Thursday, October 25, 2007

Free Will in Conversion, Part I

(Full disclosure: I am getting ready to write a short section on this topic in the book I'm working on, as part of the last chapter. This is not necessarily anything like the text of that section, however. There, I will not directly be dealing with any views but Orthodox ones.)

An important question, for many people, is whether man can in any way cooperate in his own salvation.

Part of how we answer that question will of course depend upon what salvation is. For example, does it include what the non-Orthodox call “sanctification”? Is it a merit system?

For the Orthodox, yes, it includes roughly what others mean by “sanctification” and no, salvation is not a merit system. That means merit is not what saves us and demerits are not what condemn us. Thus salvation neither can be nor needs to be merited at all. Not only we ourselves cannot and need not merit it, but even Christ cannot and need not earn or merit it for us, either, for salvation is pure gift. We would consider it a slur upon God’s magnanimity to suppose otherwise.

Even if the right exercise of free will were meritorious, so what? Merit does not save us. We are saved by union with God in Christ. Rather, union with Christ does not get us into heaven; it already is heaven, for Christ Himself is our heaven. Union with Christ is not a means to an end (His merits getting us to that end); for anybody who loves Christ, union with Him already is the goal. And union with Christ is not by merit, but by grace through faith.

Similarly, demerits are not what condemn us. Separation from God condemns us – or rather, separation from Him does not send us to hell but already is hell, for in Him is everything good and true and beautiful – and we are separated from God because we walk away from Him, not because of our failure to collect merits (although, having rejected God, we do fail in that, too).

That’s why the Orthodox don’t worry whether the right exercise of our free will might imply we had done something meritorious. In the first place, to use our free will rightly is what we were made for, the same way a fish was made to swim or a bird to fly; and we get no more "merit" for doing what we were made for than they do. Secondly, even if we did gain some merit by making the right choice, what would the merit be FOR? It has no more use than Monopoly money; it's strictly for playing games.

Those, and only those, who implicitly assume salvation is about merit will feel the need to avoid assigning us any, in order to give God all the glory. They are right that we have none. But then they go on seeking to avoid assigning us any merit by denying that we are able to cooperate in our salvation in any way. They tell us fallen man’s “free will” is able only to choose evil, meaning it is not actually free at all. The natural man can only resist God, and actively does so.

From an Orthodox point of view, this teaching appropriates several rather egregious misunderstandings of Scripture, but that subject is for another post, as are about four or five serious theological objections to it. For now, I’d just like to point out that except in Calvinism, this doctrine of free will does not seem to accomplish what it sets out to do.

How, in this model, is anyone saved? Well, as I understand it (If I’m mistaken, somebody please correct me!), when people hear the Gospel rightly preached, the Holy Spirit, working through the Gospel, overrides the resistance of some of them – it isn’t clear to me which ones or why not all of them – and bestows upon them the ability to receive the gift of faith and to choose Christ. In Calvinism, this grace once given is irresistible, but in other traditions such as Lutheranism, one can – take note! – one can either accept or reject it. And upon that choice depends ones salvation. In other words, man had something to do with his own salvation after all. That’s why, besides being objectionable upon several serious grounds (stay tuned) this doctrine, from an outsider's perspecive, appears simply pointless.

Your thoughts?


DebD said...

I shall have to come back and read this more fully.. I'm on the run today. But I didn't want to forget to wish Demetrios a Happy Feast Day! Many Years!

William Weedon said...

Is Orthodoxy a "school of thought"? ;)

This is the way that one great Lutheran theology got at it:

The freedom of the will is still preserved in man's ability to resist God's grace. All man's help must thus come from God; all his ruin comes from himself.

The provisions of Redemption, therefore, are ample for all. Not only do the Holy Scriptures declare that they are sufficient for all, but directly and explicitly that they have been made and are intended for all. Every human life that enters this world is that of a redeemed child of God. Every child is born both a child of wrath and a child of grace. It is a child of wrath, since by inheritance its state is that of spiritual death. It is a child of grace, in so far as it has been comprised in the Scheme of Redemption and the love and mercy of God that devised that scheme go forth in efforts for the application to it of this Redemption. It remains a child of wrath so far as the efforts of divine grace to aid it are defeated by the persevering resistance of its will. It becomes a child of grace, not only potentially, but in reality, when divine grace overcomes the natural resistance of its will, and it submits to God; the state of regeneration succeeding that of spiritual death. - Henry Eyster Jacobs, *Elements of Religion* pp. 67, 68

William Weedon said...

Ack. "This is the way that one great Lutheran theologian got at it." I have gremlins in my keyboard!!!

Randy Asburry said...

Very fascinating, Anastasia! I look forward to reading more to see where you're going with this.

In the mean time, I'm curious what you make of some statements by Bp. Kallistos Ware in his little "How Are We Saved?" Here he talks about our human inclination toward sin and evil:

By virtue of the fall, on the moral level we each have an inherited inclination towards what is sinful; we are each born into a world in which it is easy for us to do evil and hard for us to do good. In St. Gregory of Nyssa’s words, ‘Hamstrung once for all by evil, human nature is weak in regard to what is good’. ‘From youth upwards,’ states St. Cyril of Alexandria (d.c. 444), ‘a person’s thought is turned with studious attention towards iniquity’. According to Theodoret of Cyrrhus (d.c. 466), as a result of the fall ‘our human nature has an inclination towards stumbling’. In the blunt phrase of St. Mark the Monk (? fifth century), ‘Error became more characteristic of human beings than truth’ (p. 18).

Wouldn't this mean that we human beings are too weak, or hamstrung by iniquity, to make a "decision" to believe in or follow Jesus?

Here Bp. Ware talks about God's grace preceding everything about our salvation:

3. There remains another possible misunderstanding. When we speak of ‘cooperation’, it is not to be imagined that our initial impulse towards good precedes the gift of divine grace and comes from ourselves alone. We must not think that God waits to see how we shall use our free will, and then decides whether He will bestow or withhold His grace. Still less would it be true to suggest that our initial act of free choice somehow causes God’s grace. All such notions of temporal priority or of cause and effect are inappropriate. On the contrary, any right exercise of our free will presupposes from the start the presence of divine grace, and without this ‘prevenient’ grace we could not begin to exercise our will aright. In every good desire and action on our part, God’s grace is present from the outset. Our cooperation with God is genuinely free, but there is nothing in our good actions that is exclusively our own. At every point our human cooperation is itself the work of the Holy Spirit. Such in brief is the Orthodox position concerning grace and free will. The free gift of God requires a free response (p. 43).

Help me understand, how does this - especially the third-last sentence, about the work of the Holy Spirit - fit with your statement: "man had something to do with his own salvation after all"?

Anastasia Theodoridis said...


Oops. Sorry, not a school of thought! I shall amend it to read, "traditions".

The Orthodox certainly agree that all our help is from God and all our ruin is from ourselves. We will also agree that there are many aspects of salvation that require nothing whatsoever from us. For example, Christ swuffered for us all, without any input from us, and He arose, bringing life to ALL, period, for better for for worse.

How is it the Holy Spirit doesn't manage to overcome the resistance of everybody who hears the Gospel? Is He perhaps respecting their freedom of will?


I'm kicking myself because having underlined it and studied the section on free will carefully, I forgot to bring Bishop Kallistos' book with met to Greece!

Of course all he says is quite true and is the Orthodox position. Yes, our cooperation itself is the work of the Holy Spirit. There is no quarrel about that.

Nevertheless, this is not meant in such a way as to make of us automatons who are merely passive; Rather, we mean that when we do cooperate, we are, *by grace*, only consenting to let the Holy Spirit do His work in our bodies, just as the Theotokos did. "Behold, the handmaiden of the Lord; be it done unto me according to thy word."

But the proposition I am trying to toss out for discussion is: that Lutheranism ends up in the same place as Orthodoxy in one respect: that in both, we have human beings who at some point by Grace are able to resist or not resist Grace, and upon this choice, which *they* make, depends their salvation.

That's assuming you don't want to say human beings never become more than automatons.


Anastasia Theodoridis said...

Look at the gremlins in MY computer! Two colons in one sentence! Why is it these things only pop out at us, and are so galringlhy obvious to us, only AFTER we've published them?


Christopher D. Hall said...

You wrote, "In the first place, to use our free will rightly is what we were made for, the same way a fish was made to swim or a bird to fly; and we get no more "merit" for doing what we were made for than they do."

It reminded me of this passage:
"And which of you, having a servant plowing or tending sheep, will say to him when he has come in from the field, 'Come at once and sit down to eat'? But will he not rather say to him, 'Prepare something for my supper, and gird yourself and serve me till I have eaten and drunk, and afterward you will eat and drink'? Does he thank that servant because he did the things that were commanded him? I think not." (Luke 17:7-9 NKJV)

Anastasia Theodoridis said...

Dear Pr. Hall,

Exactly so.


P.S.) Thanks for your prayers for Kostas, and welcome back from vacation!