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The MOST Theological Collection: Commentary on St. Augustine

"III. St. Augustine on Predestination and Grace"


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A) On predestination

Augustine is called the Doctor of Grace, and rightly, for he made some great advances in that area of theology. At the same time, he made some regrettable errors. We will examine both.

Definitions: Predestination means an arrangement by Divine Providence to see that someone gets either a)to heaven or; b)full membership in the Church. (We speak of full membership because there is also a substantial membership, without external adherence. Cf. Vatican II, On Ecumenism §3, and On the Church 16, and Wm. Most, Our Father's Plan, appendix.

Reprobation means the opposite decision, but may be negative -- merely allowing a soul to fall into ruin - or positive - positive condemnation.

The Fathers and most theologians for centuries after that time failed to make this distinction, and so spoke of both as if they were on the same principles, e. g, in commenting on the parable of the banquet in the Gospel, which really refers to full membership in the Church (by the Jews) they took it to refer to predestination to heaven: Augustine, On 88 Different Questions 68. 5.

God's principles in determining predestination: Some theologians, e.g., the "Thomists" said God decides predestination to heaven, or reprobation to hell, before considering merits and demerits (it really means without considering- for there is no time in God). Others, e.g., the Molinists, said God decides after looking, that is, with consideration of merits and demerits.

All theologians up to recently have thought that if God decrees predestination without looking, He must decree negative reprobation the same way: a person is one or the other, two sides of the same coin. Actually, it is possible, as we shall see, to pull this dilemma apart and say He predestines without merits, reprobates because of demerits.

To say with the Thomists that He reprobates, even negatively, without looking, denies His universal salvific will (1 Tim 2. 4), for if we imagine Joe Doaks is one who is thus reprobated, God cannot do that and at the same time say He wills all men to be saved, for the all would include Joe Doaks. The founder of the Thomist system, D. Bañez admitted that - cf. W. Most, New Answers to Old Questions (hereafter NAOQ) §55. St. Augustine's view is basically the same as a that of the Thomists.

To say with the Molinists that He predestines in view of merits involves a vicious circle, for our merits are His gifts. Cf. Augustine, Epistle 194: "When He crowns your merits, He crowns nothing other than His own gifts". This is the same as 1 Cor 4. 7.

Factors predisposing St. Augustine to his position:

1) Tendency to allegorical interpretations: He first learned from St. Ambrose (Confessions 6. 4. 6) to use allegory to solve the Manichean attacks on the OT. Actually most of the Fathers worked by allegory. In A's case allegory, plus the fact that he failed to see that Romans 8. 29ff really was speaking of predestination to full membership in the Church, not to heaven /hell, led him to an unfortunate reading of Romans. As we said, the whole passage speaks of predestination to full membership in the Church. In chapter 9, St. Paul asks: Why did not the racial Jews get into the kingdom of Christ, the Church? He starts with ABraham, the father of their race, and sees two sons, Isaac and Ishmael, and finds St. Paul saying God chose Isaac, not Ishmael, to be a full member, not because of merits (St. Paul does not say what the positive reason was). But A thought Paul was speaking of predestination to heaven/hell. And A thought Paul, in speaking of the next generation (Esau and Jacob), meant God hated Esau in 9. 13 without looking at his demerits, and so destined him for hell. Then in 9. 19-22 A saw Paul's use of the comparison of the potter, who freely decided what kind of a vessel to make - honorable or dishonorable - out of the same gob of clay, and A by allegory thought the gob of clay meant the whole human race, made into a massa damnata et damnabilis (damned and damnable glob) by original sin: God could throw all into hell even without any personal sins, just because of original sin.

2) Denial of universal salvific will: A was predisposed to deny it is universal because:

(a) In the natural order, he rubbed out the line between the ordinary and the miraculous, e. g, On John's Gospel 6. 1: "Because... His miracles, by which He rules the whole world... had become commonplace by constant experience... He reserved to Himself certain things which He would perform at opportune times, beyond the usual course and order of nature, so that they for whom the daily things had become commonplace might be amazed in seeing not greater but unusual things."

(b) He did the same with the line between the ordinary and the miraculous in the supernatural order - with much more serious effects. Thus in Sermon 141. 1. 1:"... who would dare to say that God lacked a way of calling, in which even Esau would apply his mind to faith, and join his will [to that] in which Jacob was justified." The framework is that of Romans 9, of which we spoke above. A thought Paul spoke of reprobation to hell, and that God really hated Esau without even looking at his demerits. But if we for the sake of argument leave that aside and consider it within the mistaken framework A thought was there - we would still say: Yes, God had a grace that would have converted Esau, but if God gave Esau ordinary graces with which Esau could have been converted, we cannot say God did not want Esau to be saved. But, not seeing this distinction, A thought that since God did not use an extraordinary grace on Esau, God did not want Esau to be saved - He hated Esau. Of course He did not. A did not know that Hebrew lacks the degrees of comparison (good, better, best etc. ) and so has different ways of saying such things. Where we would say: He loved one more, the other less, Hebrew could say: He loved one, hated the other. - Them whole matter implies the problem of the "congruous call" which we saw in the note on Confessions 3. 11, on "you permitted me to roll". Cf. also the text from Enchiridion 103 cited below in his comments on the salvific will.

(c) Actual texts on the salvific will: The above predispositions drove him to deny that God really wills all men to be saved. Therefore he interpreted 1 Tim 2. 4 in several ways, not one of them at all valid, but all denying the plain sense of the text. (1) Enchiridion 103 :"When we hear and read in Sacred Scripture that He wills all men to be saved... we must... so understand [it]... as if it were said that no man is saved except whom He wants [to be saved]. Or certainly it was so said... not that there is no man whom He is unwilling to have saved, He who was unwilling to perform the wonders of miracles among those whom He says would have done penance if He had done them; but in such a way that we understand 'all men' to mean the whole human race, distributed into various categories: kings, private citizens, nobles, ordinary men, lofty, lowly, learned, unlearned...." COMMENT: It is sad to see A say that God is positively unwilling to save some. Those who would have done penance in sackcloth and ashes if they had seen miracles were the people of Tyre and Sidon (Mt 11:21-22). But if God gave them ordinary graces, as He surely did, they still could be saved - A suffers from having rubbed out the line between miracles and ordinary graces, as we saw above. (2)On correction and grace 14. 44: "And that which is written, that 'He wills all men to be saved, ' and yet not all are saved, can be understood in many ways, of which we have mentioned some in other works, but I shall give one here. It is said in such a way... that all the predestined are meant; for the whole human race is in them." (3) Ibid. 15. 47: "that 'God wills all men to be saved' can be understood also in this way; that He causes us to wish [that all be saved]... ." (4) Epistle 217. 6. 19: "... and so that which is said, that 'God wills all men to be saved' although He is unwilling that so many be saved, is said for this reason: that all who are saved, are not saved except by His will."

The massa damnata theory:

a) Explicit texts: (1) To Simplicianus 1. 2. 16: "Therefore all men are ... one condemned mass [massa damnata] of sin, that owes a debt of punishment to the divine and supreme justice. Whether it [the debt] be exacted, or whether it be condoned, there is no injustice." (2) Enchiridion 27: "... the whole condemned mass of the human race lay in evils, or even rolled about in them, and was precipitated from evils into evils... ." (3) City of God 21. 12: "Hence there is a condemned mass of the whole human race... so that no one would be freed form this just and due punishment except by mercy and undue grace; and so the human race is divided [into two parts] so that in some it may be shown what merciful grace can do, in others, what just vengeance can do... . In it [punishment] there are many more than in [mercy] so that in this way there may be shown what is due to all." (4) On nature and grace 4: "This grace of Christ, without which neither infants nor older persons can be saved, is not given by merits, but gratuitously. Hence those who are not liberated by it [grace] whether because they have not yet been able to hear, or whether they did not want to obey, or even since because of age they could not hear, [and] did not receive the bath of rebirth by which they would be saved, are justly damned: for they are not without sin, either what they contracted by origin, or what they added by bad morals." Therefore he means that unbaptized babies are damned. (5) Epistle 166. 6. 16: "But when we come to the punishment of little ones, believe me, I am caught in great difficulty, nor can I find at all what I should answer." (6) Enchiridion 93: "The punishment of those will be the mildest who have added nothing beyond the sin which they contracted by origin."

b) God does not consider foreseen merits: (1) On the predestination of the saints 17. 34: "Let us, then, understand the call by which the elect are made [elect]: [they are] not [persons] who are chosen because they have believed, but [they are persons] who are chosen so that they may believe. For even the Lord Himself made this [call] sufficiently clear when He said: 'You have not chosen me, but I have chosen you. '[COMMENT: In context He spoke to the Apostles about being chosen as Apostles, not about predestination]... . This is the unshakable truth of predestination and grace. For what else does that mean, that the Apostle says, 'As he chose us in Him before the foundation of the world. ' [COMMENT: Text refers to predestination to full membership in the Church, not to heaven or hell]. For surely if it was said [that they were chosen] because God foresaw that they would believe, [and] not because He Himself was going to make them believers - the Son speaks against that sort of foreknowledge, saying: 'You have not chosen me, but I have chosen you, ' So they were chosen before the foundation of the world by that call by which God fulfilled that which He had predestined. 'For those whom He predestined, them also He called... . ' [COMMENT Refers to full membership in the Church] Therefore God chose the faithful, not because they already were [faithful] but that they might be [faithful]. So by choosing, He makes them rich in faith , just as [He makes them] heirs of the kingdom." [COMMENT: Every Scripture text is misused, by being taken out of context. So his reasoning proves nothing at all]. (2) Enchiridion 99:"For grace alone distinguishes the redeemed from the lost, whom a common cause from [their] beginning had joined into one mass of perdition... ." (3) Epistle 194. 8. 35:"It is, moreover, marvelous into what precipices they hurl themselves, in their fear of the nets of truth, when they are pressed by these difficulties. 'It was for this reason' they say 'that He hated one of those not yet born [Esau] and loved the other [Jacob] because He foresaw their future works. ' Who would not be surprised that this most keen thought would be lacking to the Apostle? ... . This, then, was the place for him to say what these persons think: "For God foresaw their future works', when he said that 'the elder would serve the lesser'. But the Apostle did not say this, but instead, so no one would dare to boast of the merits of his works, he wanted what he did say to be able to teach the grace and glory of God."

Implications of a contrary theory: A never explicitly contradicted the massa damnata, yet in at last six places he implied a contradiction, by ruling out reprobation without considering demerits.

The dates of the following passages run all over his writing career, namely, in the order in which we will cite them: (1)between 388 and 398; (2)426; (3)411; (4)398; (5) 413-18; (6)399.

Yet he held his massa damnata at least from 395 to 429, that is, over nearly all the span of his writing period. For in 429, the year before his death, in On the Gift of Perseverance 21. 55 he refers the reader back to To Simplicianus in which he expressed, in 1. 2. 16, the same theory.

1) On 88 Different Questions 68. 4:"For not all who were called wanted to come to that dinner, which as the Lord says in the Gospel, was prepared, nor would they who came have been able to come if they had not been called. And so neither should they who came attribute it to themselves, for they came being called; nor should those who were unwilling to come attribute it to anyone but themselves, for, in order that they might come, they were called in free will."

COMMENTS: The parable of the dinner referred really not to predestination to heaven, but to the fact that the Jews were called to the Messianic kingdom, but most of them did not come. Yet this passage does reveal A's attitude, since he thinks it refers to predestination to heaven. He distinguishes positive and negative. On the positive, those who came could not have come without a call. On the negative, the basic reason for not coming was not in anyone but themselves. Now if he had been doing his thinking in the massa damnata framework, the reason would have been that God first deserted them, and then they refused. We contrast that with the text of Enchiridion 99 which we saw above: "Grace alone distinguishes the redeemed from the lost... ."

2) On correction and grace 13. 42: "Those, then, who do not belong to that most certain and most happy number [of the predestined] are judged most justly according to their merits. For they either lie under the sin which they contracted originally by generation... . . Or they receive the grace of God, but are temporary, and do not persevere; they desert and are deserted. For they were let go in their free will, not receiving the gift of perseverance, by a just and hidden judgment of God."

COMMENT: There are two cases here. In the second case, the persons have obtained remission of original sin, but they do not persevere. The reason is "they desert and are deserted." But in the massa damnata framework he would have said: God deserts them, and then they desert Him.

3) On merits and remission of sins 2. 17. 26: "Men are not willing to do what is right either because the fact that it is right is hidden from them, or because it does not please them. It is from the grace of God, which helps the will of man, that that which was hidden becomes known, and that which did not please becomes sweet. The reason why they are not helped [ by grace] is in themselves, not in God, whether they are predestined to damnation because of the wickedness of their pride, or whether they are to be judged and emended, contrary to that pride, if they are sons of mercy." COMMENT: In the massa damnata framework he would have said that the reason they were not helped was in God, who deserted them.

4) The Debate with Felix the Manichean 2. 8: "Felix said: You call Manes cruel for saying these things. What do we say about Christ, who said: Go into eternal fire? Augustine said: He said this to sinners. Felix said: These sinners, why were they not purified? Augustine said: Because they did not will [it]. Felix said: Because they did not will it - did you say that? Augustine said Yes, I said it: Because they did not will it." COMMENT: The Manicheans said that at the end, what particles of light (particles of God) will not have been separated from matter, will be bound in a ball of fire forever. A brought that up to Felix. Felix tries to say Christ does the same. A replies the sinners were not purified because they did not will it. Felix is surprised, and repeats his question. A repeats too. In the massa damnata framework the answer would have been: Because God deserted them - their unwillingness would follow on that.

5) Tracts on the Gospel of John 53. 6: "'They were not able to believe' since Isaiah the prophet predicted it; and the prophet predicted it because God had foreseen that this would happen. But if I am asked why they were not able, I quickly reply: Because they did not want to. For God foresaw their evil will, and He from whom the future things cannot be hidden, announced it in advance through the prophet. But, you say, the prophet speaks of another cause, not of their will. What cause do you say the prophet speaks of? 'Because God gave them a spirit of compunction, eyes so that they did not see, and ears so that they did not hear, and He blinded their eyes and hardened their heart. ' I reply that their will merited even this." COMMENT: Again, if A were speaking in the massa damnata framework, he would have said the opposite to what he actually said for he said they were not above to believe "because they did not want to" and "their will merited even" the hardening. (He is using John 12. 39 in reference to Isaiah 6. 10)

6) On instructing the ignorant 52: "The merciful God, wanting to deliver men, if they are not enemies to Him and do not resist the mercy of their Creator, sent His only-begotten Son." COMMENT: Again, the basic condition for failure seems to be in men, not in God.

The Greek Fathers on negative reprobation without demerits: Absolutely all the Greek Fathers who wrote on the point, without exception, reject the idea that the first cause of men's eternal loss is God's desertion of them: St. Justin the Martyr, St. Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, St. Cyril of Jerusalem, St. Gregory of Nazianzus, St. Gregory of Nyssa, St. John Chrysostom, St. Cyril of Alexandria, Theodoret, and St. John Damascene.

The Latin Fathers on negative reprobation without demerits: Again, all the Fathers before Augustine reject the idea, as the Greek Fathers do: St. Jerome, St. Ambrose, St. Hilary of Poitiers. After Augustine, it is often said that St. Prosper of Aquitaine was the great defender of Augustine's ideas. But those who say that did not read carefully in St. Prosper. Here are his thoughts: (1) Responses to the chapters of objections of the Gauls 3: "... for this reason they were not predestined, because they were foreseen as going to be such as a result of voluntary transgression... . Therefore, just as good works are to be attributed to God who inspires them, so evil works are to be attributed to those who sin. For they were not deserted by God so that they deserted God; but they deserted and were deserted... and as a result... they were not predestined... by Him who foresaw them as going to be such." St. Prosper taught the same ibid 7. 85: 'He foresaw that they would fall by their very own will, and for this reason He did not separate them from the sons of perdition by predestination." Similarly in his Responses to the chapters of objections of the Vincentians 12: "... because they were foreseen as going to fall, they were not predestined."

We conclude that St. Prosper was very faithful to the implications in the 6 passages of Augustine we saw above, but that he contradicted the massa damnata theory.

Conclusions on the work of St. Augustine on Predestination: He made a very unfortunate mistake in the massa damnata theory, as we have seen. Yet he did imply a correction of that mistake in the 6 passages we saw. But especially, he made great progress over all other Fathers on predestination in that he saw clearly that it does not depend on merits. Some of the others seemed to say it does. If it does not depend on merits, then he found no way to simultaneously say that reprobation did depend on demerits for as we said at the outset of this section, all theologians have taken it for granted that both predestination and reprobation must be on the same basis, i.e., either both without consideration of merits and demerits, or both with that consideration.

At the end of this section we will show how it is possible to put the two positions together, that is, predestination not based on merits, reprobation based on demerits.

B) On human interaction with grace

Our total dependence on grace for all good: Here is a great advance by Augustine. For many others, especially the Greek Fathers, were not strong on this total dependence.

1) On the grace of Christ 25. 26:"For God not only has given [us] our ability, and aids it, but also, He 'works both the will and the performance, [Phil. 2. 13] 'not that we do not will, or that we do not act, but that without His help we neither will nor do any good."

2) On grace and free will 16. 32: "It is certain that we will when we will; but He brings it about that we will good... . It is certain that we act when we act, but He brings it about that we act, giving most efficacious power to our will."

3) Ibid 6. 15: "If then your merits are gifts of God, God does not crown your merits as merits of yours, but as gifts of His."

4) Epistle 194. 5. 19:"What then is the merit of a man before receiving grace, in accordance with which he receives grace? Since it is only grace that makes every good merit of ours, and since when God crowns our merits, He crowns nothing other than His own gifts."

5) Unfinished work against Julian 2. 217: "[Grace] grants that the delight of sin may be conquered by the delight of what is right."

6) Tracts on Gospel of John 26. 4: "But if the poet could say, 'His own pleasure draws each one' [Virgil, Eclog. 2] - not necessity, but pleasure, not obligation, but delight - how much more strongly should we say that a man is drawn to Christ , who is delighted with truth, delighted with beatitude, delighted with justice, delighted with eternal life - all of which Christ is?"

COMMENTS: Texts 5 and 6 refer to his theory of the delectatio victrix, the victorious delight: If God gives us more delight in what is good than temptation offers, then we are drawn to good. The problem is that this speaks only of a final cause, of a goal, which attracts. There is a certain truth in this, but it does not mention the efficient cause that moves a will - though the first 4 texts may imply that.

The position of St. Thomas Aquinas on Predestination. Let us imagine a man standing on the circumference of a circle, and finding two points from which he thinks he can project a line to hit the center, the right answer. Thomas saw two starting points, namely, 1 Tim 2. 4, which he began to follow in Contra Gentiles 3. 159 -63, and Augustine's interpretation of Romans 8. 29 ff. He saw that the answers would clash, and so he never clearly projected either line fully and definitely. For example, in Contra gentiles 3. 159: "They alone are deprived of grace who set up in themselves an impediment to grace." Similarly in his Commentary on Romans, chapter 9, lessons 2 & 3: "... foresight of sins can be some reason for reprobation on the part of penalty... . in as much that is, as God proposed to punish the wicked for sins, which they have of themselves, not from God, but He proposes to reward the just because of merits which they do not have of themselves. Hosea 13. 9:" Your ruin is from yourself Israel, only in me is your help." - These passages do not fit with massa damnata, but with the implications we found in 6 texts of Augustine. On the other hand, in Contra gentiles 163: "... others, deserted by the help of grace, fail to reach the ultimate end... . those to whom He planned from eternity that He would not give grace, He is said to have reprobated or to have hated, according to what is said in Malachi 1:2, 3: 'I have loved Jacob, but hated Esau". ' Also, in the Commentary on Romans he said: "... those whom God frees through His grace, He frees out of mercy alone, and so He is merciful to certain ones whom he delivers; but to certain ones He is just, whom He does not deliver."

New Solutions from New Answers to Old Questions

A) On predestination

Within God there are no real distinctions, no time. But one thing can b e logically previous to another. So we can see three logical steps in His decrees on predestination:

(1)He wills all to be saved: 1 Tim 2. 4. Since this is the same as saying HE loves us, we know it is sincere, and extremely strong, for He went so far as the terrible death of His Son to make salvation open to us. Romans 5:8: "God proved His love for us."

(2)He looks to see who resists His grace gravely and persistently. By persistently we mean so much as to make salvation impossible, for it is only grace that can save a man. With regrets, with consideration of these demerits, He decrees reprobation.

(3)All who have not been reprobated in step 2 are positively predestined, not because of merits, which have not yet made their appearance, nor even, strictly, because of the lack of such resistance. No, the reason is that He, in step 1, had wanted this: these souls are not blocking it.

Therefore we see that predestination is without merit, as A wanted it, but reprobation is because of demerits, which A saw only implicitly in the set of 6 texts we examined.

The same result comes from an analysis of the most basic comparison of the Gospels: God is our Father. In an ordinarily good human family, (1)the Father (and Mother too) want all the children to turn out well. (2)the children do not have to earn the love and care - they get that because the parents are good, not because they are good. This is parallel to predestination without merit. (3)Yet the children could earn punishment, and if bad enough long enough, could earn disinheritance, which is parallel to reprobation because of demerits.

The result is like Romans 3:26: "The wages [what we earn] of sin is death, the free gift of God [what we do not earn] is eternal life.

B) On human interaction with grace

We must keep in mind all the data of Scripture. St. Paul in makes two kinds of statements, and we must keep both: (1) 1 Cor 3. 5: "Not that we are sufficient to think anything of ourselves as from ourselves; our sufficiency is from God. Phil. 2. 13: "It is God who works [produces] in you both the will and the doing." We see our total dependence on God, of which A spoke well: we cannot get a good thought, or make a good decision, or carry it out by our own unaided power. (2) 2 Cor 6. 1:"We urge you not to receive the grace of God in vain."So we can, in some way, determine the outcome of a grace coming. All the exhortations of Scripture to repent, to turn to God, imply the same.

So we visualize the picture: (1) A grace comes to me, and without help from me it causes two effects: (a) it puts into my mind the good thought of what God wants me to do (cf. 2 Cor 3. 5); it makes me favorably disposed, though I do not yet make a decision. (2)At this juncture where I could reject, if I merely make no decision against the grace, then grace moves into phase two and two things happen together: it works in me both the will and the doing (Phil. 2. 13) and at the same time I cooperate by power being received from the grace at the same moment.

The same process can be expressed with Aristotelian terms: The First Cause sends to me a movement. Without my help it actualizes the potency of my mind to see something as good, and actualizes the potency of my will not as far as a decision, but only as far as a favorable attitude. If I do not reject, then phase two comes, in which the movement from the First Cause actualizes the potency of my will to make the good decision, while at the same time, I cooperate in that actualization by power being received at the same instant from the movement.

How does rejection operate: We recall that the movement actualizes the potency of my will to be favorable. But, when that is in place, if I see it, and it displeases me, then the actualization collapses back to potency. On that condition, God actualizes the potency of my will to reject.

So when I do good, my contribution at the critical point which determines the outcome is a metaphysical zero, the absence of a bad decision. I would need the power of creation, to do more. But this is in accord with St. Paul in 1 Cor 4. 7: "What have you that you have not received." That is, any bit of good that I am or have or do, is simply His gift to me. - It fits with A's Epistle 194: "When God crowns your merits, He crowns nothing other than His own gifts."

This proposal is very similar to what St. Thomas proposes in Contra Gentiles 159.

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