Augustine and the Problem of Free Will

Picture in your mind something that you think is a really bad idea. (I’m picturing a cat.) Now imagine someone using something that you wrote many years ago to defend this heinously awful idea. How would you feel?

That’s exactly what happened to Augustine. By the latter part of his life, Augustine had developed a clear reputation for defending divine sovereignty, predestination, original sin, and the “bondage” of the will. But when he was younger, Augustine had written some things, particularly in De Libero Arbitrio (On Free Will), that sounded to many like he used to believe something very different. Indeed, some of statements sound very libertarian. And, much to Augustine’s chagrin, his critics used these earlier works against him, contending that they were just saying what himself he used to teach.

That had to have been annoying.

And, it raises a key question: Did Augustine have a consistent position on free will throughout his life, or were his opponents correct that his later position was a dramatic departure from what he wrote in his earlier works?

Those are the issues that Billy Cash dealt with in the paper that he presented to the NW regional meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society last month, “Augustine and the Consistent Trajectory of Compatibilism“. (Billy is a Th.M. student at Western Seminary and a regular contributor to this blog.) And in the paper, Billy contends that Augustine’s early writings are consistent with his later writings, and that we should understand Augustine to be a consistent compatibilist throughout his life.

Billy starts things off by arguing that although Augustine does sound libertarian at times in De Libero Arbitrio, he is still operating from a largely compatibilist framework. Two arguments in particular ground this conclusion:

First, in book three of On Free Choice of the Will, Augustine asserts that the fall of Adam and Eve in the garden consigned all men to a life of “ignorance and difficulty,” a life in which they would find themselves unable to choose the good….

Secondly, although the grace of God is not center-stage in this particular treatise, it is not absent.  In his Retractions, Augustine reminds his readers that he does in fact claim in On the Free Choice of the Will, “that anything good in a human person, including any goodness in the will, is a gift of God.”

So, although there are some differences between Augustine’s early and mature writings – differences that can be partially accounted for by the Manichean controversy that Augustine was addressing in his earlier writings – there is enough continuity to conclude that there is a clear and consistent “trajectory” leading from the one to the other, rather than a marked “departure” in the later writings.

In the last part of the paper, Billy turns his attention to an interesting argument presented by Eleonore Stump, which she calls “modified libertarianism.” I won’t go into the details of the argument here, but the essence is that Stump is looking for a way to understand even the later Augustine within the broader framework of a libertarian view of free will. And, although she presents a creative argument, Billy contends that her position is ultimately incoherent (or at least inconsistent).

So, at the end of the day, Billy concludes:

Development in theology does not necessarily imply change, as seen in the early church’s development of doctrines concerning the divinity of Christ.  That Jesus was the divine Son of God was never denied by the Orthodox Church.  There was development, however, in how that divinity was to be understood, and this development led to a distinction between what was to be considered true or heretical.  Likewise, in Augustine’s mature theology he believed that the will of man was free to choose what it desired, but the desire of will to choose the good was enabled by the grace of God, prior to any choice or merit found within the individual.  Although his early theology was not as developed and Augustine did not give grace as prominent a position in influencing the will in On Free Choice of the Will, Augustine himself says that the grace of God was not absent, just not the focal point of his argument.  In light of the affirmations of the will found in his early writing, On Free Choice of the Will, it may be stated with surety that the trajectory of his argument was compatibilist in nature, and was not altered from early to later works, just more thoroughly developed.  Since this is the case, any attempt at construing a libertarian view of the will in Augustine is misleading.

(This is part of a series highlighting papers presented by several faculty and students from Western Seminary at the 2011 NW regional meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society. You can see the rest of the posts in this series here.)

About Marc Cortez

Theology Prof and Dean at Western Seminary, husband, father, & blogger, who loves theology, church history, ministry, pop culture, books, and life in general.

Posted on March 31, 2011, in Anthropology, Historical Theology, Philosophical Theology and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 10 Comments.

  1. “Development” not “change” –

    Not being a student of Augustine, I suppose Billy’s position is plausible…’here comes the but monkey’… but would it be say wrong for Auggy to have changed his position when he thought it through as he aged. He certainly wasn’t one to speak his opinions ex cathedra was he? I am also not sure that the analogy of the Divinity of Christ held and developed by the Church stands well along side of the Will of Man held and developed by Augustine. Is the analogy commensurate?

  2. @Jerome: My short response is that it would have been plausible for “Auggy” (?) to change his position as he thought through it with age. I just don’t see that there was change, in the sense of libertarian view to compatabilist view. The seeds of compatabilism are present even in this early writing. As for the analogy being commensurate, I would say no. The divinity of Christ is a non-negotiable while libertarian/compatabilism is – as a couple of thousand years of debate has shown. The example was merely used to show that, although a definitive stance was taken at Nicea, the trajectory of the argument for the church had already been established with the writings of the New Testament. The church didn’t change from a non-divine to divine stance on Jesus.

    • @Billy-fair enough for your first; I’ll bracket the notion for a future study out of curiosity. I am missing the connection and commensurability on the second still. The church councils seem to have more weight through sheer number when bringing consensus to the table on Divinity as well as more time to bring that development than the almost lone soul of Augustine on his position. No matter great or small too me, just musing.

      Perhaps it is the H1N1 virus that has veiled this body of death so that my connections remain warped 😉

  3. Robert Hagedorn

    Before we can discuss the tree of knowledge of good and evil we must first know exactly what this tree and its fruit were. Saint Augustine did not know, but he came very close to solving the mystery. Do a search: The First Scandal. Then click twice.

  4. Free will means you have a choice. Some choices have eternal consequences. You may choose to believe who Jesus said he was or not, that choice has eternal consequences.
    Judas and Peter denied who Jesus was. But Peter chose restoration, Judas chose death, eternal consequences. Able chose God, Cain chose murder, eternal consequences.

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