Do we have free will? What did the early church teach about this?
[Thanks to Jonathan Lenzi for the following information. See also www.scrollpublishing.com for more on what the early church taught.]
Election, as taught by Reformed theologians, was not the teaching of the early church. In the first 375 years after Christ, no mention is made of it by any writer, great or small, in any part of the Christian church. Augustine (354-430) was the first to teach this new and unorthodox doctrine. To the contrary, the early church fathers clearly taught that the genuine ability to accept or reject the Gospel was a gift given by God to every person. Oftentimes the biblical view of “free will” is misrepresented and confused with Pelagianism, which is 100 percent “self-effort.”
Jerome (347-420) strongly attacked the Pelagians and wanted to distinguish the Pelagian concept of free will from the orthodox and biblical one: “It is true that freedom of the will brings with it freedom of decision.” F.F. Bruce calls Origen (185-254) “the greatest scholar and thinker of the church in the first three centuries.” Origen wrote, “Now it ought to be known that the holy apostles, in preaching the faith of Christ, delivered themselves with the utmost clearness on certain points which they believed to be necessary to everyone... This also is clearly defined in the teaching of the church that every rational soul is possessed of free will and volition. There are, indeed, innumerable passages in the Scriptures which establish with exceeding clearness the existence of freedom of will.”
Justin Martyr (100-165) wrote, “So if they repent, all who wish for it can obtain mercy from God.” Irenaeus of Gaul (130-200) was a disciple of Polycarp of Smyrna, who was a disciple of the Apostle John. He wrote, “And therefore does He give good counsel to all. And in man as well as in angels, He has placed the power of choice. If then it were not in our power to do these things, what reason had the apostle, and much more the Lord Himself, to give us counsel to do some things and to abstain from others? This expression, ‘How often would I have gathered thy children together, and thou wouldst not,’ set forth the ancient law of human liberty, because God made man a free agent from the beginning, possessing his own soul to obey the behests of God voluntarily, and not by compulsion of God.” Interestingly, Irenaeus wrote this in his work Against Heresies.
F.F. Bruce writes, “In the east, there is none to match John Chrysostom of Constantinople.” Chrysostom (347-407) is clear on this topic as well: “All is in God’s power, but so that our free will is not lost... It depends therefore on us and on Him.” Again, the Pelagian view (i.e. “works”) and the biblical and early church view need to be properly distinguished.
In the Bible, Paul always sets faith and works in antithesis. Paul does not say that unless faith comes by way of “irrestistible grace” it would be “works.” Rather, he contrasts grace and works, but never faith and grace, for faith is never a work. There is no thought of “salvation by works” here; for repentance and faith are not works, but rather soul-adjustments to God’s plan and will, and cannot be accomplished without the help of the Holy Spirit.