I 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.