Saturday, June 29, 2013

Calvin vs. Augustine on Free Will?

I recently came across the link, Luther and Calvin v. Augustine and Justin Martyr on Free Will on a blog entitled Shameless Popery. Obviously, on a blog with a url including the phrase "catholic defense," Luther and Calvin are probably not going to fare well.

Calvin and Luther are said to "contradict themselves throughout their writings."  Luther is said to be "the first of a long string of Protestant theologians to make these sort of internally-incoherent arguments" in regard to the will. Calvin is said to "talk himself in circles" on free will.

What fascinated me about this entry was the comparison of Augustine to Calvin on the issue of the will:

Both Luther and Calvin are big fans of St. Augustine, and derive their views on predestination and free will in part from some of Augustine's writings (particularly one of his speculative works, his Letter to Simplician). But taking a fuller view of Augustine's own writings, it's clear he was neither a Lutheran nor a Calvinist on the issue of free will related to salvation.

Calvin's view is basically presented as utter fatalism, while a snippet from Augustine's City of God is presented to show that humans committing atrocities are responsible for their actions. The basic argument appears to be thus: in Calvin's theology of the will, humans committing atrocities would not be responsible, while in Augustine's they would be. Calvin didn't believe in free will, while Augustine did. Case closed.

What isn't presented in this entry is any sort of analysis as to what is meant by free will other than the following:

Admittedly, free will is a bit of a mystery. We don't fully grasp what it is, or how it works. It puzzles theists and atheists alike. But we can be sure that it exists, in part because it is necessary for God's Justice, and in part because we cannot coherently speak of it not existing (any more than we can coherently speak of a self-caused universe arising without God).

There are a few problems here as I see it. First, the writer appears to assume we all basically have the same understanding of the will, which is at best, naive. Second, the will is defined (for lack of a better term!) in regards to philosophical speculation (the will must be necessarily free for God to be just) rather than according to Biblical theology. One  passage is mentioned, Ezekiel 14:6, but that verse assumes what has never been biblically defined, a free will.  I can excuse those problems to a degree. I realize what's being put forth is a short blog entry rather than a detailed study. But what I find inexcusable is a third problem:  neither Augustine nor Calvin's view is fleshed out in any meaningful way. It's just assumed Calvin was a fatalist and Augustine believed in free will. Calvin is not only guilty of being a fatalist, he's also guilty of not treating Augustine honestly (cf. this entry as well).

This is indeed shameless popery. This sort of shameless popery in regard to Calvin goes all the way back to 1542 in which a Dutch Roman Catholic theologian, Albert Pighius, wrote a direct response to the 1539 edition of The Institutes. Calvin had stated that apart from Augustine, the early fathers of the church were all over the map on the issue of the will. Pighius pointed out that it may appear in some places that Augustine held to an enslaved will, but if all of Augustine's works are taken into consideration, Augustine is rather the champion of free will, and is in harmony with those who came before him.

Calvin did not dismiss these charges, but actually hastily responded to much of what Pighius had written, particularly using patristic allusions or citations.  Twenty-five of Augustine's writings are either named or cited., three writings of Pseudo-Augustine were used (along with mentioning doubts about authenticity) , and at least thirty-three other patristic sources appear to have been used. Calvin makes abundant allusions or citations of Augustine's writings. Contrary to Shameless Popery, Augustine's Letter to Simplician (mentioned above as that which was of major importance to Calvin's view) is cited one time. There have been studies to ascertain Calvin's citations in his response, most notably by A.N.S. Lane. It appears that while Calvin presents rather loose citations of Augustine, Lane contends this was probably because he worked from memory (he no longer had the source in question) and wrote in haste.  If this proves anything, it proves Calvin's intellect, memory, and familiarity with Augustine.

Lane states that Calvin sincerely believed he was on the same page with Augustine in regard to human will. In one revealing comment, Lane states:
But how accurate was Calvin's interpretation of Augustine? For centuries there has been controversy between Catholics and Protestants over this issue. But in recent times it has become easier for both sides to acknowledge historical developrnent and to interpret the Fathers more objectively. An influential essay by the Benedictine Odilo Rottmanner in the nineteenth century marked a new willingness by Roman Catholics to admit that in the areas of grace and predestination the Reformers were largely justified in their appeal to Augustine.67 A few notes indicate areas where Calvin's interpretation of Augustine is open to question, but it is very widely conceded today that  the main thrust is accurate.68
67. 0. Rottmanner, Der Augustinismu.s (Munich: J. J. Lenrner, 1892).
68. For a recent Roman Catholic writer who argues that the Reformers (especially Luther) were basically justified in their claim to represent the Augustinian tradition of the church on this issue, See H. J. McSorley, Luther: Right or Wrong? (New York: Newman & Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1969).
John Calvin, The Bondage and Liberation of the Will (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1996), p.xxiv

Lane states elsewhere:
Calvin’s position seems to run counter to the tradition of the Western church. Even those, such as Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, who laid great stress on God’s sovereignty and predestination took care to safeguard man’s freewill. Augustine, Calvin’s great mentor, at the end of his life wrote a work entitled On Grace AND Freewill in which he opposed those who ‘so defend God’s grace as to deny man’s freewill’.2 It would appear that Luther and Calvin, in denying freewill, were falling into just that error and were departing from the whole Augustinian tradition. This is the traditional Roman Catholic interpretation, pioneered in 1542 by the Dutch theologian Albertus Pighius.3 But the little word ‘freewill’ can have many different meanings. More recent Roman Catholic scholarship has been less hasty to proclaim the discord between Calvin and the Augustinian tradition. The Dominican writer C. Friethoff concluded fifty years ago that while Thomas accepted and Calvin rejected freewill, there is no contradiction involved because they meant such different things by the term.4 A more recent Roman Catholic writer, H. J. McSorley, has sought to show that the Reformers were reviving the ‘biblical and catholic concept of servum arbitrium’, though he also detects an unbiblical and uncatholic ‘necessitarian concept of servum arbitrium’.5
Lane's article, Did Calvin Believe in Free Will? does with an extended treatment exactly what Shameless Popery should have at least attempted to do if even in a simplistic way: define what Calvin held in regard to the will, then compare and contrast it with Augustine's view. Lane isn't simply a Calvin defender. He points out the similarities and the differences between Calvin and Augustine on the will, concluding:
Did Calvin believe in freewill? Even Calvin himself could not give a clear and unequivocal answer to this question. At different stages in man’s history different degrees of freedom are conceded to the will. Calvin’s teaching on freewill is very close to that of Augustine. Perhaps the greatest difference is one of attitude. Augustine, while clearly teaching the bondage of the will and the sovereignty of grace, took great care to preserve man’s freewill. Calvin was much more polemical in his assertion of human impotence and was reluctant to talk of freewill. What Augustine had carefully safeguarded, Calvin grudgingly conceded.
Whether one agrees with this conclusion or not should be based on Lane's careful analysis. What Lane is most careful to point out is defining terms.  It appears that some scholars (including Roman Catholic scholars)  that take the time to see how Augustine and Calvin use and understand "free will" find a great degree of harmony. It would be interesting to see how a blog like Shameless Popery would evaluate Lane's synopsis, rather than simply presenting vaguely defined "shocking" differences that amount to caricatures.


Brigitte said...

To me it all comes down to having a zero-Pelagian zone. All that talk is just to show that we are saved by grace alone. The Lord is merciful and, today, still is a day of salvation.

Michael Taylor said...


Marvelous work here. Thank you for this.

Bruce said...

I have a book which is a modern publication of Augustin's "On Free Choice of the Will," to which is appended the rest of his personal commentary and review of his own work, namely excerpts from his "Retractions."

My guess is that folks who hope to pit Augustin against Calvin are less interested in what either man actually taught, and more interested in confirming an a priori animus against the Reformer.