Free Will and Virtue in Athanasius

“‘Wherefore having already begun and set out in the way of virtue, let us strive the more that we may attain those things that are before. And let no one turn to the things behind, like Lot’s wife, all the more so that the Lord hath said, “No man, having put his hand to the plough, and turning back, is fit for the kingdom of heaven.’ And this turning back is nought else but to feel regret, and to be once more worldly-minded. But fear not to hear of virtue, nor be astonished at the name. For it is not far from us, nor is it without ourselves, but it is within us, and is easy if only we are willing. That they may get knowledge, the Greeks live abroad and cross the sea, but we have no need to depart from home for the sake of the kingdom of heaven, nor to cross the sea for the sake of virtue. For the Lord aforetime hath said, “The kingdom of heaven is within you.” Wherefore virtue hath need at our hands of willingness alone, since it is in us and is formed from us. For when the soul hath its spiritual faculty in a natural state virtue is formed. And it is in a natural state when it remains as it came into existence. And when it came into existence it was fair and exceeding honest. For this cause Joshua, the son of Nun, in his exhortation said to the people, “Make straight your heart unto the Lord God of Israel,” and John, “Make your paths straight.” For rectitude of soul consists in its having its spiritual part in its natural state as created. But on the other hand, when it swerves and turns away from its natural state, that is called vice of the soul. Thus the matter is not difficult. If we abide as we have been made, we are in a state of virtue, but if we think of ignoble things we shall be accounted evil. If, therefore, this thing had to be acquired from without, it would be difficult in reality; but if it is in us, let us keep ourselves from foul thoughts. And as we have received the soul as a deposit, let us preserve it for the Lord, that He may recognize His work as being the same as He made it.”

Life of Anthony, 20.

“Nor was the Lord then forgetful of Antony’s wrestling, but was at hand to help him. So looking up he saw the roof as it were opened, and a ray of light descending to him. The demons suddenly vanished, the pain of his body straightway ceased, and the building was again whole. But Antony feeling the help, and getting his breath again, and being freed from pain, besought the vision which had appeared to him, saying, ‘Where wert thou? Why didst thou not appear at the beginning to make my pains to cease?’ And a voice came to him, ‘Antony, I was here, but I waited to see thy fight; wherefore since thou hast endured, and hast not been worsted, I will ever be a succour to thee, and will make thy name known everywhere.’ Having heard this, Antony arose and prayed, and received such strength that he perceived that he had more power in his body than formerly. And he was then about thirty-five years old.”

Life of Anthony, 10.

“‘Wherefore, children, let us hold fast our discipline, and let us not be careless. For in it the Lord is our fellow-worker [συνεργόν], as it is written, “to all that choose the good, God worketh with them for good.[Rom 8.28]’”

Life of Anthony, 19.

“This was right and reasonable; for, as the Scripture declares, they had gained as much as they had received. Now, my beloved, our will ought to keep pace with the grace of God, and not fall short; lest while our will remains idle, the grace given us should begin to depart, and the enemy finding us empty and naked, should enter [into us], as was the case with him spoken of in the Gospel, from whom the devil went out; ‘for having gone through dry places, he took seven other spirits more wicked than himself; and returning and finding the house empty, he dwelt there, and the last state of that man was worse than the first.’ For the departure from virtue gives place for the entrance of the unclean spirit. There is, moreover, the apostolic injunction, that the grace given us should not be unprofitable; for those things which he wrote particularly to his disciple, he enforces on us through him, saying, ‘Neglect not the gift that is in thee. For he who tilleth his land shall be satisfied with bread; but the paths of the slothful are strewn with thorns;’ so that the Spirit forewarns a man not to fall into them, saying, ‘Break up your fallow ground, sow not among thorns.’ For when a man despises the grace given him; and forth with falls into the cares of the world, he delivers himself over to his lusts; and thus in the time of persecution he is offended, and becomes altogether unfruitful. Now the prophet points out the end of such negligence, saying, ‘Cursed is he who doeth the work of the Lord carelessly.’ For a servant of the Lord should be diligent and careful, yea, moreover, burning like a flame, so that when, by an ardent spirit, he has destroyed all carnal sin, he may be able to draw near to God who, according to the expression of the saints, is called ‘a consuming fire.”

Festal Letter 3,3.

“Wherefore then, my beloved, do we not acknowledge the grace as becometh the feast? Wherefore do we not make a return to our Benefactor? It is indeed impossible to make an adequate return to God; still, it is a wicked thing for us who receive the gracious gift, not to acknowledge it. Nature itself manifests our inability; but our own will reproves our unthankfulness. Therefore the blessed Paul, when admiring the greatness of the gift of God, said, ‘And who is sufficient for these things?’ For He made the world free by the blood of the Saviour; then, again, He has caused the grave to be trodden down by the Saviour’s death, and furnished a way to the heavenly gates free from obstacles to those who are going up. Wherefore, one of the saints, while he acknowledged the grace, but was insufficient to repay it, said, ‘What shall I render unto the Lord for all He has done unto me?’ For instead of death he had received life, instead of bondage, freedom, and instead of the grave, the kingdom of heaven. For of old time, ‘death reigned from Adam to Moses;’ but now the divine voice hath said, ‘To-day shalt thou be with Me in Paradise.’ And the saints, being sensible of this, said, ‘Except the Lord had helped me, my soul had almost dwelt in hell.’ Besides all this, being powerless to make a return, he yet acknowledged the gift, and wrote finally, saying, ‘I will take the cup of salvation, and call on the name of the Lord; precious in His sight is the death of His saints.’

With regard to the cup, the Lord said, ‘Are ye able to drink of that cup which I am about to drink of?’ And when the disciples assented, the Lord said, ‘Ye shall indeed drink of My cup; but that ye should sit on My right hand, and on My left, is not Mine to give; but to those for whom it is prepared’  Therefore, my beloved, let us be sensible of the gift, though we are found insufficient to repay it. As we have ability, let us meet the occasion. For although nature is not able, with things unworthy of the Word, to return a recompense for such benefits, yet let us render Him thanks while we persevere in piety. And how can we more abide in piety than when we acknowledge God, Who in His love to mankind has bestowed on us such benefits? (For thus we shall obediently keep the law, and observe its commandments. And, further, we shall not, as unthankful persons, be accounted transgressors of the law, or do those things which ought to be hated, for the Lord loveth the thankful); when too we offer ourselves to the Lord, like the saints, when we subscribe ourselves entirely [as] living henceforth not to ourselves, but to the Lord Who died for us, as also the blessed Paul did, when he said, ‘I am crucified with Christ, yet I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me.’

 Festal Letters 5, 3.

 “Now again, my beloved, has God brought us to the season of the feast, and through His loving-kindness we have reached the period of assembly for it. For that God who brought Israel out of Egypt, even He at this time calls us to the feast, saying by Moses, ‘Observe the month of new fruits, and keep the Passover to the Lord thy God:’ and by the prophet, ‘Keep thy feasts, O Judah; pay to the Lord thy vows.’ If then God Himself loves the feast, and calls us to it, it is not right, my brethren, that it should be delayed, or observed carelessly; but with alacrity and zeal we should come to it, so that having begun joyfully here, we may also receive an earnest of that heavenly feast. For if we diligently celebrate the feast here, we shall doubtless receive the perfect joy which is in heaven, as the Lord says; ‘With desire I have desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer. For I say unto you, that I will not eat it, until it is fulfilled with you in the kingdom of God.’ Now we eat it if, understanding the reason of the feast, and acknowledging the Deliverer, we conduct ourselves in accordance with His grace, as Paul saith; ‘So that we may keep the Feast, not with old leaven, neither with the leaven of wickedness; but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth’ For the Lord died in those days, that we should no longer do the deeds of death. He gave His life, that we might preserve our own from the snares of the devil. And, what is most wonderful, the Word became flesh, that we should no longer live in the flesh, but in spirit should worship God, who is Spirit. He who is not so disposed, abuses the days, and does not keep the feast, but like an unthankful person finds fault with the grace, and honours the days overmuch, while he does not supplicate the Lord who in those days redeemed him. Let him by all means hear, though fancying that he keeps the feast, the Apostolic voice reproving him; ‘Ye observe days, and months, and times, and years: I fear lest I have laboured among you in vain.’”

 Festal Letters, 6, 1.

 “But in our commemoration of these things, my brethren, let us not be occupied with meats, but let us glorify the Lord, let us become fools for Him who died for us, even as Paul said; ‘For if we are foolish, it is to God; or if we are sober-minded, it is to you; since because one died for all men, therefore all were dead to Him; and He died for all, that we who live should not henceforth live to ourselves, but to Him who died for us, and rose again.’ No longer then ought we to live to ourselves, but, as servants to the Lord. And not in vain should we receive the grace, as the time is especially an acceptable one, and the day of salvation hath dawned, even the death of our Redeemer. For even for our sakes the Word came down, and being incorruptible, put on a corruptible body for the salvation of all of us. Of which Paul was confident, saying, ‘This corruptible must put on incorruption.’ The Lord too was sacrificed, that by His blood He might abolish death. Full well did He once, in a certain place, blame those who participated vainly in the shedding of His blood, while they did not delight themselves in the flesh of the Word, saying, ‘What profit is there in my blood, that I go down to corruption?’ This does not mean that the descent of the Lord was without profit, for it gained the whole world; but rather that after He had thus suffered, sinners would prefer to suffer loss than to profit by it. For He regarded our salvation as a delight and a peculiar gain; while on the contrary He looked upon our destruction as loss.”

 Festal Letters, 6,4.

 “Now he who has been counted worthy of the heavenly calling, and by this calling has been sanctified, if he grow negligent in it, although washed becomes defiled: ‘counting the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified a profane thing, and despising the Spirit of grace,’ he hears the words, ‘Friend, how camest thou in hither, not having wedding garments?’ For the banquet of the saints is spotless and pure; ‘for many are called, but few chosen.’ Judas to wit, though he came to the supper, because he despised it went out from the presence of the Lord, and having abandoned his Life, hanged himself. But the disciples who continued with the Redeemer shared in the happiness of the feast. And that young man who went into a far country, and there wasted his substance, living in dissipation, if he receive a desire for this divine feast, and, coming to himself, shall say, ‘How many hired servants of my father have bread to spare, while I perish here with hunger!’ and shall next arise and come to his father, and confess to him, saying, ‘I have sinned against heaven and before thee, and am not worthy to be called thy son; make me as one of thy hired servants;’—when he shall thus confess, then he shall be counted worthy of more than he prayed for. For the father does not receive him as a hired servant, neither does he look upon him as a stranger, but he kisses him as a son, he brings him back to life as from the dead, and counts him worthy of the divine feast, and gives him his former and precious robe. So that, on this account, there is singing and gladness in the paternal home.”

Festal Letters 7, 9.


  1. “For when the soul hath its spiritual faculty in a natural state virtue is formed. And it is in a natural state when it remains as it came into existence. And when it came into existence it was fair and exceeding honest.”

    “If we abide as we have been made, we are in a state of virtue”

    These passages sound to me as an outright denial of what we call original sin in every sense even in that mild one which is usually accepted by the Orthodox.

    What do you think?


  2. Perry Robinson,

    No, of course he does not deny the bodily corruption. But he seems to deny (at least in those passages cited) that man’s soul is anyhow affected by our ancestor’s sin and that it inherits anything at the moment of its creation that is the moment of man’s conception.

    In Orthodoxy I think that we do not have an official definition of what original sin is and when I wrote “usually accepted” I was referring to certain ideas such as that, because of the original sin, the image of God in us is now somewhat blackened, our will somewhat weakened, etc. that I know that they are prevalent in my country Greece and in the books of Orthodox dogmatic theology.

    What’s you own understanding of the inherited spiritual consequenses of the origian sin, if there are any? What’s Athanasius stance on it?

    Personally I haven’t reached any conclusion. Sometimes I think that there must be something more apart from those natural blameless passions which came after the fall although I/we cann’t pinpoint what it is and some others I just think that Saint Cyprian was simply needing another good argument to support infant baptism ( a view which seems to be corroborated when I run into passages like that of Saint Athansius).


  3. To make my question more specific: Is there anything in infants souls that they need to be cleansed of and, if yes, what is it?
    Now, if there is indeed something, Saint Athsnasius’ passages seem to me to deny it. That’s what I meant. Am I wrong in that?


  4. “Is there anything in infants souls that they need to be cleansed of and, if yes, what is it?”

    No, they need not be cleansed of anything. They are each immaculately conceived. Their innocent, yet still-weak will will be made stronger by the Mystery of Baptism, followed by Chrism, followed by Holy Eucharist. They do need to be brought into the life of the Church and to be Baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection. This is the beginning of a life in the Church. And while Baptism need not wash away any of their own original sin, it also does not guarantee some sort of force field against the ancestral sins of this world. For how have they transgressed, missed the mark in being born? It seems that their relation to sin is their being born as a being unto death and the bitter fruits this entails. Baptism will begin to align the gnomic will with the natural one and make their suffering much less in this world (and paradoxically, of course, to suffer even more)–a life of dispassion (apatheia) fulfilled only synergistically, the fulfillment of which is begun at Baptism.

    Of course, you will fine all sorts of language in the Fathers to contradict this, but I believe this is Athanasios’ position.


  5. Ioannis,

    When I wrote of inherited corruption, I mean to include the soul as well. (and I don’t take the soul to be the same thing as the person or hypostasis.)I think Athanasius means to deny that the imago dei is per se altered and also uphold that at the beginning or our existence we have committed no actual sins. The first line speaks to your second formulation.

    Take a look at the following citations. I included them for just this very reason.

    “Nature itself manifests our inability; but our own will reproves our unthankfulness. Therefore the blessed Paul, when admiring the greatness of the gift of God, said, ‘And who is sufficient for these things?’

    “For although nature is not able, with things unworthy of the Word, to return a recompense for such benefits, yet let us render Him thanks while we persevere in piety.”


  6. Atychi,

    I disagree. If there wasn’t anything there for the cleansing, then they would not die. It is that there are no actual sins and hence no guilt, personal or “analogous.”

    Baptism cannot begin to align the gnomic will since the gnomic will is the person’s use of their natural power of choice and in children of a young age this probably isn’t yet active or if so, quite minimally. A gnomic movement then requires hypostatic co-operation and excludes preemption.


  7. Ioannis–

    When Athanasius speaks of the soul remaining as it was created, or first came into existence, do you think he is referring to the beginning of the soul’s existence at conception, or to the beginning of the existence of Adam’s soul in the Garden?

    To inherit a disunity between person and nature seems compatible with what Athanasius is saying. This would mean that a human person is born with misdirected human faculties of will, appetite, and intellect, which have lost a measure of their participation in divine power as a result of the rejection of God’s power in the fall. This “mis-particularization” of the human natural powers would imply its impotence to accomplish the good because of a loss of potentiality. Consequently, any activities done by these fallen faculties would fall short of the glory of God, not having enough power to effect the good, and coming out particularized in the wrong direction.


  8. @Atychi,

    Thank you for your comment. You perfectly expressed the impression I get when I read certain works of the Fathers whcih make me think that, as you wrote, all conceptions are immaculate and the reasons for infants’ baptism are nothing more but to partake of the grace of God and of the Holy Communion. Even if you are not completely correct in what Athansius believes, at least I saw that I am not the only one who understands certain texts that way.

    @Perry Robinson,

    I noticed those passages but I am not sure that they talk about original sin for two reasons. First, as created beings, we certainly have numerous inabilities which are not product of our fall. We are not gods and we can not return nothing to God even for the gift of life. Second, those passages refer to those who have already received baptism and those inabilites about are not to be (and weren’t) washed away through baptism. How do they speak then about original sin?
    I do not claim though that St Athanasius does not accept original sin because I do not know if he does or not.


    Why do you think that he speaks about Adam’s soul? The use of plural and his overall manner suggest to me that he either speaks about each man’s conception or about the moment of baptism when man’s soul is restored to its natural state.
    If he was speaking about Adam’s soul, I think, that would beg another interesting question: Do we share the same soul with Adam? That would mean that no new souls are being created after each conception but only new bodies which partake of the same soul. But is that what we believe? I do not know.


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