Justin Martyr on Free Will


This is a series that will be updated periodically that captures the early church views on free will. In part 1 and part 2 we looked at Irenaeus’ views.

Justin the Philosopher by Theophanes the Cretan [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Justin the Philosopher by Theophanes the Cretan [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons


Justin Martyr (100-165 AD) was a philosopher who searched for the truth studying under the Platonists, Stoics, Peripatetics, Theoretics, and Pythagoreans before becoming a Christian. In Dialogue with Trypho, Justin describes what he was after as he studied under various schools of philosophy:

“‘Philosophy, then,’ said I, ‘is the knowledge of that which really exists, and a clear perception of the truth; and happiness is the reward of such knowledge and wisdom.’

Convinced by the prophetic messages and truth claims in the Scriptures Justin became one of the earliest church apologists (defender of the faith). The 4th century church historian Eusebius describes him as follows:

Justin was especially prominent in those days. In the guise of a philosopher he preached the divine word, and contended for the faith in his writings. …

[he] addressed discourses containing an apology for our faith to the Emperor Antoninus, called Pius, [who ruled from 138-161] and to the Roman senate. …

[Justin] was crowned with divine martyrdom, in consequence of a plot laid against him by Crescens, a philosopher who emulated the life and manners of the Cynics

Justin explained Christianity to the Roman Emperor and his adopted son Marcus Aurelius in a work titled The First Apology. Marcus Aurelius was a noted Stoic philosopher, who would go on to write Meditations.

Regarding fate, Marcus Aurelius wrote in Meditations:

Whatever happens to you has been waiting to happen since the beginning of time. The twining strands of fate wove both of them together: your own existence and the things that happen to you.

According to the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Stoics understood the world to be governed by reason which meant that:

… the universe is subject to the absolute sway of law, is governed by the rigorous necessity of cause and effect. Hence the individual is not free. There can be no true freedom of the will in a world governed by necessity. We may, without harm, say that we choose to do this or that, and that our acts are voluntary. But such phrases merely mean that we assent to what we do. What we do is none the less governed by causes, and therefore by necessity.

The Stoics had a deterministic view of events and actions but also promoted wisdom, morality, and a virtuous and ascetic lifestyle. The teachings of Stoicism align with what is known as “soft determinism” or compatiblism.

Stoicism is certainly not the same as Calvinism but the main features of determinism and freewill are very similar within these two views.

Justin writes against these ideas of fatalism and determinism and described his views on free will (First Apology chapter 43 (see also 44)).

But lest some suppose, from what has been said by us, that we say that whatever happens, 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, and chastisements, and good rewards, are rendered according to the merit of each man’s actions. Since if it be not so, but all things happen by fate, neither is anything at all in our own power. For if it be fated that this man, e.g., be good, and this other evil, neither is the former meritorious nor the latter to be blamed. And again, unless the human race have the power of avoiding evil and choosing good by free choice, they are not accountable for their actions, of whatever kind they be. But that it is by free choice they both walk uprightly and stumble, we thus demonstrate. …

But this we assert is inevitable fate, that they who choose the good have worthy rewards, and they who choose the opposite have their merited awards. For not like other things, as trees and quadrupeds, which cannot act by choice, did God make man: for neither would he be worthy of reward or praise did he not of himself choose the good, but were created for this end; nor, if he were evil, would he be worthy of punishment, not being evil of himself, but being able to be nothing else than what he was made.

And in the Second Apology, chapter 7, Justin wrote

… But neither do we affirm that it is by fate that men do what they do, or suffer what they suffer, but that each man by free choice acts rightly or sins; and that it is by the influence of the wicked demons that earnest men, such as Socrates and the like, suffcr persecution and are in bonds, while Sardanapalus, Epicurus, and the like, seem to be blessed in abundance and glory. The Stoics, not observing this, maintained that all things take place according to the necessity of fate.

But 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. And this is the nature of all that is made, to be capable of vice and virtue. For neither would any of them be praiseworthy unless there were power to turn to both [virtue and vice]. And this also is shown by those men everywhere who have made laws and philosophized according to right reason, by their prescribing to do some things and refrain from others.

Even the Stoic philosophers, in their doctrine of morals, steadily honour the same things, so that it is evident that they are not very felicitous in what they say about principles and incorporeal things. For if they say that human actions come to pass by fate, they will […] have looked on God Himself as emerging both in part and in whole in every wickedness; or that neither vice nor virtue is anything; which is contrary to every sound idea, reason, and sense.

Justin rejects the Stoic (and Calvinist) paradox that man is responsible for his actions if his actions are determined and necessary. He appeals to free will as the logical basis for personal responsibility, rewards, and punishments.

And again, unless the human race have the power of avoiding evil and choosing good by free choice, they are not accountable for their actions, of whatever kind they be.

Justin also rejects the Stoic (and Calvinist) paradox that God is not the author of evil if all actions are determined and necessary. He appeals to free will as the logical basis for why God is not the author of evil and sin.

For if they say that human actions come to pass by fate, they will […] have looked on God Himself as emerging both in part and in whole in every wickedness; or that neither vice nor virtue is anything; which is contrary to every sound idea, reason, and sense.

Justin, writing to a Roman Emperor who was also a Stoic philosopher, could have benefited from appealing to the common ground that the Augustinian/Calvinist view and Stoicism share as he defended Christianity. However, he chose to refute them. In examining Justin’s view on free will, the question we must wrestle with is – why do Justin (and other Patristic writers), reject determinism and compatibilism? These ideas were not new. If these tenets were taught by Paul shouldn’t we expect some writers in the early church to have held them?

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