Predestination vs Free Will

For this roundtable, Ashley the Editor wants us to write about predestination and free will. I’ll get around to that topic eventually, but, first, I need to say a couple of things about the assignment itself.

When she gave us the subject for this article, Ashley told all of us columnists that “there are great debates” on the topic of “predestination vs. free will”. And she’s absolutely right—at least, as far as Western Christianity is concerned. Baptists and Methodists, Lutherans and Reformed Folk have been arguing about this sort of thing for centuries. In fact, the disagreements have continued for so long, most modern, Western Christians just figure there’s no way to resolve the conflict.

But notice: All the Christians who have been arguing about predestination and free will are in the West—Europe and North America. All of us Christians who have our roots in the Middle East and Greece and Russia have never felt the need to debate this particular subject. Of course, we argue about all sorts of other stuff, but the Holy Orthodox Church settled all the big issues a long, long time ago—in fact, we wrapped up the question of predestination versus free will 800 years before there were any Baptists, Methodists, Lutherans, or Reformed Folks.

Which brings me to the second point I need to make: Ashely wants us to write about “where we stand on this issue”, “according to our beliefs”. That’s a pretty standard way of asking someone to express their opinion, but, when it comes to a subject like predestination and free will, my opinion doesn’t really matter.

Now don’t get me wrong—I have some interesting ideas on the subject, and I know, for a fact, that the other participants in this roundtable will have some intriguing thoughts to share. But, ultimately, when you’re dealing with a subject as cosmic and comprehensive as predestination and free will, you’re dealing with the Truth. So, what you’re going to want to hear is not ‘my take’ on the Truth or—worse yet—‘my Truth’. What you’re going to want to hear is The Truth, Full Stop. And, nowadays, one of the few places you can find Full Stop Truth is the Holy Orthodox Church.

So what does Holy Orthodoxy have to say about predestination and free will? A couple of paragraphs ago, I mentioned that the Church came to a consensus on the subject by the year 700 A.D. Here’s St John of Damascus summarizing that consensus:

We should understand that while God knows all things beforehand, He does not predetermine all things. For He knows beforehand those things that are in our power, but He does not predetermine them. For it is not His will that wickedness should exist, nor does He choose to compel virtue.

So, in Holy Orthodoxy, we make a clear distinction: even though the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are aware of everything that is going to happen, that doesn’t mean that They are the direct cause of everything that happens.

But that still means that the Most Holy Trinity predetermines some events. In fact, in Holy Scripture, what we find is the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit prearranging history in order to bring all people to salvation. And our free will is not, finally, a barrier to that process, because the Most Holy Trinity is able to work in and through and alongside our choices in a way that will ultimately bring all of us to salvation.

We Orthodox actually have a technical term for that kind of cooperation: When our free will syncs with the eternal purpose of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, we call that synergy. And there’s no better description of synergy than what the Apostle Paul has written in his letter to the Philippians:

Work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for God is at work in you, both to will and work for His good pleasure. (2.12-13)

So we make choices (hopefully, as the apostle says, “with fear and trembling”), and the Most Holy Trinity makes choices, and, through the “good pleasure” of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, all of those choices will ultimately line up to bring about our salvation and the salvation of this entire world.

That’s what the Church has been teaching on this subject for the last 1300 years. However, since this whole topic has been so controversial in Western Christianity, there are a number of other perspectives out there, and some of them are just plain odious. One of the most repugnant is the idea that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit have predestined a good percentage of humanity to eternal torment in hell—and, according to this way of thinking, the Most Holy Trinity made that decision before any of those hell-bound folks were even born.

What’s even more shocking is the fact that such a mindset actually appeals to a lot of people. This way of thinking first started to get a good deal of traction back in the sixteenth century, but, in the last twenty years, American writers such as R.C. Sproul and John Piper have once again been able to package it in a way that makes it sound biblical and reasonable—and, as a result, there are entire ministries and huge congregations which are dedicated to promoting this perspective.

But who in their right mind would want to worship a deity who brings people into existence for the sole purpose of torturing them endlessly? That’s a good question; actually, that’s a really good question. However, the good news is that you don’t have to believe in that kind of god. The disagreements among Western Christians have produced that kind of thinking, but the Full Stop Truth about predestination and free will and the mercy and grace of the Most Holy Trinity is available in the Holy Orthodox Church.

And, if you’d like to know more about that, just let me know.