A critique of Augustine’s theodicy

Introduction

The subject of theodicy is both troublesome and controversial to all philosophically minded people, whether they be of the Christian faith, agnostic, or atheist. This notion of where God’s justice and love abides in the midst of great evil and suffering has plagued the debates of great theologians and philosophers since the beginning of time. From the book of Job (the oldest book in the Bible[1]) to modern-day theologians such as William Lane Craig, theodicy continues to be on the hearts and minds of people who question where God’s sovereignty ends and evil begins, or whether God can even exist in a world full of such suffering. One great historical figure who grappled with this subject and left a legacy of thought was famed theologian Aurelius Augustinus Hipponensis, known as Saint Augustine.  This essay will propose that Saint Augustine of Hippo’s apologetic argument for theodicy, although powerful and effective in his era, has problematic theological issues that make it untenable in the modern age. Furthermore, a better understanding of the biblical authorship of the Old Testament leads to a more clarifying concept of the ubiquitous nature of evil and suffering in the world.

Augustine’s Theodicy

Historical Context

When tackling difficult or intricate biblical arguments, it is vital to take into account the historical context of the time, the philosophical or theological polemics that were being combated, and the intended audience to which the discourse was targeted. This will guide the reader/researcher into a better hermeneutic of the argument and therefore arrive at a more cogent conclusion.

Toward the beginning of the fourth century, it was apparent, in both the east and the west, that paganism, as a vital religion, was quickly receding.[2] When Emperor Constantine established Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire circa 313-312, it was incumbent on the religious leaders of the time to create a new Christian Synthesis.[3]

Saint Augustine came onto the theological scene in the late fourth century. “In his thirty-first year, he was strongly attracted to Neoplatonism by the logic of his development. The idealistic character of this philosophy awoke unbounded enthusiasm, and he was attracted to it also by its exposition of pure intellectual being and of the origin of evil.”[4] This view and style of apologetic brought Augustine closer to the Catholic Church and made him stand out in theological circles of thought and philosophy.

Augustine wrote primarily toward the inter-religious philosophy of his day. After the edict that ratified Christianity throughout the Roman empire, most of the apologetics of his time were concerned with elements of the Christian religion and faith-based communities.

He answered various heresies and heterodox views, often writing powerfully against Manichaeism. He led a polemic against the Donatist group, which attempted to set up a “purer” church in North Africa. Named for Donatus Magnus, the group refused to allow the consecration of any priest or bishop whose faith had wavered during the Diocletian persecutions. Augustine polemicized against Pelagius, the British monk who taught that the doctrine of original sin amounted to fatalism.[5]

This is the proper framing of who the bulk of Augustine’s theodicy address and the proper timeframe in which it was published and disseminated. Over the centuries, Augustine’s theodicy has had enormous influence on Christian apologists all throughout history and his treatment of evil and suffering amidst God’s grace and justice stills stands as a foundational polemic for the Christian faith.

God as Creator

Augustine lays out God as the creator of all things. He is an all-powerful, infinite creator that is worthy to be praised for this creation. This world created by God, is both good and perfect in the eyes of God and therefore a perfect creation: “Great art Thou, O Lord, and greatly to be praised; great is Thy power, and Thy wisdom infinite. And Thee would man praise; man, but a particle of Thy creation; man, that bears about him his mortality, the witness of his sin, the witness that Thou resistest the proud: yet would man praise Thee; he, but a particle of Thy creation.”[6] This shows God as the ultimate architect of our world and all that inhabit it was created, and rests within the sovereignty of God’s grace and dominion.

God creates this world outside of himself and therefore He (the creator) does not inhabit or fill this world: “Do the heaven and earth then contain Thee, since Thou fillest them? or dost Thou fill them and yet overflow, since they do not contain Thee?”[7]  What Augustine is inferring is not that God is void in His creation (Augustine concedes that God is present), but that God’s creation does not contain or restrain God in any way, shape, or form. The world that God creates does not define who (or what) God is as a being.

Lastly, God as the creator, is all things virtuous and good in the world. He is the source of perfection, love, and integrity. He writes with elegance as to the many qualities or attributes that God possesses throughout His creation:

What art Thou then, my God? what, but the Lord God? For who is Lord but the Lord? or who is God save our God? Most highest, most good, most potent, most omnipotent; most merciful, yet most just; most hidden, yet most present; most beautiful, yet most strong, stable, yet incomprehensible; unchangeable, yet all-changing; never new, never old; all-renewing, and bringing age upon the proud, and they know it not; ever working, ever at rest; still gathering, yet nothing lacking; supporting, filling, and overspreading; creating, nourishing, and maturing; seeking, yet having all things.[8]

The depiction of God, according to Augustine is one of infinite power, virtue, and ability. This is important to understand concerning the presence of evil that Augustine grapples with.

Hierarchy of Beings

Augustine lays out the elements of creation, or a hierarchy of beings that can be extrapolated from the Holy Scriptures. Much of his treatise on creation is taken from his These, initially had a harmonious relationship within the created universe. “In creation, all three persons of the Trinity are active, with, roughly, the Father accounting for the existence, the Son (to whom, in Augustine’s reading, the opening words of Genesis, in principio, refer) for the form or essence and the Holy Spirit for the goodness and orderliness of every created being (Confessiones 11.11; De civitate dei 11.24).”[9] Here we see elements of early church creedal invocations in Augustine’s theology.

Since God is being, He gives aspects of His being to forms of His creation i.e. angels and humans. From creation, God establishes Angels: “Incorporeal and purely intellectual beings, i.e., the angels, are created from intelligible matter which is created out of nothing and converted to the creator to be formed through the “hearing” of God’s word, i.e., by their contemplation of the Forms contained in God.”[10] God is being and creates out of nothing (ex nihilo) angels before creating humanity.

These creation events serve a great importance in that Augustine uses this distinction to draw a contrast between the trinity and angels with the image of God when creating man. Augustine writes: “We might have supposed that the words uttered at the creation of man, “Let us,” and not Let me, “make man,” were addressed to the angels, had He not added “in our image;” but as we cannot believe that man was made in the image of angels, or that the image of God is the same as that of angels, it is proper to refer this expression to the plurality of the Trinity.”[11] Normal Giesler sums Augustinian creation in this way: “Creation comes from God but is not out of God.”[12]

This has great theological implications as to the nature of evil and sin as will be evident later in the critique. But the importance of these creation events should be reiterated; God is creation (ultimate being), he therefore creates aspects of his being in the creation of Angels, and then creates man in the trinitarian image of God (imago dei).

The Fall

Saint Augustine is credited as the originator of the doctrine of original sin. He credits free will and the fall of man (and Angels) in the Genesis narrative to the introduction of sin, and therefore evil, into the world. “Augustine formulated his doctrine of original sin and consequent total depravity from the teachings of the apostle Paul, filtered through the lens of his personal struggles with sexual temptation and sin … Augustine argued vigorously for the doctrine of original sin as the inherited liability, guilt, and corruption of Adam.”[13] This is handed down generation by generation through sexual intercourse, coined by Augustine as “concupiscent intercourse.” Augustine attributes the generational curse of sin and evil through conjugal cohabitation between humanity. Much of his doctrine of original sin is rooted in a sexual backdrop that undergirds his view of sin and evil. He writes about his own struggle with this in confessions: “And lo, there was I received by the scourge of bodily sickness, and I was going down to hell, carrying all the sins which I had committed, both against Thee, and myself, and others, many and grievous, over and above that bond of original sin, whereby we all die in Adam.”[14] It is through this rebellious act that creates total depravity which leads to great evil.

This fall, which creates original sin, brings up a huge theological point as to what is evil. It is from this question that Augustine creates his theory of privatio boni. Augustine not only denied that sin was a substance but also asserted that it was merely a privation in that it was the absence of the good.[15] He contended that evil existed when the good was void; Augustine’s assertion of evil as ‘privatio boni’ (the deprivation or the good which has no independent existence itself) is to account evil in terms of the negative and ultimately meaningless.[16]  

Sin and evil deserve just punishment and condemnation from a God of justice and therefore God’s punishments are dolled out justly coming from His divine nature of righteousness, integrity, and wrath. In this we also Augustine puts forth his doctrines of grace, mercy, and predestination. God is well within His prerogative to pardons who He chooses to pardon and condemn whom He chooses to condemn. This is a logical conclusion on a grace freely given.

What arises from this now the apparent paradox within Augustine’s creation hypothesis; why is God’s creation perfect if rebellion is allowed to enter into this perfect creation and birth evil that leads to suffering?  Augustine writes to address this question:

“Hence we have an answer to the problem of why God should have created men whom he foresaw would sin. It was because both in them and by means of them he could reveal how much was deserved by their guilt and condoned by his grace, and, also, because the harmony of the whole of reality which God has created and controls cannot be marred by the perverse discordancy of those who sin” (City of God, 14).[17]

Thus, Augustine concludes that all things are for the glory of God. This is echoed throughout both testaments of the Bible.

Synthesis

Augustine argued that the whole human race was mysteriously present in Adam, the head of mankind; when he rebelled and sinned in the Garden, this fall stained human nature itself and therefore all humanity after Adam and Eve fell in him. This results in that every human being is born into the world with a sinful nature.[18] To Augustinian theology, God did not create evil but allows it to persist to point to God’s omnipotence, omnibenevolence, and omniscience. He goes on to conclude that the necessity of Jesus Christ’s atonement is the defining factor where God solves the issue of sin and evil by the sacrificial work Christ does on the cross for all of God’s elect. According to Augustinian thought: “it is absolutely certain that we will always sin willingly, unless the grace of Christ saves us.”[19]  To Saint Augustine, man freely and willingly is attracted to sin and evil and it is only by the predetermined grace of Jesus Christ that man is freed from this nature through Christianity.

A Critique of Augustine Theodicy

It is in the opinion of this author that Saint Augustine does a masterful job of addressing the issues of theodicy. This issue continues to be a problem preventing those from the faith and casting some out of the faith. All people of compassion struggle with the concept of evil, suffering, and the good.  For Saint Augustine to answer some of these challenges so long ago without the contemporary theological devices that today’s theologians have at their disposal along with the voluminous material that has accumulated since the medieval period is both commendable and astonishing. He has rightfully earned his place in the annals of theological accomplishment and sainthood. This author will attempt to point out three foundational problems in Augustine’s treatment of theodicy which need further clarification to continue this polemic in today’s debate of evil, suffering, and the presence of the almighty. Three areas that need to be corrected are the perfect creation, privatio boni, and original sin.

Perfect Creation

The Augustinian view of God’s perfect creation is a wonderful treatment of Genesis one through three; however, when Saint Augustine answers the question of evil he seems to stretch and distort God’s sovereignty. It appears that Augustine is trying to subvert God’s will that evil must be birthed in this world for God’s glory to shine. It is at this point that his argument seems to be begging the question. It is as if Saint Augustine is looking to get God off the hook when dealing with suffering and evil. This still leaves the question of why God would allow such evil to plague so much of God’s perfect creation. It calls into question whether God is fully sovereign or not. In this attempt, it seems as if Augustine’s treatment of the issue circumvents the issue.  

A better answer to this difficult question should be presented by looking at the entire Bible narrative as a whole answer to this question. Jordan Peterson addresses this issue:

The entire Bible is structured so that everything after the Fall – the history of Israel, the prophets, the coming of Christ – is presented as a remedy for the Fall, a way out of Evil. The beginning of conscious history, the rise of the state and all its pathologies of pride and rigidity, the emergence of great moral figures who try to set things right, culminating in the Messiah Himself – that is all part of humanity’s attempt, God willing, to set itself right.[20]

The fall and subsequent introduction of sin and evil into God’s perfect creation is, in itself, perfect. Man would have to know what evil is and its ramifications in order to choose between good and evil. God is fully within His sovereignty to create a world where evil pervades in order for man to have free will, otherwise there is no choice.

This only becomes more evident when one looks at the totality of the biblical narrative to answer the problem of God’s benevolence concerning His justice. This cannot be answered in the book of Genesis alone, which is where Augustinian theodicy spends most of its time.

Moreover, Saint Augustine’s treatment of natural evil coming out of Adam’s rebellion is nonsensical without paying more attention to God’s curse. It is in the opinion of this author that Saint Augustine grazes over the impact of God’s curse in Genesis (3:14-19) which solves the problem of natural evil. All humanity is living in a fallen state, in a fallen and curse world where evil will, and does, pervade. This is a better answer than Saint Augustine’s treatise of natural evil.

Privatio Boni

The entire view of Saint Augustine as to evil being the privation of the good is heavily laid in the metaphysical world. “In thus making being good and the negation of being evil, Augustine seems to have made the same mistake which other philosophers have so often made,—of confounding physical and moral good.”[21] This does not answer any question of God’s presence amid evil and suffering but diverts the subject into conjectural arguments of what it means to be evil. The debate then is taking out of its pragmatic means and thrown into a fully philosophical state where no answer is available to a contemporary mind.

The Augustinian concept of privatio boni might have served its audience in the fourth century but in today’s atmosphere, it does little, if no good, in answering the hard question of God’s sovereignty and the allowance of evil and suffering in the world. Metaphysical stances, in regard to evil, do not combat the practical and present issues that people are struggling with.

The Fall

This author proposes that the way in which Saint Augustine, and most of Christendom, views the fall of Adam and Eve in Genesis chapter three is only partially to account for the great Evils of the world. This is still very much the theology of most Christians today. However, this is not the whole story. The best way to interpret the Bible is to see it through the eyes of the original authors. Ancient Israelites never had a doctrine of original sin, nor does current Jewish theology. To the ancient Israelites living in the days of Jesus, they would have seen the fall of man played out in three “falls;” the first being Adam and Eve in the garden (Gen 3), the second being the fall of the watchers (Genesis 6), and the third being the tower of Babel event (Genesis 11).[22]

The problem with the Augustinian view of the fall does not answer the question of Evil, it addresses sin but not of great evil. This is why Jewish tradition does not have an original sin doctrine. The contemporary mind has too hard of a time jumping from the rebellious event of Adam and Eve to widespread evil so thorough that God would have to wipe out the world with a flood. Michael Heiser writes: “Jewish readers would know that what happened between the sons of God and the daughters of humankind was not something that bettered humanity. It was the opposite – a transgression of heaven and earth that would corrupt humankind and produce a lineage that would later be a threat to the very existence of Israel, Yahweh’s portion, and people (Deuteronomy 32:8-9).”[23] This is a better explanation of the pervasive evil that spread throughout humanity.

Furthermore, the idea that sin and evil was spread via concupiscence is illogical and a bit silly. It does not speak for the celebrant (which became a large part of a priest’s life) or virginity. The Augustinian view that sex was such a large part of evil does very little to answer the question of evil and seems to be a reductionist argument. The spread of evil through sexual relations is antiquated and naïve.

It is a far better argument to point to the fall, or three falls, set out in Genesis three through eleven as to why and where great evil arises. This gives a more precise and biblical view of where evil came from.

Conclusion

While Augustinian theodicy has its merits, it is best left for research than practical application. Many wonderful ideas and concepts can be gleaned from its study but the practicality of its use in the twenty-first century to answer the problems of evil and God’s benevolence has several logistic and theological holes that bring up several unanswered questions. It is a beautiful treatise of literary eloquence and showcases Saint Augustine’s love of the scriptures and his apparent passion for Christianity and the Church. However, it spends too much of its time circumventing God’s action and presence in an evil world when scriptures point to God’s divine and unyielding sovereignty throughout the biblical text. Instead of making excuses for God, it serves the apologist better to deal with the harder issues which point to God’s ordination of evil and why He allows it.

Bibliography

Anonymous. “Augustine (354-430 C.E.).” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2020. https://iep.utm.edu/augustin/.

Augustine, Aurelius. The Confessions of St. Augustine. Translated by E. B. Pusey. Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems Inc. , 1996.

Berkhof, Louis. Systematic Theology. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1938.

Cabal, Ted, and Chad Owen Brand. The Apologetics Study Bible: Understand Why You Believe: Real Questions, Straight Answers, Stronger Faith. Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers, 2007.

Dulles, Avery Robert. A History of Apologetics. San Francisco (Calif.), CA: Ignatius Press, 2005.

Edgar, William, and K. Scott Oliphint. Christian Apologetics Past and Present. a Primary Source Reader. 1. Vol. 1. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2009.

Geisler, Norman L. Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2002.

Heiser, Michael S. Reversing Hermon: Enoch, the Watchers & the Forgotten Mission of Jesus Christ. Crane, MO: Defender Publishing, 2017.

Hodge, Charles. SYSTEMATIC THEOLOGY. 2. Vol. 2. Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems Inc. , 1997.

Needham, Nicholas R. 2,000 Years of Christ’s Power. London, England: Grace Publications Trust, 2002.

Peterson, Jordan B. 12 Rules for Life: an Antidote for Chaos. London, England: Allen Lane, 2018.

Powell, Doug. Holman QuickSource Guide to Christian Apologetics. Nashville, TN: Holman Reference, 2006.

Sawyer, M. James. Survivor’s Guide to Theology. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2006.

Schaff, Philip, ed. A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church. 2. Vol. 2. First . Buffalo, NY: Christian literature Co., 1887.

Tinker, Melvin. “Purpose in Pain? – Teleology and the Problem of Evil.” Essay. In THEMELIOS16, 3rd ed., 16:13–19. WIPF & STOCK Publishers, 1991.

Tornau, Christian. “Saint Augustine.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Stanford University, September 25, 2019. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/augustine/.

Footnotes:

[1] Ted Cabal et al., The Apologetics Study Bible: Real Questions, Straight Answers, Stronger Faith (Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers, 2007), 733.

[2] Avery Robert Dulles, A History of Apologetics (San Francisco (Calif.), CA: Ignatius Press, 2005), 49.

[3] Ibid, 49.

[4] Anonymous, “Augustine (354-430 C.E.),” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2020, https://iep.utm.edu/augustin/.

[5] William Edgar and K. Scott Oliphint, Christian Apologetics Past and Present. a Primary Source Reader, vol. 1 (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2009), 206.

[6] Saint Augustine Bishop of Hippo, The Confessions of St. Augustine, trans. E. B. Pusey (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1996).

 [7] Saint Augustine Bishop of Hippo, The Confessions of St. Augustine, trans. E. B. Pusey (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1996).

[8] Saint Augustine Bishop of Hippo, The Confessions of St. Augustine, trans. E. B. Pusey (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1996).

[9] Christian Tornau, “Saint Augustine,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Stanford University, September 25, 2019), https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/augustine/.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Augustine of Hippo, “The City of God,” in St. Augustin’s City of God and Christian Doctrine, ed. Philip Schaff, trans. Marcus Dods, vol. 2, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, First Series (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1887), 313.

[12] Norman L. Geisler, “Augustine,” Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics, Baker Reference Library (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1999), 61.

[13] M. James Sawyer, The Survivor’s Guide to Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2006), 480.

[14] Saint Augustine Bishop of Hippo, The Confessions of St. Augustine, trans. E. B. Pusey (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1996).

[15] L. Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans publishing co., 1938), 246.

[16] Melvin Tinker, “Purpose in Pain?—Teleology and the Problem of Evil,” Themelios 16, no. 3 (1991): 16.

[17] Norman L. Geisler, “Augustine,” Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics, Baker Reference Library (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1999), 62.

[18] Nicholas R. Needham, 2,000 Years of Christ’s Power (London, England: Grace Publications Trust, 2002), 249.

[19] Nicholas R. Needham, 2,000 Years of Christ’s Power (London, England: Grace Publications Trust, 2002), 249.

[20] Jordan B. Peterson, 12 Rules for Life: an Antidote for Chaos (London, England: Allen Lane, 2018), 57.

[21] Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, vol. 2 (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1997), 158.

[22] Michael S. Heiser, Reversing Hermon: Enoch, the Watchers & the Forgotten Mission of Jesus Christ (Crane, MO: Defender Publishing, 2017). This is the theme of the entire book. It lays out how Jesus came into the world not just for salvation of man but to reverse the evil that was created from the three rebellious events of Genesis one through eleven.

[23]Michael S. Heiser, Reversing Hermon: Enoch, the Watchers & the Forgotten Mission of Jesus Christ (Crane, MO: Defender Publishing, 2017), 50.

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