When explaining the Christian beliefs, eventually you will come across a wide spread belief in American culture of a benevolent passive God. If you explain that God is good and offers life in His Son, a response will come back that if God is good he will save everyone and wouldn’t be so “not nice” as to send anyone to hell. For a good example of how an informed Christian should respond, see Tim Keller’s talk at Berkley. However, I am not addressing that problem here.
But just like our need to have an answer to the modern objection of passive benevolence, so the early church had to respond to the Greco-Roman culture of their time when presented with the gospel. The early church, in proclaiming the gospel, encountered resistance to the idea that people are responsible before God for their actions. In pagan and Stoic philosophy, the idea (and eventually god) “Fortuna” ruled the universe. To the typical Greco-Roman, everything is fated. To say our sinfulness can be counted against us is to not realize that Fate had made them do bad things, thus they are not responsible.
This philosophy is called Fatalism. True Fatalism destroys human responsibility for sin. Fatalists do not look to a Savior, as they are not responsible for their sin, and thus are in no need of action on their part to find a solution. What will be will be so why worry about it?
This background is essential in understanding the writings of the early church. Much of the New Testament literature argues for Christianity in the background of a Judaic understanding of God and the world. After the New Testament, the early church literature can be seen as a development of what Paul started in Acts 17 in dialoging with the Athenians. One must enter the thought world of an alien culture in order to help them understand another culture. Thus Paul uses the language of Athenian religion and literary culture to communicate ideas to them.
If one reads the early church, one inevitably comes across the phrase “free will.” Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Tertullian, and Clement of Alexandria all talk about it. Many times Reformed Christians can see such references as a misunderstanding of human nature, just as Arminians can see these references as supporting their Enlightenment ideas of a libertarian free will (as Norm Geisler does in just listing the references as if they are definitive because they use the buzz words “free will")
Paying attention to the context, however, we see that the sense and concept they argue for, we too must acknowledge. Clement says the will is “self-determined” but also “nothing happens apart from the will of God” and thus God “permits evil.” Irenaeus wrote that “there is no coercion with God.” Archellaus wrote “To sin is ours, and that we sin not is God’s gift.” All these statements we must acknowledge as true. That we sin is our responsibility. We cannot appeal to fate or providence as an excuse, for we “are without excuse.” (Romans 1:20).
These truths lead to other inevitable questions: Then, are we responsible for our good too? Is salvation our choice? Isn’t true freedom the ability to choose neutrally between good and evil?
These questions were answered differently by two of the church’s rising stars: Pelagius and Augustine. [Part 2, forthcoming]