Augustine sat at a desk writing

Who was Saint Augustine?

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Every Friday I offer a snapshot of a philosopher from history, reflecting on an idea of significance they contributed to the history of thought. There is necessarily some crossover between philosophy and theology, as is evident in today’s post, where I’ll be profiling Augustine of Hippo, a central figure in the history of the Catholic Church.

Who Was He?

Augustine’s father was a pagan and his mother was a Christian. He lived between 354-430 AD, during a time when Christianity was growing and the Roman Empire was beginning to decline.

As a teenager, Augustine explored the writings of Cicero, which inspired him towards a quest for knowledge which saw him embrace for a time the teachings of Manichaeism, a philosophical school of thought that saw the universe as a battleground between the forces of good and evil. Recognising problems with Manichaean philosophy, Augustine grew sceptical and instead went on to study the teachings of Plato and the Neo-Platonist thinker Plotinus. When he eventually returned to Christianity at the age of 32, he carried with him much of what he had learned during this period of philosophical exploration.

What’s the Big Idea?

There are people who spend their entire lives studying Augustine’s thought, and I could not do justice to his extensive doctrinal writings in a brief snapshot post such as this. I highly recommend Augustine’s autobiography The Confessions, which I have read several times, as a wonderful introduction to the man and his thinking.

One of Augustine’s key doctrines was that of predestination, which is the idea that God has foreknowledge concerning whether or not humans will become believers, and this entails God knowing all things about our lives even prior to our birth. He argued that salvation is not something that we can attain through our own efforts to be worthy in God’s sight, but is purely an act of grace.

My Reflections

Augustine was accused of holding to a doctrine of double predestination, which is the idea that people are consigned either to heaven or hell by the will of God before they are even born. In the present day, there are still some Christians, particularly in the Calvinist denomination, who hold this view.

In my view, predestination would seem to make God a very cruel being, as He would be punishing people in hell for actions that were not undertaken freely, but have always been a part of God’s plan. Many Christians are what is known as ‘compatibilists’, and they try to argue in strange and complex ways that we do have free will despite God’s foreknowledge of all events.

I believe there is a clear logical contradiction in the attempt to hold that both God’s foreknowledge and human free will are true, but there is certainly an argument that can be made that both positions are espoused in the Bible. For me, this is a significant problem with the Christian worldview, and it’s one that I see Christians wrestling with constantly. The solution to this predicament, which is that God is in control of all things (and therefore we don’t have free will) is logically coherent, but necessarily weakens the argument for Christianity.


In next week’s philosophy post we’ll be looking at the Roman philosopher Anicius Boethius, and an argument he formulated in order to try to make sense of the divine foreknowledge / free will predicament. If you’re interested in following this series, please consider subscribing. Thank you for reading!

27 comments

  1. Always look forward to your posts – thanks for glimpse into Augustine. You’re a talented writer who puts forth concise points and arguments neatly. Of course, I wrestle with that snag, “no free will”…but I trust God to bring supernatural revelation and understanding to us all! πŸ˜€

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Lisa! Many thanks for reading and for your kind words about my writing.

      I do understand how, as a Christian, you would wrestle with the idea that we don’t have free will, because so much of the Christian worldview depends upon free will. However, after a great deal of reflection on the nature of God, I cannot believe He is limited in such as way He would need to be in order for us to have free will.

      Let me give you an example that I hope is thought-provoking. I don’t see how Christians can say God answers their prayers if He is not in control of their life circumstances. Have you ever prayed that you will have a blessed day? Or prayed for a breakthrough in your life? Or thanked God for a blessed day? And if so, aren’t you acknowledging that God is unfolding your life? If so, I don’t understand how you could argue at the same time you have free will.

      I hope you can see the logic. Thanks again for reading / commenting!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Steven, you accuse the God of double predestination of cruelty. To me, that seems like a lump of clay questioning the potter for throwing some pots away and using others… God doesn’t owe us heaven, in fact, He would be just if He was to send us all to hell for rebelling against Him (thankfully He doesn’t!)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Robert! Many thanks for reading, and for your comment.

      I believe God is in control of everything that happens throughout the entirety our lives, so I disagree that we all deserve punishment in hell, which is what you suggest. I do agree with you that God can do whatever He likes, because He is sovereign. But claiming that we all deserve hell necessarily implies the freedom to sin, which I don’t believe we have, because God has been in control of everything that has happened in our lives that you might describe as ‘sinful’.

      I hope you understand the point I’m making. Thanks again!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I think I understand the point you’re making, but it seems to put the blame for us going to hell at God’s door. I believe we have ourselves to blame if we end up in hell. You seem more Calvinistic that Calvinistic himself by implying that we don’t have free will. I hold two truths in tension that God is sovereign and we are responsible. It’s a bit silly to recommend a book I haven’t read, but I’m sure we’d both enjoy one called “Paradoxology” which looks at how the apparent paradoxes of the Bible can lead us to praise of God. In this case, We are responsible for the fact we deserve hell, but God opens the door of heaven, and the door is Christ! Thanks be to God for His indescribable gift!

        And thanks to you for the post, the reply, and the discussion. God bless πŸ™‚

        Liked by 2 people

        1. Hi again Robert!

          I think I understand the point you’re making, but it seems to put the blame for us going to hell at God’s door. I believe we have ourselves to blame if we end up in hell.

          We have a fundamental disagreement here. You believe in free will, I believe all that happens is God’s will. At least it’s a clear and transparent difference.

          You seem more Calvinistic that Calvinistic himself by implying that we don’t have free will.

          I don’t label myself as anything, I just say what I believe is true and makes sense to me πŸ™‚

          I hold two truths in tension that God is sovereign and we are responsible

          I believe those two positions are logically contradictory.

          I believe saying something is a paradox is another way of saying you don’t understand it. I completely respect your right to call it a paradox, but I don’t think it’s a paradox, and I do think I understand it clearly.

          God bless you too, buddy! Thanks again πŸ™‚

          Liked by 1 person

          1. I don’t want to sound too much like Erasmus. I am more of a Lutheran on human wills than Erasmus, so we may not be so far apart after all. Luther wrote about the “bondage of the will” so that even if we have freedom of will, we chose to become enslaved to sin. Perhaps I’m misrepresenting Luther there in quoting something else I haven’t read. I also believe in original sin, in Adam all die. But I still believe that we’re not robots, and that if we have a choice between right and wrong, our natural “bent” is to choose sin.

            I hope that clarifies my position a bit. Thanks for the ongoing discussion πŸ™‚

            Liked by 2 people

            1. Hi Robert,

              It’s great to discuss these things, thank you for sharing a little more about your beliefs πŸ™‚

              I’m familiar with these phrases, ‘bondage of the will’ and ‘enslaved to sin’. To me, they are very murky and confusing phrases, which are just a way dodging the truth that God is in control of all our thoughts, words, and deeds throughout our lives. Of course, Christians need to have a way of maintaining that we sin freely, otherwise the idea of divine judgment makes no sense.

              I believe Calvinists use these phrases because although they rightly acknowledge the sovereignty of God, they have to somehow sneak free will into their worldview, otherwise they would be admitting Christianity doesn’t make sense. And these two phrases are the way they do it. I find it very unconvincing!

              I believe it would be more true to say we are in bondage to God’s will, and enslaved to God.

              By the way, I was a Christian for years and have spent a long time wrestling with these ideas. If you’d like to read a (shortish!) essay I wrote that explains my perspective more fully, you can download a PDF of ‘An Almighty Predicament: A Discourse on the Arguments For and Against Christianity’ from my Essays page. If not, no worries, I just thought you might be interested πŸ™‚

              Liked by 1 person

            2. I’ll check it out. So if you’re not a Christian, I guess you’re a Calvinistic unbeliever in the sense that you believe you are enslaved to God’s will that you don’t believe! As I’m sure you’ve read, God has more than one will. He’s not willing that any should perish in one sense, but people do, within His perfect will. If we could put God in a box, I suspect He would no longer be God, the box would.

              Liked by 1 person

            3. Hi Robert,

              Fortunately, I believe the truth about God is more simple than a lot of theology supposes. One God, whose essence is existence, and being boundless, He is all that exists, and therefore everything is under His control. I don’t claim to know everything about God, but I do believe these things can be logically deduced.

              Let me know what you think of the essay! You’re always welcome to email me (details on the Contact page).

              Best wishes,

              Steven

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  3. Apart from his philosophical contribution, St. Augustine was a great example for ‘lost and found’ kind of life. We can learn many spiritual lessons from him.
    Thanks for sharing about him πŸ™‚

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I would recommend that such a contradiction between God having sovereign control and man being genuinely free is not logically incoherent in light of predestination but it so under predeterminism. In light of predestination we can view God having Middle Knoweldge, or knowledge of what all would happen under various circumstances. This would include acts of truly free creatures. This allows God to be sovereign in that he orders the world as he pleases while doing so with the acts of free creatures. This is in contrast with predeterminism, in which all actions are determined by God and not any creature in of themselves. Rather as has been said by a few like Luis de Molina, God is seemingly more sovereign in being able to work his will with libertarian free creatures over merely having to determine their actions so as to accomplish his will.

    Just thought I’d bring some of this up. I plan to write some about it in the future, though I have touched on the differences between predestination and predeterminism.

    God Bless!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Hi there,

      Thank you for reading and commenting!

      Molinism has been cropping up a lot recently. I’m planning to publish a blog post with my take on it, so if you’re interested, keep an eye out! I just want to do a bit more research first. Coming sooooon! 😁

      Best wishes,

      Steven

      Like

      1. Wm Craig maintains that God can have foreknowledge of the choices we will freely make, without causing us to make them. He argues that “Divine Middle Knowledge,” or Molinism (after the 16th-Century theologian who first espoused this idea), is what makes this possible. My view: Taking it as given (as I do) that the Bible clearly teaches both predestination and human freedom, Molinism is the only logically coherent solution that has been proposed (other than the “B-theory” of time, which I reject for unrelated reasons). I therefore hold to this view, albeit provisionally. (My acceptance of Molinism is provisional because I don’t find it very satisfying emotionally — it makes God seem coldly logical.)

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Wonderful discussion. At my age I have read so many philosophers and arguments. It is interesting to find the way their thinking has led me over my life. Great article on Augustine. Complicated man to put in a few paragraphs. Well done.

    I now find all philosophies mingled in my mind and going my own way with no worries. All the past study has allowed me to form my own opinions and go with it. At 77 I don’t bother to explain it to myself or others but I love reading everyone’s thoughts.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hello! Yes, it’s always a challenge keeping these philosophy posts concise, but I enjoy the challenge. I’m really glad you enjoyed the post and the discussion. Much respect to you for your 77 years! Blessings, Steven

      Like

  6. Confessions has been on my reading list for 25 years, but I haven’t read it yet. Why not? is a question I keep asking myself.

    As an aside, a nun once was eating cake (it was someone’s birthday). And she said, “Oh Lord, help me diet. But not yet.” I said, “Oh, the St. Augustine diet?” She laughed and said, “Almost no one gets that joke.”

    Liked by 1 person

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