Rereading Saint Augustine’s “The City of God”: On the Stoics and Divine Foreknowledge and the Freedom of the Will (Day 1)

Rereading Saint Augustine’s “The City of God”: On the Stoics and Divine Foreknowledge and the Freedom of the Will (Day 1)

Aurelius Augustinus (a.k.a. Saint Augustine), the Bishop of Hippo, wrote “The City of God” between ca.413–ca.426. During the month of September, I will reread “The City of God” (for some of you, it will be a new read; for me, it is the process of rereading the text with a new lens or fresh perspective) and write a daily reflection on a selected passage from “The City of God.”

Each daily commentary will have a title associated with the passage to be analyzed. In our first post (September 1), I would like to share a few statements with you from this epoch-making text in which Augustine argues energetically and brilliantly for God’s comprehensive foreknowledge and the freedom of the will, concurrently. In the passage below, he  is also contending  against Cicero and the Stoic philosophers who denied divine foreknowledge, but championed the possibility of fate to explain the nature of things in the world and how we as volitional agents relate to the future (that is through the events that yet to take place in the time to come).

In his analysis, Augustine establishes an intimacy between divine omnipresence, divine foreknowledge, and the prayers of God’s people, as well as the choices and actions they voluntarily make, although known by God, without any divine necessity. Augustine refuses to disconnect God’s foreknowledge and the freedom of volitional agents, such as human beings. Augustine argues that the eternality of God is intrinsic to his own Being as God and the foreknowledge of God is ontologically a divine attribute. God’s power over death best explains the reality of God as Life itself and God as the Giver of life is a gift to human beings. Finally, God’s ability to foresee future sins committed by human beings does not necessitate that individuals will actually sin; rather, people will sin in the future lies in their freedom of the will to choose to sin or not to sin. Yet because of God’s comprehensive foreknowledge of the future, he can predict who will sin at a certain point in the future; nonetheless, this divine prediction does not condition future sins of volitional events. In other words, God freely foresees future events and that God and human beings freely choose the outcome of the future, concurrently.

“It follows that we need to not be afraid of that necessity which frightened the Stoics into distinguishing various kinds of causes. They sought to free certain causes from necessity while others were subject to it. Among the causes which they wanted free from necessity they reckoned our wills. Obviously, wills could not be free if subject to necessity…

We do not put the life of God and the foreknowledge of God under any necessity when we say that God must live an eternal life and must know all things. Neither do we lessen His power when we say He cannot die or be deceived. This is the kind of inability which, if removed, would make God less powerful than He is. God is rightly called omnipotent, even though He is unable to die and be deceived. We call Him omnipotent because he does whatever He wills to do and suffers nothing that He does not will to suffer. He would not, of course, be omnipotent, if He had to suffer anything against His will. It is precisely because He is omnipotent that for Him some things are impossible.

The conclusion is that we are by no means under compulsion to abandon free choice in favor of divine knowledge, nor need we deny—God forbid!—that God knows the future, as a condition for holding free choice. We accept both. As Christians and philosophers, we profess both—foreknowledge, as a pat of our faith; free choice, as a condition of responsible living. It is hard to live right if one’s faith in God is wrong.

Far be it from us, then, to deny, in the interest of four freedom, the foreknowledge of God by whose power we are—or are to be—free. It follows, too, that laws are not in vain, nor scoldings and encouragements, nor praise and blame. He foresaw that such things should be. Such things have as much value as He foresaw they would have. So, too, prayers are useful in obtaining these favors which He foresaw He would bestow on those who should pray for them. There was justice in instituting rewards and punishments for good and wicked deeds. For, no one sins because God foreknew that he would sin. In fact, the very reason why a man is undoubtedly responsible for his own sin, when he sins, is because He whose foreknowledge cannot be deceived foresaw, not the man’s fate or fortune or whatnot, but that the man himself would be responsible for his own sin. No man sins unless it is his choice; and his choice not to sin, too, God foresaw.”

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