On Free Will: From Augustine to Early America

Augustine was a fifth-century bishop and theologian whose thoughts have had a profound influence on Western Civilization. If you were to read John Calvin’s Institutes, one thing you’d notice is a lot of quotations from the works of Augustine. Why? Augustine was influential enough in the church that an order of monks followed his teachings, one of whom was Martin Luther. Luther began the Reformation Movement, and Calvin took up his mantle.

Despite Augustine initially believing in the free will of humanity, he later believed that God’s sovereignty posed a stronger argument than human liberty (Reconsiderations 2.1; cf. On the Predestination of the Saints 3.7; 4.8). Augustine believed that Adam was purely free at the beginning (Rebuke and Grace 33), but Adam’s freedom allowed him to turn from good (City of God 14.12). Sin, according to Augustine, was what corrupted man’s original nature as God gave it, and the corruption resulted in Adam’s and his descendants’ inability to choose good freely. This birthed the Calvinist doctrine of predestination or particular atonement. According to the doctrine, man was no longer capable of using his free will purely since he had proven to abuse its exercise in the beginning. The progeny of Adam inherited their father’s nature that hindered them from choosing good (cf. Rom. 5.12ff). Calvin, therefore, recycled Augustine’s arguments with elaborations and modification upon certain points. Devoted followers of the reformer touted his doctrine and often accused those who did not agree of limiting God and elevating man—an idolatrous and blasphemous belief that frightened many from advocating such.

The doctrine of predestination was preached throughout America’s Great Awakening with Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield being among the most notable advocates. Edwards’ Freedom of the Will is often studied as an exposition of Augustinian human sinfulness and divine sovereignty. Edwards quoted Augustine liberally, and Augustinian quotations were more numerous, or primary, to biblical quotations which showed the nature of his theology as being a primarily Augustinian interpretation of Scripture. Furthermore, such was the nature of Whitefield’s Calvinism that he and his fellow Methodist, John Wesley, parted company as a result of Wesley differing from him on these views. Whitefield and Wesley would later reunite as friends despite this difference, but the initial rift between the two was strong. When Calvinism was met with divergent beliefs from deists and Unitarians, it would evolve to a more rationalistic set of beliefs whereas it had previously substituted rationalism for emotionalism. Prior to Calvinism’s threat of opposing beliefs, the stronghold that it had on Christianity was the cause of many personal and congregational divisions in the West.

%d bloggers like this: