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Augustine and Freedom: Some Tentative Philosophical Reflections
Evil-doing is neglect of eternal things and love of temporal things to the extent of
becoming subject to them. This is done by the free choice of the will . . . Free will
makes sin possible but it was given that man might live righteously.1
This is a brief summary of what Augustine believed regarding (1) the origin of sin and (2) the
purpose for which humanity was endowed with free choice of the will. Though insightful as it
may seem, Augustine’s statement will not set to rest all the issues raised by the notion of
human freedom and divine activity, since with free choice of the will come perplexing
questions that continue to rage in philosophical circles. Some questions, however, can be set
forth that outline parameters within which to begin understanding Augustine on the issue of
human freedom and its origins/causes.
If evil originates in the human will, from where does the will come? Are there any limitations to
human freedom? Is the human will neutral or does it have a bias toward good? A bias toward
evil? Where does free choice of the will come into play when individuals are saved by God’s
grace alone? What is meant by free will? On these questions, and many more related,
Augustine has been an immense help.
In this work an attempt will be made to illustrate Augustine’s view of free will. Such categories
as God’s sovereignty in election and salvation, the origin of evil and its impact upon humanity,
the justice of God, human responsibility and the providence of God in sanctification of the
believer will be utilized. Augustine’s understanding of human freedom should corroborate with
(1) the nature and character of God, (2) the integrity of Scripture and (3) human nature and
experience. Finally, an endeavor will be made toward a definition of free will that is faithful to
Scripture and Augustine.
It is important to say that this work is not meant to resolve the tension that has emerged
over the centuries between God and human freedom. Philosophical and theological variations
on this theme abound. The philosophical nature of the problem alone has resulted in countless
monolithic efforts, notwithstanding innumerable theological implications. If clarification should
result from this work, it would more than likely not be the product of this writer’s tentative
reflections on the issue. Rather, it would issue from the depth and breadth of wisdom given to
the Bishop of Hippo who’s intellect, for at least 1500 years, has enriched the Church of God.
It is necessary at the outset to expose what was doctrinally significant for Augustine during
the time of his writings on free will. His two most important works on freedom of the will are
De Libero Arbitrio (On Free Will) and De Gratia et Libero Arbitrio (On Grace and Free Will). The
former was written early (ca. 387-395) as a charge against the Manichees who believed the
world to be the arena within which two opposing forces were at war (good and evil). Human
activity, according to the Manichees, was determined by these two powers, which were
beyond any person’s control.
Augustine believed the Manichean error absolved individuals of moral responsibility. In De
Libero Arbitrio he was combating the Manichean heresy that evil’s origin was independent of
humanity. Instead, he demonstrates that evil is a product of liberum arbitrium or free choice
of the will. Moreover, Augustine explains why God gives freedom and that it is compatible with
The second work was written as a rejoinder to the Pelagian heresy. Though Pelagianism may
have been a response to the abuse of grace and the moral laxity of the Christian Church, it
was far from being a biblical alternative to Augustine’s teachings.2 In defending the grace of
God as the initial and effectual influence upon the soul’s conversion, Augustine was
interpreted as denying free choice of the will. Put simply, to defend grace is to deny freedom.
Pelagius maintained that humanity is born innocent of evil. That evil choices are made is not
denied by the Pelagians. Evil springs from bad examples in the environment which persons
Those influenced by Pelagius sought to defend free will in salvation and sanctification of the
saints at the expense of God’s grace. In De Gratia et Libero Arbitrio (ca. 426-427) Augustine
insists upon (1) the insufficiency of human efforts in meriting grace and (2) the undeserved,
necessary, and gratuitous assistance of God in saving and sanctifying the saints.
Augustine’s anthropology significantly contributes to his understanding of free will. Denying
Plato’s trichotomy, he affirms a dualistic view of existence; a soul-body distinction wherein an
integrative unity of existence obtains. “Regarding [humans] as neither the soul alone nor the
body alone but the combination of body and soul”4 is clear reference to Augustine’s dual
integration of human nature. The soul is immortal but not eternally existing (contra Plato) and
is “a certain substance, sharing in reason and suited to the task of ruling the body.”5 With this
framework in mind, one can proceed in asking questions regarding the constitution of the soul
and what moves it.
What motivates the will? How does one decide between options? What is behind the capacity
to choose? What is the sequence of movement in choices? For Augustine, choices are made
based upon motives. Prior to motives are desires and affections. Furthermore, antecedent to
desires is a pre-existing inclination, bias, or disposition toward good or evil. This inclination is
the first cause, so to speak, of human decisions.
But is there a cause beyond the inclination? In other words, “what cause lies behind willing?”6
Augustine’s answer to this question takes on a somewhat sarcastic tone, yet is intended to
show the absurdity of the question. “If I could find one, are you not going to ask for the
cause of the cause I have found? What limit will there be to your quest, what end to inquiry
and explanation?”7 While it may appear that he is avoiding the question, Augustine does point
out that the cause of evil is an evil will and the cause of the evil will is self-determining. And
the self is determined to choose for or against x based upon his/her inclination toward or away
This would appear to be in opposition with what has come to be known as one of the standard
definitions of freedom, viz., absolute power to contrary. This explanation of freedom is so
prevalent that some have understood it to make God contingent in some way.8 Alvin Plantinga
is often quoted on freedom as power to contrary.
If a person is free with respect to a given action, then he is free to perform that
action and free to refrain from performing it; no antecedent conditions [italics
mine] and/or causal laws determine that he will perform the action, or that he
won’t. It is within his power, at the time in question, to take or perform the action
and within his power to refrain from it.9
But Augustine understood that the antecedent condition for the movement of the will is a prior
inclination. Far from coercion, Augustine believed in a predisposed bias or inclination toward
either good or evil. Choices, motives, and desires do not happen in a vacuous environment nor
are they indifferent to or disinclined toward any direction. Whether human freedom entails
power to contrary choice or self-determination depends upon the inclination of the soul. And
the soul’s inclination depends upon which era of human existence is being assumed in the
defining stages of freedom.
There are four distinct epochs of history in which humans exist.10 At creation and before the
Fall, after the Fall and before regeneration, after regeneration and before glorification and the
eternal state after death. Each of these categories are necessary to keep in mind prior to
understanding freedom of a creature. It is necessary to define the conditions under which the
creature may operate. Otherwise the concept of freedom is unconstrained and confusion
First, before the Fall humanity experienced power to contrary choice. Adam was endowed
with the capacity to love and obey God at creation. He was given the freedom to do what he
ought. “When we speak of the freedom of the will to do right, we are speaking of the freedom
wherein man was created.”11 In this state the gift of freedom was bestowed upon Adam. He
could “go straight forward, develop himself harmoniously in untroubled unity with God, and
thus gradually attain his final perfection; or he could fall away, engender evil ex nihilo by
abuse of his free will.”12
Humanity is anything but a static being at creation. Augustine says “Only as originally created,
i.e., before the Fall, had man freedom to will and to do right.”13 Adam was not created neutral
nor disinclined (simile Pelagius). For to remain equidistant from both good and evil is to be
indifferent, in which case indifference does not apply to the category of freedom since
inherent in freedom is the idea of movement. One is free to act or refrain from the act. In
either case movement is involved. Stated differently: to move toward the good is to move
away from evil and vice versa. As Shedd puts it:
Holy Adam at the instant of his creation did not find himself set to choose either
the Creator or the creature as an ultimate end, being indifferent to both, but he
found himself inclined to the Creator . . . His will if created at all must have been
created as voluntary, since it could not be created as involuntary or uninclined.
This inclination was self-motion. It was the spontaneity of a spiritual essence, not
an activity forced ab extra [italics his].14
To further demonstrate power to contrary before the Fall, Augustine distinguishes between
posse non peccare and possibilitas peccandi. That is, the possibility of sinning was necessary
unto Adam’s freedom but sinning itself was not. In the garden potential freedom from sin
belonged to Adam prior to the Fall and its opposite (viz., potential slavery to sin) was equally
implied.15 Had Adam chosen to follow his holy inclination, things would be somewhat different
Second, after the Fall Adam had only one inclination, posse peccare, viz., the ability to sin.
Freedom is not thereby removed. It simply takes the shape of self-determination. Fallen
persons voluntarily determine to follow their own bent toward evil. They are self-determined
rather than God-determined. “Adam prior to the fall had freedom including both the ability not
to sin (posse non peccare) and the ability to sin (posse peccare). But all the descendants of
Adam, by reason of their inheritance, have only ability to sin (posse peccare) until they are
redeemed.”16 Nevertheless, the unregenerate are periodically capable of complying with the
demands of God, sporadically though it may be, in doing those things which are in accordance
with God’s Law (cf., Rom. 2:14-15). This is not to say God’s Law is fulfilled in any sense in the
way it is with believers through the Spirit (cf., Rom. 8:4).
It is unlikely Augustine was correct in applying Romans 2:14-15 to Gentile Christians.17 It
would be quite difficult to explain why Paul says of these so-called Christians that they are “a
law unto themselves,” not to mention Paul’s purpose of the entire pericope (Rom. 1:18-3:20)
is to demonstrate that all persons live under the dominion of sin. That some do, on occasion,
comply with God’s moral standards is the most this reference says. And this is a far cry from
regeneration. Persons aren’t free to live righteous lives unless they are free from an
The third stage of freedom in the saga of human history is after regeneration. That it takes
the enabling grace of God to transform the unregenerate is indication enough that free will is
self-determination rather than power to contrary. This is probably the hallmark of Augustine’s
contribution to Christianity. On the necessity of grace and the restoration of human freedom
in salvation Augustine could not be more clear.
For the grace bestowed upon us through Jesus our Lord is neither the knowledge
of God’s law nor nature nor the mere remission of sin, but that grace which makes
it possible to fulfill the Law so that our nature is set free from the dominion of
Still further, Augustine says; “Freewill is always present in us, but it is not always good . . .
But the grace of God is always good and brings about a good will in a man who before was
possessed of an evil will.”19 He was emphatic that the ability to perform good works does not
merit God’s favor. For it is God alone who enables individuals to believe unto salvation.
God . . . works in us, without our cooperation, the power to will, but once we
begin to will, and do so in a way that brings us to act, then it is that He
cooperates with us. But if He does not work in us the power to will or does not
cooperate in our act of willing, we are powerless to perform good works of a
Augustine understood that the same grace that saves is the same grace that sanctifies.
Dependence upon God in yielding one’s own will over to God was a continual process that
begins at salvation and extends throughout the believer’s life. Nowhere in Augustine’s writings
is the balance between freewill after regeneration (power to contrary) and the rule of God in
the believer’s life more clearly seen than in this passage where Augustine reflects upon the
imago Dei being renewed.
He who is thus renewed by daily advancing in the knowledge of God, in
righteousness and holiness of truth, is changing in the direction of his love from
the temporal to the eternal, from the visible to the intelligible, from the carnal to
the spiritual; diligently endeavoring to curb and abate all lust for the one, and to
bind himself in charity to the other. In which all his success depends on the divine
aid; for it is the word of God, that ?without me ye can do nothing.?21
The believer’s will is no longer motivated out of self-interests (self-determination). Rather, it is
moved by God’s love and enabled by God’s Spirit to be what he intends. What is lost in
salvation is a will that was governed by sinful passions and desires and replaced with
voluntary surrender to the One whose will is supremely good and holy.
The first three periods of human freedom (viz., before the Fall, after the Fall and after
regeneration) could be stated in this manner: either God created Adam with (1) a disinclined
indifferent will (simile Pelagius), (2) a spontaneous voluntary will inclined toward him, yet not
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