After Church: Augustine Versus Determinism (Part 1)

The debate of free will versus determinism has existed since the beginning of rational thought. Is every action a human performs during his/her life a predetermined series of events, or does a human make his/her own path on this earthly plane? There is no doubt that humans prefers the latter rather than the former; people want to be control of their own destiny, and certainly do not want some deity outside their realm of reality to dictate their existence.

Surprisingly, the Christian religion embraces the concept of free will even with the acceptance of an omniscient, omnipotent God. Augustine was one of the first, in his dialog On the Free Choice of the Will, to explain his reasoning behind this particular belief. Through a complex chain of arguments with Evodius, Augustine comes to the conclusion that man is responsible for his own works, since a man cannot act rightly without a free will (OFCW II.5). In essence, acts of “good” and “evil” do not exist without free will, as a definition of both relies on a classification that would not exist without choice. Augustine also states that God’s foreknowledge of the destiny of humans does not limit man’s freedom; in fact, a will cannot be a will at all unless it is under a person’s control, and thus free will can coexist with determinism in Augustine’s Christian view (OFCW III.32-35).

However, there are many problems with these conclusions if God is assumed to exist. First of all, God must have a role in creating evil – if he is omnipotent as Christian purport, is there any other conclusion to make? Secondly, Augustine unintentionally ignores and reinterprets some essential Christian doctrines to realize his vision of free will. Third, Augustine attempts to use human reasoning to understand God. The Bible, of course, remains a great source of knowledge for the Christian faith, but a human can never know everything about the universe through empiricism. Augustine, in his early writings, cannot accept the true conclusion of his discussion – that there are some elements of this mortal coil that humans will never understand. Contrary to human reason, some conclusions must be accepted on blind faith as in the case of free will and determinism.

One must first begin with assumptions about God in the Christian eye. First, one knows that God is the creator of the universe, including both the spiritual and corporeal. Second, every physical creation listed in Genesis 1 is called a “good” creation. Not only does this statement give Christians liberty to discuss the flaws of the human, but to justify the view of God as “good” as well. According to Augustine, the flaws a person sees in themselves are part of the creation’s essential nature (OFCW III.132). Third, The only way that God could create such a universe would be omniscience, the ability to use infinite knowledge to use in forming the creation. Certainly, there is only one logical conclusion: God remains an omnipotent, omniscient being with a good nature. However, God’s omnipotence poses an immediate problem: what role did God play in the creation of evil? Augustine emphatically states the beginning of On the Free Choice of the Will that God does no evil (I.1).

However, to say that God “allows” human beings to commit evil gives God too little credit in his own creation. With omniscience, it would not be over the boundaries to suggest that God orchestrated the existence of sin in the world. In Christian tradition, the first “sin” was caused by that of Lucifer, the angel whose pride caused his fall from heaven:

How have you fallen from heaven, oh morning star, son of the dawn! You have been cast down to the earth, you who once laid low the nations! You said in your heart, ‘I will ascend to heaven; I will raise my throne above the stars of God; I will sit enthroned on the mount of assembly, on the utmost heights of the sacred mountain. I will ascend above the tops of the clouds; I will make myself like the Most High.’ But you are brought down to the grave, to the depths of the pit. (The Archaeological NIV Study Bible, Is 14:12-15)

Paradise_Lost_1

If interpreted as such, this passage carries many problems with the story of Adam and Eve’s fall. God, who created “good” angels, casts one down who rebels against His power and in turn, this angel (now known as Satan) uses the form of a serpent to tempt the two “good” humans into sin. Though one can certainly praise the nature of God’s creation, to say that evil or sin was not his doing is ultimately a form of self deception. From the beginning, God planned out the existence of evil as a contrary idea to himself, the perfect good. True, God did not create evil directly, but to say He has no involvement due to it being “contrary to his nature” is a fallacy that restricts God’s influence in the physical world. Omnipotence requires control of all elements; if He does not have control of evil, his nature would violate the definition of omnipotence by default. Humans were allowed to choose between good and evil, but, quite frankly, the odds were stacked against them in regards to the development of a sinful nature. God, in fact, is the root cause of evil.

The entire episode of evil entering the material realm certainly suggests predestination. God inherently possesses the foreknowledge of every event that will occur in His creation. Free will, if the preceding statement is true, becomes a problem in terms of sin. If such things were predetermined, the Christian doctrines of accountability and salvation are not crystal clear. Augustine, of course, saw this potential conflict as well; if God’s foreknowledge also determines the fate of humankind, is there any way to rationalize God as just in a human context?

First, it is necessary to understand Augustine’s view on evil. Lust, in his conception, is the main cause of evil (OFCW I.20). Assuming the fall of man as outlined in the Bible, humans will always have desire, or lust, towards actions that are considered “evil”. A voluntary submission to this attractive force opens a person to just punishment by God and, by association, free will is a requisite for divine judgment (OFCW I.76). To Augustine, God’s foreknowledge of events does not mean that he is the cause of sin; rather, just because God knows something will happen in advance does not necessitate that the action or event in question will occur, in the same way that your remembrance of past events did not compel them to occur (OFCW III.40-41). Augustine’s intention is to give men free will.

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Saint Augustine. On the Free Choice of the Will. Trans. Anna S. Benjamin and L.H. Hackstaff. New Jersey; Prentice-Hall, 1964.

Hackstaff, L. H. Foreword. On the Free Choice of the Will. By Saint Augustine. 1935. New York: Prentice-Hall, 1964. ix.

The Archaeological NIV Study Bible. Michigan; Zondervan, 2005.

Esposito, John L. Islam: The Straight Path. 3rd ed. New York; Oxford University Press, 2005.

Knowles, Andrew and Pachomios Penkett. Augustine and His World. Illinois; Intervarsity Press, 2004.

About Zachery Oliver

Zachery Oliver, MTS, is the lead writer for Theology Gaming, a blog focused on the integration of games and theological issues. He can be reached at viewtifulzfo at gmail dot com or on Theology Gaming’s Facebook Page.