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:
"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]
"I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse; therefore choose life, that you and your descendants may live," [Deut 30:19]
"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.