The relationship between God and mankind has been one of distress and apparent contradiction. The story of the Fall in the third chapter of Genesis gives an account of our present existence, which is marked by the fundamental separation of man and his Creator, each of whom reside on a different side of a barrier of sin. The barrier, which Genesis tells us was built by Adam’s fault, poses two major issues for the Judeo-Christian tradition. The first is that the side
on which man resides, removed from the source of goodness and fulfillment, is permeated by evil, suffering, and sin. An archetypal question arising from this situation is how God, who is both omnipotent and maximally good, can permit the existence of such evil, and furthermore, how evil can even exist since the beneficent Creator is the source of all. The second profound issue concerns the reunification of God and humans: how is the barrier of sin broken and the gap bridged; who is active in traversing it?
One of the formative teachers in the Christian tradition made it his life’s ambition to answer these questions, along with innumerable others. Saint Augustine, the great philosopher, theologian, and bishop of Hippo, is remembered as an authority concerning these two issues.
Relatively early in his life, he approached the problem of evil from a Neo-Platonist perspective, famously asserting that evil is truly a lack of goodness and is a reality not on account of God, but on account of human free will. Later in his life, Augustine addressed the issue of reunification of God and mankind in the midst of the heated Pelagian controversy. While his opponents claimed that the very free will which Augustine earlier championed was the efficient lynchpin of our salvation, Augustine firmly declared that God’s grace was salvation’s source and eventually began to use the term “predestination” to describe the deliverance of man from his plight. While Augustine is acknowledged as a Church Doctor and one of the most respectable and influential thinkers to have ever written, it is difficult to comprehend how any intellectual could argue so fervently for concepts as dissimilar as free will and predestination. The two, it seems, are mutually exclusive. If a person is predestined, his free choice appears to be rendered rather illusory, or at best, trivial. This has led some of his readers to conclude that there existed two Augustines, “the earlier teacher, who proclaimed the freedom of the will; and the later Doctor of Grace and defender of Predestination.”1Augustine, however, was not as inconsistent as one might think. By considering passages from his De Libero Arbitrio, De Civitate Dei, and the Enchiridion, it becomes apparent that Augustine’s carefully formulated answers to the problem of evil and the source of reunification are not contradictory. Furthermore, while Augustine adjusts his formulation of the will’s attributes as time progresses, his principles and overall schema do not change so much as do his audience and the social context in which he is writing.
In his last years, Augustine is comfortable maintaining the verity of both predestinarian grace and free will, and even ventures to say that they work together.