On Free Will and the Golden Rule

The following excerpt on free will is from Chapter 44 of the 5th century author Yeznik of Kolb’s Against the Sects:

But since man has free will, he serves whom he wishes. Not violated by force of nature, nor diminished by a power which was granted to him for the sake of benefactions, rather he wins reward only from obedience, and incurs injury from disobedience. And we say this of man, not that he came into existence for wickedness, but for benefactions. Because if he had come into existence among the other beings who serve God by necessity, then he would have been unworthy to receive any reward for freedom; but if like an instrument of the Creator, whom sometimes He wields for evil and sometimes for good, then neither blame nor praise would be due him. Rather, that One who had so wielded him would be the cause. Thereafter, man would know no good, because he would have been unskilled at anything other than that for which he had been made suitable. 

But God so willed to honor man, that he would become adept at good deeds. He gave him free will, by which he would be able to do whatever he willed, and admonished him to turn his free will toward the good. 

He is like a father who, when he would admonish his son—a son capable of learning some skill—urges him not to be lazy in study but to progress toward the good [cf. Hebrews 5:8]. Because he knows that he is able to progress, he requires of him the study to which he has been assigned. Likewise, we must think of God in this way: that He disposes man to submit to His commandments, but He does not take free will away from him, by which means [man] can acquiesce or not to the commands. Rather, He admonishes and disposes man to desire good qualities, through which he will merit greater rewards, if he obeys God. But he will also have the sovereignty not to obey.

The Armenian scholar Mkhitar Gosh draws partly on the same idea in the opening chapter of his 12th century Law Code, and links it to the Golden Rule:

For although the Law and the Gospel remind us of the forgotten natural laws, they do not suppress autonomy by saying, as in the old times: “love your neighbor as yourself,” because it is natural to recognize love of self.

As I see it, Mkhitar is making a distinction between two forms of the Golden Rule: i) an “old” form, where the application of the Golden Rule justifies suppressing the autonomy of the recipient, and ii) a “new” form where it doesn’t. The old form is traced to Leviticus 19:18 (“Love your neighbor as yourself”), whereas the new form can be traced to Matthew 7:12 (“Do to others what you would have them do to you”). Therefore, the Golden Rule does not originate in the New Testament, contrary to popular belief, but Mkhitar suggests that this version of the Golden Rule takes on a new spirit. 


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