It All Goes Back to One Guy

Christian theology in the West all goes back to Augustine. Even when theology today is not completely shaped by Augustine, and even when it diverges from him (as it often does), it gets its framework from Augustine. Which means Augustine gets blamed often, and many times wrongly. I once read a manuscript by an author who was giving Augustine a hard time and I was convinced the author hadn’t read much of Augustine.

One of the most important things Augustine wrote is called the Enchiridion, and it is a catechism for Christians, and it is a catechism that introduces Christians to Augustine’s soteriology — and one could argue (blaming again) that it was Augustine who got the soterian game rolling. In King Jesus Gospel I ignored Augustine’s Enchiridion (and Aquinas’ Summa Theologica) because it would have dragged the discussion down a bit. Our focus was not so much the history of soteriology as it was how the Reformation confessions reframed the Creed into a soteriological system. (The problems really arose, though, with the revivalists, and we suffer from what revivalism has done to evangelicalism’s gospel.)

Do you think “justification” is both declarative and transformative or wholly a declaration by God? How “Jewish” (biblical, 2d Temple) is the idea of the bondage of the will?

Speaking of the gospel … this post will sketch how A.J. Spence, in his new book Justification: A Guide for the Perplexed, presents Augustine’s theology of justification. And what Augustine said is not as “Augustinian” as lots of folks think! (Which is a way of saying that there’s more blaming than reading of the guy.)

Justification for Augustine is wholly framed within a soterian system of personal salvation. (The issue of incorporating Gentiles isn’t the issue for Augustine.) The predicament of the human — all humans are alike — is found in four areas:

1. There is a shared guilt and it leads to death.
2. The free-will of humans is in bondage to sin.
3. Sin dominates the life of the human.
4. There is a dreadful prospect of judgment from God for the evil we have done.

Christ is the solution to all of this, but his mediatorial work is as a human (though Augustine flirts with the later ontological categories of Anselm).

The righteousness of the justified is love. For Augustine, justification “is the act of God that brings about this way of righteous living, it makes us righteous” (34). The effect of justification then is moral transformation; it is a “created” and not an “imputed” righteousness. (Though Augustine knows it is all the work of God in grace through Christ.) So justification is not just an act of pardon; it is the creation of a new ay of living, a living in love.

For Augustine, faith and love are connected so that works and faith are connected. (This is one area where Spence thinks Augustine is not truly Pauline.) Loving actions then are justifying actions because they are the result of created grace. The judgment, which looks at works, is simply “grace given for grace” (37).

Which means grace is both an operation of God upon a person to set the will free and leads cooperation by the human will to bring about a life that loves righteousness.

Augustine fought Pelagius who, though he believed the capacity to do good came from God, the choice and act of doing good were from humans — whereas Augustine saw it all as God’s grace.

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  • I thing Pelagius was more right than Augustine on this…the arguments he made were those made two centuries earlier by Ireanaeus, who was no slouch.

  • I think it is interesting that Augustine conflated Justification and Sanctification. Though, later on, he did reject the idea that the sinner is incapable of self-justification. This conflation continued into the Middle Ages and was adopted by Thomas Aquinas. His view became the prevalent one in the Roman Catholic Church. The Reformers came along and argued that justification means something different from sanctification. The two gifts, although inseparable, are distinct. Justification, instead of being an efficient act changing the inward character of the sinner, it is a declarative act, announcing and determining the sinners relation to the Law. Therefore, the sinner is incapable of self-justification and it is God who takes the initiative in justification. Or as Luther put it -the righteousness of God is the basis in which the sinner is justified – not his own righteousness. Augustine had somewhat made this point early on but Luther gives it a new twist which led to the development of forensic justification. Just thinking aloud…

  • I found what Kevin Vanhoozer had to say at the NT Wright conference at Wheaton College very helpful. He pointed out that justification is a law court metaphor, but he asked, “what kind of court is it?”. If it is an adoption court then justification, using speech act theory, is about the declaration of God that we are his, thus accomplishing the adoption in the speaking.

  • “grace is both an operation of God upon a person to set the will free and leads cooperation by the human will to bring about a life that loves righteousness.”

    Excellent! This is precisely how I’ve understood Augustine. So much light can be shed on his theology by understanding his view of human freedom, which I’ve tried to capture in my essay here.

  • I think a more ‘biblical’ (first century, second temple, Hebrew) perspective of justification is in discussion around Gentiles being included in the people of God, being declared in right-standing through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ. It is God being faithful to his covenant promises. Having said that, I am not opposed to later developments on the topic, as would have been needed as the gospel became a reality worldwide more and more. We need to understand what the gospel and justification are from a textual-biblical perspective, but also recognise such was in a very Jewish, first century context. And now we need to retranslate this into the 21st century, as maybe Augustine did in the 5th century and the Reformation did in the 16th century.

    What do you think, Scot?

  • dopderbeck

    I think you have to make some distinctions between the Augustine of the Confessions and the later Augustine of the Enchiridion. The Augustine of the Enchiridion is basically a determinist. Yes, he focuses on individual salvation, but in the context of God’s determining will for all of creation and history, and as tied to the visible institution of the Catholic Church and its sacraments. Certainly Augustine would not have recognized individualist soteriology as it is expressed in modern pietistic evangelicalism. Even the Enchiridion is really a theology of history and not primarily a theology of individual salvation.

    I like Augustine’s emphasis on grace as pure gift, on participation, and on the political dimensions of these themes. I think the determinism of the later Augustine, as well as as his Constantinian view of the Church, however, are major problems (somewhat consistent with how the most consistently “Western” tradition — Roman Catholicism — has and hasn’t appropriated Augustine’s legacy for today).

    Incidentally, I disagree with Wyatt (#1) who suggests Pelagius was restating Irenaeus. No! Neither Irenaeus nor any of the other pre-Augustinian Fathers suggest that human beings can arrive at righteousness without grace. But, they didn’t end up with the (IMHO) untenable determinism of the Enchiridion.

  • dopderbeck

    … and … re: Aquinas, whom you mention Scot … in light of Aquinas, I don’t think you can draw such as straight line in the West back to Augustine. There are significant distinctions between the two. I don’t think Augustine would have fully approved of Aquinas’ natural theology, for example, and I think Aquinas probably offers a more fully developed account of “compatibilist” free will (though Aquinas also at points seems to veer into mere determinism….). “Western” — Catholic — theology in the 19th and 20th Centuries was essentially analytic Thomism and in that sense departed from Augustine’s more fideistic slant.

    And I don’t think you can paint Catholic theology of that period or at present as being all about “individual” soteriology. It is about that, of course, but again within a broader theology of history and a broader ecclesiology. And certainly now, after the influence of the nouvelle theologie and Vatican II, “Western” Catholic theology is much more deeply rooted in the early Augustine and in the pre-Augustinian Fathers. It has, in a sense, become more “Eastern.”

    “Western” Reformed theology of course rejected Aquinas in favor of a strong late-Augustinianism. But then you have Barth, who IMHO represents another fork in the road. “Western” Reformed theology influenced by Barth is in many way similar to the nouvelle theologie — Barth was as versed in the early Fathers as he was in Augustine, Calvin and Luther. And Barth’s focus most definitely is not merely or mostly on “individual” soteriology. (Not surprising because Barth and Balthasar had such a profound interaction).

    So, I wonder if the historical claim here is a bit myopic — really it seems to describe the trajectory of Evangelicalism, but not of “Western” theology into the modern period generally?

  • C

    Augustine or Pelagius? Both, I suppose.

    From Philippians 2:

    “…work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”

  • @ (1.) and Pelagius making same arguments as Irenaeus.

    Thanks: I had to clean off my screen b/c I sprayed coffee reading that nonsense… 😀

  • Hector_St_Clare

    Re: Augustine or Pelagius? Both, I suppose.

    There’s a thing called ‘Semi-Pelagianism’, which I’m told the Orthodox are more sympathetic, and which makes the most sense to me. Salvation is a process of us growing towards God, through the co-operation between His grace, and our free choices and actions.

    I don’t believe in strict Pelagianism, or in ‘sola fide’, Augustinian soteriology either.

  • I think Augustine is too often read through later Protestant appropriations (Reformation), and them blamed by theologians/philosophers for our “Western” predicament. It seems too many bible scholars take Stendahls word for it that Augustine is the cause of our introspective conscience, and is the reason no knows how to read Paul “properly.” Scot, I know you aren’t saying this, but it is common enough.

    It is interesting to note that when Augustine was writing Paul was having a type of renaissance among the church fathers, recovering from neglect due to an emphasis on John.

    But I think the real issues is that we think “justification” is the first thing on Augustine’s mind, and “how does one get saved.” Was he a ‘soterion’ is the question. He emphatically was not (unless you only read him through Protestant interpreters who only read him enough to find what they want to find).

    Augustine was first and foremost (and always way) a “Eudaimonist.” Like all Greek theologians/philosophers Augustine wondered about the “good life” and how to attain it. The answer usually had to do with “living a virtuous” life. But Augustine knew that humanity is both “ignorant” of true virtue and “weak” in our ability to live virtuously. Christ, as the mediator between God and humanity both gives us knowledge of the virtuous life (living in a truly human way before God), and through his death/resurrection overcomes our weakness of will (that we were dead).

    Anyway, of course justification, sin, and all that are part of salvation, but “living with God” as the apex of the virtuous life (the Christian goal of Eudaimonism) is the center (loving God and neighbor).

    City of God, book 10, spells out the reason and function of Christ’s sacrifice (which is to enable love/mercy for others) very clearly, as well as rolling it into a Eucharist.

    So, all that to say, while it seems Spence is being a little bit more generous than others, he still might be starting in the wrong place.

  • CGC

    I will say for some who do not come at issues from a thorough going determistic Augustinian, they like to label others semi-pelagian. I have heard this said of both Arminians, open theists, or anyone who is not a hard-core Calvinist. All I can say is one can just as easily label others with these differences as semi-Augustinian. Typically, I think the label semi-pelagian is simply a rhetorical one-upmanship argument to try to label somebody’s different viewpoint with a known heretic to score points.

  • Scot McKnight


    Thanks for your comments. A medievalist recently discussed with me his view that from Augustine on (and he wasn’t blaming Augustine at all), but esp in 11-14th Centuries there was an increasing fascination with and obsession with personal life after death. So while he agreed that a soteriology got a major push in the Reformation, there was a powerful individualistic soteriology already at work.

    Spence does seem to make Augustine’s justification purely indvidiual soteriology.

  • dopderbeck

    As I understand it, technically, “Semi-Pelagianism” is the notion that the beginning of faith is entirely an act of human will, to which grace is subsequently added.

    Neither the pre-Augustinian Fathers nor Eastern Orthodox theology nor for that matter Roman Catholic theology is “semi-Pelagian” by this definition. They all acknowledge that “faith” is impossible without grace. The question really is about the scope and nature of “grace” and whether grace can be resisted.

    Modern Catholic and Orthodox theology, and some Ariminian theologies, and some other modern Protestant theologies, suggest that grace is functionally available to everyone — anyone is capable of responding to God because in some sense God has already (“preveniently” in some lingo) afforded a measure of grace to everyone. The response to, or cooperation in, grace, however, involves the person’s will.

    Some versions of Calvinist and Lutheran theology suggest that saving grace is only given to the elect, and that for the elect, such saving grace is “irresistible.” In some Calvinist systems, this also ties to the doctrine of “limited atonement.”

  • dopderbeck

    Scot (#13) — yes, I think that historical note is certainly true. I’m not sure I’d lay it at Augustine’s feet so directly, though. It’s often described as the “Age of Anxiety” — the failure of the Crusades and the Islamic threat, the Black Death, various crises in the Papacy, etc. — all contributed to a sense of immanent doom and judgment. There were also theological movements that took the later Augustine to extremes — voluntarism and nominalism (Scotus, Ockham, et al). And all of this fed into and is sort of symbolized by Luther’s great personal crisis.

  • phil_style

    @Geoff, #11, thanks for your excellent thoughts…

  • AStelling

    Excellent post, Scott. I think Augustine would certainly argue that justification is transformative (though only wholly transformative at the final consummation of the world). Your point about a “created righteousness” that is focused on transformation fits perfectly with Augustine’s constant focus on knowledge, particularly knowledge of God. For Augustine, the soteriological journey is also an epistemological one that teaches the soul about love and righteous living – a point often lost in the sometimes anti-intellectual climate of American Protestantism.

  • AStelling

    dopderbeck – I would disagree with you on Augustine’s purported Constantinian view of the Church. This has been a common conclusion for centuries, and I’ll grant that he doesn’t explicitly criticize Constantine nor a Constantinian model. He does however criticize people’s obsession with Rome as a special, providential city in his response to the panic over Rome’s being sacked in 410. Furthermore, his point in City of God is to move past an obsession with the earthly city, even a Constantinian one. Although he argues that a perfect city is one that is united by a perfect love of God, he seems to indicate that even a city on earth that managed to have a 100% Christian populace would still be very incomplete, because of the temporary and finite nature of present life (love which is not unending is imperfect). The Church in this life is very fleeting, eschatologically bent, and not really tied down to earthly cities.

  • “How Jewish is the idea of the bondage of the will?”
    imho, it isn’t.

    My understanding is that through 2ndTJ the rabbinic view was that a duality – yetzer hara, yetzer hatov…the “evil inclination” and the “good inclination”… existed in every one. The human drive, the natural, inborn, inner impulse gravitated toward selfish gratification or pleasure – our innate self-centeredness (ingrained through thousands of years of ‘fight or flight’ and ‘the early bird gets the worm’).

    The rabbis held that given free choice (we see occasional determinism throughout Jewish history, but it is never dominant: see Theodicy in the World of the Bible, Laato and de Moor), we indulge either the good or evil impulse, both dwelling within (Gen.4.7: sin is crouching at the door…you must rule over it; Josh.24.15: choose this day whom you will serve). We choose.

    Our natural, our ‘easy’, inclination is toward self; but Christ calls us to repent (turn 180, die to self) and be oriented to the *other* – first himself and then the neighbour. As Christ demonstrates what it means to be fully human, to dwell *in* him (and therefore in the Father) to rely on the Father and to live by the power of the HS – the same power that raised Christ from the dead, Paul says – so we are to live and Christ says we are to *remain*.

    Augustine’s views were obviously shaped by his personal battles (as are ours), and he found his pre-Christian lifestyle particularly hard to overcome given his new commitment to celibacy. In fact, try as he might he discovered he was powerless on his own to overcome it; hence, perhaps, his focus on total depravity and total inability. Interestingly, the passages supporting his ideas come from one who seemingly wasn’t given a choice (?) re coming to know Christ (possibly interesting discussion for a different day?).

    But I do not believe Paul’s, and later Augustine’s, was the *common* view at the time of Christ, and I wonder if it ever was the view of Christ. Interestingly, it seems a few Pharisees held this view (which would explain Paul’s understanding) but it clearly was not the dominant view of the time. Augustine managed to change that.

    God is King, and as such, our sin breaks his rule/reign over us. God is Judge, and as such, our sin breaks his laws and we bring judgement on ourselves. But God is also our Father, and when we sin against him we break his heart. God moves from judgement (Jer.12.7-9: I will abandon/forsake my nation/the people – they have turned on/defied me – let them be destroyed) to mercy (Hos.11: how can I give you up? I have had a change of heart; my compassion is aroused). Mercy clearly triumphs over judgement.

    In thinking of (battling over?) justification, we can often become preoccupied with splitting the angels that we each think we can load onto the head of a pin. I prefer to take a deep breath, to back away, to remember both 1stC. views…yetzer hara, yetzer hatov…and that ours is a Trinitarian faith – a kenotic, perichoretic, Trinitarian faith in the God who *is* love.

    Within the context of our doctrine of the Trinity, what do we find about justification? How does knowing God as Trinity shape our understanding of this issue? Too often we divorce our thinking on any given aspect of theology from who God *is*, and I believe, can get significantly, and damagingly, off track.

    So, in view of the triune God who is love, what is justification ultimately about? My severed relationship with the one who loved me first, the one who pursued and wooed me, is repaired and offered afresh to me through Christ, who, is the first of *many* brothers, and through whom God *adopts* me into his family – the Father, looking longingly down the road for the prodigals who return, and who *runs* to meet them at first glimpse. “Yetzer hara, yetzer hatov.” But for this love, joy, peace, wholeness, why would anyone not willingly die to self, willingly become a slave to Christ, willingly obey him in all things, loving God first and then neighbour? Why would anyone say no to the offer to become, as Christ, fully human and fully alive? I chose to say yes.

    This focus feels, to me, substantially different than being able to defend a particular view of justification over others on the table; going there feels anti-climactic, imho. My concern is simply that we not let our fascination with angels and pins dim the glory and light held within the triune, perichoretic, kenotic God of love.

  • John W Frye

    I like David’s observation (comment #14): “Modern Catholic and Orthodox theology, and some Ariminian theologies, and some other modern Protestant theologies, suggest that grace is functionally available to everyone — anyone is capable of responding to God because in some sense God has already (“preveniently” in some lingo) afforded a measure of grace to everyone. The response to, or cooperation in, grace, however, involves the person’s will.”

    I must either accept that “the bondage of the will” is not a 1st century theological/existential reality at all because Jesus certainly interacted with people as if their wills were quite free–capable of responding, OR, some form of prevenient grace made available globally and freely as (one) result of or in view of the whole King Jesus Gospel. That is, God’s grace has been given (poured out) to enable people to respond freely or not to the one-off claims of Jesus’ Lordship as King.

  • dopderbeck

    AStelling (#18) — fair point about City of God, which of course is one of the great works. But the Augustine of “Against the Donatists” — the Augustine who sanctioned state violence against the Donatists — ouch!

  • Has anyone on this discussion actually read Pelagius (as opposed to reading restatements or encapsulation
    of his views)?

  • Hector_St_Clare

    Re: As I understand it, technically, “Semi-Pelagianism” is the notion that the beginning of faith is entirely an act of human will, to which grace is subsequently added.

    Oh, I wouldn’t agree with that. The grace of God comes first. But I think we then have to respond to that grace by actions, belief, and love. It’s a two-way interaction, as I see it. But God starts it off.

    I really like the understanding of faith and works outlined in this talk here, and one thing I like about it is that it’s rooted primarily in the Gospels and only secondarily in the Epistles, while I feel like a lot of people interpret things the other way round.

  • Jim

    I’m not a theologian, but if Augustine is the “Father” of western theology, who are the fathers and mothers of Eastern Theology? Did Augustine split from those that came before or did he develop views apart from them?

  • Scott W

    Jim #21-
    In truth Augustine’s theology of original sin and the bondage of the will represented a seismic shift away from the the views in the earlier Patristic tradition. See the book excerpt below: