And now, below is Part B: Augustine's Critics and Legacy by Dr. Jim Gifford:
Final Assessment of Augustine on Grace and Providence
There can be no doubt, given the argument presented, that Augustine’s innovations were a serious departure from the received tradition in the way nature and grace were viewed. His true innovation was an unstated (at least by him) theistic determinism, in which all that occurred was willed by God. Though Augustine did try to avoid such a conclusion, he was unable to do so given his assumptions. John Sanders writes, “Augustine seems to affirm ‘specific sovereignty,’ according to which each and every event that happens is decreed by God to occur.”1 On Augustine’s relationship to his predecessors, Sanders writes,
Augustine’s ideas have had a profound effect on Western thought. On some issues Augustine traces out more fully the views of the fathers, and on other issues he was an innovator, turning away from the freewill tradition to divine determinism (meticulous control). His understanding of grace, faith, and God’s ‘relationship’ to creation are seen in mechanistic terms rather than in personalistic and covenantal categories. His emphasis on divine immutability takes precedence over God’s suffering love and faithfulness and rules out any possibility of God’s having give-and-take relations with us (let alone the notion of divine risk taking.)2
Such a synthesis results in a situation Seeburg describes thus, “Grace and nature, mercy and justice, are seen in direct opposition to one another, as formerly in Marcion, and a solution is offered as paradoxical as was his, and as unsatisfactory to the religious sense.”3 Augustine, in order to hold together his assumptions, created a dualistic split in both theology proper and anthropology that has never been bridged in the west to this day.
The theorems derived from Augustine’s assumptions cause other theological problems. Ogliari states that theological determinism cannot be reconciled with divine simplicity, the “the complete absence in God of any distinction, variation, disproportion, or inequality.”4 Ogliari continues, “It would be difficult to believe that Augustine did not see a contradiction between the notion of a God who is simplex (simple) on one side, and the notion of a predestinarian ‘discriminating’ God on the other.”5 That is, if there is nothing in humans that causes the election of God, it must be something in God himself that is the basis of choice, and it is difficult to uphold a real doctrine of divine simplicity in such circumstances.
A second difficulty in Augustine’s determinism is the one raised by the monks of Gaul. If all is already pre-determined, what is the use of striving for a godly life? If all “human destiny has already been decided in a meta-historical realm,”6 to use the words of Ogliari, what is the real difference between obedience and rebellion, or between good and evil? A related problem is that in Augustine’s deterministic model, salvation is removed from space-time and placed into eternity. Thus nothing in space-time could give one any assurance that she possessed salvation. For instance, baptism was required for salvation but did not confirm it. Neither did the sacraments, living in an obedient manner, prayer, or growth in Christlikeness. Every indicator one could use to see Chrisitan growth is space-time had to bow before the hidden election of God. In this way, the incompatibility inherent to Augustine’s system of nature and grace anticipated the sixteenth century and the Protestant Reformers. As true Augustinians as regards soteriology, they merely discarded the space-time sacramental indicators and openly relied on the hidden counsels of God for their election.
A third difficulty in Augustine’s determinism is how he handles criticism of it. When he is backed into a corner, he inevitably appeals to the unknowable ways of God as an answer. Ogliari writes, “The fact that Augustine ultimately bowed before the unfathomable mystery of God’s designs—as if he really wished to leave the last word to him—is a further indication that he could not give an adequate or satisfying answer to the problem of God’s attitude and of his way of acting on the two different levels of election and reprobation.”7 In his final assessment of Augustine’s treatment of Scripture, Ogliari summarizes,
Such an appeal, however, could also conceal epistemological ambiguity. It is patently unfair, for instance, to appeal to a sovereign God (who acts above and beyond the world and the laws of his creation) simply as a means of supporting one’s own controversial answer to that same problematic question. There is no doubt that with regard to the problem of election and predestination Augustine used the argument of God’s inscrutable design not as an acknowledgement that such questions are unsolvable, but to support his own conclusions. Moreover, to appeal to the mysterious manner in which God deals with humanity (and to invoke a consequent submissive attitude on the part of man) would mean confirming an incompatibility between God’s grace and human freedom that would render futile any further effort in seeking and understanding how the two realities might be harmoniously related. The way Augustine interprets one of his favorite quotations, Rom 11:33, is a clear example of a biased approach. In fact, the inscrutability of God’s plan and judgment, before which man should feel an awe-filled terror, is used to justify his predestinarian doctrine. By contrast, Paul’s appeal in Rom 11:33 is not one of mere resignation; it is an appeal where, by exalting the riches, wisdom, and knowledge of God he is able to show how God manifests his love to all humanity, even though his ways are often impenetrable by our human understanding. There is a positive thread which unites the “depth” of God’s agency and the “incapability” of man to penetrate it. Divine judgment emanates from the depth of riches, wisdom, and knowledge of God’s love at work in the salvation history of mankind.8
Thus Augustine’s argument for the truth of his deterministic interpretation of nature and grace is ultimately circular. He appeals to the inscrutability of God to defend his interpretation of the inscrutability of God. That it has worked for so long and with so many is a testimony to his true genius. John Calvin is the ablest pupil of such circular argumentation—so much so that I have dubbed the “Who are you, o man?” response to the assertion of determinism the “John Calvin defense” (though in reality it belongs to his master Augustine).
In summarizing all of the difficulties required to hold Augustine’s thesis together, A. C. McGiffert writes, “The curious combination (in Augustine’s doctrine of God and man and sin and grace) of mystical piety, Neoplatonic philosophy, Manichean dualism, Christian tradition, strained exegesis, rigorous logic, and glaring inconsistencies born of religious instincts and moral needs, can hardly be matched anywhere else in human thought.”9 Concerning Augustine’s legacy, McGiffert writes,
Augustine’s disciple, the Swiss reformer Zwingli, of the sixteenth century, was less squeamish than his master at this point and declared that all the deeds of men, wicked as well as good, are done by God, the only real cause in the universe. But Augustine could not go so far. Not only was it a too flagrant contradiction of his belief in God as the alone source of good, but it also seemed to remove man’s responsibility for sin and thus to undermine morality.10
In the end, Augustine fails to hold it all together. His assumptions drive him to literally redesign the Christian faith in the areas of nature and grace, discarding what came before him for a rigorous system that bends all, including Scripture, to the outworkings of his theological assumptions. That he clearly broke from the received tradition should by now be beyond question. He was able to succeed because of the respect he commanded from his western Mediterranean counterparts and because he was largely ignored in the East (due to his Latin). I truly believe that had he lived closer to Alexandria and written in Greek, he would have come under censure and perhaps excommunication by the Greeks. He was powerful enough to overcome the opposition by the Pelagians and the Gallic monks. It has been only recently that he has been openly questioned in the Catholic and Protestant west. With the enormous shadow cast by his ideas, we should be willing to critically examine the edifice that stands between us and the sun in the light of love and truth.
Dr. Gifford is Head of Department of General Studies and professor of theology and church history at New Life Theological Seminary, Charlotte, NC
1Sanders, The God who Risks, 151
2Sanders, The God who Risks, 152–3.
3Seeburg, History of Doctrines, 352.
4Ogliari, Gratia et Certamen, 409.
9McGiffert, History, 98–9.
10McGiffert, History, 94–5.
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