Source:Nibley:CW03:Ch21:1:Changing ideas about moral agency and human freedom

Changing ideas about moral agency and human freedom

Changing ideas about moral agency and human freedom

In his refutation of the Gnostics, Irenaeus in the middle of the second century set forth what he called the "Ancient Law of Liberty." Plainly, it does not originate with him. The law is illustrated, he says, by the scripture "How often would I have gathered thy children together, . . . and ye would not!" (Matthew 23:37.) God wants men to do right, but he does not coerce them to it. "For," says Irenaeus, "God made man free from the beginning. . . . For God never uses force. . . . He placed in man the power of election even as in the angels. . . . Glory and honor, he says, to all who do good, and it is due them because they could have done evil. . . . Now if God made some men good and some bad simply by nature, there would be nothing praiseworthy in their virtue or blameworthy in their vice, for that being their nature they could not do otherwise. But since to all is given equally the power of doing good or bad exactly as they choose, they are rightly praised or blamed for what they do. . . . That is why the prophets appeal to men to do good and eschew evil." Irenaeus further explains that "God wants men to do good, but even the Gospel allows anyone who does not want to do good to do evil. To obey or disobey is in every man's power. . . . God forcing no man. . . . There is a godlike power of judgment in all men, making them envied by angels." The ancient law of liberty is that God trusts men while on this earth to make their own choices, while they trust him alone to judge whether those choices have been good or bad.

This second aspect of the law—that God alone shall judge—is well brought out in Peter's apocryphal refutation of the arch-Gnostic Simon Magus, a valuable and ancient elucidation of Irenaeus' statement. Peter begins the discussion by invoking peace on the whole assembly and expressing the desire that everything be peaceably and amicably discussed. This is the signal for the self-righteous Simon Magus to explode with the indignant declaration that champions of truth don't ask for peace, since they are determined to "kick the stuffing" out of error and will only call it peace when the opposition lies helpless before them. It is weakness and cowardice in Peter, he says, to ask for peace for the wrong as well as for the right side. In reply Peter says we must imagine this world as a vast plain in which two cities strive for mastery, each claiming the whole land as its own. The king of one city sends to the other proposing a peaceful discussion in which the matter might be decided without killing anybody. In this he is not weak; he has no intention of giving the other king a single blade of grass that does not belong to him. Now the other king can think of no other course than to take what is his by force, and that, says Peter, shows that his cause is really a weak one. Simon Magus then applies his argument against Peter to Peter's God, bringing out the favorite old chestnut of the schools: either God is vicious because he does not want to prevent evil or weak because he cannot. "Could not God have made us all good," he asks, "so that we could not be anything else but virtuous?" To which Peter replies with a statement of the ancient law of liberty: "A foolish question," he says, "for if he made us unchangeably and immovably inclined to good, we would not really be good at all, since we couldn't be anything else; and it would be no merit on our part that we were good, nor could we be given credit for doing what we did by necessity of nature. How can you call any act good that is not performed intentionally? For this reason the world has existed through the ages, so that the spirits destined to come here might fulfill their number, and here make their choice between the upper and the lower worlds, both of which are represented here, so that when their bodies are resurrected the blessed might go to eternal light and the unrighteous for their impure acts be wrapped in a spiritual flame." In this work, says Peter, "every man is given a fair chance to show his real desires." To the question put to him in a later discussion, "Did not the Creator know that those he created would do evil?" Peter replied, "Certainly, he considered all the evil that would be among those whom he created; but as one who knew there was no other way to achieve the purpose for which they were created, he went ahead. He did not draw back or hesitate, nor was he afraid of what would happen." Evil is forced on no one, he explains, it is only there for those who want it. No one comes under its sway "save he who of his own free will deliberately subjects himself to it."

At the end of the discussion with Simon Magus, according to this account, Peter's good faith in this law of liberty was put to the test. Simon had lost control of himself; he had started raving and antagonized and scandalized everyone present. The people accordingly wanted to mob the archenemy of the faith, but Peter vigorously opposed them: "We must bear wicked men with patience, brethren," he cried, "knowing that God who could easily wipe them out, suffers them to carry on to the appointed day in which the deeds of all shall be judged. Wherefore should we not then suffer whom God suffers? Why do we not bear with fortitude of spirit the wrongs they commit against us, when he who can do all things does not avenge himself for the wrongs they do him?"6[1]


  1. Hugh W. Nibley, The World and the Prophets, 3rd edition, (Vol. 3 of Collected Works of Hugh Nibley), edited by John W. Welch, Gary P. Gillum, and Don E. Norton (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book Company; Provo, Utah: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1987), Chapter 21, references silently removed—consult original for citations.