Saint 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!