A Review of
Augustine: Philosopher of Freedom
Mary T. Clark
Paperback: Cluny Media, 2021
Buy Now: [Amazon]
Reviewed by Joel Wentz
During one particular lecture in a seminary course on church history, I can remember my professor asking the class, “How many of you do not like Augustine?” Almost two-thirds of the class put their hands in the air. The professor gently smiled and then said, “Okay, how many of you have actually read Augustine?” All but three or four people sheepishly lowered their hands.
I thought about this experience many times while reading the late Mary T. Clark’s text (originally published in 1958, but now re-published by Cluny Media) Augustine: Philosopher of Freedom, in which she attempts to bring to light significant elements and nuances of Augustine’s philosophy that have been since glossed-over or misunderstood by popular renderings. In my experience, strident Reformed-Calvinists tend to love an Augustinian theological framework that does not allow for the possibility of any human salvific agency and, indeed, collapses into a full-throated defense of divine determinism and double predestination. And if the great Augustine is on their side, then who am I to correct them? But what if this really is a misunderstanding of what the great (arguably the greatest) Christian philosopher actually said? What if Augustine had profound things to say about the notion of “freedom,” and never actually argued that human freedom disappeared in the process of the saving work of the Christian God, but was actually fully realized?
Augustine: Philosopher of Freedom is first and foremost a philosophical text, unafraid to dive into the cerebral and technical dimensions of the concepts at hand. Clark takes great pains to be precise in her language, and spends a great deal of ink carefully delineating definitions of the terms at stake, and unpacking their use in Augustine’s cultural milieu of Greco-Roman philosophy, terms such as: freedom, free will, and liberty. Those unaccustomed to theological and philosophical hair-splitting may find these passages mind-numbing, but such is the work of taking an eminent philosopher seriously, especially in his time, in which Greek philosophers like Plotinus were arguing for the preservation of human freedom under concepts like “Intellectual Principle” that were utterly bereft of a divine personality, much less a loving one (25). Understanding that free choice, or simply choosing whatever one wishes at any time, can exist within a human who is nevertheless not experiencing deep freedom is key to unlocking what Clark argues is an essential insight of Augustine. “If there have been those who thought that it was better to deprive man of his free choice lest he misuse it, Augustine was not among them. If God was willing to take the risk of confiding to man the constructive and destructive power of free choice, we can see how he cherishes freedom. Shall we cherish it less?” (52, emphasis added)
For freedom is only experienced through union with God, not only doing what God wants, but desiring what God desires. Quoting Augustine directly, “To desire what is not fitting is the worst of wretchedness. But it is not so deplorable to fail in attaining what we desire as it is to wish to attain what is not proper” (67). So our free will, or free choice, can be exercised in either direction. “The wrong use of free will is only an apparent freedom; it is actually a descent to slavery” (99, emphasis added). Yet, the question remains; if we can damn ourselves through free choice, can we also save ourselves through the same? If so, how does that square with Augustine’s strident warnings against Pelagianism?
Enter Augustine’s careful explanation of grace, and especially the role of love, which seems to be curiously missing from the pre-Christian philosophical accounts of human freedom.
Augustine would have us understand efficacious grace in this way: it is a grace that does not cause us to act but causes us to want to act. In this sense it does not override the freedom of the will. It inclines but does not compel the will; the will determines itself. It is an efficacious invitation based on God’s perfect knowledge of the individual man (118, emphasis original).
This may all seem like hair-splitting semantics, but the implications of Clark’s argument are quite profound. Personally, I am compelled and stirred by the notion of God’s grace sparking within me a desire to act, yet without forcing me to act. I find this compelling because it preserves God as the divine inviter, and always the divine savior, but never the divine coercer or manipulator. And this seems to be possible, for Augustine, because of divine love. “It is above all a knowledge of God’s extraordinary love for each human person that awakens in man a tender love, an affective response to God. Lively faith in divine love is then the prelude to freedom, whereas ignorance of this love diminishes freedom” (135).
Especially for those who raised their hands in my seminary class, but had not read Augustine, Clark’s text is an effective reclaiming of Augustine’s clear and confident thinking, and a repositioning of his arguments away from the strangleholds of “double predestination” and “irresistible grace,” both of which Clark argues Augustine never put forward. While it is occasionally bogged down by extremely technical writing, and some laborious passages defining the minutiae of the debate, those who are willing to do some work may find themselves rewarded with a powerful appreciation for this classic philosopher, and especially the legacy he left behind for Christian thinking on grace, salvation and human capacity. “The majority of people today are asking: How can man’s will be insured freedom from constraint in all spheres of life? But Augustine asked: Why is man’s will free?” (247) Per Clark, Augustine argued that man’s ultimate purpose, the ultimate expression of our divinely-granted freedom, will be found only in spiritual union with God through Christ. As such, Augustine is truly a philosopher for our time.
Joel Wentz is currently the Executive Pastor at Missio Dei Church in Portland, Maine. He previously served in college campus ministry with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. In addition to reading and writing, his passions include tabletop gaming, music, and coffee. His favorite book genres are epic fantasy and epic theology. He lives in Portland, Maine with his wife and son, and his personal writing and podcast are at: joelwentz.com