Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Augustine & Free Will

(This is a follow up to the post “The Early Fathers: whose side were they on?”)

It is often asserted that prior to Augustine the only view of the human will that existed in Christian theology was that of a libertine free will (LFW) whereby people possess the power of contrary choice. The claim is made that prior to Augustine the Fathers were unified in this kind of understanding of the will and that Augustine’s teaching was an innovation and a departure from the traditional teaching of the church.

As I mentioned in the previous post, The Early Fathers: whose side were they on?, some of the early fathers, particularly in the east, articulated a libertine view of the will, however, it is anachronistic to assume that they understood it to relate to God’s sovereignty in the way that modern Arminians do. Augustine’s teaching on human ability should not necessarily be assumed to be a departure from the traditional teaching of the earlier fathers even though they never articulated their doctrine of the will they way he did.

Why LFW in Some Early Fathers Is Not Surprising

It shouldn’t surprise us that some of the Fathers, eager to emphasize the ethical and judicial teaching of Christianity against the pagan fatalism of their day, would respond with what seems to be a natural, common sense, explanation of human freedom. They recognized that scripture clearly teaches that humans are moral agents who are responsible for the choices that they make. We all experience our own agency in a way that feels as though we have the power of contrary choice. The “default” view of our own will and liberty is virtually always that of LFW. It is not surprising to me that some early Fathers would not have expressed any other view of the will because there was no compelling reason to do so. Until the Pelagian controversy there was no claim appealing to scriptural authority that the freedom they proclaimed might be in tension with their view of sovereignty. None of the fatalistic arguments of their philosopher opponents would have been convincing to them because they did not highlight any potential difficulties within their biblical understanding. A compatibilist view of the will or a doctrine of prevenient grace was simply not required at the time they were writing.

Even Augustine defended a LFW view early in his early writings. In his book against the Manichaeans, On Two Souls, Augustine writes:

“Wherefore whatever these souls do, if they do it by nature not by will, that is, if they are wanting in a movement of mind free both for doing and not doing, if finally no power of abstaining from their work is conceded to them; we cannot hold that the sin is theirs.”

It is not until later when responding to the challenges of Pelagius and Coelestus that he works out a more complete attempt to reconcile free moral agency and meticulous divine providence. In the same way that it was necessary for the doctrines of the Incarnation and the Trinity to become increasingly precise after challenges were raised, the early expressions of human ability and divine sovereignty were too ambiguous in their early articulations to resolve the Pelagian difficulty with an appeal to the Fathers. The scriptural truths of moral culpability and divine sovereignty were not harmonized within their systems. It is impossible to know what kinds of modifications, if any, the earlier fathers might have made to their understanding of freedom had the same challenge been posed to them.

Innovator or Defender of Church Tradition?

Augustine expressed his teaching on the will in ways that were not explicitly developed in the earlier Fathers. We do not see in their writing a clear distinction between original sin and actual sin in the way we find in him, nor do we see any kind of consistent compatibilism of the will expressed prior to him. It is therefore understandable that many see his work as an innovation and departure from the teaching of the earlier Fathers. However, for reasons discussed in a previous post it would be an oversimplification to consider Augustine’s doctrine as something completely distinct from their teaching because the trajectory of his thought is firmly founded upon important biblical elements that were articulated in their writings.

The Protestant Reformers insisted that even their much stronger Augustinian doctrine of the will was historical and that it was Rome who had deviated from the original faith. Martin Luther, for example, who was never reluctant to point out what he saw as errors in the fathers said:

The very name, Free-will, was odious to all the Fathers. I, for my part, admit that God gave to mankind a free will, but the question is, whether this same freedom be in our power and strength, or no? We may very fitly call it a subverted, perverse, fickle, and wavering will, for it is only God that works in us, and we must suffer and be subject to his pleasure. Even as a potter out of his clay makes a pot or vessel, as he wills, so it is for our free will, to suffer and not to work. It stands not in our strength; for we are not able to do anything that is good in divine matters.”

-Luther Table Talk chapter 259

Likewise, John Calvin also insisted that Protestant doctrine flowed logically from the teaching of the early fathers. In the preface to his Institutes of the Christian Religion Calvin says:

“It is a calumny to represent us as opposed to the Fathers (I mean the ancient writers of a purer age), as if the Fathers were supporters of their impiety. Were the contest to be decided by such authority (to speak in the most moderate terms), the better part of the victory would be ours. While there is much that is admirable and wise in the writings of those Fathers, and while in some things it has fared with them as with ordinary men; these pious sons, forsooth, with the peculiar acuteness of intellect, and judgment, and soul, which belongs to them, adore only their slips and errors, while those things which are well said they either overlook, or disguise, or corrupt; so that it may be truly said their only care has been to gather dross among gold. Then, with dishonest clamor, they assail us as enemies and despisers of the Fathers. So far are we from despising them, that if this were the proper place, it would give us no trouble to support the greater part of the doctrines which we now hold by their suffrages.”

-John Calvin, Preface to King Francis

Of course, Luther and Calvin might have had their own reasons for claiming that there was support from the fathers but more importantly Augustine, himself, was adamant that he offered no novel doctrine. He saw his work as a refinement and a development of the traditional teaching of the church and went to some lengths to show that his views were not “new”. Luther and Calvin’s competence as patristic scholars is open for debate and a great deal has been published on both sides of this issue regarding the accuracy of their claim. Augustine, however, was writing for an audience that was much closer in time, culture, and familiarity with the earlier fathers than were the Reformers and the majority of his contemporaries accepted his claim.

Referring to his work against the Pelagians, Jerome writes the following words to Augustine in one of his letters, “You are famous throughout the world. Catholics revere you and point you out as the establisher of the old-time faith; and - an even greater glory - all heretics hate you.” Notice that Jerome asserts specifically that Augustine is defending the old faith against heretics and that this opinion is widespread. It is unlikely that this is mere flattery since the Augustinian position was in fact confirmed by many subsequent synods and councils, most notably those of Ephesus (431) and Orange (529).

There were, of course, many contemporaries of Augustine, such as John Cassian, who argued against his views. In fact, although both the Pelagian and Semi-Pelagian view of human ability was rejected by the Council of Orange, the Semi-Pelagian view, as taught by Cassian eventually became the dominant view in Roman Catholic theology. It is essentially a version of this view that is made the official position of the Roman church at the Council of Trent in 1545 in response to the Reformation. The fact remains, however, that at the time he was writing most of the teachers of the church accepted Augustine’s view as consistent with scripture and the historic teaching of the church.


Although Augustine develops a view of the will that is different than that expressed by many of the earlier fathers he does not do it in opposition to their teaching. He develops his doctrine in such a way as to retain the moral culpability they emphasized while retaining the divine initiative in salvation that was also assumed in their writing. It can be argued that the Pelagian controversy itself arose because the church teaching did not satisfactorily harmonize the tension between those two truths found in scripture. If faced with the same challenge there is really no reason to be confident that the earlier fathers would have resolved this tension with anything akin to the Arminian doctrine of prevenient grace any more than they would be likely to follow a more Augustinian direction. Augustine’s work, while original, shares a logical foundation with the early understanding of important doctrinal truths which the fathers expressed in their writings.

At the end of the day, what matters is that we derive our theological positions based upon careful exegesis of the bible rather than the teaching of any theologian regardless of how highly esteemed or ancient. There is no need to seek out candles when we have the noonday sun to light our path. The argument that Augustine essentially invented his doctrine of grace virtually out of nothing, however, is not true. An understanding that God is the active agent in salvation has been an important teaching through all of church history. How that is reconciled with the biblical teaching that we are responsible for our moral choices, however, has developed over time as new questions have been raised.

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