How Free Will in the Bible Is Defined and Discussed | Bible History
Freewill is a great gift from God, and it is an essential concept for understanding how the world works within a Christian perspective. First, what is freewill? This concept refers to the idea that God has granted human beings the power to make their own ethical decisions: good or evil, right or wrong, virtue or wickedness…in the end, it is up to each one of us to decide which path we shall pursue as we go about our daily lives. No force compels us to do evil beyond our own choices.
This freedom of choice pertains to our social interactions with people we meet throughout the day. But we should not reduce ethical behavior to only what happens between us and other people. Our power of exercising freewill in pursuit of virtue or of sin does not end here. We must also exercise freewill prudently in the personal choices we make within the context of our own private lives. In this regard, ancient Christian texts—especially monastic literature composed by isolated monks living alone in the desert, far from contact with other humans—remind us that proper moral behavior entails not only treating the people we meet each day with love and charity in our public social interactions with them; it also entails cultivating sanctity and holiness when we find ourselves all alone, during those silent hours when it seems that no one is watching. Moreover, it is not only our external, visible actions that matter when we exercise freewill: there is much more to it than this, for the Christian ethical code is one with towering demands, even if we might not always manage to meet them in practice. Important too are the interior dispositions of our heart with which we perform actions. That is to say, a Christian should strive to exercise freewill virtuously not only by doing the right things, but also by doing them in the right spirit, controlling not only the external things people see, but also maintaining a pure interior disposition within. As is recorded in The Sayings of the Desert Fathers—an ancient collection of wise anecdotes attributed to holy monks living in the deserts of Egypt that dates to the 400s A.D.—one disciplined old monk offered this advice: “Observe your thoughts, and beware of what you have in your heart and your spirit.”
In order better to understand the Christian concept of freewill, it is important to paint a portrait of a world in which freewill does not exist. Typically, doctrines that espouse such a position are referred to as “determinism” or “fatalism.” In these conceptual systems, humans have no power over the ethical choices they make, because all events are predetermined. Every act a person performs is simply an inevitable, automatic response to what came before it…just another step in a long chain reaction of equally inevitable, equally automatic responses. Think about “determinism” and “fatalism” as an ethical landscape that operates in the same way as a chemical reaction. This, for example, was precisely how the Manichaeans—a group of ancient deterministic heretics who denied the reality of freewill——conceived the idea. In a chemical reaction, substances interact with each other in a predictable way, to the extent that we know what the inevitable outcome will be once we compute relevant variables like mass, volume, and temperature. This is because once the substances in a chemical reaction begin to interact with each other, a chain reaction ensues that ends in a scientifically predictable outcome. For example, when you combine baking soda and vinegar, everyone knows what will happen: when the two substances meet, they will froth, bubble, and foam. This outcome is inevitable based on the laws of nature and the physical properties of each substance: the baking soda never exercises any freewill to decide that today it will make the choice not to foam when it touches the vinegar…the foaming just happens, naturally. Ethical determinism works the same way. But it applies these concepts to the daily choices of people. Humans have no freewill to make autonomous choices based on moral priorities; instead, they bounce around, interacting with their environments, behaving in ways that are inevitable and unalterable, just as baking soda and vinegar interact in ways that are inevitable and unalterable too.
This is not a Christian vision of the universe, for Christians believe in the use of the power of the soul to make real, independent moral choices through freewill. Determinism is in fact a very bleak way to conceive of human existence, for it allows no power, no agency, no spiritual autonomy to people. According to this fatalistic worldview, we are all mere droids who have no real ability to change our fates by choosing to improve ourselves for the better. Yet fatalism and determinism are worldviews that thinkers have adopted over the course of history, and many Church scholars were themselves deeply concerned with refuting intellectual opponents who thought this way.
Among the Fathers of the Church, the two major theorists of freewill are Origen of Alexandria and Augustine of Hippo. First, let’s consider Origen. Origen is famous as an ancient Christian thinker who emphasized the radical autonomy of the human will: to him, generally speaking, people have complete and total control over their ethical actions, and the only variable at play in determining how a human chooses to behave is one’s own freewill. God has given freewill to humans, and now it’s entirely up to each individual to choose what they’ll do: be it virtuous or sinful, the choice is yours. There is much value in Origen’s conception of freewill. It reminds us that as we go about our daily lives, God permits us to do what we desire…even if not all things we desire are good, God has left it up to each one of us to choose what we shall do. In this way, God treats human beings like the special, rational, unique creatures that we are. For humans, unlike irrational beasts, do possess the cognitive ability to discern what is right and what is wrong according to God’s commandments; and freewill gives us the ability to respond to our intellectual comprehension of right and wrong by pursuing which of the two we so choose. All in all, then, Origen’s emphasis on the power of freewill reminds us that we must always strive to avoid sin and to pursue virtue according to what God has outlined for us in His commandments: the power to choose is ours.
Let’s turn to Augustine of Hippo. Augustine’s vision of freewill is a bit more complex than Origen’s. This is because in Augustine’s conceptualization of freewill, instead of only one variable at play in ensuring proper moral conduct—freewill alone—now there are two variables: freewill, and God’s grace. For Augustine, “grace” means divine aid that God supplies to humans so that they can perform righteous actions. Yet if for Origen freewill is the key thing that causes a creature to behave virtuously, for Augustine the key variable is no longer freewill, but grace. Augustine envisions that freewill operates alongside grace, responding to it once it is given. But, in the end, it is grace that is the essential factor, the real force, behind all virtuous actions. This means that when a human being performs a good deed or makes a righteous decision, it is not the person’s freewill that, at the root of it all, is the catalyst responsible for launching the enterprise: rather, it is the grace of God, a gift which God freely bestows on human beings, not one which humans earn for themselves. Conceptually, Augustine’s doctrine admittedly contains a few lurking consequences that raise additional questions. Most notably, Augustine’s vision of the relationship between freewill and grace begs the question: do humans have authentic freewill if, in the end, virtuous behavior ultimately is dependent not on their own powers of decision making—as Origen says—but instead on God’s grace? In the end, however, Augustine has a powerful, holy vision. For he recognized that even if humans have freewill, in the end each one of us still needs God. We are dependent on God to do good, because all good things ultimately emanate from the universe’s One Supreme Good, the Almighty, Benevolent Lord Who created us and Who loves us and Who mercifully bestows on us the aid we need to grow in love and devotion toward Him.
- This is a general definition. Cf. the entry for “free will” in Donald K. McKim, ed.,Westminster Dictionary of Theological Terms (Westminster John Knox Press, 1996). For a broader introduction to the topic, there is Robert Kane, ed., The Oxford Handbook of Free Will (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011).
- some of the sayings in Benedicta Ward, trans., The Sayings of the Desert Fathers: The Alphabetical Collection (Kalamazoo: Cistercian Publications, 1975), pages 3; 9; 4; and so many others.
- Benedicta Ward, trans., The Sayings of the Desert Fathers: The Alphabetical Collection (Kalamazoo: Cistercian Publications, 1975), page 71.
- See the entries for “Causal Determinism” and “Fatalism” in the reputed online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. “Causal Determinism,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, last modified January 21, 2016, https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/determinism-causal/; and “Fatalism,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, last modified December 5, 2018, https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2018/entries/fatalism/.
- See, for example, the comparison made in Jason BeDuhn, The Manichaean Body: In Discipline and Ritual (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 200), 260: “For Manichaean cosmology the modern analog is physics.”
- Hence the patristic consensus against deterministic positions among those authors now recognized virtually universally as orthodox Fathers of the Church. Admittedly, there were deterministic theological factions in ancient Christianity—e.g. the Manichaeans, referenced above—but not a single mainstream denomination in modern Christianity would profess the kinds of naked determinism/fatalism adopted by such groups.
- Although for a modern philosophical argument with a positive assessment of determinism, see Christopher Taylor and Daniel Dennett, “Who’s Still Afraid of Determinism? Rethinking Causes and Possibilities,” in The Oxford Handbook of Free Will, 221-240.
- See discussion of Origen and Augustine below. For other patristic refutations of determinism, see, among many numerous examples: Ignatius of Antioch, Epistle to the Magnesians 5; Justin Martyr, First Apology 43; Dialogue with Trypho 141; Athenagoras of Athens, A Plea for the Christians 24; Irenaeus, Against Heresies 4.4.3; 5.29.1-7; Clement of Alexandria, Stromata 1.17; 7.2; Hippolytus of Rome, Against All Heresies 10.29; Methodius of Olympus, Concerning Freewill 6.362; Athanasius of Alexandria, Contra Gentes 4.2-3; 7.3-5; Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechetical Lectures 4; Basil of Caesarea, Hexaemeron 6.7; John Cassian, Conferences 13.12; John of Damascus, Exposition of the Orthodox Faith 2.27; 2.29; 2.30; again, among many, many other examples.
- For past scholarly treatments of Origen on freewill, see Joseph O’Leary, “Grace,” in The Westminster Handbook of Origen, ed. John McGuckin (Louisville: John Knox Press, 2004), 114-117; Ronald Heine, Origen: Scholarship in the Service of the Church (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 111-112; 128; 131; 142-143; 157-158; 198; 217; Peter Martens, Origen and Scripture: The Contours of the Exegetical Life (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 73-74; 116-117; 129; 132; 181-186; Charles Augustine Rivera, The Mirror of Merit: Divine Grace in Origen of Alexandria and Ephrem of Nisibis (PhD diss., Yale University, New Haven, 2021).
- The classic site in Origen’s corpus for a discussion of freewill is On First Principles 3.1. See also 3.2.3, among others.
- Origen makes his own comparison between the powers of rational beings and irrational beasts, and what this means for their differing levels of participation in the Godhead, at On First Principles 1.3.5-1.3.8, especially 1.3.5.
- For past scholarly treatments of Augustine on freewill and on grace, the bibliography is immense. Good starting points are J. Patout Burns, “Grace,” in Augustine through the Ages, ed. Allan Fitzgerald (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1999), 391-398; in the same volume, Marian Djuth, “Will,” 881-884; Han-luen Kantzer Komline, Augustine on the Will: A Theological Account (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020).
- Augustine’s corpus addresses the question of free will in many numerous places, but important and famous texts on this subject written by him include On Free Will (De libero arbitrio) and On Grace and Free Choice (De gratia et libero arbitrio). More broadly, see all his anti-Pelagian texts grouped together in four volumes by New City Press in the Works of Saint Augustine Series and entitled Answer to the Pelagians I, Answer to the Pelagians II, Answer to the Pelagians III, and Answer to the Pelagians IV.
- On Grace and Freewill 33.
- As Augustine himself admitted in Retractions 2.1: “I in fact strove on behalf of the free choice of the human will, but God’s grace conquered.”
- See, for example, On Grace and Freewill 13; 20; 43; among others.
- This has been the central debate over Augustine’s doctrine of grace beginning in his own lifetime in his conflict with the Pelagians. Subsequent patristic authors (e.g. John Cassian) criticized some of these ideas, although less polemically than the Pelagians. A good modern discussion can be found in William Babcock, “The Human and the Angelic Fall: Will and Moral Agency in Augustine’s City of God” in Augustine: From Rhetor to Theologian, ed. Joanne McWilliam (Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1992), 133-149.