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.
The 4th Century Silence of Augustine
At the heart of Dr. Wilson’s thesis, we find the belief that Augustine’s works are “not only silent in explicating these novel doctrines [that we read in Ad Simplicianum], but actually persist in teaching his prior traditional theology.” This can be seen below on page 7 of Wilson’s dissertation. I hope to post further from Ad Simplicianum (A letter written to Simplicianus), but suffice it to say here that while it was written in the year 396, Wilson posits that what we have today in that letter was not what Augustine wrote at the time (the theory is that Ad Simplicianum was later revised to reflect his updated theology). However, if Augustine did this it would have gone against much of his ethic regarding lying since in Retractions he did not mention that what was extant as Ad Simplicianum was not representative of his theology at the time). If what Augustine wrote in Ad Simplicianum was from 396, it would mean that Wilson’s entire thesis would be overturned and (even more) completely without foundation.
Note that Wilson makes the following claims, among others, on page 7:
- Augustine “resolutely delineated” certain doctrines about the will and original sin in Ad Simplicianum, but we are not able to see them in subsequent writings until 412.
- His works during this time teach “his prior traditional theology” and not these other doctrines.
- These doctrines (“grace, original sin, dependence upon God instead of being prideful, predestination”) all appear in his later works to a great degree.
I would like to take you on another adventure in reading some things that Augustine wrote about these topics above. Many of the passages below were actually written prior to 396 when he wrote Ad Simplicianum.
But before doing that, I would like to make a general statement in passing. Wilson speaks of Augustinian “traditional theology” from 396 and up to 412. There are many assumptions in that assertion which may not be entirely correct. Wilson tries to stem some of the discussion around this in the last sentence above when he says that if Augustine was using different terminology that it would take “a meticulous examination” of concepts instead of just locating certain words and phrases. It would seem that Wilson is admitting that one could find such similar words and phrases but that there will never be a “meticulous” enough “examination” to overturn his own theories regarding Augustine. I hope that from seeing the passages below that the reader can come to his own conclusions.
Augustine Breaks the Silence
In 392, Augustine wrote his Acts or Disputation Against Fortunatus (who was a Manichee). We have looked at some other citations from this work in previous posts. For the purposes of this post, I would like to focus on sections 22 and 25. I have highlighted relevant phrases in bold below. I ask that you take note of Augustine’s line of thinking:
- What Augustine is about to say, he believes is in accordance with Scripture and consistent with his faith.
- Adam had free will and could have had a strong will had he kept God’s law.
- He sinned and all mankind was “plunged into necessity”.
- As we bear Adam’s image (i.e. since we are his descendants), we have a “necessity of our habit” – so that we may not do what we will!
- When God breathes His grace upon us, He makes us subject to his will.
- In addition to being plunged into the necessity to sin, we will also physically die.
- Adam brought death and Christ brought a resurrection of the dead.
As you can see, Augustine was stating just a few years after his conversion that because of Adam’s sin we are plunged into a necessity of habit so that we cannot even do what we will. This is in line with some of the things that he would state about Romans 7 in Ad Simplicianum, yet Wilson claims that Augustine could not have written such things in 396 because it would betray some understanding of traditional theology on that topic.
22 I recognize and embrace the testimonies of the divine Scriptures, and I will show in a few words, as God may deign to grant, how they are consistent with my faith. I say that there was free exercise of will in that man who was first formed. He was so made that absolutely nothing could resist his will, if he had willed to keep the precepts of God. But after he voluntarily sinned, we who have descended from his stock were plunged into necessity…. As long therefore as we bear the image of the earthly man, that is, as long as we live according to the flesh, which is also called the old man, we have the necessity of our habit, so that we may not do what we will. But when the grace of God has breathed the divine love into us and has made us subject to His will, to us it is said: “You are called for freedom,” Galatians 5:13 and “the grace of God has made me free from the law of sin and of death.” Romans 8:2 …. For from this very fact we are all so born, because we are earth, and from the fact that we are all so born because we are earth, we shall all go into earth on account of the desert of the sins of the first man. But on account of the grace of God, which frees us from the law of sin and of death, having been converted to righteousness we are freed; so that afterwards this same flesh tortures us with its punishment so long as we remain in sins, is subjected to us in resurrection, and shakes us by no adversity from keeping the law of God and His precepts.
25 Why the soul is here in this world involved in miseries has been explained by me not just now, but again and again a little while ago. The soul sinned, and therefore is miserable. It accepted free choice, used free choice, as it willed; it fell, was cast out from blessedness, was implicated in miseries. As bearing upon this I recited to you the testimony of the apostle who says: As through one man death, so also through one man came the resurrection of the dead.
Augustine, Acts or Disputation Against Fortunatus
For emphasis, one of the things he said in Ad Simplicianum 10 was that “We are born into this life with [original sin], and add to the latter [of repeated sinning] as we live. These two things, nature and custom conjoined, render cupidity strong and unconquerable.”
A couple of years later, in 394, Augustine wrote a work On The Sermon on Mount. As expected, it was an exposition of the beatitudes, Lord’s Prayer, etc… Note the following things that Augustine tells us regarding “on earth as it is in heaven”:
- At present, the body “is prone to fleshly habit” (i.e. sin, see above on being “plunged into necessity”).
- An element of our eternal life will be that not only will we have our wills present, but “also the performance of that which is good” (we will no longer be prone to fleshly habit – one of the curses of original sin and the Fall will be removed)
- In our “misery” (flesh) the “will of God is done” through the suffering due to us in our mortality. This is deserved by our nature because of sin.
One key takeaway here is that Augustine was speaking about the loss of performance for our will towards “that which is good”.
But when death shall have been swallowed up in victory, and this mortal shall have put on immortality, which will happen at the resurrection of the flesh, and at that change which is promised to the righteous, according to the prediction of the same apostle, let the will of God be done on earth, as it is in heaven; i.e., in such a way that, in like manner as the spirit does not resist God, but follows and does His will, so the body also may not resist the spirit or soul, which at present is harassed by the weakness of the body, and is prone to fleshly habit: and this will be an element of the perfect peace in the life eternal, that not only will the will be present with us, but also the performance of that which is good. For to will, says he, is present with me; but how to perform that which is good I find not: for not yet in earth as in heaven, i.e. not yet in the flesh as in the spirit, is the will of God done. For even in our misery the will of God is done, when we suffer those things through the flesh which are due to us in virtue of our mortality, which our nature has deserved because of its sin.
Augustine, On The Sermon on Mount, II.6.23
The next year, 395, Augustine wrote a work On Continence. The relevant passage is in section 12 as quoted below. Note that we should not have confidence in ourselves (i.e. our own power or will) and that it is the Holy Spirit Who gives us the continence to be able to overcome sin.
12 Therefore, Grace causes that sin reign not over you. Do not, therefore, have confidence of yourself, lest it thence reign much more over you. And, when we hear it said, “If by the Spirit you shall mortify the deeds of the flesh, you shall live,” let us not lay this so great good unto our own spirit, as though of itself it can do this. For, in order that we should not entertain that carnal sense, the spirit being dead rather than that which puts others to death, straightway he added, “For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God.” Therefore that by our spirit we may mortify the works of the flesh, we are led by the Spirit of God, Who gives Continence, whereby to curb, tame, overcome lust.
Augustine, On Continence
Finally, let us move ahead a few years to 401 when Augustine wrote On Baptism, Against the Donatists. Here we see in Book IV that Augustine states that God, by His foreknowledge, knows the people He has predestined before the foundation of the world. He did not say that God merely knew who would choose Him. Rather, Augustine said that God knew who He had foreordained. According to our human perception, we see Christians as they profess to be today – we don’t know if they will apostatize. But God “with whom the future is already present” knows already what they will be.
For, according to His foreknowledge, who knows whom He has foreordained before the foundation of the world to be made like to the image of His Son, many who are even openly outside, and are called heretics, are better than many good Catholics. For we see what they are today, what they shall be tomorrow we know not. And with God, with whom the future is already present, they already are what they shall hereafter be.
Augustine, On Baptism, Against the Donatists, IV.5
Then in Book V of the same work we read the following. Augustine says that those who are the true Jews inwardly make up “the fixed number of the saints predestined before the foundation of the world.”
So far therefore, as the lily extends, so far does “the garden enclosed and the fountain sealed,” namely, through all those just persons who are Jews inwardly in the circumcision of the heart Romans 2:29 (for “the king’s daughter is all glorious within” ), in whom is the fixed number of the saints predestined before the foundation of the world.
Augustine, On Baptism, Against the Donatists, V.38
One final note from this work. I brought this up in my third post as well. On Baptism, Against the Donatists was the first time that Augustine positively defended infant baptism (he mentioned that he would do so in a curious and questioning statement in On The Greatness of The Soul). As I proved in that third post, Augustine (and the church as a whole as he understood it) saw that baptism was the sacrament of regeneration that was given to wash away both original sin and actual sin. It performed the same function for infants even though they had no actual sin of which they were guilty. This meant that Augustine saw that they had the guilt of original sin that needed to be washed away.
so in infants, who are baptized, the sacrament of regeneration is given first, and if they maintain a Christian piety, conversion also in the heart will follow, of which the mysterious sign had gone before in the outward body.
Augustine, On Baptism, Against the Donatists, IV.24
As I have demonstrated, even excluding Ad Simplicianum we can see that Augustine spoke with similar language in the 10 years surrounding that letter. With that in mind, what does that mean with regards to the dating of Ad Simplicianum? At the very least, 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. This was made clear in my third post and I just wanted to highlight that fact once again.