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City of God


The lofty theology of a book like "City of God" is always a
little irrelevant. All of it may be true and a full
understanding of the dispensation of salvation may be
impossible without it, but in the end it is just another
construction of the human intellect. Even if the intellect
is aided by divine illumination, its triumphs are still
fleeting ones.
How God deals with the human race may be a matter of
speculative interest whereas how Christ redeems the
individual soul is an urgent concern. The individual person
has no other life but his own. The Christian who believes
in his God and longs to be united with him deems all other
concerns secondary, however important. The abuse that this
zeal fosters is selfish concentration on personal salvation
at the expense of a caring involvement in human affairs,
but to Augustine such concentration is always
self-defeating. The path to personal salvation lies through
a future of personal self-abnegation in the love of God and
of neighbor. Paradoxically, to save one's soul means
abandoning all morbid preoccupation with self by immersion
in self-effacing love. "He who would save his soul must
lose it." (Matthew 10.39) Thus, it is "microtheology" that
presents Augustine's vision of Christianity in its fullest
development and that attracted the fiercest controversy. In
the last two decades of Augustine's life, the Pelagian
controversy forced him to examine his views on these
subjects with passionate care. What emerged in that period
was a fuller statement of principle and a working out of
logical consequences, but not a new theology.[1]
The rudiments of the Augustinian theology of grace can be
seen as early as the first book of the "Seven Various
Questions for Simplicianus", written in the mid-390s when
Augustine confronted the paradoxes of Paul's letter to the
Romans. Augustine was fortunate, however, to be able to
pursue his argument with the Pelagians in logical sequence,
which we will attempt to duplicate here. The central
concerns are threefold: sin (the condition of mankind left
to itself), grace (the act of redemption in Christ), and
predestination (the condition of the liberated soul--the
most mysterious matter of all, and most fraught with
complexities arising from the effect of grace on the will.)
The first thing Augustine wrote against the ideas of
Pelagius (of whom he had barely heard himself) was "The
Guilt and Remission of Sin; and Infant Baptism", written in
411 in response to questions from his friend
Marcellinus.[2] In this pamphlet he dealt with the fact, as
he saw it, of original sin and raised the further questions
about grace to be answered in "Spirit and Letter", to which
we shall turn shortly. Fifteen more years of controversy
were to elapse before his final views on predestination and
free will were set down in the work that will occupy us
last, "The Predestination of the Blessed" (429). 

The human animal is a moral animal, and its plight is
dismal. The best of intentions demonstrably lead to the
most disastrous of conclusions, and even the best of
intentions are but rarely sovereign. Human beings have an
irrepressible capacity for disappointing themselves and
each other with their thoughts, words, and deeds.
Conscience is more than a chain by which the human mind
irrationally constrains itself, and is at least the
evidence of a tension and dissatisfaction deeply planted in
the race. The material world presents us with things as
they are (or seem to be) and does so brutally. But in the
realm of the mind, we consider things as they should be.
The origins of the moral instincts may be baffling, but
their tenacity in the face of all discouragement is great.
No vision of human nature is adequate without an
explanation of the nature of moral evil.
In Christian theology, the explanation is simple and blunt.
The human race is separated, temporarily but drastically,
from the consoling source of being and goodness. Alone in a
world from which they have tried to banish God, men act as
irresponsible children suddenly lacking clear guidance and
immediate punishment. As we saw in the last chapter, the
history of the species is the story of the separation and
reunification of creatures and creator. In the pages of
revelation, the separation is documented by the example of
Adam. In City of God Augustine saw in the fall of Adam an
essential mystery: Evil enters the world, it persists, but
it consists of nothing more than the perversity of
dependent creatures, fleetingly anonymous in their
rebellion. Through sin, death and all misery entered the
world. The wounds of life are all self-inflicted.
But what does the sin of the first parents have to do with
the present misery? The weakest link in Augustine's
theology of sin is his view on the transmission of original
sin. Literal acceptance of the Adam and Eve story created
difficulties for him that he need not have faced.
Throughout his life, he visibly inclined to a theory of
physical propagation, according to which the disorder of
the sexual appetites discussed above was not only the sign
of sin but the instrument of its transmission--hence,
perhaps, a special suspicion of sexuality. But it is also
indisputable that Augustine was aware of the dangers of
this theory and ultimately refused to commit himself to any
particular hypothesis on the origins of individual human
souls and the transmission of Adam's sin. Instead, he
confined himself to what he was sure of, namely the sin of
Adam and the presence of his sin in the species. Given
those two points, the mechanism of transmission was of less
than supreme importance, and Augustine could indulge in an
agnosticism that maddened some of his contemporaries (and
almost all of posterity).
In summary, he concludes that original sin is innate in
human beings, even though the responsibility for that sin
does, quite fairly, inhere in each individual. The paradox
here is clear: original sin comes from Adam, but is the
responsibility of each individual. Here again, the
pragmatic approach satisfied Augustine. To those who would
debate the fairness of this system of transmission, he
would simply point out that every individual, from the
earliest age, is in fact a sinner. From even before the
access of knowledge and reason (the conditions we are
accustomed to associate with moral responsibility) there is
the clear presence of selfishness--the basis of evil--and
willed disobedience.[3]
And yet original sin differs from actual sin, that is, sin
committed by the individual. The sinfulness of the
individual infant is not itself the same thing as original
sin, but only the evidence of the sinful propensities that
original sin generates. Original sin brings with it all the
penalties discussed in City of God, and even when the
responsibility for original sin is taken away, the purely
temporal damage (that is, the harm done to the species in
the material world) remains. Actual sin, on the other hand,
does much less harm by its secondary, temporal ill effects
(sometimes none at all, at least to the naked eye), while
carrying with it a higher degree of responsibility and
potentially eternal damage for the soul of the sinner.
Original sin is sufficient to deny the individual eternal
blessedness, but only actual sin can win real damnation.
Sin is not then a matter of chance or choice. Original sin
is present in all from the outset and is the reason for the
continued propensity to sin that afflicts the species. Men
do not begin tabula rasa, blissful in ignorance and poised
in sublime neutrality somewhere between good and evil (a
preposterous position, given Augustine's definitions of
good and evil), able to earn praise for doing good and
blame for doing evil. Instead, all men and women start with
a handicap. Even when the eternal consequences of original
sin are removed by baptism, it still affects the soul so
that every human being eventually succumbs to sin.
This doctrine is fundamental to Augustine. It contributes
to his skepticism about the intellectual powers of mankind
and hence to his reliance on divine revelation. It also
made him see the history of the species as a struggle with
sin brought to an end only when divine goodness intervenes
and liberates men for eternity. But theory and practice are
never far apart in Augustine, and there are practical,
pastoral considerations as well.
From earliest times, Christianity had preached baptism in
Christ, a baptism of the spirit. Liturgically, baptism had
been part of Christian worship from the time of the
apostles. Theologically, it came to be understood as the
act by which the church, transmitting the power of the
spirit in the world, welcomed sinners into its midst with a
free gift of forgiveness from the burden of sin. The power
of forgiveness in the church had then to be deployed in a
different way to cope with the persistent sinfulness of the
baptised Christian. In Augustine's own time penance was
still public; private confession is a medieval innovation
in the main. The cumbersome and frightening penitential
discipline (whose validity was periodically challenged by
such as the Novatians and Donatists) had conspired to
encourage many, like the emperor Constantine, to postpone
baptism--the one sovereign remedy for sin--until the
deathbed. Pastorally, this solution was unacceptable, since
it seemed to provide carte blanche for sin through the
whole of life, so long as sacramental grace was accessible
at the very end. (That accessibility had a disturbing
correlation to the wealth and social position of the
sinner; pagan criticism of Christianity made much of this
aspect of church practice.) By Augustine's day, timely
baptism was becoming more the rule. But when did the need
for baptism emerge? Was it only a remedy for the sin of the
conscious, reasoning individual? Or did it speak to the
underlying sinfulness innate in the species? Given the
views Augustine cherished, it is not surprising that he
chose the latter answer, and did so in keeping with the
consensus of Christian authority in his day. Pastorally,
the consequence of this answer is simple: infant baptism.
If we are sinners from the womb, then from the womb we need
redemption. In a world where the infant's grasp on life was
tenuous, the urgency was strongly felt. Thus baptism
offered immediate forgiveness of original sin and hence the
removal of all the eternal penalties for that ancient
fault; in addition, the sacrament washed the soul clean of
the whole burden of actual sin that might have accumulated,
however slight. To die at the moment after baptism was to
speed straight to heaven.
Outwardly, the sacrament marked a person's entry into full
membership in the church. Thus the he child entered the
church by an unearned favor, by which the eternal penalties
of original sin were removed. Only the actual sins of the
individual after baptism could do harm now.
Did Augustine consider baptism necessary for salvation?
Yes, with a qualification. From earliest times, the church
had recognized that in certain cases, such as that of the
martyrs, the intention was as good as the act. For
Augustine, there was little need to speak of the accession
of grace to those who had not been baptised, for in the
Christian Roman empire the sacrament itself was readily
available. Negligence in its reception was the only thing
that could ordinarily forestall it.[4]
Practically speaking, baptism was the sacrament that formed
the church itself. Catechumens, outsiders contemplating
entrance, continued to be only fringe members of the
community; it was still the custom to exclude them from the
communion service of the liturgy. Baptism, on the other
hand, rendered the individual eligible for full sacramental
participation in the eucharist and was a necessary
prerequisite for any ecclesiastical office.
What was left untouched by baptism was concupiscence, the
inclination toward sin that original sin had introduced.
The sacrament cleared the slate for the past and offered
support for the future, but it was not the end of the
story. Sin remained a present possibility for the
Christian, and ultimate success was uncertain. Human life
in the church was full of hope, but still devoid of
assurance. Only later in Augustine's life would the precise
theological definition of this dilemma (centered on the
doctrine of perseverance) come out. For the moment, in the
last books of this little pamphlet of 411, the concern was
with life in a world burdened by sin. Having outlined the
theology of original sin and its pastoral consequences in
the first book, Augustine returns to the main topic. Is
original sin universal? Yes. A further question poses
itself neatly enough. Is there now or has there ever been a
human being born alive who was completely without sin,
original or actual? One and one only, according to
Augustine: Christ, the exception who literally proves the
The consequences of this pessimism are spelled out in
detail. First, the ubiquity of sin, even its
"inevitability," do not remove any of the blame for sin.
Human beings are not mere puppets on whom sin is inflicted,
rather they are free individuals who, however mysterious it
seems, bear full responsibility for the free act of one of
their ancestors. For this reason, sinlessness is both
possible and impossible. Possible, "through the grace of
God and men's own free will, not doubting that the free
will itself is ascribable to God's grace," (2.6.7) and
hence the blame that inheres as a result of sin, even
original sin; but impossible, in the sense that it does not
in fact ever occur. "There are on earth righteous people,
there are great men, brave, prudent, chaste, patient,
pious, merciful people, who endure all kinds of temporal
evil with an even mind for righteousness' sake. If,
however, there is truth--nay, because there is truth--in
these words, 'If we say we have no sin, we deceive
ourselves,' (1 John 1.8) and in these, 'In thy sight shall
no man living be justified,' (Ps. 142.2) they are not
without sin. Nor is there one among them so proud and
foolish as not to think that the Lord's Prayer [with its
clause, 'Forgive us our trespasses'] is needful to him, by
reason of his manifold sins." (2.3.18) With this one stroke
Augustine makes all Christian statements about perfection
and righteousness partial and tentative. The perfection of
the blessed in this life is not the perfection of heaven.
Anything less than the perfection of heaven contains an
element of the sinful.
Why does man not in fact avoid sin, if the possibility is
guaranteed to him? The answer will remind the reader of
Augustine's theory of the origin of sin in "City of
God"."To this question I might very easily and truthfully
answer: Because men are unwilling. But if I am asked why
they are unwilling, we are drawn into a lengthy statement.
And yet, without prejudice to a more careful examination, I
may say briefly this much: Men are unwilling to do what is
right, either because what is right is unknown to them, or
because it is unpleasant to them." (2.17.26) 

Argument can go no farther. Men sin, because they sin. In
this refusal to provide explanations, we can see the
freedom of the will that Augustine is eager to protect. Any
cause or explanation he might assign for sin would lessen
the freedom of the will along with the blame. People are
responsible for their sins because they sin freely. The
miracle of creation means that beings exist who have this
autonomy. The miracle of redemption means that a God exists
who brings them back from perdition when they have
exercised their autonomy unwisely.
Men are thus separated from God by an awesome sentence that
means they are divided from all that gives life and joy.
Worse, the separation is entirely of their own doing. Worse
still, for a charitable soul, everyone is afflicted with
the same separation. Pathetically, even tiny infants are
not free from the contagion. The blight is intensely
personal. Men are separated from God, and hence are
separated from themselves. Not only do nations mistrust and
threaten each other, but even small communities are full of
suspicion and crime. Not even the family household draws
the line against hostility and separation. Division and
misery reach right into the heart of every individual. No
one can trust even himself fully, for no one is in control
of his own acts at all times. We are at war with ourselves.
Into this gloom, the Christian church--to all appearances
merely an earthly association of sinners--carries a message
of divine salvation and offers a divine act of
redemption--not one hidden away in the holy of holies where
only the perfect may enter, but one set literally on the
doorstep, accessible to all who will humble themselves to
accept it. Baptism releases the individual from the worst
of chains and initiates the believer into the life of
grace. Much that is difficult remains ahead. Only with that
beginning is the fact of grace itself intelligible; but
beginnings are not be scorned.
The ancient religions were relatively consistent in their
picture of the world. Divine power, easily angered,
surrounded human beings and threatened unspeakable wrath.
Prudent people discovered what it took to placate that
divinity and sedulously undertook the form of service most
pleasing to the divine tyrant. In return, threats vanished
and earthly and heavenly delights began to be showered on
the faithful votary. Divine favor, moreover, was shown in
different degrees for different levels of performance on
the part of the human partners to the contract.
Behind this ancient religious system lay a fundamentally
incoherent anthropology. For the gap between God and man
was immense and unbridgeable. Human beings were destined to
a lifetime (perhaps an eternity) of settling for second
best. Even in the afterlife, the gods would remain distant
and authoritarian. The best one could hope for was a
lessening of threats and dangers, a truce. On the other
hand, there was an altogether baseless optimism about the
range of human powers. With accurate knowledge about the
will of the gods, any intelligent man could immediately
(perhaps after a physical rite of purification) set about
the task of satisfying the god's desires. Permanently
humble, but unremittingly powerful, such was the nature of
But Christianity had too high a regard for of the power of
sin to accept such a view of man's capacities, and too high
a regard for the goodness of God to believe in an arbitrary
celestial tyrant. Instead of preaching final insignificance
but present power, Christianity reversed the polarities and
discovered an anthropology pessimistic regarding the
capacities of sinful man but optimistic about his fate.
The coming transformation is the result of no innate merit
on the part of the species. Sin has pulled mankind so low
that no right to divine favor remains. The favor that comes
is free and unearned, a gift from above. Men were created
to give God praise and honor of their own free will with
undarkened intelligence, but they rebelled. They chose
ignorance over intelligence and impotence over
self-control, but God blithely reached out and pulled them
up again.
This is the center of the Augustinian theology of grace.
More can be said about the philosophical basis of
Augustine's theology of grace and free will, but for the
moment it should be kept in mind that for Augustine himself
the firm central point was his conviction of the reality of
God's power and favor shown to sinful man. If human reason
could not understand the workings of this grace, that was
deplorable (and Augustine would labor mightily, as none
before and few since, to bring about greater
understanding), but no failure to understand ever caused
Augustine the slightest doubt as to the truth of the
doctrine he embraced.
Here, as always, Augustine's theology was fundamentally
biblical and his method of argument exegetical. After he
had written The Guilt and Remission of Sin, the further
questions of his friend, the imperial legate Marcellinus,
led him to expatiate further on grace itself. He did so in
Spirit and Letter, whose title reveals the intimate
relation between his thought on this subject and his theory
of exegesis. This treatise is Augustine's most compact and
readable exposition of his theology of grace, and it has
the advantage of having been written before the passions of
the Pelagian controversy began to direct argument down
lines that would ultimately obscure as much as they
The question that elicited this treatise is the one that
occupied much of the second book of the earlier pamphlet
for Marcellinus: can any man be perfectly just in this
life? Marcellinus now emphasized the apparent injustice of
condemning men for sin if sinlessness is not in their
power. Augustine begins by reviewing his explanation that
sin is virtually inevitable, but inevitable as a result of
earlier sinfulness rather than as a result of an exterior
constraint on human actions. This all leads to considering
the mechanism by which God deals with man in the Christian
dispensation: hence the relevance of the spirit and the
When the intellect encounters revelation, its natural
response is to scrutinize the literal sense of the text:
the instinct for scholarship runs deep in the species. The
text is held at arm's length and analyzed, not clasped to
the breast and accepted wholeheartedly. But Augustine
believed that to take only the literal sense of the text is
the choice of sinful people determined to maintain
themselves in sin-begotten autonomy and separation from
God. He urges the reader to let the spiritual meaning of
the text do its work, evoking the whole of salvation
history and the place therein of the individual believer.
The relation between spirit and letter, moreover, is
characteristically the relation between the Old and New
Testaments. The Jewish people of old had the words of God
in their Law, but they read those words literally and
obeyed them punctiliously. Christianity proposed an
alternative spiritual reading of that Old Testament history.
Thus, the function of the law of the Old Testament was not
to enact a law whose precise observance could win an
eternal reward. Rather the law was to reveal to mankind its
iniquities--nothing more: "Through the Law came an
awareness of sin." (Rom. 3.20) The proper response to the
law is remorse and repentance and a longing for divine aid.
To take the law as a complete and exclusive set of
commandments leading to perfection is the sin of the
pharisees. But Augustine, expounding Paul, is so clear on
these points that he should be allowed to speak for
himself: "The apostle wanted to commend the grace that has
come to all nations through Jesus Christ, lest the Jews
should boast of themselves at the expense of other peoples
on account of their having the Law. First he says that sin
and death came on the human race through one man [Adam],
and that righteousness and eternal life came also through
one [Christ]. Then he adds that "the law entered, that sin
might abound. But where sin abounded, grace did much more
abound, so that as sin hath reigned unto death, even so
might grace reign through righteousness unto eternal life
by Jesus Christ our Lord.' (Rom. 5.20-21) ... For there was
need to prove to man how corruptly weak he was. Against his
iniquity, the holy law brought him no help towards good,
but increased rather than diminished his iniquity, for the
law entered that sin might abound. Thus convicted and
confounded, man might see that he needed not only a
physician, but even God as his helper to direct his steps
so sin would not rule over him, and so he might be healed
by fleeing to the aid of divine mercy. In this way, where
sin abounded grace might much more abound, not through the
merit of the sinner, but by the intervention of his
helper." (6.9)
An end is called, therefore, to all bargaining for
salvation. Man is not a free, strong, and independent (but
subordinate) being dealing with a powerful adversary. He is
a helpless, self-shackled creature, first acknowledging
error in the face of the law, then accepting the free gift
of redemption through the grace of the New Testament. This
is the deepest meaning of the duality of the testaments.
"What difference there is between the old covenant and the
new is therefore obvious. In the former the law is written
on tablets, while in the latter it is written on hearts.
... In the one man becomes a transgressor through the
letter that kills, in the other a lover through the
life-giving spirit. We must therefore avoid saying that God
assists us to work righteousness and 'works in us both to
will and to do of his good pleasure,' (Phil. 2.13) by
addressing to us external commands of holiness. For he
gives his increase internally, by shedding love abroad in
our hearts by the holy spirit that is given to us." (25.42)
The apparent pattern of salvation history breaks down.
Christ did not come simply to revise and update (with
perhaps some generous simplifications) the commands of the
Old Testament. Christianity does not simply humanize the
monotheism of Judaism. Where in the pre-Christian view, God
is typically somewhere outside and above, now for the
Christian, God is also within the individual, exercising a
transforming power regardless of human merits.
This power is one that the subjects of the transformation,
ordinary men and women, find difficult to understand. Our
deepest assumption is that we are here somehow all by
ourselves, part of a society to be sure, but still
intrinsically ourselves alone. But Augustine and Paul show
us that we are opaque to ourselves. The conflict of wills
and instincts in man seems somehow alien, but it is not.
The will to goodness and, where it exists, the power to
achieve that will are not man's but are the effect of the
lord and creator of the universe personally working within
man, so far within that the mechanics of the process elude
perception. In reading the classical literature of
antiquity, we often feel that the writers envision the
individual at peace with himself in a world that often
defies understanding. Augustine shows a reversal of things
(which affected more of late antiquity than just the
Christian church) according to which the inner man becomes
the focus of mystery.
Grace is not a gift present to all men in the same way,
which some choose to accept and some reject. If this were
the case, the gift would lose its power, and salvation
would be distributed in accordance with the merit of having
accepted the gift. Where grace prevails, it does so
regardless of the choice of the individual subjected to it.
The paradox is that moral responsibility for rejecting God
remains, while the moral merit for accepting God is
abolished by grace. This creates a two-fold system of
judgment in appearance, whereby it is just for God to
punish the damned and merciful for him to reward the
blessed, and not at all inconsistent to treat the two
groups differently. Those unable to live with paradox are
driven either to a harsh system of double predestination or
to a generous doctrine of final blessedness for all.
Augustine, always sensitive to paradox, had, as we shall
see, a more complex response.
Pelagius held, apparently, that grace as spoken of in
scripture consisted of the good nature given to all men
(which even sin only taints but does not destroy) and of
revelation given through Christ. Men are given a basic
goodness and the knowledge to employ that goodness. Their
reaction then is their own free and responsible choice, by
which they earn or fail to earn eternal salvation. But for
Augustine, nature and grace are always two different
things. The Pelagian analysis works if applied to Adam and
Eve, perhaps, but they chose badly and fell from the state
of preternatural grace that was theirs by nature. In a
world vitiated by their sin, a second order of divine
generosity was needed if men were to be saved. The
supernatural grace of Christ's redemption is special
medicine to heal a fallen world, and it works in special
ways. Grace cannot simply be reduced to God's sense of fair
This grace, then, is absolute. It forestalls all merit,
instructs the sinner concerning what is right, gives the
power to do what is right, and is itself mysteriously the
act of doing what is right. What men do that is wrong, they
do themselves; what they do that is right, God does in them.
This system would seem to leave little room for free will.
Human beings are either sinners or puppets. The controversy
Augustine fought on this point developed over a decade, but
it is important to see what Augustine had to say at the
outset, in Spirit and Letter. "Do we then by grace make
void free will? God forbid! No! Rather we establish free
will. For even as the law by faith, so free will by grace,
is not made void, but strengthened. The law is fulfilled
only by free will, but from the law comes knowledge of sin,
from faith the acquisition of grace against sin, from grace
the healing of the soul from the disease of sin, from the
health of the soul freedom of will, from free will the love
of righteousness, from love of righteousness the
accomplishment of the law." (30.52)
True freedom of the will is the highest and noblest of
human faculties, but it can be seriously damaged and even
destroyed by its own self-inflicted wounds. When Adam and
Eve encountered the divine command about the tree in the
garden, then and then only was the freedom of choice
absolute. But all choices have moral effects, and only the
good choices are compatible with freedom of the will. God
is absolutely good, and all that is less than God is
inherently less good. Turning the will from what is best to
what is less good places constraints on that will itself,
constraints from which it cannot then loose itself. Left to
itself, the will that has chosen wrongly continues to
choose wrongly, and its freedom is damaged by its own act.
Divine grace, on the other hand, provides redemption from
the self- inflicted loss of freedom and restores the will
to the original state of freedom. Obviously, none of this
is as simple as Augustine made it seem in Spirit and
Letter, but he saw it just that clearly. The clarity of
that vision inspired all his later writing.
One consequence of this doctrine is that the final
redemption of the soul is a matter for heavenly judgment to
determine. Christ brings redemption establishes a church by
which redemption is mediated, but this church has no magic
power. This is no pagan mystery religion, initiation in
which brings automatic redemption once for all. Augustine
was intensely aware of the power of ecclesiastically
mediated grace to bring about miracles of moral reformation
and of the lingering power of sin to reclaim even those who
had seemed on the road to salvation. He spoke once of the
example of the elderly man who had lived for decades
chastely and continently in the peace of the church, but
then suddenly and inexplicably in old age took up with a
young woman and abandoned his earlier life of
Augustine holds therefore that divine grace works both
absolutely and by degrees. Faith and baptism mark the first
stage on a long road. With divine assistance, that road
will be followed to its end, but if the assistance fails,
failure remains possible. The liberation of the will from
the shackles of sin is only partial, and constant relapse
in small matters is inevitable, just as total relapse in
large matters is possible. The Christian life is a constant
struggle--but not of the kind Pelagius imagined. It is not
that men struggle with vice--it is that divine grace
struggles to overcome the inner tendency to turn away.
Pride on the other side struggles constantly to defeat
This principle finally answers the question that began
Spirit and Letter. Even for the baptised Christian living
in evident harmony with the precepts of Christ and the
church, perfection of righteousness is nowhere to be found
on earth. Perfection may be spoken of, but only as a
prefiguration, bearing as much (and as little) resemblance
to the perfection of the blessed as the outward appearance
of Jesus, the carpenter's son, bears to Christ, the risen
Lord, seated in glory at the right hand of the Father.
This great paradox cleaves the world in half, leaving an
endless array of lesser paradoxes in its wake. Throughout
his writings of this period, Augustine constantly iterates
his belief both in the paradoxical quality of the doctrine
he has to preach and in the ultimate resolution of those
paradoxes in divine knowledge. Spirit and Letter ends with
a scriptural quotation that runs like a leit-motif through
the anti-Pelagian writings of Augustine.[9] As we prepare
to turn to his elucidation of the deepest paradoxes of
freedom and predestination, it will be useful to see this
quotation ending this chapter, just as Augustine used it to
conclude Spirit and Letter. Grave pitfalls await any
controversialist who enters the lists against Augustine
without appreciating the significance of these ideas. He
introduces the crucial passage by another quotation from
Paul: "'My grace is sufficient for thee; for my strength is
made perfect in weakness.' (2 Cor. 12.7-9) A fixed and
certain reason remains, therefore, in the hidden depths of
God's judgments, why every mouth, even of the righteous,
should be shut in its own praise, and opened only for the
praise of God. But what this reason is, who can unearth,
who can investigate, who can know? So 'unsearchable are his
judgments, and his ways past finding out! For who hath
known the mind of the Lord? Or who hath been his counselor?
Or who hath first given to him, that it shall be repaid to
him again? For of him, and through him, and to him, are all
things: to whom be glory forever, Amen.'" (Rom. 11.33-36)
Free Will[10]
Readers with little taste for paradox find many
frustrations in Augustine. Those frustrations are about to
come to a peak. For the fallen human intellect to
understand the workings of divine salvation is, for
Augustine, a task destined to glorious failure. Failure,
because such understanding will be incomplete, but
glorious, because the more intensely that failure is
realized, the close the knowing person comes to God.
To begin with, as always for Augustine, there is God. To
God, all that transpires is intelligible and reasonable.
God is omniscient, but also omnipotent. All that is, is of
God; creation is encompassed by God and dwarfed by him.
Appearances are only complicated shadows cast by simple
realities we will never fully comprehend. Human beings,
created in the image and likeness of God, possess the
faculty of reason, and in theory nothing should prevent
them from sharing divine knowledge. But in practice
something does interfere. Sin leads to ignorance and
misunderstanding, and in this life grace itself leads only
to partial and incomplete restoration of the intellect.
But human beings pretend otherwise. They perceive small
fragments of the reasonableness of divine creation and
think they know the whole story. They grasp a piece of the
truth and identify it with the whole. Then attention is
drawn to a crucial theological puzzle, a system of logic
fails to resolve all the issues that are raised, and
scapegoats are sought. Men blame the system, blame the
puzzle, blame God himself, but never blame themselves.
The problems raised by Augustine's theology of sin and
grace and its limitations were thrust upon with most
painful force in the last decade of his life, when some
monks in Africa and Gaul, concerned that the value of their
own self-denying way of life was undermined by what they
saw as defeatist quietism, began propagating ideas that
have received in modern times the inaccurate name of
"semi-Pelagianism." (The discussion with the ascetics of
Gaul and Africa, provides a more fruitful discussion for
our purposes than does the rancorous contemporaneous
quarrel between Augustine and Julian of Eclanum, though the
issues are similar.) The conclusion they reached was that
God's grace is a reward for well-intentioned initial
efforts by human beings.[11] In other words, some limited
role for human merit remains at the root of the theology of
salvation. What matters about this opposition is not so
much its conclusions as the line of reasoning that led to
the dispute.
The monks observed that a thoroughgoing system of divine
grace leads to logical difficulties. If grace is absolutely
sovereign and human merit entirely nonexistent, does not
freedom of the will disappear? Worse, does it not mean that
it is God who chooses, not only who will go to heaven, but
also who will go to hell? Cannot those who go to hell
rightly blame the negligence and cruelty of a God who
denied them the free gift given to others just as
undeserving? Can God be just if such whimsy reigns? Is God
really merciful?
A related question attacks the problem neatly: Is grace
resistible? This would seem to suggest an attractive escape
route, for if grace is resistible, then those who are
damned are responsible for their own damnation. But if the
answer to this question is affirmative, we must ask if that
means that grace is also acceptable, that is, if it is in
the power of human beings to reject it, is it not also in
their power to accept it? And has not merit returned to the
system? If it is not in our power to accept grace, but only
to reject it, the justice and mercy of God remain in
question, for God must foreordain which people will be
allowed to resist and which will be compelled to
accept--and divine whimsy, a terrifying notion, re-enters.
Augustine does not have a simple, comprehensive solution
acceptable to all for these dilemmas. His principle, as in
the question of original sin, is to cling to what he knows
for certain, to attempt to provide explanations for
difficulties, but then to stand with what he knows by faith
even when logical difficulties remain. Here as always,
revelation and experience are everything for Augustine; the
arguments of the dialecticians have no authority.
With those warnings, we can turn with trepidation to the
Augustinian solution. Augustine believes in predestination,
but only in single predestination. God actively chooses
certain individuals to be the recipients of his grace,
confers it on them in a way that altogether overpowers
their own will to sin, and leaves them utterly transformed,
to live a life of blessedness. But God does not choose
beforehand to send others to hell. God wills that all men
be saved (cf. 1 Tim. 2.4), even as he takes actions that
save only certain individuals. Those who are damned, are
damned by their own actions.
On these points, Augustine will not be shaken. His
opponents (and a fair number of would-be friends) through
the centuries will insist that this solution is
indistinguishable from double predestination. It will be
claimed that this view is pessimistic and proclaims a
tyrannical and arbitrary God. Psychology will be invoked to
explain the growing gloom of the aging Augustine.
Before we judge Augustine, however, we should attempt to
understand him. He knew his answer could only be half a
solution. Evil and its sources were still wrapped in
mystery for him as the manifestation of non-being in the
world of being. Augustine can only attempt to explain the
workings of God and his goodness, which are clear and
intelligible. To understand the condition of the evil
creatures who will not win eternal blessedness is painfully
difficult. All this makes hard doctrine.
If the divine deliberation by which some are saved and some
are damned is a mystery, however, something less obscure
can be said about the condition of the will of the redeemed
creature. We must consider for a moment the nature of the
faculty of will itself.[12]
In practical terms, it is scarcely too strong to say that
the will is the personality. The will is the part of the
soul that chooses and acts. All choices are choices of
will, and all acts are acts of appetite, hence acts of
love, either the divinely inspired love Augustine calls
caritas, or the sinful selfish love he calls cupiditas.
Personal, conscious existence is not somewhere outside the
instrumental faculty we call will, rationally deliberating
how to employ that faculty to achieve its ends. Instead,
existence, knowledge, and will are an indissociable whole,
and all deliberation and choice is of the will--of love.
Given this psychology, it is then logical to argue that the
power of sin over the individual must be considered when
freedom is assessed. The will is always free of external
control. There is no such thing as a compelled act for
Augustine, one that goes "against the will." Even when we
are "compelled" to do something, it is only that the
conditions in which the will freely operates are altered.
So freedom of the will from external constraint is always
absolute. Its freedom becomes impaired when it begins to
choose the wrong kind of love and so to bind itself to
inferior choices in a self-perpetuating, self-damning
process. When divine grace intervenes, it liberates the
individual from the bondage of wrong past choices.
Precisely how this happens is a little unclear to
Augustine, but it is clear that God, without ever tampering
with the interior working of the will itself, can still
direct its choices by altering, in perfect omniscience, the
circumstances that affect the will.
The whole process of grace is seen by God, eternally
knowing all things, as a single unity, but it appears to
men as a series, sometimes a lifelong series, of events no
one of which necessarily entails any further event. Thus
when human beings speak of grace, they speak imperfectly.
God's grace cannot be said to be working in the life of an
individual even when that individual is destined, at a
later date, to rebel, fall into sin, and choose damnation.
Augustine describes this process best in another late
treatise, The Gift of Perseverance. From a human point of
view, the divine grace that effects salvation is best
described as Initial Grace plus the Grace of Perseverance.
From the divine point of view, it is better to say that
unless the Grace of Perseverance is present, the Initial
Grace is not finally grace at all but only some lesser gift.
The best way to see this process would be from the point of
view of heaven. The blessed soul, from the moment of first
turning to God, lives in a state of constant indeterminacy.
Grace brings many gifts of consolation and strength, but
each day brings new trials and the need for new gifts.
Whether the gifts will in the end match the trials will not
be known until the sorting out of the sheep from the goats
at the last judgment. This predestination appears in the
world under most uncertain guise.
Practically, therefore, the life of the Christian is lived
on the horns of a dilemma. Grace must be firmly believed to
be omnipotent; without grace nothing good can be done. All
that is good in the soul must come from God, while all that
is bad is of one's own doing. And yet all this appears to
the individual as a matter of individual choices of that
frustratingly free will. The faithful Christian, therefore,
is one who believes utterly in God but who responds to the
exigencies of daily life by living as though everything,
salvation included, depends on his own actions. God is
all-powerful and predestining, but the will is free, and
the one who believes and hopes in God must act as though
for himself, but act out of a completely disinterested,
selfless love--caritas, not cupiditas.
Nowhere does Augustine suggest that any of this is easy.
The Christian is keenly aware of the ambivalences of
earthly existence and feels strongly the dilemmas of living
as an isolated individual subject to a commandment that
requires him to think himself part of a completely selfless
and loving community. The damned can live in the world as
they see it, but the blessed are doomed to live, for the
time being, in two worlds, one of appearances, one of
realities. In the world of appearances, they cannot avoid
sin; but in the world of reality, they must avoid it. In
the world of appearances, they have freedom of choice clear
and simple, which they use for sin; in the world of
reality, freedom of choice is transformed utterly into a
genuine freedom, which in fact chooses only the good and
hence looks (in the world of appearances) like something
less than total freedom. All the while, the evil flourish.
Selfishness does turn out to be a remarkably efficient way
to go about living in the here and now--for the strong and
the lucky.
This doctrine of the will deals with the central mystery of
human existence, the question of who we are and what we are
here for. Augustine's answer had to be confusing and
obscure to many, perhaps finally and irrationally
paradoxical even to the best-intentioned of readers. But
Augustine never wavered in maintaining this difficult
position. Instead he kept quoting Paul on the unsearchable
judgments of God. He never let it escape his attention that
when the choice must be made between divine goodness and
human reason, the choice must be for God, not for man. That
the problem remained ultimately insoluble was for him in a
sense merely evidence that God was still God and man,
fallen but on the way to redemption, was still man.
One further irony must be faced. The dilemmas of
predestination create an urgent sense of frustration by the
absence of clear, logically compelling answers. Believers
wonder at the ineptitude of the theologians, while skeptics
take the failure of the Christians to settle the problem as
evidence of the incoherence of the creed. The irony is that
both positions are correct, but neither is complete. For
what is most significant is precisely that insistence of
the human mind on being given a straight answer. The human
mind, here and now, naturally expects all problems to have
solutions. Men expect, even demand, to make sense of the
world. But that quality of the human mind is, to Augustine,
a proud and Pelagian trait. The intellect does not
willingly yield its control over action. Rebellion and
skepticism are more characteristic, as is evident from (and
explained by, Augustine would say) the story of Adam and
The Pelagian position on Christianity is finally a pagan
one. God creates the world and issues his commands. Men are
to learn the commands, obey them, and so win salvation. The
situation is simple, requiring merely that the rules be
clear and intelligible and devoid of paradox and confusion.
The entire Augustinian system is radically opposed to this.
That God appears to us as a master of paradox tells him
something about mankind, but nothing about God. Faith,
which is what grace instills in the heart, is the assertion
that God is God, despite the paradoxes that make him seem
arbitrary, unjust, or mysterious. For Augustine, God was
always God, he was himself always a sinner, and paradox and
mystery were the price he had to pay. 


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