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After LivesA Guide to Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory$

John Casey

Print publication date: 2009

Print ISBN-13: 9780195092950

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: February 2010

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195092950.001.0001

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Predestination: Augustine to Calvin and Beyond

Predestination: Augustine to Calvin and Beyond

(p.167) 7 Predestination: Augustine to Calvin and Beyond
After Lives

John Casey (Contributor Webpage)

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter explores the history and logic of the doctrine of predestination—that because of inherited (“original”) sin man needs divine grace to perform any righteous act. Since grace is a free gift of God, it was taken to follow that God, in withholding it from some and granting it to others, consigns some to everlasting perdition simply from the counsel of his own will, from all eternity. The chapter examines St. Augustine, chief originator of the doctrine, and his struggle with those who opposed it, especially the Pelagians. It goes on to examine Calvin's more severe concept of Double Predestination, and later developments, through the Council of Trent, disputes between Jansenists and Jesuits, up to the modern times. It examines critically whether belief in fundamental human depravity can have a rational basis.

Keywords:   predestination, depravity, Augustine, original sin, grace, Pelagians, Calvin, Jansenists, Jesuits

Augustine against the Pelagians

We have seen that in the earliest Christian texts there can be found the suggestion that souls may be saved and damned purely by the will of God alone: “Therefore hath he mercy on whom he will have mercy, and whom he will he hardeneth” (Rom. 9:18). Jesus, also, in the parable of the man who has sown weeds in another man's wheatfield, implies that from birth we are either good or bad seeds. The good seed “are the children of the kingdom; but the tares [i.e., weeds] are the children of the wicked one” (Matt. 13:38), Yet this must be set against the many sayings of Jesus that call on men voluntarily to repent for “the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Indeed, in the very same chapter where Jesus explains the parable of the sower, there is a version of the parable that clearly implies that to accept or reject faith in the word is indeed voluntary. A sower went forth to sow, and some seeds fell by the wayside, and were eaten by birds; others fell on stony places, sprang up quickly but were soon scorched by the sun and died; others fell among thorns, which choked them; but others fell on good ground, and brought forth fruit “some an hundredfold, some sixtyfold, some thirtyfold” (Matt. 13:3–8).

The explanation Jesus gives of this parable is that the seed which fell in stony places is the word of God heard joyfully, but not fully rooted in the affections of the person that hears it, so that when any persecution or tribulation arises, he does not persevere. The seed (p.168) fallen among thorns is the word received by someone who allows the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches to choke his faith. The good ground receiving the seed “is he that heareth the word, and understandeth it” (Matt. 13:8, 23).

Whether one's acceptance of Jesus and his message is voluntary or not is obviously of momentous significance, for the weeds will be gathered together in bundles to be burned, while the wheat will be gathered together in his barn. And “so shall it be in the end of the world.”

  • The Son of man shall send forth his angels, and they shall gather out of his kingdom all things that offend and them which do iniquity;
  • And shall cast them into a furnace of fire: there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth.
  • Then shall the righteous shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of their father. (Matt. 13: 30, 40–43)

From the earliest times, therefore, there has been an apparent contradiction in the Christian promise, between salvation offered to all who will repent and hear the word of God, and a salvation and damnation that has been decreed for every individual by God's will alone, regardless of what he actually does in life. Are we free to accept or reject God's word and his grace, or is our eternal future eternally predetermined? To resolve this question has been the preoccupation of some of the greatest thinkers in the history of the church; and a determination to end uncertainty about it once and for all was the spirit that above all brought about the Protestant Reformation.

The Christian thinker who first made a systematic attempt to impose upon the church a doctrine of predestination was Augustine of Hippo (354–430). His ultimate disciple, equaling if not exceeding Augustine in logical rigor was John Calvin. Augustine's doctrines of original sin and the consequent depravity of human nature, of the absolute necessity of God's grace in procuring man's salvation, and above all his unrelenting insistence upon a doctrine of predestination have indelibly marked all subsequent theology. Augustine was the greatest single influence on Calvin, whose own account of predestination molded and terrified millions through the Protestant centuries. The Augustinian understanding of human depravity has continued to inform our understanding of human psychology even in a post‐Christian era.

Augustine's whole career was a mixture of searching and polemics. When he achieved certainty within the fold of the church, he turned with ferocious indignation on the beliefs he had earlier embraced. In his youth, despite having Catholic parents, he had attached himself to the Manichean heresy for nine (p.169) years, before converting to the Catholic faith. The Manicheans believed that the whole universe reflected a primeval struggle between light and darkness, the good and evil principles. Salvation could come only by a release from this world and by a state of perfection achieved through a life of extreme asceticism.

A chief text for the Manicheans was the saying of Jesus: “A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit” (Matt. 7:18). This was interpreted to mean that from a good will no evil can come forth, nor any good from an evil will. Therefore evils come from evil natures, and goods from good natures. Everything God makes is good, including the human will before the Fall, and therefore evil must come from something not made by God, but at war with God—an evil principle, such as a Satan‐figure who would be co‐eternal with God.1

The answer to this by orthodox Catholic thinkers, including Augustine, was (in brief) that evil could indeed arise from what was originally good—original human nature—when the human will turned or fell from God, turning toward itself, thus depriving itself of possession of the highest good, which is God. Evil, therefore, is a privation of good, rather than something that has a positive existence in itself.2 (This doctrine will allow for the thinnest of partitions dividing Augustine from his even more radical disciple, Calvin.)

Even after Augustine was converted to orthodox Catholicism (an orthodoxy in the shaping of which his own ideas had a powerful influence) the psychology of Manicheanism still colored his thought. That, at any rate, was what some of his enemies alleged against him.

Augustine faced and tried to give a consistent answer to the fundamental question of Christianity: Why did Christ live, suffer, and die at all? Was it to save us all from eternal damnation, and open the gates of heaven to all mankind? If Christ's death was necessary for the salvation of sinners, was this simply because he presented a model of holiness and perfection, which might inspire us to follow his example, to imitate his virtues—as people might aspire to follow the example of Buddha, or of Socrates? If that were so, then Christ's life and death was not in itself either necessary or sufficient for salvation—for it could be seen simply as encouraging the rest of us to live better, more perfect lives, with the implication that to do so is within our own power. Much in the gospel writings would allow us to see Jesus as essentially an inspiring exemplar, a shiningly good man whose life we should strive to imitate, and whose death would have been simply a tragedy but for the resurrection. It was Paul who made Christ's death an essential part of the scheme of salvation and saw the merits of this death as being applied to sinners simply through the decision of God. This is the doctrine of the atonement—implied in words ascribed to Christ himself in several Gospel (p.170) texts3—that the merits of Christ's sacrificial death are applied to sinful human beings so as to lift from them, through no merit of their own, the burden of depravity and the sentence of eternal damnation.

The doctrine that it is within our own power to follow Christ, and therefore to move voluntarily toward salvation, was one that Augustine spent much of his life combating. It is called Pelagianism and is the only great British contribution to Christian heresy.

Pelagius was a British monk who taught at Rome in the late fourth and early fifth centuries. He seems to have been a cultivated, charming, and pious man. He opposed the grim view of the world entailed by Manicheanism, and stressed man's power to be virtuous, and even to achieve salvation through the free exercise of his will. Pelagius rejected any doctrine of original sin. Indeed, he argued that to insist on the depravity of human nature, on man's inability through his own efforts to avoid sin, was to make God responsible for the sins of mankind. God had created human nature, and if after the Fall men are born so radically defective, they cannot be blamed for their iniquities.

The vast majority of Christians—at least, in the West—are now Pelagians without knowing it. The changes of liturgical forms and words in many of the churches reflect a systematic downplaying of any idea of essential, inherited human depravity, and of the powerlessness of human beings to achieve anything good of their own efforts—“there is no health in us.”4 In effect they attenuate the fear of hell that has been central to Christian practice throughout the centuries. Augustine thought that Pelagianism was perhaps the most deadly of all heresies precisely in that it reduced Christ to a role model, and denied that his death had of itself atoned for the sin of Adam; that faith in Christ was sufficient for salvation and that such faith was a free and unmerited gift of God; and that human beings could not, through their own unaided efforts do anything to overcome the power of sin. Augustine was convinced that it was only those very doctrines, which the Pelagians denied, that could explain how Christianity was unique, and why extra ecclesiam nulla salus [outside the church there is no salvation].

In all this Augustine was consciously following Paul. The Pelagians were held to deny the Christian teaching that the world since Adam's death had been involved in a calamity, which included physical death itself: “In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return” (Gen. 3:19). Paul taught that it was because of the sin of Adam that we all die (Rom. 8:10, 11; 1 Cor. 15:22). To the Pelagians, death was simply part of nature—not at all a punishment for sin. Adam would have died in the course of nature, even had he not sinned. Adam's sin harms man simply because it gave a bad example, which we are tempted to imitate, another conclusion rejected by Paul (Rom. 5:12–21).

(p.171) The Pelagians were, in effect, humanists and sprang from a great pagan tradition. Aristotle, for instance, had seen moral education as the perfecting of what is inherent in man's nature. Virtues such as courage, temperance and practical wisdom could be taught, and they usually involved our preserving the role of reason as ruler over the passions and appetites. The virtuous person was someone in whom the natural human capacities had been educated into a harmony one with another. To be truly brave goes with being also just and practically wise—otherwise courage might be no more than a reckless bullying. The temperate person pursued the higher and more rational human pleasures over simple animal satisfactions. But virtuous people did not overcome or suppress human nature. Rather they found the best way of subordinating the passions and appetites to reason, hence bringing them into the happy life of a rational animal. For Aristotle, then, human beings need moral education to perfect themselves and are subject to the temptation to fall away from rational living. But human nature as such is certainly not depraved.

The Pelagians held some ideas in common with Aristotle. He did not think of the passions and appetites as evil—simply that they needed to be ordered by reason. Within a harmonious human personality the passions and appetites are actually good. The anger of those who are brave and just is something noble. A chief claim of the Pelagians, similarly, was that human passions and appetites, are not in themselves evil—it depends what one does with them. In themselves they are neutral. They become evil only if evilly used. The sexual instinct is natural and to that extent good. Within the context of marriage, sexual desire is good. It becomes evil only if wrongly used.5

Augustine assaults Pelagianism root and branch. Our passions and appetites cannot be looked on as neutral, for they are in revolt against the good. They express the whole of man's nature as it seeks self rather than the external, objective good which is God. Man's passions from their very birth—at least since the Fall—are filled with his perverse will. They are therefore evil in themselves in that they are infected by the evil of the human will. Hence what is evil in man is not just the appetites and passions when they rebel against reason, but the human heart itself in its perversity: “The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked: who can know it?” (Jer. 17:9).6 Man is thoroughly depraved; he cannot even genuinely desire the good. Fallen human nature cannot of itself perform any good act. God's grace is required. Without the free gift of grace we are all headed to perdition.

How does Augustine know that we are depraved, utterly incapable of doing anything on our own to achieve the good? How does he know that we all inherit the sin of Adam, that we are born tainted with original sin, so that we are incapable of doing the right without the assistance of God, and hence damned to all eternity?

(p.172) In the first place he knows it from revelation. Paul writes that human beings can never be justified by works, but only by faith (Rom. 3:27–28). It was Paul who introduced the idea of our inheritance of some original sin to atone for which Christ's suffering and death were necessary. It follows from Paul's teaching that we can achieve nothing good except by having righteousness imputed to us through Christ's sacrifice—and that, therefore, we are depraved. The Pelagians denied, in effect, that we can find convincing evidence of this depravity in human experience. Can Augustine?

In his Confessions Augustine does find evidence of an inherent perversity from his own infancy. It is rooted in willfulness—a willfulness that is to be found even in the baby at its mother's breast: “what then were my sins at that age? That I wailed too fiercely for the breast? For if today I were to make as gluttonously and as clamorously, not of course for my mother's breasts, but for the food I now eat, I should be ridiculed and quite properly condemned. This means that what I did then was reprehensible, although since I could not understand words of blame, neither custom nor common sense allowed me to be blamed.…[Yet] surely it was not good, even for that time of life, to scream for things that would have been thoroughly bad for me; to fly into a hot rage because older persons—and free, not slaves—were not obedient to me; to strike out as hard as I could with sheer will to hurt, at my parents…for not yielding to my demands” (Augustine, Confessions, bk. 1, chap. 7). Every infant is born “wrapped…in the hereditary rags of his vitiated origin” (Against Julian 2, 6 (15), 76). All children are born into death unless they are reborn through Christian baptism.

Augustine takes as another proof of original sin that infants are often born physically diseased or maimed—“sometimes born blind; sometimes deaf…sometimes…feeble‐minded.” This shows that they are conceived and brought forth under the power of the devil (ibid., 2, 4–5, 114–17).

For Augustine, the innocence of children is not a quality of their minds, but lies simply in the helplessness of their bodies. The true horror of infantile willfulness would come out if a grown man—perhaps a man with worldly power—had the unchastened will of an infant. He would be a terrifying monster—a Caligula, a Hitler, or an Idi Amin. Even before the use of reason, infants can show what is monstrous in human nature: “I have myself seen a small baby jealous; it was too young to speak, but it was livid with anger as it watched another infant at the breast” (Confessions, bk. 1, chap. 7). (Interestingly, Augustine does not say that the jealousy arises from the infant's feeling excluded from the breast of its own mother. It is possible that he is describing sheer motiveless malignity—envy toward another infant at the breast of its own mother.)

(p.173) What Augustine is describing is the titanic willfulness of the infant, a willfulness that gets its satisfaction in opposing the will of another, or bending the will of another to its own, or simply wishing to obstruct another's satisfaction. Or it may express itself by lusting after what is forbidden simply because it is forbidden. Augustine famously tells the story of his theft, in adolescence, of some pears: “I stole things which I already had in plenty and of better quality. Nor had I any desire to enjoy the things I stole, but only the stealing of them and the sin. There was a pear tree near our vineyard, heavy with fruit, but fruit that was not particularly tempting either to look at or to taste. A group of young blackguards, and I among them, went out to knock down the pears and carry them off late one night.…We carried off an immense load of pears, not to eat—for we barely tasted them before throwing them to the hogs. Our only pleasure in doing it was that it was forbidden.…The malice of the act was base and I loved it…I loved…simply the evil” (Confessions, bk. 2, chap. 4).

But the place where Augustine most urgently—one might say, obsessively—finds evidence of inborn depravity is human sexuality. Augustine wrote extensively on Christian marriage and was profoundly influenced by the constant early Christian tradition that voluntary celibacy is a higher state than wedlock. His fundamental assumption is that sexual desire—concupiscence—within marriage, let alone outside it, is a pardonable fault at best, and at worst the equivalent of adultery within the marriage bed itself. By concupiscence in marriage, a husband is “the adulterer of his own wife.”7One proof he gives of this is our sense of shame, which came with the Fall. When Adam and Eve had eaten of the apple “the eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they were naked” (Gen. 3:7). For Augustine, we have to understand the new knowledge that came to them as their “perceiving and recognizing the new state which had befallen their body” (On Marriage and Concupiscence, bk. 1, chap. 6, 266). This new state was sexual desire. Man's disobedience to God in eating the apple is punished by the new phenomenon of the disobedience of his own flesh to himself. This was the opening of Adam and Eve's eyes. After the Fall, the genitals refuse to obey the human will:

Well, then, how significant is the fact that the eyes, and lips, and tongue, the hands, and feet, and the bending of the back, and neck, and sides, are all placed within our power—to be applied to such operations as are suitable to them, when we have a body free from impediments and in a sound state of health; but when it must come to man's great function of the procreation of children, the members which were expressly created for this purpose will not obey the direction of the will, but lust has to be waited for to set these members (p.174) in motion, as if it had legal right over them, and sometimes refuses to act when the mind wills, while often it acts against its will. Must not this bring a blush of shame over the freedom of the human will, that by its contempt of God, its own Commander, it has lost all proper command for itself over its own members? (Ibid.)

It is not only this “shameless novelty”8 of the unwilled stirring of the sexual parts that reveals the shamefulness of lust or concupiscence, but also the fact that parents seek to hide their sexual activities from their children, that privacy is typically sought for in sex, and that human beings cover their private parts. Even wet dreams reveal the taint that comes from original sin (Against Julian, bk. 4, chap. 2, 10, [174]; Confessions, bk. 10, chap. 30, 190–91). In Paradise human beings would have copulated in a purely willed way, without lust (Against Julian, bk. 4, chap. 11, 57, [215]). The best that can be said for marriage is that it is better than fornication, although inferior to consecrated celibacy (On Marriage and Concupiscence, 1, 15, 271); but it would be better still if the sole justifying purpose of marriage and the sexual act—procreation—could be performed without any sexual desire at all. Jesus is born sinless just because he was conceived without carnal intercourse between two human beings and born of a virgin (Against Julian, bk. 2, chap. 2, 58).

The inheritance of original sin is, for Augustine, bound up with sexuality, as it is in Genesis, when Adam and Eve, having eaten of the forbidden fruit, realize for the first time that they are naked. The offspring of human copulation are the children of perdition, the sons and daughters of wrath. Augustine quotes a psalm: “He sent upon them the wrath of his indignation; indignation and wrath through evil angels” (Ps. 78:49). He quotes with approval a remark of Cicero's that many infants are possessed by devils (Against Julian, bk. 6, chap. 21, 67, [379]). It is through sexual desire that original sin is transmitted (On Marriage and Concupiscence, bk. 1, 24). Sexual desire without the immediate intention of procreation can just be tolerated in marriage as a venial sin when it is not too powerful, but only lest the devil tempt couples to be incontinent outside the marriage bed (ibid., bk. 1, chap. 16).

In Paradise Lost Milton represents Adam and Eve after they have eaten the apple as passing from an innocent, if enthusiastic desire for each other to blamable sensual connoisseurship:

  • But come, so well refresht, now let us play,
  • As meet is, after such delicious Fare;
  • For never did thy Beautie since the day
  • I saw thee first and wedded thee, adornd
  • With all perfections, so enflame my sense
  • (p.175)
  • With ardor to enjoy thee, fairer now
  • Then ever, bountie of this vertuous Tree.9

Lust came into marriage only after the Fall. When it did, it brought with it the embarrassment of periods and the pains of childbirth. There would otherwise have been no female orgasms in response to virile male activity—that is to say, virgins would not have been excited to conceive “by the force of turbid heat” but would rather have been “submissive to the power of the gentlest love ” (On Marriage and Concupiscence, bk. 2, chap 41). (We also would have had no fear of animals—which were, presumably, noncarnivorous. In proof of that, Augustine quotes St. John Chrysostom's contention that if man had been afraid of beasts in the garden of Eden, Eve would have run away from the serpent rather than stopping and talking to it.10 The results would have been better, of course.) In our fallen state, it is only conjugal modesty that makes sexual activity morally bearable at all (Against Julian, bk. 4, chap. 6, 36, [200]). Perhaps in Paradise we were able to come together purely to beget offspring, like birds, or to procreate without any copulation at all—like honeybees (Good of Marriage. bk. 1, chap. 2, 2, and On Marriage and Concupiscence, bk. 1, chap. 5).

Augustine writes as though he finds sexual desire to be the area of human life where original sin most vividly manifests itself. This is strange and does not seem warranted by his general argument. For the real evil of concupiscence is that it is an example of the flesh warring against the spirit. He writes that the activity of the male member before the Fall did not cause shame “because it was moved only by the command of the will” (Against Julian, bk. 4, chap. 13, 62, [219–20]). But this war between flesh and spirit shows itself in many areas of human life. Augustine thinks it a sin if we take too much pleasure in eating. Indeed, he comes close to suggesting that any sensual delight in food at all is sinful: “What sober man would not prefer to take food…without any stinging carnal pleasure, if he could, as the air he draws in and lets out…This food, consumed continually through mouth and nose, neither tastes nor smells, yet we cannot live without it even the shortest time, whereas we can live a very long time without meat and drink” (ibid., bk. 4, chap. 14, 68, [225]). He even quotes, with semi‐approval, “some writers on scripture” who think that in Paradise human beings did not need food at all, and that “only such nourishment as delights and sustains the hearts of the wise” would have existed there. (Given that it was a widespread opinion among the Fathers of the church that Adam and Eve were actually in Paradise for only a few hours before they sinned, this does not seem an hypothesis that could easily be tested.)

The point is that human nature is depraved throughout. Natural man is sinful through and through, and it is only when human nature is suffused with (p.176) God's grace that there is any good in it at all. The coming of Christ and his grace has made all the difference. Since Christ it is definitely better to remain celibate than to marry—even than to have a continent (i.e., nonlustful) marriage (On Marriage and Concupiscence, bk. 1, chap. 14). Those who do not believe in Christ are incapable of doing anything truly good, however hard they try and however noble their motives may seem to be. Augustine attacks Julian of Eclanum, a follower Pelagius, for lack of rigor on just this point: “You say: ‘If a Gentile clothe a naked man, is it a sin because it is not done by faith?’ Insofar as it is not done by faith it is truly a sin—not that the thing done, clothing the naked, is a sin in itself; but only an ungodly man denies that it is sin not to give glory to the Lord in such a work” (Against Julian. bk. 4, chap. 3, 30, [194]).

Not only can no purely human motives make an act good—they bring in sin. Even mercy dictated simply by a merciful will can be evil—a mercy that simply is motivated by sympathy or pity (ibid., 31, [195–96]). If unbelievers do manage to do good works, these are not really their works but those of God who decides to use them. Their sins, on the other hand, are theirs alone (ibid.). Good works, without faith, are not truly good.

We might say that although for Augustine human depravity is a universal fact, it shows itself dramatically in certain phenomena—such as sex and the malice of babies. But in the case of a high‐minded pagan who clothes the naked, visits the imprisoned, and performs other corporal works of mercy, Augustine does not seem to think it necessary to look for evidence at all. Indeed, he seems even to rejoice in the fact that on the surface the behavior of honorable unbelievers looks as though it is inspired by the highest motives. It is only by revelation that we know it to be worthless. It is through revelation that we know that the high‐minded pagan—all high‐minded pagans throughout the ages, indeed all non‐Christians—are damned. So why should we place so much weight on the evidence of depravity as it is found in human sexuality? It is as though he thinks that we know when the flesh wars against the spirit when we see it palpably doing so—but if all human actions are without merit when carried out without faith, how can some be more palpably worthless than others?

The doctrine of original sin is meant to explain how the whole world is involved in catastrophe and suffering. It is a world ruled by Satan, a world disordered and chaotic. This reflects Augustine's inheritance from both Plato and the Manicheans—the sense of the actual world as a damaged or inferior version of something better and more real.

These beliefs in man's depravity and need of grace, added to the picture of nature itself as damaged beyond repair, are the background to the doctrine of predestination. Augustine meditates on the scriptural texts that suggest that (p.177) God has from all eternity chosen some for perdition and some for salvation, with unprecedented intellectual rigor and passion. This intellectual rigor brings to the surface as plainly as possible the central difficulty of predestination. If man is profoundly depraved, capable of doing nothing good for himself but dependent entirely on the grace of God so that only those freely chosen by God can be saved, the obvious question arises: Why should God extend his grace to some and not to others? For Augustine, as for Paul, faith is essential to salvation. But faith is itself a free gift of God. Augustine is absolutely certain that the choice of believing does not lie in the human will “because in the Elect the will is prepared by the Lord” (On the Predestination of Saints, chap. 10). This choice by God—this “election”—has nothing to do with human merits (ibid., chap. 11). and there can be no explanation in human terms why some are given faith, and hence rescued from eternal damnation, while others are lost, except simply that it is God's will: “For it is better in this case for us to hear or to say, “‘O man, who art thou that repliest against God?’ than to dare to speak as if we could know what he has chosen to keep secret” (ibid., chap. 16, quoting Rom. 9:20).

Augustine's ultimate argument for denying that God's arbitrary choice of one human being for salvation and another for damnation is wickedly unjust is indeed based on his doctrine of original sin. Since all of us, from our inheritance of the sin of Adam, are guilty, none of us deserves or merits salvation, whatever we do. What God is doing is according mercy to some guilty people and withholding mercy from others. But he has no obligation in justice to spare any at all—his doing so even in only a few cases would be an overflowing of his compassion. In saving one and not another, he no more does injustice than I do if I give alms to one beggar rather than to another.

This is logical so far as it goes—but it runs up against an obvious problem. I did not create the two beggars, whereas God did create all human beings. All babies since Adam are born in a state of original sin, and therefore all of them are destined to hell for all eternity unless the guilt of Adam's sin be removed by baptism. (Augustine certainly believed in the damnation of unbaptized babies, although he seems to have thought they would go to the least painful parts of hell.) God foresaw from all eternity which babies would be baptized and saved, and even, among these, which would persevere in their faith, and which would fall from grace and be damned (On the Gift of Perseverance, chap. 32). Hence God foresaw which human beings he would save, and which he would condemn to hell. (Augustine seems to have thought that the proportion of the saved would be very small.) God's grace is “gratuitous, and thus genuine grace; by not giving it to all, he has shown what all deserve” (ibid., chap. 28). If God does give grace, he is merciful; if he does not, he is righteous.

(p.178) Augustine thinks this pretty much answers the case. God foresees Adam's sin, that in his Fall he will involve all men and the world in the catastrophe. But although he foresees it, he does not cause it. Adam could have willed not to sin: “I made him just and right, / Sufficient to have stood, though free to fall.”11 After that, God can freely choose whom among the guilty freely to pardon—for none of them deserves a pardon.

This answer has satisfied millions of Christians over the centuries. But it can hardly quell our doubts. For the further question is: It may be true that God cannot be accused of injustice in predestining some to hell and some to heaven for no fault of their own, purely from the unsearchable counsel of his own will, but given that he foresaw how the world would be through the free choice of Adam and Eve, why did he create it at all? Now, this is a problem only if God is to be thought of as good. If he is malicious or evil there is no problem. But all scripture and tradition maintains that God is good, and that he intended a good world: “And God saw everything that he had made, and, behold, it was very good” (Gen. 1:31). But the doctrine of original sin sees the world as not very good—indeed, as extremely evil. That God created the world knowing it would turn out as Augustine sees it to be—and it is a dark and tragic world indeed—seems unintelligible on the assumption that God is supremely good. It may be that terms such as “good” apply to God only in an analogical way—that they are very remote from the sense they have when we apply them in ordinary human life—but in that case it is hard to see where it gets us, or any Christian theologian, to insist upon them. We might agree to call God good, but that might be just like agreeing upon the use of a certain word. The argument that may convince us that we cannot convict the Creator of evil seems also to show that we cannot meaningfully call him good.

And this was the starting point of the Manicheans. The existence of evil in the world, a world that an omnipotent Creator could have ensured was purely good, shows that there are two divine principles struggling for mastery—the principles of good and evil. Augustine's whole doctrine of original sin can be seen as a mighty attempt to answer the fundamental claim of the sect that had possessed his loyalty for nine years of his life.

Augustine's doctrines of original sin, and of the predestination of souls to heaven and hell purely through God's unsearchable counsels and through no merit or fault of their own, became Christian orthodoxy. It was certainly an orthodoxy that made sense of passages of scripture. Above all, it marked the intellectual triumph of the beliefs of St. Paul. The triumph seems retrospectively to have been inevitable. But it was not. The Pelagians were not defeated by argument. Rather they were destroyed by papal condemnation and the power of the Roman emperor of the time. (p.179)

  • Whatever we inherit from the fortunate
  • We have taken from the defeated
  • What they had to leave us—a symbol.12

It is worth remembering that the defeated party produced at least one man of outstanding ability, whose loathing of what became orthodoxy expresses some of the central convictions of pagan humanism. Against his Roman stolidity, the sinuous eloquence of Augustine takes on some of the character of fanaticism. At the time of his death, Augustine was engaged in a polemical work (his second) against Julian of Eclanum, an Italian bishop who had been deprived of his see (along with seventeen other Italian Pelagian bishops) by the pope. This is the gravamen of his charge against Augustine:

You ask me why I would not consent to the idea that there is a sin that is part of human nature. I answer: it is improbable, it is untrue; it is unjust and impious; it makes it seem as if the Devil were the maker of men. It violates and destroys the freedom of the will…by saying that men are so incapable of virtue, that in the very wombs of their mothers they are filled with bygone sins. You imagine so great a power in such a sin, that not only can it blot out the new‐born innocence of nature but, for ever afterwards, will force a man throughout his life into every form of viciousness…[And] what is as disgusting as it is blasphemous, this view of yours fastens, as its most conclusive proof, on the common decency by which we cover our genitals.13

Pelagius and his followers were indeed defeated, yet their spirit so permeated men's minds that the battle had to be fought many times over. Yet who can say that the spirit of Augustine is more alive in the modern Christian church than that of Pelagius?

Luther versus Erasmus

A ferocious exchange (ferocious, on Luther's part, at least) between Luther (1483–1546) and Desiderius Erasmus (1466–1536) reveals a percipience on the part of the reformer that some Catholics wanted to tone down the doctrine of predestination, and to allow that the human will can to some extent cooperate with divine grace. Luther was an uncompromising Augustinian and a wholehearted follower of St. Paul in his insistence that the whole of man “body, soul and spirit” is “fleshly,”14 that the universal sinfulness of man nullifies free will (ibid., 222), that there is therefore no such thing as free will (ibid., 293–95), and that God does directly cause (p.180) enslaved man to sin, as when he hardens the hearts of the reprobate—as he hardened the heart of Pharaoh (ibid., 164); and that, in short, God's foreknowledge of man's sin imposes on man the necessity of sinning (ibid., 164).

Erasmus had, in fact, argued only for a modest contribution of the will to human goodness, and had allowed an extremely limited scope for the will's freedom. He asserted that if the will is simply enslaved, as Luther suggests, and if all human sins are predetermined, there would be no point in passages of scripture that seem directly to call people to repentance. For instance “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt. 4:17; Mark 1:15) and Paul's adjuration: “Let us cast off the works of darkness” (Rom 13:12) along with Paul's demand for a “sloughing off of the old man and his acts.” How, Erasmus asks, can we be ordered to throw off and strip off our old bad selves if we really cannot do anything for ourselves at all?15 Erasmus proposes a “middle way” in which the human will is not completely passive, but cooperates with God's grace.16 Just as reason had been dulled but not extinguished in those who lack grace, so “it is probable that the power of the will has not been absolutely extinguished in them either, but only rendered incapable of doing good.”17

Luther's rage at the middle way of Erasmus (which would later be confirmed as Catholic orthodoxy by the Council of Trent)18 may testify to his almost psychotic sense of sin and of personal impotence in the face of the perfection of God. It also shows, though, that he had a very good instinct for the way things were going. The Catholic Church, while keeping predestination in theory, would be in practice ready to soften it and adapt it to more humane instincts—indeed, to something like humanism.

The Sorcerer's Apprentice? Calvin

John Calvin (1509–64) was born in Picardy, studied the arts in Paris and law at Orleans. He was destined for the Roman Catholic church but became convinced by the principles of the Reformation. He therefore fled Paris in 1533 and eventually settled in Geneva, where, after many vicissitudes, he set up what was in effect a theocratic state ruled according to his own religious, moral, and political principles. He had no direct political power—only the immense influence of his own prestige and moral authority. His greatest work, the Institutes of Christian Religion, had an enormous influence upon French Protestants (Huguenots), and, indeed, even though it was first published in Latin, upon the development of the French language itself.19

In Calvin, Augustine finds his greatest disciple. Here we find Augustine's Latin rhetoric stripped away, the sense of an immediately recognizable (p.181) individual personality, whose faith is passionately rooted in personal experience, removed. Instead you have the doctrine of predestination expressed in impersonal, armor‐plated logic—the “army of unalterable law.”20 There is, nevertheless, a sort of intellectual passion, somewhat akin to the intellectual passion of the not less impersonal Spinoza. It is possible that total human depravity is even more certainly a doctrine of Calvin's than it is of Augustine. This is because Calvin does not seem to share Augustine's vision of evil as the privation of good. In the Confessions Augustine writes that all things are good even if they are corrupted. Man's being consists in his enjoyment of God's goodness; so if his corruption is so total as to deprive him of that utterly, he would cease to exist. So if evil possessed man totally (as Calvin in fact contends) then in consuming all that was good in man, it would consume itself.21 In his Enchiridion Augustine similarly argues that since every being is good insomuch as it exists, as created by God, man cannot be totally evil without ceasing to be man, and hence ceasing to exist.22 So Augustine's philosophical theory about the good does—just—mean his picture of human depravity is not quite as thoroughgoing as Calvin's. But it is a close‐run thing.

Calvin does add something to Augustine's account of original sin and human depravity. For him man is totally depraved. Yet for Calvin the sense of impotence and even of despair that the conviction of sin engenders, the misery of the human predicament and the sense of a fallen world, are not purely negative, because he sees them as the starting point of our knowledge of God: “For, as a veritable world of miseries is to be found in mankind, and we are thereby despoiled of living raiment, our shameful nakedness exposes a teeming hoard of infamies. Each of us must, then, be so stung by the consciousness of his own unhappiness as to attain at least some knowledge of God.”23 It is precisely because of our own awareness of our ignorance, vanity, poverty, and infirmity that we are impelled to recognize that all true wisdom and righteousness repose in God alone. Calvin argues, symmetrically, that it is only when we have “first looked upon God's face” and then descended to scrutinize ourselves that we see fully our own unrighteousness, foulness, and folly (ibid., 37). So without knowledge of God we lack knowledge even of ourselves. And we know God through our own sense of sin and inadequacy.

There is no desire more deeply rooted in human nature than the desire to be flattered (ibid., vol. 2, chap. 1 sec. 2, 242). This blind self‐love was the root of Adam's rebellion. Adam's sin was unfaithfulness, which gave rise to ambition, pride, and ungratefulness (ibid., sec. 4, 245). Original sin produces “the depravation of a nature previously good and pure.” Adam, as far as he was able, “extinguished the whole glory of God” (ibid., 246). Contagion crept into human nature, which was left despoiled and destitute, with rotten branches (p.182) springing forth from a rotten root, so that Adam's corruption “was conveyed in a perpetual stream from the ancestors into their descendants” (ibid., chap. 1, sec. 7, 250). This corruption makes us all liable to God's wrath, and brings forth in us the works of the flesh (ibid., chap. 8, 251).

In the same Augustinian spirit, Calvin concludes that the whole of human nature is overwhelmed by original sin “as by a deluge,” so that all which proceeds from man “is to be imputed to sin” (ibid., sec. 9, 253). It is not just the brute appetites that need to be obliterated, but the whole of man's corrupted heart and mind—indeed, his whole rebellious spirit. Calvin criticizes Plato and Aristotle for believing that reason, though clogged and sometimes conquered by the senses, nevertheless “like a queen governs the will.” He rejects utterly their conviction that to be virtuous is, in the end, a matter of free human choice (ibid., vol. 2, chap. 2, sec, 2, 257).

Thomas Aquinas had upheld a doctrine of predestination that looks very like that of Augustine. He taught that “some people God rejects” and that this rejection can properly be called “reprobation.” There is hardly any softening—for instance, Aquinas says that reprobation does not indicate God's foreknowledge only; for as predestination includes the will to confer grace and glory, so reprobation “includes the will to permit someone to fall into fault and to inflict the penalty of damnation in consequence.”24 Nevertheless, the reprobate abandon grace out of a free decision of their own. Within the general scheme of God's providence Aquinas allows a free choice of the individual will.

It is a tiny concession, but one not to be found in Calvin who (as we shall see) will teach the stern doctrine of “double predestination”—i.e., that God not only determines some souls, before their creation, to eternal bliss but also consigns others, in the unsearchable counsel of his own will, to everlasting torment. (Calvin's Catholic critics accused him of teaching that God actually wills the sins of the damned.) Calvin reserved some of his harshest strictures for those Catholic theologians who even hint that man can, of his own free will, cooperate with God's grace, or that he does, sometimes, even if ineffectively, “somehow seek after the good.”25 He quotes with approval St. Augustine's insistence, in his reply to Julian of Eclanum, that without the Spirit the will is not free.26 Not even one single good work is possible without grace.27

There is just one virtue that Calvin seems to allow to man without its being a direct gift of God—humility, man's sense of his own “calamity, poverty, nakedness and disgrace.” That at least gives man some self‐knowledge (Institutes, vol. 2, chap. 2, sec. 10, 267). (It could, of course, give rise to despair, which is traditionally regarded as a sin against the Holy Ghost. Calvin does not discuss that possibility.) All that remains uncontaminated in human nature is our sense of “civic fair dealings and order,” our feeling for law and politics, and our grasp of the arts and sciences (ibid., sec. 13, 272).28

(p.183) Since man's will is so corrupted, he actually sins willingly. So, although the will is not free, and man is subject to the necessity of sinning, his very wickedness ensures that he sins with gusto and determination—hence, guiltily. So he sins of necessity, but without compulsion (Institutes, vol. 2, chap. 2, sec. 5, 294–95).

It obviously follows that good works avail us nothing—and Calvin, while grimly praising Augustine because “he admirably deprives man of all credit for righteousness, and transfers it to God's grace,” complains nevertheless that Augustine does not go far enough, since he “subsumes grace under sanctification, by which we are reborn in newness of life through the Spirit” (ibid., vol. 3, chap. 11, sec. 15, 746).

Calvin moves without apparent hesitation to the conclusion that defines “Calvinism”—since man is totally depraved, and since only God's grace, freely granted, can save him, a grace that includes the gift of faith in Christ, which is both necessary and sufficient for salvation; and since God has known from all eternity whom he would chose to favor with his grace and whom he would pass over, it follows that all human beings are, from all eternity, predestined by God to everlasting bliss or everlasting torment—the notorious doctrine of double predestination comes in. As we saw, the Roman Church would put the darkest construction on Calvin's doctrine—that God does not simply permit the sins of those who will (as he foresaw) be damned—he actually wills them. Not only did he permit Adam to sin, he willed it. He furthermore wills every actual sin.29

There is no doubt but that the doctrine of original sin, grace, and predestination as developed by Augustine and Calvin has a magnificent logic. If man's nature is indeed as depraved as the doctrine of original sin entails, so that moral evil proceeds not from the appetites and passions overcoming reason—as Plato and Aristotle thought—but in a taint that runs through all of human nature, then it is entirely plausible to conclude that from human nature alone nothing good can proceed. Hence, any good in man comes from the free granting of God's grace, which none of us merits. Therefore we are, through the unsearchable counsel of God's will from all eternity, either of the elect or of the reprobate, and if of the latter, we are condemned to an eternity of torment through a decision God took before time began.


Christian churches have reared an immense structure of doctrine and practice on the premise of man's depravity (in the case of Calvin and Luther, almost matched by Augustine, man's total depravity.) The idea of original sin gives (p.184) Christianity its ultimate validation. It is only if there is an urgent need for salvation through the merits and grace of Christ that the church can claim a unique role—that of being the conduit of that grace through baptism, or, as the Roman Church claims, through that and the other sacraments. Even in these unconsciously Pelagian times, it is very hard to see how the church could dispense with these doctrines without renouncing its historic mission. (And contemporary Pelagianism sits uneasily with another feeling to which the horrors of the twentieth century gave rise—that man is indeed vitiated by some perversity that we might even choose to call “original sin.”)

Yet we have to stand back and ask ourselves what the evidence is for this tremendous teaching (apart from Revelation). If man is as depraved as Augustine thinks, and totally depraved as Calvin (not to mention Luther) holds, one might assume that the evidence for this massive deformation of humanity would be everywhere evident. Is it?

Augustine was happy to provide, in his Confessions, anecdotal evidence of the restless perversity and rebelliousness of the will. There was his infant wailing “too fiercely” for the breast, his flying into hot rages because “persons—free, not slaves—were not obedient to me.” There was his observation of infantile malice and envy, of the baby livid with anger as it watched another infant at the breast.30 Then there was his recollection of his theft of pears that he took only because they were forbidden.

We know that such anecdotes point to something characteristic of human nature and specific to it. There is no equivalent perversity in animals, even when it looks as though there may be. A fox may get into a henhouse, kill all the hens but carry off only one to eat. People sometimes think that this shows that foxes are possessed by sadism or some perverse lust for destruction. But then we may be offered an explanation: foxes typically kill all they can in an opportunist way, but then they normally set about burying their prey in diverse spots, which they dig up one by one afterward to get their meal. A henhouse will not usually be near the fox's usual place for storage, and thus the fox will not get the chance to complete its work. Whether or not that explanation is right, it is the sort of explanation we look for in the behavior of animals. It does not seem intelligible to attribute to them sheer perversity.

Many pre‐Christian thinkers, including Plato, Aristotle and the Stoics, and some post‐Christian ones, such as Hume, found no place for sheer perversity in their accounts of human nature either. The nearest Aristotle gets to confronting the question is in his treatment of akrasia—weakness of will. We often act against our own better judgment, doing things we know to be wrong or against our own interests. We may drink too much, knowing that this will ruin our lives and even hating ourselves as we do it. How is this to be explained? (p.185) Aristotle's answer is both plausible and curiously unpersuasive. I am offered that extra glass of wine. I know that too much wine makes me ill and spoils the next day. And I know that on the next day I will regret drinking to excess. But I take it—I take it because of akrasia or weakness of will. Aristotle thinks that weakness of will is a sort of ignorance—at the moment I make the bad choice, I forget something that I know, some general proposition—such as “too much wine is bad for you.” I don't forget this in a theoretical way—I could, even as I accept the drink, say that too much wine is bad. But according to Aristotle I do not know this in a practical way—it does not enter into my boulesis, my deliberation.31 I do not bring my general knowledge to bear on the particular case. So practically speaking, I do not know. Aquinas refines this. What I do as I yield to the temptation to drink against my better judgment is to bring my action under a true, but at this moment irrelevant “desirability characterization.”32 So, wishing to drink, I bring what I am about to do under the characterization “cheerful sociability is good” rather than “excessive drinking is bad”—and this, as it were, allows me to do what I am tempted to do. It drives out the better, relevant principle.33

Here Aristotle is answering, and modifying, Socrates' paradoxical doctrine that no one does wrong knowingly.34 If I choose the worse course of action, I do not really know it for what it is. Socrates, Aristotle, and Aquinas agree that to choose what I normally know to be wrong, or what goes against my own better judgment, is to suffer some sort of failure of knowledge. None of them entertains the idea that I may be driven by some sort of perversity.

The Aristotelian account does allow for a course of self‐deception that can amount eventually to perversity and even depravity. For the man who wants to embark on a life of deceit or crime may very well adopt just those principles of conduct that put his actions in a favorable light. The confirmed liar typically does not know that he is lying. Lying has become instinctive so that he almost believes that his motives or intentions are what he claims them to be. The burglar will convince himself that “property is theft” or that to burgle is bold and manly, or shows his superiority to softer people. People can adopt whole philosophies that justify monstrous conduct—Bolshevism, Nazism. There is a virtue in receiving evidence, and the more partial we are toward our own wishes, the more we will lack that virtue. So in the end we may have a responsibility for our beliefs. There can be a corruption of mind that goes with false opinions.

Nevertheless, when we enter the world of Augustine and Calvin, we are presented with a picture of human nature that is darker than Aristotle's. Aristotle does not really pay attention to the human capacity for evil, for malice or sheer malignity, wanton destructiveness, mad vanity and egoism, sadistic (p.186) cruelty, vindictiveness, hatred of another's good simply because it is his good and deprives us of nothing that we could hope to have. Augustine's descriptions of sins of infancy—sins that the infant has to be educated out of, even forced out of—suggest that such perversity is powerful, innate, inescapable—original. It seems beyond possibility that the child can turn from it through its own will. It is not at all implausible to extend this picture to man's life as a whole, to see the whole of human nature as containing the perversity of the infant, but with a much greater capacity to put this perversity into effect—sometimes on a gigantic scale.

Post‐Enlightenment pictures of human nature have tended to move toward an Augustinian pessimism. At any rate, our being in the grip of forces that we can neither acknowledge nor control is an idea to be found, in one way or another, in Nietzsche, Marx, and Freud. Augustine's account of concupiscence also finds echoes in modern philosophy. Sartre finds sexual love to be a locus of conflict, a source of impossibly self‐contradictory desires. In desiring another, I want to reduce him to his flesh, to abrogate his freedom, convert his subjectivity into an object of my own will. My means of achieving this is to evoke in the Other sexual desire for myself. If the Other gave himself freely, and not through dissolving into erotic desire, I would feel cheated of the response I need. Yet at the same time, contradictorily, if the Other did not give himself freely, then also I would not feel genuinely loved.35 For Sartre the problem is that our relations with others as persons are compromised in sexual love by the very fact that the erotic involves physical (and emotional) responses that escape rational control and seem to have a will of their own. This has analogies with what Augustine says of concupiscence, and why he finds in the involuntary movement of the sexual parts in erotic love a deformity, a product of original sin.

But can evidence of perversity, irrationality, the power over us of unconscious forces support a doctrine of human nature since the Fall as fundamentally depraved? In consequence of the horrors of the twentieth century it became quite common for people to say that they had rediscovered a belief in original sin. But did they really mean that they see human nature as depraved? That we cannot possibly bring about any good through our own efforts?

For we can bring contrary evidence—of a mother acting with heroic self‐sacrifice to save her child; of people sacrificing their lives for the good of their country; of those whose sense of justice overcomes self‐interest; those with a generous love of fine qualities in other people; others who struggle with increasing success to overcome childish jealousies and resentments.

In pointing to such things, we need not be falling into some optimistic trap, a Panglossian view of human nature. The question is whether we could even grasp the concept of depravity unless we could set this against actions, desires, (p.187) and motives that are not depraved. Were our understanding as depraved as Augustine and Calvin suggest, it is very hard to see how we could know our own depravity. They argue, of course, that we see our own blackness when we contrast ourselves with God. But this does not help their argument. Whatever our conviction of the supreme goodness of God, it does not follow that we have a clear idea of the profound depravity of man. Even though God be infinitely superior to us in goodness, that does not help us to understand how, say, a moment of irritation with someone is no different in its gravity from mass murder (as Newman appeared to suggest).36 Nor would the fact that God is entirely just show that we cannot see some human acts as more just than others.

The very idea of depravity, of perversity, depends on our being able to think of some actions and motives as being better than others. We could not understand human actions at all unless we were capable of seeing some people as acting courageously and honorably, others as moved by spite or envy, of distinguishing between kindness and sadism, generosity and mean spiritedness. We know that some people are more dominated by irrational fears than others, that some are more mature and others more childish. Some can subordinate their own urgent desires to the common good, can defer gratifications, can see a situation as it really is. At any rate, some of us—probably, most of us—can exercise some of these virtues some of the time and fail in them at other times.

If we acknowledge that for practical purposes—for the purpose of seeing intelligible patterns in human action—this is true but nevertheless add “But it is not strictly true, for we are helplessly depraved,” then that remark and others like it would become simply a sort of incantation or a cog unattached to a wheel. It would be like saying “I have no real belief in the solidity of physical objects” while unconcernedly sitting on a chair or mounting a staircase.

If we accept that we can in practice understand the moral distinctions that we make all the time, but insist that these have no ultimate validity in theory, it is unclear what we are doing. It seems that we are denying that any evidence can come to bear. But this again would seem to be paying lip service to an idea that has no actual purchase on our experience. Augustine based his belief in human depravity not primarily on experience but on revelation. The support for the idea that he found in experience—especially in sexual desire—was a sort of optional extra. But even revelation cannot make the idea of total depravity ultimately intelligible if does not answer to our experience, and, indeed, if it conflicts with it.

Augustine's picture of fallen nature has power and persuasiveness, but it can never escape its inherent paradoxicality. To refuse to distinguish between different degrees of goodness, or virtue, or benevolence in human motivation makes it impossible, in the end, to describe and understand human actions at all.

(p.188) The Council of Trent and Afterward

The Council of Trent (which lasted, with intervals, from 1545 to 1563) was concerned to reaffirm Catholic orthodoxy against the Protestants. Calvin's Institutes appeared in Latin in 1535, and thus his doctrines about justification and predestination came within the ambit of the council's deliberations.

Trent upheld the essentials of Augustine's teaching, in the usual robust fashion of Christian ecumenical councils: “If anyone says that a person can be justified before God by his own works, done either by the resources of human nature or by the teaching of the law, apart from divine grace through Jesus Christ: let him be anathema!”37 But there is a rebuke for the Calvinist position when the council denounces the idea that “a person's free will when moved and roused by God, gives no co‐operation by responding to God's summons and invitation to dispose and prepare itself to obtain the grace of justification; and that it cannot, if it so wishes, dissent but, like something inanimate, can do nothing at all and remains merely passive.”38 A soul can cooperate to receive justifying grace, but only when it has already been invited and summoned by God to do so—i.e., from the free grace of God. Yet Trent has allowed a tiny space for the soul's freedom to choose which may have been the pigmy lance intended to pierce Calvin's armor‐plated logic. More obviously directed against Calvin is Trent's condemnation of the doctrine that “after the sin of Adam, human free will was lost and blotted out, or that its existence is purely nominal, a name without a substance, indeed a fiction introduced into the Church by Satan” (ibid., Canon 5). The council also condemned what it understood as Calvin's doctrine of double predestination—“that God is the agent for evil acts just as for good, not only by permitting them but also in a full sense and by personal act, so that the betrayal of Judas no less than the call of Paul is an act fully his” (ibid., Canon 6). It condemned the teaching that all human actions, before justification, are sins—again a rebuke to Calvin and the radical Protestants. It decreed that not only faith but also a preparation by “a movement of our own will” is necessary for man to be justified (ibid., Canon 9). The Council defended good works as both preserving and increasing justice, as this has been received as a gift of God (ibid., Canon 24, 680). Trent anathematized those who deny that the just who perform good works should “expect and hope for an eternal reward from God through his mercy and the merit of Jesus Christ” (ibid., Canon 26). and also anyone who says that the good deeds of any justified person are only the gifts of God and not also “the good merits of the one justified” (ibid., Canon 32, 681).

(p.189) It is true that the Council of Trent officially upheld the doctrine of predestination and seemed to allow only a small—indeed, apparently tiny—space for the human will to cooperate with God's grace. Whether this concession—which we might consider humane—was logically possible within the somber doctrine of election is debatable. What is certain is that Trent, whether intentionally or not, and despite its official loyalty to the Augustinian doctrine of predestination, opened the way to a radical change in emphasis, which amounted de facto to a shift in doctrine in the direction, ultimately, of Pelagianism. The tiny space opened for free will was soon to be vastly expanded by theologians eager to humanize the church's teaching. It is hard not to suspect that the church—as so often before and since—overtly supported the hard teaching of Augustine, while knowing full well that the (apparently) tiny concession was the leak that would finally sink the Augustinian ship.

Jansenists contra Jesuits

What happened is revealed most clearly in the bitter dispute within French Catholicism in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries between the Jansenists and the Jesuits. The Jansenists were followers of Cornelius Jansen (or Jansenius), bishop of Ypres, who died in 1638. Jansen was a strict Augustinian who wrote a book in which Augustine's doctrine of predestination and human depravity was upheld in a form so austere and rigorous as to sound suspiciously like Calvinism. Pope Innocent X condemned Jansen's book, first in 1643 and again in 1653, and the Jesuits began a vigorous campaign against his followers. In 1709 the convent of Port Royal—the center of Jansenism—was destroyed on the orders of Louis XIV; and in 1713 Clement XIII issued the papal bull Unigenitus, which condemned the central claims of Jansenist theology as heretical.39

Jansenism came to stand for an essentially Christian view of human nature that was profoundly out of sympathy with the spirit of the French Enlightenment. Teachings central to traditional Christianity—not just the Augustinian doctrine about human depravity but the stern morality that went with that40—were being challenged by an increasing belief in the power of the human will to do good unaided, in natural virtue, and even in the essential innocence and nobility of the human heart.

Enlightened opinion in France had in effect begun to dispense with the supernatural. Man could be virtuous if his actions and sentiments were in accord with Nature. Nor was it only the essentially non‐Christian philosophes who promoted such ideas. They found what on the surface looks like an improbable set of allies—the Jesuits.

(p.190) The Jesuits had a strategy, which they pursued with a certain resolution and what some—e.g., the Jansenist‐influenced Blaise Pascal—considered to be Jesuitical cunning. They wanted to free Christianity from the shackles of Augustine and therefore from any serious belief in original sin. They wanted to accommodate Catholicism to the modern world, to reassure sophisticated moderns that Christianity was not an especially difficult faith to live by, not innately opposed to natural human inclination.

The Jansenists denied that virtue and morality could be derived from nature, for nature itself was corrupted by the Fall. Unlike the Jesuits, who thought in effect that original sin had merely taken supernatural life from man and left him as he would have been by nature had he not sinned—mortal, and in many ways weak but capable of all the moral virtues—the Jansenists denied that man is essentially a natural being at all.41 Man's true nature is revealed only as he lives a life that united him with the divine life. Separated from God by sin, he is thereby alienated from his own real self and thus incapable of living a truly human life. The Jesuits comforted the average man—l'homme moyen sensuel—by suggesting that sins committed without full knowledge and deliberation might not be sins at all. A state of character that blinds men to the moral law, or a state of “invincible ignorance” that hides the divine from individuals, would excuse from sin. The Jansenists, by contrast, asserted that even those unconscious, unacknowledged impulses that lead people to sin are part of our selves, part of depraved human nature. Every man is either the child of sin, or the child of grace.42

In other words, the Jesuit doctrine was really a return to Pelagianism, the assumption that human nature is of itself morally neutral, or even innocent. Their practical teaching looked forward to the Sentimentalism of Rousseau, to the idea that the untutored, natural human heart, rather than being deceitful above all things and desperately wicked, was the source and locus of innate human goodness. Against this, the Jansenists clove to Paul, Augustine, and (almost) to Calvin. There is an irony in the fact that the Pelagianism of the Jesuits triumphed over the essential orthodoxy of the Jansenists using the same methods of persuasion by which Augustine had triumphed over the Pelagians—censorship, royal and papal disapproval, and physical destruction.

The user‐friendly language of the Roman Catholic Church after the Second Vatican Council shows Rome's ability to soften a doctrine without formally repudiating it. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, published in the light of that council, mentions predestination only to disavow it: “God predestines no one to hell; for this a willful turning away from God (a mortal sin) is necessary, and persistence in it until the end.”43 Yet the doctrine of grace in the catechism is essentially the same as that of Trent—that it is a free gift of God, unmerited (p.191) by man, by which man is sanctified and shares in the supernatural life of God. Merit comes, first, from God as a free gift, and secondly from human collaboration with this gift.44 Yet the Council of Trent, like Augustine, clearly thought that this doctrine of grace entailed some sort of predestination. Calvin would certainly have thought that the Catholic formulations opened the way to Pelagianism. Indeed, the strongest Protestant objection to Catholicism was that it substituted good works for divine grace. The tone of the new catechism is humanist and consoling. Even though there is no formal repudiation of the terrifying doctrine of predestination, the Roman Catholic Church now in practice allows the faithful to be as cheerfully and unconsciously Pelagian as everyone else. (p.192)


(1.) The Manicheans seem to have been influenced by the Zoroastrian idea of a cosmic struggle between two eternal beings.

(2.) Augustine, Against Julian, 1, 9, 51: “the root of evil cannot arise from anywhere else or be anywhere else except from and in a rational nature, for a rational nature cannot be anything but a gift of God. But, since it was created from nothing by the supreme and unchanging Good, so that it might be a good, even though changeable, its falling away from the Good by which it was created is the root of evil from it or in it, because evil is nothing else but privation of good.”

(3.) Hic est enim calix sanguinis mei novi et aeterni testamenti qui pro vobis at pro multis effundetur in remissionem peccatorum, Matt. 26:27–28, Mark 14:23–25, Luke 22:20.

(4.) Book of Common Prayer (1662), “A General Confession” (Morning and Evening Prayer).

(5.) Julian of Eclanum, quoted by Augustine, Against Julian, bk. 3, chap. 21, 42.

(6.) The Douay version reads “the heart is perverse above all things.”

(7.) Augustine, Against Julian 2, 7, 20. Here Augustine is quoting St. Ambrose of Milan.

(8.) Augustine, Against Two Letters of the Pelagians, bk. 1, chap. 32, 387 (vol. 5).

(9.) Milton, Paradise Lost, bk. 9, 1027–34. This imitates a passage in the Iliad where Hera successfully inflames the desire of Zeus.

(10.) Chrysostom, Homilia 9, in Genesim, in Against Julian, bk. 1, 6, 30.

(11.) Milton, Paradise Lost 3, 98–99.

(12.) T. S. Eliot, “Little Gidding,” 3.

(13.) Julian of Eclanum, quoted by Augustine [Op. Imp.3, 67 sq], in Brown, Augustine of Hippo, 387–88.

(14.) Luther, Bondage of the Will, 247.

(15.) Erasmus, De Libero Arbitrio, 24.

(16.) Erasmus, Hyperaspistes, bk. 1, 184.

(17.) Erasmus, De Libero Arbitrio, 24.

(18.) See pp. 188–89.

(19.) The Institutes was first published in Latin in 1539; Calvin's own French translation appeared in 1541.

(20.) T. S. Eliot, “Cousin Nancy” (after Ralph Waldo Emerson).

(21.) Augustine, Confessions, bk. 7, chap. 13.

(22.) Augustine, Enchiridion, chaps. 1115.

(23.) Calvin, Institutes, vol. 1, chap. 1, 36.

(24.) Aquinas, Summa Theologiae 1a 23, 3.

(25.) Calvin, Institutes 2, chap. 6, 263. Calvin singles out for particular censure Peter Lombard and Bernard of Clairvaux.

(26.) Augustine, Letters, 165; Calvin, Institutes vol. 2, chap. 8, 265.

(27.) Calvin, Institutes, vol. 2, chap. 2, sec. 12, 306.

(28.) One might have thought that this puts human nature in a good light. However, these accomplishments do not count against man's spiritual and moral depravity. Compare Kant: “Intelligence, wit, judgment, and the other talents of the mind…or courage, resolution, perseverance, as qualities of temperament, are undoubtedly good and desirable in many respects; but these gifts of nature may also become extremely bad (p.424) and mischievous if the will which is to make use of them…is not good.” Kant, Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysic of Morals, sec. 1.

(29.) That is the characterization of Calvin adopted by the Roman Catholic Church. An alternative account of his argument is this: God foresaw the fall of Adam, inasmuch as he willed it. In sinning, Adam involved all mankind in his corruption, bequeathing to them a perverse will to rebel against God. Hence, every individual wilfully chooses to sin, and this cannot be excused as the result of an inherited taint. For Calvin's discussion, see the Institutes 3, 23 and 24.

(30.) We might notice here an Augustinian remark by a great twentieth‐century thinker: “Anyone who listens to a child's crying and understands what he hears will know that it harbors dormant psychic forces, terrible forces different from anything commonly assumed. Profound rage, pain, and lust for destruction.” Wittgenstein, Culture and Value, 2.

(31.) Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 1110b1–1111a5.

(32.) For “desirability characterizations” see Anscombe, Intention, 70–78.

(33.) Davidson, “How is weakness of the will possible?” 33–36.

(34.) Plato, Protagoras, 357C–E.

(35.) Sartre, Being and Nothingness, pt. 3, chap. 3.

(36.) Newman, Apologia Pro Vita Sua, chap. 5.

(37.) Tanner, Council of Trent.

(39.) Palmer, Catholics and Unbelievers, 24–25.

(43.) Catechism of the Catholic Church, 237.