The Classic View of the Human Will

I make a decree, that all they of the people of Israel,
and their priests and the Levites, in my realm,
that are minded of their own free will to go to Jerusalem,
go with thee. Ezra 7:13 (ASV)

Human beings have always been curious about God's creation and human behavior, so the study of human behavior goes back to antiquity. It is a topic of sacred, philosophic, and scientific interest. Every human being has an intellect, so everyone can think about their own decision process by self-introspection. Additionally, we observed the behavior of other individuals who make thoughtful life choices, and we gain further insights into the nature of the human will and its role in human choice. The study of the human will is like the study of the weather; it can be observed by everyone. This is in contrast to topics that depend completely upon sacred revelation, such as the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. This doctrine rests upon sacred scripture, and it cannot be discovered by reason nor seen by observation.

The study of the human will began with the study of creation and human behavior. The classic view of the human will holds that human behavior is uniquely different from the rest of the animal kingdom. This difference arises because of the distinctive nature of the human mind. Of all the animals, only human beings are rational creatures endowed with intellect and free will. The human intellect is to know the truth and to distinguish the true from the false. The human will is the power of choice, and it ought to choose the good and refuse the evil under the guidance of reason. So, the proper function of the human intellect is to know the truth, and the proper function of the human will is to choose the good.

It is not the fact that human beings walk, eat, play, and bond in social groups that define a proper human act, because animals do all of these things too. In stead, a proper human act is an act that finds its cause in the human mind. It is a self-determined act that seeks the good as known by the intellect. This type of act cannot be done by an animal, because it lacks an intellectual mind. The behavior of an animal is fixed by nature and instinct. Although an animal has a will, its will is not subject to a rational mind. Hence, its nature guides its will, and it is not free in its choice.

From the days of Aristotle (384-322 B.C.) until the time of the 16th century Reformation, this was the accepted view within learned circles for this period of approximately 1800 years. And from the time of the Reformation until the present, many continue to hold the traditional view of free will. So, it is an idea that has been the dominate one for over two millennia.

Plato (427?-347 B.C)

Plato wrote in the Republic Book X that virtue is not a necessity or a compulsion. It is free choice and that choice resides with the one who chooses. If a person chooses to do evil, the person is alone responsible. Plato did not believe that God was to blame for the evil in the world.

Virtue is free, and as a man honours or dishonours her he will have more or less of her; the responsibility is with the chooser --God is justified.' Translated by Benjamin Jowett

But virtue honors her or does her despite. The blame is his who chooses. God is blameless." 1 Translated by P. Shorey

Aristotle (384-322 B.C)

Aristotle divided creation into inanimate objects (e.g., rocks) and animated objects (those with self-motion or a life principle). Next, he studied the causes of the change in animated things. Living organisms possess self-movement, which he called the fundamental principle of life. Plant life consists of nourishment, growth, and reproduction. Animal life consists of all the features of plant life plus the animal's sensory systems (touch, sight, hearing, taste, smell), natural instincts (will) and modes of locomotion. Finally, human life has all the features of vegetative and animal life plus an immaterial mind (intellect, free will, emotion). Ancient Christian scholars accepted this view of creations. All three Christian 'A's (Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas) wrote approvingly of Aristotle's outline of living organisms.

Life is found in animals and plants; but while in animals it is clearly manifest, in plants it is hidden and not evident. For before we can assert the presence of life in plants, a long inquiry must be held as to whether plants possess a soul and a distinguishing capacity for desire and pleasure and pain. 2

Perceptively, Aristotle noted that, between brute animals and human being, there was a difference in the way that they arrived at their choices. The difference is that humans reason about their choices, while animals do not. The will of an animal is guided by its instinctive nature. A duck selects a watery pond while a chicken likes the dry ground. Their respective choices were not influenced by rational thought, such as, the conclusion of a syllogism.

It now remains for us to inquire into choice. Is choice desire or is it not? Now desire is found in the lower animals, but not choice, for choice is attended with reason, and none of the lower animals has reason. 3

These natural philosophers argued that stones and plants lacked a will. They observed that animals and mankind had a will. They discerned that, because humans reasoned about different possible choices, a human's will must belong to a higher order than a brute animal's will. They felt that man's will made its choices using the light of the intellect. This rational will was termed a free will, and it is possessed by humans, angels, and God. A study of free will from the time Aristotle until now shows that this has been the predominate concept through the centuries.

Justin Martyr (100-165)

Justin Martyr did not believe that divine foreknowledge results in fatal necessity. This is true, because divine foreknowledge takes into account the free choices of rational creatures, such as, men and angels. Justin buttressed his statements by noting that the divine prophets taught that human beings were morally responsible beings. This moral accountability would make no sense, if men were fated to do good or evil by nature. Because humans can avoid evil and choose good allows for moral blame or praise. Also, he noted that the same individual often does good deeds as well as bad deeds. He concluded that this shows that human deeds are not the result of a fixed nature. It has to be the result of a free willed choices. Justin Martyr said that plants (trees) and animals (quadrupeds) cannot act by free choice. In fact, Justin argued that if human nature necessitated all human acts, then the whole concept of good and evil would be eradicated, because necessity eliminates moral responsibility. It would be impossible for human beings to do good or to do evil. Thus, to deny free will would be equivalent to denying sin and the need for Jesus Christ's death upon Calvary's cross. Although it is doubtful that Plato was aware of the writings of Moses, yet Justin quotes Plato's on human moral responsibility and God's justice with respect to human evil.

The First Apology of Justin

But lest some suppose, from what has been said by us, that we say that whatever happens, happens by a fatal necessity, because it is foretold as known beforehand, this too we explain. We have learned from the prophets, and we hold it to be true, that punishments, and chastisements, and good rewards, are rendered according to the merit of each man’s actions. Since if it be not so, but all things happen by fate, neither is anything at all in our own power. For if it be fated that this man, e.g., be good, and this other evil, neither is the former meritorious nor the latter to be blamed. And again, unless the human race have the power of avoiding evil and choosing good by free choice, they are not accountable for their actions, of whatever kind they be. But that it is by free choice they both walk uprightly and stumble, we thus demonstrate. We see the same man making a transition to opposite things. Now, if it had been fated that he were to be either good or bad, he could never have been capable of both the opposites, nor of so many transitions. But not even would some be good and others bad, since we thus make fate the cause of evil, and exhibit her as acting in opposition to herself; or that which has been already stated would seem to be true, that neither virtue nor vice is anything, but that things are only reckoned good or evil by opinion; which, as the true word shows, is the greatest impiety and wickedness. But this we assert is inevitable fate, that they who choose the good have worthy rewards, and they who choose the opposite have their merited awards. For not like other things, as trees and quadrupeds, which cannot act by choice, did God make man: for neither would he be worthy of reward or praise did he not of himself choose the good, but were created for this end; nor, if he were evil, would he be worthy of punishment, not being evil of himself, but being able to be nothing else than what he was made.


And the holy Spirit of prophecy taught us this, telling us by Moses that God spoke thus to the man first created: "Behold, before thy face are good and evil: choose the good." And again, by the other prophet Isaiah, that the following utterance was made as if from God the Father and Lord of all: "Wash you, make you clean; put away evils from your souls; learn to do well; judge the orphan, and plead for the widow: and come and let us reason together, saith the Lord: And if your sins be as scarlet, I will make them white as wool; and if they be red like as crimson, I will make them white as snow. And if ye be willing and obey Me, ye shall eat the good of the land; but if ye do not obey Me, the sword shall devour you: for the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it." And that expression, "The sword shall devour you," does not mean that the disobedient shall be slain by the sword, but the sword of God is fire, of which they who choose to do wickedly become the fuel. Wherefore He says, "The sword shall devour you: for the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it." And if He had spoken concerning a sword that cuts and at once dispatches, He would not have said, shall devour. And so, too, Plato, when he says, "The blame is his who chooses, and God is blameless," took this from the prophet Moses and uttered it. For Moses is more ancient than all the Greek writers. 4

In Justin Martyr's Second Apology, he correctly asserts that human laws are grounded upon the assumption that human beings have reason, free will, and moral responsibility. Good legislation consists of laws that accord to right reason and virtue.

The Second Apology of Justin

But since God in the beginning made the race of angels and men with free-will, they will justly suffer in eternal fire the punishment of whatever sins they have committed. and this is the nature of all that is made, to be capable of vice and virtue. For neither would any of them be praiseworthy unless there were power to turn to both (virtue and vice). And this also is shown by those men everywhere who have made laws and philosophized according to right reason, by their prescribing to do some things and refrain from others.5

Justin Martyr presented the gospel of God's grace to Trypho, a Jew. In his dialogue, Justin again answered the objection that many find between God's foreknowledge and human responsibility. Some Jews might argue that if God foreknew that the Jews would crucify Christ, then the Jews could not be responsible for his death. Justin argued that human beings were free moral agents. The Jews freely chose to crucify Christ, so they were responsible for their sin. But, more importantly, the Jews were free to repent of their sin and obtain mercy from God. Scripture foretold, 'Blessed is the man to whom the Lord imputeth not sin. This blessing was available to them in this life.


"But that you may not have a pretext for saying that Christ must have been crucified, and that those who transgressed must have been among your nation, and that the matter could not have been otherwise, I said briefly by anticipation, that God, wishing men and angels to follow His will, resolved to create them free to do righteousness; possessing reason, that they may know by whom they are created, and through whom they, not existing formerly, do now exist; and with a law that they should be judged by Him, if they do anything contrary to right reason: and of ourselves we, men and angels, shall be convicted of having acted sinfully, unless we repent beforehand. But if the word of God foretells that some angels and men shall be certainly punished, it did so because it foreknew that they would be unchangeably [wicked], but not because God had created them so. So that if they repent, all who wish for it can obtain mercy from God: and the Scripture foretells that they shall be blessed, saying, 'Blessed is the man to whom the Lord imputeth not sin;' that is, having repented of his sins, that he may receive remission of them from God; 6

Irenaeus (120-202)

Irenaeus believed that God chose to create humankind with good liberty. As a general principle, God metes justice according to the appropriate use of human freedom. When humans abuse liberty, they will suffer retribution from God. On the other hand, when human act according to reason and goodness, they will experience God blessing. Like Justin Martyr, Irenaeus believe that if nature compelled human behavior, humans would not be morally responsible creatures. For example, it is wrong to punish someone for their ancestry, color of skin, height, or sex, because these features are all determined by nature. Hitler and the Nazis of the Third Reich were wicked when they executed Jews because of their Jewish ancestry. It is not a moral issue whether a person belongs to a particular race or is a male or a female. It is God's sovereign choice to create humans belonging to a particular human race as well as whether they are male or female. How we handle our masculinity or femininity is a moral issue, since we are responsible for our personal sexual conduct. In other words, our sexuality ought to be under the rational control of our wills. This is not the case with animals.

Irenaeus gave examples from scripture where the underlying assumption is human responsibility. Further, he argued that human beings are responsible for their response to the gospel message. From a human responsibility perspective, it is within the power of their wills to accept or reject the gospel. Likewise, after a person is in the faith and has accepted the gospel, the believer must exercise his will in striving for the reward of service to God. In all of this, God is working for our benefit too.

Book IV
Chapter XXXVII
Men are possessed of free will,
and endowed with the faculty of making a choice.
It is not true, therefore,
that some are by nature good,
and others bad.

1. This expression [of our Lord], "How often would I have gathered thy children together, and thou wouldest not,"[Matt 23:37] set forth the ancient law of human liberty, because God made man a free [agent] from the beginning, possessing his own power, even as he does his own soul, to obey the behests (ad utendum sententia) of God voluntarily, and not by compulsion of God. For there is no coercion with God, but a good will [towards us] is present with Him continually. And therefore does He give good counsel to all. And in man, as well as in angels, He has placed the power of choice (for angels are rational beings), so that those who had yielded obedience might justly possess what is good, given indeed by God, but preserved by themselves. On the other hand, they who have not obeyed shall, with justice, be not found in possession of the good, and shall receive condign punishment: for God did kindly bestow on them what was good; but they themselves did not diligently keep it, nor deem it something precious, but poured contempt upon His super-eminent goodness. Rejecting therefore the good, and as it were spuing it out, they shall all deservedly incur the just judgment of God, which also the Apostle Paul testifies in his Epistle to the Romans, where he says, "But dost thou despise the riches of His goodness, and patience, and long-suffering, being ignorant that the goodness of God leadeth thee to repentance? But according to thy hardness and impenitent heart, thou treasurest to thyself wrath against the day of wrath, and the revelation of the righteous judgment of God." "But glory and honor," he says, "to every one that doeth good."[Rom 2:4,5,7] God therefore has given that which is good, as the apostle tells us in this Epistle, and they who work it shall receive glory and honor, because they have done that which is good when they had it in their power not to do it; but those who do it not shall receive the just judgment of God, because they did not work good when they had it in their power so to do.

2. But if some had been made by nature bad, and others good, these latter would not be deserving of praise for being good, for such were they created; nor would the former be reprehensible, for thus they were made [originally]. But since all men are of the same nature, able both to hold fast and to do what is good; and, on the other hand, having also the power to cast it from them and not to do it, — some do justly receive praise even among men who are under the control of good laws (and much more from God), and obtain deserved testimony of their choice of good in general, and of persevering therein; but the others are blamed, and receive a just condemnation, because of their rejection of what is fair and good. And therefore the prophets used to exhort men to what was good, to act justly and to work righteousness, as I have so largely demonstrated, because it is in our power so to do, and because by excessive negligence we might become forgetful, and thus stand in need of that good counsel which the good God has given us to know by means of the prophets.

3. For this reason the Lord also said, "Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good deeds, and glorify your Father who is in heaven." [Matt 5:16] And, "Take heed to yourselves, lest perchance your hearts be overcharged with surfeiting, and drunkenness, and worldly cares." [Luke 21:34] And, "Let your loins be girded about, and your lamps burning, and ye like unto men that wait for their Lord, when He returns from the wedding, that when He cometh and knocketh, they may open to Him. Blessed is that servant whom his Lord, when He cometh, shall find so doing." [Luke 12:35,36] And again, "The servant who knows his Lord’s will, and does it not, shall be beaten with many stripes." And, "Why call ye me, Lord, Lord, and do not the things which I say?" And again, "But if the servant say in his heart, The Lord delayeth, and begin to beat his fellow-servants, and to eat, and drink, and to be drunken, his Lord will come in a day on which he does not expect Him, and shall cut him in sunder, and appoint his portion with the hypocrites." All such passages demonstrate the independent will of man, and at the same time the counsel which God conveys to him, by which He exhorts us to submit ourselves to Him, and seeks to turn us away from [the sin of] unbelief against Him, without, however, in any way coercing us.

4. No doubt, if any one is unwilling to follow the Gospel itself, it is in his power [to reject it], but it is not expedient. For it is in man’s power to disobey God, and to forfeit what is good; but [such conduct] brings no small amount of injury and mischief. And on this account Paul says, "All things are lawful to me, but all things are not expedient;" referring both to the liberty of man, in which respect "all things are lawful," God exercising no compulsion in regard to him; and [by the expression] "not expedient" pointing out that we "should not use our liberty as a cloak of maliciousness, for this is not expedient. And again he says, "Speak ye every man truth with his neighbor." And, "Let no corrupt communication proceed out of your mouth, neither filthiness, nor foolish talking, nor scurrility, which are not convenient, but rather giving of thanks." And, "For ye were sometimes darkness, but now are ye light in the Lord; walk honestly as children of the light, not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in anger and jealousy. And such were some of you; but ye have been washed, but ye have been sanctified in the name of our Lord." If then it were not in our power to do or not to do these things, what reason had the apostle, and much more the Lord Himself, to give us counsel to do some things, and to abstain from others? But because man is possessed of free will from the beginning, and God is possessed of free will, in whose likeness man was created, advice is always given to him to keep fast the good, which thing is done by means of obedience to God.

5. And not merely in works, but also in faith, has God preserved the will of man free and under his own control, saying, "According to thy faith be it unto thee; " thus showing that there is a faith specially belonging to man, since he has an opinion specially his own. And again, "All things are possible to him that believeth;" and, "Go thy way; and as thou hast believed, so be it done unto thee." Now all such expressions demonstrate that man is in his own power with respect to faith. And for this reason, "he that believeth in Him has eternal life while he who believeth not the Son hath not eternal life, but the wrath of God shall remain upon him." In the same manner therefore the Lord, both showing His own goodness, and indicating that man is in his own free will and his own power, said to Jerusalem, "How often have I wished to gather thy children together, as a hen [gathereth] her chickens under her wings, and ye would not! Wherefore your house shall be left unto you desolate."

6. Those, again, who maintain the opposite to these [conclusions], do themselves present the Lord as destitute of power, as if, forsooth, He were unable to accomplish what He willed; or, on the other hand, as being ignorant that they were by nature "material," as these men express it, and such as cannot receive His immortality. "But He should not," say they, "have created angels of such a nature that they were capable of transgression, nor men who immediately proved ungrateful towards Him; for they were made rational beings, endowed with the power of examining and judging, and were not [formed] as things irrational or of a [merely] animal nature, which can do nothing of their own will, but are drawn by necessity and compulsion to what is good, in which things there is one mind and one usage, working mechanically in one groove (inflexibiles et sine judicio), who are incapable of being anything else except just what they had been created." But upon this supposition, neither would what is good be grateful to them, nor communion with God be precious, nor would the good be very much to be sought after, which would present itself without their own proper endeavor, care, or study, but would be implanted of its own accord and without their concern. Thus it would come to pass, that their being good would be of no consequence, because they were so by nature rather than by will, and are possessors of good spontaneously, not by choice; and for this reason they would not understand this fact, that good is a comely thing, nor would they take pleasure in it. For how can those who are ignorant of good enjoy it? Or what credit is it to those who have not aimed at it? And what crown is it to those who have not followed in pursuit of it, like those victorious in the contest? 7

St. Augustine (354-430)

Augustine studied God's creation in light of scripture and observed, like Aristotle, nature's hierarchical order. He noted that man's soul, psyche, was uniquely superior to the soul of any plant or animal. Its superiority lay in the fact that human beings had a soul that was rational. This rationality allowed a person to order his activities according to right reason. And, when acts are done according to right reason, they are righteous acts. Since human beings possess this ability of rational choice, they possess free will. He wrote that human free will is a good gift from God. In his book entitled, On Free Choice of the Will, St. Augustine has a discourse with Evodius in which he presented his views on free will. The following quotations are from what Augustine said to Evodius in their dialogue.

This is what I mean: whatever it is that sets man above beast—whether it is called mind or spirit [spiritus] (or, more correctly, both, since we find both in the Holy Scriptures)—if it controls and commands whatever else man consists of, then man is ordered in the highest degree. We see that we have many things in common not only with beasts, but even with trees, and plants. 8 (underlining added)

There were positive reasons for God imparting free will to human nature. It was a necessary prerequisite for human beings to be able to do righteous acts; that is, without free will, human actions could not surpass the behavior of a beast of the field. Augustine wrote,

You said you thought that free choice of the will ought not to have been given because through it man sins. To this opinion I replied that no righteous act could be performed except by free choice of the will, and I assert that God gave it for this reason.9

The fourth chapter of Daniel supports Augustine's view. Nebuchadnezzar lost his reason and free will and became like a beast. It is the human mind that separates humans from the beasts of the field. It is why humans bear the image of God.

"Immediately the word concerning Nebuchadnezzar was fulfilled; and he was driven away from mankind and began eating grass like cattle, and his body was drenched with the dew of heaven, until his hair had grown like eagles' {feathers} and his nails like birds' {claws}
"But at the end of that period I, Nebuchadnezzar, raised my eyes toward heaven, and my reason returned to me, and I blessed the Most High and praised and honored Him who lives forever; for His dominion is an everlasting dominion, and His kingdom {endures} from generation to generation. Dan 4:33-34 (NAS)

When a human being sins, he is the cause of his own sin, because his free will was the source of his unreasonable choice to act contrary to reason. God is blameless, because human free will, without being forced, freely chooses to violate right reason. By contrast, as Augustine stated, a sinner would not be guilty of sinning if God's will were the cause of his sin. This is a vital point to notice because some theologians claim the God is the ultimate cause of evil in the universe.

But if no one is forced to sin, either by his own nature or by that of another, it follows that he sins of his own will. If you wish to attribute his sin to the Creator, you will acquit the sinner of his sin. 10

When a "first" cause is discovered, seeking an antecedent cause is not reasonable, because a first cause is the first or original cause. There is no prior cause to a first cause. St. Augustine wrote that the first cause of person's sin is the person's free will. Again, Augustine clearly does not attribute sin to the will of God.

Either the will is the first cause of sin, or else there is no first cause. Sin cannot rightly be imputed to anyone but the sinner, nor can it rightly be imputed to him unless he wills it. 11

Furthermore, Augustine asserted that divine decree took into account the free willed choices of human beings.

But it does not follow that, though there is for God a certain order of all causes, there must therefore be nothing depending on the free exercise of our own wills, for our wills themselves are included in that order of causes which is certain to God, and is embraced by His foreknowledge, for human wills are also causes of human actions; and He who foreknew all the causes of things would certainly among those causes not have been ignorant of our wills. 12

Additionally, Ezra 7:13 shows that a decree can take into account free will.

I make a decree, that all they of the people of Israel, and their priests and the Levites, in my realm, that are minded of their own free will to go to Jerusalem, go with thee. Ezra 7:13 (ASV)

Boethius (480-524)

Boethius (c.480-524 A.D.)—a Roman statesman, philosopher, and theologian—is well known in theological circles for his tractate on the Trinity entitled, De Trinitate. Yet, another work, The Consolation of Philosophy, deserves studied consideration when the subject of necessity and free-will are examined. This literary work was composed while he was in prison awaiting his execution, and it consists of a dialogue between Boethius and "the lady of Philosophy" who solved many of the intellectual difficulties which troubled Boethius. Throughout this work, philosophical concepts are applied to unravel what, otherwise, would seem like inscrutable theological contradictions. For him, philosophical wisdom was a servant to revelatory theology, showing logically that divine revelation was non-contradictory.

For Boethius, philosophical wisdom would conclude that human beings have a free will because humans have reason and make intellectual judgments. These judgments consist of two kinds, speculative and practical. Thespeculative judgments are propositions about what reality is, that is, they are truth statements, while practical judgments are propositions about what humans do, that is, they are human action statements.

Human beings ought to use reason to arrive at practical judgments, and each judgment provides a means to attain a desired end. From among the several practical judgments that the intellect proposes to achieve a goal, a single selection or option is chosen. This selection or choice is called an act of the will where the will is defined as the power of choice. The choice is free and self-determined, because it is not forced or determined by an instinctive nature like the choices of the rest of the animal kingdom. Animals make choices; therefore, they have wills. But their wills are not free, since their choices are under the control of their animal nature. For example, a lion may choose simply to out run a wildebeest or it may choose to creep towards its prey by stealth. The lion does not determine the means to attain its end by lying under a baobab tree and intellectually considering the pros and cons of the various methods of subduing a wildebeest.

"Freedom there is," she said, "for there could not be any nature rational, did not that same nature possess freedom of the will. For that which can by its nature use reason, has the faculty of judgement, by which it determines everything; of itself, therefore, it distinguishes those things which are to be avoided, and those things that are to be desired. Now what a man judges is to be desired, that he seeks; but he runs away from what he thinks is to be avoided. And therefore those who have in themselves reason have also in them freedom to will or not to will, but this freedom is not, I am sure, equal in all of them."13

Boethius comes to what many theologians find to be an insurmountable obstacle to accepting free will, namely God's omniscience. If God foreknows everything and cannot be mistaken about what He foreknows, how can human acts be any different from what He foreknows? What God foreknows must of necessity come to pass, otherwise, what God foreknew would be erroneous. Since God cannot be mistaken in His knowledge, what He foreknows must of necessity come to pass. Boethius stated what many consider to be the heart of the problem of human free will in the light of God's omniscience—that is, what occurs by necessity would seem to require the absence of free will.

"It seems," I said, "much too conflicting and contradictory that God foreknows all things and that there is any free will. For if God foresees all and cannot in any way be mistaken, then that must necessarily happen which in his providence he foresees will be. And therefore if he foreknows from all eternity not only the deeds of men but even their plans and desires, there will be no free will; for it will be impossible for there to be any deed at all or any desire whatever except that which divine providence, which cannot be mistaken, perceives beforehand. For if they can be turned aside into a different way from that foreseen, then there will no longer be firm foreknowledge of the future, but rather uncertain opinion, which I judge impious to believe of God.14

However, before attempting to clear up the difficulty, he first considered the nature of God's eternality. Here we find Boethius' famous definition of eternity: "Eternity, then, is the whole, simultaneous and perfect possession of boundless life." God's life is a simultaneous, boundless whole; whereas, the events of our life come into being and then pass away from us. Human beings only possess an instantaneous, momentary now. For human beings, the past has fled away while the future is not yet present. By contrast, God has no past or future. His eternality is an ever-present now. All events are ever present to him as a simultaneous whole.

Now that God is eternal is the common judgement of all who live by reason. Therefore let us consider, what is eternity; for this makes plain to us both the divine nature and the divine knowledge. Eternity, then, is the whole, simultaneous and perfect possession of boundless life, which becomes clearer by comparison with temporal things. For whatever lives in time proceeds in the present from the past into the future, and there is nothing established in time which can embrace the whole space of its life equally, but tomorrow surely it does not yet grasp, while yesterday it has already lost. And in this day to day life you live no more than in that moving and transitory moment. 15

Whatever therefore comprehends and possesses at once the whole fullness of boundless life, and is such that neither is anything future lacking from it, nor has anything past flowed away, that is rightly held to be eternal, and that must necessarily both always be present to itself, possessing itself in the present, and hold as present the infinity of moving time. 16

Every being must know according to its own nature. A temporal, spatial being—like human beings—knows temporally and spatially. God is a non-temporal and non-spatial being whose knowledge is, likewise, non-temporal and non-spatial. Time and space were created by God; and, therefore, they are objects of His creation. God's eternality and knowledge are not under the conditions of space and time. All of creation, both its space and time, are ever present to His divine omniscience. Human knowledge of the past gradually dims with time, but God sees it all freshly present. Human foresight is only speculative. God's knowledge of all future human events is that all the events are ever present and permanent to Him. In the simplicity of His being, everything is seen and known by Him in one sweep of His divine vision. Only in a human sense can we speak of God "foreknowing" future events. From His divine perspective, God simply "knows" every event and the event's accompanying conditions of time and space. Furthermore, His knowledge of created beings and their activities is certain to come to pass. It must necessarily be so because God's knowledge is unerring.

Since then every judgement comprehends those things subject to it according to its own nature, and God has an always eternal and present nature, then his knowledge too, surpassing all movement of time, is permanent in the simplicity of his present, and embracing all the infinite spaces of the future and the past, considers them in his simple act of knowledge as though they were now going on. So if you should wish to consider his foreknowledge, by which he discerns all things, you will more rightly judge it to be not foreknowledge as it were of the future but knowledge of a never-passing instant. 17

Here the genius of Boethius shines forth. He shows that the knowledge of an event does not cause the event. Those who deny human freedom argue that, since God has knowledge of all future events, these events must necessarily occur, and the necessity of these events occurring eliminates the possibility of human free will. However, even in human terms, the knowledge of an event does not cause that event to occur. For example, an observer may see a person walking, but the knowledge of the person walking does not cause that person to walk. For an observer to know that a person is walking the person must necessarily be walking. Yet, the knowledge and necessity of the person walking do not eliminate the voluntary nature of the person walking. Those who do not see free will fail to distinguish God's foreknowledge and human agency.

Why then do you require those things to be necessary which are scanned by the light of God's sight, when not even men make necessary those things they see? After all, your looking at them does not confer any necessity on those things you presently see, does it?"

"Not at all."

"But if the comparison of the divine and the human present is a proper one, just as you see certain things in this your temporal present, so he perceives all things in his eternal one. And therefore this divine foreknowledge does not alter the proper nature of things, but sees them present to him just such as in time they will at some future point come to be. Nor does he confuse the ways things are to be judged, but with one glance of his mind distinguishes both those things necessarily coming to be and those not necessarily coming to be, just as you, when you see at one and the same time that a man is walking on the ground and that the sun is rising in the sky, although the two things are seen simultaneously, yet you distinguish them, and judge the first to be voluntary, the second necessary. So then the divine perception looking down on all things does not disturb at all the quality of things that are present indeed to him but future with reference to imposed conditions of time. So it is that it is not opinion but a knowledge grounded rather upon truth, when he knows that something is going to happen, something which he is also aware lacks all necessity of happening. 18

Since God knows everything non-temporally. His knowledge embraces every act of the will that voluntary agents freely choose. He knows in an ever-present fashion what could be chosen as well as what will be chosen. Every act of the human will is known by God. What He knows will necessarily happen. Yet, every act will happen according to its own intrinsic nature, that is, free willed acts will necessarily occur, but they will occur through the agency of human free will. What occurs as a result of the laws of physics will also necessarily occur, but these events will necessarily occur through the divine providential laws of nature.

For I shall say in answer that the same future event, when it is related to divine knowledge, is necessary, but when it is considered in its own nature it seems to be utterly and absolutely free. For there are really two necessities, the one simple, as that it is necessary that all men are mortal; the other conditional, as for example, if you know that someone is walking, it is necessary that he is walking. Whatever anyone knows cannot be otherwise that as it is known, but this conditional necessity by no means carries with it that other simple kind. For this sort of necessity is not caused by a thing's proper nature but by the addition of the condition; for not necessity forces him to go who walks of his own will, even though it is necessary that he is going at the time when he is walking. Now in the same way, if providence sees anything as present, that must necessarily be, even if it possesses not necessity of its nature. But God beholds those future events which happen because of the freedom of the will, as present; they therefore, related to the divine perception, become necessary through the condition of the divine knowledge, but considered in themselves do not lose the absolute freedom of their nature. 19

From an eternal view point, God's knowledge includes the knowledge of all possible worlds. In the exercise of His free will, He chose to actualize one of the possible worlds, the one in which we live. With the bringing into being of that possible world, He possesses the knowledge of all volitional events that would accompany the particular world He chose to actualize. In the classical view, God is the ultimate cause of the universe that has come into existence. His prescience has seen every event that each creature would do. He knows what the outcome of the creation of the world will be. It is not a process for which the outcome is uncertain to Him. Some of the creature's activities will occur because of God's divine providence while others will occur through the agency of human free will. Thus, in one of the possible worlds, God saw that Judas would freely betray Jesus Christ for thirty pieces of silver. This happens to be the possible world that God chose to actualize. God's knowledge included every aspect of the mental intentions of Judas. Since God's knowledge is true, Judas must necessarily betray Christ. Yet, he betrayed Christ voluntarily. Finally, the act of Judas was not the cause of God's knowledge, rather it was God's knowledge of the possible world that He chose to bring into existence. Therefore, it is God's eternal knowledge, as Boethius so cogently states, that is the measure of all things.

But if, you will say, it lies in my power to change my intention, I shall make nonsense of providence, since what providence foreknows, I shall perhaps have changed. I shall reply that you can indeed alter you intention, but since the truth of providence sees in its present both that you can do so, and whether you will do so and in what direction you will change, you cannot avoid the divine prescience, just as you could not escape the sight of an eye that was present, even though of your own free will you changed different courses of action. What then will you say? Will the divine knowledge be changed by my disposition, so that, since I want to do this at one time and that at another, it too alternates from this kind of knowledge to that? Not at all. For the divine perception runs ahead over every future event and turns it back and recalls it to the present of its own knowledge, and does not alternate, as you suggest, foreknowing now this, now that, but itself remaining still anticipates and embraces your changes at one stroke. And God possesses this present instant of comprehension and sight of all things not from the issuing of future events but from his own simplicity. In this way that too is resolved which you suggested a little while ago, that it is not right that our future actions should be said to provide the cause of the knowledge of God. For the nature of knowledge as we have described it, embracing all things in a present act of knowing, establishes a measure for everything, but owes nothing to later events. 20

John of Damascus (675-749)

John of Damascus in his Exposition of the Orthodox Faith gives a standard definition of free will. Stones and bugs do not have an intellect; and, therefore, they do not have a free will. The will of man is not bound by matter nor cut off from reason; it was created in a more noble fashion than the lower creation.

We hold, therefore, that free-will comes on the scene at the same moment as reason .... 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 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. 21

St. Augustine believed, "human wills are also the causes of human actions." It is in this sense and context that John of Damascus used the phrase that man "is master of his acts and endowed with free will." What causes something is what bears responsibility for it. The exercise of free will is the cause of human behavior, so persons exercising free will bear responsibility for their free willed acts. This is the fundamental principle of moral responsibility.

Suppose a person shot and killed someone. Where does the responsibility lie? The person who shot the gun never even touched the person who was hit. So, is the bullet responsible for killing the person who was hit? No, and as a result, courts do not put bullets in jail for murder. Bullets are only the instrumental cause of injury. Since the finger pulled the gun's trigger causing it to fire, is the finger guilty of murder? If the finger were responsible, then it should be forfeited and punished. Judicial courts rightly consider that the "person" is guilty because the person is the one who is the efficient cause or the "master" of his acts. Classical Christianity believes that the buck stops at the efficient cause of the act. They believe that God is the efficient cause of all existence, but He is not the efficient cause of all behavior.

St. Anselm (1033-1109)

Anselm continued the classical tradition of free will in his De Libertate Arbitrii. His view, like others before him, was grounded in God's creation, which provides the basis for natural philosophy. It is true that Aristotle, Justin Martyr, Augustine, Boethius, Anselm, John of Damascus, and Aquinas stressed different aspects of free will while passing by other aspects; yet, their differences were in emphasis only, not in substance. Anselm believed that the will of a horse was radically different from a human will. He believed that a horse's will served its appetite by natural necessity, that is, its will was guided by its nature. He thought that man's will, when it is upright, consented to do the right act. In his view, an "upright" will was a will that followed the guidance of right reason. However, when it turns away from being upright, the will consents freely to do evil, without alien coercion. The dialogue is between a teacher (T) and a student (S).

T. So why isn't this will free—since another power cannot bring it into subjection, without the will's own consent?
S. But wouldn't this definition of freedom also apply to the will of a horse? For the will of a horse is willingly subject to appetites of the flesh; hence it is a free will.
T. No, this isn't a similar case. For the will of a horse doesn't subject itself to the appetite of the flesh, but always serves it by necessity since it is naturally subjected to it. But in the case of a man, as long as he has an upright will, he neither serves what he ought not nor is he subjected to it; and he is not turned away from his uprightness by any alien force, unless he willingly consents to do what he should not. A man's consent is clearly seen to come from himself, and not from necessity or nature (as in the case of a horse). 22

Moses Maimonides (1135-1204)

From a Jewish perspective, we find the medieval scholar, Moses Maimonides, showing the necessity of free will in his Epistle to Yemen. He argued for human freedom as a necessary basis for commandments and prohibitions to be meaningful. If humans lacked free will, then all the evil would be attributed to God which contradicts rational thought.

If a man were fated to perform his actions, then all the commandments and prohibitions of the divine Law would be useless and purposeless, they would all be sheer trumpery, since, after all, a man would have no free will. It would likewise follow that teaching and education, as well as mastering any practical skills, would be futile, and all such things would be mere trifles, since, according to the theory of the astrologers, a man would be unavoidably compelled by an outer force to do such and such, attain such and such knowledge, acquire such and such a characteristic. Moreover, every reward or punishment would be crassly unjust, and not permissible for us toward one another or for God toward us. It would also be useless to construct houses, procure food, flee danger, because, after all, what has been fated would have to come irrevocably. But all this is utterly unthinkable and contradicts all intellectual understanding and sensory perception, it tears down the wall of the Law and attributes injustice to God. 23

Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274)

Saint Thomas Aquinas, like Saint Augustine before him, taught that man had a free will. Thomas Aquinas stressed the fact that free will was basic to human moral responsibility. It was necessary result of the rational nature of human beings.

I answer that,Man has free-will: otherwise counsels, exhortations, commands, prohibitions, rewards and punishments would be in vain. In order to make this evident, we must observe that some things act without judgment; as a stone moves downwards; and in like manner all things which lack knowledge. As some act from judgment, but not a free judgment; as brute animals. For the sheep, seeing the wolf, judges it a thing to be shunned, from a natural and not a free judgment, because it judges, not from reason, but from natural instinct. And the same thing is to be said of any judgment of brute animals. But man acts from judgment, because by his apprehensive power he judges that something should be avoided or sought. But because this judgment, in the case of some particular act, is not from a natural instinct, but from some act of comparison in reason, therefore he acts from free judgment and retains the power of being inclined to various things. ... And forasmuch as man is rational is it necessary that man have a free-will. (Q.83, Art 1) 24

Anthony Kenny

Today, free will is still couched in terms of natural philosophy. Professor Anthony Kenny of Oxford University holds the classical view, although he uses somewhat different terminology to express the four categories of sensible beings. His terms for the four categories are:

1. Natural agency belongs to inanimate beings.
2. Living agency belongs to plants
3. Voluntary agency belongs to animals
4. Intentional agency belongs to human beings

Like Aristotle, he expressed his belief in the hierarchy of the beings of nature.

The distinction between the behaviour of humans and the behaviour of inanimate substances is wrongly demarcated by the theory that only humans exhibit agency. The distinction should be marked as a difference between two kinds of agency, voluntary and natural. However, between the natural agency of non-living things and the intentional action of human beings, there is a hierarchy of agency extending upwards from stones through plants and animals to men. 25

In some academic circles, natural philosophy provides the backdrop for the subject of free will. Prof. Kenny notes that animals are limited to voluntary actions while humans can do "intentional actions or acts of reasons." An intentional act would be considered the same thing as a free willed act.

The difference between animals and humans is not that only humans can perform voluntary actions. It is rather that while many kinds of animals can perform voluntary actions, only language-using animals can perform intentional actions or act for reasons. As we ascend the hierarchy of agency, we rise from natural agency, through living agency, through voluntary agency, to the summit of intentional agency.26

Mortimer Adler

Naturally, Mortimer Adler—Chairman of the Board of Editors of the Encyclopaedia Britannica and the Associate Editor of the Great Books of the Western World series—taught the classical view of free will. His broad exposure to philosophical and theological concepts made it a matter-of-course for him to hold this view. His book, Intellect: Mind over Matter, shows his clear understanding of the historical view of "free choice."

In antiquity, the word "soul" (in Greek, psyche; in Latin, anima) was used to signify whatever it was in living organisms that made them alive, active without being acted upon. Since plants are living organisms, they, too, have souls, conferring on them the vegetative powers of nourishment, growth, and reproduction. Animals have souls that confer upon them additional powers—the powers of sense, of appetite or desire, and of locomotion. In addition to endowing man with all the vital powers possessed by plants and other animals, the human soul gives man his distinctive power—that of intellect and, with it, the power of conceptual thought, the power of judging and reasoning, and the power of making free choices. 27 (underlining added)

The term "free will" has been used for over two thousand years to signify an intellectual or rational choice. The quotations above support this use of the term, human free will.


1 Plato, Republic, Book X, 617e, Trans. P. Shorey, In: The Collected Dialogues of Plato, including the Letters, Edited by Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns, Bollingen Series LXXI, 1961, Princeton University Press, Princeton, N. J., p. 841.
2 Aristotle, On Plants, Book I, 815a10-13, In: The Complete Works of Aristotle, The Revised Oxford Translation, Volume 2, Bollingen Series, LXXI 2, Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 1984, p. 1251.
3 Aristotle, Magna Moralia Book I, 1189a1-4, In: The Complete Works of Aristotle, The Revised Oxford Translation, Volume 2, Bollingen Series, LXXI 2, Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 1984, p. 1880.
4 Justin Martyr, The First Apology of Justin, Chapter XLIII, In: Vol I, Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, (The Ante-Nicene Fathers: Translations of the Writings of the Fathers down to A.D. 325), Editors: Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, W.B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, Grand Rapids, MI., 1885, Reprinted 1989, p. 177.
5 Justin Martyr, The Second Apology of Justin, Chapter VII, In: Vol I, Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, (The Ante-Nicene Fathers: Translations of the Writings of the Fathers down to A.D. 325), Editors: Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, W.B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, Grand Rapids, MI., 1885, Reprinted 1989, p. 190.
6 Justin Martyr, Dialogue of Justin, Philosopher and Martyr, with Trypho, a Jew, Chapter CXLI, Free Will in Men and Angels In: Vol I, Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, (The Ante-Nicene Fathers: Translations of the Writings of the Fathers down to A.D. 325), Editors: Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, W.B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, Grand Rapids, MI., 1885, Reprinted 1989, p. 269.
7 Irenaeus, Irenaeus Against Heresies, Book IV, Chapter XXXVII, Men are Possessed of Free Will, and Endowed with the Faculty of Making a Choice. It is not True, therefore, that some Men are by Nature Good, and Others Bad, In: Vol I, Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, (The Ante-Nicene Fathers: Translations of the Writings of the Fathers down to A.D. 325), Editors: Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, W.B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, Grand Rapids, MI., 1885, Reprinted 1989, p. 518.
8 Saint Augustine, On Free Choice of the Will, Macmillan Publishing Co., New York, NY, 1964, Book I, Chap. VIII, p. 18.
9 ibid., Book II, Chap. XVIII, p. 78.
10 ibid., Book III, Chap. XVI, p. 124.
11 ibid., Book III, Chap. XVII, p. 126.
12 St. Augustine, The City of God, Book V, (9), Translated by: Marcus Dods, The Modern Library (Random House), New York, NY, p. 154-155
13 Boethius, The Consolation of Philosophy, Trans: S.J. Tester, In: Boethius: The Theological Tractates and The Consolation of Philosophy, Loeb Classical Library, Vol 74, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 1973, p. 391
14 ibid., p. 395
15 ibid., p. 423
16 ibid., p. 423-425
17 ibid., p. 427
18 ibid., p. 427-429
19 ibid., p. 429-431
20 ibid., p. 431-433
21 John of Damascus, Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, In: A Select Library of Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Second Series, Vol IX, St. Hilary of Poitiers, John of Damascus, W.B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, Grand Rapids, MI, Reprinted 1989, p. 40.
22 Anselm of Canterbury, On Freedom of Choice (De Libertate Arbitrii), In: Truth, Freedom, and Evil: Three Philosophical Dialogues, Edited and Translated by: Jasper Hopkins and Herbert Richardson, Harper Torchbooks, Harper and Row, New York, NY, Revised 1967, p. 131-132
23 Abraham J. Heschel, Maimonides: A Biography, Doubleday, New York, NY, 1991 (Originally published in 1982), p. 111-112.
24 Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica Vol. One,Christian Classics, Westminster, MD, p. 418
25 Anthony Kenny, The Metaphysics of Mind, Oxford University Press, Oxford, England, p. 33-34
26 ibid., p. 38
27 Mortimer J. Adler, Intellect: Mind over Matter, Macmillan Publishing Co., New York, NY, 1990, p. 10.

Ted J McDonald