Freedom and Necessity (In Review)

Derek Ouellette —  April 1, 2011

Freedom and Necessity
St. Augustine’s Teaching on Divine Power and Human Freedom
Author Gerald Bonner
4 Stars (out of 5)

In Freedom and Necessity, Gerald Bonner (a foremost Augustinian scholar) traces Augustine’s thoughts on divine determination and human free will and contrasts Augustine’s views with that of Pelagius’.

Augustine operated on three primary principles (p.9):

  1. First the omnipotence of God
  2. Secondly, the involvement of all humanity in Adam’s sin
  3. Finally, the helplessness of the sinner, as a result of the Fall

Pelagius also had three principles (if you will). Pelagius held that there were three “good” elements (p.27):

  1. The power to do it (which comes from God)
  2. The will to do it
  3. The performance of the act itself

Pelagius never denied that the first act always came from God. Mankind could neither “will” nor “act” apart from the grace of God empowering him to do so. Ironically, Augustine believed something similar, that the power to believe comes from us, but our ability to do good comes from God. Augustine writes:

“That we believe is of us, but what we do well comes from him to those believing in him.” (p.42)

Why Augustine found Pelagius’ view so offensive (other then the fact that it challenged his own) was that Pelagius believed that the “power” to will and to do was graciously given to all mankind, and not just a few.

Pelagius rejected Augustine’s second principle and believed that all people were born with the grace of God empowering them to will and act towards God. For Pelagius, this was the only way that mankind could be held responsible for his actions by God on judgement day. For Augustine, Pelagius’ proposal does not solve the problem because he does not take into account the complexity of human nature such as the binding effects of long term habitual sins. Can mankind be held responsible for habitual sins which he is unable to break free from because of the duration of it?

The Eastern Christians did not believe in Adam’s sin being imputed onto every other person. They believed that the human will was weakened by the Fall, but not destroyed completely. This is very similar to Pelagius’ view (if Pelagius was in the East and not the West, “Pelagianism” would probably never exist).

There are a few Augustinian beliefs which Bonner emphasis’ repeated throughout this book:

  1. People were only saved either through Baptism or Martyrdom, no other way
  2. Unbaptized babies, like everyone else, if they died went straight to hell
  3. Baptism did not guarantee salvation since it had to be accompanied with repentance and a changed heart
  4. Adam and Eve, after the fall were able to live righteous lives because of the blood of Christ (But no one else apparently)
  5. Every human has an “instinct for God implanted in mankind which is part of the human nature” which seems inconsistent with Augustine’s teaching on Original sin (p.123)
  6. Augustine forbid teaching his view of sovereignty from the pulpit, preferring to teach free will as a matter of pastoral concern.
  7. Unlike Calvinism, Augustine’s theology offered no eternal security

Bonner writes:

“Augustine did not believe it possible to distinguish between the saved and the reprobate in this life. As long as we are in the body, no one can have that “assurance of salvation” which was to be found in certain Calvinist circles.” (p.46)

Augustine did change his views over time, having once believed in free will, he says “but the grace of God triumphed”. Augustine defined “grace of God” as divine omni-determinism (a rather particular way of defining “sovereignty”) and pitted it against human free will. It was a rhetorical tactic. Who would want human free will to triumph over the grace of God? But that’s just it, no one believed that, not even Pelagius who emphatically declared:

“the grace of God is necessary, not only for every hour and every moment, but for every individual action of our lives.” (p.127)

Augustine “brutally dismissed” Pelagius’ orthodox creedal declaration determined to see him condemned. Bonner says that after 416 when Pelagius was acquitted from the charges brought against him by Augustine (during the council of Diospolis), that the African bishop became relentlessly harsher in his onslaught. The way Augustine reacted after Pelagius was found to have not violated orthodoxy in 416 indicates that Augustine found his own orthodoxy in jeopardy. It would appear that to Augustine, if Pelagius was acquitted, it must mean that Augustine was guilty and that the tables has been silently turned (though of course, no one was ever going to bring charges against Augustine). The real issue was pride. Augustine felt that his own reputation was on the line and was determined to see to it that Pelagius would be condemned (p.127). Bonner writes:

“It is possible to feel sorry for Pelagius. Far from being the proud heresiarch of tradition, he seems to have had little appetite for controversy and tried, so far as he could, to avoid it. He was caught up in a dispute over which he had no control.” (p.129)

It is telling that after 418 when Pelagius was officially condemned, Cyril the orthodoxy bishop of Alexandria welcomed Pelagius to take refuge in Egypt (p.100)

Bonner concludes by summarizing the weaknesses in both Augustine’s and Pelagius’ views:

“The weakness of the Pelagian position was an undervaluation of the effect on the will by long-continued sinning. The weakness of the Augustinian was the assumption of an inherited corruption which seemed to make non-sense of his fundamental belief in the goodness of God’s creation.” (p.120)

In a book written for the purpose of examining Augustine’s theology of Freedom and Necessity, it is impossible to do so without contrasting his views with that of Pelagius. In so do, and through close scholarship not biased toward the Augustinian view, Bonner shines a more accurate light on the teachings, motives and lives of both Christian bishops, Augustine and Pelagius.

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Derek Ouellette

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a husband, new dad, speaker, writer, christian. see my profile here.