It is written:
“Therefore, brethren, stand fast and hold the traditions which you were taught, whether by word or our epistle.” (2 Thessalonians 2:15)
The traditions of the early Christians are helpful in understanding how they dealt with the Gnostic teaching of predestination known as “Fate” by the post-apostolic church (and quite different from the Bible teaching of predestination).
Please consider some of the following references in the “church fathers” regarding their dealing with the Gnostics who taught their version of predestination. (The following references are taken from David Bercot, A Dictionary Of Early Christian Beliefs: A Reference Guide To More Than 700 Topics Discussed By The Early Church Fathers, 10497-10511; 10829-11226, (Kindle Edition): Peabody, Massachusetts; Hendrickson Publishers)
“The demons introduced fate, a flagrant injustice. They teach that the judge and the judged are made so by fate. The murderers and the murdered, the wealthy and the needy—they are all the offspring of the same fate.” (Tatian (c. 160, E), 2.68)
“According to our [Christian] notions, the primary powers are the Lord God and His adversary the devil. But according to men’s general opinion about providence, they are fate and necessity.” (Tertullian (c. 210, W), 3.201.)
“There are others [the Chaldeans] who say that men are governed by the decree of fate. As a result, sometimes men act wickedly, and other times, they act well.” (Bardesanes (c. 222, E), 8.727.)
“You say that those beings who are plainly cruel are gods. And you say that creation assigns the fates to you. . . . If the fates give the generations, why do you pray to the gods?” (Commodianus (c. 240, W), 4.205)
“If God harmoniously orders the whole circular motion of the stars, . . . and if the stars produce the qualities of virtue and vice in human life, . . . then God is the cause and giver of evils. However, God is the cause of injury to no one. Therefore, fate is not the cause of all things.” (Methodius (c. 290, E), 6.342.)
“If fate causes men to injure one another and to be injured by one another, what need is there for laws? . . . To do good or evil is in our own power, and it is not decided by the stars.” (Methodius (c. 290, E), 6.343.)
“If [the gods] are unable to turn aside the course of events and to change what has been appointed by fate, what reason, what cause, is there to want to weary and deafen the ears of those [gods]? For you cannot trust in their help in your utmost need.” (Arnobius (c. 305, E), 6.521)
“Lest some suppose, from what has been said by us, that we say that whatever occurs happens by a fatal necessity, because it is foretold as known beforehand, this too we explain. We have learned from the prophets, and we hold it to be true, that punishments, chastisements, and good rewards, are rendered according to the merit of each man’s actions. Now, if this is not so, but all things happen by fate, then neither is anything at all in our own power. For if it is predetermined that this man will be good, and this other man will be evil, neither is the first one meritorious nor the latter man to be blamed. And again, unless the human race has the power of avoiding evil and choosing good by free choice, they are not accountable for their actions.” (Justin Martyr (c. 160, E), 1.177)
“Neither do we maintain that it is by fate that men do what they do, or suffer what they suffer. Rather, we maintain that each man acts rightly or sins by his free choice. . . . Since God in the beginning made the race of angels and men with free will, they will justly suffer in eternal fire the punishment of whatever sins they have committed.” (Justin Martyr (c. 160, E), 1.190.)
“It was God’s desire for both angels and men, who were endowed with free will . . . that if they chose the things acceptable to Him, He would keep them free from death and from punishment. However, if they did evil, He would punish each as He sees fit.” (Justin Martyr (c. 160, E), 1.243)
“He created both angels and men free to do that which is righteous. And He appointed periods of time during which He knew it would be good for them to have the exercise of free will. Justin Martyr (c. 160, E), 1.250.
“I have proved in what has been said that those who were foreknown to be unrighteous, whether men or angels, are not made wicked by God’s fault. Rather, each man is what he will appear to be through his own fault.” (Justin Martyr (c. 160, E), 1.269.)
“We were not created to die. Rather, we die by our own fault. Our free will has destroyed us. We who were free have become slaves. We have been sold through sin. Nothing evil has been created by God. We ourselves have manifested wickedness. But we, who have manifested it, are able again to reject it.” (Tatian (c. 160), 2.69, 70.)
“There is, therefore, nothing to hinder you from changing your evil manner of life, because you are a free man.” (Melito (c. 170, E), 8.754.)
“If, on the other hand, he would turn to the things of death, disobeying God, he would himself be the cause of death to himself. For God made man free, and with power of himself.” (Theophilus (c. 180), 2.105.)
“But man, being endowed with reason, and in this respect similar to God, having been made free in his will, and with power over himself, is himself his own cause that sometimes he becomes wheat, and sometimes chaff.” (Irenaeus (c. 180, E/W), 1.466.)
“God has always preserved freedom and the power of self-government in man. Yet, at the same time, He issued His own exhortations, in order that those who do not obey Him would be righteously judged because they have not obeyed Him. And those who have obeyed and believed on Him should be honored with immortality.” (Irenaeus (c. 180, E/W), 1.480.)
[The Marcionites] say, “But God hardened the heart of Pharaoh and of his servants.” Now those who allege such difficulties do not read in the Gospel the passage where the Lord replied to the disciples, when they asked Him, “Why do you speak in parables?” He replied: “Because it is given to you to know the mystery of the kingdom of heaven. However, I speak to them in parables so that seeing they may not see and hearing they many not hear.” . . . So God knows the number of those who will not believe, since He foreknows all things. So He has given them over to unbelief and turned His face away from men of this character, leaving them in the darkness that they have chosen for themselves. So what is baffling if He gave Pharaoh and those who were with him over to their unbelief? For they would never have believed.” (Irenaeus (c. 180, E/ W), 1.502.)
“Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good deeds”. . . . And “Why call me, Lord, Lord, and do not do the things that I say?”. . . . All such passages demonstrate the independent will of man. . . . For it is in man’s power to disobey God and to forfeit what is good.” (Irenaeus (c. 180, E/W), 1.519.)
“If, then, it were not in our power to do or not to do these things, what reason did the apostle have, and much more the Lord Himself, to give us counsel to do some things, and to abstain from others? But because man is possessed of free will from the beginning, and God is possessed of free will (in whose likeness man was created), advice is always given to him to hold fast to the good, which is done through obedience to God. God has preserved the will of man free and under his own control. This is not merely in works, but also in faith.” (Irenaeus (c. 180, E/W), 1.519.)
“Nor, again, does God exercise compulsion upon anyone unwilling to accept the exercise of His skill. . . . They have been created free agents and possessed of power over themselves.” (Irenaeus (c. 180, E/W), 1.523.)
“Those who believe, do His will agreeably to their own choice. Likewise, agreeably to their own choice, the disobedient do not consent to His doctrine. It is clear that His Father has made everyone in a like condition, each person having a choice of his own and a free understanding.” (Irenaeus (c. 180, E/W), 1.556.)
“We . . . have believed and are saved by voluntary choice. Clement of Alexandria (c. 195, E), 2.217. Each one of us who sins with his own free will, chooses punishment. So the blame lies with him who chooses. God is without blame.” (Clement of Alexandria (c. 195, E), 2.226.)
“It is by one’s own fault that he does not choose what is best. God is free of blame.” (Clement of Alexandria (c. 195, E), 2.300.)
“Neither praises nor censures, neither rewards nor punishments, are right if the soul does not have the power of inclination and disinclination and if evil in involuntary. . . . In no respect is God the author of evil. But since free choice and inclination originate sins, . . . punishments are justly inflicted.” (Clement of Alexandria (c. 195, E), 2.319.)
“We have heard by the Scriptures that selfdetermining choice and refusal have been given by the Lord to men. Therefore, we rest in the infallible criterion of faith, manifesting a willing spirit, since we have chosen life.” (Clement of Alexandria (c. 195, E), 2.349.)
“To obey or not is in our own power, provided we do not have the excuse of ignorance.” (Clement of Alexandria (c. 195, E), 2.353.)
“Sin, then, is voluntary on my part.” (Clement of Alexandria (c. 195, E), 2.362.)
“The Lord clearly shows sins and transgressions to be in our own power, by prescribing modes of cure corresponding to the maladies. Clement of Alexandria (c. 195, E), 2.363. Their estrangement is the result of free choice.” (Clement of Alexandria (c. 195, E), 2.426.)
These quotations from the church fathers are introduced as historical testimony and not inspired Scripture.
They teach us some very important facts.
First, from the time that the Gnostics began introducing their particular pagan doctrines (original sin, unconditional election and predestination, irresistible grace, limited atonement, and the perseverance of the saints, all of which eventually made their way into Calvinism), the early church universally and loudly stood up and opposed these notions for what they were: heresy.
Second, the Gnostics made a practice of taking Scriptures and wresting them out of their context to try and advocate their ideas. As we will see, John Calvin and his followers followed (and continue to follow) in his footsteps.
In our next lesson, we will learn how the Gnostics continued to make a profound impact in the early world.