Augustine Versus Determinism (Part 2)

As a young Christian at the time of these writings, however, he ignores some Christian doctrine to validate this conclusion. Notice the myriad number of verses in the New Testament referring to predestination. Ephesians 2:10, for example, states that

we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do (Archaeological Bible, emphasis added).

That God chose his true believers is obvious in many passages of the New Testament; that Christians are predestined to do good works does not aid Augustine’s case. Jn 15:16, 2 Thess. 2:13, and Eph. 1:5, 11-12 all contribute to this particular argument as well. The stumbling point with Augustine’s perception of free will and predestination lies in his desire to combine both concepts and make them fit when they cannot coexist.

The foreknowledge of God must constrain anything a person will do in their lifetime; they cannot suddenly decide to not become a Christian, for example, for God already predestined them to become one, if the Bible is the resource Augustine is relying upon. An omniscient God cannot be wrong in any way; if man had free will, God could never know what a person would do next, rendering “omniscience” infallible . Free will cannot coexist with a deterministic world if God is placed in the equation. It’s not Augustine’s intent to downplay the power of God and it is assumed that he has good intentions, but reconciling the conflicting concepts is a difficult proposition for any Christian.

The main reason for all of this dialog – the differentiations between transient and immutable desires, avoiding blaming God for evil, placing the choice of man upon himself – can be attributed to several reasons. The most prominent point to consider is Augustine’s Manichean background. The Manichees were a religious sect which Augustine became a part of during his early years (Knowles and Penkett 41). Notably, their twist on the Christian faith concerned dualism – that there are two separate realms, that of good and evil, that are constantly fighting in the spiritual realm for the souls of mankind (Knowles and Penkett 52). The denizens of these two realms constantly affect the actions of people in the physical realm; thus, people are never directly responsible for any evil actions they do (Knowles and Penkett 53).

As Augustine was an evangelist for this sect for quite a long time, converting much of his friends and family to this belief, he found it his sworn duty to convert them to Christianity. Thus, this discussion was necessary for him to, perhaps, purge his inner demons about leading many people close to him to a undesirable eternal fate. That On the Free Choice of the Will is an early writing of Augustine may be to blame; Book I was written in 387-388, only two years after his conversion from Manichaeism, while Books II and III were written around 395 when he had just become a priest of the church of Hippo (L. H. Hackstaff ix). As an early Christian, Augustine was still applying his Roman philosophical knowledge in the works of Cicero to the concepts of the Bible, which initially led to his Manichee conversion in the first place (Knowles and Penkett 48-50).

Considering these facts, it is rather obvious that the dialog was written for humans, by humans – an inevitable end when theology is concerned. A flawed human will never fully understand whether free will or determinism dictates the flow of the universe; one can only piece together clues from various human methodologies to bring humans to a basic understanding of the divine. Even if what Augustine believes is truly the case (a mixture of predestination and free will), one can only discuss such concepts abstractly; practically, a person has to live as if he had free will regardless, which makes any conclusions impossible to prove by any criteria. Though a person can perceive their “inner sense” making decisions, at least in Augustine’s opinion, what appears to be the truth may not be the case after all (OFCW II.39,41).

Other Abrahamic religions have come up with solutions to these particular problems that Augustine faces. Particularly, Islam accepts the predestination of the world of the widely accepted (at least in Sunni Islam) Asharite school of thought (Esposito 73). The Mutazila, an opposing school of thought, believed that God’s justice essentially required free will for it to be just (Esposito 72). In their view, they found that predestination made God an arbitrary judge of good and evil if he was responsible for all actions (Esposito 72). The founder of the Asharite school, Abu al-Hasan Ali al-Ashari, criticized the Mutazila for using logic and reason when dealing with transcendent concepts (Esposito 72). How does one use human ideas of justice to explain divine ideas of justice (Esposito 72)? Such discussions, al-Ashari believed, were useless.

According to the Asharites, reason and logic are certainly great tools, but they are never subordinate to the revelation of God (Esposito 73). In addition to this affirmation, al-Ashari developed the doctrine of “acquisition” – that is, people acquire responsibility and thus accountability for their actions simply by doing them (Esposito 73). It did not matter to the Asharites whether the universe was deterministic or not – one’s existence was still part of God’s plan, a God that could intervene and take part in his creation at any moment (Esposito 73).

Al-Ashari, in his greater experience, revealed an aspect of faith that Augustine had not yet fully grasped – some things cannot be explained by logic and reason. Augustine does concede that some concepts – such as where the soul comes from in Christianity – are unexplainable, but he makes an exception to free will and determinism (OFCW III.214-215). Certainly, the search for knowledge about good and evil, free will and determinism and whether God is a just God or not are all commendable intellectual pursuits. However, these are the sort of questions that cannot be answered definitively; each person will come to his own rational conclusion in this life about the subject and leave their knowledge at that juncture.

To say this is an acceptance of doctrine through blind faith is not entirely accurate. Religions would not have gained the title of “faith” had they not been based around the concept of something that cannot be explained by empirical evidence. One can, however, defend the irrational with the rational, and it is here where Augustine has stumbled a bit; instead, he chooses to explain the nature of the universe with his own human understanding, a flaw that undermines his arguments to a great degree. He attempts to explain the immutable with the transient, a violation of his own logic. Predestination is the most likely argument from a Christian perspective; the key is to see that God has a plan for every person regardless. That one must live practically as if they had free will is not a problem when a person views the universe from the big picture of creation. The creator has not left any space for error, and that is a reassuring feeling for any Christian.

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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.