Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Predestination: Part II of VI “Saint Augustine’s View”

To understand Augustine's (354-430 AD) view of predestination we must first look at his view on Grace. For Augustine, Grace is God's generous and quite unmerited attention to humanity. Because of original sin Augustine believed humanity as a whole to be frail, weak, and lost; a mass perdition of fallen individuals who cannot help themselves. Because of this we are totally dependent on God for faith from beginning to end (Augustine Ch. 51). According to Augustine it is only because of God's gracious intervention that we have any chance of being healed from original sin.

So simply put, Augustine believed that Grace is a gift and not a reward. If grace were a reward than humans could purchase their own salvation through good works, but for Augustine this would run contrary to the New Testament proclamation of Grace (McGrath 465).
It is from Augustine's radical understanding of Grace that his understanding of predestination surfaces. As I have already said Augustine believed that Grace only remains grace if it is a gift. If it is not a gift than it ceases to be a gift, but rather it is a reward for our merit. But it is obvious from human experience that this gift is not received by all (Keep in mind that he believed the faith to receive such a gift is a gift itself). Thus, Augustine believed that the faith God must be free to give or to withhold grace according to his sovereign will, thus entailing a particularity to grace, rather than a universality (McGrath). This is where Augustine's view of predestination is birthed. He writes:
"This is the predestination of the saints,--nothing else; to wit, the foreknowledge and the preparation of God's kindnesses, whereby they are most certainly delivered, whoever they are that are delivered." (Augustine Ch. 35)
In other words, according to Augustine, predestination is the way God sovereignly chooses who he will rescue from the mass perdition of fallen humanity. God does this by giving some the divine gift whereby they are moved to faith.
It is important to note that, unlike some of the later reformers, Augustine believed that God actively selects some from fallen humanity, but does not actively condemn to damnation those who were not. It rather just their natural path. However, as his critics pointed out, a decision to redeem some was equally a decision not to redeem others (McGrath 466).
One last aspect I want to look at of Augustine's view of predestination is his pastoral concerns. For Augustine predestination must be preached. Here's why in his own words:
"For either predestination must be preached, in the way and degree in which the Holy Scripture plainly declares it, so that in the predestinated the gifts and calling of God may be without repentance; or it must be avowed that God's grace is given according to our own merits." (Augustine Ch. 41)
"Grace precedes faith; otherwise, if faith precedes grace, beyond a doubt will also precedes it, because there cannot be faith without will." (Augustine Ch. 41)
In short, Augustine believed that predestination must be preached because without it we will believe that faith is our own work and thus salvation is our by merit rather than grace. By preaching predestination a person's:
"Love rejoices, and he is not as puffed up as if he had not received it. Not only therefore, is he not hindered from this work by the preaching of predestination, but he is even assisted to it, so that although he glories he may glory in the Lord." (Augustine Ch. 41)
Thus, Augustine concludes:
"Predestination must be preached,--that God's true grace, that is, the grace which is not given according to our merits, may be maintained with insuperable defense." (Augustine Ch. 54)
My Own Thoughts on Augustine's View
After diving deeply into Augustine's view there is not much here that I disagree with other than some nitpicky stuff, particularly his idea of God actively choosing some while passively letting others suffer. I'm in the same boat as his critics believing that a decision to redeem some is equally a decision not to redeem others. Whether or not you agree with this at all, it is an obvious flaw in Augustine's logic (I'm not saying that I believe in double-predestination, rather I'm just pointing out a flaw in Augustine's logic). As Calvin wisely put it, any decision of God is an active decision.
This said, what I appreciate most about Augustine's treatment of predestination is his pastoral concerns. As stated above, Augustine believed that predestination must be preached because without it humanity will naturally assume that salvation is in its own hands. This is because whenever you let any bit of human decision come into the realm Grace ceases to be a gift, but rather a reward for even the littlest thing we do. This little thing that we do eventually becomes a big thing as we look at the rest of humanity that didn't have the wisdom to make the decision we made and thus we begin to become puffed up and self-righteous. Thus, Augustine believed that in preaching predestination we deflate ourselves and give glory to God.
This idea is important for me as I continue to grapple with this multifaceted subject. At times not being sure where I find myself in my understanding of predestination I still can't get past this little issue. If salvation isn't all God's work, i.e. predestination, is it still by grace (Ephesians 2:8-9
8 For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, 9 not a result of works, so that no one may boast.)? Can you preach salvation by Grace alone and yet reconcile it with a view that doesn't eventually become predestination? These questions will be explored more deeply as we get further into the series (particularly Rod Whitacre's and Paul Zahl's thoughts on the subject), but they still worth ruminating on in the here and now. I'd love to hear your thoughts on Augustine and these questions.

Saint Augustine. "On the Predestination of the Saints"
McGrath, Alister. "Christian Theology: an Introduction"


Jay Miklovic said...

First of all... Augustine rocks, I have a number of his quotes framed in my office.

However the debate will continue to rage on between Arminians and Calvinists until the end of the age.

The Arminian will look at Calvinism and affirm logically that in Calvinism God must be the author of sin, and even that man is not responsible for their own condemnation. (Of course the Calvinist has ways to defy this, but the logic breaks down.)

Moreover the Calvinist looks at Arminian theology and affirms logically that under Arminianism salvation must result from some sort of decision or action, and thus is not entirely of grace. (Of course the Arminian has ways to defy this, but the logic breaks down.)

It is an important debate, but at some point we must recognize that what we see as contradiction in our limited human logic, is not contradiction at all in God's infinite wisdom.

The LORD knows the thoughts of man, That they are a mere breath.
(Psalms 94:11 NASB)

For the wisdom of this world is foolishness before God. For it is written, " He is THE ONE WHO CATCHES THE WISE IN THEIR CRAFTINESS";
(1 Corinthians 3:19 NASB)

At some point we need to face the fact that human logic has its limitations, and when we try to systemize everything (as both the Arminians and Calvinists do) we are bound to fall short of true. Systematic theology is good, and something we should all engage in, but we must be conscious of its inevitable short comings.

One of my favorite Preachers, Paul Washer (Calvinist), explains systematic theology like trying to stuff more clothes into a suitcase than can possible fit. As soon as you get one side packed neatly in, the other side busts open, so you stuff the other side in, and the side you just packed in neatly busts open.

Anyway, those are my thoughts.

Shawn said...


Great thoughts.

I'd actually say that the debate began with Augustine and Pelagius, because everything that Calvin says is pretty much an extension/expansion on what Augustine already said on the subject.

Also, I really like what you had to say about the importance and limitations of systematic theology. It is true. I just enjoy swimming in the contradictions.

Lastly, when you said, "what we see as contradiction in our limited human logic, is not contradiction at all in God's infinite wisdom." That is the gist of Rod Whitacre's understanding of predestination. So I think you'll get a lot out of him when I get to it.


Jay Miklovic said...

The debate did indeed begin with Pelagius and Augustine, but there definately is difference between the Arminian understanding of grace, and the Pelagian view. I would go as far as to label Peligianism (if that is a word) as heresy. Classical Arminianism does acknowledge original sin... though they do not go so far as total depravity. Pelagianism as I understand it view depravity as a choice to follow Adam, not as an intrinsic part of human nature.

Frankly, in the case of depravity, I think the Augustine and Calvin hit the nail on the head... even Wesley agrees.

jeff said...

I am new to your bog as I followed a link through Mockingbird.

I am 50 and have nearly come full circle on this issue. I was raised in a Presbyterian church but left in my early 20's for more organic non-denominational stuff. I opposed most of Calvin's theology mainly because I perceived those who espoused it as being arrogant and self righteous. I had some arguments for my position but over the years they have not held up to well.

But scripture says what it says, and there just doesn't seem to be any way for me to understand God or His words except through the lens of complete sovereignty which ultimately means He makes the decisions about my salvation, not me.

I am not a theologian and I am turned off in some ways by folks who spend too much time intellectualizing these things; but I agree with Augustine that predestination needs to be preached. It is key to our confidence in God and I have found great comfort in being able to rely completely on Him to save me and not my own frail desires.

Looking forward to the rest of the series.

Shawn said...

Great thoughts Jeff!