Causation: Augustine’s Response to the Predestination Paradox
This guest post is by Brian Hershey, a veteran youth worker specializing in military teen ministry. To learn more about Brian’s ministry, check out his bio at the end of this post, and watch his story here. Brian also writes at http://rightlanereflections.wordpress.com
Walking across the street to greet my new neighbors, I was unprepared for the conversation I was about to have.
As I shook the hand of the family’s seventeen year-old, I invited him to tell me about himself.
“Oh,” he said, “I’m into Old Testament studies right now.”
“Old Testament what?!” I thought to myself.
The statement rocked me back on my heels. I’ve worked with teens over ten years, but I’d never met anyone express that level of interest in the Old Testament.
What followed was a conversation about Biblical prophecy, end-times issues, and the ever-thorny topic of predestination and freewill.
It was that last issue which consumed most of our time together.
Which got me thinking:
Why does this particular subject attract so much attention?
Perhaps it’s one you’ve mulled over. And maybe you’ve discovered satisfactory answers to be as elusive as my happen-chance meeting with Aeron.
On the one hand, Christians have historically affirmed that God knows ahead of time every human choice. Yet they have also affirmed that mankind is morally responsible for his choices.
It raises the mind-bending question: How do you square God’s comprehensive knowledge of future events with human freedom?
Moreover, how do you resolve the tension in way that makes clear sense?
I’ve found great insight in Augustine’s work entitled “On Free Choice of the Will.”
Permit me to summarize the issue in a word: Causation.
Ask any researcher or lawyer and they will tell you causation is difficult to prove especially when it comes to human behavior.
I’ve found in my discussions with teens and adults a common underlying assumption: God’s foreknowledge is the cause of human choices and behavior.
In other words, “How can I be held morally responsible for something I didn’t cause?”
The problem is that the argument hinges on a wrong assumption.
The truth is that just because God knows how someone will act does not necessarily mean that God caused the particular action.
The solution to the predestination/freewill problem, therefore, is to unmoor the cause from the effect.
Maybe this is a product of our Westernized, linear thinking. We prefer order and structure. We naturally seek the cause for observable effects—the why behind the what.
Consequently, in the predestination/freewill debate, we uncritically maintain the cause/effect relationship between God’s knowledge and human choices.
And to further complicate matters, the guilty human conscience is always looking for that divine loophole that will absolve us of immoral choices.
Yet no such loophole exists. The awful reality is that mankind freely chooses lesser goods through his own inordinate desires.
There is no other greater force acting upon his choices.
The buck cannot be passed.
While mankind is free to act in whatever way he chooses, he is not free of the consequences that follow from his choices. In fact, he is bound by his choices for good or ill.
Which leads to a second inconvenient truth: God never unjustly punishes.
If God is the cause for evil human choices, then how can he punish that which he ultimately brought about?
Answer: he cannot, for to punish someone in such a predicament would be unjust. Yet, by necessity God is just. Therefore, it is correct for God to be the cause of those who suffer evil as a rightful consequence of choices freely made. But in no way can mankind accuse God of being the agent of evil.
Augustine is right to make a distinction between the agents and recipients of evil. God is, indeed, the cause of the later but not the former.
In summary, Augustine’s explanation holds in perfect tension the paradox between God’s omniscience and human free will.
The debate may not be thoroughly resolved, but I have personally found Augustine’s reflections in “Free Choice of the Will” immensely helpful.
So the next time you find yourself in a predestination/freewill conversation, remember this solitary word: Causation!
I know it brought new clarity to my neighbor—maybe even to you as well.
Brian Hershey is a veteran youth worker specializing in military teen ministry. From 2002 to 2009 he and his wife, Bonnie, served military families and chaplains in Germany and Italy through Youth For Christ/Military Youth Ministry (YFC/MYM). He is a graduate of Dallas Theological Seminary (ThM 2014) where he focused his studies in Spiritual Formation and Leadership Studies and is excited to return to Kaiserslautern, Germany this summer where he plans “to leverage every available resource in order to produce twenty-five year old followers of Jesus Christ.” Brian and Bonnie have been married since December 2002. They have three wonderful children together and currently live near Dallas, TX. If you would like to learn more about their ministry, please click here to watch a short introductory video.
Augustine. “On Free Choice of the Will.” In Classics of Western Philosophy, ed. Steven M. Cahn, 7th ed. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 2006.
- Frontal Pole or the Moral Law, What Separates Right from Wrong?
- Prosopagnosia: When You Cannot See the Face of God
- Book Review: True Reason
Disclosure of Material Connection: Some of the links in the post above are “affiliate links.” This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, I will receive an affiliate commission. Regardless, I only recommend products or services I use personally or believe will help readers in developing their worldview. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”
About Jason B. Ladd
Jason is an author, speaker, Marine, and father of seven. He has flown the F/A-18 Hornet as a Marine Aviation Weapons and Tactics Squadron 1 (MAWTS-1) Instructor Pilot and the F-16 as an Instructor Pilot. His award-winning book One of the Few: A Marine Fighter Pilot’s Reconnaissance of the Christian Worldview has been optioned for film adaptation. He is represented by Julie Gwinn of The Seymour Agency.