Wu Tianyue, Peking University

Augustine on Initium Fidei
A Case Study of the Coexistence of Operative Grace and Free Decision of the Will

Augustine once declared, “I labored for the free decision of human will, but the grace of God won out.” The theme of grace attained a central position in his later works, especially those written during the Pelagian controversy. In these polemic writings, Augustine vehemently defended the gratuity and the sovereignty of grace, which is never given as recompense for our merits and cannot be resisted by free decision of the will. In a letter to the Roman priest Sixtus written in 418 shortly after the Pelagians had been condemned in Rome, Augustine claimed that God not only foresees our faith, but actually prepares the will to believe for those who are predestined to be saved. A few years later, this letter caused serious worries concerning the freedom of the will among the monks at Hadrumetum in Africa and initiated the controversy with the so-called Semi-Pelagians in Africa and in Provence during the last years of Augustine’s life.

In response to the difficulties of the monks of Africa with his teaching on grace and free decision (of the will), Augustine first wrote the treatise De gratia et libero arbitrio in 426/7. In this work, he distinguishes three stages of the divine intervention in the salvation of the elect: conversion, good works, and the eternal life. All achievements in a Christian life are ascribed to gifts from God, which are given gratuitously, not repaid in accordance to our good wills or good works.

Nevertheless, Augustine does not deny the obvious participation of the human will’s free decision in the steps to salvation. Conversion, or the beginning of faith (initium fidei), primarily signifies the conversion of the will to the love of eternal truth, which is already evident in Augustine’s narrative of his own conversion. Good works always presuppose good wills as their preceding efficient causes. Lastly, the eternal life is nothing but a recompense for our preceding good wills and good works.

In De gratia et libero arbitrio, Augustine goes to great lengths to demonstrate that the insistence on the dominion of divine providence does not necessarily result in the denial of human freedom in living a righteous life. He maintains that divine agency does not work alone, but works on (operari) and along with (cooperari) our wills in making them perfect. Divine grace takes its effects on human affairs by preparing or producing and cooperating with human wills.

To clarify Augustine’s final position on the freedom of the will and human agency in righteous dispositions and actions, we should consider this active operation of divine grace, which is so intimate to our decisions. In the subsequent discussion, I will focus on the case of initium fidei for the reasons that follow.

First, following Saint Paul’s distinction between faith and works, Augustine maintains that we are justified by faith rather than by good works, because faith is given first as the foundation of good works. The acceptance of Christian faith signifies also the beginning of virtue, that is, the good will by which we seek to live a righteous life. By the faith that originates from divine grace, our good merits begin to exist as well. It is senseless to talk about human agency in good works before the will to believe, for there are no genuinely meritorious works unless preceded by faith. Therefore, the operation of God in producing the first good will at the point of conversion offers a good starting point to attain an appropriate understanding of human agency in good will.

Moreover, by attributing the onset of belief to the operative grace of God, Augustine definitely acknowledges the causal relationship between divine providence and our first will to what is good. “It is certain that we will when we will, but he causes (facere ut) us to will what is good, of whom were said the words…, The will is prepared by the Lord.” Unlike the grace of beatitude and the grace of good works, which effects a human agent equipped with a good will by faith, the grace of faith (gratia fidei) directly works on the faculty of will itself by generating a new disposition of the will. In light of this, the direct influence of divine agency on the will in the process of conversion is a more serious menace to the freedom of the will that underlies human agency.

Finally, in his controversy with those misnamed Semi-Pelagians, Augustine discusses in detail two forms of operative grace: the grace of conversion and the grace of perseverance. Though the virtue of perseverance is a greater achievement than the beginning of faith, it has been pointed out that Augustine’s understanding of the operative grace of perseverance is modeled on his interpretation of divine operation at the point of conversion. A close examination of the problem of initium fidei will suffice for a reconstruction of the basic model of the coexistence of operative grace and free decision of the will in Augustine’s late thought.

In this study, I shall first reconstruct the development of Augustine’s position on the issue of initium fidei. The emphasis will be on the actual effects of divine grace in the psychological process of willing in the act of faith. It is intended to demonstrate that Augustine’s stress on the absolute authority of grace in his final years accords with his deepened understanding of the will and its freedom. Following this relocation of Augustine’s conception of initium fidei in its theoretical context, I will appeal to Augustine’s later reflection on the will (uoluntas) to argue that his final rigid position on operative grace is compatible with his sincere defense of human agency.

For footnotes see pdf.
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