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.

21 Responses to “Predestination in the New Testament and St. Augustine (part two)”

  1. ben mann Says:

    peter: i think i have solved your problem by working backwards from the end of romans 11 to the beginning of romans 9.

    the discussions of predestination and election are relevant to their context: they concern the hardening that has come upon israel during the evangelization of the gentiles. paul is defending israel’s rejection of the Christ and the necessary place of that rejection in the order of salvation. this is what has been predestined– and indeed, it is strange and perhaps offensive, to a jew or even a Christian of the time.

    the jews as a people, rather than any particular individual, are being analogized to pharoah: God has hardened their hearts– “moved the lampstand,” to put it in the vocabulary of the letters in the revelation. paul is explaining the purpose of this perhaps baffling development, by explaining that it actually does fit into God’s plan. as far as i can tell, paul is defending against the argument that Jesus can’t be the Christ because His own people have rejected Him: “It is not as though God’s word had failed. For not all who are descended from Israel are Israel.”

    having made this statement, he has a lot of theological and typological work to do in explaining how it is that the chosen people could have rejected their own and only Redeemer, and –seemingly, at least– decided to bring in huge numbers of the gentiles instead. the distinction of the “vessels”, then, is directly analogous to the statement that starts the next chapter: “What then shall we say? That the Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, have obtained it, a righteousness that is by faith; but Israel, who pursued a law of righteousness, has not attained it. Why not?”

    the mistake is to take any part of this out of context and see it as a general discussion of individual salvation. it just isn’t that, at all. israel’s disobedience, summed up in the Crucifixion, has become the salvation of the gentiles as well as some of the jews. the effort to explain how this can be requires a discussion of *corporate* election.

    and, amazingly enough, it even ends with one of the NT passages most suggestive of the possibility of universal reconciliation in Christ (something which don’t presume but of course fervently hope for), from 11:30-36.

    this isn’t a fully worked-out argument, and it may have some weak points. it occurred to me just this morning, very suddenly, upon reading romans 11:25 and recalling its proximity to the difficult passages. but i think it does make sense of things. augustine was trying to make something timeless and particular that in fact concerned the contemporary situation of jews and gentiles as laid out in the letter.

    (suppose i’ll have to forgive him that, as he is one of my two patron saints and greatest spiritual influences.)

    anyway, see if that works. i’m sure this isn’t an original idea; i know there’s a whole school of interpreters of paul, the “new perspective,” that read these kinds of passages in a similar way– but i’ve never read any of them.

  2. ben mann Says:

    oops– part of that fourth paragraph should have read:

    “…that the chosen people could have rejected their own and only Redeemer, WHILE GOD HAS –seemingly, at least– decided to bring in huge numbers of the gentiles instead…”

    and the comment about universal salvation should have read: “which i don’t presume” (left out the i).

    there are probably other typos. it’s late!

  3. ben mann Says:

    me again. i indulged my curiosity as to the “new perspective” people and found something compelling:


    it appears that the basic “new perspective” account is generally akin to what occurred to me today, which is nice to know. too much homework right now to do more than a cursory reading of this stuff, though, let alone a cross-checking or a full working-out of my own thoughts. (ironically, the homework is… augustine!)

    i’m personally satisfied that paul can’t be talking about individual predestination here, since that’s simply not what the discussion in which the issue comes up is really about. there is more than enough to stumble over –as people still do– in the notion that God’s chosen people chose against Him, and i think that’s exactly what’s being discussed. not much more or less.

  4. bekkos Says:

    Hello Mr. Mann!

    I’ll get back to you on these comments in a couple of days. I’m driving up to Ottawa today and have about a seven hour drive to make, so I need to get on the road.

    Good to hear from you.


  5. bekkos Says:

    Dear Mr. Mann,

    Sorry to be so long in getting back to you. I had a busy time in Ottawa.

    I would agree that St. Paul’s argument in Romans 9-11 has to do with

    a) the question of the reliability of God’s promises, in particular his promises to the Jewish people in the Old Testament;

    b) the question of the salvation of peoples (the Gentiles on the one hand, the Jews on the other); and

    c) God’s universal salvific purpose (something especially stressed at the end of ch. 11).

    Nevertheless, I do not see that these concerns completely exclude a concern for individual salvation, or for questions about individual election and predestination. Thus, when you say

    the mistake is to take any part of this out of context and see it as a general discussion of individual salvation. it just isn’t that, at all.

    I think you exaggerate.

    First, the interpretation that holds that St. Paul is speaking exclusively here of corporate election may or may not be true, but it is not the interpretation St. Augustine gives of these chapters. I think that point needs to be acknowledged from the start, to remove any possibility of confusion. On the one hand, there is the question of what St. Paul taught; on the other hand, there is the question of how St. Augustine read him. On the latter question, I think it is clear that St. Augustine read St. Paul as speaking in these chapters, not exclusively about the collective, but about the individual as well. I also think it is clear that Augustine’s interpretation of these chapters evolved over time, that he began by reading them more in the manner in which the Greek fathers do (i.e., God’s predestination means God’s foreknowledge of what we end up doing with our freedom), and that, around the year 396, in responding to questions by the priest Simplicianus, Augustine begins to spell out a different interpretation. As I note in the lecture, Augustine is struck by the harshness of what St. Paul is saying in Romans chapter 9. St. Paul says that, before Jacob or Esau did anything at all, before they had made any choices deserving commendation or reproof, God told their mother, “The elder shall serve the younger.” Then, to back this up, Paul quotes Malachi 1:2-3, “Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated.” These citations, and Paul’s inferences from them (e.g., v. 16, “So then it is not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth, but of God that sheweth mercy”), raise for Augustine difficult questions about divine action and human freedom. My view is that Augustine is an honest interpreter of the passage, that questions about divine action and human freedom really underlie the text, and that one cannot elude such questions by supposing the whole passage refers to peoples, not persons.

    Part of the problem, clearly, is that Jacob and Esau, the examples Paul cites, are both distinct persons and distinct peoples. As often in Scripture, the universal arises from, and is to some extent identified with, an individual head and source (e.g., Adam, Abraham, David, Christ). The idea of such “recapitulation,” or incorporation of the general into the particular, does not originate with St. Paul, but it plays a most important role in his theology, and, I would argue, it is something he reads differently than almost anyone else before him. Whereas most people take such incorporation as a given, immutable fact — who we are, our nature, is identified with where we come from — Paul, by contrast, sees it as a variable. Paul thinks we can change our identity at its deepest level. From being pagans, we can become (by faith) genuine sons of Abraham; from being dead in Adam, we can become alive in Christ. It is possible for wild olive branches to become grafted onto the tree of Israel, and it is possible for natural branches to become lopped off (Rom 11:17-24). Nature is real, but nature is entirely subordinated to God’s will and purposes; he can choose “things which are not,” and bring to nothing “things that are” (1 Cor 1:28).

    That choosing of “things which are not” is, to some extent, what “grace” means. Grace is God’s salvific purpose overriding the deficiencies of our nature — whether it is our nature as fallen children of Adam, our nature as pagans outside the commonwealth of Israel, the nature of one’s being a Greek, the nature of one’s being a Jew, my nature of being Peter Gilbert, and so on. No one has any right to boast before God on the basis of any natural or national or personal qualities. And I think Augustine is probably right to read this to mean that no one has the right to boast before God on the basis of the free choice of the will. We are obliged to make right choices, and to strive, with the help of grace, to do this: but God’s action always precedes our own, in such a way that thanks are due to him, not to ourselves. I think Augustine is right in reading Paul in this way.

    I agree that the argument in Romans chs. 9-11 has a lot to do with the salvation of peoples — the election of the Gentiles, the election of a remnant of the Jewish people, and the ultimate salvation of the Jewish people as a whole and perhaps of all peoples. (How far St. Paul teaches universal salvation at Rom 11:32 is a difficult question on which I would rather not now comment.) But to the extent that Paul’s argument deals with some Jews believing in Christ and some Jews not, with some people being elected and some people not, it seems to me an inescapable conclusion that Paul’s argument is not solely about nations and peoples, but also about persons and individuals. When, at Rom 9:27, Paul quotes Isaiah, and says, “Though the number of the children of Israel be as the sand of the sea, a remnant shall be saved” (Isa 10:22), he plainly means a “number,” not of nations, but of individuals and persons. When he talks about Jacob and Esau, he is talking both about the election of one nation, and the rejection of another, and about the election of one person, and the rejection of another. To make a sharp differentiation between the general and the particular here is, I think, unnecessary, and probably misses St. Paul’s point.


  6. Richard J Micciche MTS Says:

    Peter….I had an enlightened reading of Romans on August 8,1988 and was shocked and yet relieved by the text. Your understanding is very accurate to the way the holy spirit aided my understanding.God told me to study Paul, Augustine,, and Luther…in this Line you ill find the Paradoxical truth of our Savior’s Gospel. Jehovah has decided to act “counter-intuitively”…or contrary to our expectation and this should always be born in mind when reading Paul. A psychologically orienting understanding of Paul and Augustine is essential and the SUBJECTIVE appproach is what GOD intends in Romans….otherwise many escape by universalizing everything and getting lost in the crowd which Luther detested. The paradox is there to draw us in closer and keep (the enigma) in our thoughts…Very Effective Approach!

  7. Bekkos,

    I know I’m a bit late to this discussion (by almost two years) and I enjoy your writing quite a bit. I’m a bit disappointed that you seemingly just accept Augustine’s “observations” without a sincere engagement with Cassian’s critique. It is after all Cassian’s position that the Church upholds at the Council of Orange.

    Further, I think it is greatly remiss to avoid two topics germane to this discussion. The first, and I think most important, is the shifting hermeneutic occurring during the “Golden Age” of theological thought from the “simple” Christocentric reading of the pre-Nicenes to the structural reading of the post-Nicenes. It is this shift in hermeneutic that allows metaphysical questions to come to the fore in a manner not possible in previous hermeneutics. Most specifically in this context Augustine’s thoughts seem to divide election from historic election in Christ (the primary concern of St. Paul) as a new covenant. This is definitely a novum as regards the historic reception of St. Paul’s teaching.

    The second topic lacking in this review is the philosophical concerns of each author and their implications. Augustine is keen to find the source of the problem of the weakness of the will (this is plainly seen throughout the Retractions) and the resulting variance between those who reject and accept God’s grace. In his interpretation he locates the variance within God Himself. This is problematic in several regards: divine simplicity (which does not permit for such variance of will), the reduction of persons to principles (especially as regards the later ecumenical rejection of monergism) and ultimately in ecclesiology (as regards the “invisible” Church).

    I don’t mean to malign St. Augustine, a far holier man than I, but I think think there is more than just simple scriptural observations at play here. To cast this as primarily an occasion of Scriptural interpretation and Augustine is, I think, an overly simple approach to the difficulties raised by Augustine (which is not something I find typical of your writing). Perhaps your thoughts have developed since this writing?

  8. What a helpful set of posts! I myself am a Ph.D. candidate in patristics at CUA.

  9. bekkos Says:


    You are fortunate to be where you are. Please give my best regards to Fr. Thomas Halton if you should see him; he must by now be very old, but I believe he is still alive. Also to Dr. Petruccione, who taught me Latin, and Prof. Minnich at Church History.


  10. Unfortunately I don’t know Fr. Halton. It seems that he retired in 2010. But I’ve taken classes from both Drs. Petruccione and Minnich. If I ever get a chance, I will tell them you say hi. :)

  11. Rev Donald Attenborough Says:


    I think that CH Spurgeon recognised the difficulty in this matter. Although a man of Reformed faith and a Calvinist, he saw the dilemma in the great mystery of being chosen yet finding in Romans the text that, “All who call on the Lord will be saved.” His response was to suggest that these two truths are like two parallel line ascending into heaven and that until we get to heaven we will not understand how they meet.

    Rev Don Attenborough

  12. Michaël de Verteuil Says:

    I’m not going to claim any deep wisdom here, but I have always felt that the apparent distinction between John Cassian and Augustine was terminological and overdrawn. If you take God’s omniscience seriously, you have to accept that he does not have “foreknowledge” in the human sense because for God there is no “fore,” there is only, in human terms, an all encompassing “present.” For God, your creation, your choice and your spiritual fate are not sequential but all manifest in a singular “now.” All these references to “foreknowledge” and “predestination” are merely feeble attempts to grapple terminologically with the timelessness of God.

    It should logically follow then, or so it seems to me in my naïvety, that “predestination” and “free will” as used in scripture are the same, or at any rate flip sides of the same coin. Is there anywhere in Scripture where the two are distinguished and set against each other?

    The question that anguishes Augustine and his hearers is not so much why God saves some and not others (though this is indeed how they put the question for lack of any way to express is better) but why he offers us this terrible choice at all. Put another way, is being a “robot” such a bad thing if the alternative, albeit by our own choice, is damnation? What is the benefit of choice to the madman who from his necessarily imperfect understanding chooses to throw himself off a cliff? How is letting him do so an act of love? Augustine’s answer is that we just have to trust in the justice of God’s plan, and I doubt John Cassian would have argued differently.

  13. Daniel Monroe Says:

    Dear Peter,
    I discovered these two lectures while trying to get caught up on predestination after chatting with a Calvinist. It was not until about five this morning that I realized who the author was–you! I hope you are well. (We met at CUA, where you and I were in a class together, sometime in 1986-1988–no sure recollection. I started at CUA as a Catholic but left it as an Orthodox in 1988.) I thoroughly enjoyed reading your lectures! Here are my picayune thoughts.
    (1) How are we to reach conclusions about murky points in Scripture? As you point out, St. Augustine has logic on his side. However, if we want to use logic, then we have to show that we are working with materials which do not allow us to reach inconsistent conclusions. Even if we restrict ourselves to St. Paul’s epistles, inconsistent conclusions seem to be inevitable; they were surely not written to avoid inconsistent conclusions. As we expand our authorities successively to include the New Testament as a whole, the Old Testament and the Fathers, the inconsistencies become more and more glaring. This leads me to conclude that the strict use of logic is not tenable, since the nature of the authorities themselves prohibits it; we can merely be reasonable. Therefore, to claim that St. Augustine has logic on his side is no praise at all; he is using logic with materials which are famous for producing inconsistent conclusions.
    (2) We read that man has four belief-generating mechanisms: perception, feeling, intuition and reason. We seem then bound to rely at least partly on intuition to solve the apparent Pauline dilemma. However, as Christians, not only do we enjoy personal intuition, but we also enjoy the intuition of the assembly of believers.
    (3) Your reference to the consensus prior to St. Augustine is crucial in this regard. We must decide intuitively whether to side with the consensus or with St. Augustine. Now St. Augustine has several marks against him. (a) He relies straightforwardly on logic, which we have just defanged and which in any case has never been crucial to the insights of the Fathers. (b) He preaches novel conclusions. (c) His position on predestination is at one with the delusion experienced by the occasional crazy monk among the Desert Fathers. (Sorry, no references. I can only remember reading about the occasional monk who concluded that since God predestines all things, it did not matter what they did, and then they did weird things on the assumption that God predestined them, too.) (d) Men accepting his position have gone on to produce far-fetched or even crazier elaborations, such as the Limited Atonement. (Anyway, would anyone want to be a predestinationist if he had not been predestined to be one?) By contrast, the consensus of the Fathers bears none of these marks.
    (4) Which allows me to advance that it is not the epistle of St. Paul which matters, but the Holy Spirit working within the church that matters. To tie our concept of salvation to comments made by St. Paul on the assumption that the Holy Spirit spoke through him is implicitly to accept the thesis that the Holy Spirit does not abide in the church as a whole and in all its parts. In other words, the wisdom of the Holy Spirit must be thought of as guiding the whole assembly of believers, not as being captured by St. Paul. The trap is canonicity: because it is in the canon, it must be ultimately authoritative. Rather, how the whole assembly of believers interprets anything is ultimately authoritative. Now I candidly admit that this is capable of being taken logically to crazy extremes, but I have already foresworn logic in this context.
    BTW, Peter, I have been translating Greek canons of late. How would you feel about editing my efforts? Jeff MacDonald, whom you might remember, did so until he himself was whisked off to Albania. He said my efforts were pretty good, just needed touching up. I would like to publish a book some day, and will gladly put your name on the cover as the editor in lieu of the proceeds that may never be realized.
    Cheers, Dan

  14. Daniel Monroe Says:

    Cannot help pasting what Chrysostom says:

    “No man can come unto Me, except the Father which has sent Me draw Him.”

    The Manichæans spring upon these words, saying, “that nothing lies in our own power”; yet the expression shows that we are masters of our will. “For if a man comes to Him,” says some one, “what need is there of drawing?” But the words do not take away our free will, but show that we greatly need assistance. And He implies not an unwilling comer, but one enjoying much succor. Then He shows also the manner in which He draws; for that men may not, again, form any material idea of God, He adds, “Not that any man has seen God, save He which is of God, He has seen the Father” (John 6:46).

    “How then,” says some one, “does the Father draw?” This the Prophet explained of old, when he proclaimed beforehand, and said, “They shall all be taught of God” (Isaiah 54:13).

    Do you see the dignity of faith, and that not of men nor by man, but by God Himself they shall learn this? And to make this assertion credible, He referred them to their prophets. “If then ‘all shall be taught of God,’ how is it that some shall not believe?” Because the words are spoken of the greater number. Besides, the prophecy means not absolutely all, but all that have the will. For the teacher sits ready to impart what he has to all, and pouring forth his instruction unto all.

  15. bekkos Says:

    Hello, Dan.

    It is good to hear from you. I’m glad to learn that Jeff MacDonald is now working in Albania; the Albanian Church has gained a good man, and a good patristics scholar.

    I agree with at least one of the things you say in your comments, and disagree with other things. First, I would agree that the consensus fidelium matters; if St. Augustine is going against it, then at the very least that should give one pause when considering his views about predestination. It is perhaps not surprising that the author of the Vincentian canon (“quod semper, quod ubique, quod ab omnibus”) belonged to a group of Christians in southern Gaul who thought that, on the subject of predestination, St. Augustine had erred; if the criterion for what is “catholic” is that a thing has been believed “always, everywhere, by everybody,” then St. Augustine’s predestinarianism fails that test (although other doctrines would probably also fail that test, e.g., St. Gregory Palamas’s doctrine about essence and energies, as well as both explicit filioquism and explicit monopatrism). On the other hand, I am not persuaded by what you say here about logic and its role in the life of faith; at the very least, what you say needs to be clarified. After all, you yourself are using logic here in arguing against logic; it cannot be that there is simply no role for human reason within faith.

    You say: “We read that man has four belief-generating mechanisms: perception, feeling, intuition and reason.” Where do we read this? Who said it? If one differentiates four “mechanisms” in this way, does that mean that reason has nothing to do with the origination of a belief by perception, or feeling, or intuition? If I perceive water on the ground, and a belief is engendered in me that it must have rained recently, am I not reasoning from my perception? Could I not, in fact, be reasoning incorrectly? Similarly with feeling: if I feel bright and sunny, and, in feeling bright and sunny, come to believe that nothing bad could possibly happen to me today, am I not, perhaps, reasoning incorrectly from a feeling? In short, I would maintain that belief is, of its nature, a rational act; it may be occasioned by perception, feeling, intuition, or whatever, but, if belief implies a judgment (“I believe that such-and-such is true”), it involves rationality.

    As for what you say about delusions sometimes reported by the Desert Fathers, it should be pointed out that some people voiced the same objection to St. Augustine, claiming that his teaching on predestination rendered ascetic endeavor pointless, since, if one was predestined to be saved, there was nothing one could do to forfeit heaven, and, if one was predestined not to be saved, there was nothing one could do to gain it; either way, striving to enter the kingdom of heaven appears to be a waste of time and effort, if everything has been decided beforehand. St. Augustine basically replied that those who represented his teaching in such terms completely misunderstood what he was saying. If God has provided the end, he has also provided the means for attaining the end: and what gives you the right to assume that ascetic endeavor is not one of those means?

    You write: “it is not the epistle of St. Paul which matters, but the Holy Spirit working within the church that matters.” I would reply: They both matter; you are making a false opposition. The Holy Spirit, who “spoke through the prophets,” spoke also through St. Paul; and the Church, the assembly of believers, has always had recourse to the divine scriptures to regulate its belief, to receive guidance in doubtful questions, and to have a basis for judgment when disagreements about the faith arise. It is the same mistake you make about “logic”: when bishops meet in council to decide a question, they do not say, “Well, we have this intuition (e.g., that Jesus is God and man), and on the basis of this intuition, which we all share, we are going to declare such-and-such a teaching a heresy.” No; they attempt to prove the truth of the doctrine by appealing to scripture and to the writings of earlier authoritative Christian teachers. “How the whole assembly of believers interprets anything” is not, by itself, ultimately authoritative; there were occasions, in the fourth century, when the vast majority of bishops, meeting in council, were Arian.

    Predestination is, I confess, not a subject to which I have devoted a great deal of thought since I gave this lecture some ten years or so ago. My basic position on it remains much what it is in these lectures: I am impressed with the consistency of St. Augustine’s reading of scripture; I also am struck by the fact that it seems not to be consistent with certain basic truths about the Christian revelation, e.g., that Christ died for all (2 Cor 5:14). At least, those who infer a limited atonement from St. Augustine’s doctrine are reaching a conclusion that contradicts a basic Christian truth; as to the claim that St. Augustine himself taught a limited atonement, I remain uncertain, and rather skeptical, about this. His basic intuition, which I think is right, is that man does not save himself: it is God, in the first and last analysis, who moves man to seek him and enables man to find him. This does not mean that man is inactive in the process of his salvation. We must work, but (I think St. Augustine would say) the more deeply we dwell in God, the more clearly we perceive God as supplying and accomplishing all things by his grace. Salvation is both a prize and a high calling, and at the same time it is a gift — necessarily so, since the goal transcends anything that we could arrive at through our own efforts.

    About editing canons: I am far behind in my own work on Bekkos, and really need to concentrate on that these days. It’s possible that, at some point, I could take a look at your work, and make some suggestions. But, right now, I think I’d better not take on any new responsibilities.


  16. Nathaniel McCallum Says:

    Peter, your penultimate paragraph in this last comment is perhaps the best short summary of Augustine I’ve read in a while.

  17. Michaël de Verteuil Says:


    I know your statement “there were occasions, in the fourth century, when the vast majority of bishops, meeting in council, were Arian” reflects a historical commonplace but, in all fairness, it is probably an overstatement.

    Constantine’s successors tended towards Arianism and placed great pressure on the bishops (a number of whom had become materially dependent on imperial patronage) to assent to vague formulations that would leave Arianizing imperial favourites in peaceful occupation of their sees. While it is sad that a majority of bishops at a number of these pseudo councils were willing to play along, it was never demonstrable that a majority of them ever actually espoused Arianism per se. Waffle can just be spineless waffle rather than outright heresy.

  18. bekkos Says:


    I was thinking in particular of St. Jerome’s statement after the council of Ariminum (359), that “the whole world groaned and marveled to find itself Arian.” Perhaps you’re right that the majority of these bishops were not, in intention, Arian, although I do think that the rejection of Nicaea and its doctrine, and its replacement by a vague assertion of “likeness,” had real consequences, theological and practical. But my point was simply that the approval of certain doctrines by the majority of bishops sitting in council does not, in and of itself, establish a doctrine as valid for the Church as a whole. Perhaps Dan Monroe didn’t imply that it does; he says “the whole assembly of believers”; maybe a council of bishops, gathered from throughout the world, is not automatically representative of “the whole assembly of believers.” But that would raise the question, What is? And, in particular, has St. Augustine’s predestinarianism ever been rejected by “the whole assembly of believers”? There are plenty of believers, so far as I can see, who see a lot of truth in it.

  19. Daniel Monroe Says:

    Petrus dixit. You yourself are using logic here in arguing against logic; it cannot be that there is simply no role for human reason within faith.
    Dan respondet. My point is that logic is only one of several belief-generating mechanisms (BGMs), so that to say that Austin (St. Augustine to you) has logic on his side may be necessary, but not sufficient. All BGMs are weighed against one another in daily decisions; it is rare that logic alone can carry the day. Therefore, we require predestination not only to be logical, but intuitive and at least emotionally neutral. (How often has a first, lucid exposition of predestination aroused the strong feelings of indignation in someone to whom it has never been explained?) To illustrate the importance of the harmony of our BGMs, consider how many people convert to Orthodoxy on purely logical grounds—not many in my experience. They usually cite a variety of factors that somehow made sense when taken as a whole. My concern with a discussion like this is that there may be the unspoken Cartesian belief that reason is to be granted a presumption denied to perception.

    Petrus dixit. You say: “We read that man has four belief-generating mechanisms: perception, feeling, intuition and reason.” Where do we read this? Who said it?
    Dan respondet. James B. Freeman in his Acceptable Premises. As simplistic as it sounds, this four-fold distinction seems workable. I accept the four BGMs as a working hypothesis. A case might be made for memory as a BGM and for intuition as a special skill of reason, leaving us with perception, feeling, reason and memory. However, I still accept Freeman’s fundamental notion, that we use several means to acquire beliefs.

    Petrus dixit. If one differentiates four “mechanisms” in this way, does that mean that reason has nothing to do with the origination of a belief by perception, or feeling, or intuition?
    Dan respondet. Freeman does not say. It could be argued just that, if we kept the argument pretty abstract. E.g., I do not see very easily how reason could be given a place in the process of perception. Nevertheless, I am no more able to quit reasoning than I am to quit perceiving, so in the daily business of life the whole affair has to become muddled.

    Petrus dixit. St. Augustine basically replied that those who represented his teaching in such terms completely misunderstood what he was saying.
    Dan respondet. How could he not blush for shame to make such a claim? On the subject of I Tim. 2:4, Austin says that “we must . . . so understand [this verse] . . . as if it were said that no man is saved except whom He wants [to be saved].” (This reminds me of one of Clinton’s spokesmen, who, when asked about promises Clinton had not kept, said that the president kept all the promises he intended to keep.) Also, Austin says it is “not that there is no man whom He is unwilling to have saved”; rather, by “all men” we are to understand “the whole human race, distributed into various categories: kings, private citizens, nobles, ordinary men, lofty, lowly, learned, unlearned.” Again, “all men” can be understood as “all the predestined, for the whole human race is in them.” Again, the verse may merely be taken to mean that “He causes us to wish [that all men be saved].” Finally, God “is unwilling that so many be saved.” Why the verse, then? “That all who are saved are not saved except by His will.” When he says that this verse “can be understood in many ways,” Austin meant all except the plainest.
    In short, Austin has twisted this wonderful little verse out of all recognition by his determined adherence to predestination. So determined is he that the Laws of Thought do not bar his way, unless someone can seriously say that “God desires that all men be saved” and that “[God] is unwilling that so many be saved” are not mutually contradictory.
    NB. I took all these quotes from a list made by Fr. Most at http://www.ewtn.com/library/THEOLOGY/AUGUSTIN.HTM. I do not wish, however, for anyone to think that I am representing Fr. Most’s opinion.
    Not only do his interpretations of this verse put his position beyond all misunderstanding, but they also provide an object lesson, that it is simply not good enough to read Scripture and reason it out; Scripture must be read in the context of the whole assembly of believers, in the presence of the church fathers and uncles, with the approval of one’s priest, with the approbation of the rudest street urchins. Austin could never have advanced predestination in the late 4th century if he had relied on the fathers and not upon his incredible genius to work things out. When I read Austin, it is always strangely bare of references to his predecessors.

    Petrus dixit. You write: “it is not the epistle of St. Paul which matters, but the Holy Spirit working within the church that matters.” I would reply: They both matter; you are making a false opposition.
    Dan respondet. No opposition at all. I see predestination as an exegetical invention designed to plume a scribal opinion with the feathers of an inspired author—eisogesis. Austin’s late 4th century discovery of predestination in St. Paul is positively astonishing, if you think about it. Suddenly St. Paul is credited with a new doctrine which has ever since rocked the quiet halls of monasteries and seminaries and Wittenburglike doors. What are we to think? That no one for roughly three and a half centuries had ever understood St. Paul until Austin? Yet now we cannot doubt predestination without being charged with contradicting St. Paul. The reason I became interested in predestination and enjoyed your wonderful lectures is because I had met someone who confessed that he could not enter the Gospels without first going through the epistle to the Romans; in fact, he and his colleagues seem more excited about St. Paul than about the Gospels. To restate my opinion more specifically: I believe that the Orthodox church as a whole rejects predestination due to the influence of the Holy Spirit. I have never known an Orthodox Christian who accepted predestination; I have only heard about Catholics who did, for that matter, but never met them.

    Petrus dixit. “How the whole assembly of believers interprets anything” is not, by itself, ultimately authoritative; there were occasions, in the fourth century, when the vast majority of bishops, meeting in council, were Arian.
    Dan respondet. The “whole assembly” is to be understood literally: every single Orthodox believer in space and time. No matter what heretical majority of bishops you want to name, the whole assembly is still led by the Holy Spirit.

    Petrus dixit. His basic intuition, which I think is right, is that man does not save himself: it is God, in the first and last analysis, who moves man to seek him and enables man to find him.
    Dan respondet. This sounds more like Cassian than Austin.

  20. Daniel Monroe Says:

    I should not have mentioned Cassian. I spent the weekend reading him. Here are some excerpts from the third conference with Chaeremon:

    And all these matters, as we cannot desire them continuously without divine inspiration, so in no respect whatever can we perform them without His help.
    On the subject of I Tim. 2:4, Cassian is uncompromising.
    For the purpose of God whereby He made man not to perish but to live for ever, stands immovable. And when His goodness sees in us even the very smallest spark of good will shining forth, which He Himself has struck as it were out of the hard flints of our hearts, He fans and fosters it and nurses it with His breath, as He wills all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth, for as He says, it is not the will of your Father which is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish, and again it says: Neither will God have a soul to perish, but recalls, meaning that he that is cast off should not altogether perish. For He is true, and lies not when He lays down with an oath: As I live, says the Lord God, for I will not the death of a sinner, but that he should turn from his way and live. Ezekiel 33:11 For if He wills not that one of His little ones should perish, how can we imagine without grievous blasphemy that He does not generally will all men, but only some instead of all to be saved? Those then who perish, perish against His will.

    Cassian’s God
    vouchsafes to bring upon us even against our will, like some most beneficent physician, for our good what we think is opposed to it, and sometimes He delays and hinders our injurious purposes and deadly attempts from having their horrible effects, and, while we are rushing headlong towards death, draws us back to salvation, and rescues us without our knowing it from the jaws of hell.

    According to Cassian, God “not only does He inspire us with holy desires, but actually creates occasions for life and opportunities for good results, and shows to those in error the direction of the way of salvation.” However, this is not done violently. Rather, when “He sees in us some beginnings of a good will, He at once enlightens it and strengthens it and urges it on towards salvation, increasing that which He Himself implanted or which He sees to have arisen from our own efforts.” Notice that “our own efforts” sticks out plainly.
    Cassian carefully balances the matter of free will versus God’s grace, he balances the scales exceedingly carefully:
    But who can easily see how it is that the completion of our salvation is assigned to our own will, of which it is said: If you be willing, and hearken unto Me, you shall eat the good things of the land, Isaiah 1:19 and how it is not of him that wills or runs, but of God that has mercy? Romans 9:16

    This balance is again struck when he says that
    these two then, viz., the grace of God and free will seem opposed to each other, but really are in harmony, and we gather from the system of goodness that we ought to have both alike, lest if we withdraw one of them from man, we may seem to have broken the rule of the Church’s faith: for when God sees us inclined to will what is good, He meets, guides, and strengthens us: for At the voice of your cry, as soon as He shall hear, He will answer you; and: Call upon Me, He says, in the day of tribulation and I will deliver you, and you shall glorify Me. And again, if He finds that we are unwilling or have grown cold, He stirs our hearts with salutary exhortations, by which a good will is either renewed or formed in us.
    Here Cassian goes deepest into the thicket:
    But that, when we do not always resist or remain persistently unwilling, everything is granted to us by God, and that the main share in our salvation is to be ascribed not to the merit of our own works but to heavenly grace, we are thus taught by the words of the Lord Himself: And therefore it is laid down by all the Catholic fathers who have taught perfection of heart not by empty disputes of words, but in deed and act, that the first stage in the Divine gift is for each man to be inflamed with the desire of everything that is good, but in such a way that the choice of free will is open to either side: and that the second stage in Divine grace is for the aforesaid practices of virtue to be able to be performed, but in such a way that the possibilities of the will are not destroyed: the third stage also belongs to the gifts of God, so that it may be held by the persistence of the goodness already acquired, and in such a way that the liberty may not be surrendered and experience bondage. For the God of all must be held to work in all, so as to incite, protect, and strengthen, but not to take away the freedom of the will which He Himself has once given.
    In what appears to be a warning to someone like Austin:
    If however any more subtle inference of man’s argumentation and reasoning seems opposed to this interpretation, it should be avoided rather than brought forward to the destruction of the faith (for we gain not faith from understanding, but understanding from faith, as it is written: Unless you believe, you will not understand Isaiah 7:9) for how God works all things in us and yet everything can be ascribed to free will, cannot be fully grasped by the mind and reason of man.

    [If you feel that this is going too far afield, there is no reason to post this reply.]

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