In 2020, Dr. James White interacted quite a bit with Dr. Ken Wilson’s book (and dissertation) regarding Augustine’s “conversion” to a predestinarian. As I have read much of Augustine’s corpus 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.
Dr. Wilson argues that when Clement stirred up the believers in Corinth to good works that the implicit logical consequence must only be libertarian free will. If this is clear through implication, what of the explicit statements relating God’s will to our calling, justification, and opening of the eyes of our hearts that Clement understood believers are predestined and elected by God? By simply looking at the actual writing of Clement, there would be more data demonstrating that he was on the “traditional” belief in election as it relates to God’s purpose of salvation.
Upon hearing that infants should be baptized not to remit original sin but simply to sanctify them, Augustine realized that this was not part of what he understood as the Christian faith handed down through the ages. He understood that the Church “guarded with utmost constancy” the doctrine that children were sinners due to their inheriting original sin from Adam. Therefore, his immediate argument was that the Church was against this novel doctrine of Pelagius and that infants should have always been baptized to cleanse them of their sin. If there was a side that Augustine would have understood as “traditional”, it was that side guarded by the Church that believed the transmission of original sin from Adam needed to be washed away in infants so that they could be clean and free from sin until such a time as they committed their own personal sin.
Augustine spoke about the inherited sin nature by the sin of the first man very early in his Christian life in the year 393. And then in 401 we could see Augustine discussing the need for remission of sins by baptism in infants. The remission of sins was to renovate them from the sins of the old man. Augustine was saying something that the “traditional” advocate would not be able to say while being consistent with their own writings. Could a Provisionist say that “the custom of sinning has been turned into a nature of sinning according to mortal generation, by the sin of Adam”? That’s the language of Augustine before he explicitly wrote lengthy treatises on Original Sin.
Athanasius spoke of an origin of death from Adam, a curse of sin, and death being removed through regeneration from above and a quickening in Christ. At the very least, Athanasius shows that the church before Augustine was talking in ways that sound less “traditional” than the Provisionist would like.
Wilson has also asserted that Biblical calls to repent or wake up must mean that man has that capability within himself to fulfill that call. In this post we see a similar statement by Mani where one is told to awaken. The “traditionalist” would read these statements in Scripture as meaning that man has moral ability to heed the call himself and wake up, but the same person will read some type of determinism into a statement by Mani. I would urge that we try to be consistent with regards to how we interpret passages based off of our presuppositions. I am in no way trying to defend the statement by Mani – he was, as we have seen, not even talking about the Christ of the Bible as the Redeemer but rather was talking about Zoroaster! What I am trying to do is to urge you to consider whether you are using the same criteria when you read traditional libertarian free will into early church fathers but not into what Mani was saying.
This foundational part of “faith” (a “Redeemer” known as Zoroaster,who Wilson equated with Christ, commanding one to awake from their slumber and that Redeemer gave the grace for someone to even be able to awaken) that Augustine supposedly snuck into Christianity was approved by Augustine, per Wilson. Yet it does not take into account that Augustine was quite explicit that the “faith” he had as a Manichaean was disapproved of by him. Certainly this “faith” would include such non-catholic beliefs in astrology and the false god along with Zoroaster the Redeemer in Manichaeism.
After reading this post, 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? As Augustine stated in Confessions, he had abandoned any type of atrological determinism by 386 – even before he was converted! 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.
As this post demonstrates, the statements that Dr. Wilson made regarding the Council of Carthage do not hold water when we look at the actual document. They did believe that the church universal was baptizing infants and that it was to remit the sin that was in them as a result of generation from Adam.
Even excluding Ad Simplicianum we can see that Augustine spoke with similar language in the 10 years surrounding that letter. We see that what Dr. Wilson has conceded as non-traditional language in Ad Simplicianum is echoed by further non-traditional language in other works around that time (and the quotes that I have posted above are not exhaustive). If Augustine believed in 396 what he wrote in Ad Simplicianum, then Wilson’s entire thesis is a house of cards. But Dr. Wilson has stacked this house of cards on a single card at the bottom in order to serve as the firm foundation for this flimsy house. That single card is the fact that the word “reatus” is never found to be used prior to 412. This means that nobody believed that there was damnable guilt associated with original sin. But I have clearly just shown that Augustine, at least in 401, did believe in the inherited guilt of original sin such that he would recommend that children must be baptized to cleanse and regenerate them.
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 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.
After reading through some of Augustine yourself, it should be clear that it is anything but Wilsonian “Traditionalism”. As I have shown, Augustine not only says that children are born guilty (with a lack of innocence) but that they are further born with punishment upon them which makes them need the washing of regeneration in baptism. Guilty persons (infants) in need of regeneration, according to Augustine’s understanding of the catholic faith, would face the punishment of damnation.
This post is yet another that demonstrates the extreme prejudice employed by Wilson in his reading and assessment of Augustine. As a committed Protestant Baptist in the 21st Century, when I began reading Augustine in 2017 I approached it with no agenda. I knew that there would be many things that Augustine wrote with which I would agree and many with which I would disagree. But I have not approached my reading looking for a way to either assimilate Augustine into my tradition or accuse him of heresy from the start. My reading has been fruitful and a blessing. Dr. Wilson’s approach to Augustine appears to have been started with a bias and an effort to make Augustine someone that he was not.