Augustine’s Enchiridion 9: Redemption, grace and free will

Having discussed the fall, Augustine begins to turn his attention to redemption. He makes an interesting suggestion at the beginning of Chapter 9 (later echoed by Anselm in Cur Deus Homo) that there is something fitting or even necessary that the angels who fell and are permanently banished from heaven should be replaced by a corresponding number of redeemed human beings. “From the other part of rational creation–that is, mankind–although it had perished as a whole through sins and punishments, both original and personal, God had determined that a portion of it would be restored and would fill up the loss which that diabolical disaster had caused in the angelic society.”

The problem, naturally, is how a ceratin portion of fallen humanity is to be restored and redeemed. The first point to be established is that human beings are not able to redeem or restore themselves by the exercise of their own free will. This is because, while sin was freely chosen by our first parents, the consequences of that sin have rendered all subsequent generations incapable of exercising their free will to choose the Supreme Good. “For it was in the evil use of his free will that man destroyed himself and his will at the same time.” Humans are in bondage to sin and must be freed by some outside power if they are to avoid sin:

He serves freely who freely does the will of his master. Accordingly he who is slave to sin is free to sin. But thereafter he will not be free to do right unless he is delivered from the bondage of sin and begins to be the servant of righteousness. This, then, is true liberty: the joy that comes in doing what is right. At the same time, it is also devoted service in obedience to righteous precept.

Let’s stop here to note that Augustine has distinguished two different senses of freedom at this point. The first is what we might call metaphysical freedom or the “freedom of indifference;” this is the freedom to choose A or B, right or wrong. This is the freedom Adam and Eve had which they misused and consequently lost (along with the rest of humankind). Fallen human beings are no longer free, on Augustine’s view, to choose the good, but can only choose to sin.

The second kind of freedom — “true liberty” — is the freedom of a self that is oriented toward the Supreme Good and thus takes joy in doing the right thing. It’s one thing to choose the right thing against countervailing inclinations, but another to wholeheartedly will the good, without even, we might say, the possibility of choosing evil. This is presumably the kind of freedom that the angels and saints in heaven enjoy.

Our predicament, to which grace is the solution, then, is that we are incapable of moving from the state where our wills are broken and in bondage to sin to the state where we take joy in the good. On the one hand, Augustine writes, we have the witness of Scripture that “…it is God who is at work in you both to will and to do according to his good will” (Phil. 2.13) and “It is not therefore a matter of man’s willing, or of his running, but of God’s showing mercy” (Rom. 9.16) – all comes from God’s grace. And yet, “it is obvious that a man who is old enough to exercise his reason cannot believe, hope, or love unless he wills it, nor could he run for the prize of his high calling in God without a decision of his will.” It seems that everything depends on God and everything depends on our will.

The resolution of this seeming impasse for Augustine is that it is ultimately God who disposes the human will. God’s mercy “predisposes a man before he wills, to prompt his willing.” In other words, whether we can believe, hope, and love depends upon a prior act of God, who mercifully turns the will of the elect away from sin. God doesn’t save sinners against their will, but through their will.

The worry, of course, is that this risks making human beings mere puppets. If it depends on God to dispose my will in order for me to receive grace, then how can I possibly be blamed for not receiving it? But as we’ve already seen, Augustine holds that the entire human race is already justly held blameworthy for Adam’s sin and condemned to eternal death. So, God has no obligation, in strict justice, to save any human being. Therefore any mercy he shows is sheer gravy, so to speak.

I imagine many readers would be very unhappy with this scenario. I certainly find it troubling. But I think we should try and understand why Augustine takes this position. Clearly one major factor is Scripture. Like it or not, the God of the Bible does not seem to adhere to liberal egalitarian notions of justice. He chooses to save some and not others, he hardens hearts, he heals people not because they deserve it, but in order to manifest his glory. He is no respecter of persons.

Another factor, I think, is Augustine’s strong notion of God’s sovereignty. This is related to his anti-dualism and anti-Manichieism. There is no factor in creation which constrains God to act in one way or the other. God disposes events the way he sees fit. Modern theology, acting out of a liberal-humanistic impulse, has often sought to qualify God’s sovereignty in some way to avoid some of the harsher implications of Augustinian predestinarianism (as well as to provide a more adequate theodicy). Process theology is the clearest example of this: in order to make room for human freedom God’s power is limited. Whether this can be squared with the Christian witness is another matter.

Other contemporary theologians like William Placher and Kathryn Tanner have tried to articulate an understanding of God’s sovereignty that is “noncompetitive” with the agency of finite beings. If God is thought of as creatures’ power of being rather than an agent acting within the same causal nexus as those beings, it becomes possible to affirm both divine sovereignty and creaturely freedom. Thus the relation between creature and creator needn’t be seen as some kind of zero-sum game.

I can’t do justice to this position here, but one worry I have is that this view has difficulty articulating what it might mean for God to act in creation in a special or extraordinary way, i.e. if every event is a manifestation of the divine power, what distinguishes events of particular religious significance? Tanner, for instance, in her brief systematic theology, has very little to say about the Resurrection, and I wonder if part of the reason is that she has trouble fitting “mighty acts of God” into her conceptual scheme.

Getting back to Augustine, though, one of his lasting contributions is to locate the source of sin in the human will. For much ancient thought the source of evil was ignorance and/or the weight of the material world dragging down the spritual soul. Augustine’s view, by contrast, firmly defines sin as a spiritual malady. It is precisely our “higher” spiritual nature that is capable of the greatest evil. The “sins of the flesh” look pretty mundane in comparison. Our predicament goes much deeper than any shallow self-help gospel can reach.

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One thought on “Augustine’s Enchiridion 9: Redemption, grace and free will”

  1. Lee — Great post. I’ve been reading Luther’s “Bondage of the Will” lately, which has made me think a great deal about free will, predestination, etc. In most respects, Augustine and Luther are very close on these matters. One area where there is perhaps some difference is the role of the human will in conversion. As you write, for Augustine, “whether we can believe, hope, and love depends upon a prior act of God, who mercifully turns the will of the elect away from sin. God doesn’t save sinners against their will, but through their will.” I think Luther could maybe affirm this, although he would say it differently. For Luther, the sinner does not participate in salvation as a continually-existing subject. Instead, the grace of God causes the death of the sinner and the resurrection of the redeemedbeliever. The saved person experiences a radical discontinuity that can only be called a “new creation”. Thus, for Luther, there’s no point in talking about a continuous human will.

    I also agree with your point that any attempt to conform God to “liberal egalitarian notions of justice” will end in either Pelagianism or deism.
    The modern world might not like to hear about “the bondage of the will”, but a Christianity stripped of any predestinarianism is simply not
    Christianity (not that we need to obsesses about predestination a la the Calvinists).

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