Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Augustine on Men's Fallen WIlls, Part 1 of 2

There is no doubt in my mind that Augustine was a monergist, and this series of posts will attempt to show this to be the case. One who is a monergist believes that God's grace is the sufficient and decisive means by which one acts in accordance to the soteric precepts of God. In establishing Augustine's belief in the extend of the depravity of fallen men, a framework will be provided such that one may better understand Augustine's reasons for believing as he does:


Retractations is a compilation of Augustine’s reflections upon his earlier works. It was written around two years prior to his death, and by that time he had written many books. The purpose of Retractations was to afford Augustine the opportunity to briefly summarize his earlier works, correct his statements as necessary, and clarify his beliefs to those who misunderstood or misused his statements.

Because Pelagians attempted to undercut Augustine’s monergistic attack by citing his three books On Free Choice, Augustine’s thoughts in this chapter of his Retractations (Bogan, pages 33-39) are worth noting:

“We took up this discussion in order to refute those who deny that the origin of evil lies in the free choice of the will and therefore contend that we should blame evil on God, the Creator of all natures. In keeping with this perverse error, these men, the Manichees, wish to assert the existence of an unchangeable principle of evil coeternal with God. Since this was the debate we had in mind, there was no discussion in these books of the grace of God, by which he so predestines his chosen people that he himself prepares the wills of those who are already using their free choice. Consequently, wherever the subject of grace arose, it was mentioned only in passing and not given the careful treatment that would have been appropriate if it had been the principal topic of discussion. For it is one thing to search for the origin of evil and quite another to ask how we can be restored to our original innocence or press on toward a greater good.

Therefore, these new Pelagian heretics – who claim that the choice of the will is so free that they leave no room for God's grace, which they claim is given in accordance with our merits – should not congratulate themselves as if I had been pleading their cause, simply because I said many things in support of free choice that were necessary to the aim of our discussion.”

Augustine goes on to cite several statements he made in On Free Choice, essentially to the effect that he readily acknowledges that the statements used against him by the Pelagians are, in fact, his own. He denies, however, that what they conclude logically follows:

“In these and similar passages I did not mention the grace of God, which was not then under discussion. Consequently, the Pelagians think, or could think, that I held their view. Far from it. As I emphasized in these passages, it is indeed by the will that we sin or live rightly. But unless the will is liberated by grace from its bondage to sin and is helped to overcome its vices, mortals cannot lead pious and righteous lives. And unless the divine grace by which the will is freed preceded the act of the will, it would not be grace at all. It would be given in accordance with the will's merits, whereas grace is given freely. I have dealt satisfactorily with these questions in other works, refuting these upstart heretics who are the enemies of grace. But even in On Free Choice of the Will, which was not aimed at the Pelagians (who did not yet exist) but at the Manichees, I was not completely silent on the subject of grace, which the Pelagians in their abominable impiety are trying to take away altogether.”

Just as before, he then quotes sections of his own work, this time to illustrate that “long before the Pelagian heresy had arisen, [he] argued just as if [he] were combatting the Pelagians.” One of these quotes reads:

“And again in another place I say, "But to accept falsehoods as truths, thus erring unwillingly; to struggle against the pain of carnal bondage and not be able to refrain from acts of inordinate desire: these do not belong to the nature that human beings were created with; they are the penalty of a condemned prisoner. But when we speak of free will to act rightly, we mean the will with which human beings were created.”

From this, Augustine concludes:

“Then I said that the grace of God frees us from the misery that was justly imposed upon sinners. For human beings cannot pick themselves up voluntarily – that is, by their own free choice – as they fell voluntarily. To the misery imposed by this just condemnation belong ignorance and difficulty, which afflict all human beings from the very outset of their lives. And no one is freed from that evil except by the grace of God. The Pelagians deny that this misery derives from a just condemnation, for they disbelieve in original sin.”

Resultantly, no one can use On Free Choice to support the idea Augustine believed fallen men can “act rightly,” for he explains that whenever he refers to such a will, it is a reference to the will man had prior to the Fall. Because we fell voluntarily, our penalty – the inability to “refrain from acts of inordinate desire” – is just. The Manichean heresy was with regards to man’s nature prior to the Fall; the Pelagian heresy was with regards to man’s nature after the Fall.


Although Pelagianism is not specifically mention in Enchiridion, given the material presented throughout the book, it is indisputable that it was one of those heresies Augustine meant his correspondent to "…avoid above all else.” As Enchiridion is written before Retractations, it is especially beneficial to show that Augustine indeed was consistent when he wrote in his latter work that “free will to act rightly” is not found in contexts of his books in which the will of fallen man is discussed:

“…can that part of the human race to whom God hath promised deliverance and a place in the eternal Kingdom be restored through the merits of their own works? Of course not! For what good works could a lost soul do except as he had been rescued from his lostness? Could he do this by the determination of his free will? Of course not! For it was in the evil use of his free will that man destroyed himself and his will at the same time. For as a man who kills himself is still alive when he kills himself, but having killed himself is then no longer alive and cannot resuscitate himself after he has destroyed his own life—so also sin which arises from the action of the free will turns out to be victor over the will and the free will is destroyed. "By whom a man is overcome, to this one he then is bound as slave." This is clearly the judgment of the apostle Peter. And since it is true, I ask you what kind of liberty can one have who is bound as a slave except the liberty that loves to sin?

He serves freely who freely does the will of his master. Accordingly he who is slave to sin is free to sin. But thereafter he will not be free to do right unless he is delivered from the bondage of sin and begins to be the servant of righteousness. This, then, is true liberty: the joy that comes in doing what is right. At the same time, it is also devoted service in obedience to righteous precept.

But how would a man, bound and sold, get back his liberty to do good, unless he could regain it from Him whose voice saith, "If the Son shall make you free, then you will be free indeed"? But before this process begins in man, could anyone glory in his good works as if they were acts of his free will, when he is not yet free to act rightly? He could do this only if, puffed up in proud vanity, he were merely boasting. This attitude is what the apostle was reproving when he said, "By grace you have been saved by faith."” (Chapter 30)

As strong as Augustine’s language is, it is important to remember that he does not deny fallen men have free wills. He just realized that freedom, like slavery, is relational: if one is free, he is free “to do” something or free “from” something. Fallen men are very free to commit all kinds of depravity, and they do so because they desire to do so. Fallen man’s freedom ""to act rightly,” however, has been "destroyed" such that fallen man is said to be in bondage to sin rather than free from it. God is not our Master, so we cannot exercise our volition to do that which is in accordance with the precepts of He who ought to be our Master.

On Nature and Grace

Pelagius believed that three faculties must be present in order for God’s law to be fulfilled: capacity, volition, and action. Pelagius posited that God’s grace is necessary insofar as He created our capacity to will His precepts; that is, mankind is created with the ability to choose good or evil, and this is a result of God’s grace. The other two faculties which Pelagius affirmed must be present in order to fulfill the law – volition and action – he denied require any divine assistance. In essence, he taught that these two faculties proceed autonomously from men. As Pelagius also regarded man’s capacity to will what is good as inherent to his nature, he denied that original sin corrupted this capacity. 

Because, then, Pelagius denied that grace is necessary in order to restore our capacity to will what is good – as Pelagius believed that capacity cannot be lost – Augustine concluded Pelagius believed God’s grace to fallen men was no different than His grace to Adam in the garden. As one of Augustine’s earlier Anti-Pelagian works, On Nature and Grace was written to expose (and thereafter refute) in what sense Pelagius regarded God’s grace as necessary prior to fulfillment of the law. One such chapter clearly manifests Augustine’s belief:

“[Pelagius] does not say, “Whether we wish it or do not wish it, we do not sin,” – for we undoubtedly do sin, if we wish; but yet he asserts that, whether we will or not, we have the capacity of not sinning, a capacity which he declares to be inherent in our nature. Of a man, indeed, who has his legs strong and sound, it may be said admissibly enough, “whether he will or not he has the capacity of walking;” but if his legs be broken, however much he may wish, he has not the capacity. The nature of which our author speaks is corrupted. “Why is dust and ashes proud?” It is corrupted. It implores the Physician’s help. “Save me, O Lord,” is its cry; “Heal my soul,” it exclaims. Why does he check such cries so as to hinder future health, by insisting, as it were, on its present capacity?” (Chapter 57)

Synthesizing this with Augustine's other writings, it is evident he believed “There is No Incompatibility Between Necessity and Free Will” (the title of a chapter in his On Nature and Grace). Though unable to will the precepts of God, because the necessity to sin in which fallen man has been placed is a penalty rather than an aspect of the nature with which mankind was created, God is just for condemning fallen men for failure to live according to a standard which cannot be met apart from liberation by the Son. In a later book, Augustine similarly observed – in rhetorical form – that no Christian should have qualms with the idea necessity and free will are compatible, for “...[nothing] shall be more free than free will, when it shall not be able to serve sin…” (Rebuke and Grace, Chapter 32).

Man’s Perfection in Righteousness

Written around a year after On Nature and Grace, Man’s Perfection in Righteousnessfollowed as Augustine’s next major work against Pelagianism. By this time it seems as though the Pelagian heresy had spread such that Augustine’s friends were encountering works of Pelagius’ disciples. One such disciple, C┼ôlestius, apparently wrote a list of breviates, reasoning that acceptance of the corruption of man's nature via original sin would lead to unbiblical conclusions. Augustine replies to each breviate, one of which induces Augustine to reply exactly to what extent the punishment of original sin has spread in fallen men:

“”By what means is it brought about that man is with sin? – by the necessity of nature, or by the freedom of choice? If it is by the necessity of nature, he is blameless; if by the freedom of choice, then the question arises, from whom he has received this freedom of choice. No doubt, from God. Well, but that which God bestows is certainly good. This cannot be gainsaid. On what principle, then, is a thing proved to be good, if it is more prone to evil than to good? For it is more prone to evil than to good if by means of it man can be with sin and cannot be without sin.” The answer is this: It came by the freedom of choice that man was with sin; but a penal corruption closely followed thereon, and out of the liberty produced necessity. Hence the cry of faith to God, “Lead Thou me out of my necessities.” With these necessities upon us, we are either unable to understand what we want, or else (while having the wish) we are not strong enough to accomplish what we have come to understand. Now it is just liberty itself that is promised to believers by the Liberator. “If the Son,” says He, “shall make you free, ye shall be free indeed.” For, vanquished by the sin into which it fell by its volition,nature has lost liberty…” (Breviate 9)


Augustine believed fallen man:

1. “Is not be able to refrain from acts of inordinate desire…”

2. is not able to do “good works… [until]… rescued from his lostness.”

3. had his “…free will [to do right]… destroyed.”

4. lost all moral liberty except “…the liberty that loves to sin.”

5. “…serves freely… the will of his master.”

6. is not “…free to do right unless he is delivered from the bondage of sin and begins to be the servant of righteousness.”

7. “…is not yet free to act rightly.”

8. has not “…the capacity of not sinning…”

9. sins of “…necessity.”

10. is “either unable to understand what [he] wants, or else… not strong enough to accomplish what [he has] come to understand.”

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