“Dragging Me Away”: An Augustinian Approach to the Question of Human Freedom

The problem of free will is one that is addressed at length in the works of Augustine of Hippo, who is considered one of the foremost Christian scholars on the subject. His conception of the human will as it relates to the sovereignty of God influenced generations of scholars and theologians (among them John Calvin and other notable reformers). However, answers to the question of human freedom are seemingly sparse in the Confessions, Augustine’s most notable work. It is only upon a thorough examination of the text and a complete reading that the heavy overtones of free will and sovereignty become apparent, and in the light of the theological discussions of books 11–13 that they must be contextualized.

First, we must examine the Augustinian conceptualization of the will. Often referred to as a “free will,” I argue that this is not an adequate realization of Augustine’s theory of human choice and action, nor does it take into account the biblical understanding that the fruits of creation were altered when mankind fell into sin. Though he establishes that the human will, when exercised, tends only toward destruction, Augustine makes the simultaneous claim that human beings want to praise God. I examine what this means — and how these two principles can both be true — in light of the interpretation of Genesis 1 found in the Confessions.

A theory of original sin, when fully realized, points to a necessity for grace that created beings cannot conjure. For the Christian, the clear answer to this dilemma is a savior; however, even those who are best acquainted with Christ know the temptation to try and save themselves. I discuss the subsequent undoing that ensues, and question if and how an individual can truly choose the narrow way, or if only the dispensation of divine grace can lead sinners to salvation. Citing his own conversion story found in the Confessions, I argue that Augustine does not understand his salvation as the fruits of his own desires, but that he sees any good works as the result of grace alone. Additionally, he identifies even his most selfish choices as the instruments of God, using his disordered loves to banish the very same. This introduces the central question of my inquiry: is there such a thing as human freedom?

In response, I discuss the feasibility of what will be referred to as true choice — the process of deliberating, deciding, and acting — in light of Augustine’s understanding of time, space, and creation, returning once again to the Genesis 1 creation account to guide my inquiry. I suggest that because God is eternal, his will persists regardless of time and space and is thus distinct from human action. This can be true because what I classify as “true choice” relies on the lack of intervention in time.

Finally, I return to the question of what results of decisions made of the natural will, assuming that true choice exists. It is difficult to conceive of a scenario in which the unrighteous can choose to follow in the ways of God and receive salvation. However, I argue that Augustine’s Confessions details how the exercise of a fallen individual’s will can have truly good results, and how salvation can come about by both free choice and divine grace.

On the Natural Will

The majority of discussions regarding an individual’s ability to make decisions in lieu of divine influence or a predetermined end often relies on a vocabulary of “free will.” This terminology is helpful only to a point, because it assumes that the state of nature is one of perfect freedom, following in the tradition of John Locke and other Enlightenment thinkers. It follows that if a divine being interferes with the natural state of a given individual, thereby violating his or her supposed free will, that something — freedom — has been taken away. 

Conversely, a biblical reading of the will is informed by an understanding that human beings, as the descendants of Adam and Eve, are free only insofar as the guilt of original sin has rendered them — which is not free at all. The Apostle Paul addresses new believers in his letter to the Romans as once being slaves to sin.1 Augustine’s conception of the individual will is similar. Attributing the inability to do right to original sin, he refers to Adam as “one who had been freer than I,”2 and questions God, “If indeed I was conceived in iniquity, and in sins my mother nourished me in her womb … where or when, O Lord, was I, your servant, innocent?”3 So convinced of man’s sinful nature was Augustine that even the newborn is implicated in the guilt of sin. In response, he charges God later in the Confessions, writing, “Grant what you command, and command what you will,” for man “has no strength in himself.”4 Thus, to allege that an individual has free will is incorrect: the natural disposition of human beings tends toward disorder, and it is by grace alone that the ability to choose rightly is endowed. It is with a vocabulary of a natural — not free — will that this inquiry will proceed.

Despite mankind’s apparently wayward orientation, Augustine makes the claim that human beings want to praise God.5 It is initially unclear how this can be true if the depraved nature of humanity renders individuals unable to pursue righteousness; however, there are two possible answers that warrant consideration. After the initial assertion that all people have a desire to praise God, Augustine writes, “You rouse them to take delight in praising you,” the reason being that God has made mankind for himself, and that “our heart is restless until it comes to rest in you.”6 This is consistent with the aforementioned request that God not only reveal his will, but grant those who are in him the grace to abide within it.

The typical translation of what is likely the most famous phrase of the Confessions is as follows: “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in you.” However, a closer reading of the Latin source suggests that human beings were not only made for God, but were made toward God. For the modern reader, the use of the preposition “toward” makes little sense in a linguistic context, but in actuality reflects a truth about mankind that is embedded in Augustine’s interpretation of the creation account found in Genesis 1.

Augustine first identifies the presence of each person of the Trinity in the creation account, writing, “By the word ‘God’ I already understood you, O Father, who made these things; by the word ‘Beginning’ I already understood the Son, in whom you made these things. And believing that my God is a trinity, I looked further into his sacred writings, and there it was: I found your Spirit borne over the waters.”7 The work of these actors is distinct yet inseparable. Augustine then discusses at length those things numbered among the created beings and the order in which they received light: first the heaven of heaven, or heavenly hosts, and then “earth invisible and unorganized.”8 There is a question as to why the beings that cling ever to God would require light, which Augustine answers thusly: “The angel fell; the human soul fell; they showed that the abyss would have held the whole spiritual creation in its deep darkness had you not said from the outset, ‘Let light be made,’ and light was made… Otherwise even the heaven of heaven would have been a dark abyss in itself; but now it is light in the Lord.”9 The light in this instance refers to the means by which all things were given form, lifted from the abyss turned toward the true source of light by the Spirit that hovered over the deep.

“You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in you.”

Thus, the creation of mankind toward God is clear in the context of all created things being turned to face their creator and becoming what they ought to be. This reading of Genesis 1 makes evident what Augustine meant when he claimed that human beings, in their fallen state, want to praise God: The basic fabric of humanity is one that reflects the image of its creator, impressed upon it by the posture that was assumed during its creation.

Although the creation of human beings lifted them from the abyss to face the Godhead, the fall initiated a turning away and reestablished the tendency toward the formlessness of the void from which they were called. The process of decreation by means of sin introduces a need for recreation and reformation through the Word and the Spirit. This is given through the sacrifice of Christ: He who knew no sin, but bearing that of all mankind, paid the wages thereof. The Word, through whom “all things came into being,”10 is the same Christ who redeemed mankind by his death and resurrection. Thus, man is recreated through the same means — and the same Trinitarian person — by which he was made in the beginning. Furthermore, humans are given form by exercising charity, thereby participating in the love of the Father and the Son through the Holy Spirit. In the same way that mankind was lifted from the abyss in the beginning, it is redeemed by the Spirit once again. Augustine explains it in this way: “Your Spirit raises us up by our love for a peace free from all anxiety, so that we might have our hearts lifted up to you, where your spirit is borne over the waters, and so that we might come to that surpassingly excellent rest after our soul has passed over the waters that have no substance.”11

Even if human beings know that they are called to rest, and that the only true source is in the Lord, how might depraved creatures, bound by a fallen natural will, choose to participate in the ultimate good? This dilemma highlights the profound need for grace.

On Grace

At every instance the state of his soul is addressed, Augustine attributes his salvation — in fact, the arrival at any good — absolutely to the goodness of God. “It was pleasing in your sight to take my deformity and give it form again,” he writes of God, “and by your inward goads you spurred me on.”12 This deformity is identified as a result of original sin as well as Augustine’s own willful waywardness. The prime illustration of this entropy of the heart is found in Book Two, when Augustine describes how he stole pears for no apparent reason, begging of God to give him answers and absolution: “What then, did I love in that theft of mine, and in what way was I viciously, perversely, imitating my Lord? Did it please me to act against your law… and thus mimic the curtailed freedom of a prisoner by getting away with doing what was not permitted, in a shadowy likeness of omnipotence?”13 Here it is suggested that not only are human beings not free, but that the most senseless acts of sin emerge from the perverse desire to be their own masters, when they are in fact further enslaving themselves to sin.

Augustine’s descriptions of his journey to salvation likely inspires dissonance in those that insist that salvation must be a choice made in perfect freedom. However, Augustine seemingly asserts that his conversion was not a free choice at all; rather, he was unable to choose God even when prompted by the realization that his life outside of Christ would be a slow death of continued fragmentation. He asks, “Were there any words left that I had not used to whip my soul into following me as I tried to go after you?”14 The terminology of whipping in this instance directly parallels a passage that follows: “In your severe mercy, O Lord, you rose up in the hidden places of my inmost self and whipped me more and more with the lash of fear and shame… lest I fail to cast off the small and fragile chain that yet remained.”15 This language indicates that in being released from the slavery of sin, Augustine also relinquished the illusion that he was his own master, and that God was the wielder of the only whip that could move his soul.

Thus, the natural will can be transformed into a truly free will by grace. However, the question remains of how a child born into sin could choose to exit the bondage thereof and become a “prisoner for Christ Jesus.”16 If Augustine’s understanding holds true, it calls into question the truth of human choice, both in how it relates to salvation and general action. The latter is challenged as Augustine relays the story of his journey from Carthage to Rome and his near-death experience. Again giving thanks for the divine goodness that preserved him, Augustine then says to God, “You were dragging me away by my own disordered desires in order to put an end to those very desires.”17 Here he insinuates that even his sinful actions were being put to use by God, who wills no sin but nevertheless wields it for his ends. 

How, then, is the fruit of any choice brought into existence by the will of human beings? If even the seeming rebellion of a slave is orchestrated by the master, if a falling away is permitted only so humans will be disgusted by their reflection in the abyss, then how does the most limiting theory of a natural will stand?

On Time, Creation, and the Existence of Freedom

The theological meditations found in the three final books of the Confessions are often regarded as auxiliary to the narrative of the first ten. After thoroughly examining his life from infancy to his conversion to Christianity, Augustine then turns to meditations on time, space, creation, and scriptural interpretation. While they have no seeming relevance to the autobiographical confessio by which they are preceded, these philosophical and exegetical books are key in understanding Augustine’s stance on theological questions, including those of human freedom and true choice.

Augustine’s commentary on Genesis 1 proves helpful in understanding the nature of God as it relates to the affairs of human beings. Most evident is the truth that human beings were made — not begotten as was Christ — but a part of the created order. Augustine writes, “They also cry out that they did not make themselves: ‘We exist because we were made. So before we existed, we were not anything, so as to be able to make ourselves.’”18 Contrary to the teachings of the Manicheans, Augustine makes clear that sparks of the divine are not trapped in the material world, and certainly do not designate humans as coeternal with their maker; rather, human beings were made in and by the Word. This is important because to understand the works of God in creation, one must first acknowledge that he resides outside of it.

Another necessary distinction is that God is not bound by time, for what is called the “natural law” applies only to those beings that comprise nature. Augustine writes of God, “It is by the loftiness of ever-present eternity that you precede all past things, and you surpass all future things because they are future, and once they have come, they will be past. But you are the Selfsame, and your years will not fail.”19

Here, Augustine’s commentary on the nature of time proves helpful. He writes of the present, “When we measure times by experiencing them, we are measuring things that are passing away.”20 While time is most commonly understood as having the components of past, present, and future, Augustine suggests here that the passage of time is determined largely by the human mind, and can thus be best explained in a terminology of memory, attention, and expectation. Since the present is continually passing away, it exists only insofar as does the attention span. When reflecting on what has just occurred, one exercises the memory. Similarly, that which is to come can only be expected, not experienced.

In the same way that God precedes the past and surpasses future events, he does not remember or anticipate in the same way as human beings. Because God is the Selfsame — as it is written in Exodus 3:14, “I Am who I Am” — he is eternally present, surrounding and invading all past and future events. Augustine summarizes this posture succinctly: “If the present were always present and did not flow away into the past, it would no longer be time, but eternity.”21

The eternally present nature of God is directly related to Augustine’s interpretation of the Genesis 1 creation account. As was previously discussed, the three persons of the Godhead had inseparable but distinct roles in creation, which are as follows: the Father makes all things in the Word, or the Son, who illumines all, and the Spirit gives form. At the end of his inquiry into how all things were made, Augustine concludes, writing, “It is not that one word is completed and then another word is spoken, so that all things may be uttered; all are uttered at once and eternally.”22 Because all things were created in the Word, who is coeternal with the Father, the light and form given to all created beings continues to persist because the word is eternal. 

The same can be said of the Will of God. Lifted from the abyss by the Spirit, all created things retain their given form, and therefore the intention, with which they were made. “So it is by the Word, coeternal with you, that you all at once and eternally utter all the things you utter; and it is by him that whatever you speak into existence is made.”23 Thus, the Will of God is uttered eternally, limited by neither time nor space. It is proclaimed throughout all of creation and at all times, invading the world although he is not a part of it. Human beings — and in fact, all created things — testify to the Will of God simply because they exist.

A case can be made for human freedom by differentiating between those things that are simultaneous and eternal. The long-standing debate regarding free will relies on the assumption that the Will of God and the will of an individual are competing against one another in time. However, since the Will of God composes the fabric of reality, and I consider true choice to exist when no actors interfere with the will of a given decision-maker, I maintain that according to an Augustinian understanding of creation and time, one will does not violate the other. God’s will is eternal, and the will of man is linear. Although this answer is not particularly intuitive or straightforward, I argue that it is viable in the same sense that God can be “most hidden and most present,” he who “changes [his] works and do[es] not change [his] plan.”24 The things of heaven are not always comprehensible to created beings, but I offer here the best explanation that my finite mind can conjure.

On the Fruits of the Natural Will

Although I have addressed the question of true choice, I have not yet offered a response to the dilemma of the natural will. It has been established that the Will of God, embodied in the Word, exists and is spoken eternally, and thus does not interfere with decisions made by human actors. To put it succinctly, God’s will is embedded, whereas an individual’s will is linear. The former is eternal, while the latter “happens.” However, also suggested was the idea that humans do not have a “free will,” because they are slaves to sin; rather, they have a natural will, which tends like all created things toward entropy. This being the case, it remains to be seen whether an Augustinian characterization allows for human beings to exercise free choice and select good ends, burdened as they are by the weight of original sin.

In recounting his journey from Carthage to Rome, Augustine describes how he left thinking that he was escaping the suffering brought about by his pupils, eager to take up another teaching appointment. However, he maintains that for all of the legitimate reasons that prompted his free choice to leave for Rome, it was God who led him there: “It was you … who for the salvation of my soul induced me to move from one land to another: you who applied the goads by which I was driven away from Carthage, you who put before me the attractions by which I was drawn to Rome.”25 Augustine, exercising his natural will, made a free choice that was informed by a base desire for happiness, but found himself led by God toward salvation nevertheless. This instance illustrates how an individual can choose a good thing, not necessarily with righteous intentions, but still reap blessings because of the eternal Will of God.

Similarly, Augustine’s account contextualizes how the choice to accept the gift of salvation can be just that — a choice — but still be realized only due to grace that God endows. From the earliest days of his education, Augustine sought after truth and wisdom in all of his endeavors. He described the impact of his first encounters with philosophy, writing, “It encouraged me not to follow this or that sect but instead to love wisdom itself, whatever it should turn out to be, and to love it and seek after it and pursue it and hold on to it and embrace it with all my strength.”26 Although he sought this wisdom by the wrong means — turning to the Platonists and Manicheans alike to guide him — and did so for ends that were not righteous, those choices eventually led him to seek God and receive salvation. Similarly, individuals can be driven toward grace by fear of the suffering that befalls those who spend eternity separated from the love of God, or by desiring selfishly the joy and peace of those who follow Christ.

It is evident in Augustine’s retelling of his conversion that his intellect and desire took him to the very edge of surrender, but no further. He admonishes himself, writing, “You always said you were unwilling to cast aside the burden of your emptiness because you were not certain of the truth. But look now: you are certain and still your burden presses upon you.”27 By the Grace of God and the revelation of his truth, Augustine at last received salvation; as a choice and as a gift, willed by himself as his “bones cried out for this very thing,”28 and yet only brought to pass as orchestrated by his maker, whose will composed his being but did not violate his choice. Augustine describes how God “summoned forth in a moment” the free will that lay hidden in the recesses of his soul. Free at last from the burdens that hindered his journey to salvation, he proclaims, “And what at one time I feared to lose, it was now a joy to me to put away. For Thou cast them away from me, Thou true and highest sweetness.”29

This mirrors what is written in the letters of Paul, who describes God as he who “desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.”30 Human beings are enabled to receive salvation because of the eternal Word in which they were made and the coeternal Will of God that marks all created things.

In Conclusion

Thus, human beings do not possess free will, for Adam’s exercise of his own will brought about the curse of original sin. With a natural will, one can only engage in perpetual undoing, which requires recreation and reformation. This occurs in the same way that all things were created: by the Father, in the Word, and given form by the Spirit. It is by life in Christ that the natural will of mankind can be transformed into a free will. Despite the fact that the Grace of God is necessary to choose righteousness and that all choices, good or otherwise, are instruments of His will, true choice does exist. Since God is outside of creation and therefore outside of time, his will does not function in a linear fashion; rather, it is continually spoken over all created things by the Word in which they were created. Therefore, it does not interfere with a temporal or “active” will. Even though human beings are incapable of choosing rightly on their own, they can make choices that employ sinful means and have sinful ends, but nevertheless result in goodness. This is possible only through the Grace of God; however, this grace does not violate the integrity of a given choice, but recreates it in accordance with the Will of God, which is eternally speaking. It is by this great mystery that human beings can choose destruction and yet be dragged away from it by God’s great mercy into life abundant with him, recreated in the Word and given form once more by the Spirit.

Ruth Holloway ’21 majored in Political Science and History. She lives in Urbana, IL. We thank Dr. Jared Ortiz (Religion) for his involvement with Ruth’s piece.

Spring 2022 Table of Contents

1  Rom. 6:17

2  Augustine of Hippo, Confessions, trans. Thomas Williams (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 2019), 8.10.22. Henceforth referenced as Conf.

3  Conf. 1.7.12

4  Conf. 10.31.45

5  Conf. 1.1.1

6  Conf. 1.1.1

7  Conf. 13.5.6

8  Conf. 13.5.6

9  Conf. 13.8.9

10  John 1:1–3

11  Conf. 13.7.8

12  Conf. 7.8.12

13  Conf. 2.6.14

14  Conf. 8.7.18

15  Conf. 8.11.25

16  Eph. 3:1

17  Conf. 5.8.15

18  Conf. 11.4.6

19  Conf. 13.16

20  Conf. 11.16.21

21  Conf. 11.14.17

22  Conf. 11.7.9

23  Conf. 11.7.9

24  Conf. 1.4.4

25 Conf. 5.8.14

26  Conf. 3.4.8

27  Conf. 8.7.18

28  Conf. 8.8.19

29  Conf. 9.1.1

30  1 Tim. 2:4

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