The Early Church Affirmed Free Will (in the Libertarian Sense) Against the Determinism of the Gnostics

Augustinian sympathizer Alister E. McGrath admits:

‘The pre-Augustinian theological tradition is practically of one voice in asserting the freedom of the human will.’

This is actually true for all the divergent branches of early church theology, in all areas into which the church was carried…Not a single church figure in the first 300 years rejected it and most of them stated it clearly in works still extent.  We find it taught by great leaders in places as different as Alexandria, Antioch, Athens, Carthage, Jerusalem, Lycia, Nyssa, Rome, and Sicca.  We find it taught by the leaders of all the main theological schools.  The only ones to reject it were heretics like the Gnostics, Marcion, Valentinus, Manes (and the Manichaens [the followers of Manes and the sect that Augustine had been involved with for nine years prior to his conversion to Catholicism]), etc.  In fact, the early Fathers often state their beliefs on “freewill” in works attacking heretics.  Three recurrent ideas seem to be in their teaching:

1. The rejection of freewill is the view of heretics.

2. Freewill is a gift given to man by God – for nothing can ultimately be independent of God.

3. Man possesses freewill because he is made in God’s image, and God has freewill.”

(Forster and Marston, God’s Strategy in Human History, pg. 296, italics mine- the entire section [pp. 289-344] called “Early Teaching on Free Will and Election” is excellent in documenting early church beliefs in contradistinction to the later radical novelties of Augustinian and Calvinist teachings, among other things).

Also See: Church History and Calvinism

10 Responses

  1. Free will to do what ? In nature man does have a free will.When he/she was born of the will of man and the will of the flesh.They are free to live in the natural .But this has nothing to do with the spiritual.Free will ,will cause absolutly no spiritual birth.It can’t.
    People that are born again had nothing to do with their birth from nature to grace.It’s impossible with man.And this was the Fathers doctrine Jesus Taught.The apostles ask.Who then can be saved.
    Salvation is of the Lord people,not of freewill .

  2. Can’t find this book anywhere. “God’s strategy” is the name of the Alister McGrath’s book?

  3. Vladimir,

    Sorry, this came from a post where I had already given the full title of the book, so the reference here is incomplete (I will fix it in this post). The book is by Forster and Marston. They are simply making note of the McGrath book in that he admits that the early church was a church that held to free will, prior to Augustine’s later theology (Augustine also held to libertarian free will, but eventually abandoned it). The McGrath quote is only the first sentence. The paragraph that follows is written by Forster and Marston. The full title of the book is: “God’s Strategy in Human History”, and you can find it here:

  4. thanks for the clarification! )

  5. Herc,

    I am having a hard time understanding your point. This post may be of help to you as it addresses John 1:12-13, which you seem to be referencing:

    God Bless,

  6. Salvation is of the Lord people,not of freewill.

    Nobody claimed that salvation is “of freewill.”

  7. I don’t think the 3rd point is a valid argument. This seems to be the structure of the argument:

    A) Man is made in God’s image
    B) God has free will
    C) Therefore, man has free will

    Just because we’re made in God’s image does not necessarily mean that we have all the attributes or abilities that our God has. Please correct me if I’m wrong, but given the structure of the argument it seems you could plug anything into the place of “free will:”

    For example we could say:

    “Man possesses moral perfection because he is made in God’s image, and God has moral perfection.”


    “Man is omniscient because he is made in God’s image, and God is omniscient.”

    Furthermore, even if I were to agree that man possessed a certain thing called “free will,” we would then have to figure out if it were the same thing as that which God has.


  8. Now Dimly,

    It’s not really supposed to be a tight syllogism. Rather it is descriptive of what the early church believed. They believed that a major feature of being made in God’s image was that we have a will similar to his, with similar abilities. It was for them a major marker of personhood, in contrast to senseless animals, etc.

    Furthermore, even if I were to agree that man possessed a certain thing called “free will,” we would then have to figure out if it were the same thing as that which God has.

    Not really. It is enough to know that our power of will is similar t God’s. It doesn’t need to be exactly the same.

    Just curious, what do you think it means that we were made in God’s image? What does that involve?

  9. I figured as much on the first part, but was just checking.

    What does it mean to be made in God’s image? I think that we have similar qualities as Him, such as morality and the ability to reason to name two, though many of our faculties or abilities have been marred by sin. In other words we don’t love like we ought to, we don’t think rightly all the time, we don’t make the right choices because of our sin nature (I’m trying to avoid the free will debate here, so what I mean here is the right choices as redeemed Christians–we’re still influenced by our remaining sin). What do you think?

  10. A new book that examines how Augustine abandoned free will as he tried to explain the ritual of infant baptism is entitled “Free to Say No? Free Will in Augustine’s Evolving Doctrines of Grace and Election.”

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