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 much 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.
Augustine from 388
As we have discussed in many of these posts, Dr. Wilson asserts that Augustine underwent a wholesale change in his beliefs from being on Wilson’s side in some “traditional” theological narrative regarding the freedom of the will, predestination, original sin, and other such doctrines to not only believing but promoting some “DUPIED” that he retained from his Gnostic-Stoic-Sun-Worshiping-Judaistic-Qumran-Manichaean pre-Christian background. (It does rather roll off the tongue!) To be sure, this means that Wilson believes that before 412 that Augustine believed the same thing, basically, that Wilson did on the doctrines above as they would have represented the “traditional” understanding of those doctrines prior to Augustine’s change in 412.
In this brief post, I would like to direct you to one of the earliest theological writings that Augustine wrote. This was from around the year 388 in a work known as On The Magnitude of The Soul. It was written just 2 years after Augustine’s conversion.
In discussing regeneration (i.e. “renewal” in a person), Augustine here stated several important beliefs. Augustine was talking about a level of “Seven Degrees of the Soul”. The Sixth Degree was “the yearning to understand what things are true and best.”
- If one wishes to gaze upon that which is most noble, it is fruitless to attempt to do so prior to being cleansed and healed.
- He cites Psalm 51 here in 388 as well – which is a key passage related to original sin, as we will see in my next post.
- Man’s spirit “is not renewed” unless one’s heart has first been made clean. This further clarifies point 1 above.
“It is another thing, again, to direct a calm and steady gaze upon that which is to be seen. Those who wish to do this before they are cleansed and healed are so driven back by the light of truth that they may think there is in it not only nothing good, but much of evil. They deny it the name of truth and, by reason of pitiable yielding to carnal indulgence, they draw back into the caverns of their own darkness, enduring it because they are ill and cursing the only remedy of their distemper. Whence, divinely inspired, the prophet most fittingly prays:’ ‘Create a clean heart in me, O Lord, and renew a right spirit in my breast.’ The spirit is right, I believe, if it keeps the soul in its quest for truth from losing the way and going wrong. Such a spirit is not renewed in a man unless his heart first shall have been made clean, that is, unless he restrain his thoughts and draw them off from all mundane attachment and defilement.”
Here is what the Reformed would consider a fairly decent exegesis of Philippians 2:12-13 – the working out of salvation in fear and trembling (“hold with all perseverance to the course that God lays down for us and which we have undertaken to hold”), for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure (“we shall come by God’s Power”). We are urged to persevere, but we also must know that God works in us. I discussed Augustine and the Perseverance of the Saints in this post several years ago.
“This I now dare say to you in all simplicity, that, if we hold with all perseverance to the course that God lays down for us and which we have undertaken to hold, we shall come by God’s Power and Wisdom to that highest Cause, or Supreme Author, or Supreme Principle of all things, or whatever other name you would deem worthy of so great a Reality. That being understood, we shall see truly how all things under the sun are no more than ‘vanity of vanities.’ Vanity is pretense.”
As I discussed several posts ago, Augustine here was dissenting from the beliefs of astrology. God is to be the only adoration of the soul. That object of adoration is greater than the soul itself. This means that we cannot believe that heavenly bodies are superior to the soul. Again, this early work of Augustine presents several problems for Wilson’s thesis.
“Hence, only God is to be adored by the soul, without discrimination or confusion. 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.”
Does man have free choice? Here Augustine said so. However, I would think it difficult for a Provisionist or believer in “traditional” libertarian free will to say that when the gift of free choice is used that it “does not disturb any portion of the divine order and law” as Augustine said.
“To the soul, indeed, is given free choice, and they who endeavor to undermine it with futile reasonings are so blind that they do not understand that of their own will they are voicing these absurd and impious statements. And the gift of free choice is such that, making use of it in any way whatever, the soul does not disturb any portion of the divine order and law. It is conferred by the all wise and all prevailing Lord of all creation. But, to see these things as they should be seen is the gift of a few, and one becomes fit for the gift only by true religion. For, true religion is that by which the soul is united to God so that it binds itself again by reconciliation to Him from whom it had broken off, as it were, by sin.”
Getting back to man’s renewal, or renovation, Augustine says that it cannot happen unless we are first remade into God’s image. And this “activity” of the renovation of the spirit is more like “inactivity” – man’s soul cannot even begin or complete it without God’s help. Again, this is Augustine sounding less and less like what Wilson would believe regarding man’s will.
This renovation cannot take place at all, unless we are remade in the image of Him who gave us that image to keep as a most precious treasure, when He gave us to ourselves with such a nature that only He Himself can rank before us.
But, to me no work is more laborious, no activity more like inactivity, than this renovation of spirit, for the soul has not the strength to begin or complete it, except with the help of Him to whom it turns itself. Hence it comes about that man’s reformation must be sought from the mercy of Him whose Goodness and Power are the cause of man’s formation.
As we have seen, yet again, when Augustine’s own words are read he appears to have spoken in a “non-traditional” way. I simply ask, yet again, if the things that Augustine wrote in this work as cited above are statements that the provisionists could agree with. Can they say that man cannot even begin or complete the renovation of spirit without God helping him to do that? Can they say that our use of free will “does not disturb any portion of the divine order and law”? These are serious questions that undermine much of Dr. Wilson’s thesis.Tags: chrisw-kenwilson