Fellow Workers With God: Free Will and Synergy in Early Eastern Christianity

Bart Byl
9 min readDec 20, 2022

Due to the towering stature of Augustine in the Latin tradition, grace and free will have been seen in opposition, or at least in significant tension, in both Roman Catholic and Protestant circles. This was never the case in the East.¹ The early Greek patristic writers universally affirmed that human beings possess free will, and so the controversy between Augustine and Pelagius had little effect in their churches, where salvation was always conceived in synergistic terms.² This was no accident, for the Eastern Christian understanding of salvation as growing participation in the divine life required the continual choosing of the good, willingly cooperating with the renewing grace of the Holy Spirit.³ Free will is integral to both anthropology and soteriology in Greek patristic theology.

Photo by Galen Crout on Unsplash

“There are two ways, one of life and one of death, and there is a great difference between these two ways.”⁴ So begins the Didache, the manual of Christian teaching that may be dated as early as the late first century. The stark contrast between the way of life and of death is typical of the moral exhortation found in the early Christian writers.⁵ Concern for every person’s ethical responsibility before God, rather than a particular theology of grace, fuels the emphasis on the will in these early writers.

But for Irenaeus, embroiled in debate with the Valentinian Gnostics, it was essential to affirm free will as a vital aspect of the image of the God whose own hands fashioned us from the dust. Animals act out of mere instinct, but human beings share in God’s image as rational beings and so have the dignity of genuine choice and the possibility of uncoerced love for their Maker. This freedom is manifested in the ascetic struggle, without which we would never realize how precious the good is. “Things which fall into our lap and things acquired after much effort are not cherished in the same way,” he wrote. “Now we were called to love God more, and that, according to what the Lord taught and the apostle handed on, involves struggle. Were this not so, we would not appreciate the good; where there is no exertion, there is no appreciation.”⁶

The second century Apologists not only invariably affirm free will, but give it more sustained attention.⁷ Tatian, in the late second century, is the first writer ever to use the exact phrase “freedom of the will” (eleutheria tēs prohaireseōs),⁸ and Justin Martyr asserts that responsibility is basic to anthropology:

In the beginning when He created man, He endowed him with the power of understanding, of choosing the truth, and of doing right; consequently, before God no man has an excuse if he does evil, for all men have been created with the power to reason and to reflect.

The early Church needed to affirm human moral agency in the face of a deterministic pagan worldview that believed everything in the universe was in the control of the stars, or impersonal fate.¹⁰ As Cyril of Jerusalem reminded his catechumens,

You are not a sinner by birth or a fornicator by chance; nor, as some say in their madness, do the conjunctions of the stars compel you to devote yourself to wantonness. Why do you avoid acknowledging your own evil deeds, and cast the blame on the innocent stars?¹¹

As these words suggest, Cyril and the other Greek fathers do not hold to Augustine’s later doctrine of original sin, or even his conception of ‘the Fall’.¹² For the patristic writers, while ancestral sin weakened and divided the will, rendering it susceptible to the passions, it did not destroy it.¹³ We remain responsible before God as free agents.

But it is Origen who first gives sustained attention to free will, devoting an entire chapter to it in his On First Principles.¹⁴ (Although Origen’s more speculative doctrines aroused much controversy, his critics never objected to his teachings on free will, which were freely borrowed by the Cappadocian Fathers.¹⁵) What is striking for our purposes are not the details of Origen’s teaching, but the prominence he gives to free will, which he names in his preface as one of the cardinal doctrines of the Christian faith.¹⁶

Why is this? Free will plays a key role in humanity’s deification, the participation in the divine nature for which we were created, a destiny which finds it ultimate fulfilment through the incarnate Word. Basil of Caesarea, who memorably defines Christianity as “likeness to God as far as it is possible for human nature”, sees human choice as pivotal in the process of transformation.¹⁷ For “in giving us the power to become like God, he let us be artisans of the likeness to God, so that the reward for the work would be ours. Thus we would not be like images made be a painter, lying intently, lest our likeness should bring praise to another… Accordingly, so that the marvel may be mine and not another’s, he has left it to me to become according to the likeness of God.”¹⁸

On their own, such words make Basil sound like a full-blown Pelagian before his time. But he makes clear in his “Homily on Humility” that we are nothing without divine grace. “Boasting in God is perfect and unstinting,” he writes, “when someone is not haughty on account of his own righteousness, but has come to realise he lacks true righteousness and is made righteous only by faith in Christ.” Those who are in Christ are “living entirely by God’s grace and his gifts … God grants efficacy to our toils.”¹⁹ This truth both humbles us and spurs us on.

Gregory of Nyssa, no less than his brother, affirms free will as intrinsic to human nature and ascetic struggle as the necessary road to theosis.²⁰ Yet he too stresses our need for grace:

To achieve this likeness to God is not within our power nor within any human capacity. It is a gift of God’s bounty, for He directly bestowed this divine likeness on our human nature at its creation. By our human efforts we can merely clear away the accumulated filth of sin and thus allow the hidden beauty of the soul to shine forth.²¹

The Cappadocians are describing a synergistic model of salvation, in which human free will and divine grace cooperate in the process of deification. “The grace of God is not able to visit those who flee salvation. Nor is human virtue of such power as to be adequate of itself to raise up authentic life those souls who are untouched by grace,” Gregory warns. “But when righteousness of works and the grace of the Spirit come together at the same time in the same soul, together they are able to fill it with blessed life.”²²

Synergy does not imply human beings can earn their salvation. Neither does it mean that the human will can choose the good apart from the gracious activity of God — just the opposite. “If the experience of the divine attributes is always dependent upon participation in Christ through the Spirit,” Ben Blackwell remarks, “there is never a time when a believer creates their own life, glory, or righteousness as if they were simply an independent agent apart from God.”²³

For the Greek Fathers, salvation is a gradual journey of growth into God, rather than a forensic declaration of legal status. As Alister McGrath observes in his magisterial history of justification, the doctrine receives little attention in the East, and when it does, it is the transformative rather than the forensic aspect of justification that is emphasised.²⁴ For early Eastern Christianity, “salvation is a process, not an instantaneous event,” Cyril Hovorun notes, and this idea is captured in the ancient metaphor of the Christian life as a pilgrimage to the heavenly city, a picture which implies steady expenditure of effort by the traveller.²⁵

This life of ascetic struggle is the constant theme of the Philokalia, the anthology of fourth- to fifteenth-century texts that serves as a guide to the spiritual life for modern Eastern Orthodox Christians. As Daniel Clendenin observes, “the Philokalia urges a very clear synergism or cooperation between the grace of God and human effort.”²⁶ Of particular interest is the collection of 226 aphorisms of the fifth-century hermit Mark the Ascetic, entitled, “On Those who Think that They are Made Righteous by Works”. “Grace has been given mystically to those who have been baptized into Christ,” Mark writes, “and it becomes active within them to the extent that they actively observe the commandments. Grace never ceases to help us secretly; but to do good — as far as lies in our power — depends on us.”²⁷ Only through this grace-fuelled struggle upwards, when our human wills become like Christ’s human will, fully aligned with the divine will, will we finally rest in the ultimate good: God himself.

Endnotes

  1. Vladimir Lossky, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church (Crestwood, NY: Crestwood, NY: SVS Press, 1976), 197.
  2. Ekkehard Mühlenberg, “Synergism in Gregory of Nyssa,” Zeitschrift für die neutestamentliche Wissenschaft und die Kunde der älteren Kirche 68, no. 1–2 (1977), 98.
  3. Paul L Gavrilyuk, “The Retrieval of Deification: How a Once‐Despised Archaism Became an Ecumenical Desideratum,” Modern Theology 25, no. 4 (2009), 653.
  4. Didache 1:1, in Michael Holmes, trans. and ed., The Apostolic Fathers in English, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2006), 163.
  5. See also Ignatius’s Epistle to the Magnesians 5:1, in Holmes, Apostolic Fathers, 104.
  6. Irenaeus, Against Heresies, IV 37.7, in Hans Urs von Balthasar, ed., The Scandal of the Incarnation: Irenaeus Against the Heresies, trans. John Saward (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1990), 70.
  7. J. N. D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, 4th ed. (London: Adam & Charles Black, 1968), 166.
  8. Tatian, Oratio ad Graecos 7.1, cited in Michael Frede, A Free Will: Origins of the Notion in Ancient Thought, Sather Classical Lectures, vol. 68 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011), 102.
  9. Justin Martyr, First Apology 28, in The First Apology, The Second Apology, Dialogue with Trypho, Exhortation to the Greeks, Discourse to the Greeks, The Monarchy of the Rule of God, The Fathers of the Church, vol. 6, ed. and. trans. Thomas B. Falls (Washington, D. C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1948), 65.
  10. Matthew Knell, Sin, Grace and Free Will: A Historical Survey of Christian Thought. Volume 1: The Apostolic Fathers to Augustine. (Cambridge: James Clarke & Co, 2018), 23. See also Frede, A Free Will, 113–115.
  11. Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechesis 4.18, in Edward Yarnold, S.J., ed., Cyril of Jerusalem, The Early Church Fathers (London: Routledge, 2000), 103.
  12. Gerald Bray, “Original Sin in Patristic Thought,” The Churchman 108, no. 1 (1994), 37–47.
  13. Tatha Wiley, Original Sin: Origins, Developments, Contemporary Meanings (New York: Paulist Press, 2002), 43.
  14. Origen, On First Principles, vol. II, Oxford Early Christian Texts, ed. and trans. John Behr (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017), 285–380.
  15. Frede, A Free Will, 106.
  16. Frede, A Free Will, 108.
  17. St. Basil the Great, “On the Origin of Humanity, Discourse 1” in On the Human Condition, trans. Nonna Verna Harrison (Crestwood, NY: SVS Press, 2005), 45.
  18. Basil, “Origin of Humanity,” 44.
  19. St. Basil the Great, “Homily on Humility” in On Christian Doctrine and Practice, trans. Mark DelCogliano (Crestwood, NY: SVS Press, 2012), 112.
  20. Claudio Moreschini, “Goodness, Evil and the Free Will of Man in Gregory of Nyssa,” in Pieter d’Hoine and Gerd Van Riel, ed., Fate, Providence and Moral Responsibility in Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern Thought: Studies in Honour of Carlos Steel (Leuven, Leuven University Press, 2014), 343–356.
  21. Gregory of Nyssa, On Virginity 12, in Herbert Musurillo, trans. and ed., From Glory to Glory: Texts from Gregory of Nyssa’s Mystical Writings (Crestwood, NY: SVS Press, 1961), 114.
  22. Gregory of Nyssa, Peri tou kata Theon Skopou, PG 46.269C, quoted in Christoforos Stavropoulos, “Partakers of Divine Nature,” in Daniel B. Clendenin, ed., Eastern Orthodox Theology: A Contemporary Reader, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003), 191.
  23. Ben C. Blackwell, Christosis: Pauline Soteriology in Light of Deification in Irenaeus and Cyril of Alexandria (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2011), 268.
  24. Alister McGrath, Iustitia Dei: A History of the Christian Doctrine of Justification, 4th ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020), 36–38.
  25. Cyril Hovorun, Eastern Christianity in Its Texts (London: T&T Clark, 2022), 343.
  26. Daniel B. Clendenin, “Partakers of Divinity: The Orthodox Doctrine of Theosis”, JETS 37, no. 3 (September 1994), 378.
  27. St. Mark the Ascetic, “On Those who Think that They are Made Righteous by Works: 226 Texts” in G. E. H. Palmer, Philip Sherrard and Kallistos Ware, trans. and ed., The Philokalia: The Complete Text , vol. 1 (London: Faber and Faber, 1979), 103.

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Bart Byl

Th.M. student at Regent College. Canadian in Georgia. 🇨🇦🇬🇪