Tertullian on the Problem of Evil and Free Will

This is part of a series of posts that captures the early church views on free will and determinism. The idea for this series was motivated by Calvinist claims that their view was held by the early church.



Tertullian (160-225), a 2nd century theologian lived in North Africa, wrote numerous works explaining and defending Christianity. We explored his views of orthodoxy (or the Rule of Faith) already, in this post we will look at how he approached the problem of evil.

One of his works is The Five Books against Marcion. In Book 2, Tertullian explores the problem of evil because Marcion (the heretic of Pontus) was wrestling with how a good God could be the author of all the evil in the world (i.2).

The problem of evil, as stated by Marcion and presented by Tertullian goes, something like this (ii.5):

  1. If God is good
  2. and if God knows the future
  3. and if God is powerful
  4. then evil would never have come about.
  5. However, evil exists.
  6. Therefore no such God exists

Rather than come to the conclusion that there is no such God, Marcion came to the conclusion that there are two gods. One god who created matter and who is the author of evil and brings forth evil fruit. And a second god revealed by Jesus who was good and produced good fruit (i.2). Evil exists, but in Marcion’s view it was not created by the good god (described by assertions 1-3). Tertullian shows that this does not solve anything, since  both Tertullian’s God and Marcion’s ‘good god’ both permit evil (ii.28).

all the evil which my God permitted to be, this also, did your god permit

Tertullian counters numerous charges made by Marcion and his primary purpose in writing is to refute the idea that there are two (or more) gods.

In Book 2, Tertullian defends the position that a God described by all three assertions does exist, despite the existence of evil. Christianity is based on the principle that ‘God is not, if He is not one’ and ‘that God is the great Supreme in form and in reason, and in might and in power.’ (i.3) and the ‘perfect goodness‘ of God is an ‘eternal attribute, inbred in God‘ (ii.3) and whose foreknowledge ‘has for its witnesses as many prophets as it inspired‘ (ii.5).

Tertullian’s solution to the problem of evil in a nutshell

Evil exists, not because God ordained all evil acts as a necessary part of creation, but because God, by His own authority, gave man two gifts. The first is the gift of free will, the second gift is the ability to use the first. Because God gave man free will He withholds His power to prevent the poor and evil choices that He foreknows will occur as a result of man freely and recklessly employing these gifts.

The problem of evil in a bit more detail

Digging into the book and his argument, we find Tertullian making the following key points.

  • God’s purpose was to be known and this is the ‘first goodness‘ for knowledge and the enjoyment of God are good (ii.3). This purpose resulted in God creating the universe and making man with an ability to pursue ‘the knowledge of Himself‘, which Tertullian explores in detail (ii.4 and ii.6).
  • Tertullian understood the concept of man being created in the image of God as meaning that ‘man was by God constituted free, master of his own will and power’ which allowed man to know God and to oversee creation (ii.5 and ii.6).
  • God gave ‘man freedom of will and mastery of himself’  and ‘He from His very authority in creation permitted these gifts to be enjoyed’ (ii.7).
  • This gift of free will allowed man to contingently choose because ‘man is free, with a will either for obedience or resistance’ (ii.5 and ii.6).
  • It is this free will that is the basis for responsibility for ‘the reward neither of good nor of evil could be paid to the man who should be found to have been either good or evil through necessity and not choice‘ (ii.6).
  • This free will given to man enabled him to be a ‘rational being, capable of intelligence and knowledge‘, yet he was still ‘restrained within the bounds of rational liberty‘ and  ‘subject to Him who had subjected all things unto him‘ (ii.4).
  • Since man has ‘unshackled power over his will‘ it must be concluded that man and not God is responsible for the evil that occurs (ii.5 and ii.6 and ii.9).

nothing evil could possibly have come forth from God; and the liberty of man’s will, … shows us that it alone is chargeable with the fault which itself committed.

  • Evil exists because God has ‘afforded room for a conflict’ between man and the devil which started at the Fall. In this conflict man is able to ‘ conqueror the same devil’ and ‘crush his enemy with the same freedom of his will as had made him succumb to him’. Man must choose which side he will take in this conflict, just as he had to choose in the beginning, thus proving that the fault  of the Fall and evil was all his own, not God’s), and so worthily recover his salvation by a victory’. (ii.8 and ii.10).
  • The victory is achieved by Christ and received by man through faith (v.13).

He enjoins those who are justified by faith in Christ and not by the law to have peace with God. …  Now, as peace is only possible towards Him with whom there once was war, we shall be both justified by Him, and to Him also will belong the Christ, in whom we are justified by faith, and through whom alone God’s enemies can ever be reduced to peace.

If free will is not the answer to the problem of evil and God does indeed determine all events making them necessary then reconciling a good God with the occurrence of evil is, as one Calvinist admits, ‘more difficult’. John Frame in an interview was asked about God’s relationship to evil.

The question, though, is whether God merely permits evil, or whether in addition he actually brings evil about in some sense. I think the latter is true. Scripture often says that God brings about sinful decisions of human beings (see above under Question 4). This is a hard teaching, and on one level it makes the problem of evil more difficult.

The early church, however had no such problem affirming that God does not cause evil; he only permits it because He allows man to exercise free will.

4 thoughts on “Tertullian on the Problem of Evil and Free Will

  1. Interesting post Mike.

    If I might play devil’s advocate, I think your quote of ii.4. above might be construed as “compatibilistic” in nature.

    An interesting future post might have to unpack why early church writing on free will are compatibilistic or libertarian in nature. There are certainly hints of Libertarian free will here, but also nothing that I would see a compatibilist shudder at…

    • BJ

      Thanks for stopping by. Appreciate your comment and willingness to play devil’s advocate.

      I agree that some of the statements, taken in isolation (like ii.4), made by Tertullian or other early (pre-Augustine) writers could be read in a compatibilistic FW sense.

      However, when one reads the scope of Tertullian’s work it is pretty clear IMO that he is defining and defending a LFW – which is an ability to make spontaneous and non-necessitated choices (choose otherwise).

      … if he were wanting in this prerogative of self-mastery, so as to perform even good by necessity and not will, he would, in the helplessness of his servitude, become subject to the usurpation of evil, a slave as much to evil as to good. Entire freedom of will, therefore, was conferred upon him in both tendencies; so that, as master of himself, he might constantly encounter good by spontaneous observance of it, and evil by its spontaneous avoidance … But the reward neither of good nor of evil could be paid to the man who should be found to have been either good or evil through necessity and not choice. (ii.6)

      From this quote Tertullian advocates for spontaneous actions (those that were not planned) and against the necessity of the choice that determinism requires. He goes so far as to argue that necessity makes man a helpless slave because necessity illegally removes (usurped) man’s authority (or self-mastery). This would mean, according to Tertullian, that man is not responsible for his actions.

      In this work it should be noted that Tertullian is not arguing against Augstinian/Calvinism since that view does not exist yet. However deterministic ideas do exist in the 2nd/3rd century in the form of Stoicism and Gnosticism which the early church refuted. Since Marcion shared the dualistic ideas of Gnosticism, he may have also adopted its deterministic outlook which Tertullian may be indirectly dealing with here.

      on the early church
      I think most would agree that Augustine is where the concepts of determinism and compatibilistic FW begin to be accepted into the church. Ideas he likely imported from his Manichean background. Exploring that would make for an interesting post (or series).

      In the interim I encourage you to check out the Early Church/Free Will posts on the Series page. 😉

      nothing to shudder at
      I would think few holding to compatibilistic FW would accept concepts such as an “unshackled” will, the “entire freedom of the will”, or the “self-mastery” of the human will that Tertullian advocates. But I will leave that for them to decide.

      Sorry that got long. 🙂

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