On the Law of God
Freedom of Will
We realize that man bears the responsibility for his actions only when he is free in doing them. But does he have that spiritual freedom, a freedom of the will which is presupposed here? Recently, a teaching has spread, which is called “determinism. The followers of this teaching – determinists – do not acknowledge freedom of will in man. They declare that in each separate action, man acts only in accordance with external causes. According to their teaching, man always acts only under the influence of motives and impulses which do not depend upon him, and usually submits himself to the strongest of these motives. The scholars say, “It only seems to us that we act freely. This is self deceit.”
The eminent 17th century philosopher Spinoza defends this opinion. As an example, he spoke of a stone that is thrown. If this stone could think and speak, it too would say that it is flying toward and falling upon the spot which it desires. But in reality, it flies only because someone threw it and it falls under the action and power of gravity.
We will return to this example later, but meanwhile let us note the following. The teaching which is opposite to determinism, and which acknowledges man’s freedom of will is called “indeterminism. This teaching is accepted by Christians. But it is necessary to remember that there are extreme indeterminists, whose teaching has a one-sided, false character. They claim that man’s freedom is his full authority to act precisely as he desires. In their understanding, therefore, man’s freedom is his complete free-will, authority to act upon his every desire or whim (the Holy Apostle Peter speaks concerning such “freedom (1 Pe. 2:15-16; 2 Pe. 2:19). This is not freedom, of course, this is an evil use of freedom, a distortion of it. Man does not have absolute, undoubted freedom; only Almighty God possesses such highest creative freedom.
In contrast to such false indeterminism, true indeterminism teaches correctly. Its teaching recognizes that man is undoubtedly under the influence of motives and impulses of the most varied types. Thus, for example, the surrounding milieu, conditions of life, the political situation, one’s education, cultural development, etc., act upon him. All this is reflected in the features of his moral countenance. In this recognition of the action upon man – and sometimes very strongly – of various external motives and influences, the indeterminists are in accord with the determinists. But beyond this, there is a deep separation. While the determinists say that man acts one way or another only under the influences of the strongest of the motives, but does not have freedom, the indeterminists recognize that he is always free to choose any of the motives. This motive does not at all need to be the strongest. Moreover, man can even prefer a motive which, to other people, seems to be clearly disadvantageous and unprofitable. The zeal of the holy martyrs serves as an example of this. To their pagan persecutors, they seemed to be fools consciously destroying themselves. Thus, in the opinion of indeterminists, man’s freedom is not an undoubted creative freedom, but a freedom of choice; the freedom of our will decides whether one acts one way or another. Christianity accepts precisely such an understanding of human freedom, agreeing with indeterminism. Applying it to the realm of morals, to the question of the struggle between good and evil, between virtue and sin, Christianity declares that man’s freedom is his freedom of choice between good and evil. According to learned theological definition, “freedom of the will is our capability, independent of anyone and anything, of defining for ourselves concerning good and evil.”
Now we can immediately set aside Spinoza’s example of the falling stone. We realize that man possesses a free will in the sense of a choice of acting in one way or another. Spinoza considers the actions of the flying stone analogous with man’s actions. This comparison could have been made only if the stone had a freedom of choice – to fly or not to fly, to fall or not to fall. But a stone, of course, has no such freedom and the given example is altogether unconvincing.
The insolvency of determinism, which negates the freedom of the will, is evident from the following. Firstly, not a single determinist effects his teaching in practical life. And it is clear precisely why. For, if one is to look at life from a strictly deterministic point of view, there is no need to punish anyone - neither the thief for thievery, nor the murderer for murder, etc., since they did not act freely, but were slaves, unwilling fulfillers of whatever motives commanded them and which influenced them from without. An absurd but completely inevitable deduction from determinism. Secondly, proof of the freedom of the will is served by the fact of the experience of the soul which is called to repentance, an experience personally well-known to everyone. What is this feeling of repentance based upon? It is evident that it is based upon the fact that the repentant man returns in thought to the moment of the performance of his wrong action, and weeps over his sin, clearly acknowledging that he could have acted otherwise, could have done not evil, but good. Clearly, such repentance could not have had a place if man did not possess free will, but was an unwilling slave to external influences. In such a case he would not have answered for his action.
We Christians acknowledge man to be morally free and the guide of his own personal will and actions and responsible for them before God’s truth. And such freedom is a most great gift to man from God, Who seeks from man not a mechanical submission, but a freely given filial obedience of love. The Lord Himself affirmed this freedom, “if anyone wishes to be My disciple, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow Me(Mt. 16:24). Again, in the Old Testament He said through the prophet:
“Behold, have set before thee this day life and death, good and evil. If thou wilt hearken to the commands of the Lord thy God, which I command thee this day, to love the Lord thy God, to walk in all His ways, and to keep His ordinance, and His judgments; then ye shall live, and ... the Lord thy God shall bless thee ... But if thy heart change and thou wilt not hearken, and thou shalt go astray ... ye shall utterly perish ... I have set before thee life and death, the blessing and the curse: choose thou life ...to love the Lord thy God ...(Deut. 30: 15-19).
1. When does man bear the responsibility for his actions?
2. What is determinism?
3. What is indeterminism?
4. What is the Orthodox Christian definition of “freedom of will”?
5. How does one prove “freedom of the will”?
6. How do Christians acknowledge man?
Translated by Archbishop Lazar Puhalo - used with permission - all rights reserved.
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