2. The Controversy over Predestination
I have gone on at some length about the Pelagian Controversy, because it seems to me an essential background for understanding St. Augustine’s thought about predestination. The issue of predestination was, for Augustine, a kind of corollary of the doctrine of grace. As he says, “Between grace and predestination there is only this difference, that predestination is the preparation for grace, while grace is the donation itself.” (22) Although Augustine’s doctrine of predestination had been implied in his teaching on grace all along, it was only at the very end of his life that this doctrine became a focus of discussion, and he was obliged to spell out more clearly the implications of his teaching. What I’d like to do, then, during this second half of my lecture, is to explain, very briefly, what Augustine’s teaching on Predestination was, what arguments arose about it, and from there to raise the question, whether this teaching on Predestination makes sense of the New Testament; that is to say, is it true?
In the year 427, three years before the end of Augustine’s life, a monk named Florus, visiting Augustine’s friend the bishop Evodius, came across in his library a copy of a letter written by St. Augustine nine years earlier; it was addressed to a priest at Rome named Sixtus. Augustine’s purpose in the letter was to confirm Sixtus in the doctrine of man’s total dependence on the grace of God for salvation. In the course of this letter St. Augustine says some rather uncompromising things: that salvation is a gift, and one cannot earn it; or rather, that one’s ability to earn merit before God, to do good works, is itself a gift. All is from grace, Augustine says: both the beginning and the end of the process of salvation come to us solely as an act of God’s mercy, creating merit but not caused by it. But, if salvation is entirely a gift, and it is even by a gift that we are able to receive this gift, the question naturally arises, why do not all receive it? Augustine answers, with impeccable logic, that it is because it is not given to all. “No man can come to me,” Jesus says in the Gospel of John, “except the Father which hath sent me draw him: and I will raise him up at the last day” (John 6:44). Augustine takes this text to mean that, if not all are saved, it is because God intends to save only some. The rest are left in their fallen condition, and eternally perish.
The monk Florus, when he came across this letter of Augustine’s, had a copy of it written out and sent to his monastery at Hadrumetum in North Africa. He evidently thought that this letter would make for edifying reading to his fellow monks. Instead, it seems to have caused a great deal of anguished soul-searching. For, if salvation is entirely a gift, given without regard to human merit, why be a monk? Why fast, be celibate, pray standing for hours on end, live in poverty, if, in the end, none of this counts for anything in the eyes of God? Augustine’s epistle seemed to be producing one or another of two reactions among these readers: it seemed to be an incentive either to negligence or to despair, either, that is, to the inference that, if God saves human beings totally by grace, work is unnecessary, or that, if God saves totally by grace, there is nothing one can do to be saved.
The abbot of the monastery, a man named Valentinus, was troubled by the debates among his monks that this letter had engendered. Many of his monks were simple men, with little formal education, and were unable to appreciate subtle distinctions made by learned theologians. Valentinus wrote first to Bishop Evodius for guidance on how to interpret this text. The answer he received was perhaps more pious than helpful, emphasizing that God’s judgments are mysterious and that one must read the Scriptures and the writings of the Fathers with humility, not expecting to understand everything all at once. By this time, some of the monks from Hadrumetum had come and visited St. Augustine in person, informing him of the situation.
Augustine first responded by addressing a few letters to the abbot Valentinus. In them he notes, first of all, that his letter to Sixtus had been written for a specific purpose: namely, to combat the Pelagians who claim that grace is given according to our merits. He further notes that, within St. Paul’s own writings, there are indications that some people in his own day misunderstood St. Paul’s teaching on grace, inferring from it, “Let us do evil, that good may come” (Rom 3:8). Since, Augustine says, in his anti-Pelagian writings he is dealing with the same issue that preoccupied St. Paul, that is, grace, it is not surprising if his writings engender similar misunderstandings.
Moreover, St. Augustine emphasizes to Valentinus that he does not teach that what we do doesn’t matter in the eyes of God. The Scriptures, both the Old Testament and the New, are very clear that God “will render to every man according to his works” (Rom 2:6), and that we reap what we sow (Gal 6:7). Nevertheless, Augustine is convinced that our works are useless unless done in faith; and faith itself is a gift. As St. Paul says, “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God” (Eph 2:8). Perhaps the balance St. Augustine is trying to achieve between God’s action and the human response is best expressed by St. Paul in another passage. In his letter to the Philippians, ch. 2, Paul writes:
“Wherefore, my beloved, as ye have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling. For it is God which worketh in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure” (Phil 2:12-13).
That is to say, grace should be no incentive either to sloth or to despair: one is called to work out one’s own salvation with fear and trembling, giving thanks for everything, knowing that even one’s ability to work is God’s gift.
Besides his letters, Augustine also addressed to the monks of Hadrumetum two treatises, one titled On Grace and Free Will, the other On Rebuke and Grace. The one addressed the monks’ complaint that predestination seems to do away with free will; the other answered the objection that it seems to follow from the doctrine of predestination that it is useless to try to correct people for their sins, since if they are predestinated they will necessarily repent and if they aren’t they won’t. In the first of these books Augustine goes to great lengths to show that grace and free will, in his sense of the term, are completely compatible: it is grace that makes a person concretely free by freeing such a person from the passions and instilling a love of the good. As Jesus says (John 8:36), “If the Son … shall make you free, ye shall be free indeed.” In the latter book, Augustine dismisses the objection to his doctrine by saying that, just as God foreknows who is to be saved, he also foreknows the means by which those who are to be saved shall be saved, one of which means may well be the rebuke of sins. He also brings up in this book, for the first time, the issue of Perseverance — that is, not only attaining faith, but remaining in faith till the end of one’s life, is a gift of God, and that gift is not given to all, since not all who begin in faith end up so. Whether these treatises allayed the situation at Hadrumetum is not known. What is known is that they produced a kind of chain reaction elsewhere.
These treatises soon began to circulate among Christians in Southern Gaul. We learn of the effect caused by them from two letters sent to Augustine in 428, one by a man named Prosper, from Aquitaine, the other by a certain Hilary. Both of these men were ardent supporters of Augustine and his teaching. Both reported, however, that among monastic circles in Southern Gaul, particularly in the city of Marseilles, the views on predestination expressed in Augustine’s writings were causing widespread disquiet. This was so, even though among these monastic circles there was general agreement with Augustine’s teaching that, in Adam, all sinned, and that no one can be saved by his or her own works, but only by rebirth through the grace of God. Prosper, in his letter, calls these monks the reliquiae Pelagianorum, the “remnants of the Pelagians,” because he believed that denial of any part of Augustine’s doctrine led to the view that human beings are saved by their own merit; the name “Semi-Pelagians,” often applied to them, was a later term, invented during the quarrels of the Counter-Reformation. Both of these terms carry insinuations of heresy which may well be undeserved; it is probably best to refer to them simply as “the monks of Marseilles.” Chief among these men was a monk named John Cassian, the abbot of the monastery of St. Victor at Marseilles, a man revered by the Orthodox Church as St. John Cassian. He had served as a deacon under St. John Chrysostom at Constantinople and had studied among the monks of the Egyptian deserts; he is considered to be the chief mediator of Eastern monastic traditions to the Christian West. In his book The Conferences, he presents a very different view of the workings of divine grace and human freedom from that which is found in Augustine, one which emphasizes that salvation is a synergy, a working-together, between God and man.
What Cassian and the other monks of Marseilles chiefly disagreed with in Augustine’s teaching on predestination was the implication, which Augustine did not hesitate to draw, that God’s will to save fallen humankind is limited to certain individuals who, because God’s will is infallible, cannot not be saved, while the rest of the human race, because such effectual calling is not provided to them, effectively cannot be saved. They regarded this teaching, Prosper of Aquitaine says, as “opposed to the opinion of the Fathers and to the mind of the Church.”(23) They apparently viewed it as a revival of the old Gnostic teaching that human beings possess fundamentally differing natures: according to the Valentinians, one of the most important of the Gnostic sects in the second century A.D., all human beings fall into one or another of three categories: there are the pneumatikoi, the “spiritual people,” who are necessarily saved and cannot forfeit their salvation in any way; there are the hylikoi, the “material people,” who have no trace of mind at all and were apparently made only as a kind of lumber to stoke eternal bonfires — such people cannot possibly be saved; and, in the third place, there is an intermediate category, the psychikoi, the “soulish” people, that is to say, normal, everyday, run-of-the-mill people who are neither completely obtuse in their understanding nor godlike supermen but who, in their bumbling, haphazard way, sometimes make the right choices and sometimes stumble; the Gnostics tended to see the vast majority of Christians as belonging to this third category, and taught that such people would be either saved or not saved, depending upon their moral endeavor. The category of “spiritual people,” the necessarily saved, they not surprisingly identified with themselves; the “material people,” the necessarily not-saved, they tended to identify with whatever class of persons they happened especially to dislike. The kind of elitism represented by such teaching was strongly opposed by the fathers of the early Church, by such people as St. Irenaeus of Lyons, Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria, and Origen, who stressed, in line with the Scriptures, that all men are sinners and are in need of the mercy and grace of God, and equally stressed that, in Jesus Christ, God’s mercy and grace are freely offered to everyone, and that all are free either to accept or to reject it. There is no ineluctable fate hanging over our actions or our destinies, they said: believe, and you’ll be saved; don’t believe, and you’ll suffer the consequences of your own free decision. For such writers, the language of Scripture which speaks of God “predestinating” or “electing” certain people to salvation means simply this: that God, from all eternity, has known who would say yes to his offer and who would say no, and that, to those who say yes, God provides all the means necessary to bring them, through all the trials of life, to their desired destination. It is not from any lack of love on God’s part that some do not believe; if anything, it is a sign of God’s love that he refuses to turn human beings into robots or marionnettes that are compelled to love him necessarily. “God is love,” as St. John says in his first epistle; it is not that God is love towards one person and not-love towards another person, but God is love, in and of himself; he loves both those who love him and those who hate him; as Jesus says, he “makes his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matt 5:45). Part of that love, clearly, is that he allows people the use of their own faculties and to make their own choices, even where those choices result in a rejection of love. For the fathers of the early Church, to deny any of this is to deny the basic character of God, as shown forth in Christian revelation.
Now the monks of Marseilles were basically claiming that the effect of St. Augustine’s teaching on predestination was to do just that, that is, to deny this basic character of God as good and loving towards all. In particular, they regarded Augustine’s teaching as in flat contradiction to the claim made in St. Paul’s first letter to Timothy, ch. 2, v. 4, that God “desires all men to be saved, and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” What I would like to do, for the remainder of this lecture, is to examine whether this charge is justified, the charge, namely, that Augustine’s teaching on predestination marks a fundamental break with traditional Christian teaching, and turns the God of love into something else. And, one way or another, I would like to make it clear what he saw as the scriptural grounds of his teaching, since Augustine did not pull this teaching out of thin air, nor out of the Manichaean and Platonist books to which he had previously been addicted, but, in his own view at least, he pulled it out of the New Testament.
In the first place, one needs to stress the point that St. Augustine’s teaching on grace and predestination changed over the course of his life as a Christian. For about the first decade of his life in the Church, Augustine interpreted those texts which speak of God’s “predestinating” people very much in the way earlier fathers had done: that is, he understood the grounds of God’s predestinating certain people to salvation to be God’s foreknowledge of the assent these people would give, of their own free will, to God’s offer of salvation in Jesus Christ; in other words, God predestined those whom he foresaw would believe. For instance, in a short book titled, “An Exposition of Certain Propositions from the Epistle to the Romans” (Expositio quarundam Propositionum ex Epistula ad Romanos), written around the beginning of the year 394, Augustine has this to say on the text of Romans ch. 8, vv. 28-30: “Not all that were called, were called according to [God’s] purpose (secundum propositum): for this purpose is closely bound up with the foreknowledge and pre-determination of God: and he did not pre-determine anyone, unless he foreknew that such a one would believe and would follow his own call: these are those he also calls ‘chosen.'”(24) On Romans 9:11-13, where St. Paul cites the words of the Prophet Malachi, “Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated,” Augustine says, “By these (words) some are moved to think that the Apostle Paul has done away with free will, by which we gain God’s favour by the good of piety, or alienate him by the evil of impiety.”(25) But, Augustine continues, God knew even before Jacob and Esau were born what each of them was going to be like. On the same passage, Augustine further states that “it pertains to us to believe and to will, it pertains to [God] to give to those who believe and will the power to work well through the Holy Spirit, through whom the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts to make us merciful.”(26) In his book the Retractions written late in his life, Augustine finds fault with this statement and tries to correct it as follows: “Both things (that is, both believing and willing) are from him (that is, God), since it is he himself who prepares the will; and both of them are ours, since it does not come about except through our own volition.”(27)
Throughout the decade of the 390’s St. Augustine was engaged in an intense study of the writings of St. Paul. He at one point planned a massive commentary on the Epistle to the Romans, but broke it off after writing about twenty pages and only getting as far as v. 7 of the first chapter. Partly this engagement with Paul was due to the fact that, from the time of his baptism in the year 387, Augustine had been involved in public debates with the Manichees, the esoteric sect to which he had formerly belonged, who appealed to St. Paul’s writings in support of their own doctrines. Partly, again, it was due to a love of St. Paul which predated Augustine’s conversion: those of you who have read the Confessions will remember that, at the climactic moment of Augustine’s conversion, when he hears in the garden a child’s voice singing “tolle lege, tolle lege,” “take up and read, take up and read,” the book that he picked up, lying near at hand, was a copy of St. Paul’s epistles, and the words that he first came upon, which broke through all his self-doubt and hesitation, were from Romans ch. 13: “… not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying; but put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision for the flesh to fulfil the lusts thereof” (Rom. 13:13-14). So St. Paul was an author who had had a particular hold upon St. Augustine for a long time; if the account he gives in the Confessions is to be trusted, and I don’t see why it shouldn’t, it was especially Paul’s description of the dividedness of the human will in Romans ch. 7 that seemed to Augustine to give a precise diagnosis of his own spiritual condition. At first Augustine’s view was that this chapter, strictly speaking, describes man’s condition under the Law, where one knows what is right to do but lacks the strength to do it; under the Gospel, he believed, people would not have such problems; their lives would be a continual growth towards spiritual perfection and maturity. As St. Augustine began to have more experience of Christianity, however, and, in particular, when as a priest and then as a bishop he began to gain a clearer picture of the practical moral problems faced by people in his own congregations, the relevancy of ch. 7 of Romans even for those in the Church more and more impressed itself upon Augustine’s mind; and, together with this, it seems, came an increasing realization of the absolute centrality of grace in the Christian life. Both Augustine and Pelagius, one might say, faced a similar problem: both of them were moral reformers, who were distressed to observe that the behavior of professing Christians was often little better than that of pagans; yet they went about addressing this problem in radically different ways. Pelagius addressed it by preaching the absolute necessity for keeping God’s law and the inalienable natural capacity of our wills to do just that: not even sin, he said, can take away our freedom of choice, and if we do sin we have no one to blame but ourselves; we cannot pin the fault on Adam or anyone else. Augustine, while agreeing about the necessity to keep the commandments, a necessity which is just as valid under the new covenant as it was under the old, came more and more to see man as totally dependent upon God for any good that he is able to do; that without the enlivening power of the Holy Spirit, the law, even Jesus’s commandments in the New Testament, constitutes what St. Paul calls “the letter that kills”; and that, if the Christian thinks he is able to serve God out of his own natural resources, that he can, as it were, give to God and demand a payment in return, he is sunk. This realization gathered strength for Augustine throughout the decade of the 390’s, as he applied himself to the study of St. Paul; it came to a head for him in the year 396, at the very time that he began to serve as bishop of Hippo.
In that year, Augustine received a letter from his old friend the priest Simplicianus of Milan. Simplicianus had played an instrumental role in Augustine’s conversion ten years earlier. Now the roles of teacher and student were reversed, and Simplicianus was asking Augustine for help in understanding certain difficult passages of scripture. One of them was ch. 9 of Romans. We have already spoken briefly of the interpretation Augustine gave to certain verses of this chapter two years earlier. At that time, Augustine still held to the view that predestination is subordinate to God’s foreknowledge: God predestines to salvation those whom he foresees will believe. Now, around the end of the year 396, Augustine begins for the first time to take a different view of the matter. He discusses the question in Book I, Question 2 of his work To Simplician — On Diverse Questions (De Diversis Quaestionibus ad Simplicianum). The exposition covers Romans ch. 9 from v. 10 to v. 29. Augustine first notes, concerning verse 10, that Rebecca conceived in her womb the twins Jacob and Esau “by one act of conception” (ex uno concubitu); this rules out the idea that the difference in character between the two was caused by some astrological necessity. Then Augustine turns to vv. 11-12: “For the children being not yet born, neither having done any good or evil, that the purpose of God according to election might stand, not of works, but of him that calleth, it was said unto her, the elder shall serve the younger.” “Grace is therefore of him who calls,” Augustine observes, “and the consequent good works are of him who receives grace.” That is to say, if Jacob has been called in preference to Esau, it is not because of any good works Jacob has done: his good works are a consequence of God’s calling him. But then Augustine raises the question, how can one of them be called in preference to the other, if neither of them yet exist? If they do not yet exist, on what grounds can a distinction between the two be made? Augustine asks, “How can election be just, indeed how can there be any kind of election, where there is no difference? If Jacob was elected before he was born and before he had done anything at all, for no merit of his own, he could not have been elected at all, there being nothing to distinguish him for election. If Esau was rejected for no fault of his own because he too was not born and had done nothing when it was said, ‘The elder shall serve the younger,’ how can his rejection be said to be just?”(28) Augustine seems here to raise exactly the questions that the passage naturally suggests. He is not skirting the basic, troubling issue, which is: How can God be just if he chooses or rejects people prior to their having done anything at all?
Augustine next considers the option that God has chosen Jacob in preference to Esau on account of his foreknowledge.
“Could it be ‘according to election’ because God has foreknowledge of all things, and foresaw the faith that was to be in Jacob even before he was born? … [But] if election is by foreknowledge, and God foresaw Jacob’s faith, how do you prove that he did not elect him for his works?”(29)
“The question is whether faith merits a man’s justification, whether the merits of faith do not precede the mercy of God; or whether, in fact, faith itself is to be numbered among the gifts of grace. Notice that in this passage when he said, ‘Not of works,’ he did not say, ‘but of faith it was said to her, The elder shall serve the younger.’ No, he said, ‘but of him that calleth.’ No one believes who is not called. God calls in his mercy, and not as rewarding the merits of faith. The merits of faith follow his calling rather than precede it.”(30)
In making this exegetical move, in asserting that it was not out of God’s foreknowledge of Jacob’s faith that Jacob was chosen but, on the contrary, it was God’s choosing and calling of Jacob that produced in him the merits of faith, Augustine has stated for the first time that doctrine of grace that he would hold for the rest of his life. His whole doctrine of predestination flows out of the realization he comes to in writing this book. Years later, near the end of his life, Augustine speaks of it as having been a turning-point for him.
“In the solution of this question I labored indeed on behalf of the free choice of the human will, but God’s grace overcame, and I could only reach that point where the apostle is perceived to have said with the most evident truth, ‘For who maketh thee to differ? and what hast thou that thou hast not received? Now, if thou hast received it, why dost thou glory as if thou receivedst it not?’ (1 Cor 4:7) … It was chiefly by this apostolic testimony that I myself had been convinced, when I thought otherwise concerning this matter; and this God revealed to me as I sought to solve this question when I was writing, as I said, to the Bishop Simplicianus.”(31)
I have to confess that, as an interpretation of what St. Paul is saying in chapter 9 of Romans, St. Augustine’s reading seems to me, on the face of it, to make a lot of sense. Perhaps the clinching argument for me is the following one: if in fact what St. Paul had really meant to say was that, when God eternally chooses one person over another, he does so out of a prevision and foreknowledge of what these people are actually going to do in their lives, why couldn’t he just have said so? Why, when Paul acknowledges his doctrine as a stumbling-block to reason, and presents an anonymous objector as raising the question, “Why doth he yet find fault? For who hath resisted his will?” could Paul not have answered that unbelieving human beings resist God’s will, God is simply rendering to people what they themselves have deserved through their own choices? Are we to suppose that such a simple, rational answer was beyond St. Paul’s powers of expression? Instead, St. Paul answers in a way that seems almost calculated to offend and disturb. He cites the old prophetic image of God as a potter, doing what he wants to do with the clay pots of his own making. As Augustine points out, there is one lump of clay: all human beings are sinners, made from the same stock of fallen Adam, and if God were simply to render to people what they themselves have deserved, he would throw out the whole batch. No one has “deserved” salvation; it is an act of God’s mercy. God’s reasons for choosing to have mercy upon one person while allowing another person to continue in unrepentance are ultimately mysterious: they relate to the sovereignty of his will. As God is just, St. Augustine says, one must assume that he has just reasons for the choices he makes of one person over another; but we don’t know them. St. Paul himself doesn’t claim to know them. Instead, he speaks of God’s judgments as unsearchable: “O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! how unsearchable are his judgments, and his ways past finding out! For who hath known the mind of the Lord? or who hath been his counsellor?” (Rom 11:33-34). If Paul had had some more rationally comprehensible answer to give, Augustine says, he would have given it. This is why the interpretation that predestination is based on foreknowledge doesn’t make sense to Augustine, as an explanation of St. Paul’s teaching in Romans ch. 9. And I have to say that, for all its harshness and offensiveness to reason, this seems to me an honest interpretation of what the text is saying.
Now, it seems to me that at least one important test of whether St. Augustine has rightly interpreted this passage is to see if this interpretation agrees with what is found elsewhere in Scripture. Such a test, I think, if rigorously applied, would produce mixed results. Certain New Testament texts likewise seem to speak of an absolute predestination to salvation, for instance the text already cited, “No one can come to me except the Father which hath sent me draw him” (John 6:44). Other texts are more ambiguous. For instance, in ch. 8 of Romans, St. Paul says that “those whom he (that is, God) foreknew, he also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of his Son” (Rom 8:29). Now Augustine reads “foreknew” here in the strong sense of meaning “foreknew with an intention to save,” as at Rom 11:2 Paul says, “God hath not cast away his people which he foreknew.” On the other hand, it could equally be argued that both of these verses refer to a foreknowledge of people’s faith, as the grounds for God’s choice. That at least is the reading most of the Greek fathers give of these verses, and their reading of these verses then is made the basis of their interpretation of more overtly predestinarian passages like Romans 9 and John 6. Origen, for instance, thinks that Paul’s use of the figure of the potter in Romans 9 should be compared with something Paul says elsewhere: in the Second Letter to Timothy (which, if it is really by Paul, is probably the last thing written by him), St. Paul says the following:
“But in a great house there are not only vessels of gold and of silver, but also of wood and of earth; and some to honour, and some to dishonour. If a man therefore purge himself from these, he shall be a vessel unto honour, sanctified, and meet for the master’s use, and prepared unto every good work.” (2 Tim 2:20-21)
In this passage, St. Paul seems to say that being a vessel appointed to honor is a matter of one’s own choosing. That seems to mitigate considerably the force of Paul’s argument in Romans 9 concerning God’s forming vessels of mercy and vessels of wrath.
Perhaps the greatest obstacle to accepting St. Augustine’s interpretation of Romans are those passages of Scripture which explicitly declare the universality of God’s saving will. For instance, 1 Tim 2:4, God “desires all men to be saved, and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” Again, the prophet Ezekiel: “As I live, saith the Lord GOD, I have no pleasure in the wicked: but that the wicked turn from his way and live: turn ye, turn ye from your evil ways: for why will ye die, O house of Israel?” (Ezek 33:11). Again, in the Book of Wisdom, which Augustine accepted as canonical Scripture, it reads: “For thou lovest all the things that are, and abhorrest nothing which thou hast made: for never wouldst thou have made any thing, if thou hadst hated it” (Wisd 11:24), a text Augustine finds he has to reconcile with the statement, “Esau have I hated.” Again, when Jesus laments over Jerusalem — “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, thou that killest the prophets, and stonest them which are sent unto thee, how often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and ye would not!” (Matt 23:37; Lk 13:34) — it seems to indicate that God’s willingness to save is thwarted by human obstinacy and unbelief. How then does St. Augustine reconcile such texts with his reading of Romans?
As for the passage in Ezekiel, it is easy enough for Augustine to find texts in scripture which balance the commandment to turn with a recognition that the power to turn comes from God himself: “Turn me, and I shall be turned,” says the prophet Jeremiah (Jer 31:18). For Augustine, the command “Turn ye” and the prayer “Turn me” go together: the one is of law, the other is of grace; the one tells us what to do, the other asks God for strength in order to do it. Augustine in fact cites this as a concrete example of what he means when he prays “Give what thou commandest”: God commands us to turn, and faith asks God for strength to be able to do so. Again, Augustine thinks that the text, “Thou hatest nothing which thou hast made,” applies to Esau as well as to others: God made Esau a man, he didn’t make him a sinner; he loves in him that which he made, the man, he hates in him that which he didn’t make, the sin.
Yet it may still be questioned whether Augustine has taken these statements which indicate the universality of God’s saving will sufficiently seriously. Here and there in his writings, St. Augustine gives various interpretations of the statement in 1 Timothy that God desires all to be saved. Early on in the Pelagian controversy, in his book On the Spirit and the Letter (xxxiii.58), Augustine is still able to adduce this text as self-evident and needing no comment. But as the debate wore on and Augustine’s views became more hardened, he felt compelled to give the text some explication that would not contradict his views on the particular, effectual calling of the elect. He tried different possibilities: that “all” means “many,” or “some from all nations,” or “all whom God chooses to save,” or that the term “all” is restricted in its scope, just as, if one were to say, “All are obliged to study Ancient Greek,” the statement would be true if uttered at St. John’s College and untrue if uttered most anyplace else. None of these explanations are completely convincing. What is most troubling about this attempt to limit the scope of God’s salvific will is that it leads inevitably to what the Calvinists call the “doctrine of limited atonement,” that is, a denial of the assertion that Christ died for all. Such a denial is completely unscriptural, given the many statements in the New Testament to the contrary;(32) and one can only suppose that, if rigorously held to, it would produce a particularly merciless form of the Christian religion.
It is time for me to bring this lecture to a close. My suspicion is that St. Augustine is genuinely on to something in his interpretation of Scripture, his teaching that human beings are chosen by God before the foundation of the world, without regard to their merits. There are statements in the New Testament which are entirely too explicit to allow one to suppose that Augustine’s understanding of the grounds of our election is entirely wrong — such as, for instance, the text, “It is not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth, but of God that sheweth mercy” (Rom 9:16). Nevertheless, the conclusions Augustine logically derives from this understanding of election seem inconsistent with the general character of God as shown forth in the New Testament — in particular, God’s willingness to save all, and Christ’s dying for the redemption of all. I have to suppose that, however sunk human beings may be in sin, however attenuated our ability to choose the good on account of moral degradation, God gives to all human beings at least at some point in their lives the chance to say yes or no, and that he respects our decision. Certainly God prepares the will, as Augustine says — that without the grace of God, none of us could ever come to him. Yet it equally has to be stressed that God forces no one. In the Book of Revelation there is a verse which I think illustrates what I am trying to say. In ch. 3, v. 20, at the end of the Spirit’s testimony to the seven churches of Asia, Jesus says this: “Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if any man hear my voice, and open to me, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me.” It should be noted here that Jesus does not say that he stands outside the door with a crowbar or with a battering-ram, but that he stands outside and knocks. Opening the door remains a human decision; God doesn’t force it. Nevertheless, what actually brings a human being to open the door remains deeply mysterious. If for nothing else, Augustine should be thanked for pointing that out.
(22) On the Predestination of the Saints, x.19; NPNF i.5, p. 507.
(23) Letter 225, Prosper to Augustine, §2.
(24) Prop. 55; cited from Alexander Souter, Earliest Latin Commentaries on the Epistles of St. Paul (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1927), p. 186, with slight modifications.
(25) Souter, op. cit., p. 187.
(26) Prop. 61, Souter, op. cit., p. 187, altered.
(27) Retr. I.23.3.
(28) §4; Burleigh, tr., pp. 388 f.
(29) §5; p. 389.
(30) §7, p. 391.
(31) On the Predestination of the Saints, iv.8, NPNF i.5, p. 502.
(32) See 2 Cor 5:14-15, “For the love of Christ constraineth us; because we thus judge, that if one died for all, then were all dead”; 1 Tim 4:10; Titus 2:11.