Freewill

Freedom is the opposite of slavery, which is the most restrictive form of existence. Human history is a chronicle of struggles to obtain freedom from oppression, injustice, disease, and hunger. 

 

Freedom can be impeded by anger, jealousy, greed, recklessness, addiction and any number of destructive activities. This behaviour is collectively referred to as sin. All religions provide tools of self discipline, enlightenment and moral transformation to break the bondage of sin.

 

The Early Church believed that the Holy Spirit of God provided healing (physical, psychological and emotional) and freedom from self-destructive behaviour. Within a few centuries, an obscure Eastern religion was widely embraced throughout the Roman Empire. It is important to remember that until the Edict of Milan in 313, Christianity was an illegal religion and dangerous to adopt.  During the first centuries, Christianity was mostly a religion for plebeians and slaves, who formed the lowest ranks of Roman society.  Karl Marx dismissed Christianity as opium for the masses, ingested as heavenly balm for earthly suffering. But that does not account for Pagans exchanging a tried and true local faith for an extremely dangerous foreign import.

 

Christianity offered three benefits that Paganism did not. Firstly, it offered a personal relationship with the God of gods. Believers became children of the Almighty, redeemed and protected. This personal adoption was, admittedly, a matter of faith. Oppressed plebeians and slaves, who had little to lose and much to gain, found it easier to make the leap than Patrician classes.

 

Secondly, Christianity created a society of brothers and sisters committed to mutual assistance.  The tangible benefits of belonging to a fraternal association such as Freemasons, Oddfellows, a workers guild, or a trade union require no explanation. Many Early Christian churches shared everything and would be described in the modern world as communal or communist. Again, the benefits for weak, vulnerable and oppressed individuals require no explanation.

 

Thirdly, high moral and ethical standards in Christian communities promoted stronger families and increased prosperity. This is still the dominant force for evangelism in the modern world.  Men who embrace Christianity are less violent, squander less money on alcohol and gambling, work more, and are less inclined to abandon their wives and children. Families that are more stable and prosperous provide a better environment to educate children and shield them from violence, addiction and reckless promiscuity. These families become role models and offer their neighbours a new option that is at once religious, moral and social.

 

The Early Church believed that salvation from sin was available to all; Jew and gentile, freeman and slave, plebeian and patrician. Salvation from sin was an offer that could be freely accepted, or not.  Freedom from the bondage of sin was not an instantaneous transformation; sanctification is a process dependent upon the believer’s cooperation with divine power. Salvation and freewill were synonymous.

 

Augustine created a different form of religion in the 4th century to impose Christianity on the Pagans of the Roman Empire. A generation before Augustine was born, the Emperor Constantine won a major battle that he credited to the power of the Christian God.  In gratitude, he passed the Edict of Milan in 313, legalizing Christianity throughout the Roman Empire.  Constantine actively promoted this new religion, building churches and rewarding patricians who shared his new faith. Suddenly the ruling class had a good reason – although not a particularly religious one – to share the Emperor’s new religion.  When Patricians embraced Christianity, they obliged their entire households to be baptized into their new faith.  Neither Constantine nor the Patricians were concerned with the freewill of their dependants.  The lower orders of women, children, servants and slaves were not granted any say in their religious affiliations.

 

By the time Augustine was ordained Bishop, tension between Christians and Pagans had escalated menacingly.  Emperor Theodosius had realized that the Empire would explode in religious warfare unless all citizens could be persuaded to adopt a single religion. Theodosius had chosen Christianity, but not even an Emperor backed by the power of Roman Legions could impose a new religion throughout the entire Empire without considerable bloodshed.

 

The weapon of Pagan Mass Conversion was developed by Augustine. Although he believed in freewill as a young man, by the time he defined Original Sin Augustine had completely rejected freedom of choice. Pagans would submit to the sacrament of baptism whether they believed or not, and they would have their infants baptized, although too young to have any personal say in the matter.

 

The Catholic Church modified Original Sin considerably during the Middle Ages in a steady process of restoring freedom of will and personal responsibility. Believers were encouraged to use the sacraments of the Church to access the power of divine grace. The highly controversial practice of buying and selling Indulgences to confer grace was the trigger that unleashed the Reformation.

 

The Protestant Reformation accused the Catholic Church of restoring Pelagianism, which heretically over-emphasized the power of freewill. Luther and Calvin were adamantly opposed to freewill. They were more Augustinian than Augustine, and credited God alone with choosing who would be saved and who would remain condemned by Original Sin.  Calvinism teaches that freewill is as delusional as a falling rock pretending it is as free as a bird to fly where it will.

 

Modern Christians mostly believe in freewill. This is particularly true of Charismatics. However, by attempting to graft freewill onto an Augustinian/Calvinist theology of Original Sin they have created a belief system that is confusing and contradictory.  How can God hate us unrelentingly for the inherited depravity of Original Sin, and love us unconditionally as children created in his image?  How is God universal, omnipotent and perfectly just if vast numbers of humans never had the slightest chance of exercising their freewill to accept or reject salvation?

 

For much of its history Christianity denied freewill and punished ‘heretics’ like Pelagius and Arminius who defended freewill. There is a direct correlation horrors perpetrated in the name of Christ and periods when Christianity denied freewill.

 

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