Using the same methods as his Islamic contemporaries, the bishop of Harran seeks to convince an imaginary champion of predestination that it is human beings who determine their own actions

This article was published in Oasis 26. Read the table of contents

Last update: 2022-04-22 09:57:22


In the ninth century, the bishop of Harran (the ancient Carrhae, on present Turco-Syrian border) adopted the methods of his Islamic contemporaries to convince an imaginary champion of predestination that human beings do direct their own actions.



[That Human Beings Were Created with Freedom]

Tell me this, you who claim that people are subject to compulsion in the good and evil they do: Do you affirm that God is just? We doubt not that you will answer this in the affirmative. If so, we say to you: It is the mark of one who is just to treat equals equally. Tell me this, then:


[a] If people are, as you say, subject to compulsion in what they do, and animals, too, are subject to compulsion, how does God reconcile it with his justice that he gives human beings commandments and prohibitions, and promises reward for their obedience and punishment for their disobedience, but does not do the same to animals? We do not see God, according to what you have said, treating equals equally. Thus, this theory of yours has done away with God’s justice. Far be that from him!


[b] How also would it be right for God to enjoin people to do what they have not the ability or means of doing and then to punish them if they do not do it? The only thing to compare him to would be to one who says to an ass, “Ass, fly about in the air like an eagle,” and then beats it when it does not. Far be it from God to assign people a task that does not lie within their power![1] If you say that God is just even though he does this, we respond: God is just, and it is precisely his justice that keeps him from doing this!


[c] Suppose you say: God has the power to do with his creation what he pleases. Indeed, did he not make the mole blind and cause it to live in the dirt while making the eagle far-sighted and allowing it to enjoy the purity of the air? If you say this, we respond: It is true that God has power over his creation and that he treated the mole and the eagle as you say. Only, he did not treat the mole this way because it disobeyed one of his commandments, nor did he treat the eagle like this because it obediently carried out what he told it to do. Rather, he treated his creation as seemed good to him in his wisdom. It is as St. Paul says, “The potter has power over his clay, to make of it one vessel for honor and another for ignominy” (Rom 9:21).


[d] Suppose you say: God gave people commandments and prohibitions solely that he might have a just cause against them when he punishes them. We respond: This is no just cause, for a just cause is nothing other than the righteous rebuking of those who merit it, whether for something reprehensible they did but were able not to do or for something commendable they did not do but where able to do. There would be no need for such a just cause with regard to the mole, such that it was created as it was created because of that just cause. Rather, if it were to speak, it could only say to him, “You have the power to create me as you created me.” Similarly, there would be no need for such a just cause with regard to people, such that they be punished because of that just cause, if, as you say, they are constrained and have not the ability either to accept or reject commandments and prohibitions. Rather, if God were to punish them, they could only say to him, “You have the power to punish me.” Accordingly, since God would have constrained people to do what they do, he would not have needed to give them commandments and prohibitions so as to have a just cause against them. People are not allowed to think such a thing of God[2], nor would God have needed to accuse them with groundless pretexts for something he wanted to do to them. Rather, he would simply have treated them as he wished, and none of them would have been able to ask him about what he was doing, since, as you say, he had preordained it for them through his power.


Any way you look at it, constraint can never be reconciled with the giving of commandments and prohibitions. Those who speak of constraint will either have to deny all divine commandments and prohibitions in order to do so, or, if they continue to affirm that God gives people commandments and prohibitions, clearly they will have to reject constraint and advocate freedom.


You who deny freedom, even if you are blind to the knowledge of God[3], you must still admit that there is freedom in human nature. After all, do we not observe that absolutely all people, whether religious or not, issue commandments and prohibitions and dole out reward and punishment? Indeed, there is no ruler who does not [endure], in his armies and in the fighting of his enemies, distasteful deeds, with which the soul does not willingly comply. If any bear up in the face of those distasteful deeds, they are honored by the ruler. If any flag in the face of them, the ruler punishes them, removes them from his army, and returns them to civilian life. People as a whole would not have agreed to this if human nature were not either silently summoning them to do so or telling them that human nature has the freedom and ability to induce the soul, as well as the body that the soul controls[4], to follow its desires with regard to what it likes and dislikes. […]



[God’s Foreknowledge and Human Freedom]

You should understand well that those who introduce compulsion into freedom take refuge in the pretext of God’s foreknowledge, what with all escape being cut off and loathsomeness surrounding their words on every side. They say: God foreknows everything: what he foreknows must take place, as for what must take place, the one who does it is compelled to do it: accordingly, human freedom is compelled to do the good or evil it does. To those who say this we respond:


[a] If the matter is as you say, the first to be subject to such compulsion because of God’s foreknowledge would be God himself. God foreknows what he will do before he does it. If what God foreknows must happen and the doer of what must happen is, as you claim, compelled to do it, God is compelled to do what he foreknows he will do. That God is compelled with regard to anything that he has done or will do is the most loathsome thing that could enter anyone’s mind. May he be exalted above that and blessed! If God’s foreknowledge in and of itself does not compel him to do what he foreknows, his foreknowledge does not compel human freedom to do what he foreknows – indeed, otherwise, his foreknowledge would be found to annul his will.


[b] Since your argument causes there to be compulsion in God, you have only three options. First, you might say that God does not foreknow what he will do before he does it. Far be it from God that he be such! Secondly, you might say that God is in fact compelled to do what he foreknows he will do. This, however, is the greatest of lies[5] that could be forged against God. Thirdly, you might say that God’s foreknowledge does not compel him to do what he foreknows he will do, and this is the truth.


Since this is so, it is necessary that God’s foreknowledge not compel human freedom, which freedom God generously granted people and fixed in their nature – otherwise, God’s foreknowledge will abolish his will, as we just said, and his knowledge will be opposed to it. May he be exalted above that! […]




Accordingly, God’s foreknowledge compels no one, as we established earlier, and there is no need for the wise to avoid saying that God has foreknowledge for fear that compulsion will be introduced into human freedom.


We ask Christ to grant us his Holy Spirit without measure and to give us the best of the fruits of the freedom with which he has honored us and that through it he confer on us his blessed kingdom, on which the mind’s desire focuses when it does not stray from its path.


To him be praise, along with the Father and the Holy Spirit, forever and ever! Amen!


[Theodore Abū Qurrah, On Free Will, in Theodore Abū  Qurrah, translated by John C. Lamoureaux (Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah, 2005), pp. 195-206 passim]


[1] As noted by Griffith (“Free Will in Christian Kalām: The Doctrine of Theodore Abū Qurrah”, Parole de l’Orient 14 (1987): 79-107, here 97), there is here a strong allusion to a Qur’anic dictum (2:233, 286; 6:152; 7:42; 23:62).
[2] Lamoreaux translates: “God would not have considered them worthy of this”, but we believe that the correct rendering is “People are not allow to think such a thing of God”, according to the Arabic text: wa-lā kāna li-l-‘ibād ‘ind Allāh hādhā l-khatar. However, the use of the negation in this context is anomalous and invites to emend the text in wa-law kāna, “even if people think such a thing of God” [M.D.].
[3] That is, if you are atheists and do not accept the earlier, theological arguments.
[4] Reading taqharuhu. The reading of the printed edition advocates a view that Theodore elsewhere explicitly condemns.
[5] Here too, the Arabic term (iftirā’) strongly echoes the Qur’an [M.D.].