Who was Saint Augustine?

Saint Augustine sat at a desk writing

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 on “Who was Saint Augustine?

  1. 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

    • 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

      • 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

        • Hi Thomas!

          Thanks for sharing your thoughts on Molinism. I’ll be publishing a post with my thoughts on the subject next week.

          Best wishes,

          Steven

          Like

  2. Will is like a many headed beast, as soon as we constrain one head, the other one exerts itself. Not much freedom in trying to control the will it seems. It’s a full time job just trying to walk the dam dog.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. 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

    • 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

  4. 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

    • Hi Dave! I found the Confessions to be a wonderful read so I hope you’re able to get around to it soon!

      I would have got her St. Augustine joke, haha 🙂

      Like

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