The issue is expressed by Evodius in his discussion with Augustine in On Free Choice of the Will, with the question – “Isn’t God the cause of evil?” (Cahn 374) Immediately Augustine drawsa distinction between one who commits evil, and one who suffers evil. The former is moral evil or sin, whereas the latter is what one suffers. There could be any number of reasons for the latter, but these all come back to the primary former problem of moral evil. Augustine first highlights the basic presuppositions brought to the question, and based on these he argues that free will can be compatible with God’s foreknowledge, provided one is clear about the meaning of the terms used, and that revelation takes precedence over reason alone.
There are certain basic presuppositions which Augustine posits, leading into these questions, which set the table for his replies. The first one to note, which is part of what is his epistemology, is found at Isaiah 7:9, namely that, “Unless you believe, you will not understand.” (375, 379) One must begin with a belief in revelation, that there are certain mysteries that only God knows, but nevertheless, he reveals to humanity what we need to know, that one might live for him (See Dt. 29:29). It is also important to note that Augustine equated belief with faith, that the latter is in no way contrary to reason or rational understanding and explanation. Therefore, he welcomed the questions, since he himself had been struggling with the problem of evil for many years.
Other biblical presuppositions are the goodness of God, and that he created all things, including humanity, as good. He rejected the Manichean belief in two equal powers – good and evil, which flatly contradicts the biblical revelation. “If you know or believe that God is good – and it is not right to believe otherwise – then he does no evil.” (374) Furthermore, “if we acknowledge that God is just – and it is impious to deny it – then he rewards the good and punishes the wicked.” (374). The second definition of evil above, as what some suffer, at least provides some explanation for some of this “suffering”, since it may be judgment on evil doers, or discipline for saints. Further, God is also sovereign. “We believe that this world is governed by divine providence.” (374) Finally, some suggest that the additional presupposition of God’s omniscience is in part an answer to the first question. Based upon these beliefs the problem arises as to how one might explain the presence of evil, moral evil or sin in particular.
The Cause Of Moral Evil Or Sin Expressed In Two Questions.
“How is it that these two propositions are not contradictory and inconsistent: (1) God has foreknowledge of everything in the future; and (2) We sin by the will, not by necessity?” (382) Augustine believed that the cause of moral evil or sin, was with humanity in Adam as our representative, choosing to disobey the command not to eat from the one tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Gen. 2:15-17; 3:17-19). This decision must have been voluntary, otherwise the punishment that followed could not be justified. However, the question is then posed as to why God would create a being capable of choosing evil, “since if we had not received it, we would not have been able to sin.” (377) To this Augustine replied that because they/we were free to also choose the good, and that God rewards the choosing of the good, then there would be no free expression of a human’s love for God or others, if in fact they/we were compelled. Since free will is needed to choose the good, this is a “sufficient reason for God to give it.” (378) Therefore, God cannot be held culpable, since they/we were free to choose the good instead of the evil. However, the problem still remains as to how one can believe in God’s omniscience, and human will free.
Free Will and Foreknowledge.
The first question above seeks to get at the ultimate source of evil, and if humans have free will, how can God have foreknowledge of everything. Augustine answers by analogy to one person knowing what another person is going to do before they do it, which also does not make them the cause of such action, in this case, should it come to pass. That there is no doubt that God knows infallibly, does not make him anymore the ultimate cause either. “Thus, we believe both that God has foreknowledge of everything in the future and that nonetheless we will whatever we will.” (383) However, since we can only choose the good after regeneration, Augustine will proceed to show how grace is thus necessary for any, that even faith is a gift (Eph. 2:8-9). In regards to the first question then, God’s foreknowledge is no more the cause of sin, then another human knowing that someone will sin is the cause of that sin. “If you knew that someone was going to sin, he wouldn’t sin necessarily, would he? (384) “Sin is committed by the will, not coerced by God’s foreknowledge.” (384)
There is yet another proposition which comes into play, which Augustine tries to address in his other works, and that is how one reconciles free will and the problem of evil, given that God is also omnipotent. In other words, since God knows that sins will be committed, he either is helpless to do anything about it, or he is all-powerful, but unwilling. Since it is not possible for God to desire evil, and he is all-powerful, the problem would appear to go much deeper. One might take the example of predictive prophecy, the fulfilment of which was a sign of a true prophet. How is such a thing possible unless God predestines the fulfillment, especially when it is believed that God is ultimately behind the prediction? If someone replies we may be willing, but are not able, Augustine responds with what he considers the full definition of what the will is. “It could not be a will unless it were in our power.” (383) Given that God’s foreknowledge is infallible, and his power is greater than any human’s power, many do not see how these propositions can be compatible. Yet, as we have also seen, Augustine and others believe that they are compatible.
This is where Augustine’s doctrine of predestination comes into play. Some believe that the idea of free will absolves God of being the cause of evil, and that he only predestines what he foreknows. However, it is not hard to realize that this is putting the cart before the horse, so to speak. Paul wrote that God foreknows all things because he predestines all things. Predestination is inseparable from foreknowledge (Rom. 8:29-30). Paul argues that before Jacob and Esau were born, or had done any good or bad, he predestined whatever would come to pass. It is ludicrous to argue that his predestination was/is based on what he foreknew, since if humans were free in this sense then God would not foreknow. John makes the point that those who are born again, that is, regenerated, are “born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.” (1:13)
Some want to suggest that God’s atemporality, that is, that he is not bound by time, is somehow an answer to this problem. One may note Augustine’s treatment of God and time in his Confessions. However, this aspect of who God is misses the point set out in the scriptures, that God is sovereign, and that he condescends, as it where, to speak to us in the temporal context that he created, in order to show that he is sovereign. It means that God is able to use that which is evil, for his own good purposes. There is the famous story of Joseph who suffered under the evil behaviour of his brothers, and how his faith allowed him to take a different attitude toward them. “You meant evil against me; but God meant it for good, in order to bring it about as it is this day.” (Gen. 50:20) Even the crucifixion of Jesus had the same dynamics at work. Speaking to his fellow Jews, Peter delivered the following verdict. “Him, being delivered by the determined purpose and foreknowledge of God, you have taken by lawless hands, have crucified, and put to death.” (Acts 2:23) God could have stopped them, but instead he permitted them to follow their free choice. The foreknowledge was based upon his “determined purpose,” not vice versa. Without God’s grace, humans have free will, but it is only free to do evil, but even so, God is able to use such decisions and accompanying actions for his own sovereign purposes.
I, like Calvin, find substantial agreement with Augustine on the issue of God’s foreknowledge, and humanity’s free will. Frankly, it is a subject which cannot be comprehended properly without first accepting the biblical presuppositions concerning both God and humanity, and the radical nature of the fall. Before the fall, Adam had the freedom to do either good or evil, and we in him chose the evil of thinking that we could be equal with God. After the fall, humans without God’s grace of regeneration, are free only to choose evil. Nevertheless, God is able to permit evil for the sole reason of it accomplishing his sovereign purposes. Many certainly object to this understanding of things, but it does not mean that the argument is not a rational one, based on the premises chosen, the source of which is the revelation given.
Augustine, City of God (Garden City, N.Y. Image Books, 1958).
________, Confessions (Markham: Penguin Books, 1982).
Augustine, “On Free Choice of the Will” [Cahn, Steven M., ED. Classics Of Western Philosophy (Indianapolis/Cambridge: Hackett, 2012)]. 374-389
________, A Treatise On The Predestination Of The Saints. The First Book, 428 or 429. https://www.monergism.com/thethreshold/sdg/pdf/augustine_predest.pdf
Gonzalez, Justo L. The Story Of Christianity Vol. I (New York: Harper One, 2010).
Pang, Ann A. “Augustine on divine foreknowledge and human free will.” Revue des Etudes Augustiniennes, 40 (1994) 417-431.