Augustine Evolving Views on God’s Sovereignty (Part 1)

In a previous post we examined Augustine’s changing views on free will. His original view regarding free will and faith mirrored that of the other early church writers and theologians. But later, Augustine articulated views that we now kSaint_Augustine_Portraitnow as unconditional election and irresistible grace.

These changes coincided with Augustine’s shift in how he understood God’s sovereignty. We will continue to examine Augustine’s changing views by looking at how he interpreted the passage 1 Timothy 2:3-4 over time.

This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.

This first post will examine quotes and observations from The Spirit and the Letter, written in 412 AD. The second post will examine quotes and observations from the Enchiridion of Faith, Hope, and Love written 10 years later.

Augustine’s early view of God’s sovereignty and the will to believe

In chapters 57-60 of The Spirit and the Letter, Augustine is exploring why a person believes in God. Specifically he is examining where the will to believe comes from.

the question arises whence we have this will [by which we believe]?

If from nature [arises from our free will], why it is not at everybody’s command, since the same God made all men?

If from God’s gift, then again, why is not the gift open to all, since He will have all men to be saved, and to come unto the knowledge of the truth?

Augustine is torn between two answers which one might give:

  • if the will to believe is not a gift from God but from our free will then we contradict 1 Corinthians 4:7 which asks – What do you have that you did not receive?
  • if the will to believe is a gift from God then it is reasonable for unbelievers to blame God for their unbelief because He did not give them the will necessary to have faith.

Augustine reconciles this problem by proposing two propositions. The first is:

that free will, naturally assigned by the Creator to our rational soul, is such a neutral power, as can either incline towards faith, or turn towards unbelief.

The second:

God no doubt wishes all men to be saved and to come into the knowledge of the truth; but yet not so as to take away from them free will, for the good or the evil use of which they may be most righteously judged.

In these propositions, Augustine resolves his problem regarding the will to believe. Faith arises out of our natural free will. Since we our able to choose to have faith or remain in unbelief through our free will, the unbeliever cannot blame God for his unbelief. In addition, Augustine has removed the contradiction of 1 Corinthians 4:7, because this natural free will is given to us by God when we were created.

Can man thwart God’s sovereignty?

He is left with another problem. Can man thwart God’s will? How are we to understand God’s will for all men to be saved if not everyone is saved? Here it is important to understand that Augustine understands “all men” as referring to all people created. In the Enchiridion, he will alter his understanding of this term to fit his new view.

Augustine is able to solve this dilemma regarding man thwarting God’s will. First he agrees that when people refuse to believe they are acting contrary to God’s will expressed in 1 Tim 2:4. However, God’s will is not actually overcome by this act since it is also His will that those who don’t believe be punished. Therefore only if a person refused to believe and escaped punishment would God’s will for all to be saved be thwarted.

Here is the example Augustine provides to make this point:

Suppose a master, for example, who should say to his servants, I wish you to labour in my vineyard, and, after your work is done, to feast and take your rest but who, at the same time, should require any who refused to work to grind in the mill ever after.

Whoever neglected such a command would evidently act contrary to the master’s will; but he would do more than that—he would vanquish that will, if he also escaped the mill.

Does God play any part in our will to believe besides giving us free will?

In chapter 60, Augustine goes to say that belief does not come from the natural free will alone. God still must act upon us “to will and to believe” through external “evangelical exhortations” as well as working on us internally. However, Augustine makes it clear that these internal acts are resistible.

To yield our consent, indeed, to God’s summons, or to withhold it, is (as I have said) the function of our own will.

As Augustine wraps up this part of the work, it is interesting to see he answers those who might ask what is the difference between the one who believes and the one who does not? Why does one believe and another remain in unbelief?

Now, should any man be for constraining us to examine into this profound mystery, why this person is so persuaded as to yield, and that person is not, there are only two things occurring to me, which I should like to advance as my answer

O the depth of the riches! (Romans 11:3)


Is there unrighteousness with God? (Romans 9:14)

Ironic since this is an answer more commonly heard today from Reformers when questioned about effectual grace and unconditional election.

[part 2 will examine how these views changed]

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