Alister McGrath’s interpretation of Augustine

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Puritan Board Freshman

I am reading McGrath’s Iustitia Dei and I came across something strange.
In his analysis of Augustine’s concept of free will, he writes: “According to Augustine, the act of faith is itself a divine gift, in which God acts upon the rational soul in such a way that it comes to believe. Whether this action on the will leads to its subsequent assent to justification is a matter for humanity, rather than for God.” And then he qoutes from Augustine’s Sermones: “The one who created you without you will not justify you without you.” (Sermo 169, 13)
And then he writes: “Although God is the origin of the gift which humans are able to receive and possess, the acts of receving and possessing themselves can be said to be humans’. (All quotations are from p. 42, Iustitia Dei: A History of the Christian Doctrine of Justification, Third Edition, Alister E. McGrath.)

From my read of the work “De Predestinatione Sanctorum” of Augustine, I don’t think he is a synergist in this sense. McGrath, it seems to me, presents Augustine’s doctrine of free will being similar to the Arminian understanding of it.

Did I misinterpret Augustine or McGrath?


Pilgrim, Alien, Stranger
Staff member
In the first McG quote, the word "whether" introduces a principle of uncertainty into the salvific equation. It could be argued (by someone; and here McG might be doing his "scholarly best" to avoid some level of the lower-down theological tussle between rival theological parties, each claiming Augustin for itself) that this principle does more or it does less within the "human sphere" where natural uncertainty exists; however he is leaving that discussion (of human assent and reception and possession) largely to others.

McG could be attempting to strengthen his description of Augustin's doctrine of justification as monergistic from the divine side. By his third edition of his book, McG may think he was previously over-cautious, or a bit mealy-mouthed by not allowing the full force of Augustin's expression, having bounded it with such quotations that affirm the place of human engagement. I'm not actually comparing the editions of his book; I read this work of his once in seminary 20yrs ago.

McG is a Church of England priest, and the CoE has historically tried to embrace various wings and factions, by a generous interpretation of the latitude of views allowable within the 39 Articles. Arminianism has been regarded as acceptable, and whether or not McG defines himself as Arminian, or as Calvinist, or as something else, my sense is that his aim with regard to Augustin is to answer as narrowly as possible the question of the great African theologian's views.

Augustin, and his views, stand in some historical relation to so many later streams, there are inevitable arguments about which stream is more purely Augustinian. As Calvinists, we may be inclined to say along with Warfield, that the Reformation was the victory of Augustin's doctrine of justification over his doctrine of the church; which statement shows that from the complex of his thought, we take from one side, and not the other. Likewise, it is possible for someone to take within the wide stream of Augustin's thoughts touching justification from one part, and not another.

McG, it seems to me, is not making an effort to judge those sorts of questions, but an historical question; and to confine his statements on the question to such elements as he thinks provable. He feels competent to discuss in this book-context Augustin's views on justification as a divine work (from God's perspective), and simply affirm very briefly what Augustin says about the complicated matters of human reception of the same work (from man's perspective), even leaving the discussion of Augustin's own opinions for another context.


Puritanboard Clerk
Even for the earlier Augustine who favored free will, the will itself is not physical and so can't be "coerced." Physical objects can be "forced." Augustine, as would most any pre modern, would say it doesn't make sense to determine an immaterial object.

Even Reformed theologians like Sheddd say we have to respond to God in the act of conversion. We have to hold that point unless we literally want to be robots.

Further, Augustine isn't always consistent.


Puritan Board Freshman
I am not talking about a “coerced” will; but about the effect of effectual grace on the human will. From my reading of Augustine, even though, as you pointed out yourself, he is not the most consistent theologian, I think he does not leave that room for the rejection of the salvific grace of God by the elect. He talks about how God is working in his elect so that he changes them from unwilling to believe to willing to believe. (Enchiridion 32, Augustine)

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