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St. Augustine's Concept of the Freedom of the Will

May 05, 2023
By Bassam M. Madany

Term Paper for Basic Christian Ethics 
Calvin Theological Seminary 
Academic Year: 1957-1958

Bassam M. Madany

The subject of the “Freedom of the Will” is of great interest to Christians.  Their understanding of this matter colors their theology, their ethics, as well as their missionary approach.  In the history of the church, the first major heresy concerning the doctrine of man – and of salvation – centered its main teachings in this field.  The British Monk Pelagius propounded a theory regarding the freedom of the will which was judged as diametrically opposed to the scriptural doctrine of the “bondage” of the will.  Pelagianism has persisted to exist in the Church under various names and with slight modifications.  The man that led the fight against this heresy was Augustine, the bishop of the Catholic Church in Hippo, Tunisia.  His interpretation of our subject has left a lasting mark on the life and faith of the Church. 

At the time of the Reformation, both Luther and Calvin claimed their adherence to the substance of St. Augustine’s teachings.  They were especially indebted to the North African Church father in their elaboration of the doctrines of grace and the freedom of the will.  According to a present-day French authority on Calvin, the Genevan reformer quotes more in his writings from Augustine than from all the other Church fathers.[1]  Charles Hodge, the great Reformed theologian of the 19th century called his system of theology Augustinian.  And so, if we are to understand our own official stand on many important subjects in theology and in ethics, we need to go back to Augustine.  This is not to say that our theology or our ethics is thoroughly Augustinian, but it emphasizes our great indebtedness to, and reliance upon, St. Augustine in the elaboration of our beliefs regarding God and man.

Throughout history, three mutually exclusive theories of the freedom of the will have been held.  We may call the first one “Fatalism”, the second, “Pelagianism”, and the third, “Augustinianism”.  In “Fatalism” everything is predetermined and comes to pass because of a certain blind fate.  Man is the unwilling slave of this cold and impersonal force.  He has no choice and no freedom in deciding his actions.  In some ancient heathen religions, this doctrine gave a morbid outlook on life.  Man’s life was nothing but a tragedy!  In Buddhism, where Pantheism is the soul of this religion and where God and man are not ultimately distinguished, no serious notice is given to the human side of our actions.  Everything that exists is a part of God, and thus all actions of men are actually the direct manifestations of the activity of the God-who-is-all! Freedom of the will and human responsibility thus disappear.

In Islam, a “wholly-other” God is substituted to the heathen Fate.  There is a sort of blind determinism emanating from God’s capricious will.  Allah can will and does will anything.  Man’s life with its minutest details has been predetermined and there is nothing that he can do except surrender to Allah.  Hence the word “Islam” which is the Arabic for surrender, and “Muslim,” is the person who surrenders to God.

The Fate of Marxism is clothed with a philosophic garb known as “Dialectical Materialism”.  History is conceived of as moving steadfastly towards the goal of the perfect classless society.  There is nothing you can do to stop the onward march of history.  You are free only if you join the progressive forces of the peoples’ movements and hasten the dawn of the Golden Age.  If you remain a reactionary nothing but death awaits you!

Pelagianism does not agree at all with all sorts of fatalism.  According to its founder, the will in each man is undetermined towards the bad or the good.  A Roman Catholic scholar has this to say about this school of thought.  “According to Pelagius the will is free, in the sense of free to choose right or wrong on any occasion, independently of what its previous acts may have been.  There is no such thing as original sin, since sin is always a matter of will and never of nature: the individual will is the ultimate determinant of conduct.”[2]  Pelagius believed that Adam’s fall did not affect the integrity of the will.  Man can always be good if he wants to.  The reason that people rather choose evil than good, Pelagius attributed to ignorance.  People simply did not know better, and so they did not behave well.  Educate them, and the will would be able to choose the good.  (How closely this comes to the tenets of 20th century liberalism is not hart to find!)

And so Pelagius began zealously to “educate” the citizens of Rome.  He did his utmost to rid their minds of such beliefs as the depravity of fallen man and the necessity of special grace.  His crusade was not left unchallenged for long.  Augustine rose up in defense of the scriptural doctrines which the British monk denied.  He had already dealt with the matter of the freedom of the will when he wrote De Libero Arbitrio.  This book was directly aimed at the refutation of the Manichean teachings regarding the origin of evil and the nature of man.  The rise of Pelagianism helped Augustine to sharpen his understanding of the biblical teaching concerning the state of man since the fall.

St. Augustine’s position differs from both the Fatalistic and Pelagian ones.  Since he believes in an all-wise and holy God, he cannot accept any kind of blind determinism.  He takes the fall of man seriously and realistically.  He cannot agree therefore with the shallow and optimistic view of Pelagius.  In order to understand Augustine’s stand, we may glance rapidly at his life and note especially those experiences which enabled him to construct a doctrine of the will which bears to this day his distinguished name.

Augustine was born in 354 in a small town in Southern Tunisia, which was at the time within the Roman Empire.  His father was a heathen, but his mother Monica was a devout Christian.  The predominant culture of North Africa at the time was Roman and the official language was Latin.  At the age of 19, he joined the Manichean religion.  This faith, which had its birth in Persia in the middle of the third century A.D., spread widely in the Near East and in Europe and North Africa.  According to this system there were two principles in existence: Light and Darkness.  Darkness invaded light and the first man was called into existence to repel the invasion, but he failed.  Man can become free only by continence and renunciation.  Augustine was a Manichean for nine years.  He thought that in this faith he had finally come to solve the problem of evil.  But he was never completely satisfied, as he related this later in his Confessions.  He left this sect at the age of 29 and was for a while an agnostic.  His search for the truth did not stop, however.  As a teacher of rhetoric he came to Milan in Northern Italy where he had some pupils to tutor.  He was very attracted by the eloquence of Ambrose, the bishop of that city.  Finally, he was converted to catholic Christianity through the reading of the Bible, and especially of Romans.

Shortly after his conversion, St. Augustine began to write his book on The Problem of Free Choice.  It is written in the form of a dialogue, and most likely it followed in substance an actual dialogue that took place between himself and his friend Euodius.  The book begins with the important question, “I should like you to tell me: is God the cause of evil”?  The book deals more with the problem of evil than with the problem of free choice.  Augustine has a good deal to say about our subject in his Confessions, where he reviews his life up to his conversion and return to North Africa, in the form of a confession to God.  Looking back at his life from its very beginning, Augustine endeavored to examine its details in the light of the Word of God.  As he was always very interested in the problem of evil, and of the entrance of evil into the world, we may expect him to have a great deal to say regarding man’s will and its freedom.  What he has to say on this subject does not stand in isolation from some other related doctrines.  We shall look briefly at his understanding of the origin of evil, the fall of man, and the results of this fall.  What a person believes in connection with these important subjects will influence his concept of the freedom of the will in a very definite way.

The Origin of Evil

In this matter, Augustine’s concept is influenced to a great extent by the philosophers.  According to Father J.A. Beckaret, Augustine’s philosophy is “a synthesis of the strongest elements of Platonism, Stoicism and Neo-Platonism in a Christian perspective.  We can maintain that this (synthesis) is original to such an extent and that its role is radical enough so as to constitute a specific philosophy.”[3]  Another recent writer on Augustine’s ethics, Bruno Switalski, has this to say: “Augustine learnt that evil is not an entity at all, that it is not a substance, but the privation of good, viz., a perverse turning of the will from God.”[4]

While this explanation of the origin of evil may be termed speculative, what is of special importance to us is St. Augustine’s insistence on the role of the human will in the entrance of evil into the world.  No matter how much we may differ with him on the nature and origin of evil, yet we cannot but agree with him that it was through man’s will that evil entered the life of man.

The Fall of Man

Augustine’s doctrine of the fall of man has a great deal to say about the relationship of that fall to man’s will.  Etienne Gilson has this to say about this matter:

“In itself, free will would not be an evil; but it is not either an absolute good, such as temperance and justice are.  It is a kind of a middle good, whose nature is good, but whose effect may be evil or good, according to the way man makes use of it.”[5]

“And this will being changeable, since it is created out of nothing and thus imperfect in its nature, had only to choose the creature instead of the Creator, to introduce in itself and in the universe the initial disorder of sin.”[6]

Now we come to consider specifically St. Augustine’s concept of the freedom of the will.  Before the fall, man was free, i.e., he had the ability or power to sin or not to sin.  This is not disputed by the Pelagians, the semi-Pelagians and the Arminians.  Augustine believed also that in heaven, the redeemed are free in the sense that they cannot will to sin.  What is most important to determine are Augustine’s teachings regarding man’s present state.  He taught plainly that man has lost the ability to do good, he is free only to sin, but not to do good.  This is very important for us to know.  When in it is said, for example, that Augustine denied free will and that Pelagius affirmed it, it does not mean that the former denied the existence of one the faculties of the soul, and that the latter believed the contrary, Augustine simply meant that fallen human nature had lost the power to turn man to his creator.  On the other hand, Pelagius “defined liberty to be the ability at any moment to determine oneself, either for good or evil.”[7]

Augustine could not accept a complete separation between man’s intellect, will and emotions.  These faculties are closely related to each other, so much as to render one’s actions always determined from within by those faculties.  In other words, when man acts, his will is determined by self, i.e., by all the faculties of man.  The will is not self-determined, it is not autonomous, but it is always related to, and motivated by, the heart of man.  Man, in his present state, is fallen.  His mind is in enmity to God.  In the words of Paul, “The mind of the flesh is enmity against God; for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can it be.”  So that, they that are in the flesh cannot please God.” Romans 8:7, 8.  Man’s emotions are contaminated by inordinate desires and lusts.  His whole nature leads him away from God.  Whenever he exercises his will, he is using a faculty which has also been seriously damaged by the fall.  Man’s will has become a slave of his darkened mind and his depraved emotions.  It still acts freely but only I the sense that it is not compelled by any force from without.  It acts in complete harmony with man’s present nature.  This means that man’s will is held in bondage to man’s evil heart.

Augustine relates in Book VIII of his Confessions how he admired the strength of character in Victorinus who chose to forsake his job rather than compromise during the reign of Julian the Apostate.

“He seemed to me not more resolute than blessed, in having thus found opportunity to wait on Thee only.  Which thing I was sighing for, bound as I was, not with another’s irons, but by my own iron will.  My will the enemy held, and thence had made a chain for me, and bound me.  For of a forward will, was a lust made, and a lust served, became custom; and custom not resisted, became necessity.  By which links, as it were, joined together (whence I called it a chain) a hard bondage held me enthralled.[8]

Further on, in the same book, Augustine asks;

“Whence is this monstrousness? And to what end?  Let Thy mercy gleam that I may ask, if so b the secret penalties of men, and those darkest pangs of the sons of Adam, may perhaps answer me.  Whence is this monstrousness? And to what end? The mind commands the body, and it obeys instantly; the mind commands itself, and is resisted.  The mind commands the hand to be moved; and such readiness is there, that command is scarce distinct from obedience.  Yet the mind is mind, the hand is body.  The mind commands the mind, its own self, to will, and yet it doth not.  Whence this monstrousness? And to what end? It commands itself, I say, to will, and would not command, unless it willed , and what it commands is not done.  But it willeth not entirely: therefore doth it not command entirely.  For so far forth it commandeth, as it willeth; and, so far forth is the thing commanded, not done, as it willeth not. . . .For were the will entire, it would not even command it to be, because it would already be.  It is therefore no monstrousness partly to will, partly to nil, but a disease of the mind, that it doth not wholly rise, by truth up borne, borne down by custom.  And therefore are there two wills, for that one of them is not entire; and what the one lacketh, the other hath.”[9]

This is not all that Augustine has to say about the present state of the will.  He does not accept only the fall of man, but also man’s redemption.  God has come to man in the person of His Son Jesus Christ.  The redemption that Christ accomplished for His people on the cross is applied in their hearts by the Holy Spirit.  Real changes take place within the hearts of believers.  There is a new birth, a new creation, a new life.  This new state of grace must have something to say about the freedom of the will.  Gilson explains Augustine’s concept of the relation of grace to the free will of man in the following manner:

“In order to restore this order (which was destroyed by man’s fall) we need therefore a new creation.  And the recreator cannot but be the Creator Himself.  One can always fall by himself, but one cannot always rise up by himself, and one can never rise up when his fall is infinite, unless God Himself lends His hand and puts us back on our feet.  This is exactly what He does when He gives us His grace  . . .  Far from abolishing man’s will, it is re-made into a good will, it is liberated.”[10]

Thus Augustine views our subject in a scriptural perspective.  The Christian Gospel offers hope to man: freedom from bondage to sin and liberty from the curse of the law. By re-fashioning or rather by re-creating man’s heart, God makes man truly free.  There is a genuine conversion or “change of mind”, the emotions are purified, and thus the will is again free to worship and serve the Creator.  St. Augustine’s contribution in this field though not perfect and final in itself, has still the freshness and the life that only Biblical doctrines have.  His insistence on the incapacity of the will is fallen man to change itself is aimed at eradicating all hope that is man-centered.  But there is hope with Augustine, and this hope is found only in God.  What is impossible for man to accomplish is possible for God.  These words taken from the beginning of Book 9 of his Confessions, illustrate very well the true freedom of the will is the life of the redeemed:

“O Lord, I am thy servant, and the son of Thy handmaid: Thou hast broken my bonds in sunder.  I will offer to Thee the sacrifice of praise.  Let my hart and my tongue praise Thee; yea, let all my bones say, O Lord, who is like unto Thee?  Let them say, and answer Thou me, and say unto my soul, I am thy salvation.  Who am I, and what am I?  What evil have not been either my deeds, or if not my deeds, my words, or if not my words, my will?  But Thou O Lord, are good and merciful, and Thy right hand had respect unto the depth of my death, and from the bottom of my heart emptied that abyss of corruption.  And this Thy whole gift was, to nil what I willed, and to will what Thou willedst.  But where through all those years, and out of what low and deep recess was my free-will called forth in a moment, whereby to submit my neck to Thy easy yoke, and my shoulders to Thy light burden, O Christ Jesus, my Helper and my Redeemer?”[11]


[1] Cadier, Jean, in “Calvin et St. Augustin”, pp. 1039-1056 of  Etudes Augustinienne, Augustinus Magister, Paris, 1954.

[2] St. Augustine, The Problem of Free Choice, translated by Dom Mark Pontifex, Westminster, Maryland, 1955 taken from “Introduction” by translator.

[3] Beckaret, J.-A. «Bases philosophiques de l’ascèse augustinienne, in Augustinus Magister, II, Paris 1954, pp. 703-711 ».

[4] Switalski, Bruno, Neo-Platonism and the Ethics of St. Augustine, N.Y., 1946, p. 72.

[5] Gilson, Etienne, Introduction a l’Etude de Saint Augustin,  Paris, 1949, p. 189.

[6] Ibid., p. 191.

[7] Hodge, Charles, Systematic Theology

[8] St. Augustine, Confessions, tr. By Edward B. Pusey, New York, 1949, p. 152.

[9] Ibid. p. 161.

[10] Introduction, p. 214.

[11] Confessions, p. 169.           

Posted in Position Papers