Share   Print
Related Content

Concerning Free Will and Predestination

by St. John of Damascus


Chapter 25. Concerning what is in our own power, that is, concerning Free-will.

The first enquiry involved in the consideration of free-will, that is, of what is in our own power, is whether anything is in our power: for there are many who deny this. The second is, what are the things that are in our power, and over what things do we have authority? The third is, what is the reason for which God Who created us endued us with free-will? So then we shall take up the first question, and firstly we shall prove that of those things which even our opponents grant, some are within our power. And let us proceed thus.

Of all the things that happen, the cause is said to be either God, or necessity, or fate, or nature, or chance, or accident. But God’s function has to do with essence and providence: necessity deals with the movement of things that ever keep to the same course: fate with the necessary accomplishment of the things it brings to pass (for fate itself implies necessity): nature with birth, growth, destruction, plants and animals; chance with what is rare and unexpected. For chance is defined as the meeting and concurrence of two causes, originating in choice but bringing to pass something other than what is natural: for example, if a man finds a treasure while digging a ditch: for the man who hid the treasure did not do so that the other might find it, nor did the finder dig with the purpose of finding the treasure: but the former hid it that he might take it away when he wished, and the other’s aim was to dig the ditch: whereas something happened quite different from what both had in view. Accident again deals with casual occurrences that take place among lifeless or irrational things, apart from nature and art. This then is their doctrine. Under which, then, of these categories are we to bring what happens through the agency of man, if indeed man is not the cause and beginning of action? for it would not be right to ascribe to God actions that are sometimes base and unjust: nor may we ascribe these to necessity, for they are not such as ever continue the same: nor to fate, for fate implies not possibility only but necessity: nor to nature, for nature’s province is animals and plants: nor to chance, for the actions of men are not rare and unexpected: nor to accident, for that is used in reference to the casual occurrences that take place in the world of lifeless and irrational things. We are left then with this fact, that the man who acts and makes is himself the author of his own works, and is a creature endowed with free-will.

Further, if man is the author of no action, the faculty of deliberation is quite superfluous for to what purpose could deliberation be put if man is the master of none of his actions? for all deliberation is for the sake of action. But to prove that the fairest and most precious of man’s endowments is quite superfluous would be the height of absurdity. If then man deliberates, he deliberates with a view to action. For all deliberation is with a view to and on account of action.

Chapter 26. Concerning Events.

Of events, some are in our hands, others are not. Those then are in our hands which we are free to do or not to do at our will, that is all actions that are done voluntarily (for those actions are not called voluntary the doing of which is not in our hands), and in a word, all that are followed by blame or praise and depend on motive and law. Strictly all mental and deliberative acts are in our hands. Now deliberation is concerned with equal possibilities: and an ‘equal possibility’ is an action that is itself within our power and its opposite, and our mind makes choice of the alternatives, and this is the origin of action. The actions, therefore, that are in our hands are these equal possibilities: e.g. to be moved or not to be moved, to hasten or not to hasten, to long for unnecessaries or not to do so, to tell lies or not to tell lies, to give or not to give, to rejoice or not to rejoice as fits the occasion, and all such actions as imply virtue or vice in their performance, for we are free to do or not to do these at our pleasure. Amongst equal possibilities also are included the arts, for we have it in our power to cultivate these or not as we please.

Note, however, that while the choice of what is to be done is ever in our power, the action itself often is prevented by some dispensation of the divine Providence.

Chapter 27. Concerning the reason of our endowment with Free-will.

We hold, therefore, that free-will comes on the scene at the same moment as reason, and that change and alteration are congenital to all that is produced. For all that is produced is also subject to change. For those things must be subject to change whose production has its origin in change. And change consists in being brought into being out of nothing, and in transforming a substratum of matter into something different. Inanimate things, then, and things without reason undergo the aforementioned bodily changes, while the changes of things endowed with reason depend on choice. For reason consists of a speculative and a practical part. The speculative part is the contemplation of the nature of things, and the practical consists in deliberation and defines the true reason for what is to be done. The speculative side is called mind or wisdom, and the practical side is called reason or prudence. Every one, then, who deliberates does so in the belief that the choice of what is to be done lies in his hands, that he may choose what seems best as the result of his deliberation, and having chosen may act upon it. And if this is so, free-will must necessarily be very closely related to reason. For either man is an irrational being, or, if he is rational, he is master of his acts and endowed with free-will. Hence also creatures without reason do not enjoy free-will: for nature leads them rather than they nature, and so they do not oppose the natural appetite, but as soon as their appetite longs after anything they rush headlong after it. But man, being rational, leads nature rather than nature him, and so when he desires aught he has the power to curb his appetite or to indulge it as he pleases. Hence also creatures devoid of reason are the subjects neither of praise nor blame, while man is the subject of both praise and blame.

Note also that the angels, being rational, are endowed with free-will, and, inasmuch as they are created, are liable to change. This in fact is made plain by the devil who, although made good by the Creator, became of his own free-will the inventor of evil, and by the powers who revolted with him, that is the demons, and by the other troops of angels who abode in goodness.

Chapter 28. Concerning what is not in our hands.

Of things that are not in our hands some have their beginning or cause in those that are in our power, that is to say, the recompenses of our actions both in the present and in the age to come, but all the rest are dependent on the divine will. For the origin of all things is from God, but their destruction has been introduced by our wickedness for our punishment or benefit. For God did not create death, neither does He take delight in the destruction of living things. But death is the work rather of man, that is, its origin is in Adam’s transgression, in like manner as all other punishments. But all other things must be referred to God. For our birth is to be referred to His creative power; and our continuance to His conservative power; and our government and safety to His providential power; and the eternal enjoyment of good things by those who preserve the laws of nature in which we are formed is to be ascribed to His goodness. But since some deny the existence of Providence, let us further devote a few words to the discussion of Providence.

Chapter 29. Concerning Providence.

Providence, then, is the care that God takes over existing things. And again: Providence is the will of God through which all existing things receive their fitting issue. But if Providence is God’s will, according to true reasoning all things that come into being through Providence must necessarily be both most fair and most excellent, and such that they cannot be surpassed. For the same person must of necessity be creator of and provider for what exists: for it is not meet nor fitting that the creator of what exists and the provider should be separate persons. For in that case they would both assuredly be deficient, the one in creating, the other in providing. God therefore is both Creator and Provider, and His creative and preserving and providing power is simply His good-will. For whatsoever the Lord pleased that did He in heaven and in earth, and no one resisted His will. He willed that all things should be and they were. He wills the universe to be framed and it is framed, and all that He wills comes to pass.

That He provides, and that He provides excellently, one can most readily perceive thus. God alone is good and wise by nature. Since then He is good, He provides: for he who does not provide is not good. For even men and creatures without reason provide for their own offspring according to their nature, and he who does not provide is blamed. Again, since He is wise, He takes the best care over what exists.

When, therefore, we give heed to these things we ought to be filled with wonder at all the works of Providence, and praise them  all, and accept them all without enquiry, even though they are in the eyes of many unjust, because the Providence of God is beyond our ken and comprehension, while our reasonings and actions and the future are revealed to His eyes alone. And by "all" I mean those that are not in our hands: for those that are in our power are outside the sphere of Providence and within that of our Free-will.

Now the works of Providence are partly according to the good-will(of God) and partly according to permission. Works of good-will include all those that are undeniably good, while works of permission are....... For Providence often permits the just man to encounter misfortune in order that he may reveal to others the virtue that lies concealed within him, as was the case with Job. At other times it allows something strange to be done in order that something great and marvelous might be accomplished through the seemingly-strange act, as when the salvation of men was brought about through the Cross. In another way it allows the pious man to suffer sore trials in order that he may not depart from a right conscience nor lapse into pride on account of the power and grace granted to him, as was the case with Paul.

One man is forsaken for a season with a view to another’s restoration, in order that others when they see his state may be taught a lesson, as in the case of Lazarus and the rich man. For it belongs to our nature to be east down when we see persons in distress. Another is deserted by Providence in order that another may be glorified, and not for his own sin or that of his parents, just as the man who was blind from his birth ministered to the glory of the Son of Man. Again another is permitted to suffer in order to stir up emulation in the breasts of others, so that others by magnifying the glory of the sufferer may resolutely welcome suffering in the hope of future glory and the desire for future blessings, as in the case of the martyrs. Another is allowed to fall at times into some act of baseness in order that another worse fault may be thus corrected, as for instance when God allows a man who takes pride in his virtue and righteousness to fall away into fornication in order that he may be brought through this fall into the perception of his own weakness and be humbled and approach and make confession to the Lord.

Moreover, it is to be observed that the choice of what is to be done is in our own hands: but the final issue depends, in the one case when our actions are good, on the cooperation of God, Who in His justice brings help according to His foreknowledge to such as choose the good with a right conscience, and, in the other case when our actions are to evil, on the desertion by God, Who again in His justice stands aloof in accordance with His foreknowledge.

Now there are two forms of desertion: for there is desertion in the matters of guidance and training, and there is complete and hopeless desertion. The former has in view the restoration and safety and glory of the sufferer, or the rousing of feelings of emulation and imitation in others, or the glory of God: but the latter is when man, after God has done all that was possible to save him, remains of his own set purpose blind and uncured, or rather incurable, and then he is handed over to utter destruction, as was Judas. May God be gracious to us, and deliver us from such desertion.

Observe further that the ways of God’s providence are many, and they cannot be explained in words nor conceived by the mind.

And remember that all the assaults of dark and evil fortune contribute to the salvation of those who receive them with thankfulness, and are assuredly ambassadors of help.

Also one must bear in mind that God’s original wish was that all should be saved and come to His Kingdom. For it was not for punishment that He formed us but to share in His goodness, inasmuch as He is a good God. But inasmuch as He is a just God, His will is that sinners should suffer punishment.

The first then is called God’s antecedent will and pleasure, and springs from Himself, while the second is called God’s consequent will and permission, and has its origin in us. And the latter is two-fold; one part dealing with matters of guidance and training, and having in view our salvation, and the other being hopeless and leading to our utter punishment, as we said above. And this is the case with actions that are not left in our hands.

But of actions that are in our hands the good ones depend on His antecedent goodwill and pleasure, while the wicked ones depend neither on His antecedent nor on His consequent will, but are a concession to free-will For that which is the result of compulsion has neither reason nor virtue in it. God makes provision for all creation and makes all creation the instrument of His help and training, yea often even the demons themselves, as for example in the cases of Job and the swine.

Chapter 30. Concerning Prescience and Predestination.

We ought to understand that while God knows all things beforehand, yet He does not predetermine all things. For He knows beforehand those things that are in our power, but He does not predetermine them. For it is not His will that there should be wickedness nor does He choose to compel virtue. So that predetermination is the work of the divine command based on fore-knowledge. But on the other hand God predetermines those things which are not within our power in accordance with His prescience. For already God in His prescience has prejudged all things in accordance with His goodness and justice.

Bear in mind, too, that virtue is a gift from God implanted in our nature, and that He Himself is the source and cause of all good, and without His co-operation and help we cannot will or do any good thing, But we have it in our power either to abide in virtue and follow God, Who calls us into ways of virtue, or to stray from paths of virtue, which is to dwell in wickedness, and to follow the devil who summons but cannot compel us. For wickedness is nothing else than the withdrawal of goodness, just as darkness is nothing else than the withdrawal of light While then we abide in the natural state we abide in virtue, but when we deviate from the natural state, that is from virtue, we come into an unnatural state and dwell in wickedness.

Repentance is the returning from the unnatural into the natural state, from the devil to God, through discipline and effort.

Man then the Creator made male, giving him to share in His own divine grace, and bringing him thus into communion with Himself: and thus it was that he gave in the manner of a prophet the names to living flyings, with authority as though they were given to be his slaves. For having been endowed with reason and mind, and free-will after the image of God, he was filly entrusted with dominion over earthly things by the common Creator and Master of all.

But since God in His prescience knew that man would transgress and become liable to destruction, He made from him a female to be a help to him like himself; a help, indeed, for the conservation of the race after the transgression from age to age by generation. For the earliest formation is called ‘making’ and not ‘generation.’ For ‘making ‘ is the original formation at God’s hands, while ‘generation’ is the succession from each Other made necessary by the sentence of death imposed on us ‘on account of the transgression.

This man He placed in Paradise, a home that was alike spiritual and sensible. For he lived in the body on the earth in the realm of sense, while he dwelt in the spirit among the angels, cultivating divine thoughts, and being supported by them: living in naked simplicity a life free from artificiality, and being led up through His creations to the one and only Creator, in Whose contemplation he found joy and gladness.

When therefore He had furnished his nature with free-will, He imposed a law on him, not to taste of the tree of knowledge. Concerning this tree, we have said as much as is necessary in the chapter about Paradise, at least as much as it was in our power to say. And with this command He gave the promise that, if he should preserve the dignity of the soul by giving the victory to reason, and acknowledging his Creator and observing His command, he should share eternal blessedness and live to all eternity, proving mightier than death: but if forsooth he should subject the soul to the body, and prefer the delights of the body, comparing himself in ignorance of his true dignity to the senseless beasts, and shaking off His Creator’s yoke, and neglecting His divine injunction, he will be liable to death and corruption, and will be compelled to labor throughout a miserable life. For it was no profit to man to obtain incorruption while still untried and unproved, lest he should fall into pride and under the judgment of the devil. For through his incorruption the devil, when he had fallen as the result of his own free choice, was firmly established in wickedness, so that there was no room for repentance and no hope of change: just as, moreover, the angels also, when they had made free choice of virtue became through grace immovably rooted in goodness.

It was necessary, therefore, that man should first be put to the test (for man untried and unproved would be worth nothing), and being made perfect by the trial through the observance of the command should thus receive incorruption as the prize of his virtue. For being intermediate between God and matter he was destined, if he kept the command, to be delivered from his natural relation to existing things and to be made one with God’s estate, and to be immovably established in goodness, but, if he transgressed and inclined the rather to what was material, and tore his mind from the Author of his being, I mean God, his fate was to be corruption, and he was to become subject to passion instead of passionless, and mortal instead of immortal, and dependent on connection and unsettled generation. And in his desire for life he would cling to pleasures as though they were necessary to maintain it, and would fearlessly abhor those who sought to deprive him of these, and transfer his desire from God to matter, and his anger from the real enemy of his salvation to his own brethren. The envy of the devil then was the reason of man’s fall. For that same demon, so full of envy and with such a hatred of good, would not suffer us to enjoy the pleasures of heaven, when he himself was kept below on account of his arrogance, and hence the false one tempts miserable man with the hope of Godhead, and leading him up to as great a height of arrogance as himself, he hurls him down into a pit of destruction just as deep.

From his Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, Book II, Chs. 25-30. Taken from the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Vol. 9. St. John of Damascus is a very important Orthodox Church Father. His eighth century Exact Exposition is seen as a very accurate summation and synthesis of Orthodox doctrine. It thus is a very authoritative compendium of the teachings of the Holy Orthodox Church.