Augustine and Compatibilism

Although the quotation below comes from an introductory guide to Augustine, our main focus is compatibilism and not Augustine.

(1) Augustine’s later reliance on the concepts of grace and original sin turn him into a determinist of the theological variety. Theological determinists hold that everything we do is caused by antecedent conditions, ultimately traceable to God. Although the later Augustine is clearly a theological determinist, it is more accurate to attribute to him the “soft” version of determinism known as compatibilism. Compatibilism is the view that, although all human actions are caused by antecedent conditions, it is still appropriate to call some of them “free.”

(2) Compatibilists want to distinguish actions that are internally caused from actions that are externally caused. Consider, once again, the case of our patient suddenly kicking her leg. Suppose that what caused her to do this was that her physician tapped her reflex. This would mean that the action was externally caused, and hence should not be considered free. Suppose, on the other hand, that what caused her to kick her leg was a desire for attention. According to the compatibilist, this would still be an antecedent condition that made it impossible for her to refrain from kicking her leg. So, she was not free in the libertarian sense. Nevertheless, the compatibilist would call the action “free” in so far as it was internally caused. Someone else did not cause the patient to kick her leg; she did it of her own accord.

(3) Compatibilists make this distinction because they want to hold human beings morally responsible only for their “free” (i.e. internally caused) actions. If something outside of the patient caused her to kick her leg, then she cannot take the blame for it; if something inside her caused this, then she must take responsibility for it, even though she could not do otherwise.

(4) Augustine is most charitably interpreted as a compatibilist. He, like most compatibilists, retains the language of free will because he knows that it is impossible to explain the human condition without it. Nevertheless, he commandeers this language to his own deterministic purposes. He wants to maintain that human beings cannot take credit for being good. The reason is that all good actions are caused by God’s grace, an external cause. At the same time, he wants to maintain that human beings must take credit for being bad. The reason is that all bad actions are caused by our own wills. Since the will is an internal cause, we are responsible, even though we cannot do otherwise.

(5) In his latest works, Augustine devotes himself to disparaging the alleged human dignity of free will and criticizing anyone who takes pride in it. He writes that human beings are “enslaved to sin,” and that the best thing that can happen to us is to receive grace and thereby become “enslaved to God” instead.

(6) Augustine’s theodicy therefore makes a dubious contribution to the history of philosophy. On the one hand, it provides us with a personal yet intellectual confrontation with the problem of evil. On the other hand, it introduces the concept of free will, only to generate another set of concepts, grace and original sin, which cancel out any meaningful application of the concept of free will. In this way, Augustine reflects and reinforces the profound ambivalence toward human freedom that is endemic to Western thought.[1]

Some of the above statements are questionable or at least imprecise, and what Augustine “knows” is sometimes just his opinion.

For example, I disagree with the statement, “He, like most compatibilists, retains the language of free will because he knows that it is impossible to explain the human condition without it.” Augustine might have thought that he needed to assign some kind of freedom to man, but that does not mean he was correct. In fact, I affirm the opposite position, that to retain (“the language of”) human free will in any meaningful sense would make it impossible to explain the human condition, and not only that, but it would also make the doctrine of man inconsistent with the doctrine of God.

Nevertheless, the above explanation of compatibilism is still a good demonstration of how the tension (self-contradiction) in compatibilism is obvious to those who are not biased in favor of it.

I will offer some comments on each paragraph. Each numbered portion below corresponds to a paragraph with the same number in the above section:



Theological determinists hold that everything we do is caused by antecedent conditions, ultimately traceable to God.

This is true of most theological determinists, but it is also finally incoherent. I would change this to say that all conditions are “immediately traceable to God.”

So-called “second causes” are considered the means by which God executes his immutable decrees; however, these second causes are not themselves self-existent, self-determined, self-caused, or self-powered. Rather, all so-called “secondary causes” are themselves immediately caused and controlled by God, and the objects on which these secondary causes supposedly act upon react in ways that are also immediately caused and controlled by God. In other words, the term is misleading, and in fact nonsense.

This is the only coherent and defensible position. When pressed, theological determinists who differ from this must rather quickly retreat into mystery and paradox.

Compatibilism is the view that, although all human actions are caused by antecedent conditions, it is still appropriate to call some of them “free.”

Why is the word “free” in quotations here and in other places? It is probably because the writers realize that it is a stretch to call compatibilist freedom “free.”

Compatibilist freedom is “free” only in a private and arbitrary sense. The word “free” is inserted and used by force – it is not a natural description of compatibilism, especially when discussed in the context of divine determinism.



Freedom is relative – you are free from something. The compatibilist wants to affirm that we are not free from God, but at the same time he wants to make freedom applicable to our action in some sense, so he sets the standard by which freedom is measured down from God to man. Instead of measuring freedom by whether our thoughts and actions are free from God, we are “free” as long as we are free relative to other created things, and then we build moral responsibility on that. They just changed the reference point.

This is narrow and arbitrary. I can just as well change the standard or the reference point to whether we are free from a particular particle of dust on Neptune. If that particle of Neptune dust does not determine my thoughts and actions – if I am “free” from it – then in this sense I have “free will,” and therefore I am morally responsible. However, we are considering our responsibility to God, not to other people or to random objects.

The compatibilist may answer, “The point is that the cause for an action is within me, so that I am not forced, and therefore I am free and responsible.” This use of “forced” and “free” is misleading, since if God is the cause of the cause of this action, if he completely determines every detail of our very thoughts, desires, motives, and willingness…or to use the expressions in our quotation, if God is the external cause of the internal cause of our actions, so that the internal cause itself is not free even in the compatibilist sense, then the action is more than forced. It is so determined, caused, and controlled that it cannot even be described as forced, since to be “forced” leaves room for an internal conscious reluctance to perform the action that one is externally caused against his will to perform. But God has such a comprehensive control over all of our thoughts and actions that “forced” would be too weak to describe it.

So of course our actions are not “forced,” because the word suggests that the one doing the forcing lacks complete control over the one being forced, so that there remains some resistance in the one being forced against the one doing the forcing, only that the one doing the forcing exerts greater power. Since “forced” implies such a scenario or relationship, it is too weak to describe God’s control over us; therefore, our actions are not “forced” even though we are not free. In fact, God’s control over us is so exhaustive that the compatibilist seems oblivious to it, so he thinks that he is free because he does not feel forced, when the truth is that he is much less free than if he were forced.

The compatibilist says that we are not free if our actions are externally caused, but that we are free if our actions are internally caused. However, the truth is that all our internal “causes” are themselves externally caused. All our thoughts and actions are in fact externally caused by God, so that our so-called internal causes are merely externally caused effects that lead to other effects, such as our actions.

Therefore, in this sense, none of our thoughts and actions are free even from the compatibilist perspective, that is, unless they change the reference point to start after God has already externally caused our internal causes. This is arbitrary – it is cheating – if we are going to permit this, then there is no point in arguing, since it would be clear that the compatibilist will keep changing the reference point until he can use the word “free” in some sense.

It is misleading to change the reference point so that we can affirm some sense of freedom; instead, we should consistently define freedom relative to the broadest metaphysical principle, which is God, since he is the only relevant reference point when we are discussing divine determinism. If we are not free from God in any sense, then we have no “free will” or “freedom” in any sense, that is, in the context of discussing divine determinism.



“Free” is illegitimately defined as “internally caused,” even if everything about everything that is internal is in fact externally caused and controlled by God. We have addressed this, so we will move on.

Again, a main concern is the foundation for moral responsibility; meanwhile, no one seems to notice that the premise “responsibility presupposes freedom” has never been established. If we place moral responsibility back where it belongs – on God’s sovereign decree to judge all mankind – then human freedom becomes irrelevant, and there would be no problem in discarding it.



Notice the twisting and turning needed to even explain compatibilism, let alone to defend it.

Compatibilists say that good is attributed to God’s grace and power because sinful man has no ability within himself for any spiritual good, but evil is attributed to man because he is already sinful and to do evil would be to act according to his nature. When you ask them how that evil nature got there in the first place, and how Adam could have performed evil if he was created with a good nature, they retreat into mystery and paradox, or repeat some sort of argument based on free will, which begs the question.

On the other hand, I can say, “The Sovereign God causes all things, and he is good and righteous in all that he does. Blessed be the name of the Lord.” No objection can touch this.



Again, the question is how man came to be “enslaved to sin” in the first place if he was created with a good nature. Also, I would say that whereas man has become “enslaved to sin,” sin itself has always been “enslaved to God.” To say that sin is in any sense free from God would be to affirm dualism.

If unsaved men are “enslaved to sin,” and sin itself is “enslaved to God,” and if redeemed man are “enslaved to God” in righteousness, this means that both unsaved and redeemed men are in fact “enslaved to God” – the unsaved through sin, and the redeemed through righteousness.



The writers exercise remarkable restraint toward compatibilism. They have everything set up well enough that they could blast it to smithereens, but they want to play nice. So they settle for saying that Augustine’s is a “dubious contribution,” and that the deterministic aspects of his philosophy “cancel out any meaningful application of the concept of free will.”

This means that if a compatibilist truly affirms divine determinism, then what he says about human “freedom” or “free will” is meaningless – it is nonsense. These writers see this – most Calvinists refuse to see it.



Here is the way to avoid nonsense:

1. Affirm absolute divine determinism.
2. Deny all human freedom.
3. Base moral responsibility on God’s sovereign decree to judge mankind.
4. Answer almost all related objections by doing the following:
a. Affirm that God is just and righteous by definition.[2]
b. Deny the unjustified premise, “responsibility presupposes freedom.”[3]

There is no twisting and turning, no philosophical gymnastics, and no need to redefine this and qualify that. God is sovereign, man is not free – and there is no problem. This is biblical, coherent, simple, and defensible.


Additional Comments

Here I will briefly address the compatibilist’s claim that Scripture itself teaches compatibilism.

One of the favorite verses used to support compatibilism is Genesis 50:20, in which Joseph says to his brothers, who sold him to Egypt, “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.”

For this verse to support compatibilism, it must convey the idea that the brothers’ action was in some sense “free”; however, the verse tells us only about their intention – it says nothing about whether or not they were free, or whether or not the intention was free.

Since the verse also tells us about God’s intention, and since this intention differs from the brothers’ intention, the compatibilist claims that this explains how God could immutably decree a human action, and still the decreed action (in this case, the brothers’ decision and action to sell Joseph) is still “freely” performed by the human person or people involved.

However, the verse does not imply this – it is a forced inference. The verse tells us what the men intended, and it tells us what God intended, but it does not give us the piece of information that is needed to either establish or refute compatibilism, namely, the relationship between the men’s intention and God’s intention in this event (of selling Joseph).

As it is, the verse neither establishes nor refutes compatibilism. To understand how this verse applies to compatibilism, one must first discover the relationship between man’s will and God’s will from the many other verses in Scripture that address this.

As I have established in other places, many biblical passages teach that it is God’s will that directly determines man’s will, whether for good or for evil. Therefore, when we apply Genesis 50:20 to our topic, we could paraphrase it to say, “God intended good for your evil intention,” or “God caused you to have this evil intention, and he intended good when he did it,” or “God intended good (the saving of many lives) when he caused you to intend this evil (the selling of Joseph).”

The verse does not suggest that the brothers “freely” intended evil – it only says that they intended evil. Then, it says that God intended good concerning this same (evil) decision or action performed by the brothers. Adding to this the premise (established by other biblical verses) that God exercises constant and complete control over all human thoughts and actions (whether good or evil), it follows that God intended good when he caused these brothers to intend evil.

In this manner, God was righteous and the brothers were morally culpable. God was righteous since all that he does is righteous by definition, and it was a good decree that caused the evil intention in the brothers. The brothers were morally culpable since they indeed violated God’s moral laws, as caused by God do to so. In all of this, there is no logical entry point for human freedom to come into the discussion, although it is often forced into the discussion.

Apply a similar analysis to the other passages used by compatibilists, and it will become obvious that none of them support compatibilism. Rather, compatibilists are so convinced of their position apart from Scripture that they easily “see” it taught in these passages even when they do not address the topic.

It is self-defeating for Calvinists to embrace a tradition that has been a burden to their doctrine rather than a support, making it incoherent and hard to defend, and making its adherents look like fools when they retreat into mystery and paradox. Granted, a bold and consistent doctrine of divine sovereignty is even more offensive than a half-baked and inconsistent Calvinism, so that even Calvinists attack it, but it is also biblical, coherent, and irrefutable.

[1] Sharon M. Kaye and Paul Thomson, On Augustine (Wadsworth, 2001), p. 25–26.

[2] This renders all “problem of evil” and “author of sin” type of objections inapplicable.

[3] This renders human freedom irrelevant to the discussion.