Sunday, July 25, 2010

The Early Fathers: whose side were they on?

The relationship between God’s sovereignty and the will of man is one of the most contentious, difficult, and longstanding debates in history. Philosophers, both ancient and modern, have wrestled with the question and it was a well known debate among Jewish teachers. The Jewish historian Josephus, writing for a Roman audience, says the following:

“Of the two first-named schools, the Pharisees, who are considered the most accurate interpreters of the laws, and hold the position of the leading sect, attribute everything to Fate and to God; they hold that to act rightly or otherwise rests, indeed, for the most part with men, but that in each action Fate co-operates.” … “The Sadducees, the second of the orders, do away with Fate altogether, and remove God beyond, not merely the commission, but the very sight, of evil. They maintain that man has the free choice of good or evil, and that it rests with each man’s will whether he follows the one or the other.”
-Josephus, The Jewish War (70 A.D.)

This question has tremendous significance in Christian theology and has been at the center of some of the most important disputes in church history. The debate involves a number of disagreements related to the interpretation of the biblical text. Although they are not considered in the Protestant tradition to be authoritative the question still arises: Which side were the Early Church Fathers on?

Were the Early Fathers Arminians or Calvinists?

The fact is that the Early Church Fathers taught neither a Calvinistic nor an Arminian system of doctrine. Even Augustine, the great defender of the biblical doctrine of Sola Gratia, never approached anything like the Protestant doctrine of Sola Fide which both Calvinists and Arminians accept. Although there are many antecedents to Protestant systems in the Fathers none of them taught a coherent system of doctrine that is analogous to those developed during the Reformation. Both Calvinism and Arminianism are substantially different in many ways from the systems found in the Fathers.

The question remains, however, if there was any consensus amongst the Fathers on the key point of disagreement between Arminians and Calvinists, namely the nature and ability of the human will. Did the early Fathers all teach that humans possessed a libertine free will?

Did the Fathers Teach Free Will?

To begin with the “Fathers” are not a homogeneous group. Early Christian teachers held differing views and emphases on various doctrines. In the case of the freedom of the will there are some examples of Fathers giving very clear explanations as to their view of the will and in other cases it isn’t so clear. From what I have read of them it is clear that they universally rejected the pagan views of fate, asserted that human beings have a free will, and that they were responsible moral agents. Both Calvinists and Arminians would agree with those assertions and in many cases nothing more is said by the Fathers. In other cases, however, they speak of election and predestination in conjunction with God’s foreknowledge regarding the actions of men. Therefore, it is quite easy to find quotations from the Fathers that appear to strongly support a view of the will very similar to that which is held by Arminians. On the face of it, it would seem as though many of Fathers were firmly in the Arminian camp on this issue and that the others (who offer no explanation) might possibly be as well.

Of course, the truth of neither view depends upon the witness of the Fathers so there is really no reason even for Calvinists to shy away from the conclusion that the Fathers held to a libertine view of the will if that is supported by the evidence. I think, however, that such a conclusion would be an oversimplification for a few reasons.

First, Calvinists also reject the pagan view of fate and the kind of determinism that the Fathers were reacting to is not what Calvinists teach. Calvinists do affirm that humans have a will that is free but in a different sense than do Arminians. Depending upon how they are understood many of the pro-will statements made by the Fathers would be perfectly consistent with a Reformed view.

Secondly, the Fathers emphasize other elements in their teaching that should cause us to pause before assuming that they taught that the libertine will as created remains intact after the fall. There is nothing I have seen that would lead one to the conclusion that they maintain a general grace which overcomes the depravity inherited from Adam for all mankind. Many of the “free will” quotes popularly given from the Fathers are, in their context, referring to the nature and constitution of man as originally created.

Third, it is anachronistic to take statements made prior to the Pelagian and Semi-Pelagian controversy and read back into them answers to questions they never addressed. The Fathers, particularly those writing very early, assert both man’s freedom and God’s sovereignty. They do not develop the relationship of the concepts as later writers do. Trying to understand how they might have responded in light of later developments is a rather uncertain task. They did not address many of our concerns as specifically as later writers would because the questions had not yet been raised. As is common to every age they tended to carefully articulate and work out doctrines that were being debated or challenged in their day. Therefore, we expect to see well defined expressions of doctrines such as The Trinity, the nature of Christ, etc. while expecting less developed statements regarding other issues that were not the central subjects of their writing. I will develop why it is not unexpected that they should write the way they do prior to Augustine and why he can rightfully be seen as building upon their foundation in an upcoming follow up post to this one.

A Closer Look at Their View of Ability

As I mentioned previously, the pre-Augustinian Fathers do often write in a way that sounds very consistent with an Arminian view. One such example are the comments of Irenaeus regarding the will of man:

For there is no coercion with God, but a good will [towards us] is present with Him continually. And therefore does He give good counsel to all. And in man, as well as in angels, He has placed the power of choice (for angels are rational beings), so that those who had yielded obedience might justly possess what is good, given indeed by God, but preserved by themselves. On the other hand, they who have not obeyed shall, with justice, be not found in possession of the good, and shall receive condign punishment: for God did kindly bestow on them what was good; but they themselves did not diligently keep it, nor deem it something precious, but poured contempt upon His super-eminent goodness… But if some had been made by nature bad, and others good, these latter would not be deserving of praise for being good, for such were they created; nor would the former be reprehensible, for thus they were made [originally]. But since all men are of the same nature, able both to hold fast and to do what is good; and, on the other hand, having also the power to cast it from them and not to do it,—some do justly receive praise even among men who are under the control of good laws (and much more from God), and obtain deserved testimony of their choice of good in general, and of persevering therein; but the others are blamed, and receive a just condemnation, because of their rejection of what is fair and good.
-Irenaeus Against the Heresies Book 4, Chapter 37 (175-185) [the date of the works will be provided in parenthesis]

This is a somewhat typical statement that one might easily find in the writings of the Fathers. It is rather clear and seems on the surface to be conclusive regarding his position. The complication with Irenaeus and others is that they make other statements attributing various causal elements of belief and obedience directly to God. Elsewhere in the same book he makes numerous statements such as this:

“…but since it was impossible, without God, to come to a knowledge of God, He teaches men, through His Word, to know God.”
-Irenaeus Against the Heresies Book 4, Chapter 5 (175 -185)

An argument could be made that these should be understood as references to the general outward ministry of the Holy Spirit and not to an inward ministry of regeneration; however, in many of the Fathers it is clear that they believed the fall had such an impact on human nature that a special means of grace was necessary to bring about faith and obedience. The depravity imparted by original sin was clearly seen as limiting the free exercise of the will.

“But whence should they perceive or understand these things? Howbeit we having justly perceived the commandments tell them as the Lord willed. To this end He circumcised our ears and hearts, that we might understand these things.”
-Epistle of Barnabas (date uncertain 70-131)

“Anything like boasting in one's own praise is hateful, although we cannot in reality boast but only be grateful for whatever we do not ascribe to man's virtue but declare to be the gift of God; so that now we sin not is the beginning of the work of faith, whereas that we sinned before was the result of human error. All our power is of God; I say, of God.”
-Cyprian Epistle to Donatus (246)

There is the underlying assumption on the part of the Fathers that the will cannot properly operate apart from the gracious work of God (they were certainly not Pelagians). The assumption often seems to be that our wills are free but that special grace is required for conversion. Prior to Augustine there is no attempt to develop a compatible view of the will but neither is there any development of a doctrine of prevenient grace. The two truths simply stand side by side without reconciliation.

“… whether the free-will which is in us, by reaching the knowledge of the good, leaps and bounds over the barriers, as the gymnasts say; yet it is not without eminent grace that the soul is winged, and soars, and is raised above the higher spheres, laying aside all that is heavy, and surrendering itself to its kindred element. … “Wisdom which is God-given, as being the power of the Father, rouses indeed our free-will, and admits faith, and repays the application of the elect with its crowning fellowship.”
-Clement of Alexandria … Stromata Book 5, Chapter 13 (182-202)

In many places the Fathers recognized the inability of fallen man to overcome his own sinfulness and also that God ordains ends in accordance with the nature of the creature. These truths are held together, both inability and freedom asserted.

“Having then in the former time demonstrated the inability of our nature to obtain life, and having now revealed a Savior able to save even creatures which have no ability, He willed that for both reasons we should believe in His goodness and should regard Him as nurse, father, teacher, counselor, physician, mind, light, honor, glory, strength and life.”
-Mathates epistle to Diognetus Chapter 9 (130-200)

“Neither let any one either take comfort from, or apologize for what happens from fate. Let what happens be of the disposition of fortune, yet the mind is free; and therefore man’s doing, not his dignity, is judged. For what else is fate than what God has spoken of each one of us? who, since He can foresee our constitution, determines also the fates for us, according to the deserts and the qualities of individuals. Thus in our case it is not the star under which we are born that is punished, but the particular nature of our disposition is blamed.”
-The Octavius of Minucius Felix Chapter 36 (160-250)

They also often teach that the willful choices of men are confirmed by God and those who are saved are not saved through their own power but through the grace of God a remnant is saved and made manifest. We see both God preserving for Himself a people as well as a defense of human agency in salvation.

"… if the word of God foretells that some angels and men shall be certainly punished, it did so because it foreknew that they would be unchangeably [wicked], but not because God had created them so. So that if they repent, all who wish for it can obtain mercy from God…”
-Justin Martyr Dialogue with Trypho Chapter 141 (150-160)

“But now, by means of the contents of those Scriptures esteemed holy and prophetic amongst you, I attempt to prove all [that I have adduced], in the hope that some one of you may be found to be of that remnant which has been left by the grace of the Lord of Sabaoth for the eternal salvation.”
-Justin Martyr Dialogue with Trypho Chapter 32 (150-160)

These are just a few of the hundreds of quotations that could be brought forward to demonstrate that the Fathers did teach that the liberty of the will was affected by the fall thus limiting its ability to respond without grace. Arminians and Calvinists agree on that point. The Fathers provide a clear teaching on neither compatibilism nor prevenient grace as a method of bridging their view of liberty and the necessity of grace. They simply let stand various comments about the will that are not reconciled with their view of providence, original sin etc. Both the Reformed and Arminian systems are distinctive in the way they explain the relationship between spiritual inability and freedom. The Fathers often do not and when they do it is often not done in a way that modern readers would find satisfactory.

Although the Fathers do often speak in a way that seems quite consistent with an Arminian view of the will they also teach human inability and that the decisive action in salvation is an action of God. Following are a few quotes from the earliest church Fathers whose lives overlapped with some of the apostles and other disciples who had actually seen and heard Christ.

“Ignatius, who is also called Theophorus, to the Church which is at Ephesus, in Asia, deservedly most happy, being blessed in the greatness and fullness of God the Father, and predestinated before the beginning of time, that it should be always for an enduring and unchangeable glory, being and elected through the true passion by the will of God the Father, and of our Lord Jesus Christ our Savior”
-Ignatius Epistle to the Ephesians (90-115)

“The Christian is not the result of persuasion, but of power. When he is hated by the world, he is beloved of God. For says [the Scripture], “If ye were of this world, the world would love its own; but now ye are not of the world, but I have chosen you out of it: continue in fellowship with me.”
-Ignatius Epistle to the Romans Chapter 3 (90-115)

“All these, therefore, were highly honored, and made great, not for their own sake, or for their own works, or for the righteousness which they wrought, but through the operation of His will. 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; to whom be glory for ever and ever.”
Clement 1 Epistle to the Corinthians Chapter 32 (80-140)

“Let him that is pure in the flesh boast not of it, knowing that it is another that gives him the power of continence. Let us consider, brethren, of what matter we are made, of what sort and who we are that have come into the world, as it were out of the tomb and darkness. He that made and fashioned us hath brought us into this world, having prepared beforehand his benefactions, even before we were born. Having, therefore, all these things from him, we ought in all respects to give thanks unto him, to whom be glory world without end.”
-Clement of Rome Epistle to the Corinthians chapter 38 (80-140)


Did the Early Church Fathers prior to Augustine teach that man had a free will? Yes, they asserted the freedom of the will against the pagan forms of determinism of their day and some did so in a way that assumes a libertarian view of the will. They also, however, acknowledged that sin limited the ability of the will to choose right and that we cannot, apart from grace, obtain salvation. Because there had yet to be a scriptural challenge to those notions there was no development of how to biblically reconcile the freedom they saw in creation with the inability they recognized in the fall as we find in both Arminianism and Calvinism.

Many Arminians like to point out that the Fathers, like Arminians, teach a form of inability, predestination, and sovereignty along with a libertine view of the will. They are generally and technically correct so far as that goes. It does not follow, however, that they would have reconciled them in the same way that Arminius did. Given their other doctrinal commitments it is just as likely that they would have reconciled them in a way that was more Augustinian than Arminian. Augustine vehemently claimed that he was simply defending the historic view of the earlier Fathers and many of his contemporaries agreed with him. It is not necessary, given the broad sweep of the doctrinal commitments of the Fathers, that one sees Augustine’s view of freedom as a deviation from their teaching. I will develop this further in a future post.


  1. As I have stated in the past about those who appeal to the early Church Fathers, we must be careful to first uphold Scripture above their teachings or the teachings of Reformation theologians or even modern Bible teachers. The Bible is the only inerrant and infallible guide. Thanks!

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  3. Amen brother! There is no need to lighten our path with candles when the noonday sun is in the sky.

    The best brothers & sisters on both sides of these issues approach the Word of God with humility and work out their understanding through exegesis. Though we may not often agree on these particular points I appreciate your gracious spirit and dedication to laboring in the word.

    Sola Scriptura!

  4. I have to put my affirmation to the Seeking Disciple.
    In recent years I have been interested in the character of Luther's hatred for the Jews.It is very little talked about in the church. I think there is a tough job writing an apologetic for Luther saying he is a Christian with the behavior he displayed toward the Jews. Some 400 years later Germany being the host to kill off the Jews.Hitler admiring some of Luther's
    Nick Dufour

  5. Thanks for a very informative and balanced article...God Bless, Soli Deo Gloria.

  6. God bless you all brothers!i just hope all these views and debates will save us.Great article!