Before I head into my topic for today I want to briefly touch on the development of my spiritual journey.
Last Sunday, on Pentecost, I was received as a catechuman into the One, Holy, Catholic, Apostolic Church..The Holy Orthodox Church. I was received at St. Nicholas Orthodox Church in Narol, Manitoba, Canada by Fr. Gregory Scratch.
Perhaps eventually I will write about my journey into Orthodoxy, but that is a tale for another time.
For today my subject is St. Justin Martyr and his writing on “free will”.
As I’ve been reading through the Church Fathers chronologically I’ve made my way onto St. Justin Martyr and St. Irenaeus of Lyons, two of the most important Fathers of the second century.
One of the biggest dividers among Protestant Christians is the issue of “Free Will” versus “Predestination”.
Predestination is traditionally held by the Reformed (ie: Calvinist) church, which states that God unconditionally elects some of humanity to salvation, while others are elected to damnation. This understanding undermines any human cooperation in part of their salvation and leaves everything in the “sovereignty” of God.
During the Reformational era, a theologian named Jacobus Arminius reacted strongly against this Calvinist understanding by emphasizing mankind’s free will and ability to respond to God; hence salvation is offered to all, though free will makes it possible for someone to refuse, thus choosing themselves damnation.
(Note: this is a brief comparison resorting to generalizations of the two views)
One could ask: What did the early Christians say? Did they understand that man has free will or is he predestined to salvation/damnation?
*Note: I am aware of the teaching of Blessed Augustine on the subject of Predestination – who the Reformed theologians are heavily influenced by – but it is important to stress that Blessed Augustine’s teachings do NOT reflect and represent Patristic teaching as the consensus.*
In his “First Apology”, St. Justin Martyr (also known as St. Justin the Philosopher) has this to say,
“We have learned from the prophets and assert as true, that punishments and chastisements and good rewards are given according to the merit of each person’s actions. Since if this is not so, but all things happen in accordance with fate, neither is anything at all [left to our] free choice. For if it be destined that one person is good and another wicked, neither is the former meritorious nor the latter blameworthy. And again unless the human race has the power by free choice to avoid evil and to choose good, there is no responsibility for actions of whatever kind they be. But that by free choice [a person] both walks uprightly and stumbles, we prove as follows. We see the same person in pursuit of opposite things. Now if it had been destined that he were to be either evil or virtuous, he could never be capable of opposites nor of so many pursuits. But not even would some be virtuous and others evil, and to act in opposition to itself; or that which has been already stated would seem to be true, that there is no real virtue or vice, but that things are reckoned good or evil by opinion; which, as the true reason shows, is the greatest impiety and wickedness. But this we assert is irrevocable destiny, that those who choose the good have deserved rewards, and those who choose the opposite have their just punishment. For God did not make a man or a woman like other things, such as trees and animals, which cannot act by choice; for neither would he be worthy of rewards or praise if he did not choose the good of himself, having been born so; nor, if he were evil, would he be worthy of punishment, not being evil himself, but being unable to be anything other than that for which he was born.”
St. Justin Martyr, “First Apology” (section 43)
St. Justin clearly emphasizes the free choice of a human ontology. This understanding of free will within the ontology of human nature is essential to the Orthodox understanding (as well as Roman Catholics and Arminian Protestants).