Augustine & Calvin – Part 2

Posted: June 26, 2011 in augustine, books, calvin, election, faith, history, soteriology, theology

See Part 1.

Augustine: Utterly Dependent

Foundational to Augustine’s theology was his conviction that man is utterly dependent on God for everything good that he has.  This worldview came largely from reading the Bible and his own personal struggles with sin, made public in his famous spiritual autobiography entitled Confessions.  Augustine had a very real and personal understanding of the power of sin and man’s inability to escape its hold.  However, after his well known conversion, Augustine began to find peace in God and His deliverance.  This deliverance could be summed up in one word for Augustine: rest.  As he writes in the opening pages of his Confessions,

“You arouse us so that praising you may bring us joy, because you have made us and drawn us to yourself, and our heart is unquiet until it rests in you.”[1]

This search for rest in God characterizes much of Augustine’s writing and is a constant plea which ushers from his mouth.

But Augustine soon realized that man could not find rest on his own strength.  Often in Confessions, Augustine cries out to God for understanding, begging God to grant him wisdom and insight in the biblical text.  He pleads with God for deliverance from the sexual lust that kept him in bondage during his teenage years.  Commenting on the essence of Augustinianism, B.B. Warfield asks, “Is it not that sense of absolute dependence on God…?”[2]

Pelagius

This radical and pervasive dependence on God found its most potent expression in Book 10 of Confessions where he wrote, “My entire hope is exclusively in your very great mercy.  Grant what you command, and command what you will.”[3]  When the British monk Pelagius heard this, he was incensed.[4]  In response to Pelagius’ many works attacking the idea that man is absolutely dependent upon God’s enabling grace, Augustine penned a great number of volumes against the Pelagians and their man-centered doctrines.  It is in these works that the historian finds Augustine’s chief treatment of the doctrine of predestination.

Augustine, working mainly from the Pauline epistles, made a strong case that predestination is all of grace and is therefore not based on any human merits.  Ironically, Augustine did not hold to this distinctly “Augustinian” view of predestination until later in his life, noting his change of mind in his famous Retractions and also in his many anti-Pelagian writings.  Indeed, many of the same arguments that he had once used were later used by his Pelagian opponents.  However, after more study of the Word, Augustine became thoroughly convinced that man depended on God’s grace for absolutely everything, especially in regards to salvation.

The first crucial part of Augustine’s theology of grace was his view of fallen man before conversion.  Original sin was an important element in considering what had to take place for a person to truly be saved.  In A Treatise on Nature and Grace Augustine writes, “Human nature was in the beginning created blameless and without any defect.  But that human nature, in which each of us is born of Adam, now needs a physician, because it is not in good health…the defect which darkens and weakens those natural goods so that there is need for enlightenment and healing…came from the original sin which was committed by free choice.”[5]  For Augustine, this concept of inherited original sin also carried with it an inherited guilt, passed down from Adam to all of his posterity.[6]  Thus, because of original sin, man stands under the just judgment of God and cannot truly seek Him for salvation, for he is hostile towards God in his very nature.

The logical outworking of this view of original sin was the conviction that faith was a gift from God, bestowed upon the sinner by God’s grace alone.  This view was strengthened by the testimony of Scripture, which openly declares that to be the case on a number of occasions.[7]  Augustine writes,

“Faith, then, as well in its beginning as in its completion, is God’s gift; and let no one have any doubt whatever, unless he desires to resist the plainest sacred writings, that this gift is given to some, while to some it is not given.”[8]

He had hinted at this mature understanding of faith earlier in his Confessions where he wrote, “My faith calls upon you, Lord, this faith which is your gift to me.”[9]  Therefore, because faith itself was a gracious gift from God, a believer’s predestination could not be based on any foreseen faith.  Augustine says it best when he writes,

“Let us, then, understand the calling whereby they become elected, – not those who are elected because they have believed, but who are elected that they may believe.  For the Lord Himself also sufficiently explains this calling when He says, ‘Ye have not chosen me, but I have chosen you.’…This is a changeless truth concerning predestination and grace.”[10]

Election, therefore, is based solely on God’s own good pleasure, and not on any foreseen merit on man’s part.  Thus, predestination is, at its very core, sovereign and merciful: sovereign because it originates solely in the immutable will of God, and merciful because it is not based on anything deserving in man.[11]  In fact, man is utterly unworthy of God’s favor, and would sooner run from God than toward Him.  God does all this for His own glory, that His great Name and grace would be esteemed and loved by all.[12]  This strong emphasis on the sovereignty of God in salvation had the effect of stripping man of any and all confidence and pride.  All glory went to God, not man.

This radical God-centered soteriology was absolutely crucial for Augustine, who was not ashamed to preach his sovereign Savior publicly.  In fact, Augustine thought it important to proclaim this truth about predestination, lest man should become puffed up by his own efforts.  He writes,

“[Predestination] must absolutely be preached, so that he who has ears to hear, may hear…For as piety must be preached, that, by him who has ears to hear, God may be rightly worshipped…so also must be preached such a predestination of God’s benefits that he who has ears to hear may glory, not in himself, but in the Lord.”[13]

Part 3

Endnotes:
[1] Augustine, Confessions, 1:1
[2] Warfield, Calvin and Augustine, p. 372
[3] Ibid., p. 202
[4] See Augustine, On the Perseverance of the Saints, ch. 53 “And which of my smaller works has been able to be more generally and more agreeably known than the books of my Confessions? And although I published them before the Pelagian heresy had come into existence, certainly in them I said to my God, and said it frequently, ‘Give what Thou commandest, and will command what Thou willist.’  Which words of mine, Pelagius at Rome, when they were mentioned in his presence by a certain brother and fellow bishop of mine, could not bear; and contradicting somewhat too excitedly, nearly came to a quarrel with him who had mentioned them.”
[5] Augustine, A Treatise on Nature and Grace, ch. 3
[6] See Augustine, A Treatise on the Grace of Christ, and on Original Sin, ch. 44
[7] See John 6:65; Acts 13:48; Philippians 1:29; 2 Timothy 2:25
[8] Augustine, On the Predestination of the Saints, ch. 16
[9] Augustine, Confessions, 1:1; Referencing his famous statement “Grant what you command, and command what you will,” Augustine later noted, “But what, indeed, does God primarily and chiefly command, but that we believe on Him?  And this, therefore, He Himself gives, if it is well said to Him, “Give what Thou commandest.” A Treatise on the Predestination of the Saints, ch. 53
[10] Augustine, On the Predestination of the Saints, ch. 34
[11] Ibid., ch. 11
[12] Ibid., ch. 37
[13] Ibid., ch. 51

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