Recently, Dr. James White has been interacting quite a bit with Dr. Ken Wilson’s book (and dissertation) regarding Augustine’s “conversion” to a predestinarian. As I have been reading much of Augustine’s work lately as well as other Church Fathers, I felt that I should enter this discussion with a layman’s perspective. Since Dr. Wilson’s dissertation is available to freely view most of it on Google Books, as linked above, I will use that as my source. All of my posts on this topic can be found here.
Astrological Determinism and Stoic Providence
Returning to Dr. Wilson’s dissertation, I would like to take a few moments today to look at his discussion of what he refers to as “Stoic Providence” and Astrological Determinism. If you will note below on page 26, Wilson states that there is a difference between just studying astrology and worshiping the celestial bodies as they control the lives of men. He then refers to some historical evidence from Philo, Josephus, and others that (some of) the Jews were also worshiping the sun. This is then tied back to Qumran determinism where the “elect”, under the influence of “totalitarian (Stoic) Providence” were a typical example of a melding of Astrological influences without the actual worship of the sun. The takeaway is that “Stoic Providence” is guiding this (near) worship of heavenly bodies in Astrology.
Continuing to page 30, we have some wishy-washy statements about Philo. He had “his Stoic model” and was under “strong Stoic influence” but was “not a Stoic”. Yet his “view of Providence was derived from Stoicism” (i.e. Philo held to “Stoic Providence”) and held that a person’s life was pre-determined by genetic features at their birth. Other ancient systems might say that the alignment of the stars was deterministic of a person’s life – this would include systems influenced by “Stoic Providence” like we have seen above.
Finally, we will turn to page 129. Here we see that Wilson is discussing some of Augustine’s works between the years 396 and 405. The key statements I wish to point you to in Wilson’s analysis are as follows:
- Augustine did not renounce “the determinism of astrology” until meeting with Firminus in Confessions 7.8-10.
- Between 400-403, Augustine was still “in the grip of rigid Stoic Providence” believing that the universe was “meticulously controlled down to the ‘fluttering of the leaves.'”
What Really Happened?
First of all, let me be clear. Dr. Wilson’s statements above are completely wrong and are misrepresentations of the truth regarding Augustine. Wilson, above, is rewriting the stars (to tie a popular song to this post on astrology) in order to further propagate his distortions about Augustine. I would like to say that they are misconceptions about Augustine, but at this point I believe it is safe to say that he is distorting the truth.
He mentioned Confessions Book VII in a few places. This PDF contains a detailed chronology of the events that took place in each chapter of Confessions. The dates in it will be used for this post.
First, Wilson stated that in VII.5 Augustine embraced the catholic faith. This is a skewed statement – in Book V Augustine left Manichaeism. But it was not until Book VIII that Augustine experienced his conversion. This is where we read about the famous “tolle lege” encounter and when Augustine said that “all the darkness of doubt vanished away.” It’s a beautiful conversion story! Books VII-VIII discuss events that took place in the year 386, the year of his conversion.
Note the confusion that Wilson demonstrates – Augustine renounced the determinism of astrology in Confessions VII.8 but he remained “in the grip of rigid Stoic Providence” up to the years between 400-403. I believe that Wilson is saying that Augustine Renounced it earlier but that he didn’t really renounce by the time he wrote Confessions around 401. Therefore, we are looking at Wilson making the claim that for 15-17 years after the events recorded in Confessions VII that Augustine remained in the grip of this Stoic Providence which Wilson himself has already equated with astrology.
With this in mind, I would like to provide some examples from Augustine’s writing. Here is Augustine stating, unequivocally, that by the year 386 at the time of Chapter VII of Confessions he had “rejected the lying divinations and impious dotages of the astrologers”. Yes, Augustine attributed to God here the fact that He is the director of the universe – even to the fluttering of the leaves of the trees. Regarding Firminus, Augustine relates that God gave him to Augustine as a friend who would be unaware that something he heard of his father would be pivotal in “overthrowing” Augustine’s estimation of the art of astrology. Augustine believed in 386 that he “was now almost persuaded that these were but empty and ridiculous follies.”
But this time also had I rejected the lying divinations and impious dotages of the astrologers. Let Thine own mercies, out of my very inmost soul, confess unto Thee for this also, O my God. For Thou, Thou altogether (for who else calls us back from the death of all errors, save the Life which cannot die, and the Wisdom which needing no light enlightens the minds that need it, whereby the universe is directed, down to the whirling leaves of trees?) -Thou madest provision for my obstinacy wherewith I struggled against Vindicianus, an acute old man, and Nebridius, a young man of admirable talents; the first vehemently affirming, and the latter often (though with some doubtfulness) saying, “That there was no such art whereby to foresee things to come, but that men’s conjectures were a sort of lottery, and that out of many things which they said should come to pass, some actually did, unawares to them who spake it, who stumbled upon it, through their oft speaking.”
Thou providedst then a friend for me, no negligent consulter of the astrologers; nor yet well skilled in those arts, but (as I said) a curious consulter with them, and yet knowing something, which he said he had heard of his father, which how far it went to overthrow the estimation of that art, he knew not. This man then, Firminus by name, having had a liberal education, and well taught in Rhetoric, consulted me, as one very dear to him, what, according to his so called constellations, I thought on certain affairs of his, wherein his worldly hopes had risen, and I, who had herein now begun to incline towards Nebridius’ opinion, did not altogether refuse to conjecture, and tell him what came into my unresolved mind; but added, that I was now almost persuaded that these were but empty and ridiculous follies.
Augustine, Confessions VII.8
And regarding the statement that Augustine believing in some type of Providence which could even control “the fluttering leaves of the trees”, this is a category error. As a Christian, we must deal with Psalm 104 which attributes to God the flowing of springs giving water to livestock, “causing” the grass to grow and plants. Literally, God causes the trees to grow which have the leaves. And God made the moon, seasons, sun, etc… And we must deal with passages such as Matthew 8:23-27 in which Jesus has control over “even winds and sea”. Leaves “flutter” by the action of the wind which is controlled by God! And in Revelation 7:1, we read that the winds will be held back at some point to not blow on “trees” (as one specific example). To be consistent, Dr. Wilson should claim that those passages of scripture speak of the type of determinism that he is attributing to Augustine.
But we must press on. If Augustine’s own statements from Confessions were not enough as he looked back in retrospect, let us back up to the year 398 when Augustine wrote Contra Faustum – he was writing against Faustus the Manichee. Specifically he was combating an assertion by Faustus that the incarnation of Christ was the result of the placement of the stars. Augustine said that the star which was seen by the Magi was only a witness. In direct contradiction to the Astrology of Stoic Determinism, Augustine said that by the star paying homage to the birth of Christ that it was only acknowledging Him rather than having any control over Christ.
We, too, deny the influence of the stars upon the birth of any man; for we maintain that, by the just law of God, the free-will of man, which chooses good or evil, is under no constraint of necessity. How much less do we subject to any constellation the incarnation of the eternal Creator and Lord of all! When Christ was born after the flesh, the star which the Magi saw had no power as governing, but attended as a witness. Instead of assuming control over Him, it acknowledged Him by the homage it did.
Augustine, Contra Faustum, II.5
The following statement is from 2 years later, and still prior to the writing of Confessions. We find this statement in Letter 55, to Januarius from the year 400. In Chapter V he stated that it is God who causes the sun to rise and in Chapter VII he “denounces with abhorrence and contempt” the things that the astrologers teach.
For that sun which is visible to the eye of sense, God makes to rise upon the evil and the good alike.
We are therefore bound to denounce with abhorrence and contempt the ravings of the astrologers, who, when we find fault with the empty inventions by which they cast other men down into the delusions where into they themselves have fallen, imagine that they answer well when they say, Why, then, do you regulate the time of the observance of Easter by calculation of the positions of the sun and moon? — as if that with which we find fault was the arrangements of the heavenly bodies, or the succession of the seasons, which are appointed by God in His infinite power and goodness, and not their perversity in abusing, for the support of the most absurd opinions, those things which God has ordered in perfect wisdom.
Augustine, Letter 55, to Januarius, V and VII
Going Back Even Further
As I was finishing up this post, it was Providential (pun intended) that I just read De Animae Quantitate (On The Magnitude of The Soul) this week. This work was from the year 388 – in the second year of Augustine’s life as a Believer. It’s also one of his earliest works. On Page 96 of his dissertation, Wilson was discussing this work and stated that “He embraces meticulous Stoic Providence” as guiding “every miniscule individual event”. As we have seen the Wilsonian correlation between Stoic Providence and Astrology, we must consider with tremendous weight what Augustine stated at one point in De Animae Quantitate. He stated the following:
For, whatever the soul adores as God, it must deem more excellent than itself, and it is impossible to believe that the earth is superior to the nature of the soul, or the stars, or moon, or sun, or anything at all that is touched or seen by these eyes.
If Augustine believed in a “meticulous Stoic Providence”, then he would have had to believe that the stars, moon, and sun were superior to the nature of soul (i.e. on a level of being that soul’s God). But Augustine, again, explicitly denied the superiority of any heavenly bodies (or even anything visible to our eyes). As the stars are not superior, this would mean that they were not some “meticulous Stoic Providence” guiding “every miniscule individual event”.
I have to ask the reader one question. Does it sound to you like Augustine was still under the influence of Stoic Providence guided by the stars in 388 and 398 (as well as from 393 and 397 in quotes below) when he explicitly denied the influence of stars over the birth of any man? That statement was about 11 years after his conversion, but it is consistent with what he stated in Confessions that he had abandoned any type of atrological determinism by 386 – even before he was converted! This is basically an example of Augustine in the late 4th Century telling Wilson “every word of what you just said is wrong.” I will continue with more posts in this series, but when you have direct and explicit denials by Augustine of the assertions that Wilson is making, you have to ask yourself why Dr. Wilson is treating Augustine the way that he is.
Augustine, in writings from 388-401 categorically denied any assertion that he continued to worship the heavenly bodies.
And for further proof that Dr. Wilson’s assertions regarding Augustine are flat-out wrong, I will just post some additional statements from Augustine from the pre-400 time period.
Here we have a statement from the work Of Faith and The Creed from the year 393. He states that they adore the sun as God and not as a creation of God.
Those, therefore, who entertain this opinion ought to ponder the fact that the rays of this sun, which indeed they do not praise as a creature of God, but adore as God, are diffused all the world over, through the noisomenesses of sewers and every kind of horrible thing, and that they operate in these according to their nature, and yet never become debased by any defilement thence contracted, albeit that the visible light is by nature in closer conjunction with visible pollutions. How much less, therefore, could the Word of God, who is neither corporeal nor visible, sustain defilement from the female body, wherein He assumed human flesh together with soul and spirit, through the incoming of which the majesty of the Word dwells in a less immediate conjunction with the frailty of a human body! Hence it is manifest that the Word of God could in no way have been defiled by a human body, by which even the human soul is not defiled.
Augustine, Of Faith and The Creed, IV.10
And from the year 397 in his work Against the Fundamental Epistle of Manichaeus we read him encouraging people to worship “The Sun of righteousness” – Jesus who we read about in Malachi. He says that they should “gaze upon his Sun”, but not the physical sun which the Manichaeans worship.
Let those rage against you who know not the difficulty of curing the eye of the inner man that he may gaze upon his Sun—not that sun which you worship, and which shines with the brilliance of a heavenly body in the eyes of carnal men and of beasts—but that of which it is written through the prophet, The Sun of righteousness has arisen upon me;” [Malachi 4:2] and of which it is said in the gospel, “That was the true Light, which lights every man that comes into the world.” [John 1:9]”
Augustine, Against the Fundamental Epistle of Manichaeus, II
Finally, in Contra Faustum Book XX (from 398) Augustine makes an extended argument that the Manichaeans are pagan (Augustine actually says they are far worse than pagans!) sun-worshipers and not worshipers of the Triune God that we worship. It would be a fascinating read for those who might be interested in more of what the pre-400 Augustine had to say about the faith and worship of the Mainichaeans.