The Church Fathers is the title respectfully given to those writers, leaders, and pastors who led the church in the first 600 years of its existence. Any modern student willing to mine writings of these old saints will find a rich repository of history, theology, and devotion. The writings of the Fathers – available as a multi-volume reference set in most higher-education libraries – are generally divided into two categories: the Ante-Nicene Fathers (those who lived before the Council of Nicea in 325 AD) and the Post-Nicene Fathers (those who lived and ministered after Nicea).
During my sabbatical, I devoted myself to reading the first volume of the Ante-Nicene Fathers series (containing the writings of those fathers who lived before 200 AD) as well as three volumes from the most eminent of the Post-Nicene Fathers: the great St. Augustine, who died in 425. Over the coming weeks I will post some of my reflections and reviews from these books: sometimes in more polished prose, and other times in a terse bullet-point format. My hope here is for blog readers to encounter at least in cursory form some of the great Christian writers and thinkers of past ages.
Thanks to our friend Hooley, we’ll start with St. Augustine.
Augustine: “On Free Will”
[In Library of Christian Classics, John Baillie, John McNeill, and Henry Van Dusen, eds, Volume VI: Augustine: Earlier Writings (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1953)].
De Libero Arbitrio is an early writing of Augustine in which he seeks to answer the question: is God ultimately responsible for sin? Or, to quote from the work itself: “If sins originate with souls which God has created, and which therefore have their origin from God, how are sins not to be charged against God at least mediately?” The work is written in a dialogical format: Augustine disputes with a student, Euodius, using the Socratic method. This design makes the various logical conclusions in the argument easy to follow. Augustine makes his interlocutor chase all possible permutations of the question, and therefore the work provides a very comprehensive apologetic for why evil in the universe cannot be charged to God.
- Very thorough argumentation. The Socratic method allows the dialogue partners to resolve all possible questions and allows the reader to follow the methodical progress of the argument.
- An early statement of Augustine’s classic faith-as-the-ground-of-knowledge position: “We cannot deny that believing and knowing are different things, and that in matters of great importance, pertaining to divinity, we must first believe before we seek to know… He cannot be said to have found, who merely believes what he does not know. And [yet] no one is fit to find God, who does not first believe what he will afterwards learn to know.”
- A thorough argument (in the beginning of Book 3) for how God’s sovereign and exhaustive foreknowledge does not mean he is the author of sin. The argument proceeds like this: by definition, our willing must be voluntary, not coerced. If God’s foreknowledge makes us will something, then by definition it is not an act of the will, because willing is voluntary. “Who but a raving fool would say that it is not voluntarily that we will? …[But] there are those who say that if God has foreknowledge of what I am going to will, since nothing can happen otherwise than as he has foreknown it, therefore I must necessarily will what he has foreknown. If so, it must be admitted that I will, not voluntarily, but from necessity. Strange folly! If I must necessarily will, why need I speak of willing at all?” The argumentation here is closely reasoned and worth poring over for all who wrestle with this question.
- A helpful analogy: memory. “Just as you apply no compulsion to past events by having them in your memory, so God by his foreknowledge does not use compulsion in the case of future events. Just as you remember your past actions, though all that you remember were not actions of your own, so God has foreknowledge of all his own actions, but is not the agent of all that he foreknows. Of evil actions he is not the agent but the just punisher… he has no responsibility for the future actions of men though he knows them beforehand.”
- Even at this early stage, Augustine has a carefully nuanced view of human nature and sin. Most of his disputation concerns human nature as it was created by God (i.e. Adam and Eve), because the question revolves around why they chose to sin in the first place. But he acknowledges that for us who live after the Fall, the words “sin” and “nature” are more complex than the argument allows. “All that a man does wrongfully in ignorance, and all that he cannot do rightly through what he wishes, are called sins because they have their origin in the first sin of the will when it was free. These are its deserved consequences. We apply the name ‘tongue’ not only to the member which we move in our mouth when we speak, but also to what follows from that motion, namely, words and language. Thus we speak of the Greek or Latin tongue. So we apply the word ‘sin’ not only to that which is properly called sin, that is, what is committed knowingly and with free will, but also to all that follows as the necessary punishment of that first sin. So, use the word ‘nature’ in a double sense. Properly speaking, human nature means the blameless nature with which man was originally created. But we also use it in speaking of the nature with which we are born mortal, ignorant, and subject to the flesh, which is really the penalty of sin. In this sense the apostle says: ‘We also were by nature children of wrath even as others’ (Eph. 2:3).”
- Interestingly, this work became fodder for Pelagius later in Augustine’s life. Augustine argued so persuasively in defense of human free will that Pelagius found his arguments useful in defending his own position. In his later Retractions (I, ix, 3-4), Augustine defended himself: “Do not let the Pelagians exult as if I had been pleading their cause, because in these books I said much in favor of free will, which was necessary for the purpose I had in view in that discussion… in these and similar words of mine no mention is made of the grace of God, because it was not under discussion.” Augustine was arguing for human freedom as the cause and root of sin, whereas Pelagius was arguing against original sin and for human freedom as the ground of salvation.