Sunday, October 25, 2009

St. Augustine

Part of a Painting of Hell by Hieronymus Bosch

One of most important, but also in my opinion dangerous and frankly stupid ideas, in the intellectual history of the west is the doctrine of Predestination. This essay will briefly explore both the intellectual origin of the doctrine and St. Augustine’s ideas concerning the doctrine, and why in my opinion the idea is both pernicious and yes intellectual idiocy of the highest order.

The idea of Predestination is the notion that events are predetermined and that choice or “free will” is illusionary. In the case of Christian doctrine this is the notion that right from the beginning of time God “determined” who would be “saved” and who was damned.

Further in Christian doctrine this came in two forms. In one version of the idea God by foreseeing future events predetermined them in the other God by predetermining events foresaw them.

Despite the ideas importance in Christian theology the idea is not derived from the Old Testament and is not in any sense a Judaic / Jewish idea. It arose from Greco-Roman concepts of the divine. Platonic Greco-Roman theology sought to define God, and did so in terms of absolutes that assimilated God to perfection and then sought to define that perfection. Thus God became omnipresent, omnipotent and all knowing. In such a conception of God any limitation on God’s power became a denial that God was in effect God. God in this conception had to be perfect and such perfection required that God be all powerful and any limitation on God simply inconceivable. This was combined with the notion that through “reasoned” analysis that one could talk about God and talk about in a concrete, intellectually rigorous manner using human reason.

Given the above Greco-Roman thinkers and the Christians influenced by them felt compelled to use their reason to the logical limits and thus find out the true nature of God. What they forgot was that the concept of God is not a “reasonable” or “rational” idea and that talking about God in a “rational” “reasonable” manner is basically a conceit that relies on unbridled faith in human “reason”.

To illustrate the idea that “reason” is a very poor tool to describe or even talk about God let us list some of God’s attributes as commonly believed.

1. God is all knowing.

2. God is all powerful.

3. God can be and do anything.

Given the above God can do anything. Let us assume the above are true. Then the following statements are absolutely true.

God can destroy him/herself utterly and then recreate him/herself.

God can choose not to be all powerful and all knowing.

God can choose not to be perfect.

God can be all powerful and powerless at the same time.

God can be perfect and completely imperfect at the same time.

Needless to say the Greco-Roman theologians and their Christian followers did not believe that God was all powerful because they explicitly and implicitly believed that God was bound by “reason” and thus denied the power of God.

What they missed was the idea that God, if he/she exists is an uncanny idea. An idea that is contradictory and basically inexplicable and inexpressible. In other words we can not talk about God in any real sense that is intelligible to us or in a way that is not a mass of contradictions, absurdities or koan like phrases. One might as well say God is the light given off by darkness.

In the Old Testament one of the most profound depictions of God is from the Book of Job. When Job’s friends spend practically all their time trying to justify God to Job and basically speaking over and over again those future feeble nostrums of “rational” theologians would utter in the ages to come. Job denies that God’s doings make any sense or that there is rationality in how the world operates. God when he finally speaks rebukes not Job but his friends for being idiots. God says to Job:
Can you fasten the harness of the Pleiades, or untie Orion’s bands? Can you guide the morning star season by season and show the Bear and its cubs which way to go?1
Thus rebukes him for whining about his plight when he can have utterly no conception of the nature of God. In that case whining serves no useful purpose at all. As for Job’s friends they are rebuked for trying to read God’s mind and declaring with incredible arrogance that they understand and know the purposes and mind of God.

All later Theologians are the friends of Job, full of conceit and arrogance. They know the purposes of God they know that God is bound by their conception of “reason”. God merely rebukes Job for whining about bad things happening to him when that is just the way of the world, it is like God weird and uncanny; don’t try to make it “reasonable” and “rational”. To the Theologian the world and God cannot be weird and uncanny both must be bound by rules. Their rules! That their conceit bounds God to their conception of “reason” and therefore denies God being all mighty seems to have escaped them.

By not accepting the Platonic notion that God is subordinated to “reason” Jewish thought largely escaped the conundrum of trying to make God and the world “reasonable”. Thus the paradoxes that bothered medieval and Greco-Roman philosophers and theologians did not particularly bother Jewish and later Muslim religious leaders, because they accepted the uncanny nature of God and the world.

Muslim theology for example accepted both the idea of predestination and the notion of full human responsibility. How did they reconcile these two ideas? Well in effect they did not. They accepted that both ideas were true and their contradictory nature due to the insufficiency of human reason to understand. Of course the result was that despite accepting predestination in theory in practice humans were responsible for their own salvation.

In Jewish theology the question never came up it was taken for granted that humans were responsible for their own salvation and that was that. Theological puzzles like how to reconcile God’s omnipotence with free will etc., never arose because it was simply assumed that human’s had free will because that is what everyday common sense tells us.

The result of this flirtation by Christian Theologians with trying to reason about God was a collection of absurdities and contradictions that simply in the end make no sense at all.

The origins of the doctrine of predestination are not in the Old Testament or in the development of Judaism but as I indicated above in Greco-Roman philosophical ideas. Certainly one would have a very hard time “proving” predestination from the Old Testament which is rather clear most of the time about how humans are responsible for themselves and if they act badly are responsible for the consequences. Jesus in the Gospels seems to be pretty clear about humans being responsible for their fate.

In fact the passages that are usually used to “prove” predestination are almost invariably passages about the power and glory of God. In fact the basic tenure of most of the Bible is that salvation is something humans can do something about.

The notion of predestination is of course allied to the idea that humankind is inherently sinful and wicked and damned by original sin. It is interesting that conventional Jewish Theology does not give much emphasis to original sin, and the idea of the essential depravity of the human race.

In the doctrine of original sin as elucidated by early Christian Theologians, man is inherently utterly depraved, that each child born is entirely and thoroughly deserving of eternal torture in hell, that no action by any human can remove the essential depravity of mankind or change what in all justice each and every human deserves eternal torture in the fires of hell. Actions speak only towards earning a mitigation of God’s justice so that despite what we deserve God out of mercy and grace forgives our innate sinful, and deserving of eternal torment, depravity and allows us to go to heaven.

Thus in the initial compromise concerning mans wickedness it was accepted that although man could not in justice earn salvation. Man’s efforts could in some sense “earn” God’s grace and mercy. To those immersed in Greco-Roman philosophy this was not logical, rational or reasonable enough. They decided to carry the logic to its conclusion.

Allied to this was the idea that no man could “earn” through works God’s approval. That the demands that God makes are incapable of being fulfilled in any realistic way.

This of course goes back to St. Paul in his various Letters where he sets up the dichotomy between the “Law” and “Grace”. Paul pictures the “Law” has a set of impossible demands that man could never satisfy, hence the need for “Grace” that God through Jesus Christ extends to man, because man out of weakness can never satisfy God.

This of course sets up the popular and largely false view of first century Judaism as a religion of stifling rules and one that damned everyone who could not fulfill everyone of the trivial, mind numbing Mosaic laws. To Paul those rules were a terrible burden that Jesus Christ freed mankind from having to fulfill. What Paul seems to have forgotten or simply suppressed was that it was not the opinion of first century Judaism or even of later Judaism that that exact, prefect observance of every one of the Mosaic laws was required for salvation. That was entirely Paul’s own idea.

Further while adhering to the notion that the “Law” was an impossible burden that weak, sinful man was incapable of fulfilling Paul remained largely oblivious to the fact that every single human being lives in a mesh of social rules and taboos that are in every respect at least as constraining as the Mosaic laws. So just why were those particular laws viewed as uniquely burdensome?

The answer is quite obvious Paul was engaged in a polemic against first century Judaism for the purpose of capturing souls for Christ so it suited his purpose to set up this caricature of the “Law” as unbearably burdensome and that in order to satisfy God all these trivial rules had to be performed exactly and perfectly and one slip up meant damnation. Paul found the burden of responsibility for salvation too much to bear.

Paul also developed in his letters certain notions about the power of God that seems to be if not predestination at least potentially so. What Paul seemed to want to escape from was the notion that humans have responsibility for their salvation. It seemed to him an intolerable burden that he wished to escape and so he brought in the notion of “grace”, the idea of man being damned by original sin, the “Law” being an impossible burden, and the notion of God in some sense predestining things. Paul also sometimes seems almost to wallow in his and other’s sinfulness.

Now Paul was not consistent in any of this and it is easy to find stuff in his letters which at least partially contradicts the above. But these ideas did exist at least in embryonic form in the writings of Paul. It is for example apparent that Paul despite what he often seemed to at least imply seemed to think that humans were still responsible for their salvation and his implicit notions of predestination are just that implicit.

The simple fact is that despite Paul’s massive influence on later Christianity his ideas, implicit and otherwise are not rooted in the sayings and doings of Jesus Christ but are in fact largely of Greco-Roman philosophical origin.

Of course later Christian Theologians, heavily immersed in Greco-Roman, especially Platonic philosophy would elaborate on Paul’s notions and create a vast intellectual apparatus to explain and “prove” these doctrines.

It is of interest that although the ideas of the essential depravity of man was largely accepted by the 4th century as a orthodox doctrine of Christianity, the idea of predestination implicit in some of Paul’s writings was not. It seemed to the great majority of the early Church Fathers that at a minimum man could “earn” God’s grace and mercy. But then as Christianity absorbed more and more Greco-Roman philosophy the notion of predestination slipped in full blown.

The doctrine probably owes a lot to St. Augustine a man whose unpleasant and repulsive theology has for reasons that will be explained below been popular.

Portrait of St. Augustine

St. Augustine positively relished wallowing in the depraved, sinful nature of mankind. It seems to have given him almost joy. His absurd writhing about his “sins” is positively creepy and in fact a form of arrogance and pride. Augustine liked to relive his “wickedness” over and over again, liked to conjure the image of his “sins” in his mind again and again.

From this doctrine about the inherent sinfulness of mankind Augustine had no problems with the idea that young children, babies being tortured in hell forever and ever. Since all humans were utterly depraved it was only what they deserved.

To quote a writer on Augustine; Augustine had:
…the unfortunate massa damnata theory, which said the whole human race by original sin became a massa damnata et damnabilis: God could throw the whole damned race into hell for original sin alone, without waiting for any personal sin.2
It is probably from Augustine that there first emerged clearly the doctrine of predestination. In order to deflect the obvious arguments concerning the problems with Predestination Augustine peremptorily accuses those of doubting Predestination as arrogant:
Man, therefore, unwilling to resist such clear testimonies as these, and yet desiring himself to have the merit of believing, compounds as it were with God to claim a portion of faith for himself, and to leave a portion for Him; and, what is still more arrogant, he takes the first portion for himself, and gives the subsequent to Him; and so in that which he says belongs to both, he makes himself the first, and God the second!3
This serves a useful purpose in hiding the utter arrogance of the doctrine and its unbridled presumption. Augustine “knows” that God must fit his philosophical “reason” about Gods nature. It never occurs to him that God might, just might make man capable of “Free Will”. No Augustine “knows” by implication that God can do no such thing because it violates his conception of God.
Therefore mercy and judgment were manifested in the very wills themselves. Certainly such an election is of grace, not at all of merits. For he had before said, "So, therefore, even at this present time, the remnant has been saved by the election of grace. And if by grace, now it is no more of works; otherwise grace is no more grace." [Rom. 11.5.] Therefore the election obtained what it obtained gratuitously; there preceded none of those things which they might first give, and it should be given to them again. He saved them for nothing. But to the rest who were blinded, as is there plainly declared, it was done in recompense. "All the paths of the Lord are mercy and truth." [Psalm 25.10.] But His ways are unsearchable. Therefore the mercy by which He freely delivers, and the truth by which He righteously judges, are equally unsearchable.4
Thus God’s grace is capricious and satanic, but Augustine asserts that this is all a mystery but we must rest content that God is still just because he/she is just. God out of his/her own good reason decides who can be saved by grace from the beginning of time. Its of interest that Augustine who denies emphatically, by implication, that God could give man ‘Free Will” and that “Free Will” is a denial of the power of God and his philosophical certainty about the nature of God never the less takes refugee in the notion that although God may appear unjust he is just and that is just a mystery. Why the conflict between God’s power and Mans “Free Will” could not be a similar mystery is not explained or even noticed.
Faith, then, as well in its beginning as in its completion, is God’s gift; and let no one have any doubt whatever, unless he desires to resist the plainest sacred writings, that this gift is given to some, while to some it is not given. But why it is not given to all ought not to disturb the believer, who believes that from one all have gone into a condemnation, which undoubtedly is most righteous; so that even if none were delivered therefrom, there would be no just cause for finding fault with God. Whence it is plain that it is a great grace for many to be delivered, and to acknowledge in those that are not delivered what would be due to themselves; so that he that glorieth may glory not in his own merits, which he sees to be equalled in those that are condemned, but in the Lord.5
When someone asserts that a contentious doctrine is plainly etc., in the text we can rest assured it is not. Augustine can assert and puff himself up all he likes; the doctrine is not plainly in the Bible. In the Old Testament, the books of the Prophets seem to be pretty plain about man being responsible for himself and his salvation and certainly the doctrine of Predestination as virtually no basis in the sayings or conduct of Jesus. Certain of the parables, like the good Samaritan plainly indicate human responsibility and choice. Augustine must go to St. Paul for his Scriptural basis and thus with what can only be described as arrogance elevate Paul and Augustine’s own conception of the nature of God above that of Jesus of Nazareth that Augustine pays lip service too as the foundation of his faith when Jesus is not. It is also of interest that Jewish Rabbi’s and Theologians utterly rejected the doctrine of Predestination pronouncing it a heresy and unbiblical.

Augustine than makes in the above passage the argument that believers should not be disturbed by this doctrine because he asserts, with no argument, that it is righteous and in fact it does not matter if many are saved or none at all. But that the saved should not condemn God but rejoice that any are saved at all and that being saved is not in any sense the saved ones merits but Gods, and in fact the saved ones merits or lack of them are the same as the condemned.

So God in Augustine’s conception is a despotic, capricious tyrant who like Stalin is always right no matter who he tortures, and slays. Like a good toady Augustine licks the feet and other parts of his murderous Dictator and pronounces it very good indeed.
For these things are both commanded us, and are shown to be God's gifts, in order that we may understand both that we do them, and that God makes us to do them, as He most plainly says by the prophet Ezekiel. For what is plainer than when He says, "I will cause you to do"? [Ezek. 36.27.] Give heed to that passage of Scripture, and you will see that God promises that He will make them to do those things which He commands to be done. He truly is not silent as to the merits but as to the evil deeds, of those to whom He shows that He is returning good for evil, by the very fact that He causeth them thenceforth to have good works, in causing them to do the divine commands. 6
Aside from the distortion of Ezekiel, Augustine makes it plain that God is responsible for our good deeds that God out of capricious caprice decides to bestow on some people through grace for no discernable reason. He very carefully avoids stating that God is responsible for our evil acts. Why? If it’s a denial of God’s power to attribute our salvation in any sense to our own efforts then is it not a denial of God’s power to deny or evade the responsibility of God for evil? Ah but Augustine “knew” from his philosophical studies that God could not “really” be responsible for evil. Thus once again Augustine in his arrogance presumes to know God. Thus God is fully responsible for our salvation and our good deeds yet somehow God is not responsible in any sense for our wicked deeds. Now did it ever occur to Augustine that if men were responsible for our wicked deeds and acts a man must by necessity be, potentially at least, responsible for his good deeds?
Therefore God chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world, predestinating us to the adoption of children, not because we were going to be of ourselves holy and immaculate, but He chose and predestinated us that we might be so. Moreover, He did this according to the good pleasure of His will, so that nobody might glory concerning his own will, but about God's will towards himself. He did this according to the riches of His grace, according to His good-will, which He purposed in His beloved Son, in whom we have obtained a share, being predestinated according to the purpose, not ours, but His, who worketh all things to such an extent as that He worketh in us to will also. Moreover, He worketh according to the counsel of His will, that we may be to the praise of His glory. [Phil. 2.13.] For this reason it is that we cry that no one should glory in man, and, thus, not in himself; but whoever glorieth let him glory in the Lord, that he may be for the praise of His glory.7
Augustine’s cosmic Dictator seems to be an egomaniacal sadist wanting desperately to glorify himself. Being such a dictator in Augustine’s eye Augustine than lays the flattery on with a trowel in the most disgusting sycophantic manner. One cannot see Augustine being like Abraham arguing with God or like Jacob wrestling with an angel.8 Instead one sees him grovelling before God in the most revolting manner. To quote Monty Python:

[God] Oh do stop grovelling!
I HATE grovelling!!9

As to why Augustine and so many other’s have found this intellectually repellent argument / doctrine so attractive. The answer is fairly clear. They found the burden of responsibility for their own salvation and in fact their own right conduct to be unbearable. They refused to take responsibility for it and did a few things. First they pronounced God’s demands as impossible and unbearable. They then pronounced all of mankind irredeemably wicked and deserving of eternal torment and damnation. They then took refugee in a doctrine that said it is all done for you; you don’t have to do a thing it was settled a long time ago. You are not RESPONSIBLE!! In this particular mindset the believers could not accept responsibility for themselves and their acts. They then cloaked this belief in the false cloak of humility before God, while subjecting God to the dictates of their “rational” “reasonable” philosophical analysis with astounding arrogance. They further subjected reality to their love of self of their speculations, by ignoring the easy to establish fact that at the very least human’s have the appearance of “Free Will”. Further in their arrogance they concluded that God was bound by their conception of God’s nature and it never occurred to them that God could have given man “Free Will”.

Augustine like so many grovelled and writhed in his sinfulness, visiting it again and again with a perverse narcissistic pride. Augustine especially recalled his sexual sins over and over again showing his inordinate self love and hubris. I have little doubt that his repeated revisiting of his wicked sexual sins enabled him to enjoy “carnality” over and over again under the cloak of an ostentatious show of loathing that ill concealed the intense pleasure it gave him to recall them.

Since he Augustine could not, in his opinion, escape his sins he in his arrogance decided that no man could and so constructed the edifice, based in part on Paul’s writings, which may indicate to some extent a similar dynamic, of Predestination. It fed Augustine’s sense of importance that no man could earn salvation when in his own mind he, himself could clearly not do so. This was combined with an abject, sycophantic attitude towards God that reeks of cringing mindless fear. Finally it fed his own sense of intellectual superiority to bind God in his philosophical chains and then when things got philosophically difficult take refugee in the doctrine of “mystery”, ignoring that perhaps “Free Will” and “Predestination” were similar “mysteries” and God is not bound to fit his conceptions.

1. Job, ch. 38 v. 31-32, The Jerusalem Bible, Doubleday & Co. Inc., Garden City NY, 1966.

2. Most, William, St. Augustine on Grace and Predestination, Here. Note Geocities where this webpage is located is closing at the end of the month, (October 2009).

3. Augustine, A Treatise On The Predestination of the Saints, Book 1, ch. 4., Here.

4. IBID, Book 1, ch. 11.

5. IBID, Book 1, ch. 16.

6. IBID, Book 1, ch. 22.

7. IBID, Book 1, ch. 37.

8. See Genesis, ch. 18, v.16-32, ch. 32, v. 22-30, The Jerusalem Bible.

9. From the movie Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

Other Books consulted.

MacCulloch, Diamaid, Reformation, Penguin Books, London, 2003.

Grant, The Fall of the Roman Empire, The Annenberg School Press, London, 1976. See The Other World Against This World, pp. 291-308.

Sanders, E. P., Jesus and Judaism, SCM Press Ltd., London, 1985.

IBID. Paul and Palestinian Judaism, Fortress Press, Minneapolis MINN, 1977.

Vermes, Geza, Jesus the Jew, Fontana / Collins, London, 1973.

Plato, Timaeus and Critias, Penguin Books, London, 1977.

St. Augustine, The Confessions, at Project Gutenberg, Here.

Pierre Cloutier

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