A further difficulty in Augustine's thinking has been aptly pinpointed by John Rist. He writes, "The problem, as Augustine would rephrase it, is not, 'Why does God not save everyone?'; but 'Why does God save anyone?'; for we are all justly condemned. The problem would not be God's justice, but God's mercy which would seem unjust, or at least at the expense of justice".17
We must admit that, even though Augustine tried to reduce the brutality of a mechanical and infallible non-predestination of the non-elect, such mitigation was in fact posited only on a hypothetical level, and it was little more than a theoretical exercise. To taste the real extent of Augustine's conviction, and its [unendurable sharpness], it suffices to read the very sharp (not to say shocking) remark in which he affirms that it is of no importance to God whether the mass of the damned is conspicuous or not. He would not really care about the vastness of the numbers involved, since their reprobation and loss are justly deserved.18
With Ogliari, such a view of justice obscures or even obliterates the idea that God is love (1 John 4:8). Augustine's answer is that God's mercy and justice, respectively, account for the elect and reprobate.19 He continues,
But as to the actual and particular application of this principle, viz. why God elects some people and not others, Augustine himself believes there is no answer, and would take refuge behind God's inscrutable designs. It really surprises us that Augustine did not realize how the 'just' punishment deserved by the sinners could not be contemplated without at the same time encroaching upon the meaning of God's love, and of God himself. In point of fact, predestination is not merely an anthropo-logical but also a theo-logical problem, and it seems to us that a geometrical justice, bereft of the light and power of love, ultimately impairs the very image of the Christian God, introducing (anthropomorphically speaking) elements such as indifference or even revenge in a God who is essentially a God of love.20
Unfortunately, it is clear that Augustine's speculations about human nature and the inevitability of evil led him far from the received tradition of 350+ years of Christianity, if not heart of God as well. In the Enchiridion, Augustine writes,
For if it were not a good that evil should exist, its existence would not be permitted by the omnipotent Good, who without doubt can as easily refuse to permit what He does not wish, as bring about what He does wish.…For He is not truly called Almighty if He cannot do whatsoever He pleases, or if the power of His almighty will is hindered by the will of any creature whatsoever.21
He states that evil's existence is good based on divine omnipoetence. This is nothing short of divine determinism. Moreover, Augustine claims that in such areas, humans cannot understand divine justice.22 Such a position can come under criticism because if human and divine ideas of justice are incompatible, what about other virtues such as "love, mercy, humility, and chastity?" Is God's possession of these virtues completely unlike ours as well?23 Rist continues his criticism by showing how Augustine must retreat to the image of the clay and the potter from Romans 9 (as well as Romans 11:33) to both answer the objections of Julian and ease the fears of Simplician. Rist states the difficulty with clarity,
But the literalism of such a reply [potter and clay] shows up its underlying weakness: God is supposed to evaluate his own created image—for whom he offered his Son—in the same way as a potter a clay pot. Yet the literalism is the product of no simple mindlessness or philistinism; it depends on an important and fundamental disharmony between two visions of the relationship between God and man, which Augustine—along with many other religious thinkers—has failed to overcome. On the one hand God has made man from dust; hence man is as nothing compared with God. On the other, God has made man into his image, and thereby freely bestowed on him a great value. The image of the pot and its maker is appropriate to the first portrait—compared to God you are a sheep (Sermon 26.15)—but inappropriate to the second, whereby even sheep have a certain value, but men much more.24
Ogliari adds that Augustine "suggests that in God there is 'a certain hidden equity' or a 'most hidden equity' that cannot be understood by any human standard of measurement (To Simplician 1.2.16)."25 He continues,
The shift that occurs in this stage of Augustine's thought is of paramount importance: it is the hidden equity on God's part which is now brought into the limelight and which replaces the earlier appeal to the 'most hidden merits of the souls.' In other words, the difference is no longer about those who believe (Jacob) and those who do not (Esau), but about the way God relates to human beings, calling them congruenter or not, choosing them as his elect, or not. The difference lies now entirely in God himself.26
Unfortunately, Augustine's conception of humanity fallen and sinful clashes with the account of creation and leads to a misconception of both God and humanity. Creation, and even more so the new creation in Christ, affirms the continuity between God and his creation, that is, it sees creation and re-creation as the outworking of the purpose of God in harmony with himself. Augustine, committed as he was to the inherent evil of humanity rooted in an even more deeply-held dualism between good (God) and evil (humanity), can only operate from a paradigm of discontinuity between God and the created order and can never fully harmonize the fullness of God's loving character with the events he witnessed and attempted to make sense of.
It is Augustine's desire to explain what he observed that ultimately led him to embrace what we would call divine determinism. Peter Thuesen clearly shows another of the bishop's observations thus, "Like other ancients, he lacked the resources of modern science for explaining the causes of things he observed in the world. It was therefore plausible to him that birth defects were the wages of an inherited sin. It also seemed obvious to him that humanity was a massa perditionis (mass of perdition)—a universally fallen multitude. How else could one explain the constant turmoil and sorrow of human existence?"27 It is this limited point of view coupled with a supreme overconfidence in explanatory power that results in such hasty conclusions.
Not only, as we have seen above, does Augustine rely on the inevitability of personal evil, but he also sees humanity as intrinsically evil because of his doctrine of original sin. Therefore he sets up a sort of dualism reminiscent of Manichaeism: an inherently good God juxtaposed with an inherently evil humanity.28 This dualism extends to two classifications of humanity as well because of the doctrine of unconditional election (the elect and the reprobate, to use later terminology). Augustine was roundly criticized by the fifth-century monks in Gaul over this dualistic approach to anthropology. Ogliari writes,
According to the [monks], another feature of Augustine's thought smacking of Manichaeism, was the apparent fatalism lying in the assumption that mankind had been divided into two rival groups, one following God and the other siding with evil. It is most likely that the antithetical and radical dualism of the Manichaean teaching of the two realms of light and darkness, good and evil, exercised an influence on Augustine's doctrines of the two cities/kingdoms, particularly as expounded in De civitate Dei 11. When it comes to the ripest fruit of Augustine's doctrine of grace, viz. his concept of predestination, the [monks] would substantially bring about the same reproach, ready to claim that whereas the Augustine who had defended human freedom before 396 was the "Christian" Augustine, the Augustine who wrote on divine election after that date was the "fatalist" and "Manichaean" Augustine, hiding behind Paul's teaching.29
Such a dualism, Lee argues, makes enslavement to personal evil the key factor in adopting determinism, as he writes,
Since the more deeply one is bonded to evil, the less one is able to control one's destiny, the belief in the inevitability of personal evil would then imply a view that the determination is made by the God who orders the cosmos. Expressed in the language of predestination, this view means that God has the power to elect from the massa damnata those who receive salvation and to leave the rest in damnation.30
The received tradition of the church, up to the time of Augustine, never recognized an evil principle operating inherently in humanity. Instead, the tradition of Christianity saw original sin as mortality and the loss of original righteousness. The pre-Augustinian fathers unanimously believed that humanity was basically good, though corrupted and made liable to mortality in the fall. Augustine is the first Christian teacher to so radicalize original sin that humanity becomes a mass of perdition.31
Augustine was likewise accused by his critics of being a fatalist. To be sure, Augustine rejected the pagan doctrine of fate, but in reality, he just moved the architect of all that occurs from the stars to the unsearchable will of God. He likewise is the first Christian to articulate a concept of providence that looks like the pagan fate in Christian dress. Ogliari writes, "The deterministic way in which Augustine has depicted God's election and reprobation does allow us to claim that predestination is in fact the concept he has used in place of the old pagan astrological concept of [fate]."32 At the end of the day, the only difference between fate and Augustine's version of theistic determinism is the one pulling the strings—the results are exactly the same.
In the end, Lee has argued that Augustine borrowed the ideas of the "good" and of inevitable personal evil from the Manichees. Ultimately, he rejected his Manichaean roots (though their good and evil dualism remained with him the rest of his life) because he feared God would be too weak—that is, "cruelly weak—to prevent evil.33 This revolution against any perceived weakness in God also remained with Augustine until his death. Rist writes, "Augustine's continuing fear of God's 'weakness' is part of the explanation of his harsher attitude to the providential governance of the world." While all Christians certainly have believed in an all-powerful God, the Christians in pre-Augustinian times did not over-exalt God's omnipotence in order to overcome a perceived fear of God's weakness. Both of Augustine's first two assumptions, then, are an over-reaction against the Manichaean past and an accommodation to it. He proved unable to overcome the snare of his former heresy even though he repeatedly repudiated it.
Dr. Gifford is Head of Department of General Studies and professor of theology and church history at New Life Theological Seminary, Charlotte, NC
17Rist, Augustine, 273.
18Ogliari, Gratia et Certamen, 372. See also Augustine, Epistle 190, 3.12 (CSEL 57:146).
20Ibid. On the speculations on God’s revenge, see Augustine, City of God, 21.12.
21Augustine, Enchiridion, 96. Logos Virtual Library. Accessed 23 Oct 2012. <http://www.logoslibrary.org/augustine/enchiridion/096.html>.
22See Augustine, To Simplician, 2.2.16 or Augustine Sermon 341.7.9, as shown in Rist, Augustine, 275.
23Such is the argument Rist, Augustine, 276, makes reflecting the original objection by Julian of Eclanum to Augustine’s refusal to make human justice compatible with the divine.
24Ibid., 277. The Sermon is from Augustine. Italics in original.
25Ogliari, Gratia et Certamen, 316.
27Thuesen, Predestination, 22.
28See Ogliari, Gratia et Certamen, 388, especially n. 425.
30Lee, Augustine, Manichaeism, and the Good, 91.
31See Ibid., 90 for Lee’s discussion of how Augustine’s mentor, Ambrose, firmly rooted in the received tradition, never arrived at any form of determinism. See also Thomas F. Torrance, “The Goodness and Dignity of Man in the Christian Tradition”
32Ogliari, Gratia et Certamen, 391.
33See Rist, Augustine, 262.
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: Part A; Part B