Augustine Evolving Views on God’s Sovereignty (Part 2)


We have been examining Augustine’s changing views on faith, free will, and God’s sovereignty. His original views on these topics evolved from a synergistic model (where God and man cooperate in coming to faith) to a monergistic model (God alone causes man to come to faith) that became the foundation of Reformed theology.

In the last post we delved into Augustine’s interpretation of 1 Timothy 2:3-4 based on what he wrote in from The Spirit and the Letter, written in 412 AD.Saint_Augustine_Portrait

In summary:

  • free will was given to us by God when He created us. Our free will was able to choose between faith and unbelief.
  • God desires all the people He created to be saved, but this desire is constrained so that people maintain their ability to freely choose to be saved. Our consent is required in order for God to save us.
  • The reality that all people are not saved does not thwart God’s will since it is also His will that those who remain in unbelief will perish. Only those who remain in unbelief and escape the penalty would truly thwart God’s will.

Before we consider his revised interpretation using quotes and observations from the Enchiridion of Faith, Hope, and Love written 10 years later, I want to address the idea that Augustine did in fact change his mind.

Augustine admits to changing his view

In his book, On the Predestination of the Saints, written in 426, Augustine states that he held a view on faith and free will that was in error (chapter 7):

And it was chiefly by this testimony that I myself also was convinced when I was in a similar error, thinking that faith whereby we believe on God is not God’s gift, but that it is in us from ourselves, and that by it we obtain the gifts of God, whereby we may live temperately and righteously and piously in this world.

That testimony that changed Augustine’s thinking was Cyprian’s (200-258) admonishment that we must boast in nothing, since nothing is our own.

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

In chapter 96 of the Enchiridion of Faith, Hope, and Love, Augustine defines an omnipotent and almighty God as one who cannot be hindered by the will of another.

For He is not truly called Almighty if He cannot do whatsoever He pleases, or if the power of His almighty will is hindered by the will of any creature whatsoever.

In the next chapter, Augustine starts to address the statement: “who will have all men to be saved” in light of the fact that not all are saved:

it would seem that what God wills is not done, man’s will interfering with, and hindering the will of God. When we ask the reason why all men are not saved, the ordinary answer is: Because men themselves are not willing. … as if the will of God had been overcome by the will of men, and when the weakest stood in the way with their want of will, the will of the strongest could not be carried out.

As Augustine works through this idea about an Almighty God and the free will of man, he more fully tackles the passage in Timothy in chapter 103. In this chapter he offers up two possible interpretations.

The first option is to interpret the passage “wills all men to be saved” to mean that God saves “all men whom He wills to save”.

Accordingly, when we hear and read in Scripture that He will have all men to be saved, although we know well that all men are not saved, we are not on that account to restrict the omnipotence of God, but are rather to understand the Scripture, Who will have all men to be saved, as meaning that no man is saved unless God wills his salvation: not that there is no man whose salvation He does not will, but that no man is saved apart from His will;

Earlier, Augustine understood this passage to mean God wants all people to be saved and gave people to ability to believe or not. Although this seemed to thwart God’s will for “all men be saved”, His omnipotence and man’s free will were both preserved. This was because God’s overarching will was to offer salvation while preserving free will such that those who persist in unbelief would also not be saved. Augustine no longer sees this as satisfying his views on omnipotence. Since all men are not saved, God must not actually desire to save everyone He created. Instead, He chooses to save some and not save others.

The omnipotent God, then, whether in mercy He pities whom He will, or in judgment hardens whom He will, is never unjust in what He does, never does anything except of His own free-will, and never wills anything that He does not perform. (chap 102)

The second option is to interpret the passage “all men” to mean “all types of people” rather than every person created.

we are to understand by all men, the human race in all its varieties of rank and circumstances… For which of all these classes is there out of which God does not will that men should be saved in all nations through His only-begotten Son, our Lord, and therefore does save them; for the Omnipotent cannot will in vain, whatsoever He may will?

Again, since God’s will cannot be thwarted and all men are not saved then we must conclude that God only desires to save people from every “rank and circumstance”. Which leads Augustine to conclude that God chooses those whom He will save through irresistible, effectual grace.

If neither of these are interpretations on 1 Timothy are satisfactory, Augustine offers this advice, interpret it however you want as long as God is Almighty and His will is not thwarted by the will of another.

And we may interpret it in any other way we please, so long as we are not compelled to believe that the omnipotent God has willed anything to be done which was not done

Concluding thoughts

In examining Augustine’s views, we see a shift away from the synergistic view of faith generally held by earlier Christian theologians (like Irenaeus, Justin Martyr, Tertullian, and even Origen) towards a more monergistic framework centered around God’s unconditional election and irresistible grace. Both of these seem to flow from the idea that an Almighty God cannot will that which does not come to pass (known as meticulous sovereignty).

The fact that Augustine changed his theological views is not wrong. However, the question is: what caused Augustine to alter his theology so that it no longer followed the earlier theologians in the church? Why should we assume that Augustine is interpreting Scriptures correctly against the general consensus of these earlier theologians?

The early church theologians were not infallible. When we read them we must not hold their writings above Scripture. However, when there is a consensus around the interpretation of Scripture, giving way to a consistently held theological idea with no real clear alternative expressed, it is wise to question whether the newer theological ideas are valid and why they came to be.

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