This next-to-last post will examine the exegetical and hermeneutical method Augustine employs in constructing his teachings on grace and providence. Before I begin, I want to state my deep indebtedness to Donato Ogliari and his fine work Gratia et Certamen [Grace and Struggle]. Most of the real research in this section is his and I have only summarized it. One may wonder why this section comes later in this series of posts than his assumptions and the examination of the sources of those assumptions. It should be clear that the driving force behind Augustine’s theological construction that leads him to the precipice of determinism is neither Scripture nor the received tradition—rather it is his reaction to and accommodation to his pagan past. Now the Christian Augustine must be able to reconcile his imported assumptions with the teachings of the faith he now embraces. In order to do so, it seems he attempts to bend Scripture to fit his already-existing theological ideas, and seems content to read what he desires into the text of Scripture rather than draw his theological conclusions out of it. When it comes to biblical exegesis and theological reflection, Augustine certainly places the proverbial cart before the proverbial horse.
The first text Augustine abuses is 1 Cor 4:7, “What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as if you had not received it?” In its context, Paul utters these words as he chides the Corinthians who are setting themselves up to be superior to him, even though he was the one through whom they heard and believed. Augustine removes it completely from its context and states it as a universal truth, because as so, it becomes a prooftext for his peculiar version of grace. Any good that a human being does is now, according to his misuse of 1 Cor 4:7, a gift of God, because due to the inherent evil of humanity, any good must come from without.1 Furthermore, his interpretation of 1 Cor 4:7 is the foundation of his more famous interpretation of Romans 9 and the latter cannot be understood without the former.2 Although patristic hermeneutical methods were quite different than the ones employed by contemporary Evangelicals, Augustine’s misuse of 1 Cor 4:7 is a tremendous blunder. What makes it especially bad is that (as Ogliari shows in footnote 1) it becomes the entryway into his hermeneutical maze leading to divine determinism.
A second text that Augustine misconstrues is Song of Solomon 4:8. He bases his interpretation on the Latin version of the faulty LXX translation that renders “From the beginning of faith” rather than the Hebrew which yields “From the peak of Amana.”3 Here, Ogliari shows that Augustine interpreted the passage to mean that Christ invites his bride to join him from the beginning of faith, which allows Augustine to use this verse as a prooftext for “the precedence of divine action with regard to the act of faith itself.”4 So this mistranslation becomes a useful tool in the argument that his determinism is “biblical.”
Augustine’s third hermeneutical blunder is mapping the words of Jesus in Matt 20:16 (“Many are called but few are chosen”) onto Paul’s understanding of “called” in Rom 8:28–30. Ogliari insightfully notes,
Augustine adopts and maintains, in his exegetical approach to the Pauline pericope, the Matthean distinction of the [many called, few chosen], a distinction which, in reality, does not correspond to Paul’s semantic world. In fact, by the term [called] the Apostle meant all those who effectively respond to divine call, whereas the interpretation of the bishop of Hippo, restricting the Pauline meaning of the term, attaches the effectiveness of the divine call to God’s propositum, that is to God’s predestination. In this way Augustine’s exegesis, in accordance with his own theological presuppositions, posits the effectiveness of man’s call (and therefore of his salvation) in God alone.5
Thus Augustine equivocates the meaning of the word “call” between Matthew and Paul and thereby creates another prooftext for the soteriological and cosmological theorems that derive from his assumptions.
Perhaps the area in which Augustine deviates the most from the received Christian tradition is his interpretation of Romans 9. The Gallic monks correctly accused Augustine of interpreting that passage as no one had ever done before in the history of Christianity.6
As Ogliari writes, “Augustine did not develop his theological construction on predestination by basing himself on the exegetical results of his Christian predecessors. Rather he relied on his own, independent interpretation of the Pauline letters, the emphasis being on the letter to the Romans.”7 That is, Augustine leaves the received tradition behind when dealing with Romans 9, replacing “a biblical approach” with “a speculative one.”8 As is well-known, his interpretation of Romans 9:10–29 is what caused Augustine to abandon his teaching of predestination via foreknowledge.
In his interpretation of Romans 9, Augustine replaces Paul’s primary aim (the salvation of Israel as a people) with “the grace of faith and on the necessity on not boasting about one’s own merits deriving from works.”9 He completely shifted the corporate nature of Romans 9 to the predestination of individuals. In it, he makes the distinction between the general call of God and the deterministic special call, as Jacob is elected (special) while Esau is called (general).10 The potter and clay mean that God can do whatever he wants with his creation and the initiative is always his, since the lump of clay (massa) has no right to ask of the potter what he is doing.11 Ogliari writes, “So for Augustine, the term massa becomes a forceful tool to describe the powerless, sinful situation which humanity finds itself (massa peccati), together with the damnation that goes with it (massa damnata), and from which only those whom God’s decree has predestined will be delivered.”12 Furthermore, Ogliari observes,
God’s predestination, in fact, presupposes a primordial idea of ‘origin’ (in this case Adam’s ‘original’ sin) in which all men share and from which they are excluded by God’s election. It is as though this ‘origin’ were an amorphous sinful substance (a sort of ur-qualifying element) constituting the physical and moral structure of human beings. Man has no right whatsoever to ask God the reason for this primordial sinful state, precisely as the vessel is not expected to ask the potter, who is shaping it, why it is being given that particular form rather than another one (Rom 9:20–1).13
Augustine has now made his entire deterministic theory fit neatly into the structure of the words of Romans 9, taken apart from the context of chapters 9–11 or of the letter as a whole.
The entire Augustinian tradition built on the foundation the bishop laid. But did he lay the correct foundation? One who does not share his initial assumptions at laid out at the beginning of this chapter would have to say no. Ogliari summarizes the opposition to Augustine well,
Thus, determined to safeguard his conclusion that any activity on man’s part to procure grace must be excluded, Augustine bypasses Paul’s intention, which was indeed very different. The Apostle wanted to emphasize that human activity, in relation to God, is always a matter of receiving and cherishing that which comes from him, without excluding the part which man has to play. Moreover, for Paul predestination has to be understood in strict connection with Christ’s activity. In the Son of God, who is the utmost revelation of divine grace and benevolence, God’s universal plan of salvation is made manifest, and only in Christ and through him can the predestination of man be posited and comprehended. Finally, whereas for Paul the concept of predestination envisaged the possibility of all men being saved, Augustine introduces a sort of dualism. Replacing Paul’s unitary and soteriologically oriented view, he defines the concept of God’s bestowal (or not) of vera gratia [true grace], resulting either to predestination to grace and glory of the pauci (the elect) or rejection of the multi (the reprobates). And so, while depending in many respects on Paul’s thought on issues such as God’s absolute and free initiative, the gratuity of predestination, the importance of permission to sin, Augustine’s ‘theological’ exegesis of Rom 9:10–29 cannot be justified. Rather than drawing enlightenment from Paul’s primary intention, as expressed in those passages from which he claims to derive his doctrine of predestination, the bishop of Hippo falls, perhaps malgre soi [against his will], into the unhappy perspective of reading (and looking for sustenance in) the Pauline pericope through the spectacles of his own viewpoint on absolute grace.14
To summarize, Ogliari writes, “In this way Augustine’s exegesis, in accordance with his own theological presuppositions, posits the effectiveness of man’s call (and therefore of his salvation) in God alone.”15 Thus Augustine took the words of Paul and forced his theological theorems upon them. Jacob, Esau, and the potter and clay became metaphors for the absolute, deterministic grace of God in accordance with his own theological assumptions. Again, Augustine never hearkens back to the words of Jeremiah or Malachi that Paul is referencing, and never takes into account the use of figurative language (synechdoche, polar contrast, and metaphor) in the Hebrew prophetic genre. It is Paul’s words, at literal “face value,” with a good dash of Augustine’s theological assumptions all mixed together.
Once Romans 9 has been interpreted to be the “clear” teaching of the absolute, deterministic nature of divine grace, Augustine (and all who follow his assumptions) then force other Bible texts that read differently to fall in line with the reading of Romans 9. For Augustine, Romans 9 becomes a controlling text of Scripture because it can be made to say what his theological assumptions dictate when the text is wrenched from context (as has been shown Augustine was a master at doing). Perhaps the text of Scripture that suffers the worst from Augustine’s system on grace and determinism is 1 Tim 2:4. For Augustine, the text cannot mean what it says because of basic logical deduction from his assumptions. Some are not saved; and the will of God always comes to pass. Therefore, those who are not saved God did not will to elect. So in what sense can God will all men to be saved? Augustine answers this as best he can by saying that no one is saved unless God wills it. He continues with perhaps the clearest statement of determinism he makes when he writes “If he wills, then what he wills must necessarily be.”16 His conclusion on the subject is that “all” must mean “all kinds” because the will of the omnipotent is always undefeated.17 If God had indeed willed every single human to be saved, then that is what would have occurred.18 Every disciple of Augustine has followed him on this interpretation to the present day.
Ogliari shows how Augustine’s assumptions drove his interpretation. Commenting on Augustine’s Enchiridion 24.95, He writes, “Rather than explaining 1 Tim 2:4 according to Paul’s intention, he is more preoccupied by saving the absolute transcendence and infallibility of God’s plans within the framework of sovereign grace. The fact that not all men are actually saved cannot simply be ascribed to the ill will of those who refuse to be saved. If it were so, it would mean that God’s will were deficient, and that it could be easily jeopardized by man’s free will.”20 He continues that God’s will, on the contrary, is, translated from Latin, “certain, immutable, and most efficacious.”20 Once God’s sovereign, deterministic will to save is in place, 1 Tim 2:4 cannot be interpreted as written.
With all of the above, Ogliari summarizes, “The chief methodological fault in Augustine’s approach is that he moves from the level of a general, metaphysical principle, viz. God’s universal salvific will, to the pragmatic level of its realization in history, at least in the way he ‘imagines’ that God’s salvific will happens concretely. For Augustine, in fact, it is a perspicua veritas [clearly expressed truth] that only the predestined are saved.”20 His theological assumptions just will not allow any real idea that God wants all human beings to be saved. He must reinterpret any Scripture that would describe universal intent toward salvation in order to hold his theory together.
Given all of the above, could Augustine be rightly charged with innovation? It would seem so, since he clearly departed from the received teaching of the church on matters such as grace, original sin, and unconditional election.22 Ogliari strongly agrees that Augustine is indeed guilty of innovation as he writes,
We realize immediately that Augustine’s dealing with the doctrine of predestination, which finds its definitive formulation here, is innovative on both a terminological and a doctrinal level. Firstly, when compared with the way that the ancient Fathers of the Church understood it, the bishop of Hippo’s emphasis on predestination to grace, rather than on predestination to glory, becomes very relevant. It entails, in fact, a shift from an eschatological orientation (where God leads the life of man with his unwavering mercy) to a meta-historical and meta-temporal orientation, where the divine decrees about human beings, their historical development, and their eschatological goal, are already fixed ab aeternitae [from eternity]. Of course, God’s grace and its efficacy constitute the conditio sine qua non [condition without which not] for man to share at all in the divine glory, which is and remains the final goal. And yet Augustine prefers to speak of predestination in relation to God’s eternally spoken decrees rather than to God’s eschatological future.
Moreover, the bishop of Hippo’s understanding of predestination brings into question the ultimate significance of God’s oeconomia salutis [economy of salvation]. If predestination, rather than being considered from an eschatological perspective, is firmly established in God’s eternal decrees, then an unbridgeable dichotomy would be discovered between God’s and man’s agency. In other words, if the concept of predestination does not take into account the concrete arena of human existence wherein man makes choices and strives for salvation, if it is primarily viewed as an immobilis veritas [unmovable truth] stemming from a transcendent (pre-)-disposition of God, located in his eternal decrees, then the problem to be accounted for would indeed be that of the compatibility of God’s transcendence with his commitment in history and the way their interplay is envisaged.23
Not only is innovation a problem here, but As Ogliari has noted, the absolute nature of grace opens up a whole host of other theological issues, not the least of which is destroying the balance between God’s transcendence and his immanent work in the world. To summarize this section, Augustine failed to grasp two things: that he was reading his own theological assumptions into Scripture and the far-reaching implications of his assumptions. The last post in this series will briefly summarize how both of these points were critiqued in his own time.
Dr. Gifford is Head of Department of General Studies and professor of theology and church history at New Life Theological Seminary, Charlotte, NC
1See Ogliari, Gratia et Certamen, 155 – 6, as well as the footnotes on 156 showing the extensive dependence in Augustine’s own writings on his particular interpretation of 1 Cor 4:7. I won’t repeat Ogliari’s exhaustive research here.
3Ibid., 290. As always, Ogliari provides multiple primary source citations from Augustine on the point.
6Ibid., 336, n. 169
11Ibid., 340 – 1, The massa is the lump of clay, representing all of humanity according to Augustine.
16Augustine, Enchiridion 27.103.
17For this and other types of such “creative exegesis,” see Augustine, Enchiridion, 103 and Augustine, On Rebuke and Grace, 14.
18Rist, Augustine, 271 n. 40 states, consistent with the argument in this chapter, that Augustine’s views on grace were not the product of an old man, but were quite consistent beginning with his letter to Simplician in 396.
19Ogliaria, Gratia et Certamen, 363.
22On the latter, see for example Irenaeus, Against Heresies 4.37.
23Ogliari, Gratia et Certamen, 323–4.
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