The ‘Doctor of Grace’ was ‘an Apostle of the Apophatic:’ Exploring Augustine’s Hamartiology and His Concept of Grace and Free Will Within It, With Concluding Reference to Tulips & Daisies.

The ‘Doctor of Grace’ was ‘an Apostle of the Apophatic:’ Exploring Augustine’s Hamartiology and His Concept of Grace and Free Will Within It, With Concluding Reference to Tulips & Daisies.




Augustine’s Central Philosophy and What It Informed: Grace, and His Theology of A Free Will 


My whole hope is in thy exceeding great mercy and that alone. Give what thou commandest and command what thou wilt. Thou commandest continence from us, and when I knew, as it is said, that no one could be continent unless God gave it to him, even this was a point of wisdom to know whose gift it was. For by continence we are bound up and brought back together in the One, whereas before we were scattered abroad among the many. For he loves thee too little who loves along with thee anything else that he does not love for thy sake, O Love, who dost burn forever and art never quenched. O Love, O my God, enkindle me! Thou commandest continence; give what thou commandest, and command what thou wilt. (Augustine Confessions CHAPTER XXIX, 40)


Brevity, generally speaking, potentially precludes a capacity for detail and thoroughness. But it is this present writer’s calculated risk: to affirm that Augustine’s understanding of granted Free Will cannot be partially understood apart from his apprehension of God’s granted Grace. And, therefore, I have hopefully properly judged it as necessarily attendant, and in it’s inclusion, in the pursuant discussion, even at the risk of it being extended in scope, complexity, and length, done an allowable thing. I trust it is both potential and forgivable to will this.


Augustine can also be seen as allowing and affirming many things, including Free Will,  but if a central theme to his thought could be posited, it could arguably be an assertion of the inherency of an understanding within the Christian experience of the necessity of a full and complete understanding of God’s Grace. Augustine can be said to embody a theology which might be considered a philosophy of Grace, in that his theology and his subsequent process of theological formulation are inescapably connected back to his understanding of it. F.F. Bruce in The Spreading Flame points out that the Pauline doctrine of Grace can be seen as being referenced theologically, in the progressive history of the church at a variety of points – such as The Epistle to Diognetus and in the works of Tertullian – “but not until Augustine do we find an adequate and sympathetic comprehension of what it really is[1]” In examining Augustine and his philosophy of a Free Will, we therefore must also understand that certain element and apprehension of Grace that he felt both he and all believers functioned under; for the essence of it served not just as his frame of reference, but also to frame and hang, as it were, his thoughts on the subject upon Philosophy’s own wall of thought.


Augustine’s youthful years are self-described as vain, and erotically motivated; full of selfish self-deceit. In the opening pages of his Confessions, under a chapter titled Wrestling with Puberty, Augustine writes


I was unable to distinguish pure affection from unholy desire. Both boiled in confusion within me, dragging my unstable youth down over the cliffs of impure desires and plunging me into a gulf of indecency. (Confessions, Book II, Chapter II, 41)


His conversion, subsequent baptism into the church, and his evolving, changing theological embodiment in terms of how he saw himself in terms of his own unworthiness of his own salvation, are indelibly marked and informed by it. In a consideration of his understanding of Grace; we see the unmistakable outlines of an understanding of what C.S. Lewis, in writing to Sheldon Vanauken[2]; regarding the death of his wife, Davy, once termed “A Severe Mercy.” He clearly understood the depths of the profoundness of his lost state and brokenness, both in the past and even in his ongoing struggles in the present[3]. This gave a certain gravity to his hamartiology;[4] or his understanding of the nature and extent of his sin, theologically. Augustine constantly and tirelessly affirms that his Salvation and anything attendant to it theologically are inextricably tied to a thoroughgoing understanding of a profound understanding of Grace.[5] Nothing, not our Free Will, not our Salvation, nor any hope is possible without it.[6]





Augustine’s Paradox Explicated:

The Necessity for a Free Will Orthodoxy 


In reading Augustine; On Free Choice of the Will, Book Three, we hear clearly hear the words of the theologian explaining his position with his fellow interlocutor, Evodius. Augustine and Evodius together explore the idea of Free Will and not just what it means to have it – but the necessary understanding that it does in fact exist.


Augustine, speaking to Evodius, writes,


 …we agreed that nothing can make the mind a slave to inordinate desire except its own will. For the will cannot be forced into such iniquity by anything superior or equal to it, since that would be unjust; or anything inferior to it, since that is impossible (On Free Choice of the Will, Book Three, Pg 71,72).


Augustine further writes that he believes that the “movement” that takes place “by which the will turns from enjoying the Creator to enjoying his creatures belongs to the will itself.” It is very possible that the enjoyment of “creatures,” rather then the creator, may well be a reference to Augustine’s own struggles with lust. His earlier struggles serve to undergird and illuminate the sincerity and the depth of his own theological expressions. Augustine is not the detached schoolmaster; he shows himself to be one who has struggled with the things of which he speaks.


It is not unlikely that Augustine would have unkind words to speak to those who have traveled down paths he would most certainly have disapproved of. In On Free Choice of the Will, he and Evodius make mention of a stone that falls because of the natural action of gravity and that it is not possible that one might sin by the same inherent act as a stone would in turn fall, under the influence of gravity, without any choice in the endeavor. In speaking of such speculation – he calls such ideas insane, and those who would believe such nonsense, dumber then the rock of which they reference[7].


In addition to using words like insane and the aspersion of ‘being dumber then a rock’ – Augustine further gives the harsh indictment that people who actually think this way should be “banished from the human race.[8]


Augustine then goes on in his discussion with Evodius to make further remarks in regards to those who think that we must sin expressly because of God’s foreknowledge of our infractions, noting that some people think in such terms because “they are more eager to excuse then to confess their sins.[9]”  He cautions against those who engage in an oppositionally-related fallacy of disbelieving divine judgments, thinking that “fortune will defend them from those who accuse them,” relying rather on sense of chance and/or fate in terms of their fortune. Augustine, likewise, condemns this also as being “full of the most foolish and insane error.[10]


In various parts of The City of God; Augustine also clearly reaffirms previous contentions, outlined in his earlier interlocutor-style presentations, but this time directly. In speaking of God – he says


He assigned free choice to the intellectual nature in such a way that, if it willed, it might abandon God – it’s own happiness, to be sure – with uninterrupted misery being the result. He knew beforehand that certain angels would abandon such a great good through pride – a pride by which they would will to be able to attain a happy life on their own. Nevertheless, he did not take away this power of free choice from them, but judged it to be better and more efficacious to bring good out of evil then to allow evils to exist. (Augustine, The City of God, Book XXII, from Augustine Political Writings, Pg. 185)


Centuries later, Augustine’s thoughts are reflected in the thoughts of the Christian mystic A.W. Tozer, as he posits his own solution to the Calvinist/Arminian debate, in The Knowledge of the Holy, where he states that a God less sovereign could never allow Free Will in his creatures. The reality of Free Will affirms God’s sovereignty and is not an offense to it.  [11]


Some Calvinian apologists have speculated that Augustine’s “will” is not textually equateable to volitional capabilities[12] – at least as they are understood within the Western epistemological mindset. But Augustine’s own words in The City of God show these to be ultimately fallacious endeavors.


Even if the order of all causes is certain to God, it does not follow that nothing depends on the free choice of our own wills. Our wills are themselves included in that order of causes which is known with certainty by and which is contained in his foreknowledge, for human wills are the causes of human actions.


From all this we conclude that the only efficient causes of all things which occur are voluntary causes; that is, they are causes which come from nature which is the spirit of life.


Just as he is the creator of all natures, so is he the giver of all powers, but not of all wills.


Therefore, whatever power they have, they possess with the utmost certainty, and what they are about it do, they are surely about to do, for he whose foreknowledge is infallible foreknew that they would have the power to do it and would in fact do it.


(Selections from Augustine, The City of God, Book V, Chapter 9, Augustine Political Writings, Pgs. 38,39 – Italics mine)



 A Divergent Inheritance:

The Tulip[13] & The Daisy[14] 


The divergent schools of Soteriological Determinism that followed Augustine and his contentions with Pelagius,[15] and then Calvin vs. Arminius, seemingly represent two different views of Grace, Free Will, and Soteriological Determinism. Each makes some degree of an affirmation of connectedness back to Augustine, both in their respective affirmations of both God’s Grace and his imparted Free will, or, as in the case of Calvinism – the lack thereof[16].


In today’s ongoing theological conversation, any reference to Augustine has scant reference to his thoughts on Free Will. The bulk of what is found regarding him in present-day conversations, articles  is provided only as support to Modern Evangelicalisms continued embracement of Calvinistic Predestinationism, carried on under the banner of Reformed Theology. You have to dig into Augustine and read for yourself what is, to some peoples eyes, a glaring contradiction. Augustine believed in both Predestination and Free Will; regardless of how you logically/Kataphatically seek to express those concepts under the banners of Calvinism and it’s Tulip – or -Arminianism and it’s Daisy. There is no doubt in this present writer’s mind, that many life-long, dyed-in-the-wool Calvinists would be utterly speechless to hear Augustine argue with them across the ages, against their own ideas of a forced-by-Foreknowledge lack of any Free Will.


But in light of the continued conversation of what is commonly referred to as “Postmodernity[17]” in theological circles, more and more influential thinkers are reexamining the Apophatic vs. Kataphatic spheres[18], especially as they relate to Calvinism and Augustine’s assertions of the free choice of the will.





 Proposed: An Apostle of The Apophatic;

Augustine’s Solution in His Seeming

Embracement of Contradictions 


Though Augustine is strongly viewed by modern Calvinists as their veritable ‘patron saint,’ there is potentially an argument to be made, that within the theology of Augustine, that even in his early work – a clear apophatism is present, and that it continues to develop and assert itself – in that Augustine represents a clear deferment to the apophaticism of Arminianism[19] in regards to the nature and interplay of the Will of God vs. The Will of Man. Augustine does not anguish on what he can positively say vs. what he can’t – but, as can be argued was in the epistimological spirit of his own age, he easily accepts that which he cannot.


As Augustine matured as a person, he also matured as a theologian; this rejection of ‘certifiable knowledge’ is born out when in his Confessions, written in what might be considered a middle period of his theological development; he writes that he is already seemingly tiring of the answers that Philosophy and Reason have to offer[20]; and in one particular section, uses language almost akin to the modern joke of the question of “how many angels can dance on the head of a pin” – in referencing one of the questions he had asked in his days as a Manichean – does God have fingernails?[21]


Calvin takes Augustine’s teachings on Predestination and furthers a Kataphatic approach vs. Augustine’s seeming apophatic one; he wants to say something – and that something takes on a Determinist mindset. Augustine makes clear in On Free Choice of the Will, as referenced prior, that foreknowledge does not force the occurrence of something; either in the heart and mind of God or man, when in his discussion with Evodius he clearly speaks of those who “might object that God himself will act out of necessity rather then by His own will in everything that he is going to do.[22]” Augustine understands our natural adamancy to enforce logical knowables (as he was no doubt acquainted with the scripture verses that proclaim the limits of human Reason[23]) and in such, can be argued to represent the essence of the Mythological/Classicist; in as much as the questions of Modernism relate back to in it’s oppositionally-related natural proclivity towards assertions of the Kataphatic, theological “positives;” or things you can say vs. those you can’t about God and the things of the Divine – which, can be argued, began actually potentially their assent through the Greek philosophical tradition.[24]


If we can argue that Calvin was a Modernist in his own Kataphatic Determinist evaluations of the will of God and that of Man and their logical interplay, then for all their claim to him (Calvin: “Augustine is ours”) in regards to Augustine – he is most certainly completely not. As Augustin, like Boethius, knew that foreknowledge did not necessarily force occurrence, as if such were true: that God’s knowledge of what we would choose, forced us to do it – then God’s own knowledge of his own choices would likewise invalidate His own sovereignty over his own choices. Augustine may or may not have realized that it was not wise to pick and choose which apophatic “mystery” you want to accept: you cannot say that God’s own self-knowledge cannot limit his own self – but it can yours; as in such a task you’re just performing epistemological back flips with God’s ontology, and then your own – leaving God’s transcendence as your ‘end all/be all’ for the equation. Can a God be beyond himself? When Evodius in On Free Choice of The Will references the conflict of God somehow being bound by a foreknowledge of His own future decisions, he tries to isolate the concept as ‘what happens in creation and not what happens within Himself[25]


 An apophatic theologian, such as Augustine, would assert that it is not just unsafe to stake out such claims, but completely impossible: and that rather then continue potentially, if not inherently, in further vain ascensions toward what we want to say, we should rather celebrate both what we de facto know and that which we have voluntarily, contra the cataphatic, surrendered as unknowable. The apophaticism of Augustine was not unique or obtuse; but rather a natural, logical expression of the Epistemological development of his philosophical epoch. It can effectively be argued, that they were simply questions that he did not bother to ask; their presences/absences were seemingly a natural given. Not everything necessarily needed to make sense, and what we might see – perhaps through Modernist, Scientific and arguably rational-centric eyes – might be absurd. And Augustine might well have thought that fact to be not just good, but celebrateable.


As a theological consensus began to assert itself against the abuses of Pelagius, and the subsequent reactionary rise of the assertions of Calvinism in a response, these questions of Apaphatic vs. Kataphatic theology were seemingly increasingly ignored. Whereas Augustine and Boethius gladly ceded the apaphatic affirmation of the mystery of foreknowledge and it’s relation to Predestination, Luther and then Calvin refused to accept what could be argued was the wisdom in Augustine’s natural apophatism.


Both Pelagius and Luther/Calvin arguably represent cataphatic treatments of a necessarily apophatic dimension of God and his relation to us. 


For all their claim to him, the Kataphatism of Calvinism must cede to the Apophatisim of Augustine, as least as he writes of his beliefs in regards to the will in On Free Choice of the Will. If such is true, then the Arminian claims to a potential for Free Will to coexist within Foreknowledge and what is often termed Unconditional Election is not a heresy, as Calvinists are so often quick to assert, but it is a steadfast truth – if not in a triumphant, conjoined mystery.  Augustine concludes his thoughts in On Free Choice of the Will, with a sincerely Kataphatic statement in relation to the paradox of a God potentially bound by His own foreknowledge, “and just as you remember some things that you have done but did not do everything that you remember, God foreknows everything that he causes but does not cause everything that he foreknows.”


A full analysis of the principles of the Tulip and then those of the Daisy, are truly beyond the scope of this already potentially over-extended essay; for which I must beg forgiveness. To explore them would necessitate a further treatment that would no doubt encompass the length of this introspection multiple times.  The conflicts and the realities of what the Christian scripture appears to say in places, and then in others – truly cannot be resolved, at least within our own mortal understandings.  But, as Augustine seeks to explore and affirm; we can understand certain truths, if we accept the larger mysteries and embrace God on His terms, in His Grace, and ultimately  – at His Word, and not our own.






Conclusions; a Garden still yielding fruit 


In his book, The Decent of the Dove, Charles Williams writes that Christianity has neither completely embraced nor escaped “…the phrases of Augustine. But without Augustine it might have ceased to be Christendom.” Indeed, the history of Christianity is both filled and fraught with many colorful characters; the vibrancy and color of its canvas painted both brightly and darkly, with both their successes and their respective failures; each adding or detracting, perhaps depending upon the perspective one might take of them, to the whole of what is known as Christianity. This much can be asserted regarding Augustine, that were he to have merely trumpeted the idea of a Free Will outside of the added gravitas of his own grappling with Grace, and not demonstrated the pronounced and continued inclusion of a serious and well-articulated hamartiology, his thoughts on all he affirmed, struggled with and articulated with passion, as he did in On Free Choice of the Will and his other proceeding works, would no doubt potentially have lost a degree of resonance that they have had throughout the proceeding generations of theologians, ministers, and laypersons who have come along and picked up his ‘phrases;’ exploring, mediating on them, and making them essential components of their own belief and faith.


In his continued professions of not just the actuality, but the criticality of the necessity of Free Will; asserted in On The Free Will, ascended to in Confessions, and affirmed at his height as a theologian in The City of God – Augustine may, in the eyes of some, represent the natural result of internal theological inconsistencies, and in those of others, perhaps the embodiment of ‘an apostle of the apophatic’ – for his capability to harmonize apparently differential theological concepts; and in the act, accepting the mysteries therein and thereof as both natural and celebrateable – either way. Because either way he is still one of the truly great ‘doctors’ of the faith, quite literally: as Augustine, in Catholic theology; because of his emphasis on Grace, is actually referred to as “The Doctor of Grace[26].”


This much is sure: Augustine has been and will likely remain a continued caretaker of the Theological Garden of Christianity. His writings continue to influence the very soil of it’s thought and the ‘flowers’ that grow within it. As theology and thought continue to both remain steadfast and yet grow in the legacy of both the past and the exciting engagements of the future – his shadow will remain for all those who study the past in an attempt to potentially understand the future; and his contributions in regards to bringing the Divine down into a context for what he had hoped for, for his own generation, which has been handed down to others proceeding far, far past his own years; ones which will continue to be both a fascinating and a fertile ground for ideas, both old and new.














Williams, Charles. The Decent of the Dove.
Vancouver, BC: Regent College Publishing, 2001.


Dr. Tom Gill. Saint Augustine: Confessions. Trans. Dr. Tom Gill
Gainesville, FL: Bridge Logos, 2003.


Bruce, F.F. The Spreading Flame.
Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1954.


Vanauken, Sheldon. A Severe Mercy.
London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1998.


McTavish, T. J. A Theological Miscellany
Nashville, TN: W Publishing Group, 2005.


Williams, Thomas. Augustine: On Free Choice of the Will. Trans. Thomas Williams.
Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Pub Co Inc, 1993.


Kelly, J.N.D. Early Christian Doctrines
San Francisco, CA: Harper & Row, 1978.


Tkacz, Michael W. Augustine, Political Writings: The City of God. Trans. Michael W. Tkacz
Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Pub Co Inc, 1994.


Tozer, A. W. The Knowledge of the Holy
New York, NY: HarperSanFranciso, 1978.


Vanhoozer, Kevin J. Ed. The Cambridge Companion to Postmodern Theology
Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press, 2003.


Grudem, Wayne. Bible Doctrine. ed. Jeff Purswell
Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1999.


“Doctors of the Church.” 29 Nov. 2007. The Catholic Encyclopedia. <;.

[1] F.F. Bruce, The Spreading Flame, pp. 334-35.

[2] Author of a book regarding the experience of the loss of his wife, Davy – who potentially was a source of ‘idolatry’ to him, which was titled after the phrase C.S. Lewis had originally used in a letter to him regarding the experience of losing her, A Severe Mercy

[3] What is there in me that could be hidden from you, Lord, to whose eyes the abyss of my conscience are exposed. (Augustine Confessions, Book X, Chapter 2, My Reason For Confessing, 312)

[4] T. J. McTavish, A Theological Miscellany, Some Christian “Ologies,” page 27

[5] …Namely that we owe thanks to our Creator. His most abundant goodness would be most justly praised even if he ad created us at a lower level of creation. For even though our souls are decayed with sin, they are better and more sublime then they would be if they were transformed into visible light. (On Free Choice of the Will, Book Three. Pg. 79)

[6] “For him grace was an absolute necessity, ‘without God’s help we cannot by free will overcome the temptations of this life” ‘ (Early Christian Doctrines, Grace and Predestination, Pg 366)

[7] The movement of the will is similar to the downward movement of a stone in that it belongs to the will just as that downward movement belongs to the stone. But the two movements are dissimilar in this respect: the stone has no power to check its downward movement, but the soul is not moved to abandon higher things and love inferior things unless it will to do so. And so the movement of the stone is natural, but the movement of the soul is voluntary. If someone were to say that a stone is sinning because its weight carries it downward, I would not merely say that he was more senseless then the stone itself; I would consider you completely insane. (On Free Choice of the Will, Book Three, Pg. 72)

[8] Furthermore, there would be no point in admonishing people to forget about lower things and stive for what is eternal, so that they might refuse to live badly but instead will to live rightly. And anyone who does not think that we ought to admonish people in this way deserves to be banished from the human race. (On Free Choice of the Will, Book Three, Pg. 72,73)

[9] (On Free Choice of the Will, Book Three, Pg.73)


[10] (On Free Choice of the Will, Book Three, Pg. 73)


[11] Man is free because God is sovereign, A God less then sovereign could never bestow moral freedom upon His creatures. He would be afraid to do so. (A. W. Tozer, The Knowledge of the Holy, The Sovereignty of God, Pg 111)


[12] “Here in Augustine, “will” or “desire” indicates that aspect of our being (in deed of all created beings) which somehow already has something and yet does not have it. In this way “will” names not, as for Pelagius or later in Western tradition, a faculty, but simply that problematic site where inner is also outer, active is also passive, present is also past and future, and knowing is also loving.” (D. Stephen Long, The Cambridge Companion to Postmodern Theology, Radical Orthodoxy, Pg. 139)


[13] THE 5 POINTS OF CALVINISM: T.U.L.I.P.   1) Total Depravity or Total Inability, 2) Unconditional Election, 3) Limited Atonement or Particular Redemption, 4) Irresistible Grace or the Efficacious Call of the Spirit, 5) Perseverance of the Saints (Wayne Grudem, Bible Doctrine, Essential Teachings of the Christian Faith, Pg. 288)


[14] THE 5 POINTS OF ARMINIANISM: D.A.I.S.Y.    1) Diminished Depravity, Free Will or Human Ability, 2) Abrogated Election or Conditional Election, 3) Impersonal Atonement or Universal Redemption, General Atonement, 4) Sedentary Grace or The Holy Spirit Can Be Effectually Resisted, 5) Yielding Eternal Uncertainty or Falling From Grace/Yes, as in You Can ‘Backslide’ (T. J. McTavish, A Theological Miscellany)


[15] Early Christian Doctrines, The Doctrine of Pelagius, Pg. 357

[16] A. W. Tozer, The Knowledge of the Holy, Pg. 110

[17] “Many ancient writers had drawn close parallels between Christian theology and the rhetorical tradition, including Sts. Augustine of Hippo and Gregory of Nazianzus (arguably two of the most formulative thinkers for early Christian theology). In one of Gregory’s orations, for instance, he complains loudly about his opponents, who think that everything about the Christian faith is a matter of logical deduction. And yet this was exactly that assumption about theology that came to dominate the modern era

This excessive rationalism had particularly deleterious consequences for Trinitarian theology, which had always been understood in much more holistic terms then what could be easily appropriated to the canons of logical analysis. (David S. Cunningham, The Cambridge Companion to Postmodern Theology, The Trinity, Pg. 193)

[18] “Contrary to many misreadings, both of Marion and of Dionysius, Marion rightly argues  that Dionysius’ mystical theology exceeds the alternative between affirmative (or “kataphatic”) and negative (or “apophatic”) theologies – both of which, if based on categorical statements on the essence of God, would amount to idolatry (Thomas A. Carson, The Cambridge Companion to Postmodern Theology, Postmetaphysical theology, Pg. 67)

[19] Wayne Grudem, Bible Doctrine, Essential Teachings of the Christian Faith, Pg. 153

[20] Augustine Confessions Book IV, Chapter 15, Pg 97

[21] Augustine Confessions Book III, Chapter 7, Pg 62

[22] (On Free Choice of the Will, Book Three, Pg 75)

[23] But we preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumblingblock, and unto the Greeks foolishness (1st Corinthians 1:23)

[24] For the Jews require a sign, and the Greeks seek after wisdom (1st Corinthians 1:22)

[25] (On Free Choice of the Will, Book Three, Pg. 75)



About hollerscholar

I'm a theology & philosophy student, writer, web developer, and medical laboratory professional.
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