The Holy Freedom of Sir Gibbie and the Gnomic Will

In his book That All Shall Be Saved, David Hart adduces the important distinction between the natural will and the gnomic will:

In the terms of the great Maximus the Confessor (c. 580-662), the “natural will” within us, which is the rational ground of our whole power of volition, must tend only toward God as its true end, for God is goodness as such, whereas our “gnomic” or “deliberative” will can stray from him, but only to the degree that it has been blinded to the truth of who he is and what we are, and as a result has come to seek a false end as its true end. This means also that the rational soul cannot really will the evil as truly evil in an absolute sense, even if it knows that what it wills is formally regarded as wicked by normal standards. Such a soul must at the very least, even if it has lost the will to pursue goodness as a moral end, nevertheless seek what it takes to be good for it, however mistaken it may be in this judgment. In short, sin requires some degree of ignorance, and ignorance is by definition a diverting of the mind and will to an end they would not naturally pursue. (p. 36)

Maximus the Confessor, among the subtlest and most rigorous thinkers on the doctrine of Christ in the history of either Eastern or Western Christian­ity, was quite insistent that our “gnomic” will—our faculty of deliberation—is so wholly dependent upon our “natural” will—the innate and inextin­guish­able movement of rational volition toward God—that the former has no actual existence in us except when the defect of sin is present in our intellects and intentions. As such, the gnomic will may in fact be dependent upon the natural, but the absence of a gnomic will is in no sense a defi­cien­cy of our nature. More to the point, not only is the actuality of a distinct deliberative will an unneces­sary dimension of our natures; so in fact is the very capacity for such a will. If this seems an extravagant supposition, it is no more than the conclusion that must be drawn from the entire logic of the Incarnation. (p. 188)

Readers have been puzzled by this Maximian distinction and the implication that delibera­tion between alternatives (i.e., libertarian free will) need not characterize a truly human existence. As Hart points us, Jesus himself, the perfect exemplar of humanity, did not possess a gnomic will. In every situation our Lord simultaneously apprehends and executes the will of his Father: “My food is to do the will of him who sent me, and to accomplish his work” (John 4:34).

For the past two weeks I have been reading the wonder­ful novel by George MacDonald, Sir Gibbie. (I’m a little over halfway through). It’s the story of a young waif who is incomprehensible to others. Not only is he incapable of speech, but he lives in the world differently than every­body else. His heart is filled with such joy and manifests such happy innocence that most people judge him to be a half-wit and simpleton, an idiot boy. Yet there are those who see something else in Gibbie. Some wonder if he might be a sprite or brownie (benevolent elf). But the godly perceive in him a purity of goodness that can only come from God. When the devout Janet first meets him, she wonders if he might be Jesus, come to her in the form of a child: “For one moment, with the quick flashing response of the childlike imagination of the Celt, she fancied she saw the Lord himself.” Janet and her husband, Robert, adopt the orphaned Gibbie. Robert teaches him how to herd sheep on their mountain, and Janet tells him stories from the gospels:

Janet read to Gibbie of Jesus, talked to him of Jesus, dreamed to him about Jesus; until at length … his whole soul was full of the man, of his doings, of his words, of his thoughts, of his life. Jesus Christ was in him—he was possessed by him. Almost before he knew, he was trying to fashion his life after that of his Master.

Robert marvels at Gibbie’s joyful obedience to his commands. “I just love the child like the very apple of my eye,” he tells his wife. “I can scarce conceive a wish, but there’s the creature with a grip of it!” In the words of the narrator: “Gibbie was one of those few elect natures to whom obedience is a delight.” The story abounds with examples of his joyful and sponta­neous service of others.

One passage particularly struck me:

The mountain was a grand nursery for him, and the result, both physical and spiritual, corresponded. Janet, who, better than anyone else, knew what was in the mind of the boy, revered him as much as he revered her; the first impression he made upon her had never worn off—had only changed its colour a little. More even than a knowledge of the truth, is a readiness to receive it; and Janet saw from the first that Gibbie’s ignorance at its worst was but room vacant for the truth: when it came it found bolt nor bar on door or window, but had immediate entrance. The secret of this power of reception was, that to see a truth and to do it was one and the same thing with Gibbie. To know and not do would have seemed to him an impossibility, as it is in vital idea a mon­stros­ity. This unity of vision and action was the main cause also of a certain daring simplicity in the exercise of the imagination, which so far from misleading him reacted only in obedience—which is the truth of the will—the truth, therefore, of the whole being

The bolded words immediately reminded me of St Maximus’s distinction between the natural and gnomic wills. In Gibbie exists that unity of truth, will, and action that surely characterized the life of Christ. Gibbie does not have a gnomic will. He sees the good and immediately does it. His is the natural will, a unity of vision and action, that belongs to the children of the Father.

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12 Responses to The Holy Freedom of Sir Gibbie and the Gnomic Will

  1. David says:

    What a lovely reflection Father, thank you. I wish more theology were communicated through narrative.

    One question I’ve often wanted to put to DBH relates to the assertion in the passage you quote that “sin requires some degree of ignorance, and ignorance is by definition a diverting of the mind and will to an end they would not naturally pursue.” I find this persuasive, although it leaves me wondering what to make of original sin. It’s clear that sin requires some level of ignorance – the fall of Adam from literal perfection is nonsensical in my view – but if ignorance is by definition “a diverting of the mind and will to an end they would not naturally pursue”, isn’t that saying that ignorance just *is* sin (or at least inevitably leads to it). In which case does this mean that humanity was created fallen?


    • m says:

      Just to say, “original sin” has a rather different register for Orthodox Christians; the Western notion of “inherited guilt” was invented by Augustine, albeit unintentionally, because he could not read Romans in the Greek.


  2. Anna says:

    David, St Ireneaus, St John Chrsysotom, St Gregory the Theologian and St Gregory Palamas among others see Adam as perfect but immature and untested. Thus when Satan gave Adam the thought of doubting and then disobeying God Adam should have clung to God – that was the natural inclination that existed as created, however instead he listened to and obeyed Satan. Man by nature is not self-sufficient but is made to be in a dependent relation to Another for his growth and formation. After the fall Adam no longer had his mind and will in the thoughts and will of God, but rather in the thoughts and will of Satan. I do not agree with Hart however, who makes this co-partnership with Satan something so insubstantial that all will eventually reject it. I believe that a person really can come to love their sin so dearly that the separation from sin needed to attain to union with God becomes at some point impossible. A person can get to the point where they are so totally identified with their sin that to reject it feels like total self-destruction and they cannot bring themselves to it. They have so identified their own mind and will with the sinful – demon influenced “self” that it has completely taken over their own sense of who they are. In this state they are completely unwilling to go through the Cross and the destruction of the false self or “old Adam” that is necessary for union with God. This is a mystery though that goes beyond simple dogmatic definitions. That is Hart’s problem and the Scholastics problem. They try to delineate and prove through analytics and logic something that is a mystery and hidden. As the Lion says “I only tell each person his own story” (from the Horse and His Boy by C.S.Lewis). Hart’s theology is presumptuous.

    When discussing gnomic will though I think we have to differentiate different kinds of ignorance. Adam, and Wee Sir Gibbie too, were innocent but also ignorant of spiritual struggle. Thus they were open to being deceived. St Dionysius even dares to say that the unfallen angels have a type of ignorance and are growing into ever greater knowledge of God. Neither of these types of ignorance is an ignorance that contains sin. Adam’s fall introduced a different kind of ignorance into human existence, an ignorance characterized by falsity and delusion. So really there are 3 different types of ignorance that can be talked about.

    The child Gibbie in the story, when a sailor who had been taking care of him was murdered, lost his trust in humanity. He later regains this and comes back to himself. But MacDonald offers no explanation for how this happens, nor does he show any inner struggle in Gibbie. I am not sure this is realistic. In some ways, Gibbie’s character reflects that of some of the Christian saints whose sanctity can be seen even in childhood. (see for example the life of St Paisios of Athos, another example is Gerondissa Makrina ( But even St Paisios when he started to doubt Christ’s existence went into a struggle of prayer in order to get rid of the thoughts of doubt. It is probably though that the journey up the Duar is meant as an symbol of Gibbie’s internal journey – MacDonald is famous for his mythopoetic drawing of internal realities using setting and action as symbols for this.

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    • Robert Fortuin says:

      “they are completely unwilling to go through the Cross and the destruction of the false self or “old Adam” that is necessary for union with God.”

      Yet another version of the Gospel as good news only for the select few who are strong and able enough to measure up to receive salvation. We lucky few, we lucky chosen few.


      • Anna says:

        It is a problem of the fallen mind to categorize things into ‘chosen’ and ‘rejected’ or any other categories that are completely contrary to each other. This is the problem with Scholastic reasoning. From Gnostics to Arians on down almost every heresy has erred by absolutizing two opposites rather than bring the mind into a state where it can see the God’s providential harmony for creation.

        In this case, let us look not abstractly, and make up categories but instead look at real life. Wouldn’t you say that someone who denies that such people exist (simply because they have not met someone like this) suffer from a smallness in their thinking. Or if someone is jealous of their moral betters and responds to them with bitterness kind of like certain poor people respond to those who are rich with bitterness and jealousy is this not a problem of falsity and sin in their thinking? Consider how MacDonald himself describes people’s response to Gibbie. They are not jealous of him as some kind of specially chosen being – the thought never crosses their mind nor Gibbies that he is in a special category of “chosen” – rather they are joyful and benefited to be around him. Look at Christ – most people loved him, they were spiritually and physically healed being around Him. Only certain types of self-righteous people were jealous and wanting to get rid of him, or denying that He could really have the holiness and love that He actually did. It is precisely the type of religious thinking you mention that George MacDonald himself was fighting all his life. I love MacDonald precisely for the reason that he was major contributor in helping me be free me from this way of thinking, although I am still working on it.

        The more we are caught in our own self-referential reality, the less we are able to really see other people. The less we know ourselves and our own variations of light and shadow, the less we can know other people. The more we live abstractly according to logic instead of becoming a gentle and uncritical observer of people, the more blind we are to the beauty of God’s varied providence for different types of people.


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Hi, Anna. I had to chuckle at your comment “But MacDonald offers no explanation for how this happens, nor does he show any inner struggle in Gibbie. I am not sure this is realistic.” Surely there’s nothing realistic at all about Gibbie! He appears to have been immaculately conceived. 🙂

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      • Anna says:

        Gibbie is a fictional representation of a rare type of person, but the characterization is not completely unrealistic. Read the biographies I note above. There really are some people who are more or less guileless and selfless from childhood, who don’t have jealous or negative thoughts, and who live in the reality “to the pure all things are pure” even from a young age. It is precisely these people that have the type of unity of thought will and action you note above which MacDonald attributes to Gibbie. I believe that Gibbie is not based on a completely made up ideal. Read the lives of the saints and you see both those who from childhood had this guileless, selfless mental purity and those who after much struggle gained it. I have personally met both kinds. They are beautiful people and there is a sense of peace and grace one receives being around such people, and our own thoughts and the movements of our soul become better being around them.


    • David says:

      Thank you for taking the time to reply Anna, which I appreciate. However I find myself in agreement with Brian, Robert and co that the will’s fundamental orientation towards, and telos in, the good implies that we cannot resist this determination forever. What did you think of That All Shall Be Saved?

      Anyway, rather than getting into a discussion about the merits of universalism, I was really interested in the more specific question of how, within the DBH scheme of thinking, original sin is accounted for.


    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      “St Dionysius even dares to say that the unfallen angels have a type of ignorance and are growing into ever greater knowledge of God.”

      Could you (or anyone) give me a reference for this? (though I ask lazily, not yet having tried to discover it for myself).

      I am working on a paper partly about Tolkien’s faithful Valar and Maiar, and this (like the First letter of St. Peter 1:12) seems ‘connected’.


      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        Having now gone a-looking, I seem to have found something in The Ecclesiastical Hierarchy, Chapter VI, Section VI in the Reverend John Parker’s translation of the Works, Part II (London & Oxford: James Parker, 1899), page 144. (I suppose I should follow up by attempting to compare it to the Greek text…)


  3. brian says:

    Fortunately, the ontological transformation of salvation does not depend on whether one finds it psychologically plausible or not. If there is presumption, surely it is more likely to reside in a univocal imagination that projects out from our experience of fallen time and our limited awareness of spiritual realities what is probable or even possible in an eschatological reality with far greater lucidity than what is entertained “in a mirror darkly.” Moreover, as nearly always, Anna’s commentary presupposes without argument a notion of person as atomized individual where participatory and relational elements that properly constitute person are ignored or minimized to a vanishing point. Indeed, psychologically, a person in this fallen world may identify themselves with sin with absolute tenacity. Death may be the only cure as it generally is for all of us. What becomes possible then is certainly clear enough in the flourishing the gospel promises, though many believers continue to resist like the elder brother in Christ’s parable.

    Once again, I advert to Nyssan anthropology (cf. Hart’s essay “The Whole Humanity” in the collection, The Hidden and the Manifest) and also to the Christological foundation of Personhood. Our unique I am is only ever realized in terms of the We are. Our decisions and actions are always more a product of relation and connection than we can imagine and so while we certainly do carry a unique and incommunicable responsibility for our soul’s destiny, it is not separable from the responsibility and destiny of “the whole human thing.” Hence, Dostoevsky’s Father Zosima asserts what is so counter to the common sense of modern Western sensibilities, “each is responsible for all.” And just to reiterate the theological foundation of the metaphysics of person, our unique vocation, our action which is equally “the name on the white stone” is “always already” a summons to realize a Christological mission. This means, among other things, that your salvation = the flourishing of your unique being = cannot be actualized apart from the relations that make it possible. The loss of any sinner eternally would be an irrevocable diminution of your own well-being because you are not an atomized individual, but a unique openness to infinite relations.

    In short, the “traditional view” lacks sufficient Christological awareness, not only in the proper scope and breadth of person, but also crucially in an understanding that Christ is the foundation of every person and so no one is ever so constrained by their own bad choices that God is unable to overcome resistance. God is not “locked out” by the distortions of gnomic will. Those very distortions are sustained by God’s loving care. (But all this ought to be evident if one grasps the theo-logical consequences of creatio ex nihilo and therefore attends to what is proper to the God who is love. Certainly, a God who would sustain for eternal frustration and sorrow is a sadist and not Love itself. Anna says “I do not agree with Hart however, who makes this co-partnership with Satan something so insubstantial that all will eventually reject it.” What does this mean? One is approaching C. S. Lewis’ terrible metaphysical error that would posit a Miserific Vision of equal potency to the Beatific. Evil is privative. Illusion is a parasite upon Life, upon Reality. It is the diabolic lie that one can ultimately choose any Reality that is not God. The theology of Holy Saturday is a recognition that love abides and accompanies every torturous attempt to evade love. Grace is patient, but never defeated.

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  4. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    By the way, an admirable idea to have a version both preserving and helpfully translating MacDonald’s Scots!


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