Human Freedom

By J. Kenneth Grider

When James Arminius, John Wesley, and H. Orton Wiley emphasized their non-Pelagian view of human freedom, they understood that they were teaching what was customarily taught by the Greek and Latin fathers.

Human Freedom Before Arminius. Much evidence justifies this understanding that the pre-Augustinians were freedomists.

There were exceptions to this "Arminianism" in the earliest centuries. The greatest theologian before Augustine, Origen, must be thought of as an exception of a sort. Origen seemed to emphasize human freedom, but he did not believe in it as Arminius and Wesley later taught it. He believed that we are so free that we can choose our road back to God and the length of time it will take to get back to God, but that we are not free to choose never to be redeemed.

Yet most pre-Augustinian fathers were freedomists of some sort. They did not give apologies for such a view, since it was not a controverted issue. Tertullian, Cyprian, Chrysostom, and others pretty much assume human freedom. Arnobius, the only annihilationist of the pre-Augustinian period, certainly suggests it. The annihilation of the wicked, after they are resurrected and punished for their sins, will be justly deserved because of their free decision to rebel against God.

Human freedom was not an issue to Irenaeus and Athanasius; they seem to assume it. Pelagius, Coelestius, and others denied original sin resulting from Adam's fall, and the need of prevenient grace, so the human freedom they asserted was of a humanistic type.

The Second Council of Orange (A.D. 529) made an official decision for the Catholic church of the ensuing centuries. It taught that we lost our freedom through the Fall, but that it is restored to us when we are baptized.

Closer to the time of Arminius, the erudite Erasmus was a freedomist and wrote supporting free will only to be opposed by Martin Luther in The Bondage of the Will. Erasmus, though, was a humanist and not the kind of freedomist that the later Arminius was. Melanchthon, closely associated with Luther, might have gravitated toward human freedom and conditional predestination in his last years (Caspar Brandt, The Life of James Arminius, London: Ward, 1858, 30ff); but if so, his views would not have closely resembled those of Arminius.

Anabaptists, some of whom later became known as Mennonites, taught the universal provision for redemption in Christ's atonement and that we humans cast the deciding vote on whether we will be damned or redeemed.

At Zurich, also just before Arminius's time, Bullinger questioned at least for a time the denial of human freedom implied in Calvin's unconditional predestination teaching. Jerome Bolsec and Charles Perrot, of Geneva, both opposed Calvin's view and were freedomists of sorts.

After Holland became Protestant, and a few decades before the Synod of Dort (161849), most ministers tended to be freedomists. At the newly founded university at Leiden in Holland, most of the teachers were "Arminian" during the six years Arminius studied there (1575-81).

In England, William Barrett was denied his B.D. degree at Cambridge in 1595 because he rejected the freedom-opposed views of Cambridge's distinguished supralapsarian, Williams Perkins. About this same time Peter Baro was deposed from his position at Cambridge for his "Arminian" views (See Carl Bangs, "Arminus and the Reformation," Church History, June 1961, p. 7). John Playfere, Baro's successor, lectured and published on free will without special trouble, because by then it was becoming increasingly acceptable in England. The Thirty-nine Articles of 1563 (and 1571) of the Church of England took no position on the matter of human freedom-allowing, in the future, either Calvinism or Arminianism among its adherents (See Schaff, Creeds of Christendom, 3:486-512).

Arminius's View of Human Freedom. James Arminius taught and even emphasized human freedom in various treatises written during his 15-year pastorate at Amsterdam (1588-1603) and in his writings during his tenure as a professor at the University of Leiden (1603-9). He was a pastor and professor of the Reformed church, and he felt, somewhat incorrectly that his views on free will were not discordant with his group's Belgic Confession (1561) and Heidelberg Catechism (1563).

Human. freedom is a distinctive emphasis of Arminius, who permitted accusations of Pelagianism to circulate for two years before responding to them in his Apology Against Thirty-one Defamatory Articles (See James Arminus, Writings, Grand Rapids: Barker, 1956 reprint, 1:276-380).. He was not Pelagian, for he believed profoundly in original sin. He believed therefore that we are fallen and that we thus cannot, unaided by prevenient grace, exercise our capacity of free will in choosing righteousness. He said, "In this state [of original sin], the freewill of man towards the true good is not only wounded, maimed . . . but it is also imprisoned, destroyed, and lost" (Ibid., p. 526). He also writes, "The mind, in this state, is dark, destitute of the saving knowledge of God, and, according to the Apostle, incapable of those things which belong to the Spirit of God. For 'the animal man has no perception of the things of the spirit of God' (1 Cor. 2:14) (Ibid.). Further, he writes: "Exactly correspondent to this darkness of the mind, and perverseness of the heart, is the utter weakness of all the powers to perform that which is truly good, and to omit the perpetration of that which is evil" (Ibid., p. 572). Commenting on John 8:36, Arminius wrote, "It follows that our will is not free from the first fall; that is, it is not free to good, unless it be made free by the Son through his spirit." (Ibid., p. 528)

John Wesley's Teaching on Free Will. Between the time of Arminius and that of Wesley Arminianism gained much ground. John Goodwin taught Arminianism in England in the middle of the 17th century and directly influenced John Wesley in that direction (See William Strickland's Ph.D. dissertation, Vanderbilt U. 1967).

On free will John Wesley wrote, "Indeed, if man were not free, he could not be accountable either for his thoughts, words, or actions. If he were not free, he would not be capable either of reward or punishment; he would be incapable either of virtue or vice, of being either morally good or bad" (John Wesley, "On Predestination," Sermon 58 in Works, 6:227). Wesley also wrote, "Natural free-will, in the present state of mankind tin original sin], I do not understand: I only assert, that there is a measure of free-will supernaturally restored to every man" (Ibid., "Predestination Calmly Considered," 10:229-30). In another treatise Wesley says, "I believe that Adam, before his fall, has such freedom of will, that he might choose either good or evil; but that, since the fall, no child of man has a natural power to choose anything that is truly good" (Ibid., "Remarks on "A Defence of . . . Aspasio Vindicated;" 350). Wesley always denied the natural free will to do good since the Fall, but he always taught that prevenient grace is given everyone, so that choices of the good are possible even before regeneration.

It is proper to say that the Arminian-Wesleyan tradition teaches human freedom in the context of prevenient grace. We can either accept Christ or reject Him-and our eternal destiny depends upon our free response to God's offer of salvation.

Freedom as Possibility. This is what Christ teaches in John 8:31-36. To Jews "who had believed him," He portrayed the freedom He offers as the opposite of slavery and as knowing and living by His truth. To disciples who hold to His teachings, He promises, "Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free" (v.32). This freedom comes after slavery to sin has passed. This is what Paul calls "the glorious freedom of the children of God" (Rom. 8:21), and "the freedom we have in ChristJesus" (Gal. 2:4).

These teachings of Christ and Paul show that freedom is freedom from slavery to sin (see also Rom. 6:18, 20, 22; 8:2), and freedom from legalism. They are part of a wider conception of freedom as simply possibility which Soren Kierkegaard elucidated to such extent.

For Kierkegaard, reacting against Georg Friedrich Hegel (for whom freedom is simply our liberty to follow what reason dictates), freedom is possibility In Kierkegaard's Fear and Trembling, freedom is the capacity we have to make transitions in life from one stage to another-from simply seeking pleasure to religious decision, where God is figured in. In Kierkegaard's Concept of Dread, freedom is the transition we make from the sin-fall to the God-relation, through the dizziness of dread and despair to the willingness to suffer as God's obedient child (Soren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling, trans. Walter Lowne (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1941); idem, Either/Or: A Fragment of Life, trans. David F. Swenson and Lillian Marvin Swenson (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press; London: Oxford University Press, 1944); and idem, The Concept of Dread, trans. Walter Lowne (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1944).

Freedom as possibility is more than the power given us fallen persons to turn to Christ. It is the freedom to flower in servant-hood to Christ.

Freedom and Necessity. We humans have our freedom through prevenient grace, but also in the context of many factors of necessity-which we do not choose. Limits we do not set, and often would not set, condition all that we do. The genes we have no control over determine whether we may become a basketball center, an opera singer, or a select musician. We play the game of life as females or males, gender being already decided for us. We play it as persons being born without choice into a certain kind of family economically educationally and religiously in a certain nation, at a certain time in history.

The fact of our destiny is from a necessitated heritage; the form of it, only is from our choice, in the context of grace. As Loyd Morgan said, we are consequents (of necessity), but also emergents, with freedom. The present moment, as Alfred North Whitehead suggested, is charged with the promise of all moments yet to be. We are determined in many ways; but in that given context, we are determinants. We are both the summation of many necessity factors and also the locus of novelty.

It is determined that we think with a human mind. It is not determined what we think. As Pascal said, we are often frail reeds (as he was), but we are thinking reeds. And as Henri Bergson taught, the being in whom the greatest risk is involved is the being in whom the greatest gain is possible.

God risked much in creating us humans with the freedom, now, to unleash horrendous nuclear disaster or to love our fellows across all boundaries.

What the Arminian View Means. It means that we ArminianWesleyans are not Pelagians, since we believe in original sin and since we believe that prevenient grace is necessary to enable us to use our freedom for taking savory directions in our lives.

This view means that we will use evangelistic methods, such as prayer, to secure an intensifying of the prevenient grace given the person we are seeking to win to Christ.

This view means that we will not say to a congregation in an evangelistic service, "You do your part and God will do His part." Unregenerate persons cannot do any such thing until God first does His part of extending prevenient grace to them.

This view also means that the Arminian-Wesleyan will not say, "God will meet you halfway" We cannot initiate our own salvation. Being fallen creatures, inclined to evil and that continually God must come all the way to where we are and initiate in us our "first faint desire" to turn to Christ-as John Wesley said.


 From J. Kenneth Grider, A Wesleyan Holiness Theology, Beacon Hill Press of Kansas City, Kansas City, Missouri, copyright 1994, pp. 241-7. This material may not be reproduced without Beacon Hill's permission.

July 1, 2000