Saint Augustine: much maligned, little understood

Augustine


Augustine grappled with some big questions. Following on from my last post, what follows isn’t an attempt to defend Augustine, but to understand and explore his continuing relevance as I reflect on the small amount of his writings that I have been able to engage with recently…


open quotesgrace heals us so that we have the freedom to choose rightclose quotes

Augustine’s theology of grace demands a different reading of what it means for the Christian to have freedom of action. There is a danger that, if we accept Augustine’s diagnosis of our weak human state, we become virtual puppets of God.1 Just as the sinner has no option but to sin – does not have the ‘freedom’ of manoeuvre to avoid it – does the Christian therefore have no option but to be saved? According to Rist, Augustine would respond to such a charge by arguing that grace restores, rather than takes away, free will.2 “Our delusion,” explains Rist, is that “to do ‘as we like’ is freedom.”3 However, even our free will must be restored so that it unconquerably desires the good. The function of grace, therefore, “is not to drag us, kicking and screaming, to salvation,”4 but rather to heal us so that we have the freedom to choose right. Augustine describes this in another way as God’s love breaking into our predicament with “sweet violence.”5 If Pelagius’ views freedom as the means by which humans attain their salvation, for Augustine “it is the issue, not the source, of salvation.”6

open quoteseven our free will must be restored so that it unconquerably desires the goodclose quotes

To speak in an Augustinian register about the love of God working with our free will is to use the imagery of the elect Christian as a wounded man being helped to cross a road that he wants, but is unable, to cross, unaided.7 Of course, this ‘external’ support for the morally corrupt is really internal support, and a moral cripple requires not just the healing of a limb but the restoring of the whole personality. This journey of healing is one in which the baptised Christian must “remain an invalid,” living life in a “precarious convalescence in the ‘Inn’ of the Church”8 until, in the distant future, his body is transformed.

By the 390s it is clear that Augustine’s emphasis is more and more on the darkness of human experience and that the journey to Christ-likeness would never be complete until the Christian enters peace in the ‘City of God’. The life of the Christian would always have, according to Augustine, “a streak of ugliness that seems to endure no matter how well we learn to control our speech and actions.”9 It is at this point that Augustine’s doctrine of grace seems to me to not only be morose but does not offer a sufficiently robust doctrine of sanctification in the present and seems to ignore the opportunity to know God’s (albeit partial) healing now for the human psyche. It seems that Augustine’s doctrine leaves little room for each human being, whilst corrupted by sin, to also reflect and bear the image of their maker.

open quotesGod’s love breaking into our predicament with “sweet violence.”close quotes

Such an emphasis on the struggle of the Christian life opened Augustine to significant criticism. If one still finds incoherence in Augustine’s understanding of the relationship between grace and freedom establishing, rather than violating, free will, then they “inherit the misgivings of Julian of Eclanum”10 who argued that for the sinner to have no choice but to sin was to absolve the sinner of responsibility for their actions (sine reatu). Likewise, for the saint to pursue good and so possess glory “without the bother of holiness (sine cura sanctitatis)”11 seemed equally against the grain. Room needed to be left in the human experience for human responsibility towards God and especially for the special exertions of a religious life.12 In what is sometimes somewhat misleadingly seen as a ‘semi-Pelagian’ modification of Augustine, it was proposed that God began the life of grace, but that “virtue under grace no longer expresses human self-determination.”13

Williams is unrepentant in arguing that Augustine, with his insistence on the need for conversion, is closer to the heart of the gospel than the Pelagian overstatement of humanity’s unaided spiritual resources for personal salvation. The positivist Pelagian view sees “no schism in the heart and so no need for healing and reconciliation.”14 An Augustinian picture, however, depicts “the world as unclear and the human spirit as confused and imprisoned in fantasies,”15 in which the need for reconciliation “is a basic human datum.”16

open quoteswhen God pulls taught the slack thread of desire, binding it to himself, the muddled and painful litter of experience is gathered together and given directionclose quotes

What’s increasingly clear to me, is that Augustine’s thinking gives us a clear framework, perhaps more than any of other early Christian writer, in which to understand how the complex web of human experience is subsumed by the grace of God, presenting the action of God present in the Christian in spite of mixed motives, continuing sin, confusion and doubt. To adopt the imagery of Williams, a human life is given unity and intelligibility not from within but from outside: “when God pulls taught the slack thread of desire, binding it to himself, the muddled and painful litter of experience is gathered together and given direction.”17 Augustine’s legacy was in understanding that a graced life could include within it a life of moral struggle and spiritual darkness. Augustine was able to accept the radically conditioned state of human behaviour and integrate this reality with the grace of God at work to mend the wounds in human experience. God was looking, according to Augustine, not for heroes but for lovers, “not for moral athletes but for men and women aware of their need for acceptance, ready to find their selfhood in the longing for communion with an eternal ‘other’.”18

Through the development of his theology of grace, Augustine displayed the Pelagian optimism for human agency to be “based upon a transparently inadequate view of the complexity of human motivation.”19 It is clear that Augustine’s doctrine of grace shall continue to stand as a problematic yet clearly articulated “defence of Christian mediocrity.”20


  1. The analogy here is taken from Rist, J., M. (1997), Augustine: Ancient Thought Baptised, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), p. 133–4  ↩

  2. See Letter 157.2.10 in Rist (1997), p. 133–4  ↩

  3. Rist (1997), p. 133–4  ↩

  4. Rist (1997), p. 134  ↩

  5. See Serm. 131.2 cited in Williams, R., (1979) The Wound of Knowledge: Christian Spirituality from the New Testament to St John of the Cross, (London: Darton, Longman & Todd), p. 82–3  ↩

  6. Williams (1979), p. 82–3  ↩

  7. Rist (1997), p. 133–4  ↩

  8. Brown, P. (1967), Augustine of Hippo, (London: Faber & Faber), p. 365  ↩

  9. Kent in Stump, E., and Kretzmann, N. (Eds.) (2001), The Cambridge Companion to Augustine, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), p. 224  ↩

  10. Wetzel, J. (1992), Augustine and the Limits of Virtue, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), p. 197  ↩

  11. Wetzel (1992), p. 197  ↩

  12. Markus, R. (1991), The End of Ancient Christianity, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), p. 63  ↩

  13. Wetzel (1992), p. 163–4  ↩

  14. Williams (1979), p. 87  ↩

  15. Williams (1979), p. 87  ↩

  16. Williams (1979), p. 87  ↩

  17. Williams (1979), p. 81–2  ↩

  18. Williams (1979), p. 86  ↩

  19. Brown (1967), p. 371  ↩

  20. Markus (1991), p. 45  ↩

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