Church Fathers: Augustine "On Free Will"

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.

Distinctive Features:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.”
  3. 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.
  4. 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.”
  5. 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).”
  6. 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.


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  1. ‘…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. . . .”

    Bob, this is from point 4 from above. I’ve heard this argued before, but I don’t see how this “lets God off the hook” regarding evil events. (by the way, I don’t think He needs to be let off the hook).

    If God knows evil events and then permits them to happen, I could see how He is “not the agent”, but I don’t know if I would say “. . .He has no responsibility”.

    If I know a crime will be committed and do nothing to stop it, I can be accused as an acccomplice. If I allow a person to suffer and do nothing to stop it, I can be accused of neglect. (human examples of course).

    The glorious truth is that these things are woven together into a master plan that we cannot comprehend. I don’t “accuse” God of anything, . . . but taking the sovereign, eternal plan of God out of evil situations is not helpful either.

    I think that we need to let God define what is “evil” and define how He is wielding evil events (natural and man-made) for his good purposes. I think Romans 8:28 and Hebrews 12:6 hold some sway here.

    Perspective is huge. . . . . I agree that humans cannot look to God pleading that “He made me this way. . I”m not responsible for my sin”. (Romans 9:19-21). But, from another perspective, we must see God as permitting/allowing/weilding/crafting all events for His Glory and ultimate plan.


  2. Aaron, good questions, these are things I was wondering also as I read this post.

    Another question I had was with original sin itself. If I put my todler in a playpen and put an oreo cookie in there and tell her not to eat it, then knowing full well she will, am I responsible for that? Is she? How can I punish her for something that she doesn’t fully understand? Am I just in my punishment? (another human example, I know) I’m also wondering if Adam knew about what death was. God says if he eats of the tree he will die. But up until then, had he seen any death? Wouldn’t he have asked God what that meant? And was he (and Eve) responsible if they didn’t understand it? If God has revealed to us what he wants us to know, then are we responsible for the things He didn’t reveal?

    I know this might be opening a can of worms, but I’ve had this on my mind lately, so I’m glad Bob posted this. I’d be interested in other’s responses to Aaron’s or my questions. Thanks!

  3. Let me just specify,. . .that I don’t want to “blame” God for anything.

    I don’t think his “responsibility” over sinful actions puts him under blame or anything else. . . . God is God.

    God is just in punishing us for our sins because we chose to sin. period. Romans 9 is clear on that.

    I’m just concerned that some of those quotes may perhaps remove God a bit from his overall governance of all affairs.

    Now, I haven’t read that particular book of Augustine’s. . . .so forgive me if I’m just reading too much into a quote. I have a tendency to do that 🙂


  4. Yeah Aaron… that’s the risk I run when quoting just a piece of his overall argument. Trust me, Augustine’s reasoning is so tightly nuanced on this whole matter that it’s hard to do it justice. He is thinking on a level that most of us never get to. So you ask a fair question, but I think if you were to read the fullness of Augustine’s argument, your question would be quickly answered.

    So, I’m going to stop there and tell you to go read Augustine. 🙂

  5. helpful introduction to “On Free Will”; thanks for posting it! You have encouraged me to read more patristics…I think I may even start with Augustine.

  6. Bobbi Jo . . .

    I appreciate your willingness to share your thoughts. One counter-thought on your questions about responsibility:

    In your toddler eating the oreo scenario, would the real problem be (1) that your toddler choose an unhealthy alternative (even though he or she doesn’t have a handle on trans-fat) or (2) that your toddler choose disobey you and thus failed to trust in you as the one who knew what was best for him/her? Was the sin of our first parents really about making an unwise choice with bad consequences or was it about rejecting the word of God in favor of their own thoughts about what was good.

    If the latter is true in either case, then our culpability does not rise or fall on our knowledge of the consequences, but in who we are functionally trusting in to tell us what is true and good.

  7. Thanks clatterbuck, I get what you are saying and you are right but what I am saying is why would I put the oreo there in the first place and then tell her no? Why not just let her enjoy being in the playpen (paradise)? Why not give her healthy choices within the playpen? She is still there to make her own choices within the playpen (so free will would still stand). I as a parent wouldn’t do that senario, because I would KNOW ahead of time what her response would be (to eat the cookie). If God is all-knowing, why put it (the tree) there? If God wants us to trust in him, and he KNOWs we won’t, why give us the tree in the 1st place?

    I am still new to this line of thinking so anyone who can help out with these thoughts would be great.

    By the way, I do trust that God knows much more than I do, and he is probably looking down at me saying “Because I said so!” 🙂 I am also not blaming God, I am just wondering …..

  8. Bobbi Jo –

    I still don’t think the cookie or the tree is the problem – I think it’s the free will.

    I know that I have a tendency to take even the most good and godly things in my life (i.e. leading a missional community, having authority over my household) and twisting them to glorify myself instead of God. If God wants to ensure that I will trust him in every moment, it seems that he would either have to take away my free will or remove everything in the world that I could possibly use to sin against him. I don’t think that obeying God in either of those scenarios would be very honoring or glorifying to Him. Because the increase of his own glory is one of the primary ends of God’s actions (Is. 43:7, Ez. 36:22; Jn. 17:1, Eph 1:12), I think this has to be at least part of the reason why he opens up the possibility of sin.

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