Church Fathers on Free Will

This post is supposed to compile early examples of support for the Catholic doctrine of free will. I made this thread because some Protestants deny the reality of free will, and I think the Church Fathers can help show that it is real. BTW I’d love to add to this. Do any of you know of any other examples of support for free will in the early Church?

150 A.D. - St. Justin Martyr writes a chapter about free will that is titled: “Free-will in men and angels.” (Dialog with Trypho Chapter 141) See also First Apology Chapter 43 and Second Apology Chapter 7.

170 A.D. - Tatian - “[E]ach of these two orders of creatures [men and angels] was made free to act as it pleased, not having the nature of good, which again is with God alone, but is brought to perfection in men through their freedom of choice… [T]he bad man [is] justly punished, having become depraved through his own fault, but the just man [is] deservedly praised…since [by] his free choice he refrained from transgressing the will of God.” (Address to the Greeks Chapter 7)

And: “[T]he power of the Logos…foresee[s] future events, not as fated, but as taking place by the choice of free agents.” (ibid.)

177 A.D. - Athenagoras - “[M]en…have freedom of choice as to both virtue and vice…for you would not either honour the good or punish the bad, unless vice and virtue were in their own power… [S]o is it among the angels [also].” (Plea for the Christians Chapter 24)

180 A.D. - St. Irenaeus writes a chapter about free will that is titled: “Men are possessed of free will, and endowed with the faculty of making a choice. It is not true, therefore, that some are by nature good, and others bad.” (Against Heresies Book IV Chapter 37)

~195 A.D. - St. Clement of Alexandria - “[If] faith is not the rational assent of the soul exercising free-will, but an undefined beauty, belonging immediately to the creature—[then] the precepts both of the Old and of the New Testament are…superfluous.” (Stromata Book 5 Chapter 1)

And: “[S]ince some are unbelieving, and some are disputatious, [therefore] all do not attain to the perfection of the good. For neither is it possible to attain it without the exercise of free choice; nor does the whole depend on our own purpose.” (ibid.)

And: “Wisdom which is God-given…rouses indeed our free-will, and admits faith, and repays the application of the elect with its crowning fellowship.” (Stromata Book 5 Chapter 13)

197 A.D. - Tertullian - “[You use] swords, and flames, and crosses, and wild beasts [against us]… [but] all you can do to us [depends] upon our pleasure. It is assuredly a matter of my own inclination, being a Christian. … [We] would far rather be condemned than apostatize from God…[therefore] our haters should be sorry rather than rejoice, [for] we have obtained [martyrdom] of our own choice.” (Apology Chapter 49)

216 A.D. - Tertullian - “[T]he vicious action [comes from] each individual free-will. ‘Behold,’ says [God], ‘I have set before you good and evil.’ Choose that which is good: if you cannot, [it is] because you will not—for that you can if you will He has shown, because He has proposed each to your free-will.” (On Monogamy Chapter 14)

226 A.D. - Minucius Felix - “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.” (Octavius Chapter 36)

228 A.D. - St. Hippolytus - “Since man has free will, a law has been defined for his guidance by the Deity, not without answering a good purpose. For if man did not possess the power to will and not to will, why should a law be established?” (Refutation of All Heresies Book 10 Chapter 29)

248 A.D. - St. Cyprian - “That the liberty of believing or of not believing is placed in free choice [you may read in]…Deuteronomy: ‘Lo, I have set before your face life and death, good and evil. Choose for yourself life, that you may live.’ Also in Isaiah: ‘And if you be willing, and hear me, you shall eat the good of the land. But if you be unwilling, and will not hear me, the sword shall consume you. For the mouth of the Lord has spoken these things.’ Also in the Gospel according to Luke: ‘The kingdom of God is within you.’ ” (Testimonies Book 3 Chapter 52)

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I’ve spent a lot of time studying the issue of free will, and I don’t think that those Protestants who claim that we don’t have free will are actually denying that we have free will. Like many issues in philosophy, it’s an issue of terminology.

The argument I’ve seen (primarily from Calvinists) against free will goes something like this:

  1. Free will implies not being determined by any agent outside yourself.
  2. Free will, understood in that way, is logically impossible because it violates the absolute sovereignty of God.
    Therefore, no creature has free will.

Aquinas, Augustine, and many other great Catholic theologians throughout history have accepted premise 2 but denied premise 1.
In other words, those Protestants who deny that we have free will, at least in my experience (I won’t deny the possibility that there are some who have a more extreme position), are not actually denying that we have free will but rather denying that what we call free will can properly be called free will.

The way I have seen it explained is that we have free will. However that will is exercised in accordance with our nature. After the fall our nature is evil. Therefore before regeneration we will always use our free will to choose evil.

For example, if you place a pile of fresh meat and a pile of straw in front of a hungry tiger, it will always eat the meat. It could choose the straw but because of its nature, it will not.

If I may offer a statement from Augustine…

It is not, therefore, true, as some affirm that we say, and as that correspondent of yours ventures moreover to write, that “all are forced into sin,” as if they were unwilling, “by the necessity of their flesh;” but if they are already of the age to use the choice of their own mind, they are both retained in sin by their own will, and by their own will are hurried along from sin to sin. For even he who persuades and deceives does not act in them, except that they may commit sin by their will, either by ignorance of the truth or by delight in iniquity, or by both evils,—as well of blindness as of weakness. But this will, which is free in evil things because it takes pleasure in evil, is not free in good things, for the reason that it has not been made free. Nor can a man will any good thing unless he is aided by Him who cannot will evil,—that is, by the grace of God through Jesus Christ our Lord. For “everything which is not of faith is sin.”

(Against Two Letters of the Pelagians, Chapter 7)

I’m not sure what the point of this example is, since tigers don’t have free will.

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