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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

divine foreknowledge.

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

from x.

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

unrighteous life.

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

salutory nature.20

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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