Midweek Blog: How Does Faith Work according to Augustine?

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Well, this is it. The last post on Augustine for the Historical Christian blog. It’s been a fun series, and I have enjoyed your comments and going through some of my favorite passages from Augustine’s works together. Next week I will be venturing into a new series on American Church History, so be on the lookout for that. But for today, we are looking back into the mind of Augustine. His work On Grace and Free Choice contains a few intriguing statements on faith that I want to look at today with all of you.

Augustine defines faith in his work as the “will to believe” (14.28; p. 163 in the Cambridge Texts in History and Philosophy version). He also notes that faith is a “matter of grace.” Well these phrases sound fine and good, but what does Augustine mean? How does faith work with grace? Well, thankfully, he answers those questions in the same section. He writes, “The spirit of grace brings it about that we have faith, so that through our faith we may achieve by prayer the ability to do what we are bidden to do… since we are not capable of doing what the Law bids unless, through our faith, we achieve by entreaty the capacity to do it” (14.28).

For Augustine, you can’t have faith without first receiving grace. Faith is a process for him: grace comes and allows you to have faith, then faith allows you to do good works through prayer. He of course links this to the Law, which is appropriate considering he is actually drawing on several passages from Paul’s letters immediately prior to this. It also makes sense since Calvin and others who adhere to a predestination doctrine with regard to salvation actually draw on Augustine’s writings. We see somewhat of a precursor to such thinking in the idea that grace actually comes before faith; i.e. you can’t choose to have faith, it has to come through God’s grace.

He continues such a line of thinking in the next section as well. He notes, “If faith is due solely to free choice and is not given by God, why do we pray for those who are unwilling to believe that they might believe? That would be completely pointless were we not to believe, quite rightly, that Almighty God is able to turn to belief even perverse wills hostile to the faith” (14.29).

Now, it should be noted that Augustine is directly opposing the arguments of Pelagius, who had argued that humans have a part in their own salvation and that free will is the starting point. In other words, for Pelagius, humans take the initiative in their own salvation. Augustine believes that God is the initiator and provides the grace needed to possess faith. Aside from arguing between predestination and free will or between Calvinism and Arminianism, I think there is actually something in Augustine’s statements that we should examine here.

Augustine points to praying for those who “are unwilling to believe” as a perfect example of why faith cannot come from just free will. Augustine realizes that in order for the hardest of hearts to soften toward God, God has to be the one to do the softening. For Augustine, such an argument emphasizes God’s power and mercy. Further on, he points to Ezekiel 36 in order to show that God is concerned with God’s own name being profaned among others and therefore takes action to “show the holiness of my great name” (Ez. 36.23, NIV).

So how does faith work? Can we choose to believe in God, to be Christians? Augustine would say, “Yes, of course! But only by God’s grace.” Going back to Augustine’s own definition that faith is the “will to believe” (14.28), how should we look at God’s role in our own lives? Can our will truly believe in God only if God allows it, and/ or causes it? Does such a construct bother us? Instead of being intentionally vague and side-stepping the issue, I will show my Methodist upbringing and argue that faith is the starting point for following God. I don’t tend to take too much issue with Augustine’s paradigm that grace allows faith in the first place. In fact, I rather appreciate such a statement. It keeps the ego in check to say things like “I only believe in God and have faith because God is so merciful,” instead of “Wow, I have such amazing faith! God is lucky to have me!” Now, I would doubt many people would actually go there, but you get the point. God’s mercy is necessary in our lives, and why should it not be necessary for our faith journeys as well? However, I don’t want to flat out dismiss our free will in seeking out God. I have been a Christian for 17 years, and I have been studying Church History now for 7+ years (yikes, I should probably have a PhD by now). There is no way I could have persevered to this point without mercy from God. Faith and mercy are inextricably linked (also, Augustine has another treatise, On the Gift of Perseverance which delves more into that side of things, FYI).

I also think that faith is a journey and one needs to strive for maturation and depth in one’s faith (some might call this sanctification). God’s mercy allows us to continue on the path of faith, but we also need to actively choose to take part in it. We should not get to the point where we think, “Well since God is the instigator, it’s God’s fault that I am not reading the Bible enough.” Free will is important because it places responsibility on our shoulders. I will spare you the Spiderman quote here. I want to conclude by endorsing Augustine’s model with a caveat. Mercy, faith, prayer, and good works should be cherished together in one’s Christian life. However, we need to also cultivate each one and seek each one out.

What do you think? Do you agree with Augustine? Do you think that free will has a role from the outset of one’s faith journey?

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One thought on “Midweek Blog: How Does Faith Work according to Augustine?

  1. Pingback: Midweek Blog: Anne Hutchinson, the “Unnatural Woman” | The Historical Christian

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