Kelly. Early Christian Doctrines. New York: Harper and Brothers Publishers, 1958. 166). But (at least) three questions must be considered in regard to the Apologists’ teaching on the freedom of the will: 1. What were the immediate contexts of the individual statements made concerning free will? 2. What were the specific errors the Apologists were trying to correct with their statements concerning free will? 3. What extra-biblical influences were displayed in the Apologists’ statements concerning free will? In this essay, I will seek to give a brief examination into the answers for each of these questions in turn, and I will briefly outline what I believe to be a biblical response to each of the answers discovered.
The Early Church Apologists' Teachings on Free-Will: Immediate Contexts
In regards to the immediate context of the writings of the Apologists concerning the freedom of the will, there must be an examination of the documents in which this issue is addressed. As an example of a statement from an Apologist regarding free will, consider the following assertion from Tertullian:
It was proper that he who is the image and likeness of God should be formed with a free will, and a mastery of himself, so that this very thing, namely freedom of will and self-command, might be reckoned as the image and likeness of God in him.
Looking more closely at our example above, it should be noted that, when he wrote against the Marcionite heresy, Tertullian was combating the erroneous ideas that the God of the Old Testament is a different being from the Father revealed in the New Testament and that all of the troubles in the world are basically due to the failings of the Old Testament God. Tertullian proclaimed that there is one God– the Creator who is also the Father of Jesus. God created everything good, and he also created Man with free will, that he might serve God or reject Him. Evil enters into God's all-good creation due to the free decision of Man to reject God.
It is crucial to note that Tertullian's statements concerning Man's free will were focused upon the created condition before the Fall into sin. That Man had free will before sin entered into human experience has been the nearly universal consensus of the Church throughout history. Any controversies over free will have historically been centered on the condition of Man’s will after the Fall. That Man’s will was originally created free to choose good or evil is easily deduced from the declaration of Genesis 1:31 that everything as created by God was good, and yet in Genesis 3, Man made an evil choice to sin against the Creator.
The activity Tertullian ascribed to Man's free will must also be noted. Did the author introduce the free will of Man in order that Man may be glorified in choosing God? On the contrary, the idea of free will was given so that we may see that it is Man the creature, and not God the Creator, who is to blame for the sin in the world. As Tertullian concluded
[T]he goodness of God, then fully considered from the beginning of His works, will be enough to convince us that nothing evil could possibly have come forth from God; and the liberty of man will, after a second thought, show us that it alone is chargeable with the fault which itself committed.
That God never commits evil acts and is not to be blamed for the evil in the world has never historically been a major source of contention in any controversy over free will, although theologians who have asserted that Man’s will is limited or corrupted after the Fall have always been accused of making God the author or approver of evil. That Scripture prevents us from blaming God for evil is evident from Bible passages such as the following:
When tempted, no one should say, "God is tempting me." For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone; but each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death. Don't be deceived, my dear brothers. Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows. (James 1:13-17 NIV 1984)
Likewise, the Apostle Paul prohibited any accusation against God’s character when he wrote:
One of you will say to me: "Then why does God still blame us? For who resists his will?" But who are you, O man, to talk back to God? "Shall what is formed say to him who formed it, 'Why did you make me like this?'" (Romans 9:19-20 NIV 1984)
When other statements from the Apologists concerning free will are considered, material similar to that found in the above quotes from Tertullian is regularly present in the immediate context. And it is an examination of the immediate context for statements concerning free will from the various Apologists that prompts consideration of the larger historical context of these writings.
The Early Church Apologists' Teachings on Free-Will: Errors the Apologists Combatted
The Early Apologists struggled against two positions that led them to emphasize the free will of Man. The first was the Roman pagan position, which was, to a large degree, influenced by a belief in inevitable fate. This belief was inherited through a focus on certain passages of Homer, combined with the teachings of Stoicism and astrology. The Apologists saw fate and destiny as contradictory to the call for pagans to convert to faith in Christ and so “with very few exceptions the apologists for the gospel against Greek and Roman thought made responsibility rather than inevitability the burden of their message.” [Jaroslav Pelikan, The Christian Tradition, Volume 1: The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition (100-600) (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1971) 281.]
The second position the Apologists struggled against that led them to emphasize the free will of man was Gnosticism in all its different varieties. As Church historian Jaroslav Pelikan observed:
Gnostic systems were based on an understanding of the human predicament in which man’s incapacity to avoid sin or to evade destiny was fundamental. The division of the human race into three classes [two of which could not gain ultimate salvation in their present life] was not due to any action of their free will for which they could be held responsible, but to a pre-determined destiny… The response of the anti-Gnostic fathers was to deny the inevitability of sin.
This insistence [that Man has free will] seemed the only way to preserve both the Christian doctrine of the goodness of the Creator and the Christian doctrine of the responsibility of the creature, in opposition to a theology that denied them both by subjecting God and man to the slavery of an all-powerful fate. [Ibid., 283]
This is seen in passages such as the following from Irenaeus
, in which he defends the goodness of God with an assertion that Man has free will: Man was not made as an inanimate object like wheat or chaff, to be considered good or bad with no say in the matter:
For He who makes the chaff and He who makes the wheat are not different persons, but one and the same, who judges them, that is, separates them. But the wheat and the chaff, being inanimate and irrational, have been made such by nature. But man, being endowed with reason, and in this respect like to God, having been made free in his will, and with power over himself, is himself the cause to himself, that sometimes he becomes wheat, and sometimes chaff.
In their debates with pagan and Gnostic thought, the Apologists were not merely seeking to win an intellectual argument. Rather, their desire was to spread the gospel message, persuading all kinds of people to accept the Christian faith. The Apologists’ teaching on free will, in contrast to pagan and Gnostic fatalism, was given to support the claim that people, upon receiving the gospel message, could be spiritually converted. People were not fated to serve the gods of their ancestors, as paganism taught, nor were they locked into some spiritual category denied of salvation due to an arbitrary, impersonal chance, as some schools of Gnostic religion speculated.
Throughout the centuries, theologians on all sides of the free will controversies within the Church have believed the doctrine that the spiritual condition of individuals could be changed due to the preaching of the gospel. Biblically, this change of spiritual condition was seen most dramatically in the Apostle Paul’s conversion as recorded in Acts 9:1-31 and in his subsequent teaching in passages such as the following:
All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our sinful nature and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature objects of wrath. But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions: it is by grace you have been saved. (Ephesians 2:3-5 NIV 1984)
And 2 Corinthians 5:17, where it was recorded that “if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!” (NIV 1984)
The Apologists needed to defend the Bible teachings that the world was made by the one true God as a good creation and that evil is due to the sinful choices of people. But having established the doctrine of free will as a solution to how an all-good creation could become so marred by evil, the Apologists began to turn to free will as a solution for other philosophical and theological problems as well. In examining the writings of the Apologists, one must observe that no detailed biblical analysis was given by them concerning free will after the Fall of Man into sin and the relation of Man's will to God's grace. As Augustine later noted of the Early Apologists when he was called upon to think more carefully on the current relationship between free will and grace during the Pelagian controversy:
[I]t arose that they touched upon what they thought of God’s grace briefly in some passages of their writings, and cursorily; but on those matters which they argued against the enemies of the Church, and in exhortations to every virtue by which to serve the living and true God for the purpose of attaining eternal life and true happiness, they dwelt at length. [Augustine, On the Predestination of the Saints, I.27]
With the lack of thorough biblical examination into this issue, the Apologists, in their isolated statements concerning free will and grace, drew upon their own perception of what happens in conversion and appealed to the common sense of their audience. And it is just in this common sense appeal to the people of their culture that the Apologists left room for extra-biblical influences to infiltrate their teaching. As John Calvin later noted concerning the Apologists’ teaching on free will:
The Early Church Apologists' Teachings on Free-Will: Extra-Biblical Influences
The ancient [Apologists] seem to me to have deliberately exalted human powers more than was right… to avoid arousing by an explicit acknowledgment of [human] impotence the laughter of the very philosophers with whom they were in controversy… Therefore, so as not to teach something absurd in the general opinion of mankind, they were anxious to half-reconcile the teaching of Scripture with the doctrines of philosophy. [John Calvin, The Bondage and Liberation of the Will: A Defense of the Orthodox Doctrine of Human Choice against Pighius, edited by A.N.S. Lane, translated by G.I. Davies (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1996) 74.]
In defending the Christian faith against Roman paganism and Gnosticism, many of the Early Apologists saw similarities between the teachings of the Bible and certain schools of Greek philosophical thought, which seemed to support their position. This made the Apologists more open to incorporate Greek philosophical ideas into certain portions of their presentation. As Pelikan explains:
In the conflict of Christian theology with classicism [the Roman pagan position mentioned in the previous section], it was chiefly this sense of fate and necessity that impressed itself upon the interpreters of the gospel as the alternative to their message rather than, for example, the Socratic teaching that with proper knowledge and adequate motivation a man could, by the exercise of his free will, overcome the tendency of his appetites toward sin. [Pelikan, The Christian Tradition, Volume 1, 281.]
An example of an Apologist who used one aspect of Greek philosophy in support of an argument for free will against another aspect of Greek philosophy which had become incorporated into Roman paganism can be seen in the following quote from Justin Martyr:
But neither do we affirm that it is by fate that men do what they do, or suffer what they suffer, but that each man by free choice acts rightly or sins… The Stoics, not observing this, maintained that all things take place according to the necessity of fate. But since God in the beginning made the race of angels and men with free-will, they will justly suffer in eternal fire the punishment of whatever sins they have committed. And this is the nature of all that is made, to be capable of vice and virtue. For neither would any of them be praiseworthy unless there were power to turn to both [virtue and vice]. And this also is shown by those men everywhere who have made laws and philosophized according to right reason, by their prescribing to do some things and refrain from others. Even the Stoic philosophers, in their doctrine of morals, steadily honour the same things, so that it is evident that they are not very felicitous in what they say about principles and incorporeal things. [Justin Martyr, “The world preserved for the sake of Christians. Man’s responsibility
,” The Second Apology
Also notable is the way in which Clement of Alexandria frequently quoted from Plato in his disputations with the philosophers in his context, defending the goodness of God with Plato’s writing on free will:
Plato in what follows gives an exhibition of free-will: “Virtue owns not a master; and in proportion as each one honours or dishonours it, in that proportion he will be a partaker of it. The blame lies in the exercise of free choice.” But God is blameless. For He is never the author of evil. [Clement of Alexandria, “Greek plagiarism from the Hebrews
,” The Stromata, or Miscellanies
, 5.14. ]
In the quotes from Justin Martyr and Clement of Alexandria, we see representations of two major tendencies within the Early Apologists’ writings concerning free will. The first is the tendency noted in previous sections of this essay, that the doctrine of free will was used to demonstrate how God is blameless and how Man is to be held accountable for sin. This is the force of Clement’s appeal to Plato. But the second tendency that developed in the Apologists’ writings is represented in the passage quoted from Justin Martyr: the tendency to represent free will as necessary for moral judgment. The Apologists, drawing from ethical thought found in Socratic teaching, as Pelikan observed, and the teachings on morals found in the Stoics, as seen in the quote from Justin, asserted that apart from free will, Man cannot be either praised for his virtue nor blamed for his vice. A quick response to this teaching would be to note that it is an obviously false assertion that a being must be equally capable of good and evil in order to be praised, as demonstrated in the fact that we praise God for His truthfulness, yet the Bible is clear that “it is impossible for God to lie
” (Hebrews 6:18 NIV 1984). But the questions of, (1) whether a being that is not equally capable of good and evil can be blamed for sin, and (2) how a sinner can make decisions in line with God’s Word– these questions, which the Apologists believed to be answered by their teachings on free will- would require further consideration by Augustine during the Pelagian controversy.
Labels: Christian worldview, Reformation Theology