Ben Henshaw, “Augustine the Libertarian”

, posted by Ben Henshaw

Some refer to Calvinism as Augustinianism. John Calvin took the teachings of the later Augustine and systematized them. The only major difference between the later Augustine and Calvin’s theology is the doctrine of perseverance. Augustine believed that one could be truly regenerated and yet not be granted the gift of perseverance. Calvin denied that one who was truly regenerated could fail to persevere. But what about the early Augustine?

The early Augustine had a theology that was little different than the theology which had dominated the church since apostolic teachings. Augustine held to a libertarian view of human freedom and only began to move away from that view when embroiled in debate and controversy with the Pelagians. In these debates his theology began to shift.

Calvinists might claim that this shift was due to theological maturity and greater insight into Biblical truths once overlooked. Another possibility is that when trying to counter the Pelagian arguments regarding free will Augustine went too far in the other direction and began to fall back into some of the gnostic determinism which he had abandoned upon his conversion to Christianity from the Manichaean sect. Augustine’s later redevelopment of much of his theology was the direct result of this overreaction to the Pelagian controversy. I prefer the latter explanation.

So what did the early Augustine believe concerning the will? He agreed with the consensus of the church Fathers before him. He held to a libertarian view of free will and argued for it along the same lines as many Arminians do today.

Compatibilists often tell us we are “free” if we are not coerced by external factors and do what we “want” to do. The part that they often leave out of the conversation is that they believe that our “wants” are causally determined by internal factors. Somehow, compatibilists think that if you make the shift from external to internal the problem is resolved and we can be truly free even if our will is controlled by internal factors (motives, desires, etc.). And since we do what we want to do (i.e. we are not forced to do such things “against our [causally determined] wills” ) we are rightly held responsible by God and man for our actions. What would Augustine think of such arguments?

Thomas Williams in his introduction to Augustine: On Free Choice of the Will writes,

    A libertarian such as Augustine would not be convinced by this sort of reasoning. These philosophers still insist that my choices are determined; the fact that they are determined by internal rather than external factors is inconsequential. It is not better to be a hand puppet than a marionette. Besides, to a libertarian, this view is just a dodge. To see why this is the case, suppose that I have made a choice that was determined by my state of character at the time of the choice. Call that state of character S. How did I acquire S? If we admit that determinism is true, we must say that, given the laws of nature and causal factors at work both inside and outside me, S is the inevitable result of some prior state R. And how did I acquire R? It was the result of some prior state Q, which in turn was the result of prior state P and so on. And thus we trace the causal chain back in time, eventually reaching a point before I was born. But how can I be responsible for choices that are assured causal results of states of the universe [or eternal decrees if you will] that existed before I was born? For obviously I have no control over things that happened before I was born. The fact that this causal chain eventually wormed its way inside me, so to speak, determining my choices from within, no longer seems to guarantee my freedom. It is with such considerations in mind that Augustine rejects the view (known as ‘compatibilism’) that determinism is compatible with human freedom and moral responsibility; and since he is convinced that human beings are in fact free and responsible, he must reject determinism as well. (pp. xii, xiii)

Augustine, like Arminians, believed that if our choices were determined by factors which we could not control then we could not be held responsible for our actions (even if we did those actions “willingly” since the will itself has been causally determined by factors beyond our control). If the will has been causally determined then it is not helpful to say that because we do things “willingly” we should be held responsible for those actions. Augustine agreed with the consensus of the early church Fathers that such a view could not make sense of moral responsibility.

Calvinists tend to get hyped up when Arminians accuse them of making puppets of people with their deterministic view of the will. Yet those same Calvinists will happily describe us as inanimate and helpless clay in the hand of the Potter who has the right to shape us however He pleases (which misunderstands what was being expressed in Jer. 18, Rom. 9, and related passages). If we object to their determinism then we are sternly rebuked for being like pots who are talking back to the Potter. And yet, the Potter apparently formed and shaped us just so that we would indeed talk back to Him. Strange theology indeed.