If you’ve ever entertained the notion that the freedom of the will is something that has been monolithically believed by the Church, then perhaps the contents of this short post will help unburden you of that mistake.
One does not need to study the Fathers very long to read their declarations on human sinfulness. Paul’s disciple and traveling companion, Clement of Rome, writes, “Let us turn to every age that has passed, and learn that, from generation to generation, the Lord has granted a place of repentance to all such as would be converted unto Him.” (1) And again he says, “And we, too, being called by His will in Christ Jesus, are not justified by ourselves, nor by our own wisdom, or understanding, or godliness, or works which we have wrought in holiness of heart; but by that faith through which, from the beginning, Almighty God has justified all men…” (2) God must grant repentance, because fallen man is so lost he would never seek it on his own. God does not merely grant forgiveness, but the desire for repentance itself. Paul says, “It is God who works in you both to will and to do” (Phil. 2:13). And notice also that Clement affirms that our calling is made effectual by God’s will.
“They who are carnal cannot do spiritual things… unbelief (is incapable of) the deeds of faith.” (3) This is the pronouncement of Ignatius of Antioch, Polycarp’s fellow disciple of the Apostle John. Those who are in the state of unbelief cannot repent and believe unless it be granted from above. Faith and repentance are spiritual acts. Those who are in the flesh cannot perform spiritual acts.
In the anonymous Epistle to Diognetus, we read, “having made it manifest that in ourselves we were unable to enter into the kingdom of God, we might through the power of God be made able…Having therefore convinced us in the former time that our nature was unable to attain to life.” (4) The author of this short work clearly affirms that it is only through the power of God that we can attain to life. This is nothing in our nature that can avail.
Irenaeus writes, “For the Lord taught us that no man is capable of knowing God, unless he be taught of God; that is, that God cannot be known without God.” (5) This refers to more than special revelation. Irenaeus means to say that a saving knowledge of God must begin on God’s part. We cannot begin the process.
Explaining how our corruption is such that we must be rendered spiritual by God Himself, Irenaeus attests, “But we do now receive a certain portion of His Spirit, tending towards perfection, and preparing us for incorruption, being little by little accustomed to receive and bear God… This earnest, therefore, thus dwelling in us, renders us spiritual even now.”(6)
The great Carthaginian theologian Tertullian quite aptly remarks, “To begin with the passage where He says that He is come to ‘to seek and to save that which is lost.’ What do you suppose that to be which is lost? Man, undoubtedly. The entire man, or only a part of him? The whole man, of course. In fact, since the transgression which caused man's ruin was committed quite as much by the instigation of the soul from concupiscence as by the action of the flesh from actual fruition, it has marked the entire man with the sentence of transgression, and has therefore made him deservedly amenable to perdition.”(7)
Cyprian, the martyred bishop of Carthage, in a most unforgettable passage describes how he came to have a real saving relationship with Christ. His description of his own sinfulness is quite poignant and revealing. He writes, “For as I myself was held in bonds by the innumerable errors of my previous life, from which I did not believe that I could by possibility be delivered, so I was disposed to acquiesce in my clinging vices; and because I despaired of better things, I used to indulge my sins as if they were actually parts of me, and indigenous to me. But after that, by the help of the water of new birth, the stain of former years had been washed away, and a light from above, serene and pure, had been infused into my reconciled heart, - after that, by the agency of the Spirit breathed from heaven, a second birth had restored me to a new man; -then, in a wondrous manner, doubtful things at once began to assure themselves to me, hidden things to be revealed, dark things to be enlightened, what before had seemed difficult began to suggest a means of accomplishment, what had been thought impossible, to be capable of being achieved; so that I was enabled to acknowledge that what previously, being born of the flesh, had been living in the practice of sins, was of the earth earthly, but had now begun to be of God, and was animated by the Spirit of holiness.”(8) It is noteworthy that Cyprian says he was enabled, made capable and begun to be of God – all verbs in the passive voice.
Theophilus of Antioch, the 3rd Century Apologist, writing to an unbeliever, says, “For God is seen by those who are enabled to see Him when they have the eyes of their soul opened: for all have eyes; but in some they are overspread, and do not see the light of the sun. Yet it does not follow, because the blind do not see, that the light of the sun does not shine; but let the blind blame themselves and their own eyes.” (9) This statement would certainly not fly in our nice 'seeker-sensitive' pulpits these days. Who would ever dare blame the spiritually blind for their own blindness? Again note the teaching that man must be enabled to see God. We do not have an innate ability or will to do so.
The coup de grâce must certainly be the judgment of Chrysostom. He says, “Every man is not only naturally a sinner, but is wholly sin.” (10) This is not the error of Flacius who held that man’s whole nature had become sin. This is just Chrysostom’s typical rhetorical emphasis.
The classic denial that man’s freewill can have any part in his salvation must certainly be found in Augustine’s Enchiridion. Augustine writes, “[I]t was by the evil use of his freewill that man destroyed both it and himself. For, as a man who kills himself must, of course, be alive when he kills himself, but after he has killed himself ceases to live, and cannot restore himself to life; so, when man by his own freewill sinned, then sin being victorious over him, the freedom of his will was lost.” (11) The whole gist of Augustine’s thought in this regard is that the only freedom the unregenerate have is the freedom to sin – if that can be called by so noble a name as “Freedom.” With this the Church wholeheartedly concurred. The Canons of the Council of Orange (529 AD) are sufficient testimony to this fact.
One disclaimer must be made pertaining to some of the Fathers of the Greek speaking Church. They often speak in very high terms of human free will. But, to their credit we must not forget that even their theological works were written with Manicheans in mind. Often, therefore, the Greek Fathers tend to overstate the case for human responsibility in order to avoid the error of these Gnostic determinists. Not only this, but in virtually every instance when a Greek Father was speaking of man’s freewill and ability to obey God’s commands, he was invariably speaking, not of fallen man, but man as he was created in the state of moral perfection.
Athanasius wrote a work in defense of Dionysius of Alexandria because the Arians were appealing to his writings in support of their false teachings. Athanasius labored to show that Dionysius’ statements were aimed at refuting Sabellianism and that this fact must be kept in mind at all times. Likewise, we must be constantly aware of the fact that the Greek Fathers were writing in a polemic tone against a deterministic Gnosticism. Ignorance of this fact will lead to misreading of their words into support for doctrines that they found odious.
Calvin himself was aware of this. In his Institutes, he demonstrates that many of the Fathers often spoke with some inconsistency; nevertheless, it is plain that they did not preach along the Pelagian/Arminian line. Calvin says, “At one time they teach, that man having been deprived of the power of free-will must flee to grace alone; at another, they equip or seem to equip him in armor of his own. It is not difficult, however, to show, that notwithstanding the ambiguous manner in which those writers express themselves, they hold human virtue in little or no account, and ascribe the whole merit of all that is good to the Holy Spirit.” (12) Calvin acknowledges that they often overstate man’s freedom, but he concludes his argument thus: “This much, however, I dare affirm, that though they sometimes go too far in extolling free-will, the main object which they had in view was to teach man entirely to renounce all self-confidence, and place his strength in God alone.” (13)
(1) 1 Clement VII
(2) 1Clement XXXII
(3) Ignatius to the Ephesians VIII
(4) Diognetus IX
(5) Irenaeus, Against Heresies IV. vi. 4
(6) Irenaeus, Against Heresies V. viii. 1
(7) Tertullian, Res. Carn.
(8) Cyprian – Ep. Ad Donatum 4
(9) Theophilus of Antioch, To Autolycus bk.1 ch.2
(10) Chrysostom, Homily in Advent.
(11) Augustine, Enchiridion, Ch. 30
(12) Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Bk. 2, ch. 2