Freedom of Will

Hieromartyr Athenogenes the Bishop of Heracleopolis

Beloved brothers and sisters in Christ Our Only True God and Our Only True Savior,


Lift your eyes to heaven when it, like a clean mirror, gloriously illumines the earth with its stars, and say in awe: if the stars shine with such glory, then how much more so will the righteous and the Saints who have done the Holy Will of God shine with the inexpressible light of saving glory when the Lord comes.

Having called to remembrance that awesome coming, shudder in body and soul, and with heart-felt agony say to yourself: what sort of person will I, a sinner, show myself to be in that terrible hour? How will I stand before the Throne of the awesome Judge? How could I who am dissolute have a place among those who are perfect? Or how could I, who am a goat, stand among the sheep at Christ's right hand? Or how could I, who am fruitless, be numbered among the Saints, who have here brought forth the fruits of truth?

The martyrs will show their torments, the ascetics their works; but what will I have to show but my apathy and my incessant indulgence?

O sinful soul, shameless soul, O soul which has always hated the God-pleasing way of life! How long will you delight in your wretched addiction to evil thoughts? What do you wait for in your apathy?

Do you think that the Judge will be late in coming? He will not tarry; rather, His Coming will be like terrible lightning from the heavens.

Try to be prepared for that terrible hours, that you might not then weep unto the ages. Amen.

[A Spiritual Psalter or Reflections on God by Saint Ephraim the Syrian]


On July 16th Our Holy Orthodox Christian Church commemorates, honors and entreats the holy intercessions of the following Saints, Forefathers, Fathers, Patriarchs, Prophets, Apostles, Preachers, Evangelists, Martyrs, Confessors, Ascetics and Teachers of Our Holy Orthodox Christian faith: Hieromartyr Athenogenes, Bishop of Sevaste; Saints Paul, Chionia, and Valentina at Caesarea; 1,015 holy Martyrs of Pisidia; St. Julia the virgin; New Holy Martyr John of Turnovo (1822); Sts. Seraphim, Theognostus, and others of Alma-Ata, Russia; Saint Magdalene of New Tikhvin Convent in Siberia.

THE HIEROMARTYR ATHENOGENES SEVASTE IN ARMENIA. He lived in a monastery near the town with ten of his disciples. In the time of the pagan Roman emperor Diocletian, a fierce persecutor of Christians called Philomarchus came to Sevaste. He arrested and killed many of the Christians in the town. When he saw Athenogenes and his disciples, he told the elder to sacrifice to idols that they should not perish as had the other Christians. Saint Athenogenes replied: "O torturer, those whom you describe as having perished have not perished, but are in Heaven and make merry with the Angels!" There was a touching moment when a deer, which had been hand-fed by the compassionate Athenogenes, ran up to him, and, seeing him in such straits, shed tears. Wild animals of the hills had more pity on the martyrs than did the pagans. After harsh torture, during which an Angel of God comforted them, they were all beheaded, first the priests and fellow-workers of Saint Athenogenes himself, and went to their heavenly home in the year of Our Lord 311 AD.

+By the holy intercessions of Your Saints and Holy Martyrs, O Christ Our God, have mercy on us and save us. Amen.

Holy Epistle Lesson: 1 Corinthians 5:9-13, 6:1-11
Holy Gospel Lesson: St. Matthew 13:54-58


"A person is never entirely bad. Each person has his good and bad points. When you remember his good points, you pray for him, you are moved, your soul feels for him, and you entreat God for him. And as for his bad side, he is not to blame, but our enemy the devil is. Therefore, don't be sad, my child, and don't remember the past. For those things have passed" (Geronda [Elder] Joseph the Hesychast]

by Metropolitan Philaret [source: On the Law of God]

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 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 Peter 2:15-16; 2 Peter 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 god possesses the perfect and 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. 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 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 affects his teaching in practical life. 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. This is 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 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. 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" (St. Matthew 16:24). Again, in the Old Testament He said through the Prophet:

"Behold, I 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 I have set before thee life and death, the blessing and the curse: choose thou life…to love the Lord thy God" (Duet. 30:15-19).

With sincere agape in His Holy Diakonia,
The sinner and unworthy servant of God

+Father George