Augustine on the Decrees of God: Roman or Reformed?

St. Augustine in Stained GlassI had to look up what the Roman Catholics claim about Augustine’s views on the sovereign grace of God, and I was surprised by what I found. But not entirely. One, “Albert,” posted the first comment to Bob Hayton’s Fundamentally Reformed post, “Legacy of Sovereign Joy: Augustine,” reviewing John Piper’s book, Legacy of Sovereign Joy, focusing on Piper’s reflections of Augustine, and Albert asked Bob if he was aware of what Augustine believed about grace and free will, and asserted that what he did believe was consistent with present, official Roman Catholic teaching. That’s why I wanted to see what the online Roman Catholic encyclopedia, New Advent, had to say about the matter. The entry entitled, “Teaching of St. Augustine of Hippo,” section II on “His System of Grace,” got into some interesting reading about some details regarding free will which differs from the traditional Reformed view, but what really astounded me was what the online encyclopedia reports was Augustine’s view of how God determined his decrees regarding election and reprobation:

Here is how the theory of St. Augustine, already explained, forces us to conceive of the Divine decree: Before all decision to create the world, the infinite knowledge of God presents to Him all the graces, and different series of graces, which He can prepare for each soul, along with the consent or refusal which would follow in each circumstance, and that in millions and millions of possible combinations. Thus He sees that if Peter had received such another grace, he would not have been converted; and if on the contrary such another Divine appeal had been heard in the heart of Judas, he would have done penance and been saved. Thus, for each man in particular there are in the thought of God, limitless possible histories, some histories of virtue and salvation, others of crime and damnation; and God will be free in choosing such a world, such a series of graces, and in determining the future history and final destiny of each soul. And this is precisely what He does when, among all possible worlds, by an absolutely free act, He decides to realize the actual world with all the circumstances of its historic evolutions, with all the graces which in fact have been and will be distributed until the end of the world, and consequently with all the elect and all the reprobate who God foresaw would be in it if de facto He created it.

If Augustine taught this imaginitive concept of God’s determinate counsel, then he would have gone beyond what is written in order to come up with it. This reminds me of an anecdote of Augustine which is intended to warn of the danger of attempting to explain that which is not revealed in Scripture about spiritual realities, in which someone asks Augustine, “What was God doing before he created the world?” to which Augustine replied, “Creating Hell for the curious.” I think, if Augustine taught what is contained in the paragraph cited above, then he failed to heed his own anecdotal warning. Another thing I found interesting about the presence of this concept in Augustine’s thought is the fact that the first time I’d ever heard of such a concept, it came from someone near and dear to me, who was taking exception to the Reformed view of God’s decrees of election and reprobation, claiming that this divine consideration of all possible realities and settling on the ones that come to pass, leaving folks free (in the sense Adam was) to choose between good and evil as effectually influenced by the particular circumstances and graces God places in the individual’s path, was the more biblical view.

In my opinion, this extra-biblical view is just a more elaborate form of the prescient view of foreknowledge, about which, long before I’d become a Calvinist, when thinking it through, I concluded that in this semi-pelagian system, God was leaving man free to determine his own election, but having looked forward from before the creation in order to ordain it before man made his free choice, thereby cutting man off at the pass for the glory. You could probably say I persuaded myself in favor of Calvinism when I came to that conclusion, but it would be a couple of more years before God would force me to deal with the issues once and for all.

But the final observation I want to make about Augustine’s view of grace and free will, election and reprobation, is that I don’t think the Reformers needed to adopt exactly what Augustine speculated about the doctrine, because, after all, the Reformers were in the business of double checking writers like Augustine with the Scriptures, practicing that more noble virtue of searching the Scriptures to see whether what he taught was so. The Reformation may not have been a pure Augustinian revival, but the Reformers certianly did stand on the shoulders of this theological giant from Africa, Augustine of Hippo.


5 responses

  1. Hey John, good post, I have not read what the catholics say about Augustine, I will look into that more when I have a minute. Thanks for the mental stimulation. By the way, you are now using a Bible Answer Manism, “standing on the shoulders” is another one I stole from him, but it is a good one.
    In Christ

  2. You’re welcome for the mental stimulation. I’m from Geneva and I’m here to help!

    I had forgotten that Hank used “standing on the shoulders of giants.” But more recently, I read Alister McGrath’s book, “In The Beginning” (a history of the production of the King James Version and its impact on the English-speaking world), and he used that cliche, too. So, although you are probably right, it was Alister, rather than Hank, whose usage was in my mind at the time. Good call, though!

    Now, just to reassure any who may wonder, I’m not out to advocate Augustine’s view, as if we need to return to it, but though a dose of realism would keep us from inaccurately reporting the transmission of the doctrines of grace from the apostolic times to today. From the perspective of Roman Catholic scholarship, we Calvinists are the Reformation manifestation of what they referred to as “predestinationists,” following Gottschalk, Bradwardine, Wycliffe, Huss (there may have been a few previous to Gottschalk, I can’t recall at this time). Next I’m going to read Roman and Reformed sources on Gottschalk (I hope I’m spelling that correctly, no time to check now), and see what I learn.

    I think church history is fun! I love learning who taught what, when, where, why and how . . .

  3. John,

    You said this in response to me over on the comments of my original post:

    There is nothing in Scripture I’ve seen that indicates such a scenario as God’s knowing all possible worlds and freewill actions and effectually ordaining which actions these allegedly as-free-as-Adam people would take. That’s prescience, and prescience isn’t Reformed.

    I submit Augustine was improperly asserting that man remains as morally free and able as Adam was before the fall while at the same time attempting to put God’s grace as logically prior to man’s decisions

    Help me out here, how is the quote above in your post, prescience? He says God knows all possibilities, knowing that if God had given this grace, Peter would have done this and Judas that, and God knew if he witheld this grace, Peter would have done this other thing and Judas that. Then God just chooses whatever he wants. How is that mere prescience??

    Scripture admits that the men of Sodom and Gomorrah would have repented had the works Jesus did in Capernaum been done in their cities. God chose not to give that grace, however to Sodom and Gomorrah, and justly condemned those men all the same.

    I don’t see how the long quote above results in a preserving of free will. I admit I’m struggling trying to grasp everything here.



  4. Because Scripture doesn’t go into the thought process of God. Augustine does, and therefore goes beyond Scripture. My point was that Augustine “has his cake and eats it too.” He does make an effort to put God’s grace prior to their absolutely free human choice, but the problem is the parallel of Augustine’s speculating that God looked ahead (or simply “knew”) to see what would or could happen and established his plan accordingly. This is the prescience aspect. Augustine’s view is not utterly freewill, or utterly Reformed, it’s purely Augustine, which contains elements of both, and my ultimate point is that Augustine’s view is not identical with the Reformed view as you had originally asserted to be “standard accepted history.”

    If you read the whole essay from New Advent, you’ll see many elements that do not reflect a Reformed perspective.

    A couple of quotes from the essay:
    “(3) The system of St. Augustine in opposition to this rests on three fundamental principles:
    God is absolute Master, by His grace, of all the determinations of the will;
    man remains free, even under the action of grace;
    the reconciliation of these two truths rests on the manner of the Divine government.”

    Here’s the paragraph which expands on the clause in the previous quote which affirms the freedom of man under the action of grace:

    “The second principle, the affirmation of liberty even under the action of efficacious grace, has always been safeguarded, and there is not one of his anti-Pelagian works even of the latest, which does not positively proclaim a complete power of choice in man; “not but what it does not depend on the free choice of the will to embrace the faith or reject it, but in the elect this will is prepared by God” (De Prædest. SS., n. 10). The great Doctor did not reproach the Pelagians with requiring a power to choose between good and evil; in fact he proclaims with them that without that power there is no responsibility, no merit, no demerit; but he reproaches them with exaggerating this power. Julian of Eclanum, denying the sway of concupiscence, conceives free will as a balance in perfect equilibrium. Augustine protests: this absolute equilibrium existed in Adam; it was destroyed after original sin; the will has to struggle and react against an inclination to evil, but it remains mistress of its choice (Opus imperfectum contra Julianum, III, cxvii). Thus, when he says that we have lost freedom in consequence of the sin of Adam, he is careful to explain that this lost freedom is not the liberty of choosing between good and evil, because without it we could not help sinning, but the perfect liberty which was calm and without struggle, and which was enjoyed by Adam in virtue of his original integrity.”

    Compare this to the Westminster Confession, Chapter 9 on Free Will:

    “I. God has endued the will of man with that natural liberty, that is neither forced, nor, by any absolute necessity of nature, determined good, or evil.
    II. Man, in his state of innocency, had freedom, and power to will and to do that which was good and well pleasing to God; but yet, mutably, so that he might fall from it.

    III. Man, by his fall into a state of sin, has wholly lost all ability of will to any spiritual good accompanying salvation: so as, a natural man, being altogether averse from that good, and dead in sin, is not able, by his own strength, to convert himself, or to prepare himself thereunto.

    IV. When God converts a sinner, and translates him into the state of grace, He frees him from his natural bondage under sin; and, by His grace alone, enables him freely to will and to do that which is spiritually good; yet so, as that by reason of his remaining corruption, he does not perfectly, or only, will that which is good, but does also will that which is evil.

    V. The will of man is made perfectly and immutably free to do good alone in the state of glory only.”

    Augustine’s view was not identical with Reformed theology. It’s better than Pelagianism, but it’s not identical.

    You told Albert that “Whenever you hear some 1 guy in 1 book making a startling claim, it’s usually baseless and wrong.” If the one source I’m citing to make my claim is baseless and wrong, then the ball’s in your court to demonstrate how.

    But like I said, I see elements in Augustine’s system of grace which are not included in the Reformed system of grace, which means we can’t say without qualification that ” Augustine held a Reformed understanding of free-will/sovereignty (another quote from your comment to Albert).”

    Whew! I’m winded! Good talk, Bro!
    Got more?

  5. Hey, I finally responded with a post on the issue entitled: “Interpreting Augustine: Was He ‘Reformed’?

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