St. Augustine on faith seeking understanding concerning evil

Having addressed the issue in book I, chapter I of On Free Choice of the Will as to whether we might possibly be induced in some way to do evil by forces external to us (whether by having been created that way, or having been taught to do it), and having shown in reply that evil is not God’s creation, and that we are not taught to do it, St. Augustine acknowledges in Chapter II that the problem of evil is a difficult one.

You propose a question which disturbed me exceedingly when I was still a youth, one which wearied me and drove me into heresy, and indeed caused my downfall. So hurt was I by this fall, and so buried in a heap of empty myths, that, had my love for discovering the truth not won me divine aid, I could not have arisen from my fall, or recovered my breath so as to use even my previous right to inquire after truth (book I, chapter II, p. 5).

The question of why there is evil in this world is hard, and if it is able to perplex a great man such as St. Augustine, it should not surprise us if we suffer the same difficulty. In the face of such hardship, though, he insists that the right starting point is to stand firm in the faith that we know.

And since my case was so zealously argued that I was acquitted in this trial, I will follow with you the very arguments by which I escaped. For God will aid us and will make us understand what we believe. This is the course prescribed by the prophet who says, “Unless you believe, you shall not understand” [Isaiah 7:9], and we are aware that we consider this course good for us. We believe, moreover, that everything that exists is from God and yet that God is not the cause of sins. Yet it perplexes the mind how God should not be indirectly responsible for these sins, if they come from those very souls that God created and if, moreover, these souls are from God…Be of brave spirit, and believe what you believe, for there is nothing worthier of belief, even though the reason why it is true may lie hidden (ibid., p. 5f.).

This stance requires humility of intellect. The truthfulness of what is true does not consist in my ability to understand it. If it is true, then it is my duty to hold to it, and then to pray that I might understand it to the best of my ability. St. Augustine asks nothing more than this from us.

There is another point worth noticing here as well that may dismay the Protestant who falsely supposes that St. Augustine was a forerunner of his race. He says in passing that he might never had escaped the shackles of Manichaeism had my love for discovering the truth not won me divine aid (first passage quoted above). We see here first of all that St. Augustine claimed that his love of truth merited for him God’s help; secondly we see that he said this of himself prior to his baptism. This contradicts the Protestant’s erroneous idea that there is no sense in which our works even before we become Christians may be considered to be meritorious. It also contradicts the Reformed/Calvinist idea of “total depravity.” St. Augustine was not Protestant, nor even Protestant-ish; he was Catholic.

Posted in Augustine, Calvinism, Faith Seeking Understanding, Merit, Protestantism

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