Dedicated to the devotional, exegetical and philosophical study of theological paradox in Conservative, Thoroughly Biblical, Historically Orthodox, Essentially Reformed theology . . . to the glory of God alone!

Sunday, November 28, 2010

PARADOX FILES, Vol. 16 - Augustine of Hippo

Augustine of Hippo (354-430 AD) is held in high regard as one of the most profound and influential thinkers in the history of the Church. In 421 AD,  he wrote a short handbook on the Christian faith called Enchiridion of Faith, Hope, and Love. The book is a commentary on the Apostles' Creed and the Lord's Prayer, and contains some of Augustine's most foundational theological convictions in concentrated and abbreviated form. The excerpt below shows Augustine's incipient Calvinism and paradoxical compatibilism, as expressed in Chapter IX of the Enchiridion. In the midst of these thoughts, as he wrestles with the twin realities of God's sovereign mercy and man's responsibility to believe, we find Augustine almost unable to say anything beyond the words of Scripture themselves. He repeats the same Scripture verse 6 times in an attempt to explain the inexplicable! This cautious, God-honoring Biblicism is commendable, and it deserves a t-shirt.
But now, can that part of the human race to whom God hath promised deliverance and a place in the eternal kingdom be restored through the merits of their own works? Of course not! For what good works could a lost soul do except as he had been rescued from his lostness? Could he do this by the determination of his free will? Of course not! For it was in the evil use of his free will that man destroyed himself and his will at the same time. For as a man who kills himself is still alive when he kills himself, but having killed himself is then no longer alive and cannot resuscitate himself after he has destroyed his own life - so also sin which arises from the action of the free will turns out to be victor over the will and the free will is destroyed. "By whom a man is overcome, to this one he then is bound as slave." This is clearly the judgment of the apostle Peter. And since it is true, I ask you what kind of liberty can one have who is bound as a slave except the liberty that loves to sin?

He serves freely who freely does the will of his master. Accordingly he who is slave to sin is free to sin. But thereafter he will not be free to do right unless he is delivered from the bondage of sin and begins to be the servant of righteousness. This, then is true liberty: the joy that comes in doing what is right. At the same time, it is also devoted service in obedience to righteous precept.

But how would a man, bound and sold, get back his liberty to do good, unless he could regain it from Him whose voice saith, "If the Son shall make you free, then you will be free indeed"? But before this process begins in man, could anyone glory in the good works as if they were acts of his free will, when he is not yet free to act rightly? He could do this only if, puffed up in proud vanity, he were merely boasting. This attitude is what the apostle was reproving when he said, "by grace you have been saved by faith."

And lest men should arrogate to themselves saving faith as their own work and not understand it as a divine gift, the same apostle who says somewhere else that he had "obtained mercy of the Lord to be trustworthy" makes here an additional comment: "And this is not of yourselves, rather it is a gift of God - not because of works either, lest any man should boast." But then, lest it be supposed that the faithful are lacking in good works, he added further, "For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to good works, which God hath prepared beforehand for us to walk in them."

We are then truly free when God ordereth our lives, that is, formeth and createth us not as men - this he hath already done - but also as good men, which he is now doing by His grace, that we may indeed be new creatures in Christ Jesus. Accordingly, the prayer: "Create in me a clean heart, O God." This does not mean, as far as the natural human heart is concerned, that God hath not already created this.

Once again, lest anyone glory, if not in his own works, at least in the determination of his free will, as if some merit had originated from him and as if the freedom to do good works had been bestowed on him as a kind of reward, let him hear the same herald of grace, announcing: "For it is God who is at work in you both to will and to do according to his good will." And, in another place: "It is not therefore a matter of man's willing, or of his running, but of God's showing mercy." Still, it is obvious that a man who is old enough to exercise his reason cannot believe, hope, or love unless he wills it, nor could he run for the prize of his high calling in God without a decision of his will. In what sense, therefore is it "not a matter of human willing or running but of God's showing mercy," unless it be that "the will itself is prepared by the Lord," even as it is written? This saying, therefore, that "it is not a matter of human willing or running but of God's showing mercy," means that the action is from both, that is to say, from the will of man and from the mercy of God. Thus we accept the dictum, "It is not a matter of human willing or running but of God's showing mercy," as if it meant, "The will of man is not sufficient by itself unless there is also the mercy of God." By the same token, the mercy of God is not sufficient by itself unless there is also the will of man. But if we say rightly that "it is not a matter of human willing or running but of God's showing mercy," because the will of man alone is not enough, why, then, is not the contrary rightly said, "It is not a matter of God's showing mercy but of a man's willing," since the mercy of God by itself alone is not enough? Now, actually, no Christian would dare to say, "It is not a matter of God's showing mercy but of man's willing," lest he explicitly contradict the apostle. The conclusion remains, therefore, that this saying, "Not man's willing or running but God's showing mercy," is to be understood to mean that the whole process is credited to God, who both prepareth the will to receive divine aid and aideth the will which has been thus prepared.

For man's good will comes before many other gifts from God, but not all of them. One of the gifts it does not antedate is - just itself! Thus in the Sacred Eloquence we read both, "His mercy goes before me," and also, "His mercy shall follow me." It predisposes a man before he wills, to prompt his willing.
(Augustine, Handbook on Faith, Hope, and Love, translated by Albert C. Outler, c. 2006 Relevant Media Group, pp. 38-42)

As I was beginning to set down a few comments on this ancient affirmation of theological paradox, I turned to the end notes and found this astute analysis from the translator, which says it better than I could:
From the days at Cassiciacum till the very end, Augustine toiled with the mystery of the primacy of God's grace and the reality of human freedom. Of two things he was unwaveringly sure, even though they involved him in a paradox and the appearance of confusion. The first is that God's grace is not only primary but also sufficient as the ground and source of human willing. And against the Pelagians and other detractors from grace, he did not hesitate to insist that grace is irresistible and inviolable. . . . But he never drew from this deterministic emphasis the conclusion that man is unfree and everywhere roundly rejects the not illogical corollary of his theonomism, that man's will counts for little or nothing except as passive agent of God's will. He insists on responsibility on man's part in responding to the initiatives of grace
(ibid. 74-75)
There you have it - an undeniably compatibilistic Augustine. Share this with your Arminian  and hyper-Calvinist friends, and invite them to embrace the beautiful balance which fully recognizes divine sovereignty and human responsibility with a modest, Biblical sensibility that acknowledges every good gift - including the gift of faith - as originating in God alone.

And, if you are a believer, thank God for giving you this good gift in Christ.


  1. Thanks for the download link, I will enjoy that today!

    Augustine is an interesting character, indeed.

  2. Ma,

    As you know, he was far from perfect, and there are definitely some bones to spit out when reading Augustine. Especially problematic is his doctrine of the Church (ecclesiology). But, on balance, his contribution to good theology and his philosophical accuracy are astounding. His insights into Scripture are deeply edifying. His defense of orthodoxy is superb. He was indeed the first Calvinist - over 1,000 years early.

    Augustine also influenced a group within the Roman Church, the Jansenists, among whom Blaise Pascal was numbered. Catholic Calvinists - the ultimate paradox!

    Piper does a great job explaining Augustine.



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