Predestination and salvation by works

(Book: First Apology, by Justin Martyr, courtesy of The Christian Classics Ethereal Library.)

Let’s see, where were we? For the past several chapters, Justin has been telling us how God (meaning the One True God) has everything under His control, and foretold even the most minute details of Jesus birth, death, and alleged resurrection. In Chapter 58, though, Justin’s mind goes off on a new tangent. Apparently he worries that, if God predicted everything in advance, some people will draw the conclusion that all of men’s actions are predestined by fate.

But lest some suppose, from what has been said by us … that whatever happens, happens by a fatal necessity … this too we explain. We have learned from the prophets … that punishments, and chastisements, and good rewards, are rendered according to the merit of each man’s actions… 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.

That’s not necessarily the direction I’d have gone if I were Justin, but he seems to think it’s a valid concern, so it will be interesting to hear his arguments against predestination.

Before we look at Justin’s reasons for rejecting predestination, I want to digress a moment to reflect on the evolution of Judeo-Christian morality and philosophy. Compare Justin’s attitude to that of the author of Exodus, for instance. In the story of the Ten Plagues, there are numerous references to Pharoah’s heart being hardened—sometimes it says he hardened his own heart, and sometimes it just says “it was hardened,” but at least once it says “The LORD hardened Pharoah’s heart.” Back in the day, God could do things like that, and no one dared question His morality or His justification for doing so. God was God and if He wanted to predestine you to sin against Him, that was that. You, mere mortal, had no choice in the matter, even if it meant going to hell for it.

But by Justin’s day, people had figured out that this kind of divine tyranny wasn’t going to work, philosophically. By forcing people to sin, you put yourself in a morally questionable position when you then turn around and punish them for committing the sin you forced them to commit. Justin rightly challenges this sort of accountability-free fatalism by pointing out that mere robots deserve neither blame nor praise for their actions, since they cannot choose how they act in either case. It’s a small step towards a better understanding of morality and ethics, but it’s significant because it’s a step the Judeo-Christian tradition had not yet taken when Exodus was written.

Meanwhile, back to Justin’s Apology. He wants to show that the actions of men are due to free will and not to predestination or fate, but he has a somewhat peculiar approach to doing so. He starts by assuming that fate would be subject to some rather arbitrary constraints.

We see the same man making a transition to opposite things. Now, if it had been fated that he were to be either good or bad, he could never have been capable of both the opposites, nor of so many transitions.

Really? Why not? For some reason, Justin seems to think that fate is capable of uniformity only: it can force someone to be good their whole life, or bad their whole life, but for some odd reason it cannot predestine anything like a conversion or a fall from grace. Where Justin gets this idea I don’t know; he seems to have no problem with the notion that fate can make some men good and others evil, and he’s fine with the notion that fate would dictate every choice someone made throughout their lifetime, but somewhere he thinks there’s a rule that says all predestined choices must be of the exact same moral quality—but only on a person-by-person basis. Weird.

But not even would some be good and others bad, since we thus make fate the cause of evil, and exhibit her as acting in opposition to herself; or that which has been already stated would seem to be true, that neither virtue nor vice is anything, but that things are only reckoned good or evil by opinion; which, as the true word shows, is the greatest impiety and wickedness.

He’s appealing to the moral robot argument: if one’s choices are not freely made, and one’s good or evil actions are only pre-programmed by some other agency, then the person is merely a robot, and is not morally accountable for the choices made by fate. That’s mostly a true statement, but it would seem to nullify his previous statement. If everything is fated, then morality itself is irrelevant to what happens, because good and evil no longer have any real-world meaning. If that’s the case, then you can’t make good and evil a constraint that would prevent fate from predestining good people to go bad, and vice versa. There are no good or bad choices, there’s only fate, and fate could predestine whatever choices it wanted. Justin wants to reject predestination, but his two stated objections contradict one another, and leave room for fatalism to be true regardless of his preferences.

Of course, you could follow this line of reasoning a bit further than Justin does, and ask whether the consequences of a particular action are also tied to a person’s choices, fated or not. Genuine real-world morality is fundamentally an anticipation of the consequences of one’s choices, so even in the presence of fate (or absence of God), we can still derive a workable morality. In fact, our secular morality would be even better than the fatalistic/religious equivalent, since it would be free of the irrationality and superstition that make traditional moralities burdensome and occasionally harmful. But like I said, Justin doesn’t go there.

Instead, Justin goes back to the Old Testament prophets, trying to show that God has decreed (predestined?) that every person should make his or her own choices, and then be rewarded or punished according to the choices they make. And once again, Justin’s idiosyncratic style of interpretation comes to the fore.

And again, by the other prophet Isaiah, that the following utterance was made as if from God the Father and Lord of all: “Wash you, make you clean; put away evils from your souls; learn to do well; judge the orphan, and plead for the widow: and come and let us reason together, saith the Lord: And if your sins be as scarlet, I will make them white as wool; and if they be red like as crimson, I will make them white as snow. And if ye be willing and obey Me, ye shall eat the good of the land; but if ye do not obey Me, the sword shall devour you: for the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it.”And that expression, “The sword shall devour you,” does not mean that the disobedient shall be slain by the sword, but the sword of God is fire, of which they who choose to do wickedly become the fuel.

You like that little twist at the end? You probably thought Isaiah meant a literal sword that figuratively “devoured” the population of the nation by killing them, but Justin says, no the devouring is literal, and it’s the sword that’s a figurative reference to hellfire. Amazing how flexible prophecy can be when you want it to same something the original prophet might not ever even have heard of before. And that works even for Old Testament prophets that you might be surprised to find in the Old Testament. Like Plato for instance.

And so, too, Plato, when he says, “The blame is his who chooses, and God is blameless,”took this from the prophet Moses and uttered it. For Moses is more ancient than all the Greek writers. And whatever both philosophers and poets have said concerning the immortality of the soul, or punishments after death, or contemplation of things heavenly, or doctrines of the like kind, they have received such suggestions from the prophets as have enabled them to understand and interpret these things.

Yup, Plato and Socrates and all those amazing Greek philosophers, they were just stealing the good stuff from Moses. Just like all the really good discoveries of modern science are really just stealing from the Bible, and just like the U. S. Constitution is really based on Scripture, and etc. and etc. Christians like Justin have been pulling this schtick for a very long time.

Of course, the flip side to this approach is that, once you start seeing God’s inspiration in the writings of the pagans, what’s to stop you from seeing pagan writers as God’s prophets too? Apparently nothing: Justin seems to see certain pagan writings as being just as inspired by God as the more traditional Christian Scriptures.

But by the agency of the devils death has been decreed against those who read the books of Hystaspes, or of the Sibyl, or of the prophets, that through fear they may prevent men who read them from receiving the knowledge of the good, and may retain them in slavery to themselves; which, however, they could not always effect. For not only do we fearlessly read them, but, as you see, bring them for your inspection, knowing that their contents will be pleasing to all.

I went to a Christian college, and I think I can safely say that there are not many Christians today who would even admit reading pagan books like these, let alone bringing them to prospective converts as being content that would be “pleasing to all.” But in the early days of Christianity, believers like Justin thought they recognized the hand of God and the voice of God in these pagan revelations too, to the point that they credited demons with trying to prevent people from reading the pagan prophecies. Unsurprisingly, the end result of this process was that pagan ideas became intermingled with the emerging Christian faith, through the same process of subjectively recognizing God’s “revelations” in pagan teachings.

The thing is, when Christianity was new, it needed to attach itself to more established religions and superstitions in order to bootstrap its own authenticity as a viable religion. Later on, after it became large enough and powerful enough to stand on its own, it rejected its own roots as heretical and sinful, but back in Justin’s day it had not reached that point, and Justin could proudly refer people to pagan prophecies and Greek philosophies on the grounds that God’s inspired teachings could be found therein.

We do still see strains of that same dependency even today, though with a different spin. The idea today is that Christianity is the original source for all that is true and good and worthy in the world, and so we ought to reject these non-Christian sources containing allegedly Christian ideas, and just “go back” to the Bible for everything. Just throw away that dumb old Constitution, and get rid of all that fancy sciency stuff, and let God—and His duly self-appointed representatives, of course—decide how things ought to go in life. Because it worked so well in the Dark Ages, or something.

That digression aside, Justin goes back to his original line of argument, quoting Old Testament prophecies (and non-prophecies) and claiming that Jesus fulfilled them. We’ll put a bookmark in here and just pick this up again next time. Stay tuned.

5 Responses to “Predestination and salvation by works”

  1. Anonymous Says:

    Justin says :

    “We see the same man making a transition to opposite things. Now, if it had been fated that he were to be either good or bad, he could never have been capable of both the opposites, nor of so many transitions.”

    This quote reminds me of some stuff I learned reading Classics. It appears thay Justin is here thinking about or is influenced by certain Greco-Roman ideas regarding “character”.

    In Greco-Roman antiquity it was commenly thought that character was fixed at birth and that throughout life someone’s “real” character remained the same. If they acted differently from this essential “character” they were in effect acting and hiding their real character. The idea that someone’s character could change due to experience and circumstances was not held by at least some Greco-Roman philosophers and writers.

    Allied to this was the notion of fate. In Greco-Roman antiquity a great many people thought that they were in the grip of “fate”, that ruled even the Gods. Thus you were fated to do certain things, things were fated to happen to you and you were fated to have essentially the same character from birth. There was a lot of fatalism in much Greco-Roman philosophy etc. There was also the notion that each person’s character was essentially one dominant characteristic and thus this way of looking at things had a problem with ambiguity.

    I read the comment has indicatting that Justin had read a lot of Greco-Roman philosophical etc, writings.

    • Deacon Duncan Says:

      And according to the notes at CCEL, Justin was a big fan of the Greek philosophies, especially those of Plato, prior to converting to Christianity, so what you say makes a great deal of sense.

  2. Michael Says:

    And that expression, “The sword shall devour you,” does not mean that the disobedient shall be slain by the sword, but the sword of God is fire.

    I’ve never heard that one before. Was it something Justin made up all on his own, or was it something his superiors had invented in earlier times?

    • Deacon Duncan Says:

      I couldn’t say. If I had to bet, I’d bet that someone else originally came up with the idea, and Justin’s just borrowing it. Justin’s writing in general gives me the impression of a man who will listen to anything and then pick out whatever bits he thinks he can use to support his own conclusions.

  3. descriptivegrace Says:

    “Before we look at Justin’s reasons for rejecting predestination, I want to digress a moment to reflect on the evolution of Judeo-Christian morality and philosophy. Compare Justin’s attitude to that of the author of Exodus,…Pharoah’s heart being hardened…You, mere mortal, had no choice in the matter, even if it meant going to hell for it.”

    Except, there is no hell in Exodus. When the worst God was imagined to do to you was kill you (and everyone is going to die anyway at some point) obviously it didn’t make that much difference. Paul himself, after all, doesn’t believe in hell, never mentions it. Paul by whom predestination enters Christianity doesn’t teach the Augustinian “original sin” doctrine that we are damned to hell by Adam’s sin–Paul only teaches we are damned to DIE by Adam’s sin. Despite 1500 years of Christian lies to the effect that death in Paul means hell, it most certainly means dying and ceasing to exist, and Paul’s own words in 2 Cor 15 where only “Those who belong to Christ at his coming” will be resurrected proves it. It was undoubtedly in Justin’s days that the doctrine of hell as we know it was only beginning to be formulated, since Paul knew nothing of it!!!

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