Cover is the world famous The Conversion Of Saint Augustine by Fra Angelico.
In the Confessions, Augustine wrote extensively about human’s and God’s role, evil, and sin. According to his writing on these subjects, it is evident that Augustine believes humans to be incapable of doing good; we cannot judge good from bad, nor achieve anything truly great without crediting to god. However, according to him, our incapability does not imply that humans cannot be Christian. He thinks God is what defines good and, in fact, there is no way for humans to ‘become’ Christian. According to Augustine’s writing, it is not human agency but God’s grace decides if one is Christian or not.
Augustine thinks only Divine agency can define good and bad, and humans are incapable of doing truly ‘good’ things on their own. First, in* Book III Chapter 8 & 9* he quotes from Matthew saying that to ‘love God with whole heart is never wrong’ and that ‘sins against nature’ are wrongdoings, for example, the sin of Sodom. Moreover, he emphasized that secular power such as Kings and states must conduct the rules of Christianity unconditionally with priority. This implies Augustine’s view that no matter what we do, or how a kingdom is ruled, all must follow the law in heaven as that is the truly correct law. Moreover, earlier in Chapter 7 of Book III, he argues that law of Almighty God is always ‘equitable and never changes from age to age nor place to place’ yet can ‘suit’ to different needs in different places and ages. Augustine explains this saying that all the changes and adaptations form a harmony at a higher level that no one can see.
Though Augustine does not provide a direct following in the same Book, arguably according to his view, human agency (even the King) is not competent to decide what is correct and wrong.
On the other hand, Augustine thinks God, unlike human agency, has the greatest authority in deciding what is ‘good’ and in fact itself all good. Augustine describes a few examples of the nature of evil through metaphors and stories in the Confessions. In Book I Chapter 7, he argues that since no one would get rid of good habits, and since infants would stop crying for things they want once they grow up, it proves that infants carry sins just as he describes earlier in the same chapter: ‘not even a child who has lived only one day on earth (is not sinful).’ Also, he uses himself as an example in Book II Chapter 4 – he robbed a pear-tree and only enjoyed the sin of theft itself but not the pears.
The two examples he used above in the Confessions elaborate two critical characteristics of his view on sin and human nature:
- sin has nothing to do with self-awareness and intelligence as the infants lack both
- and, sinful nature lies ‘deeper’ than merely bad intentions, rooted deeply in everyone
With these two concepts in mind, it is natural for Augustine to argue further that the only reason he did not commit more sins is that he was guided by God’s grace; and no effort of curing weakness made by man can be effective unless by God’s grace (Book II Chapter 7).
Augustine takes a step further on this idea – he argues that not only God’s grace decides how well a man can keep himself away from sin but in fact, everything done by humans can be judged by how much faith they hold for God. In Book V Chapter 3, Augustine explains why accomplishments of astronomers are not as legitimate and cannot be ‘preserved’ since they did not credit the discovery to God nor utilize Christian faith when conducting calculations. Similarly, he makes a point in Chapter 4 of the same Book that knowing God is the greatest good and happiness and that none of the secular knowledge such as astronomy can play the slightest role in the process. These arguments implied that Augustine thinks the major factor in determining good or less good is not by human reason and perspective but by Divine agency.
Naturally many may think Augustine is extreme, yet it would be less so once we look closely at what he thinks about the nature of ‘evil’.
In Book VII Chapter 3 and 5, Augustine goes through all the questions and concludes that since God is omnipotent and is what defines good, there should be no evil nor seeds of evil in his creation. Thus, Augustine goes on and reasons in Chapter 12 that all entities and actions that exist are ‘good’ ¬¬¬– because God is the ultimate source of them all – and it is our limited vision of the bigger picture That leads us to think evil exists. The consequence of this worldview is clear – it makes humans seem even more incapable in the big picture because we cannot fight original sin and there is no such thing called evil in the first place for humans to resist. This view greatly diminishes the meaning and purpose of our daily activities other than prying as things we do out of our own consideration would be sinful and not helpful in reducing ‘evil’ as it does not exist.
It can be concluded using Augustine’s word in Book X Chapter 28: ‘no hope for me except in your great mercy (grace)’. It is not hard to see why many initially may think Augustine fails to address ‘what we should do to become Christian’, for Augustine did not look at the world in this way, at all. Augustine holds human reason and factors very low and uninfluential in the weighing scale of right and wrong. He decides that we cannot do good on our own in the first place. Instead, Divine agency rules the ‘value judgment’ in this process and ‘gratuitous’ grace given by God is the only out from sinning and only guidance for humans to true goodness. He takes the Christian faith as a consequence of the weakness of human agency, thus needless to talk about ‘what we should do to become’ at all. In short, the Confession takes a different approach by defining ‘good’ out of the scope of moral instincts and put the relationship between us and Divine agency in a complex way such that becoming ‘Christian’ itself is a consequence of God’s grace.