102 - Please Accept Our Apologies: the Greek Church Fathers

Irenaeus, Clement, and Justin Martyr struggle to define Christian orthodoxy and claim philosophy back from the Greeks.

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Further Reading: 

Primary texts

• Clement of Alexandria, Stromateis Books 1-3, trans. J. Ferguson (Washington DC: 1991).

• Irenaeus, Against Heresies: see extracts in R.M. Grant, Irenaeus of Lyons (London: 1997).

• Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho, trans. T.B. Falls (Washington DC: 2003).

Secondary literature

• M. Edwards, “Gnostics and Valentinians in the Church Fathers,” Journal of Theological Studies 40 (1989), 26-47.

• R.M. Grant, Gnosticism and Early Christianity (New York: 1966).

• R.M. Grant, Greek Apologists of the Second Century (Philadelphia: 1988).

S.R.C. Lilla, Clement of Alexandria (Oxford: 1971).

• E. Osborne, Clement of Alexandria (Cambridge 2005).

• H.B. Timothy, The Early Christian Apologists and Greek Philosophy (Assen: 1973).

Jon's picture


Hi Peter -

Thank you for keeping up this excellent podcast.

In this episode you commented that some of the early church fathers' views have regained popularity with modern apologists, and that is certainly something I recognized in this episode.

In particular you suggested that Irenaeus disagreed with the Gnostic doctrine that some souls are by nature good and some by nature evil. Instead, he said that God gives us free will so that we can become good or evil and deserving of reward or punishment.

I have heard this recently and it just sounds as if the problem has been moved sideways. If all souls are created equal and all are given the same chances then they would all make the same decisions. If some souls choose good and some evil, then surely it means they either start out with differences (for example some might have a strong will which leads them to good and some a weak will which leads them to evil) or they must have different experiences (some may be presented with more difficult moral challenges).

Having strong or weak souls created by God doesn't sound any better than having good or evil souls, and presenting different souls with different levels of temptation doesn't sound like cosmic justice either.

Did Irenaeus or the other fathers ever dig deeper than that?

Thanks again,


Peter Adamson's picture


Hi Jon,

Thanks, that's a great question. Firstly for those who are curious, I would associate the modern use of this idea most strongly with John Hick. See:

J. Hick Evil and the God of Love (London: 1966).

J. Hick, “An Irenaean Theodicy,” in S.T. Davis (ed.), Encountering Evil: Live Options in Theodicy (Edinburgh: 1981).

Now to answer your question, you should catch the next episode, on Origen. He does dig deeper, by supposing that the souls only ever come to be embodied in the first place through free choice. When they start existence they are pure minds, which are then led to different choices by their thoughts. I think this pushes the solution as far as it can go: you have to buy into the idea that minds have an irreducible tendency to vary from one another by their choices, which affect their thoughts and vice-versa (Origen can add that since these minds are created, they are metaphysically subject to change and variation, unlike God). Maybe not a complete solution but it shows he has grasped the problem you worry about.

Thanks again,


Jon's picture

Irenaeus continued

Hmmm... It sounds like I'll have to file this under "ineffable" - but at least I know I haven't missed anything obvious

Thanks Peter

- Jon

Peter Adamson's picture

File under ineffable

Presumably the label on that file is blank. But seriously: I just wanted to point out that this is an instance of a general problem with free will. If we think that freedom is incompatible with causal determination, then there is a risk that every free action (even ones more trivial than what Irenaeus and Origen are talking about) will be either (a) uncaused and therefore apparently random or unexplained, or (b) somehow caused and therefore not free after all. I'm not saying the problem is insoluble, but it is still very much with us.

Declan J Foley's picture

Good and evil

"Instead, he said that God gives us free will so that we can become good or evil and deserving of reward or punishment."

Hi Jon,

You pose an interesting question, and I daresay for innumerable people.
Having lived through hard times and relatively easy times for 62 years in different countries, I have witnessed many different human beings. Yet, the decent and good appear to be in the majority.
Is the 'soul' as a separate entity from the body similar to the brain and the mind?
Is there deep down a 'goodness' that needs to nurtured, and if not nurtured; as with a field not weeded, the weeds destroy the food (good)crop?
Listening to other broadcasts, I am also wondering when does the soul enter into us. Is it at conception, and if so what creates it?
It is not as if an angel is somewhere in cyber space with 'souls' on a rack or shelf to hand out. Does each soul contain elements of its genetic ancestors as the body does?

Jon's picture

free will, good and evil

Thanks Decian

> Is there deep down a 'goodness' that needs to nurtured

> Does each soul contain elements of its genetic ancestors as the body does?

Both of those points would seem to deny free will as they put our destiny outside our own control.

- Jon

Declan J Foley's picture

Free will

Thank you Jon,

I appreciate, and find your, reply most interesting.