St. Augustine (354-430 AD) was the greatest of the Latin Fathers of the Church and a foundational figure of Western Christian civilization. He was born in Tagaste, near Hippo, in what is now Algeria in north Africa. His mother St. Monica was a devout Christian and taught him the faith. However, when he studied and then taught rhetoric in Carthage, he began living a worldly life. After briefly teaching in Rome, he obtained a post as Professor of Rhetoric in Milan, accompanied by an unnamed woman and child Adeodatus, born out of wedlock in 372. The woman left him and their son, and then Monica joined them in Milan.
Under the incessant prayers of his mother Monica, and the influence of St. Ambrose of Milan, he eventually converted to Christianity at age 32 in 386 AD. Perhaps the most eloquent examination of conscience is found in the classic Confessions of St. Augustine, where he describes his moment of conversion (Confessions, Book VIII, Chapter 12) in the garden reading St. Paul to the Romans 13:14, But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the desires of the flesh. Augustine, his son Adeodatus, and friend Alypius were baptized by Ambrose (IX, 6) on Holy Saturday, April 24, 387.
Monica died on their return to Africa in the Roman port of Ostia, and Adeodatus died in 389, after the publication of The Teacher, a dialogue between Augustine and his beloved son. Augustine was subsequently ordained a priest in Hippo in 391, and became Bishop of Hippo in 395, serving in that office for the rest of his life. He was people-oriented and preached every day. Many of his followers lived an ascetic life. Augustine had a great love for Christ, and believed that our goal on earth was God through Christ himself, "to see his face evermore." Our mission in life should be to please God, not man.
Augustine was one of the most prolific writers in history, and his writings show an evolution of thought and at times a reversal of ideas, as seen in his Retractations. His Scriptural essays on Genesis, Psalms, the Sermon on the Mount, and the Gospel of John are still published today. His ideas have been quoted by many Christian theologians, such as Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, and Jean Calvin, often with opposing points of view! Perhaps most debated are his views on predestination.
St. Augustine wrote on God's Eternal Law and the Natural Law in On The Trinity, De Trinitate, which took him 20 years (399-419) to complete. He defined God's eternal law as the reason or the will of God, who commands us to respect the natural order and forbids us to disturb it. "So the eternal law never departs from God's eternity, and yet is transferred, as a ring transfers its image to wax, upon the heart of every man who works justly, that is, does good. The natural law is thus an image of the eternal law writ in the heart of man, impressed there by the Lord who made him" (14, 15, 21).
Another classic in world literature, The City of God, De Civitate Dei, was completed in 426. The book was written in response to the sack of Rome by Alaric in 410, and took him thirteen years to finish. History can only be understood as a continued struggle between two cities, the City of God, comprised of those men who pursue God, and the City of Man, composed of those who pursue earthly goods and pleasures. He refers to Cain and Abel as the earliest examples of the two types of man (XV, 1). The Roman Empire was an example of the City of Man. A key aspect of the book was his concept of just war, which has served as a guide throughout world history. St. Augustine held that war was just at the bidding of God or a legitimate authority, for a right cause (such as defense of one's property or recovering lost territory), and with the proper intention.
St. Augustine is the doctor of Grace. He wrote many treatises on the subjects of free choice of the will as well as grace throughout his lifetime. In Grace and Free Will, written in 427, he explained simply why he believed in free will. If there was no free will, then why did God give us the Ten Commandments, and why did he tell us to love our neighbor? Augustine's arguments against the Pelagian heresy set the doctrine of grace for the Catholic Church to the present day. Pelagius thought that man could achieve virtue and salvation on his own without the gift of grace, that Jesus was simply a model of virtue. This of course attacks the Redemption of man by Christ! If man could make it on his own, then the Cross of Christ becomes meaningless! Augustine placed emphasis on man's utter sinfulness through the original sin of Adam and Eve (Genesis 3). Jesus identified himself with the "least of his brethren" in life's two possible outcomes - the righteous to eternal life, or everlasting punishment "in the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels" - in the Final Judgement of mankind (Matthew 25:31-46). But Augustine also stressed the blessing and efficacy of grace, a free gift of God through Jesus Christ, as noted in Ephesians 2:8 - "For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not from you; it is the gift of God." He recalls John 15:5: "I am the vine, you are the branches. Whoever remains in me and I in him will bear much fruit, because without me you can do nothing." Grace disposes man to raise him to a life of virtue, which is the ground of human freedom. "When I choose rightly I am free." Both grace and free will are necessary for salvation. The Council of Orange enshrined Augustine's teaching on grace and free will in 529 AD.
St. Augustine was a living example of God's grace that transformed nature. He died August 28, 430, during the sack of Hippo by the Vandals. August 28 is celebrated as his Feast Day in the liturgical calendar.
This excerpt (Chapters 1 to 9) from Grace and Free Will reflects his style and some of his ideas. How conversant was Augustine with Scripture! He addressed the essay to the Abbot Valentine and the monks at a monastery in Hadrumetum, modern-day Sousse in neighboring Tunisia.
1 On account of those who preach and defend human free choice in such a way that they dare to deny and try to get rid of the grace of God – the grace by which we are called to him and are set free from our evil deserts, and through which we acquire good deserts (merits) by which we might attain eternal life – I have already examined a number of points and written about them, as far as the Lord found worthwhile to grant to me. But since there are some people who defend the grace of God in such a way that they deny human free choice, or who hold that free choice is denied when grace is defended, I have for this reason been inspired by our mutual charity to take the trouble to write something on this issue to your Charity, brother Valentine, and to the others who serve God with you. Word about you has reached me, brothers, from some members of your community who came to me (and by whom I have sent along this work), that there are disagreements among you on these matters.
Therefore, dearly beloved, I advise you first to thank God for what you do understand, so that the obscurity of the question not disturb you, as for anything still beyond the reach of your mind’s effort, pray for understanding from the Lord while maintaining peace and charity among yourselves. Until he brings you to those matters you do not yet understand, walk along the path you have been able to reach. This is the advice of the apostle Paul after declaring he was not yet perfect: "It is not that I have already taken hold of it or have already attained perfect maturity, but I continue my pursuit in hope that I may possess it, since I have indeed been taken possession of by Christ Jesus" [Philippians 3:12].
That is: we are "perfect" to the extent that we have not yet come to the perfection that is enough for us. he immediately adds: "if in any thing you be otherwise minded, God shall reveal this to you as well; nevertheless, let us walk along the path we have reached" [Philippians 3:15–16]. In fact, by walking "along the path we have reached" we shall be able to reach what we have not yet reached – with God revealing it to us, if we are of another mind about anything, as long as we do not abandon what he has already revealed.
2 Now God has revealed to us through his own scripture that human beings have free choice of the will. I shall remind you how he revealed this, not with my human words but rather with his divine eloquence. First of all, the divine precepts would themselves be pointless for human beings unless we had free choice of the will, by which we might reach the promised rewards through carrying them out. For the precepts were given to human beings in order that they not have an excuse on the grounds of ignorance, as the Lord says of the Jews in the gospel: "had I not come and spoken to them, they would have no sin; but now they have no excuse for their sin" [John 15:22]. Of what sin is he speaking if not the great one he foreknew would be theirs when he said these things, that is, the sin in which they were going to put him to death? For they had no sin before Christ came in the flesh to them.
Again, the apostle Paul says [Romans 1:18–20]: "The wrath of god is revealed from heaven against all the irreligiousness and injustice of those people who in their iniquity hold back the truth; for what is known of God is evident to them, since God has made it evident to them. Indeed, from the world's creation his invisible features are clearly seen and understood through the things that are made, even his everlasting power and divinity, so that they are without excuse."
What does he mean by "without excuse" other than the excuse that human pride typically offers: "if I had known I would have done it; hence because I did not know, I did not do it” or "if I knew I would do it; hence because I do not know, I am not doing it?" This excuse is taken away from them once a precept is given, or the knowledge how not to sin is made evident.
3 Yet there are people who try to use God himself to excuse themselves. To them the apostle James says [James 1:13–15]: "Let no one say when he is tempted, “I have been tempted by God”; for God is not tempted by evils, nor does he tempt anyone. But each person is tempted when he is drawn away and enticed by his own lust. Then when lust has conceived, it brings forth sin; and sin, when it is accomplished, brings forth death."
Again, Solomon's book of Proverbs gives an answer to those who wish to excuse themselves on the basis of God himself: "The folly of a man perverts his ways, and in his heart he holds God to blame" [Proverbs 19:3].
The book of Ecclesiasticus declares [Sirach 15:11–17]: say not: "it is through the Lord that I fell away, for you should not do the things he hates. Say not: "he himself has caused me to err, for he has no need of the sinner. The Lord hates all abomination, and those who fear God love it not. It was he who made human beings from the beginning, and left them in the hand of their own counsel. If you are willing, you shall keep the commandments and keep good faith with his pleasure. He sets fire and water before you: stretch forth your hand to whichever you will. Before us is life and death, and whichever you please shall be given you."
We see expressed here most clearly the free choice of the human will.
4 What of the fact that in so many passages God bids that all his commandments be kept and followed? How can this be bidden if there is no free choice? Consider that happy man of whom the Psalmist says "his will was in accord with the law of the Lord" [Psalms 1:2]. Surely he makes it clear that a person takes his stand in God’s law by his will.
Next, there are so many commandments that in some way address the will itself by name. For example: "be unwilling to be overcome by evil" [Romans 12:21]. There are other similar examples, such as: "be unwilling to become as the horse or the mule, which have no understanding" [Psalms 32:9]; "be unwilling to forsake the counsels of your mother" [Proverbs 1:8]; "be unwilling to be wise in your own eyes" [Proverbs 3:7]; "be unwilling to fall away from the teaching of the Lord" [Proverbs 3:11]; "be unwilling to neglect the law" [Proverbs 3:1]; "be unwilling to withhold doing well for those in need" [Proverbs 3:27]; "be unwilling to devise evils against your friend" [Proverbs 3:29]; "be unwilling to attend to the deceits of a woman" [Proverbs 5:3]; "he was unwilling to understand that he should act well" [Psalms 36:3]; "They were unwilling to receive teaching" [Proverbs 1:29]. There are countless such passages in the Old Testament. What do they show but the free choice of human will?
In the New Testament, the same thing is shown when it says: "be unwilling to lay up for yourselves treasures upon earth" [Matthew 6:19]; "be unwilling to fear those who kill the body" [Matthew 10:28]; "Whoever is willing to follow after me, let him deny himself" [Matthew 16:24]; "Peace on earth to men of good will" [Luke. 2:14]. The apostle Paul says: "let him do what he will, he does not sin if he marries; nevertheless he does well who stands steadfast in his heart, having no necessity, but, having power over his own will, decrees in his heart to keep [his wife] a virgin" [1 Corinthians 7:36–37]. Again, he says: "If I do this willingly, I have a reward" [1 Corinthians 9:17]. In another passage: "be sober, just, and unwilling to sin" [1 Corinthians 15:34]. Once more: "as there was a readiness to will, so too let there be a readiness to act accordingly" [2 Corinthians 8:11]. To Timothy he says: "younger widows are willing to marry once they have begun to grow wanton in disregard of Christ" [1 Timothy 5:11]. And elsewhere: "all who are willing to live religiously in Jesus Christ are going to suffer persecution" [2 Timothy. 3:12]. To Timothy himself he says: "be unwilling to neglect the grace that is in you" [1 Timothy 4:14]. To Philemon: "your good should not be of necessity, as it were, but willing" [Philemon 14]. He even admonishes slaves to serve their masters "from the heart with good will" [Ephesians 6:6–7]. Again, James: "be unwilling to err, my brothers" [James 1:16]; "my brothers, be unwilling to discriminate among persons who have faith in our Lord Jesus Christ" [James 2:1]; "be unwilling to speak evil one of another" [James 4:11]. Again, John in his epistle: "be unwilling to delight in the world" [1 John. 2:15]. There are other passages of the same kind.
Surely wherever scripture says "be unwilling" to do this or that, and wherever the will's work is required to do or not to do something in the divine admonitions, that is sufficient proof of free choice. Therefore, let no one "hold God to blame in his heart" [Proverbs 19:3], but let him instead hold himself to blame when he sins. Nor does the fact that something is done in accordance with God take it away from one’s own will. When a person acts willingly, then should his deed be called good; then a reward for his good deed should be hoped for from him of Whom it is said: "He shall render to each one in accordance with his deeds" [Psalms 62:12, Matthew 16:27, Romans 2:6].
5 Therefore, those who know the divine commandments are deprived of the excuse of ignorance that people usually offer. But even those who do not know God’s law will not be free of penalty: "For as many as have sinned without the law shall also perish without the law: and as many as have sinned under the law shall be judged by the law" [Romans 2:12]. I do not think the apostle Paul meant that those who do not know the law were going to suffer something worse in their sins than those who do know it. Perishing seems worse than being judged. Yet he was speaking about the Gentiles and the Jews; since the former are without the law but the latter received the law, who would dare to say that the Jews who sin under the law are not going to perish? For they have not believed in Christ, and indeed the Apostle says of them that they "shall be judged by the law." Without faith in Christ nobody can be delivered. For this reason, they will be judged and perish.
Now if the condition of those who do not know God’s law is worse than the condition of those who know it, how will what the Lord says in the gospel be true? He says: "The slave who knows not his master’s will and does things worthy of lashes shall be whipped with few lashes; but the slave who knows his master’s will and does things worthy of lashes shall be whipped with many lashes" [Luke 12:47–48]. See where he shows that sinning is more serious for someone who knows than for someone who does not know!
Yet we should not therefore take refuge in the shadows of ignorance, where each of us looks for an excuse. Indeed, not knowing differs from being unwilling to know. The will is at fault in the man of whom it is said: "He was unwilling to understand that he should act well" [Psalms 36:3].
Yet even the ignorance found in people not unwilling to know, but rather who simply (so to speak) do not know, is not such as to excuse anyone from burning in the everlasting fire, if he did not believe precisely because he did not hear anything at all to believe – though perhaps he will burn more gently. Not without reason did the Psalmist say: "Pour out your anger upon the peoples who know you not" [Psalms 79:6]. Likewise the apostle Paul: "He shall come in flames of fire to take vengeance upon those who do not know God" [2 Thessalonians 1:7–8]. Even so, the human will is addressed in order that we have this very knowledge, and so that when it is said "be unwilling to become as the horse or the mule, which have no understanding" [Psalms 32:9], none of us may say "I did not know," "I did not hear," "I did not understand." However, clearly worse is the person of whom it is said: "A stubborn slave will not be corrected by words; for though he understands he will not obey" [Proverbs 29:19].
When someone objects: "I cannot do what is prescribed because I am overcome by my lust, then indeed he has no excuse in virtue of ignorance. Nor does he hold God to blame in his heart. Instead, he knows his own evil in himself, and laments. The apostle Paul says to him: "be unwilling to be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good" [Romans 12:21]. Surely in the case of someone to whom it is said "be unwilling to be overcome" the choice of his will is undoubtedly involved, for to be willing and to be unwilling are proper to the will.
6 Now you should be careful that all these divine testimonies in defense of free choice, and whatever other passages there are (doubtless there are many), not be understood in such a way that no place is left for the assistance and the grace of God in the conduct of a good and religious life deserving an eternal reward. And be careful that when miserable human beings live well and act well – or rather when they seem to themselves to live and act well – they dare to glory in themselves rather than in the Lord, and to put their hope of living rightly in themselves, so that they call on themselves the curse of the prophet Jeremiah [Jeremiah 17:5]: "Cursed is the man who has his hope in man, and makes strong the flesh of his arm, and whose heart abandons the Lord."
You must understand, my brothers, the testimony of this prophet. Because he did not say 'Cursed is the man who has his hope in himself,' it could then seem to someone that he said "Cursed is the man who has his hope in man," so that no one has hope in anyone but himself. Therefore, to show that he was warning each man not to have his hope even in himself, when he had said "Cursed is the man who has his hope in man" he immediately added "and makes strong the flesh of his arm." Here 'arm' is used to mean the power of acting, while in the term "flesh" we should understand human weakness. Accordingly, someone who thinks that weak and inadequate power (i.e. human power) is sufficient by itself for acting well "makes strong the flesh of his arm." Nor does he hope for assistance from the Lord, and so Jeremiah added: “and whose heart abandons the Lord.”
Such is the Pelagian heresy. It is not an old heresy but one that sprang up a little while ago. After arguments against this heresy had been made for a long time, it was necessary in the end for it to come before the episcopal councils. I sent you not all but at least some of the proceedings from them to read. Let us, therefore, not have our hope of acting well in man, making the flesh of our arm strong; nor let our heart abandon the Lord, but let it say to him: "Be my helper; do not forsake me or leave me, God my Savior" [Psalms 27:9].
7 Accordingly, my dear brothers, just as we showed above by testimony from Scripture that there is free choice of the will in human beings for the sake of living well and acting rightly, let us also see what divine testimonies there are about God’s grace, without which we can do nothing well.
First, I shall say something about your [monastic] profession. This community in which you lead lives of continence would not gather you together if you did not condemn marital pleasure. but while the Lord was speaking about this [Matthew 19:10–11] his disciples said to him: "if such is the case of a man with his wife, it is not good to marry." He replied to them: "not all accept this saying, but those to whom it is given."
Did not the apostle Paul encourage free choice for Timothy when he said: "Keep yourself continent" [1 Timothy 5:22]? And on this score he pointed out the power of the will when he says: "having no necessity, but having power over his own will, to keep [his wife] a virgin" [1 Corinthians 7:37]. yet "not all accept this saying, but those to whom it is given" [Matthew 19:10]. Those to whom it is not given either are unwilling or do not carry out what they will. "Those to whom it is given," however, will in such a way that they carry out what they will. Therefore, "this saying," which is not accepted by all, is accepted by some; it is both God’s gift and free choice.
8 With regard to marital chastity, the Apostle of course says: "Let him do what he will, he does not sin if he marries" [1 Corinthians 7:36]. Yet even this is a gift of God. For Scripture says: "a woman is joined to a man by the Lord" [Proverbs 19:14]. And so the Teacher of the nations commends in his words (a) marital chastity, through which adultery does not come about; and (b) more perfect continence, through which no sexual intercourse is sought. He showed that each is God's gift when he wrote to the Corinthians and advised spouses not to deprive one another of their marital rights. For once he had advised them he added: "I would that all men be even as I myself" [1 Corinthians 7:7]. For he surely restrained himself from any sexual intercourse. Continuing, he remarked: "But every person has his own gift from God – one person this one, but another that one" [1 Corinthians 7:7].
Do the many things that are prescribed in God’s law against committing fornication and adultery point to anything but free choice? They would not be prescribed unless a human being had a will of his own by which he might obey the divine precepts. Yet it is God’s gift, without which the precepts about chastity cannot be kept. Accordingly, the writer of the book of Wisdom says: "For I knew that no one can be continent unless God gives this – and it was itself an indication of wisdom to know whose gift this was" [Wisdom 8:21]. However, "each person is tempted when he is drawn away and enticed by his own lust" [James 1:14] from keeping the holy commandments regarding chastity.
If someone were to object: "I am willing to keep [these commandments] but I am overcome by my lust," Scripture will reply to his free choice what I said above: "Be unwilling to be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good" [Romans 12:21]. Yet it is grace that helps this to happen. And unless grace helps, the law will be nothing but the power of sin. Lust is increased and strengthened by the prohibition of the law, unless the spirit of grace helps us. This is what the Teacher of the nations himself tells us: "The sting of death is sin; and the power of sin is the law" [1 Corinthians 15:56]. Now you see why someone says "I am willing to keep the commandment of the law but I am overcome by the power of my lust." When his will is addressed and he is told "Be unwilling to be overcome by evil" [Romans 12:21], what use to him is all this, unless with the succor of grace it comes to pass?
The apostle Paul himself made this point. After he had said "the power of sin is the law," he immediately added: "but thanks be to God who gives us victory through our Lord Jesus Christ" [1 Corinthians 15:57]. Therefore, even the "victory" in which sin is overcome is nothing but God’s gift, helping out free choice in this struggle.
9 This is why the heavenly Teacher says: "Be watchful and pray that you not enter into temptation" [Matthew 26:41]. Therefore, let each who is fighting against his own lust pray that he "not enter into temptation," that is, that he not be "drawn away and enticed" by it. For he does not 'enter into temptation' if he overcomes evil lust with his good will. Yet the choice of the human will is not sufficient unless God grants victory to the one who prays that he not enter into temptation. What is more evident than God's grace in the case where what is prayed for is received? If our Savior had said "be watchful that you not enter into temptation," he would appear to have addressed only human will. But when he added "and pray," he showed that God provides help that we not enter into temptation. He addressed free will as follows: "My son, be unwilling to fall away from the teaching of the Lord" [Proverbs 3:11]. And the Lord said: "I have prayed for you, Peter, that your faith may not fail" [Luke 22:32]. Human beings are therefore assisted by grace, so that their wills are not bidden for no purpose.