Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Origen on Free Will

The following is an abridged version of Origen’s (~230AD) writings on Free Will. The heresy he was attacking was Gnosticism, which in some ways was very like Calvinism.

Origen on Free Will, from the Philocalia

The doctrine of a righteous judgment of God forms part of the preaching of the Church, and that doctrine stimulates whoever hears and believes it to live good lives and by all means to avoid sin (assuming, of course, it is the case that praiseworthy or blameworthy conduct is within our power). So therefore let us briefly discuss a few points connected with Free Will, for the subject is of the utmost importance.

It is our business to lead a good life, and God asks it of us. Throughout the scriptures it is made clear that this does not depend on Him, and does not come from some different god, or, as some suppose, from fate, but is a matter for ourselves:
Micah says,
"He has showed you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?" [Mic 6:8]
And Moses,
"I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse; therefore choose life, that you and your descendants may live," [Deut 30:19]
And Isaiah,
"If you are willing and obedient, you shall eat the good of the land; But if you refuse and rebel, you shall be devoured by the sword; for the mouth of the LORD has spoken." [Isa 1:19-20]
And in the Psalms,
"O that my people would listen to me, that Israel would walk in my ways! I would soon subdue their enemies, and turn my hand against their foes." [Psa 81:14-15]
All of this tells us that it was in the power of the people to hearken and walk in the ways of God.

The Saviour himself says,
"But I say to you, Do not resist one who is evil." [Mat 5:39]
"that every one who is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgment" [Mat 5:22]
"every one who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart." [Mat 5:28]
Whenever anyone gives a commandment, they do so with the implicit assumption that it is in our power to do what is commanded; and with good reason, if we are to be in danger of the judgment for transgressing them!
Christ also says,
"Every one then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house upon the rock... And every one who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house upon the sand" and so on. [Mat 7:24-27]
And, speaking to those on the right hand,
"Come, O blessed of my Father.... for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink" [Mat 25:31-46]
This shows very clearly that because they deserve to be praised He gives them the promises. And, on the contrary, He says to the others, because in comparison with them they deserved to be blamed,
"Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire" [Mat 25:31-46]

And let us see what Paul also says to us with the assumption that we have Free Will and are ourselves responsible for being lost or saved.
"Or do you presume," he says, "upon the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience? Do you not know that God's kindness is meant to lead you to repentance? But by your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God's righteous judgment will be revealed. For he will render to every man according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; but for those who are factious and do not obey the truth, but obey wickedness, there will be wrath and fury. There will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek" [Rom 2:4-9]
There are, indeed, countless passages in the Scriptures which very clearly support the doctrine of Free Will.

However there are certain passages in the Old Testament and in the New that suggest the opposite conclusion: that it is not in our power to keep the commandments and be saved, or to transgress them and perish. Let us in turn take some of these, and look at the explanations of them. A reader studying our examples should hopefully gain the skill to deal for himself with any remaining passages he meets which seem to destroy Free Will, and to be able to correctly understand them.

Pharaoh's Hardened Heart; Vessels of Honour and Dishonour

Some heterodox thinkers use these passages (themselves almost destroying Free Will) for the sake of introducing perishing natures incapable of being saved, and different natures which are being saved, because they cannot possibly be lost. [Origen is here thinking of the Gnostics, but if you replaced the Gnostic “earthly/spiritual nature” with the Calvinist “unregenerate/regenerate nature” Origen's argument is no different] They claim that Pharaoh being of a perishing nature was therefore hardened by God. Come, let us see if that is what these passages really mean.

We will ask them if Pharaoh was of an earthy nature; and if they answer "Yes," we will tell them that the man with an earthy nature is altogether disobedient to God. And if he is thus disobedient, what need is there for hardening his heart, and this not once but many times? This shall be our first argument against them in order to overthrow their assumption that Pharaoh was of a perishing nature, and we shall give the same answer respecting the Apostle's statement [in Romans 9]. Does He harden the perishing, perhaps, because He believes that they will be partially obedient unless they are hardened?

Let us investigate what Scripture means by saying that God by His operation hardens the heart, and what is His object in doing so. Let us remember that everything God does must be consistent with His being really just and good. If my opponents object to this, then for the present I will waive the assumption that God is good and work only with the premise that God is just. I invite them to show how it is that the just God can be manifesting His justice when he hardens the heart of a man who is perishing through being hardened, and how the just God can be the cause of a man's disobedience and destruction since men are punished by Him for their hardness because they do not obey Him. How is it that God can justly blame Pharaoh for his actions when God Himself was the cause of the disobedience? Remember God said to Pharaoh
"You will not let my people go? I will smite all the first-born in the land of Egypt" and much else [Ex 7-12].

It is clear that we ought to understand these scriptures consistently with the revealed justice of God. There is an example given by Paul in Hebrews that gives us some insight. We learn from it that if God does one and the same merciful thing to two different men it may have different effects on the two men, hardening one and helping the other. These effects are purely the result of the men's response to God and are not different by God's own intention.
"For land," Paul says in Hebrews, "which has drunk the rain that often falls upon it, and brings forth vegetation useful to those for whose sake it is cultivated, receives a blessing from God. But if it bears thorns and thistles, it is worthless and near to being cursed; its end is to be burned." [Heb 6:7-8]
So then, in respect of the rain there is one operation. But while there is one operation in respect of the rain, the land which is tilled bears fruit, and the land which is neglected and barren bears thorns. It might sound a bit harsh to say of the sender of the rain that he made grow both the fruits and the thorns equally, but however harsh it might sound it would nevertheless be true. For if there had been no rain, there would have been neither fruits nor thorns; but because there were seasonable and moderate rains, both fruits and thorns grew. It is the land which has drunk the rain that comes frequently upon it and bears thorns and thistles that is rejected and cursed. So then, the blessing of the rain came also upon the inferior land; but it was the inherent badness of the land, left uncared for and uncultivated, which caused thorns and thistles to grow. So God's marvellous doings are represented by the rain; but men's different purposes are represented by the cultivation or neglect of the land; the quality of the land itself is the same in both cases.

Suppose the sun were to speak and say, "I melt and dry up." Melting and drying up are the contraries of one another, yet wax is melted and clay dried up by one and the same heat. In a like way to these examples the one operation of God by means of Moses resulted in the hardening of Pharaoh on account of his evil disposition, and the obedience of the mixed multitudes of the Egyptians who went out with the Hebrews on account of their dispositions. And the brief statement that the heart of Pharaoh was somewhat softened, inasmuch as he said,
"Only you must not go very far away: you may go three days' journey, but leave your wives"
and whatever else he said [Ex 7-12], slightly yielding to the marvellous deeds of Moses, shows that the great signs and wonders being done produced some effect upon him, but not the full effect. Now there would not have been even this degree of softening if, as is thought by the many, the meaning of "I will harden Pharaoh's heart" is that the hardening was effected by God Himself. And it is not absurd to tone down the harshness of such expressions as we do in common life. It often happens that kind masters say to their servants, who are being ruined by their kindness and forbearance, "I have spoiled you"; "I am to blame for such and such offences." We ought to attend to the nature and force of what is said, and not quibble because we do not plainly catch the meaning of the expression.

A reader may well say, "If, as the potter from the same lump makes some vessels unto honour and some unto dishonour, so also God makes some unto salvation and some to perdition, it follows that we have nothing to do with our salvation or perdition: nor are we free agents." Let me ask a reader who makes this use of the words, if he can imagine the Apostle contradicting himself. I do not think anyone will dare say this. Well then, if the Apostle does not contradict himself, how is the reader going to explain it when the Apostle finds fault when he blames the Corinthian fornicator, or those who fell into sin and did not repent of the lasciviousness and incontinence which they committed? For if you deny free will and say that God himself decides these things, how can anyone praise or blame the humans for God's choices? And how is it that he blesses for their well-doing those whom he praises, as, for instance, the house of Onesiphorus, saying,
"May the Lord grant mercy to the household of Onesiph'orus, for he often refreshed me; he was not ashamed of my chains, but when he arrived in Rome he searched for me eagerly and found me-- may the Lord grant him to find mercy from the Lord on that Day" [2 Tim 1:16-18]
Surely it is not consistent for the same Apostle to both give praise and blame and yet at the same time maintain that nothing depends on ourselves and that the Creator of the world is responsible for bringing one vessel being unto honour, and another unto dishonour? How can it be sound doctrine that
"we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive good or evil, according to what he has done in the body." [2 Cor 5:10]
If they who have done evil have so conducted themselves because they were created vessels of dishonour, and they who have lived virtuous lives have done that which is right, because originally they were fashioned that way as vessels of honour?

But even worse, their interpretation directly contradicts the words of Paul elsewhere. For they interpret [Romans 9] as meaning it is purely up to the Creator whether one vessel is of honour and another of dishonour, yet we read
"In a great house there are not only vessels of gold and silver but also of wood and earthenware, and some for noble use, some for ignoble. If any one purifies himself from what is ignoble, then he will be a vessel for noble use, consecrated and useful to the master of the house, ready for any good work." [2 Tim 2:20-21]
If it is indeed true that a man can purges himself and become a vessel of honour, and another man can carelessly leave himself unpurged and become a vessel of dishonour, then the Creator cannot be held responsible. For the Creator merely makes vessels, neither initially of honour or dishonour. Some vessels He makes become vessels of honour by purging themselves, and some become vessels of dishonour who carelessly leave themselves unpurged, hence it is said the the Creator makes both vessels of honour and vessels of dishonour. So thus we see that the creator makes the vessels and their use for honour or dishonour is up to us men. There is one and the same lump of clay subject to the potter, out of which vessels are made to honour and dishonour: so, though there is one common soul nature that God makes, subsequent events have made some men come to be honourable and others dishonourable.

Since we know Paul's two statements on the matter [in Rom 9 and 2 Tim 2] cannot be contradictory, we must hold them both together and from the two draw one sound conclusion. The power we have does not compel us to advance in goodness apart from the knowledge of God, nor does the knowledge of God compel us to advance unless we also contribute to the good result; for neither does all our power apart from the knowledge of God make a man to be unto honour or unto dishonour; nor does God's power alone fashion a man unto honour or dishonour unless He have our choice, inclining to the better or the worse, as a sort of raw material out of which to make the difference.

Ezekiel and the Stony Hearts

"I will take the stony heart out of their flesh and give them a heart of flesh, that they may walk in my statutes and keep my ordinances and obey them" [Ezek 11:19-20]
If it is true that until God takes away the stony hearts and we cannot do anything to remove them then it is clear that the putting away of our wickedness does not depend upon ourselves. If, indeed, we contribute nothing towards the creation within us of the heart of flesh and rather it is fully the work of God it would follow that a virtuous life will not be our work but altogether the work of Divine grace. That is what someone would say who seeks to destroy Free Will using the surface meaning of the words above as a justification. In reply we shall say that we ought to understand these passages differently, as follows.

Consider an ignorant and uneducated boy who has become conscious of his defects, perhaps through the criticism of another or simply by his own realisation. He therefore seeks out a man whom he thinks capable of leading him into education and virtue. When the boy places himself in the hands of this teacher, his instructor promises to take away the lack of education and to give him knowledge. But even once in the hands of the teacher the education does not depend on the teacher alone. The teacher only benefits the pupil if the pupil listens carefully in a desire to improve and learn. In the same way the Divine Word promises to take away the wickedness, which it calls the stony heart, of those who come to it, not if they are unwilling, but if they submit themselves to the Physician of the sick. In the Gospels, the sick are found coming to the Saviour and begging to be healed and restored to health. We may say that if the blind received their sight, it was the doing of the sufferers inasmuch as they believed they could be restored and begged the blessing, and that it was the Saviour's doing inasmuch as He did restore their sight. In this way the message of God to Ezekiel promises to implant knowledge in those who come to it, by taking away the stony and hard heart, that is to say, their wickedness, so that a man may walk in the Divine commandments and keep the Divine ordinances.

It depends only on God who has mercy?

Now let us look at the words
"it depends not upon man's will or exertion, but upon God's mercy." [Rom 9:16]
Some people think this shows that salvation does not depend upon ourselves, but upon the way men are constituted by Him who makes them what they are, or on the choice of Him who has mercy when He pleases!

In the Book of Psalms it says
"Unless the LORD builds the house, those who build it labor in vain. Unless the LORD watches over the city, the watchman stays awake in vain." [Psa 127:2]
He does not mean to dissuade us from building, nor is he teaching us not to watch so as to guard the city of our soul, but he is showing that what is built apart from God, and is not blessed with His guardianship, is built in vain and kept to no purpose, because God might reasonably have been called the Lord of the building, and the Master of the Universe, the Ruler of the guard of the city. Suppose, therefore, we were to say that such a building is not the work of the builder, but God's work; and that if the city has suffered nothing from its enemies, success is not to be attributed to the watchman, but to God over all, we should not err: for it is understood that man plays his part, though the manliness and virtue is thankfully ascribed to God Who brought it to perfection. Similarly, inasmuch as human willing is not sufficient for the attainment of the end in view, nor the running, as if we were athletes, sufficient for grasping the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus, for these results are secured with God's assistance, it is well said that
"it depends not upon man's will or exertion, but upon God's mercy." [Rom 9:16]

The same might be said of husbandry, as it is written,
"I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth." [1 Cor 3:6-7]
and if there are abundant fruits, we could not with piety say that this is the work of the husbandman, or the work of him that waters, but the work of God; so also our perfecting is not brought about if we do nothing at all, though it is not completed by us, but God effects the greater part of it. And that what we say may carry clear conviction, we will take an illustration from navigation. If we regard the winds that blow, the settled state of the weather, and the brightness of the stars, all contributing to the safety of those on board, how much could we credit seamanship with for bringing the vessel into harbour? The shipmasters themselves from motives of piety do not often venture to affirm that they have saved the ship, but ascribe everything to God; not as though they had done nothing, but because Providence has contributed to the result immensely more than their skill. And certainly in the saving of our souls what God gives is immensely more than what comes from our own ability; and this, I think, accounts for the words,
"it depends not upon man's will or exertion, but upon God's mercy." [Rom 9:16]
For if we understand the words as our opponents do then the commandments are superfluous, and Paul to no purpose blames some for having fallen into sin, and congratulates others on their uprightness, and lays down laws for the churches. On their interpretation it is useless for us to devotedly will the better life, useless to earnestly resolve to run. But not in vain does Paul give his advice, blaming some, congratulating others; and not in vain do we devotedly will the better life and press on to things which excel.

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Faith is Obedience

How do you tell if two words mean the same thing?

Imagine we didn’t know what “the Bible” or “the scriptures” meant, and we came across sentences that said:
“The Bible is a collection of religious writings”
“The scriptures are a collection of religious writings”
“The Bible was written between 2 and 3 thousand years ago”
“The scriptures were written between 2 and 3 thousand years ago”
“The Bible is holy to Christians”
“The scriptures are holy to Christians”
It would reasonable to think that the Bible and scriptures are two different words for the same thing. The more pairs of sentences we have that attribute identical information to both words, the more and more certain we can be that the words are identical in meaning.

Here I will use this method to argue that the word which is translated “faith” or “belief” (pistis) in the bible is a synonym with obedience. I have argued before that the correct translation of pistis is “faithfulness” (and not “faith” nor “belief”).
Red coloring indicates a verse containing “obey” and blue indicates a verse containing pistis (“faith” or “believe”). Headings indicate what each section is saying.

Blessed is the one who hears the gospel and believes/obeys it.

Luke 11:28 But he said, "Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it!"

Rom 10:14b And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard?

Rom 1:16 For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.

Gal 3:9 For this reason, those who believe are blessed with Abraham who believed.
The Spirit comes to those who believe/obey.
Acts 5:32 And we are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey him.

Gal 3:2b Did you receive the Spirit by doing the works of the law or by believing what you heard?

There will judgment on those who are not faithful to/obedient to the Gospel.

Rom 2:8 while for those who are self-seeking and who obey not the truth but wickedness, there will be wrath and fury.

2 Thess 1:8 in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus.

1 Peter 4:17 For the time has come for judgment to begin with the household of God; if it begins with us, what will be the end for those who do not obey the gospel of God?

Col 1:21-23 And you who were once estranged and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his fleshly body through death, so as to present you holy and blameless and irreproachable before him— provided that you continue securely established and steadfast in the faith, without shifting from the hope promised by the gospel that you heard, which has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven. I, Paul, became a servant of this gospel.

John 3:36b whoever does not believe the Son will not see life, but must endure God's wrath.


Some people have behaved praiseworthily in their faith/obedience to the gospel

2 Cor 9:13 Through the testing of this ministry you glorify God by your obedience to the confession of the gospel of Christ and by the generosity of your sharing with them and with all others,

Phil 1:27 Only, live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that, whether I come and see you or am absent and hear about you, I will know that you are standing firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel,


Salvation comes from faith/obedience.

Heb 5:9 and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him

1 Cor 1:21 For since, in the wisdom of God, the world through wisdom did not know God, it pleased God through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe.

Eph 2:8 For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God,

Rom 4:5 But to him who does not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness,


Slaves are described as faithful/obedient.

Rom 6:16 Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness?

Heb 3:5 And Moses indeed was faithful in all His house as a servant, for a testimony of those things which would be spoken afterward,

Mat 25:21 His lord said to him, 'Well done, good and faithful servant; you were faithful over a few things, I will make you ruler over many things. Enter into the joy of your lord.'


Through evangelists God won the faith/obedience of the Gentiles.

Rom 15:18 For I will not venture to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me to win obedience from the Gentiles, by word and deed,

Acts 14:27 Now when they had come and gathered the church together, they reported all that God had done with them, and that He had opened the door of faith to the Gentiles.


Everyone has heard of some Christians’ faith/obedience.

Rom 16:19 For while your obedience is known to all, so that I rejoice over you, I want you to be wise in what is good and guileless in what is evil.

2 Cor 7:15 And his heart goes out all the more to you, as he remembers the obedience of all of you, and how you welcomed him with fear and trembling.

Rom 1:8 First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for you all, that your faith is spoken of throughout the whole world.


Why People Should Change Churches

Recently I made the comment that I think people ought to change churches every 3-5 years. A few people seemed quite shocked by this. So here I will defend my thesis.

When being educated we usually move through a variety of institutions: Primary school, Intermediate, High School, University. We certainly have a lot of different teachers along the way. Now, imagine staying in one school for your entire education with, say, three teachers teaching you everything you learn. That's what's effectively happening with your spiritual growth if you stay at the same church for 20 years.

No pastor is perfect and no church is pefect. Every person and church has their strengths and weaknesses, their emphases on some areas and their weakness in other areas. My mother often said that it was important I participated in a variety of groups and activities outside of school so that I would be a "well-rounded" person. It's every bit as important to be well-rounded spiritually, and being at the same church and hearing from the same few preachers for too long will not give you that. Furthermore there is the obvious danger of brainwashing and overzealousness - if you are never exposed to any other opinions you are far more likely to both get tied into what your church teaches and to be a vigorous defender of them, regardless of how likely the teachings are to be accurate.

In short, each church has its strengths and weaknesses, each has something to give and something for you to give it, but staying too long can easily lead to spiritual stagnation and complacency. There comes a time when it's time to move on, when you're getting stuck in a rut, and the same old church just isn't working any more. A lot of people tend to blame themselves when they realise that they're feeling less spiritual than they were, and think that if only they tried harder they would feel spiritual again. I think that often a change of scene with a new church would solve their problems. I have talked to a lot of people online who lost their faith altogether and I believe a reasonable proportion of them would have retained their faith if they had seen that they needed to change churches and done so earlier.

It's simply a fact of human psychology that we enjoy the new and the novel and are eventually bored by the same old routine each sunday. Slowly we begin to associate our dislike of church with a dislike of spirituality and ulimately a dislike of Christianity. The results are bad for everyone concerned - both for us and for those around us. Our feelings can infect others, and we do not perform at our best when we are not enjoying ourselves.

People say to me what about commitment to a church? Isn't it important to be committed? But the answer is that staying in a church when you're in this situation can do more harm than good to the church, as you're just as liable to drag others down with you as pull yourself back up, and the second is unlikely if it's the environment that's caused your problems in the first place. Commitment, that seems to be the main objection people have to my suggestion. We all know that church hopping is a very bad sin and I've certainly heard enough preachers and read writers who have ranted on the subject and complained at how short people stay in their churches. (My old church actually was so concerned at the turnover of people in their church that they did a serious investigation into it - and concluded that most people who left the church actually did so because they moved house to the other side of the city or to another city) But I'm not advocating church hopping, nor am I advocating a lack of commitment - far from it. To attend a church regularly every sunday for 200 sundays in a row is not "church hopping" by ANY definition. I fully believe we should be commited to the church we attend and actively involved in the church for the time we are attending it. Whether you spend two hundred weeks in a church or two thousand, the opportunity is there for you to get involved and commited.

I am not attacking commitment at all - I support it! I think every Christian should be commited to a local church. What I am attacking is the notion of commitment that claims that once you have spent a few years commited to a church, supporting it, and actively involved in it, you cannot shift and become commited to a different church without being some sort of traitor. That is just total rubbish. Commitment isn't measured in length of time that you stay somewhere you don't want to be and is harming you (the name for that is "stupidity"), commitment is how much you give while you are where you are.

Lots of people seem to think that if they're involved at all in their current church then they can't leave because that would be selfishly placing their own needs over the good that they are doing in their current church - naively ignoring the fact that they could do the same or a similar thing at their new church. For any good thing you are contributing to your current church, you could probably equally contribute to another church - probably better if the church fitted you more. It is not a choice between yourself and others, you can and should continue to benefit others!

You have a duty to God to grow spiritually and you have a duty to the Church to help it as best you can. The first means changing local churches occasionally and the second means helping out wherever you are for as long as you are there. Jim and I were talking and came up with 3-5 years is an appropriate time to change churches. After that length of time in one church I believe any person should very seriously consider their spiritual state and relationship with their church and consider whether or not they would benefit both themselves and others by changing churches. It may well be that they conclude that they should stay where they are, that is certainly an option. But I believe that: they should think about it; that it harms people more than they realise to stay for too long; and that they Church as a whole needs to accept the practical need for people to change churches and stop condemning it based on a misguided understanding of "commitment".