Augustine and Predestination

If we want to see how Augustine's teachings still affect Christianity today we need look no further than the issue of predestination. It is a thorny issue over which people are apt to take strong and clear sides - Augustine certainly did. Moreover, it is a double-edged sword bringing comfort and courage to some and despondence and despair to others.

In 427, nine years after the close of the Pelagian controversy, an unlucky monk by the name of Florus decided to bring Letter 194 back to his monastery for some engaging reading. Far from being appreciative, the monks were sent into an uproar over the letter, and thus began the "revolt of the monasteries." The letter had been written to Sixtus by Augustine and explained that "God alone determined the destinies of men..." (Brown, 401). For monks who were focused on striving to imitate Christ more fully in the hopes that they might be worthy servants of God, Augustine's doctrine that God had already decided who would be saved and who would not seemed thoroughly pessimistic and defeating. These monks, though far from being followers of Pelagian, did believe that humans have some measure of free will which, accompanied by God's grace, enables them to come to Christ "in terror, with a beseeching will" (Brown, 403).

Surprisingly, despite his staunch position on the issue, Augustine felt at ease with these Catholic monks and treated them and their questions with respect and kindness. For Augustine it was a matter of affirming the omnipotent and omniscient qualities of God. To limit them in any way was to detract from God's glory and perfection. Thus, to assert that petty humans, by a freely chosen decision, could influence (or even change?) God's eternal plans and knowledge would mean that God did not have meticulous control over all that transpired in the universe. Furthermore, Augustine, as we have seen, was very aware of the power and effects of sin on the will of the human. To claim that a person's will could play any part in choosing God's grace was to deny the utterly devastating effects of sin. Salvation is sola gratie, only by grace. What measure does faith have in this? How are we justified by faith (Rom. 3:28)? Is faith an undeserved gift received by the elect or is it rather the choice we make to hope and trust in Jesus for our salvation?

So what has happened to free will? Good question. One aspect, that of being able to have a real choice between good and evil, was lost in the fall when Adam sinned, according to Augustine. Because of that fall humanity cannot even hope for salvation through any works of our own. We must rely solely on the gratuity and mercy of God to come to our aid. And in fact, God has decided to have mercy on us, or rather, some of us. Before time, Augustine claims, God has made the judgement of who is to be predestined for salvation and who is not. Furthermore, the election is not based on a foreknowledge of the person's future acts, but on the inscrutable wisdom of the Lord (Fitzgerald, 678). Augustine bases this conclusion on verses such as Rom. 8:28-30 which affirm that "those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son."

It would seem to follow that if God predestines some to heaven and some to hell, then God thus predestines some to sin (since that is how one is separated from God). However, Augustine will claim that humans are not predestined to sin, and in that sense we have free will, and thus can be held morally responsible for our sins. Humans still have wills, but they are corrupted so that while there is the possibility of doing both good and evil, in actuality we will always do evil, unless one's will is healed by God's grace (Fitzgerald, 666). It is a compatibilist notion that holds that God's complete predestination and our free wills can both be true. Perhaps the following example will help: a man has two broken legs and wants to walk. He has the choice of either walking or not walking, but in actuality he will not be able to walk until his legs are healed. Of course many will argue that a choice is not a free choice unless there is the actual possibility of choosing one of two options. This is the incompatibilist idea: that God's complete predestination and true free will are not logically compatible. In response to this, compatibilists will rely heavily on the mystery and wisdom of God for explaining how their ideas work, but is leaving something that seems so counterintuitive and illogical to the mystery of God an acceptable answer?

In addition to the logical problems of predestination there are the Biblical problems with which Augustine had to contend. Augustine held that the predestined were fixed, and that their "number is so certain that one can neither be added to them nor taken from them" (Corr Grat, 39). Furthermore, Augustine holds that "in comparison to those that perish few [are elected]" (Corr Grat, 28). How does he square this assertion with Scriptures such as John 1:7 and 1 Tim. 2:4 which claim that God "desires everyone to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth." Augustine interprets these passages by claiming "all" means "the predestined." It is akin to 1 Cor. 10:33 where Paul writes that he seeks to please everyone in all he does, but he does not please his persecutors, rather only those in Christ's Church (Corr Grat, 44). Is this an acceptable interpretation of these verses? Does God not love those who are not chosen or do the non-elect experience the justly deserved wrath of God for their sin? Are the lives and sufferings of most of the world who are not one of the elect meaningless since they were created for eternal suffering? How does one not lose hope and the desire to evangelize in the face of these questions?

It should be noted that the meticulous predestination of Augustine and the insistence on complete free will of Pelagius are not the only two options on this matter. John Cassian, who lived during the same time as Augustine, tried to develop a middle road by claiming that "a good action may sometimes begin at the instigation of divine grace and sometimes originate from the human will, but that both grace and human effort are necessary to carry out an action" (Fitzgerald, 134). Might this be an acceptable way to hold the two extremes in balance?

Despite the troubles and anxieties predestination causes many people today, it brought great comfort to Augustine and his followers. Though not by giving one an assurance of salvation, as might be thought. "For who of the multitude of believers can presume, so long as he is living in this mortal state, that he is in the number of the predestinated" (Corr Grat, 40)? For to know if you are among the predestined would bring pride. Rather, it brought comfort by assuring that the elect would abide in Christ no matter what hardships and persecutions they might face. It gave assurance that one need not constantly worry about falling into the gaping and ever-present traps for the soul, for it was only by grace that the traps would ever be avoided. So we come to an end of this brief synopsis of so confounding an issue, and as usual we are left with questions. Is it a matter in which emphasis should be placed on whichever best edifies and encourages the hearer to pursue God? Maybe we should believe we are predestined, but act as if we have real free will? Perhaps these things are too fixed in God's mystery to ever be unveiled this side of eternity?

Augustine. A Treatise on Rebuke and Grace (De Correptione Et Gratia).
Brown, Peter. Augustine of Hippo: A Biography. University of California Press, 2000.
Fitzgerald, Allan (Ed.). Augustine Through the Ages: An Encyclopedia. Eerdmans, 1999.

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