Has God chosen you to love? St. Augustine: On the Predestination of the Saints

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St. Augustine is the cornerstone, so to speak, with the development of predestination theology and with its role of Grace and justification in the Christian life. The New Catholic Encyclopedia informs that “Prior to the time of St. Augustine the Fathers of the Church were not preoccupied with the problem of predestination. It was the bishop of Hippo who first treated the mystery exhaustively, with the theological decisiveness so characteristic of him.”[1]

The development of theology is often brought about from an expressed error in doctrine. Naturally, Augustine’s development of predestination theology was a response to Pelagius, a 4th-century priest from Britain, who argued that our will was utterly free to do good or evil and merit salvation from purely good works of one’s own accord. Pelagius’ heresy bears his name: Pelagianism. However, what is vital to understanding the Augustinian notion of predestination and justification is Augustine’s development of the concept of original sin.

In Catholicism, there are two competing ideas of free will and predestination. One is held by the Jesuits called Molinism, and the other is held by the Dominicans as a development of Thomistic theology. Fr. Luis De Molina, a 16th century Spanish Jesuit priest, is the one whose name is the origin of the Jesuit developed theology of predestination:

“Molina taught that there exists in God a knowledge of all possible beings, as well as a knowledge of all possible orders of things. As a result, God knows all possible free acts of all possible men in all possible world orders. Presupposing this knowledge on the part of God, He, for His own reasons, freely chooses one order of things and wills its fulfillment. Thus, He chooses, those men to be saved whom in this world order He has foreseen would make good use of the graces that would be granted to them in these particular circumstances, men whom He has foreseen would persevere and ultimately merit eternal felicity…The explanation of Molina is founded on his opinion concerning the manner by which God knows future free acts. He maintains that this knowledge is in God independently of any decree of the will of God that would physically predetermine the will of man to one course of action, PREDETERMINATION, he holds, would destroy human freedom.”[2]

 The New Catholic Encyclopedia examines the response to Molinism from the Dominicans, namely from Fr. Domingo Banez:

Domingo Báñez. In opposition to Molina, the Spanish Dominican theologian held that predestination to glory, viewed in itself, is decreed before the provision of any merits whatsoever (ante praevisa merita). The very first action of God concerning the chosen group of men (the elect) is their election to glory, and, conversely, His very first action concerning the rest of men is their exclusion from glory or from an efficacious election to glory. This predestination of certain souls to glory before the prevision of their merits is, of course, not a result of any merit on the part of man, but is entirely gratuitous. God wills this by reason of His absolute dominion over all creatures and through His inscrutable counsel. This is the first decree of God in the order of intention…To those who were not elected, the negatively reprobated, God, subsequently to the decree excluding them from glory or from an efficacious election to glory, decrees not to give them efficacious graces, but graces that are merely sufficient.”[3]

 What is interesting, as explained by Matthew Levering in his book The Theology of Augustine, is that St. Augustine seems to hold the former view at one point and moves to what the Dominican view holds today. Of course, The Dominican view, influenced from St. Thomas Aquinas, is more or less a synthesis of the latter Augustinian understanding of Grace and predestination. Levering writes, “His opponents advocated a view that Augustine himself once held—namely, that predestination depended on God’s foreknowledge of a person’s free act of faith. On the Predestination of the Saints, however, Augustine argues that God’s Grace causes the free charitable actions by which we attain eternal life.”[4]

Naturally, the understanding of the history of St. Augustine’s debate with Pelagianism, the Dominicans viewed the Jesuit understanding, God’s ‘middle knowledge’ as Molina called it, to be Pelagius in origin. At which point both sides labeled the other heretics, and the matter was brought before Pope Clement VIII and decided by Pope Paul V. The papacy did not make a doctrinal pronouncement on the, and it was determined either view could be held by a Catholic.

In both systems, the elect is chosen by God for salvation. The difficulty in Molina’s system is that by attaching a radical free will away from God and asserting that God gives efficacious Grace to those whom he knows will only accept due to his all-knowingness tends to struggle with the philosophical understanding of God’s nature and Divine Revelation. The knowledge of God’s nature through the proofs of God’s existence by St. Thomas Aquinas indicates that God’s nature is existence itself. In some respect, one might say that all creation participates in God’s Divine nature. If there is no God—there would be nothing. Therefore, it would be hard to explain how humanity’s will would then somehow be outside of God’s very own nature. Naturally, the Molinists will state that God merely respects our free choice, but that sentiment isn’t unique to Molinism and can still be used within the Dominican understanding of Grace.

In accord with Holy Scripture, the Catholic Church teaches that God desires us all to be saved—not that we all will be saved:

CCC 74God “desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth”: that is, of Christ Jesus.30Christ must be proclaimed to all nations and individuals, so that this revelation may reach to the ends of the earth:[5]

 1 Tim. 2:3-4 RSV

 This is good, and it is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.[6]

Mathew Levering examines that Augustine, “emphasizing the radical priority of the grace of the Holy Spirit, Augustine focuses the debate away from the difficulties caused by the fact that God does not predestine all persons.”[7]How are we to feel about this? It’s a concept that would be surmised that many Catholics do not know or understand it. Bishop Robert Barron explains the difficulty of this theological understanding in a short video on the differences between Grace and karma, why does God choose some and others? Why did God choose David—forgive David—and not Saul, whom he did not forgive?

God desires all to be saved and gives us all grace sufficient to be saved. However, as Fr. Thomas Joseph White explains in his book, The Light of Christ: An Introduction to Catholicism, “no one can come to know God personally and approach God with genuine love for God unless God first acts upon a person’s mind and heart by Grace. Grace is a participation in the very life of God…Grace makes us friends with God…” Prevenient grace” is a term used frequently by St. Augustine. It denotes a central New Testament teaching: we cannot take any initiative to turn toward God unless he first takes the initiative to turn us toward himself. This mystery does not entail a denial of free will, but its affirmation.”[8]

Mary, the mother of God, is the perfect example of how our will works with Grace. Now, according to Catholic teaching, Mary was conceived without sin due to a special grace afforded to her by God in which the paschal mystery sanctifies her so that she can be Christ’s mother. In Luke’s Gospel, there is some indication of the special Grace afforded to her by the particular tense of the participle used by Luke. “In the RSV translation, Gabriel says, “Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with you!”…[9]The importance of this particular passage is “full of grace,” which comes from the Greek word “kecharitomene.” The tense of this specific verb form is a perfect passive participle, and the message that it conveys doesn’t rightly translate into English. A perfect passive participle verb indicates something that occurs in the past, present, and future; therefore, what Gabriel is saying to Mary, and Luke is recording, is that Mary is with Grace through all time of her existence—she is conceived without sin.”[10]

What is understood from Mary in the scripture is that our wills that are not tainted with original sin are properly ordered with the will of God. In fact, the Augustinian understanding is that because all goodness comes from God and his graces, our choices to choose evil against His will which is perfect and all good, therefore must be from our own will alone. It is by this understanding that is revealed that we are saved by God alone and damned by our own actions.

Augustine teaches that since the fall of our first parents, original sin is spread to the entirety of the human race through the propagation of our human race. It’s interesting that Catholic scientist attempt to overlook Augustine in this particular teaching of the Church like Fr. Nicanor Austriaco O.P., often wrongly labeling Augustine a creation fundamentalist to promote polygenism. However, the magisterium of the Catholic Church from the promulgation of Pope Pius XII in 1950 in his encyclical Humani Generiswith authoritative language has declared that because of the doctrine of original sin, our current human race is the progeny of two distinct parents. Pope Pius XII writes:

37. When, however, there is question of another conjectural opinion, namely polygenism, the children of the Church by no means enjoy such liberty. For the faithful cannot embrace that opinion which maintains that either after Adam there existed on this earth true men who did not take their origin through natural generation from him as from the first parent of all, or that Adam represents a certain number of first parents. Now it is in no way apparent how such an opinion can be reconciled with that which the sources of revealed truth and the documents of the Teaching Authority of the Church propose with regard to original sin, which proceeds from a sin actually committed by an individual Adam and which, through generation, is passed on to all and is in everyone as his own.[12]

 38. Just as in the biological and anthropological sciences, so also in the historical sciences there are those who boldly transgress the limits and safeguards established by the Church. In a particular way must be deplored a certain too free interpretation of the historical books of the Old Testament. Those who favor this system, in order to defend their cause, wrongly refer to the Letter which was sent not long ago to the Archbishop of Paris by the Pontifical Commission on Biblical Studies.[13] This letter, in fact, clearly points out that the first eleven chapters of Genesis, although properly speaking not conforming to the historical method used by the best Greek and Latin writers or by competent authors of our time, do nevertheless pertain to history in a true sense, which however must be further studied and determined by exegetes; the same chapters, (the Letter points out), in simple and metaphorical language adapted to the mentality of a people but little cultured, both state the principal truths which are fundamental for our salvation, and also give a popular description of the origin of the human race and the chosen people. If, however, the ancient sacred writers have taken anything from popular narrations (and this may be conceded), it must never be forgotten that they did so with the help of divine inspiration, through which they were rendered immune from any error in selecting and evaluating those documents.[11]

 There are three key points to understand when reflecting on these words from Pope Pius XII. The first, we are the progeny of our first parents that disobeyed God. The second, the disobedience of our first parents has created a fallen race, which is not inherently good but is a depraved race. And finally, as Levering points out, “Since Adam and Eve’s fall, the entire human race had been wounded by sin, so as to be in need of a savior.”[12]A Catholic who was to hold to the polygenetic model would simply render Jesus Christ as unneeded because the doctrine of Original Sin is founded on the precept of first parents who then spread that curse to their progeny.

It’s important to note that St. Augustine is making the point that good people who do good things do not go to heaven. God’s friendship is a gift and his invitation to live a life of holiness. Levering reminds us that “Paul here makes it clear that we are not the giver of gifts to God; rather, everything that we have is from God…the act of faith meritorious…It is a good act, and God certainly does reward it. But rewarding a good work of ours. God rewards his gifting that moved us to freely do the good work. All things are radically from God.”[13]

The Dominican understanding is far closer to this particular understand than the Jesuit, as levering points out “we must follow Paul in refusing to claim anything, including our act of faith, as originating from ourselves rather than from God.[14]The Jesuit understanding, Molinism, would argue instead that our actions are our own in response to efficacious Grace rather than the Dominican understanding of an infused movement of habitual Grace. Protestant reformed theology, from Calvin; which influences Evangelicals to Baptist, will attempt to counter this understanding and argue that Catholicism teaches a Gospel of ‘sacramental grace.’ What these objectors do admit is that the Catholic faith is one of Grace—it’s undeniable by those who put forth an effort to study Catholic theology. However, what they fail to understand is the Catholic understanding of the human will and its cooperation with God’s Grace; building the habits of virtue and repenting of the habits of vice. In this context, the salvation of the elect without free will is one that fails to understand Christ’s words, “You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”[15]

Augustine’s opponent attempt to disparage him through his change of position on the matter of Grace and election by showing him to be at odds with Cyprian. Levering explains here that Augustine once held the Molina system of election but then in his Retractionsrejected it:[16]

Augustine writes:

 For thus also the blessed Cyprian would have it to be understood that we say, “Thy will be done, as in heaven so in earth,”—that is, as in those who have already believed, and who are, as it were, heaven, so also in those who do not believe, and on this account are still the earth. What, then, do we pray for on behalf of those who are unwilling to believe, except that God would work in them to will also? Certainly the apostle says, “Brethren, my heart’s good will, indeed, and my prayer to God for them, is for their salvation.” He prays for those who do not believe,—for what, except that they may believe? For in no other way do they obtain salvation. If, then, the faith of the petitioners precede the Grace of God, does the faith of them on whose behalf prayer is made that they may believe precede the Grace of God?—since this is the very thing that is besought for them, that on them that believe not—that is, who have not faith—faith itself may be bestowed? When, therefore, the Gospel is preached, some believe, some believe not; but they who believe at the voice of the preacher from without, hear of the Father from within, and learn; while they who do not believe, hear outwardly, but inwardly do not hear nor learn;—that is to say, to the former it is given to believe; to the latter it is not given.[17]

Levering writes, “from his Retractions that he quotes On the Predestination of the Saints, Augustine points out that there is no reason for supposing that our act of faith, like our other good acts, is not also caused by God’s gracious mercy…Since we receive everything from God, there is no space for an action that is solely or primarily our own…God does not respond to our good action and reward it by Grace; rather, God’s Grace causes our free good action.”[18]

St. Augustine explains, “Therefore I ought first to show that the faith by which we are Christians is the gift of God, if I can do that more thoroughly than I have already done in so many and so large volumes. But I see that I must now reply to those who say that the divine testimonies which I have adduced concerning this matter are of avail for this purpose, to assure us that we have faith itself of ourselves, but that its increase is of God; as if faith were not given to us by Him, but were only increased in us by Him, on the ground of the merit of its having begun from us.”[19]

Naturally, this begs the question, how does our free will exactly cooperate with God’s Grace? The Calvinist answer is that it doesn’t cooperate with it. In fact, the argument proposed by them is that God is sovereign over all things, including those who are to be saved and those who will be damned. Your decision has no bearing on God’s will. Again, this goes back to the understanding of sin as a deprivation of the good. Levering explains that “grace enables us freely to embrace a good we otherwise could not have embraced.”[20]

 So, you may hear an Evangelical street preacher say something of the nature, “I am saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ,” which doesn’t contradict any points made by Levering his book The Theology of Augustine. However, the foundation of their theology rests on the premise of faith is the key to justification and no works. “Augustine’s opponents cite Romans 10:9: If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved…Augustine observes that those who hold that faith precedes grace get themselves into a tangle regarding infants who die before they are old enough to make an act of faith.”[21]Augustine writes:

Accordingly, as says the apostle, “It is not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth, but of God that showeth mercy,” who both comes to the help of such infants as He will, although they neither will nor run, since He chose them in Christ before the foundation of the world as those to whom He intended to give His Grace freely,—that is, with no merits of theirs, either of faith or of works, preceding; and does not come to the help of those who are more mature, although He foresaw that they would believe His miracles if they should be done among them, because He wills not to come to their help, since in His predestination He, secretly indeed, but yet righteously, has otherwise determined concerning them. [22]

The problem with this, as Levering points out, “Jesus himself call faith a work of God that we must do.”[23]Naturally, what is pointed out to do a work of God that he commands you to do is no different from the Catholic understanding of doing works of mercy, which Jesus commands us in Matthew 25 and St. Paul explains in Galatians 5:6, “For in Christ Jesus, neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love.”

According to the Gospel of John, doesn’t Christ say that all shall be taught? The difficulty with Augustine’s answer is that he asserts that “God teaches everyone who is taught,” which on the surface seems to be poor logic.”[24]However, this is where, ironically, both the Molinist system and the Calvinist understanding appears to be the strongest. Augustine writes:

“And immediately the evangelist says, “For Jesus knew from the beginning who were the believers, and who should betray Him; and He said, Therefore said I unto you, that no man can come unto me except it were given him of my Father.” Therefore, to be drawn to Christ by the Father, and to hear and learn of the Father in order to come to Christ, is nothing else than to receive from the Father the gift by which to believe in Christ. For it was not the hearers of the Gospel that were distinguished from those who did not hear, but the believers from those who did not believe, by Him who said, “No man cometh to me except it were given him of my Father.”[25]

 So, how exactly can one side who presents a position of radical free will and the other claim God’ total sovereignty hinge on the same argument? It’s where the one stresses it’s the interpretation of Augustine that leads to their conclusion. For example, The Molinist claim that God’s middle knowledge allows him to respect free will and know who will accept efficacious Grace. The Calvinist positon appeals strictly to the idea that there are hearers and there are those who the Gospel falls on deaf ears. Levering explains, “Augustine is aware of the circular argument that results from his position. God does not teach all because those who are perishing do not wish to learn. He teaches all who are open to learning….the Church prays for everyone living, because God may yet turn the hearts of those who now oppose him.”[26]

[1]PALLADINO, A. G. “Predestination (In Catholic Theology).” New Catholic Encyclopedia, 2nd ed., vol. 11, Gale, 2003, pp. 647-653. Gale Virtual Reference Library, http://link.galegroup.com.ezproxy.uis.edu:2048/apps/doc/CX3407709067/GVRL?u=uiuc_uis&sid=GVRL&xid=f22692e8. Accessed 2 June 2019.

[2]Ibid.

[3]Ibid.

[4]Matthew Levering, The Theology of Augustine(Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2013), 71.

[5]Catholic Church, Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd Ed. (Washington, DC: United States Catholic Conference, 2000), 24.

[6]1 Tim 2:3–4. RSV

[7]Ibid.

[8]Fr. Thomas Joseph White, The Light of Christ: An Introduction to Catholicism (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America, 2017), 197.

[9]New American Bible, Revised Edition (Washington, DC: The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2011), Lk 1:28.

[10]Phillip Hadden, The Nativity of Christ in History. 2019, Unpublished manuscript

[11]Pope Pius XII, Humani Generis, 37-38.

[12]Levering, 72.

[13]Ibid, 73.

[14]Ibid.

[15]Mt. 5:48 RSV

[16]Levering, 74.

[17]Augustine of Hippo, “A Treatise on the Predestination of the Saints,” in Saint Augustin: Anti-Pelagian Writings, ed. Philip Schaff, trans. Robert Ernest Wallis, vol. 5, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, First Series (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1887), 505–506.

[18]Ibid, 74-75

[19]Augustine of Hippo, “A Treatise on the Predestination of the Saints,” in Saint Augustin: Anti-Pelagian Writings, ed. Philip Schaff, trans. Robert Ernest Wallis, vol. 5, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, First Series (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1887), 499.

[20]Levering, 76.

[21]Ibid, 81.

[22]Augustine of Hippo, “A Treatise on the Gift of Perseverance,” in Saint Augustin: Anti-Pelagian Writings, ed. Philip Schaff, trans. Robert Ernest Wallis, vol. 5, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, First Series (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1887), 534.

[23]Levering, 81.

[24]Ibid, 77.

[25]Augustine of Hippo, “A Treatise on the Predestination of the Saints,” in Saint Augustin: Anti-Pelagian Writings, 506.

[26]Levering, 79.

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