Free Will


The first chapter of book three of De Principiis which takes up over half of that book, brings us to the heart of Origen's theology, the doctrine of free will. Except for one paragraph, the full Greek text survives. The chapter falls into three unequal parts. The first part is a discussion, in philosophical terms, of the question. The brief second part cites biblical texts that uphold the doctrine of free will. The third and longest part discusses in detail passages from the Bible that seem, on what Origen insisted to be a superficial reading, to deny free will.



According to Origen men as well as all other rational creatures are free. Truly man is everywhere in chains, but it is his own responsibility, for the cause of his enslavement is traceable to that very freedom, which he misused.

G.W. Butterworth says,

All the Gnostic systems, and most other speculations of this period, ran in a fatalistic direction. If Origen appears to us to spend unnecessary trouble in his effort to establish the fact of human freedom, we must remember that it is largely this which gives the Christian tone and color to all his thought.

The weakness of Origen’s system, considered as a whole, lies in its assumption that the entire cosmic process is a mistake, due to the misuse of free will.

Against the Gnostics, specially Marcion, Valentinus, and Basilides Origen argues that rational creatures were originally equal, for in the changeless God, who is just, there could be no cause of diversity. The primary referent of this equality is the goodness of each creature as obedient to or imitative of God. Unlike God creatures possess their goodness accidentally (kata sumbebekos) and not essentially (ousiodos). But they can make it their own by freely choosing to continue in the good. This choice is free, however, the opposite choice is possible. Whatever choice is made, the creature is responsible for it.

Thus, Origen was able to give an account of the levels of creatures’ goodness (or evil) and God’s judgment upon them. Each creature is the cause of his own fall. And in proportion as one falls, one is placed in the cosmos by God. The scale runs from the highest angels down to demons. Even in the various fallen stages creatures remain free to return to their original goodness or to become worse.

...every rational nature can, in the process of passing from one order to another, travel through each order to all the rest, and from all to each, while undergoing the various movements of progress or the reverse in accordance with its own actions and endeavors and with the use of its power of free will.

As we have seen before in chapters 7 and 9, after the Fall, man was unable to return to his original goodness by his own effort. He is in need of the grace of God and the redeeming work of Christ, even this is realized through his free will.

Every soul has the power and choice to do everything that is good. But because this good feature in human nature had been betrayed when the chance of sin was offered... the "fragrance it gives forth"(Song 2:13), when it is redeemed by grace and restored by the teaching of the Word of God, is that very fragrance which the Creator had bestowed at the beginning and sin had taken away....The grace which [the soul] had first received from the Creator, was lost, and now was recovered...



Origen believes that a doctrine of freedom is one of the doctrines set forth by the apostles as essential. He was not an innovator on this. Earlier Christian writers had considered freedom an important Christian doctrine. Yet beyond its traditional status, Origen has a rationale for including this doctrine. He starts De Principiis 3:1, the chapter on freedom, in this way:

Since the teaching of the Church includes the doctrine of the righteous judgment of God, a doctrine which, if believed to be true, summons its hearers to live a good life and by every means avoid sin, for it assumes that they acknowledge that deeds worthy of praise or blame lie within our own power (eph’hemin ) - let us now discuss separately a few points on the subject of free will,...

The freedom of creatures is inferred from the doctrine of judgment. God’s judgment to be righteous, must be exercised on responsible creatures. Responsibility in turn requires freedom. Now the doctrine of judgment is ecclesiastic and scriptural.



In his speech on Free will, Origen quotes several passages from the Old and New Testaments (Micah 6:8; Deut. 30:15, 19; Isa. 1:19f; Matt. 5:39, 22, 28; Rom. 2:4-10) to show that God commands obedience and rewards it, and punishes disobedience. But this God "...tells us that it lies in our power to observe the injunctions..." He concludes, "Indeed, there are in the Scriptures ten thousands of passages which with utmost clearness prove the existence of free will."

Thus the freedom of the rational creature is an inference from certain Scriptures which do not mention freedom at all. One wonders why Origen did not use some such text as Galatians 5:1 or 2 Corinthians 3:17 as Scripture passages basis for a doctrine of freedom. But he did not; rather he inferred it as a consequence of other scriptural. Still, in that respect, it has a Scriptural basis. But note what has been inferred from these Scriptures: only the existence of freedom. When Origen delineates the nature of freedom, he draws upon non-Biblical sources.

Freedom is related to Scripture in two ways.

First, Scripture is allegorized to be consistent with it. Origen sees in the prophecies about Egypt, Tyre, Babylon, Israel, etc. references to heavenly places which are the dwelling places of souls in the various stages of fall and return. And in the Scriptures about the king of Tyre (Ezekiel 28:11-19) and Lucifer (Isaiah 14:12-22; Luke 10:18) he sees proof that individuals can choose to fall from a higher state to a lower one.

Second, Scripture presents certain difficulties which the transcendental doctrine of freedom can explain. For example, why did God love Jacob and hate Esau before they were born? The answer is, of course, "older causes."

There is another aspect to Origen’s doctrine of freedom. He gives a detailed picture of its internal structure. It has been established that freedom is the principle of movement from one state to another, but it is a certain kind of movement. In two texts, De Principiis 3:12-3 and De Oratione 6:1, Origen locates freedom by subdividing the class of things moved (ton kinoumenon):

1. some are moved solely from without (exothen), e.g., logs, wood, stones, and anything moved qua body.

2. Some are moved from within themselves (en heautois), e.g., animals, plants, fire, springs; of these there are two kinds.

a. Some are moved out of themselves (ex heauton), viz., without living soul (apsycha).

b. Some are moved from within themselves (aph’heauton), viz., living things (empsycha); of these there are two kinds.

I. Irrational animals.

II. Rational animals (logikon zoon).

In sections 7-24 (Book 3:1), many scriptural passages which appear to deny freedom are shown to be capable of an interpretation at least consistent with and sometimes favorable to Origen’s doctrine of freedom. For example, there is the difficult text in Exodus 4:21 where God is represented as "hardening Pharaoh’s heart." Origen interprets this to mean that Pharaoh freely rejects the work of Moses (a series of external impressions) and therefore God’s action in Moses results in Pharaoh’s hardening of the heart. Other men freely accept this same action of God and are thereby brought closer to God. It should be clear that there is much in Origen’s doctrine of freedom that he does not even pretend to derive from Scripture. I turn now to examining possible philosophical sources for Origen’s non-Biblical theories.


Movable Things


1. from without 2. from within themselves


a. without soul b. with soul


I. Irrational animals II. Rational animals



How can we say that we have free will, if God by His grace already had chosen us as His own, and He knew us before we were created that we would believe in Him?

The divine plan of our salvation was eternal, the Father chose us, for He was pleased with us even before we were made, through His beloved Son. He accepted us for we were hidden in His Son, our Mediator, clothing His righteousness. We were chosen, for He knew us before we were created that we would believe in Him.

St. Paul clarifies this, saying:

"For whom He foreknew, He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son.

Moreover, whom He predestined, these He also called;

whom He called, these He also justified;

and whom He justified, these He also glorified" (Rom. 8:29,30).

Origen comments on this Pauline passage, saying:

Such passages as these are seized on by those who do not understand that man who is foreordained by the foreknowledge of God is really responsible for the happening of what is foreknown; and they imagine that God introduces men into the world who are already equipped by nature for salvation... Let us observe the order of the words... It is not fore-ordination that is the start of calling and justification. If this were so, a more convincing case could be put by those who bring in the absurd argument about "salvation by nature." It is in fact, foreknowledge precedes fore-ordination... God observed beforehand the sequence of future events, and noticed the inclination of some men towards piety, on their responsibility, and their stirring towards piety which followed on this inclination; He sees how they devote themselves to living a virtuous life, and He foreknew them, knowing the present, and foreknowing the future... His foreknowledge is not the cause of what happens as a result of the responsible actions of each individual. Thus, the freedom bestowed by the Creator enables man to choose what to realize, of various possibilities which arise.

As a result of (God's) foreknowledge the free actions of every man fit in with that disposition of the whole which is necessary for the existence of the universe.

God... is not ignorant of the future, but permits man to do what he wishes through his faculty of free will.

Origen replies to those who say that our salvation is in no way our responsibility, but is a matter of our constitution, for which the Creator is responsible, saying:

"Unless the Lord builds the house, they labor in vain who build it. Unless the Lord guards the city, the watchman stays awake in vain" (Ps. 126 [127]:1). This is not meant to deter us from building, or to counsel us not to be vigilant in guarding the city which is in our soul... We should do right in calling a building a work of God, rather than of the builder, and the preservation of a city from hostile attack we should rightly call an achievement of God rather than of the guard. But in so speaking we assume man's share in the achievement, while in thankfulness we ascribe it to God who brings it to success.

Similarly man's will is not sufficient to obtain the end (of salvation) (Rom. 9:16), nor is the running of the metaphorical athletes competent to attain "the prize of the upward summons of God in Christ Jesus" (Phil. 3:14). This is only accomplished with God's assistance. Thus it is quite true, "It is not of him who wills, nor of him who runs, but of God who shows mercy" (Rom. 9:16). Our perfection does not come about by our remaining inactive, yet it is not accomplished by our own activity; God plays the great part in effecting it.


Origen asserts that Divine Providence allows man’s free will full scope in his cooperation with God. He says that if a believer takes away the element of free will from virtue he destroys its essence. This conviction is one of the pillars of Origen’s ethics and theology.

Origen harmonized the freedom of the will with the plan of Divine Providence. In doing so, he constituted himself the defender of free will. As he expounds his theory, providence envelops free will, impels it in the direction of good conduct, disciplines it, and heals it. If we contemplate this help as it comes to us from God, we cannot understand it. But the Christian teacher or the spiritual director is not without evidence to convince him of its value.

The universe is cared for by God in accordance with the condition of the free will of each man, and that as far as possible it is always being led on to be better, and... that the nature of our free will is to admit various possibilities.

Someone may ask: How can we interpret God's Providence through the free will of men, for if God takes care of everyone, even of the number of each head’s hair (Matt. 10: 30) how will we accept the free will of others who would harm me or even kill me through their free will?

Our God who in His goodness grants us free will, through His infinite wisdom uses this human freedom for the edification of His children, for He changes even evil deeds to the salvation of others. St. Clement of Alexandria gives a biblical example. Jacob’s sons sold Joseph as a slave, but God used this evil action for Joseph’s glory. Joseph said to his brothers: "But now, do not therefore be grieved or angry with yourselves because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life ... so now it was not you who sent me here, but God, and He has made me a father of Pharaoh, and lord of all" (Gen 45: 5-9); "Do not be afraid, for am I in the place of God? But as for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, in order to bring it about as it is this day, to save many people alive" (Exod. 50: 19, 20).

Judas, the traitor, misused the freedom which was granted to him, and God used even his evil action for realizing the salvation of mankind by the crucifixion of our Lord.

The universe is cared for by God in accordance with the condition of the free will of each man, and that as far as possible it is always being led on to be better, and ... that the nature of our free will is to admit various possibilities.

God does not create evil; still, He does not prevent it when it is displayed by others, although He could do so. But He uses evil, and those who exhibit it, for necessary purposes. For by means of those in whom there is evil, He bestows honor and approbation on those who strive for the glory of virtue.

Virtue, if unopposed, would not shine out nor become more glorious by probation. Virtue is not virtue if it be untested and unexamined...

If you remove the wickedness of Judas and annul his treachery you take away likewise the cross of Christ and His passion; and if there were no cross, then principalities and powers would have not been stripped nor triumphed over by the wood of the cross (Col. 2: 15). Had there been no death of Christ, there would certainly have been no resurrection and there would have been no "First-born from the dead" (Col. 1: 8); and then there would have been for us no hope of resurrection.

Similarly concerning the devil himself, if we suppose for the sake of argument, that he had been forcibly prevented from sinning, or that the will to do evil had been taken away from him after his sin; then the same time there would have been taken from us the struggle against the wiles of the devil, and there would be no crown of victory in store for him who rightly struggled.



Origen’s originality consists partly in his combination of Platonic and Stoic theory and partly in modifying these theories by Scriptural doctrines. He combines the Platonic transcendental viewpoint with the Stoic analysis of the internal structure of freedom. The former is related to Scripture as a structure found allegorically present in Scripture. It is impossible to say which came first in Origen’s mind. He may have seen this transcendental structure in Scripture and then found Plato confirmatory. But since he finds it in Scripture by allegory, it seems more likely that the theory is prior. With the Stoic aspect of his doctrine of freedom there is no such ambiguity. He does not relate it to Scripture at all, either as confirming Scripture or being confirmed or derived from it. This part of his doctrine of freedom is purely philosophical.

He ends up with the free rational soul as the middle term between antecedents which are not in its power (in accordance with Stoicism) and consequences which follow strictly from its choices (in accordance with Platonism). In this combination, Platonism is modified by drastically reducing the number of antecedents. ( In the myth of Er all possible lives were presented to the souls.) Stoicism is modified by positing God as the providential manipulator of antecedents. This is Scriptural in basis. The Scriptural modification of Platonism is at least two-fold. First, the Logos of God enters the hierarchy of creatures for the purpose of training them to make the right choices in order to improve their status. Second, Origen sees more clearly than Plato an end to the series of epochs when the rational souls will have been completely remodeled by the Logos and God will be all in all.



There is a place in Origen’s thought for human responsibility. The attempt is to deal with the question of why some people adamantly reject Christianity. The main emphasis is on free will.



We are not governed by necessity, nor compelled against our will to do good or evil. For if we are free, some powers may perhaps be able to urge us to sin, and others to help us to save ourselves. But we are not at all compelled to do good or evil, contrary to what is maintained by those who say that the courses and motions of the stars are the causes of human actions.



A man must question his own heart as soon as he hears the message of the Church. Christ is found by those who are determined to find Him. He does not impose Himself upon us. "He knows by whom He is likely to be repulsed and by whom He is to be welcomed." At the moment foreseen by providence, He makes Himself known to the heart that longs for Him.

As long as a man preserves the germs of truth within himself, the Word is never far away from him. Such a man can always nourish the seeds of hope.