Category Archives: Christian Classics

People assume that time is a strict progression of cause to effect, but actually — from a non-linear, non-subjective viewpoint — it's more like a big ball of wibbly-wobbly... timey-wimey... stuff.

Confessions of St. Augustine – Chapters 11-13

People assume that time is a strict progression of cause to effect, but actually — from a non-linear, non-subjective viewpoint — it's more like a big ball of wibbly-wobbly... timey-wimey... stuff.
As we shall see, the concept of time has no meaning before the beginning of the universe. This was first pointed out by St. Augustine. When asked: What did God do before he created the universe? Augustine didn’t reply: He was preparing Hell for people who asked such questions. Instead, he said that time was a property of the universe that God created, and that time did not exist before the beginning of the universe. -Steven Hawking, A Brief History of Time
What was God doing before he created the universe?

It’s a question without an obvious answer, prompting some to snarkily respond, “preparing Hell for people who ask such question.” But that doesn’t get to the real heart of the question. If God spent innumerable ages doing nothing, why did He suddenly break the trend and create Heaven and Earth? What changed His mind? Why won’t He go back to doing nothing in the future?

Augustine’s answer is both simple and confusing:

Let him wake up and consider that he wonders at a faulty concept. From where could innumerable ages come, which you have not made, since you are the Author and Creator of all ages? Of what times should there be which have not been created by you? Or how shall they pass by if they had never been? For you made that very time. But if there was no time before heaven and earth, why is it asked what you did then? For there was no then when time was not.

The question, Augustine says, is flawed. Time itself is a part of the created world. There is not before before God created time. And since time is just another creation of God, it is not a thing that God himself is subject to.

The Big Bang

At this point, it’s worth looking back a century from our own time. For much of the 1900s, the general scientific consensus was that the universe had no beginning. It had been in existence for eternity, and would continue for eternity (this was also Plato’s view). That the Bible taught it had been created was just another example of religion contradicting science.

Now, of course, the Big Bang theory enjoys near unanimous support. We now know that the universe began at a specific moment in time. More than that, we know that not only did matter come into existence at this moment of creation; time itself did. It is probably not a coincidence that this theory was proposed by a Catholic priest; he had probably read Augustine, who had figured this out long ago. To reiterate: If you went to the best schools in the 1920s and were tutored under the top physicists of the day, you were actually less knowledgeable about the origins of the universe than if you simply read St. Augustine, writing a thousand years before Science was even invented, with only his wits and Scripture as his guide.

The Eternal Now

God being eternal means much more than that He has always existed and will keep existing forever and ever and ever. It means that God is actually outside of time itself. Page 214:

For eternity by definition is fixed and cannot be compared to the moments we experience, which are never fixed. How do we know that a long time has become long? We sense the passing by of many moments and changes. Were there no motions or changes there would be no lengths of movements to call “time.” In the eternal realm the whole must be present. In our minds we cannot imagine time in that totality now. For us, all time past is driven on by time to come, and all to come follows upon the past. But in God’s timetable of creation, all past and future are one design, flowing out of one now.

What is time, anyway?

By this point, it should not surprise you that Augustine moves on to trying to figure out what time itself is. He notes that everyone seems to think they know what time is, until they are asked to define it.

Augustine starts with the Past. But what is the Past, except something which does not exist anymore? Likewise, the Future does not exist. Only the Present can be said to actually exist, and even that passes away in an instant. If time is defined by things arriving and then immediately passing away, then time is little more than a march towards non-existence. He declares that “we cannot truly say that time exists except in the sense that it tends toward non-existence.”

He spends a long time on this idea and its paradoxes. After all, we can measure time. How can we measure an hour if all parts of the hour that are outside of Now do not even exist?

Ultimately, the best Augustine can say is that the soul is stretched out into an apparent succession of events, perhaps as part of our fall away from God and His eternal present.

Interpreting Genesis

Taking his ideas of time as a guide, Augustine turns to the book of Genesis, which even back then had many contentious interpretations.

But among so many truths which occur to inquirers in those words, understood as they are in different ways, which of us shall so discover that one meaning as to state, “This is what Moses thought,” and, “That is what he wanted understood in that narrative,” as confidently as he would say, “This is true, whether Moses thought this or that?”

Augustine separates the debate over interpretations into two categories: those concerned with the truth of the matter, and those concerned with the intent of the author. He largely dismisses the second category as unknowable.

As for the truth of the matter, Augustine argues that scripture can allow for many different “true” readings, though I hasten to add that he is not supporting relativism here. He does not believe that any possible interpretation is valid, but he is rather easy on simplistic and literalistic interpretations, so long as they act as a step towards faith in God as the creator of the universe. He additionally argues that Moses may well have been aware of the many ways his words could be interpreted, and intended all of them.

St Augustine and the Pelagian Controversy

PelagiusBy the time he wrote Confessions, Augustine had been Bishop of Hippo for several years, and had made quite a name for himself in the broader church. His autobiography was circulated far and wide, and read by many.

One such reader was named Pelagius, a prominent theologian born in Britain, but living Rome at the time. All went well until he encountered the following sentence from Book X of the Confessions:

Give what you command, and command what you will.

At this Pelagius flew into a rage. He saw very clearly what lay underneath this sentence. Why must God give what he commands? Because it is impossible to do it. Then what of human responsibility? Do we need a special gift from God even to choose to obey him?

Pelagius’ View

Pelagius was not merely reacting against Augustine; he was concerned with the moral laxity he saw all around him. He came to blame this in part on the doctrine of divine grace, which he saw as absolving humans of any responsibility to even try to be moral. The essential core of his doctrine was that mankind can avoid sinning, and that we can use our free will to choose to follow God’s commandments. There is no original sin; each person is a new free agent with the same power of choice as Adam. We are fully capable of not sinning our entire lives. Grace, in Pelagius’ view, consists of God’s twin gifts of the law and free will, telling us how to act and then enabling us to do so.

Augustine’s View

  1. Adam started in a state of being both able to sin and able not to sin.
  2. After the fall, humans become not able not to sin. As humanity’s representative, we are involved in some way in Adam’s fall, and consequently we all inherit that guilt from our parents, as well as the inability to not sin. This is known as Original Sin.
  3. Only after our redemption and death, will we finally become not able to sin.
  4. Most importantly, it is only through the grace of God that we can be saved. Even wanting to have faith in God is itself a gift given by God.

Think back over Augustine’s life story, and how it must surely have influenced his views here. When he looks back at himself as a newborn, he does not see an innocent babe, but rather a selfish creature which is merely too weak to harm those it depends on. The incident of the stolen pears reveals his utterly corrupt nature even further; he did evil merely because it was evil. Clearly he cannot be said to have a good nature.

Later in life, he becomes convinced of the truth of the Gospel, but is still unable to actually turn to God. On his own power, Augustine was simply not able to put his faith in Jesus, and trying only made him more miserable. Then, when God finally did intervene in the form of a small voice telling him to read the Bible, the transformation was instant. Augustine’s personal experience testified to the truth of the doctrine he was defending.

Fight!

Pelagius came out with a book in 414 titled On Nature defending his teachings against Jerome (translator of the Vulgate), who had already begun to criticize him sharply. Augustine responded with On Nature and Grace, and wrote further letters both to Jerome and others condemning Pelagius’s views. The next year, a synod was held to review Pelagius’s case. 12 bishops attended, and Pelagius was exonerated.

The North African church did not take kindly to this, and they convened two synods of their own in 416 (one of which Augustine attended). These held that Pelagius should be anathematized unless he renounced several of his doctrines. They addressed letters directly to the Bishop of Rome, Pope Innocent I, along with some Pelagian literature. Innocent agreed, and cut Pelagius off from communion.

This pope died shortly thereafter, and his successor wavered a great deal on whether or not to rescind the condemnation. Politics ensued, and on May 1 418, the African church held a council of 200 bishops which condemned Pelagianism in very specific and clear terms, which the pope finally decided to back. The doctrines of justifying grace and original sin were affirmed to be essentials of the faith. For good measure, Pelagianism was condemned once more at the Ecumenical Council of Ephesus in 431.

Homework

We’ll now turn back to Confessions. The autobiographical portion of the book is over; the remainder is dedicated to Augustine’s philosophical musings. Our abridgments cut this section far too short, so please read the full version of Book X (online here). This will be more difficult than the previous readings, so take your time.

Pelagian Reading Material

“Give what you command, and command what you will.” -Confessions, Book 10, Chapter 29

Pelagius’ Own Account of the Faculties, Quoted.

PelagiusLest, however, it should chance to be said that we either do not correctly understand what he advances, or malevolently pervert to another meaning what he never meant to bear such a sense, I beg of you to consider his own actual words: “We distinguish,” says he, “three things, arranging them in a certain graduated order. We put in the first place ‘ability;’ in the second, ‘volition;’ and in the third, ‘actuality.’ The ‘ability’ we place in our nature, the ‘volition’ in our will, and the ‘actuality’ in the effect. The first, that is, the ‘ability,’ properly belongs to God, who has bestowed it on His creature; the other two, that is, the ‘volition’ and the ‘actuality,’ must be referred to man, because they flow forth from the fountain of the will. For his willing, therefore, and doing a good work, the praise belongs to man; or rather both to man, and to God who has bestowed on him the ‘capacity’ for his will and work, and who evermore by the help of His grace assists even this capacity. That a man is able to will and effect any good work, comes from God alone. So that this one faculty can exist, even when the other two have no being; but these latter cannot exist without that former one. I am therefore free not to have either a good volition or action; but I am by no means able not to have the capacity of good. This capacity is inherent in me, whether I will or no; nor does nature at any time receive in this point freedom for itself. Now the meaning of all this will be rendered clearer by an example or two. That we are able to see with our eyes is not of us; but it is our own that we make a good or a bad use of our eyes. So again (that I may, by applying a general case in illustration, embrace all), that we are able to do, say, think, any good thing, comes from Him who has endowed us with this ‘ability,’ and who also assists this ‘ability;’ but that we really do a good thing, or speak a good word, or think a good thought, proceeds from our own selves, because we are also able to turn all these into evil. Accordingly,—and this is a point which needs frequent repetition, because of your calumniation of us,—whenever we say that a man can live without sin, we also give praise to God by our acknowledgment of the capacity which we have received from Him, who has bestowed such ‘ability’ upon us; and there is here no occasion for praising the human agent, since it is God’s matter alone that is for the moment treated of; for the question is not about ‘willing,’ or ‘effecting,’ but simply and solely about that which may possibly be.”

Augustine on those who deny the necessity of God’s grace

Augustine in his studyThey, however, must be resisted with the utmost ardor and vigor who suppose that without God’s help, the mere power of the human will in itself, can either perfect righteousness, or advance steadily towards it; and when they begin to be hard pressed about their presumption in asserting that this result can be reached without the divine assistance, they check themselves, and do not venture to utter such an opinion, because they see how impious and insufferable it is. But they allege that such attainments are not made without God’s help on this account, namely, because God both created man with the free choice of his will, and, by giving him commandments, teaches him, Himself, how man ought to live; and indeed assists him, in that He takes away his ignorance by instructing him in the knowledge of what he ought to avoid and to desire in his actions: and thus, by means of the free-will naturally implanted within him, he enters on the way which is pointed out to him, and by persevering in a just and pious course of life, deserves to attain to the blessedness of eternal life.

Luther’s Disputation Against Scholastic Theology – 1517

luther
1. To say that Augustine exaggerates in speaking against heretics is to say that Augustine tells lies almost everywhere. This is contrary to common knowledge.

2. This is the same as permitting Pelagians and all heretics to triumph, indeed, the same as conceding victory to them.

3. It is the same as making sport of the authority of all doctors of theology.

4. It is therefore true that man, being a bad tree, can only will and do evil [cf. Matt 7,17-18].

5. It is false to state that man’s inclination is free to choose between either of two opposites. Indeed, the inclination is not free, but captive. This is said in opposition to common opinion.

6. It is false to state that the will can by nature conform to correct precept. This is said in opposition to [Duns] Scotus and Gabriel [Biel].

7. As a matter of fact, without the grace of God the will produces an act that is perverse and evil.

8. It does not, however, follow that the will is by nature evil, that is, essentially evil, as the Manicheans maintain.

9. It is nevertheless innately and inevitably evil and corrupt.

10. One must concede that the will is not free to strive toward whatever is declared good. This is in opposition to Scotus and Gabriel.

11. Nor is it able to will or not to will whatever is prescribed.

12. Nor does one contradict St. Augustine when one says that nothing is so much in the power of the will as the will itself.

17. Man is by nature unable to want God to be God. Indeed, he himself wants to be God, and does not want God to be God.

18. To love God above all things by nature is a fictitious term, a chimera, as it were.

29. The best and infallible preparation for grace and the sole disposition toward grace is the eternal election and predestination of God.

30. On the part of man, however, nothing precedes grace except indisposition and even rebellion against grace.

87. Since law is good, the will, which is hostile to it, cannot be good.

88. And from this it is clear that everyone’s natural will is iniquitous and bad.

Antidote to the Sixth Session of the Council of Trent on the Doctrine of Justification – John Calvin (1547)

John Calvin[Catholics] assert that we are prepared by the grace of God for receiving Justification, but they assign to this grace the office of exciting and assisting, we ourselves freely co-operating; in other words, we are here treated with the inanities which the sophists are wont to babble in the schools. But I ask, Is it the same thing to excite a will, and aid it when in itself weak, as to form a new heart in man, so as to make him willing? Let them answer, then, whether creating a new heart, and making a heart of flesh out of a heart of stone, (both of which the Scripture declares that God does in us,) is nothing else than to supply what is wanting to a weak will. But if they are not moved by these passages, let them say whether he who makes us to be willing simply assists the will. Paul claims the whole work for God; they ascribe nothing to him but a little help. But for what do they join man as an associate with God? Because man, though he might repudiate it, freely accepts the grace of God and the illumination of the Holy Spirit. How greatly do they detract from the work of God as described by the Prophet! — “I will put my law,” says he, “in your hearts, and make you to walk in my precepts.” (Jeremiah 32:39; Ezekiel 36:27; Hebrews 8:10; 10:16).

Is this the doctrine delivered by Augustine, when he says, “Men labor to find in our will some good thing of our own not given us of God; what they can find I know not?” (Aug. Lib. de Precator. Merit. et Remiss. 2.) Indeed, as he elsewhere says, “Were man left to his own will to remain under the help of God if he chooses, while God does not make him willing, among temptations so numerous and so great, the will would succumb from its own weakness. Succor, therefore, has been brought to the weakness of the human will by divine grace acting irresistibly and inseparably, that thus the will however weak might not fail.” (Aug. de Corruptione et Gratia,) But the Neptunian fathers, in a new smithy, forge what was unknown to Augustine, viz., that the reception of grace is not of God, inasmuch as it is by the free movement of our own will we assent to God calling. This is repugnant to Scripture, which makes God the author of a good will. It is one thing for the will to be moved by God to obey if it pleases, and another for it to be formed to be good. Moreover, God promises not to act so that we may be able to will well, but to make us will well. Nay, he goes farther when he says, “I will make you to walk;” as was carefully observed by Augustine. The same thing is affirmed by Paul when he teaches, that, “it is God that worketh in us both to will and to do of his good pleasure.” The hallucination of these Fathers is in dreaming that we are offered a movement which leaves us an intermediate choice, while they never think of that effectual working by which the heart of man is renewed from pravity to rectitude. But this effectual working of the Holy Spirit is described in the thirty-second chapter of Jeremiah, where he thus speaks in the name of God, “I will put the fear of my name into their hearts, that they decline not from my commandments.” In short, their error lies in making no distinction between the grace of Regeneration, which now comes to the succor of our wretchedness, and the first; grace which had been given to Adam. This Augustine carefully expounds. “Through Christ the Mediator,” he says, “God makes those who were wicked to be good for ever after. The first man had not that grace by which he could never wish to be bad; for the help given him was of that nature that he might abandon it when he would, and remain in it if he would, but it was not such as to make him willing. The grace of the second Adam is more powerful. It makes us will, will so strongly and love so ardently, that by the will of the spirit we overcome the will of the flesh lusting against it.” A little farther on he says, “Through this grace of God in receiving good and persevering therein, there is in us a power not only to be able to do what we will, but to will what we are able.” (Aug. Lib. ad Bonif. 2, c. 8.) Although the subject is too long to be despatched thus briefly, I feel confident that my statement, though short, will suffice with readers of sense to refute these fancies.

All who have their conscience exercised feel the strict truth of Augustine’s sentiment, “The righteousness of saints in this life consists more in the forgiveness of sins than the perfection of virtues.” (Lib. de Civit. Dei, 19 c. 27.) Still more accurate is another passage which I quoted, that; “so long as they groan under the infirmity of the flesh, the only hope left them is, that they have a mediator in Christ by whom they are reconciled to God.”

Jacob Arminius

Jacobus Arminius
I. The first absolute decree of God concerning the salvation of sinful man, is that by which he decreed to appoint his Son, Jesus Christ, for a Mediator, Redeemer, saviour, Priest and King, who might destroy sin by his own death, might by his obedience obtain the salvation which had been lost, and might communicate it by his own virtue.

II. The second precise and absolute decree of God, is that in which he decreed to receive into favour those who repent and believe, and, in Christ, for his sake and through Him, to effect the salvation of such penitents and believers as persevered to the end; but to leave in sin, and under wrath, all impenitent persons and unbelievers, and to damn them as aliens from Christ.

III. The third Divine decree is that by which God decreed to administer in a sufficient and efficacious manner the means which were necessary for repentance and faith; and to have such administration instituted (1.) according to the Divine Wisdom, by which God knows what is proper and becoming both to his mercy and his severity, and (2.) according to Divine Justice, by which He is prepared to adopt whatever his wisdom may prescribe and put it in execution.

IV. To these succeeds the fourth decree, by which God decreed to save and damn certain particular persons. This decree has its foundation in the foreknowledge of God, by which he knew from all eternity those individuals who would, through his preventing grace, believe, and, through his subsequent grace would persevere, according to the before described administration of those means which are suitable and proper for conversion and faith; and, by which foreknowledge, he likewise knew those who would not believe and persevere.
This is my opinion concerning the free-will of man: In his primitive condition as he came out of the hands of his creator, man was endowed with such a portion of knowledge, holiness and power, as enabled him to understand, esteem, consider, will, and to perform the true good, according to the commandment delivered to him. Yet none of these acts could he do, except through the assistance of Divine Grace. But in his lapsed and sinful state, man is not capable, of and by himself, either to think, to will, or to do that which is really good; but it is necessary for him to be regenerated and renewed in his intellect, affections or will, and in all his powers, by God in Christ through the Holy Spirit, that he may be qualified rightly to understand, esteem, consider, will, and perform whatever is truly good. When he is made a partaker of this regeneration or renovation, I consider that, since he is delivered from sin, he is capable of thinking, willing and doing that which is good, but yet not without the continued aids of Divine Grace.