Blogging the Institutes | 2.1.4 | Early Christian Views on Free Will

Through church history, all Christian theologians have acknowledged that human reason was seriously injured by sin. Moreover, they also taught that the human will was entangled by evil desires. Unfortunately, too many of them took the same approach as the non-Christian philosophers. Some of the ancient Christian writers appear to me to have exalted human abilities because they were afraid of receiving scorn from the philosophers with whom they were debating. Therefore, to avoid teaching anything in which the majority of humanity would deem absurd, they attempted to reconcile the doctrine of Scripture with the dogmas of philosophy. For example, Chrysostom says, “God has given us full freedom of choice, having placed good and evil in our power. God does not hold back the unwilling, but embraces the willing” (Homil. de Prodit. Judae). Again he writes, “When the wicked person choose good, he is changed into good. The good person who falls into sluggishness becomes wicked. For the Lord has made our nature free. He does not force us to go one way or the other. But he provides the remedies for our condition if we would so choose them” (Homily. 18, in Genesis). And again: “We can do nothing the right way until aided by the grace of God. Until we bring to God what is our own, we cannot obtain his favor” (Homily. 52).

He had previously said, “Our life is not provided for by divine assistance. We ourselves must bring something.” One of his most common expressions was, “Let us bring what is our own and God will supply the rest.” In agreement with Chrysostom, Jerome says, “It is our to begin; God’s to finish. It is our to offer what we can, and his to supply what we cannot” (Dialog. 3 Cont. Pelag).

From these writings, you can see that these ancient writers bestowed on people way more than we actually possess for the performing of virtue. They thought that they could not shake off our innate sluggishness to the things of God unless they argued that we sin by ourselves alone. We’ll evaluate these arguments shortly, but we can see that these sentiments are inaccurate.

Many of the Greek Fathers, especially Chrysostom, extol the powers of human will. Most of the ancient theologians, with the except of Augustine, are very confused and contradictory on this subject. It will be sufficient to get a sampling of opinions on the subject. Many later writers have gone astray by claiming that humanity was only corrupted in their flesh or emotion but that human reason was spared from the ravages of sin. Still, many affirmed the expression that humanity’s natural gifts were corrupt and its supernatural ones taken away. The implications of this expression was scarcely properly understood by the earlier theologians, however.

I actually would affirm the same expression when trying to explain the corruption of human nature. Yet we need to pay attention of what humanity can do now; now that it is deprived of its supernatural gifts. People who have professed to be disciples of Christ have spoken too much like the philosophers on this subject. The Latins and Greeks have used the term “free will” to described human nature as if were free from sin and people had full power in themselves.

  Since most people believe that people have free will, it will be necessary to know what the term means. Then, we can search the Scriptures and see what power human beings have in themselves for good or for evil. Many people assume what free will means but have never defined it. Origen, however, seems to have given a common definition when he said that it is a power of reason to discern between good and evil: to choose the one or the other. Augustine doesn’t differ from him when he says that it is the power of reason and will to choose the good with the assistance of grace, or to choose the bad by resisting grace.

Bernard attempted to provide greater nuance but ended up speaking more obscurely about free will. He defined as consent in regard to the indestructible liberty of the wills and inalienable judgment of reason. Anselm’s definition is not very intelligible either. He calls it the power to preserve our original standing on its own account.

Peter Lombard, and the Schoolmen, preferred Augustine’s definition, because it was clearer and did not exclude divine grace without which they saw that the human will was not sufficient to do anything by itself. They added something of their own to the definition, to attempt to make it clearer. First, they agree that the term will was related to reason, which is the ability to distinguish between good and evil, and that the adjective free described the will, which could incline it either way. Since freedom belongs to the will, Thomas Aquinas argues the best definition is to call free will and elective power, the ability to choose but its combine intelligence and desires, but inclining more to desires.

We can now summarize what some the early Christian theologians supposed free will to consist of: reason and will. It remains to be seen how much power they attribute to each of those things.

“Blogging the Institutes” is my on-going attempt to paraphrase John Calvin’s work, the Institutes of the Christian Religion. You can find out more about the series in the Introduction. For all the posts in this series, check out the Master List

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