Christ and the Soul

by James J. O'Donnell

The lofty theology of a book like City of God is always a little irrelevant. All of it may be true. 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. 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 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 (that word again), 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 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 rule.[5]

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 man.

But Christianity had too high a regard for 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 illuminated.[7]

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 letter.

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 play.

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 righteousness.[8]

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 virtue.

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 closer 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 Eve.

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.