Free Will

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A remaining stage to consider in discerning the rightness or wrongness of our behavior in moral decision-making is the consideration of the freedom we possess--free will. Freedom or free will is an act of the will determining itself under and in some manner indifferent to reason with the power of not doing or otherwise doing that which it does; the act of the will making a free choice, operating in the light of knowledge furnished by the intellect.


Some Protestant Reformers rejected free will by stating that with the fall of Adam, the will of man was irreparably damaged, unable to make an unaided free choice. The Catholic response is that God would not permit the essence of the human will, by His very own design making a choice among alternatives, to be changed from His Will. Man does remain created “in the image and likeness of God.” The will may be wounded or weakened by sin, but it is not taken away or annihilated. Scripture attests to the assumption that mankind, even after the sin of Adam, is still free to make choices.


As with the development of and formation of our conscience, we turn to three highly credible sources, the Bible, the Fathers and Doctors of the Church, and the Counciliar teaching of the Church throughout history.


Sacred Scripture


In many places both formally and explicitly Sacred Scripture asserts both in the Hebrew Scriptures and in the New Testament that a person has within him/her the faculty of choosing freely. The existence of choice is either virtually or indirectly understood in counsels, exhortations, rewards, and penalties offered; and indeed in showing those actions alone as moral and meritorious or not meritorious which come under the power of man to choose.


Sirach 15:14-17

When God, in the beginning, created man, he made him subject to his own free choice.  If you choose you can keep the commandments; it is loyalty to do his will. There are set before you fire and water; to whichever you choose, stretch forth your hand. Before man are life and death, whichever he chooses shall be given him.


Sirach 31:8,10

Happy the man ... he could have sinned but did not; could have done evil but would not, ...


Genesis 4:7

If you do well, you can hold up your head; but if not, sin is a demon lurking at the door: his urge is toward you, yet you can be his master.


Deuteronomy 30:19

I call heaven and earth today to witness against you; I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. Choose life, then, that you and your descendants may live.


Joshua 24:15

If it does not please you to serve the LORD, decide today whom you will serve, the gods your fathers served beyond the River or the gods of the Amorites in whose country you are dwelling. As for me and my household, we will serve the LORD.


2 Samuel 24:12

Go and say to David, 'This is what the LORD  says: I offer you three alternatives; choose one of them, and I will inflict it on you."


1 Chronicles 21:10

Go, tell David: Thus says the LORD: I offer you three alternatives; choose one of them, and I will inflict it on you.


Job 34:12

Let us discern for ourselves what is right; let us learn between us what good.


Proverbs 3:31

Envy not the lawless man, and choose none of his ways.


Isaiah 1:19-20

If you are willing, and obey, you shall eat the good things of the land; if you refuse and resist, the sword shall consume you: for the mouth of LORD has spoken.


Isaiah 7:15-16

He shall be living on curds and honey by the time he learns to reject bad and choose the good. For before the child learns to reject the bad and choose the good, the land of those two kinds whom you had shall be deserted.


Galatians 5:1

It was for liberty that Christ freed us. So stand firm and do not take on yourselves the yoke of slavery a second time!


Galatians 5:13

My brothers, remember that you have been called to live in freedom--but not a freedom that gives free reign to the flesh.


1 Peter 2:16

Live as free men, but do not use your freedom as a cloak for vice.


Fathers and Doctors of the Church


The Fathers of the Church, beginning with the apostolic and post apostolic apologists, explicitly taught the freedom of man and they fought for freedom against Gnosticism and Manichaeism;  they defined the true limits of freedom against Pelagianism.


Theophilus, Bishop of Antioch in Syria (c. 117-181 AD)

But some one will say to us, Was man made by nature mortal? Certainly not. Was he, then, immortal? Neither do we confirm this. But one will say, was he, then, nothing? Not even this hits the mark. He was by nature neither mortal nor immortal. For if [God] had made him immortal from the beginning, He would have made him God. Again, if He had made him mortal, God would seem to be the cause of his death. Neither, then immortal nor yet mortal did He make him, but, as we have said above, capable of both; so        that if he should incline to the things of immortality, keeping the commandment of God, he should receive as reward from Him immortality, and should become God; but if, on the other hand, he should turn to the things of death, disobeying God, he should himself be the cause of death to himself. For God made man free, and with power over himself. (To Autolycus, Bk. 2, Ch. 27) (Rouet de Journel, Enchiridion Patristicum, 184)


Irenaeus of Lyons (c. 130-200)

God made man by his own law free. (Rouet de Journel, Enchiridion Patristicum, 244)


Jerome (Stridon, c. 341-420)      

God made man free; we are drawn neither to virtue nor to vice necessarily; on the other hand, where there is necessity, there is no crown (Rouet de Journel, Enchiridion Patristicum, 1380).


Counciliar Teaching of the Church


The Magisterium, the teaching authority of the Church, especially in the Council of Trent (1545 - 1563), after stating the existence of free will, however so much weakened in men, said that


All men had lost innocence in the sin of Adam ... became unclean ... were by nature children of wrath (Eph 2:3) ... slaves to sin ... under the power of the devil and of death ... yet their free will, though weakened and unsteady, was by no means destroyed. (Denzinger, Enchiridion Symbolorum, 793)


and that men are disposed to the justification of God,


That (men) who are turned away from God by sin ... are disposed to turn to their own justification by freely assenting to and cooperating with... grace. (Denzinger, Enchiridion Symbolorum, 797)


then followed the anathema of Lutheran doctrine denying free will,


If anyone says that the free will of man, moved and awakened by God, in no way cooperates with the awakening call of God by an assent by which man disposes and prepares himself to get the grace of justification; and that man cannot dissent, if he wishes, but like an object without life, he does nothing at all and is merely passive: let him be anathema. (Denzinger, Enchiridion Symbolorum, 814).


and, finally,


If anyone says that after Adam's sin man's free will was destroyed and lost ... let him be anathema  (Denzinger, Enchiridion Symbolorum, 815).

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Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture texts are taken from the New American Bible with Revised New Testament and Revised Psalms © 1991, 1986, 1970 Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Washington, D.C. and are used by permission of the copyright owner. All Rights Reserved. No part of the New American Bible may be reproduced in any form without permission in writing from the copyright owner.


© 2011 Robert J. Schihl


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