Monday, July 10, 2006

Augustine on Grace and Freewill

Due to a link regarding my Augustine posts by the Pontificator, both Mike (Catholic) and Perry (Orthodox) have jumped into the discussion regarding the nature of freewill, turning the discussion away from Edwards and Luther and toward Augustine. Fine with me. The previous thread got a bit heavy, so I want to take up the discussion here in the form of a post. A couple of preliminary thoughts:

1) Coming from different traditions, it is important to define terms. I will continue to use the terms compatibilistic and libertarian as defined in a previous comment, which read,
What I mean by compatibilistic freedom is "any conception of human freedom that is compatible with unconditional election and infallible grace." Libertarian freedom conversely, is "any conception of human freedom that denies unconditional election and infallible grace." Not all compatiblists use the same means to arrive at a compatibilistic conclusion (same with libertarians).
My primary contention is that Augustine was a compatibilist (as was Edwards, Luther and Calvin). It is my understanding that Benard, Thomas and Scotus were all compatibilists as well, but I have not read them directly. And I tend to agree with Mike that many Catholic theologians (past and present) have not been compatibilistic in the sense defined above.

2) Mike writes, “As for Augustine, his corpus is so vast that he can be plausibly interpreted as either a “libertarian” or a "compatibilist." That is precisely why he is the "father of two traditions." I disagree with Mike at this point. Augustine’s writing is vast, but he wrote repeatedly and specifically on the issue of grace and free will, such that we do not have to cull through volumes of his writing or deduce his stance through inference. His works such as On the Predestination of the Saints and On Grace and Freewill, along with his entire corpus of anti-Pelagian writings (all of which I’ve read) are all products of his mature thought and make it clear (at least to me) that he maintained a compatibilistic notion of freedom. He is the father of two traditions because he is able to uphold both infallible grace (championed by the Reformers) and conditional merit (rightly maintained by Rome).

Below I will outline my understanding of Augustine’s notion of grace and freewill. For a full treatment, see the second chapter of my thesis.

Augustine does not dispute that the will has the capacity for both good and evil, or that a man has the free ability to choose between the two. But whereas the Pelagians seemed to suggest that the will simply chooses apart from any necessity, Augustine insists that the will always chooses what it chooses in accordance with what a man deems most pleasing. Augustine writes, “Before man is life and , and whichever pleaseth him shall be given to him.” And in regards to conversion he writes, “He therefore who follows Christ, when asked why he wished to be a Christian, can answer: ‘It seemed good to me.’” And again, “For we desire a thing more ardently in proportion to the certainty of our knowledge of its goodness, and warmth of our delight in it.” Similarly, the will never chooses against its own perceived best interest. It is very difficult for me to see how Augustine is wrong here.

Augustine’s notion of freewill and grace is inseparable from his understanding of original sin. For Augustine, original sin has so marred the nature, that the individual is no longer able to perceive God—apart from grace—as the greatest good. Thus, left to our freewill, we actually move away from God, for the corruption of original sin causes us to wrongly perceive him as a detriment to our wellbeing. It is only through the gracious, illuminating call of God that the sinner is turned from sin and comes to see submission to God as his greatest good.

Yet this calling is not merely the general proclamation of the gospel that falls upon the ears of both the elect and non elect. This calling of the elect is done in a manner congruous with each particular individual. God’s perfect knowledge of each individual’s inclinations enables him to exercise the divine calling in such a way that he is completely capable of converting any individual. Augustine writes,
If God wished to have mercy on them, He could call them in a manner apt to move them so as to understand and follow. It is true, therefore, that many are called but few are chosen; they are chosen who are called in a fitting manner. . . . Whomever He has mercy on He calls in such a way as He knows suitable for him that he not spurn the caller.
So for Augustine, the grace of God is greater than sin, and his ability to woo our hearts is greater than our ability to resist. God is able to manifest himself in a manner congruous with each individual, such that that individual infallibly comes to perceive God as the greatest good. Having become thus convinced, the will naturally and freely chooses submission to God.

At this point it may be helpful to distinguish between infallible and irresistible. (I am following Eugene Portalie in this distinction). Augustine does not use these terms directly, but the substance of his argument supports Portalie’s categories. Infallible grace is “grace that always accomplishes it purpose” –nothing more or less. Infallible grace can be resisted, but is not. Infallible grace can fail, but does not. There is no ontological/metaphysical necessity associated with infallible grace. Irresistible grace, on the other hand, is “grace that accomplishes it purpose through metaphysical necessity.” With irresistible grace, the will is overrun by the force of grace. It cannot be resisted. The difference between the two is that of necessity and certainty. Infallible grace is certain, but not necessary. Irresistible grace on the other hand, is certain because it is necessary.

By way of an analogy: I love my wife very much. It is therefore certain, that I will not freely choose to kill my wife; yet it is not necessary that I will not kill my wife. Every night we go to sleep I have the power—indeed the ability and freedom—to kill my wife. The fact that it is certain that I will not kill her does not render my freedom to do so any less free.

For Augustine, due to original sin, the trajectory of the free sinful will is always away from God, for lost in the corruption of original sin, the human mind is no longer able to perceive God as the soul’s greatest good. Yet through the illumination of the Holy Spirit, the mind beholds the infinite majesty of the divine glory and becomes convinced of the truth. Thus convinced, the will freely—and infallibly—submits to God. Again, it is like a buyer and a seller. The buyer may be unwilling to buy at the beginning of the sale, but as the salesman “enlightens” the buyer to the wisdom of the purchase, the buyer becomes freely willing to engage in the transaction. The salesman does not negate the buyer’s freedom in order to close the deal—there is no hypnosis or necessity that “forces” the buyer to buy. The buyer freely chooses to buy because he has now become convinced that it is in his best interest to do so. Perhaps a profane analogy, but God is like the consummate salesman. There is no heart to which he cannot sell his grace.

For Augustine, there is no metaphysical necessity that the sinner respond favorably to grace. Yet it is certain that the sinner will respond to grace, for God’s ability to woo an individual is such that he can convince even the hardest heart to repent. For Augustine, God’s grace is infallible—it always accomplishes it purposes, but is not irresistible. It is this “certainty” of grace, I think, that separates Augustine from Trent. For Augustine, God always closes the deal. I may be wrong here, but as I understand Tridentine Catholicism, God’s grace does not always succeed in converting the sinner.

And in regards to predestination, it seems to me that either we say that election is dependant ultimately upon man (God’s foreknowledge of man’s free choice) or it is ultimately dependent upon God. I suppose we could claim mystery at this point, but Augustine (and I think rightly) goes with the latter. For Augustine, predestination is not some cosmic tractor beam that necessitates the conversion of the elect. Rather, predestination speaks of God’s decision in the past to do something in the future. The elect do not convert because they are predestined, as though predestination itself accomplishes anything, but rather the elect convert because God meets them in the present and works a work of grace in their hearts, illuminating their minds and compelling them to freely repent.


GSHiestand said...

Hey, I can actually understand almost all of this post. Thanks for making it easier for us non-theologians! :-)

Kenny said...

Thanks for this fascinating post! I found the section on irresistable vs. infallible grace particularly interesting and have now posted some comments about it on my blog.

Photius said...

One clarification, Perry isn't catholic, he is Orthodox. It might be instructive to look and see where Perry thinks Augustine is wrong and why:

And my paper:

Daniel Photios Jones

Gerald said...

Ahhh, now that makes more sense, given some of his/your comments. I assume you are as well. Your distaste for Augustine was making me think you were not a very good Catholic.

I will adjust his moniker.

Mateo said...

"It is this “certainty” of grace, I think, that separates Augustine from Trent. For Augustine, God always closes the deal. I may be wrong here, but as I understand Tridentine Catholicism, God’s grace does not always succeed in converting the sinner."

This is exactly the argument that Molinist Jesuits made against the Banezian Thomists who unequivocally argued for infallible grace; there is really no doubt about that in my mind. The Church ruled that the Molinist, however, were wrong and that the Banezian view of "infallible grace" was within the bounds of orthodoxy. Just FYI.

Jeph said...

For St. Augustine saving grace is irresistible and certain because it is given first and foremost for the sake of taking away man's resistance.