The third assumption in Augustine's thinking is his experience, based on personal observation, that some humans are not saved. In his own life, Augustine observed that some babies die before being baptized. For Augustine, reconciliation to God in Christ is impossible without baptism.1 Not everyone who was baptized was ultimately saved, but baptism for him was a "condition sine qua non" for salvation.2 Therefore anyone who died without baptism likewise died without hope of salvation. Combined with his views of God's unlimited power and humanity's helplessness, Augustine reasoned that those who died without baptism were never elected to salvation in the first place.
Here is precisely the point where Augustine, in order to hold his system of thought together, must resort to determinism. If a certain baby is among those whom God has elected for salvation, then God, in his providence, must work out her life details in space-time in order that she be baptized before death. If she were to die without baptism, she could not possibly be saved. Therefore God must determine temporal events in her life to guarantee her physical baptism and therefore seal her as one of the elect. Eugene Teselle summarizes Augustine's answer to this dilemma well:
This assumption that damnation can result from original sin alone and that deliverance from its guilt can come only through the administration of baptism subjects the destiny of the infant, at least, to the control of external circumstances, what Augustine's opponents called fate and what Augustine, in reply, called the just outworking of consequences and the providential guidance of events by God. It is precisely because the matter is so important—because the destiny of a person is determined by external factors, one way or the other—that Augustine had to convince himself that the nexus of finite occurrences is divinely guided.3
A baby is unable to arrange the events in order to be baptized. Someone must act on her behalf to bring the act of baptism to pass. Because in Augustine's view there is no ability to will or do the good in humanity apart from divine grace, God must arrange the events so that a particular baby is baptized and therefore shows her eternal election to salvation. Therefore meticulous determinism, at least in the lives of the elect, is at work to assure their baptism before death, though I am not able to find this explicit logical deduction in any of Augustine's writings. For Augustine, a person is not saved by eternal decree alone—that decree must be worked out in the administration of the sacrament of baptism before death, as well as all causal events leading up to the physical baptism itself. As A. C. McGiffert writes, "God predetermines means as well as ends and wills to save men only through the sacraments."4 Yet a major contradiction lurks beneath the surface of Augustine's synthesis.
If those elected to salvation were the only ones who received the sacrament of baptism, Augustine's theories would have greatly expanded explanatory power. However, by his own personal experience, Augustine observed some who received baptism as an adult who, having fallen back into a life of sinfulness, died in a lapsed state. For these unfortunate ones, receiving the sacrament of baptism was completely insignificant in their lives. They were not elected, therefore they did not persevere. In Augustine's mind, the sacrament of baptism itself is ultimately valid only for those whom God has elected. It cannot mean anything for the non-elect, except possibly give the non-elect person a false sense of security that he is saved when he is not. Ogliari sums up well the contradiction inherent in such a view:
It would seem that, on one hand, the sacrament of regeneration delivers the person concerned from the massa damnata, while on the other this person has no guarantee of a future share in eternal bliss. Nor can such a guarantee be looked for in membership of the Church or in one's serious and active engagement in the Christian faith, for even the "faithful" cannot be certain of final perseverance. The good that man accomplishes could, in fact, be only a temporary achievement. Final perseverance in virtue and goodness, as the prerequisite for salvation, is guaranteed only by God's inscrutable and eternal decrees.5
As Ogliari observes, there is nothing in a person's life that can provide any sort of conclusive evidence that she is saved. No amount of good works, faithfulness, sacraments, or any other temporal event can give any personal assurance of her salvation. The only determining factor of salvation is God's decree. Ogliari continues his criticism thus:
Augustine's conviction that God's will operates within an "eternal present", in which the effects are produced hic et nunc, prevents him from properly taking into account the temporal and historical involvement of God in the person of Jesus Christ, and the ultimate significance of the Church and her sacraments. Moreover, Augustine's vertically oriented doctrine of predestination lacks, as it were, the necessary consideration of so-called "secondary causes" as being also an undeniable part of the offer of salvation which, thanks to the incarnation and the paschal mystery of Christ, is continually bestowed on every human being.6
In summary, Augustine's inability to connect human salvation to the work of Christ in salvation history is perhaps the greatest weakness in his theory of grace. The work of Christ, the Church, the sacraments, and human obedience mean precious little in his view of salvation. Instead, all is in the decree.
Rist summarizes the difficulty of Augustine's views of God and baptism together as he writes,
We conclude that Augustine lacks the conceptual resources to distinguish omnipotence from arbitrariness in God and thereby compromises the workings of the power of God's love, itself a peculiarly Augustinian divine attribute. With his inadequate account of omnipotence he combines an ingenious but incomplete account of baptism to produce—for reasons which are much more than reducible to the historical practices of the North African Church—the ultimately incoherent account of salvation which "Augustinianism" designates. To escape from his difficulties he needs at least a more powerful analysis of omnipotence and a substantive thesis about the baptism of desire.7
Thus all is reduced to the determination of God at the expense of other related characteristics of his nature.
Not only is the initial step of faith in baptism subject to the workings of determinism, so is the work of God in keeping the elect in perseverance. Since perseverance is as much the work of God as the guarantee of baptism in the life of the elect, he again must control all events in order to bring about final perseverance. Again, given the cause-and-effect nature of all events in the mind of Augustine, God's engineering of final perseverance of the saints would require the meticulous determining of their lives to bring about his desired effect.
In concluding the discussion of Augustine's three working assumptions, it must be noted that none of the three are airtight or even plausible. The weaker view of omnipotence, which the Bible seems to imply concerning God, need not entail the stronger version of omnipotence. If God's will has more than one aspect, as theologians before and after Augustine in the free-will tradition have argued, then the stronger version of omnipotence does not describe the will of the Judeo-Christian God at all. It would be more fitting for the deity of Neo-Platonism. Augustine's particular infralapsarian understanding of human nature undergirded by his novel interpretation of original sin and guilt is likewise quite problematic. It is exegetically dubious and ignores the received tradition that human nature is good even after the fall. It also runs the risk of elevating the concept of sin from a temporal one (with a beginning at the fall) to an eternal reality and the guiding principle for the way God sees humanity from all eternity. Finally, while Augustine's observation that some humans die unsaved is correct, he seems to either over- or under-emphasize the importance of the sacrament of baptism in determining who may or may not be saved. At this point in the discussion, it would seem that none of his assumptions are on solid theological ground. That is important to keep in mind as we now see what sort of theological edifice Augustine constructs on the foundation of his shaky assumptions.
Finally, we will examine the logical implications of Augustine's three working assumptions, namely the absolute nature of divine grace, predestination, and unconditionality of divine election. Once these three assumptions are in place, the three "theorems" can be derived rather easily.
First, if God is omnipotent in the strong sense that Augustine affirms, and if humanity is so deficient that he is incapable of doing good (a mass of sin), then assumptions 1 and 2 will yield that any good that is done in humanity occurs via the absolute nature of divine grace. If God's grace is so absolute, then determinism cannot be avoided. Moreover, a corollary to these assumptions is the Augustinian doctrine of predestination. Here, Ogliari writes,
To begin with, we must confidently claim what is undisputable in Augustine's theological thought, namely that his doctrine of predestination is an aspect or, as it were, the clearest example of the far-reaching implications of the absolute gratuity and necessity of grace. It follows that the bishop of Hippo's doctrine of predestination cannot be approached and regarded as a reality that stands alone. It is a "theological theorem", a "corollary" of the central doctrine of the absolute sovereignty of grace.8
Once the absolute nature of divine grace is in place, predestination of all events follows rapidly, since "the will of the omnipotent is always undefeated." What actually occurs must ultimately be the will of God. Unconditional, individual election to salvation also immediately follows from the absolute nature of divine grace and the third Augustinian assumption—some are not saved. God, then, must choose those who are to be the recipients of his saving grace, and it cannot be merited because his doctrine of grace already assumed the self-helplessness of the individual human.
Once the theorems of absolute grace, predestination, and unconditional individual election are in place, Augustine, though he would not admit it, has become a thoroughgoing determinist. Ogliari accuses Augustine of Christianizing the pagan idea of fate because he confuses foreknowledge and causality, blurring any distinction between them. He writes,
"Wanting to stress God's control over the world, Augustine replaces, as it were, the term providence with those of [foreknowledge] and [predestination] whose point of reference is ultimately God and God alone."9
"It is precisely this individualistic principle [that God chooses individually that certain and fixed number those who are saved and damns the rest], lying at the heart of Augustine's doctrine of predestination and election, that makes it difficult for us to understand how it can be related to the corporate mystery of the Church as the mystical body of Christ."10
In the end, Augustine's three assumptions remove salvation from the space-time event of the incarnation and transport it to the unsearchable decrees of God in eternity. Not only is salvation so relocated, but every event in human history now falls under the meticulous control of the omnipotent God who ordains all.
Dr. Gifford is Head of Department of General Studies and professor of theology and church history at New Life Theological Seminary, Charlotte, NC
1Bonner, Freedom and Necessity, 6.
2Ogliari, Gratia et Certamen, 412.
3Eugene Teselle, Augustine the Theologian (New York: Herder and Herder, 1970), 324. Italics in original.
4McGiffert, History, 133
5Ogliari, Gratia et Certamen, 412.
7Rist, Augustine, 286.
8Ogliari, Gratia et Certamen, 324–5
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