Tuesday, August 18, 2015

So You Often Quote Him? Augustine of Hippo on the Relation of God and Evil

In his early period, Augustine was attracted to Manicheism, partly because it provided a simple explanation of the origin of evil (You can read this in Augustine’s autobiography The Confessions). According to this movement, evil had its origins in an evil or defective deity, who was opposed to the true and righteous God. On becoming a Christian, Augustine rejected this dualism, and was therefore obligated to give an alternative explanation of the origins of evil. In this passage, written in Latin during the period 388-395, he argues that evil represents a free turning away from God, rather than a positive entity in its own right. However, he is unable to provide a convincing explanation of why someone should wish to turn away from God in this manner. He writes:

If there is a movement, that is a turning away of the human will from the Lord God, which without doubt is sin, we can then say that God is the author of sin? God, then, will not be the cause of that movement. But what will its cause be? If you ask this question, I will have to answer that I do not know. While this will sadden you, it is nevertheless a true answer. For that which is nothing cannot be known. But hold to your pious opinion that no good thing can happen to you, to your senses or to your intelligence or to your way of thinking which does not come from God. Nothing of any kind can happen which is not of God… For all good is from God.

Hence there is no nature which is not from God. The movement of turning away, which we admit is sin, is a defective movement; and all defect comes from nothing. Once you have understood where it belongs, you will have no doubt that it does not belong to God. Because that defective movement is voluntary, it is placed within our power. If you fear it, all you have to do is simply not to will it. If you do not will it, it will not exist. What can be safer than to live a life where nothing can happen to you which you do not will? But since we cannot rise by our own free will as we once fell by our own free will spontaneously, let us hold with steadfast faith the right hand of God stretched out to us from above, even our Lord Jesus Christ, and look forward to receiving the certain hope and love which we greatly long for.”

You might want to read this quote one more time… maybe twice and slowly.

1) de libero arbitrio, II.xx.54; in Corpus Scriptorum Ecclesiasticorum Latinorum, vol. 74, ed. W. M. Green (Vienna: Hoelder-Pichler-Tempsky, 1961), 87.18-88.20
2) The Christian Theology Reader, edited by Alister E. McGrath (Oxford UK: Blackwell Publishers Inc., 1995), p. 104

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