In this post, I will discuss the first of two assumptions Augustine brought to his theological method. That assumption is the strong, or absolute omnipotence of God. All Christians believe God has all power. Not all Christians agree that he exercises that power in the same way. One of the things that makes this explanation tricky is that a lot of theo-philosophical water has gone under the bridge (e.g. nominalism and voluntarism) between Augustine's time and ours. It is difficult to use terminology to explain Augustine's position that has not been colored by movements since his time.
Perhaps here it would be best to distinguish what is meant by a strong view of divine omnipotence. The Christian faith has always asserted the omnipotence of God. Omnipotence has minimally been understood as God possessing all power, at least potentially. In simple terms, it means that God can do anything he wants that does not violate his character. Augustine certainly believed this and more. He elevated the omnipotence of God almost to the point of excluding humanity as agents who could make legitimate free choices. The key word in this sentence is "almost," because Augustine refined his ideas over a lifetime of writing. As well-known Augustine scholar Gerald Bonner summarizes Augustine's theological pilgrimage from freedom to grace, he writes that by the time Augustine penned Confessions (before 400), he "had come to accept the absolute primacy of divine grace in motivating all our thoughts and intentions, as well as providing the power to act." Bonner summarizes the point well:
It is easy to find quotations in his [Augustine's] writings which declare both God's omnipotence and human freedom of choice. In the end, however, for Augustine divine omnipotence triumphed, and he declared in 427: "In the solution of this question I indeed labored in defense of the free choice of the human will, but the grace of God conquered, and I was finally able to understand, with full clarity, the meaning of the Apostle: 'For who singles thee out? Or what hast thou that thou hast not received? But if thou hast received it, why dost thou boast as if thou hadst not received it?'" (1 Cor 4:7)
Thus Augustine settled on a strong view of omnipotence that human actions are from God as well. Much more could be gleaned from Augustine's writings which would show similar trains of thought, but what has been said so far may suffice. Commenting on his strong view of omnipotence, Ogliari writes, "The co-operation between God's intervention and the human being's desire, will and action, kept in theological balance during the first centuries, was undone in favor of a notion of God's infinite and absolute omnipotence; an omnipotence whose primacy and freedom of intervention could not be questioned or jeopardized by mankind's use of free will, whatever its potential." For Augustine, to be God means to be omnipotent in the strongest sense. And therefore here is the departure from the tradition he received. No Christian before him held to such a view of divine omnipotence. There was always room for true created freedom to operate. Before Augustine, divine sovereignty and human freedom existed together, even if the line between them was fuzzy. Augustine so emphasized divine sovereignty that human freedom became either radically minimized or extinguished altogether.
Why does Augustine settle on such a strong view of omnipotence? For Augustine, the created order is beautiful. The presence of evil in God's good world was both a philosophical and theological problem for the bishop of Hippo. Possibly the most vexing question in Augustine's mind was "Why evil?" As Lee writes, "Augustine is faced with the challenge of explaining the total goodness of the universe despite the presence of evil in it." Augustine believed he had come to a solution to this challenge by stating that the world remains beautiful and in order as long as sin is punished and the sinner is placed where he cannot disrupt the cosmic order. God therefore must be omnipotent in the strongest possible sense to be able to preserve the cosmic beauty of his creation by punishing sin. The power of God must be unlimited so that he can always preserve the beautiful order of his creation.
What then is the problem with Augustine's line of thinking? The problem lies in that he fails to balance divine omnipotence with genuine human freedom, especially in the very possible result that humans may choose to oppose God. Augustine writes, "But, however strong the wills either of angels or of men, whether good or evil, whether they will what God willeth or will something else, the will of the Omnipotent is always undefeated." Of course determinism follows immediately from that famous quote. Everything that occurs is ultimately the will of God, because it cannot be otherwise .The problem is not that Augustine was in blatant error; he had his truth out of balance, which allowed some of his students over the next 1500 years to become more out of balance.
When Augustine was a Manichean auditor, he grew dissatisfied with the lack of omnipotence in the Manichean principle of the good. John Rist writes, "Augustine not only wanted to follow the Christian (and Platonist) view that God is good, but the Christian view that he is all-powerful. He wanted to argue, in fact, that everything bad is either caused by a soul other than God, and is permitted by God for his 'good' reasons, or is inflicted by God for reasons of justice." He continues, "As we shall see, Augustine's continuing fear of God's 'weakness' is part of the explanation of his harsher attitude to the providential governance of the world." A weak God could not ensure the human soul's eternal pleasure in salvation, so he had to be strong—strong to the point of ordering everything to be just so.
Such a strong view of omnipotence causes immediate problems for the God described in Scripture. Throughout his career, Augustine juxtaposed the mercy of God in salvation with the justice of God in condemning sinners. Rist writes,
Augustine sees no difficulty about predicating all the traditional moral virtues such as justice, as well as the specially Jewish and Christian moral virtue of mercy, of this omnipotent God. Yet it is precisely his insistence that God is both omnipotent and just and merciful which causes him great difficulties in formulating an intelligible and convincing account of God as savior and redeemer of all mankind.
As Ogliari writes, "In the eyes of the bishop of Hippo, justice and mercy are two divine attributes of equal standing which manifest, respectively, God's 'due' condemnation of sin and God's 'undue' bestowal of grace." It is precisely on this point that Augustine's critics charged him with a latent Manichaeism, since in Augustine the justice and mercy of God could never be reconciled in the salvation of sinners.
There were two pivotal events in Augustine's life in the years before his monumental shift of his views of nature and grace. He had debates with two prominent North African Manichees—Faustus and Fortunatus. His debate with Fortunatus was especially important. Although Augustine claims he won the debate, a close study of his actions may prove otherwise. According to Jason Beduhn, Augustine began to shift his thinking toward Fortunatus' position immediately after his debate with him, claiming that Augustine adopted Fortunatus' grace-driven interpretation of Romans 9 as his own. He writes, "The system of intertextual exegesis of Paul that Augustine adopts is heavily influenced by Fortunatus. Augustine resists complete capitulation to Fortunatus' reasoning for some time. But by the end of the decade [the 390s], he has swung over entirely to Fortunatus' reading of Romans 7, and proceeds to go even further, past the Manichaean view of the embattled will, into a radical determinism." Augustine's cardinal assumption that the human soul is thoroughly evil forced him into a Manichaean reading of Paul in order to defend his position. (This point to be addressed more thoroughly in the next post)
Lee makes a powerful case that Augustine borrows conceptually from Manichaeism in formulating his views on nature and grace. More specifically, he argues that Augustine utilized the Manichaean concept of "good" for his own view of the "beautiful." In Lee's words, the "beautiful is "understood as that which engenders tranquil pleasure. To achieve tranquility through contemplation of the Supreme Good was the goal he set in his earliest writing, De pulchro et apto. This perspective continued to be at work in his insistence that God, as the Supreme Good, is the guarantor of the soul's tranquil enjoyment." He notes that the two main Manichaean influences in Augustine's thinking which contributed to his views on predestination are the hiddenness of God's grace and the inevitability of personal evil. Not to be overshadowed by Manichaeism, Neo-Platonism was a source of his assumptions as well. Reinhold Seeburg notes that the two key ideas Augustine borrowed from Neo-Platonism were "voluntarism (God is Will; man is will; love is blessedness) and Neo-Platonic intellectualism (the contemplation of the intelligible world is blessedness)." While Augustine's defenders will state he arrived at his position via Scripture, I think it will become clearer that he arrived philosophically first then read Scripture to fit his already-formulated ideas.
In the next post, Augustine's assumption of infralapsarian anthropology will be explored in detail. I welcome any comments and thanks for reading. I also want to apologize for the more academic nature of this post. I could not think of a good way to make it less academic and still make the point. Sorry for that. I'll try to do better in subsequent posts.
Dr. Gifford is Head of Department of General Studies and professor of theology and church history at New Life Theological Seminary, Charlotte, NC
Below are links to the entire series by Dr. Gifford:
- Coming Series on Saint Augustine and Southern Baptists by Dr. James D. Gifford Jr
- Augustine and Southern Baptists: an Introduction
- Augustine and Southern Baptists: Augustine and Divine Omnipotence
- Augustine and Southern Baptists: Augustine and Human Nature: Part 3A; Part 3B
- Augustine and Southern Baptists: The Upshot of Augustine's Assumptions: Divine Determinism
- Augustine and Southern Baptists: Augustine's Exegetical and Hermeneutical Method
- Augustine and Southern Baptists: Augustine's Critics and Legacy