Sorting by

Skip to main content

In 1974, two scholars were scheduled to deliver prestigious lectures on opposite sides of the Atlantic. The political theorist Hannah Arendt, an American citizen, traveled to Scotland to give the Gifford Lectures at the University of Aberdeen. Meanwhile, the classical philologist Albrecht Dihle journeyed from Germany to the U.S. to give the Sather Lectures at California State University, Berkley. More striking even than the crossing of their paths across the ocean was a convergence in the content of their talks. Both scholars focused their comments on the idea of human willing. And both scholars proposed a striking historical thesis with respect to Augustine and the will. Arendt designated Augustine “the first philosopher of the will”; Dihle called him “the inventor of our modern notion of will.”

The suggestion that Augustine invented something akin to our modern notion of will has since provoked much debate. Some have defended Augustine’s originality. Others have sought to show that earlier philosophers had beaten Augustine to the punch. Who was right, and why does Augustine’s thinking about the will matter for Christians today?

The inability to sin protects our freedom rather than undermining it.

In truth, there was something original about Augustine’s conception of will as compared with the views of philosophers who preceded him. This originality did not consist, however, in slightly tweaking received definitions of will or in developing a new philosophy of moral motivation. Rather, the originality of Augustine’s view of the will arises from his theology. Augustine’s theology, and, more specifically, his efforts to interpret Scripture during a long and turbulent career of pastoral ministry, result in a view of will that is inextricable from the theological contexts of creation, fall, redemption and final consummation. As time goes on, Augustine realizes that each of these contexts requires a different description of how the will works. In this sense, he eventually develops what one might call a theologically differentiated concept of the human will. The human will, Augustine gradually realizes, works differently in different theological contexts. Considering Augustine’s writings on the will across his career, we see four distinct features of his view of will emerge: the will as originally created, which he characterizes as a hinge; the fallen will, which Augustine describes as a link in a chain; the redeemed will, which he evokes with the image of a root; and the eschatological will, which we can visualize as a flower in full bloom.


In the decade or so after his baptism, Augustine penned several works that touched on the human will. The will, Augustine argues in this early writings, was given to humankind as a good gift from God, and he presents a vivid and alluring picture of its integrity. The will is powerful, autonomous and active. It has the potential for both good and evil, it mirrors the divine will, and it enjoys complete self-possession. It is free to determine its own orientation, not only as an accidental advantage but also by virtue of what willing as such means: To will means precisely to will freely.

The image of the hinge makes clear the capacities and significance Augustine accords to the will in this stage. Like a hinge, the created will can affect other things without itself being subject to the kind of movement it causes in them. The will is a movement of the mind that itself remains unmoved by external forces. Though God’s help might be bestowed upon a will already oriented to the good, even God does not act directly upon the will, inclining it in one way or another. Rather, the will remains active in almost every description Augustine provides. The will is therefore the basis for attributing moral responsibility and for distinguishing between those events and situations that result from God and those that result from the free will of God’s creatures. Given the will’s active character, Augustine can describe the it as the cause of all evils and says the will can be attributed to no antecedent cause. What preoccupies Augustine is not so much what happens to the will as what happens as a result of the will.

Augustine asks, If you have what you want, who needs alternatives?

It does not take long, however, for Augustine to observe that the view of the will he has articulated thus far – the vision of will as powerful, active and capable of orienting itself toward either evil or good – is inadequate. His characterization of the will does not correspond very well to the wills of people he actually knows or to how their predicament is described in the Bible. There is a disconnect between the powerfully active and self-determining kind of volition he has described in these early works and the reality of how the will functions in his everyday personal experience, in his ministry as a priest and bishop and in the Bible’s descriptions of how willing works. The story of the will, Augustine realizes, is more complicated than he has indicated so far. What he has said fits the will as created, but it does not fit the reality of the fallen will.


As Augustine immersed himself in Scripture in preparation for pastoral ministry, his account of the will gained depth and complexity. His reflection eventually led him to conclude that because of the fall, human beings no longer have absolute power over their willing. Far from being the center of their moral responsibility over which human beings retain absolute control, the will now has spiraled out of control. It has done so in two ways. First, given a good will, following through perfectly on the good one wills to do has become impossible. Making good on good intentions is difficult in a fallen world. But the difficulty runs deeper. Even willing the right thing in the first place is a problem. Post fall, human beings are unable to will what is good in a consistent or unalloyed way, even if they understand intellectually what is right.

Especially decisive in leading Augustine to this conviction is Romans 9:16, “so it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God who shows mercy.” He reads Romans 9:16 in light of another Pauline text, Philippians 2:13, “for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” Augustine also credits I Corinthians 4:7 with contributing to his change of mind. On the basis of these and other biblical passages, Augustine comes to affirm, during his early years of ministry, that good will itself, not only acting on a good will, is a gift of grace. God’s calling precedes good will, not the other way around. Absent God’s grace, the fallen will is incapable of choosing the good.

A comparison of terminology illustrates the drastic difference between this characterization of the fallen will and Augustine’s characterization of the created will. In his earlier writings, Augustine spoke of the will as a powerful hinge, rotating the mind and body effortlessly in accord with its direction. He would later restrict this description to the created will. In his classic work Confessions, in contrast, Augustine calls the fallen will a link in the chain binding us to sin. The created will, for Augustine, opens doors of possibility. The fallen will imposes chains of necessity.

Fortunately, the story of Augustine’s conception of will does not end with the fallen will and the bondage it brings. How do the chains come off?


As we have seen, Augustine becomes persuaded that God has to do it. This brings us to the third type of will in Augustine’s theologically differentiated conception: the will redeemed by God. Augustine elaborates extensively on this idea during the Pelagian controversy (a debate about the role of grace in human salvation), which he enters in 411. Throughout the Pelagian controversy, Augustine consistently points to prayer, especially biblical prayers and injunctions to prayer, as evidence that God makes good willing possible. If we did not need God’s help to avoid temptation, Augustine reasons, why would we pray for it in the prayer our Lord taught us? If God’s grace did not convert human wills, why would Jesus instruct his followers to pray for their persecutors (Matthew 5:44)?

But it is not only Augustine’s descriptions of what makes redeemed, good willing possible that center on God. His descriptions of what the redeemed will is center on God too. During the Pelagian controversy, Augustine describes the good will as a will in the process of conversion, a will from God, a will directed to God, a will with faith in God, a will belonging to the believer and the one good work necessary for eternal life. For Augustine in this period, the redeemed will, as distinct from the fallen will, is caught up in a veritable web of attachments to God – and, as Augustine pronounces in 418, it is finally nothing other than caritas, the love of God. Augustine had articulated his notions of the created and fallen human wills, too, in theological contexts, but his descriptions of the good will during the Pelagian controversy not merely relate to God; they center on God.

The contrasts between this strikingly theocentric characterization of the good will and the notions of human willing Augustine had developed earlier are helpfully captured in an image that Augustine introduces during the Pelagian controversy to describe the good will. Augustine had spoken of the created will as a hinge and of the fallen will as a link in a chain binding us to sin. The good will is different. It neither swings neutrally back and forth between good and evil nor holds a person in bondage to sin. Though weak, it grows dynamically in one direction, toward God and, therewith, toward freedom. It is like a root, planted and cultivated to bear sweet fruit. The good will of the faithful in this life is destined to grow into something beautiful but has not quite blossomed yet.


Though God’s work already begins to transform the character of human willing now, the good human willing that belongs to believers in this life is not to be confused with the perfection of will promised to them in the next. Thanks to God’s redeeming work, human beings can will the good in this life. But Augustine eventually comes to believe that even the baptized continue to struggle with sin. They may will the right thing thanks to God’s grace, but putting what they will into practice never becomes automatic or guaranteed. Weakness of will (the inability to do the good one wills) is a reality, even for Christians who have a redeemed will and enjoy the benefit of God’s grace.

But things will not always stay this way, Augustine argues during the late stages of the Pelagian controversy. After this life is over, when we attain full and perfect peace, we will experience weakness of will no longer. Our constant struggles in this life will be swallowed up in victory. We will not only have the power to will what is right; we will have the power to follow through on our right willing with absolute consistency. In the eschaton, it will not merely be the case that we will be able to not sin. It will also be the case that we will not be able to sin. In other words, in the final peace, we will not only be able to reject sin, we will be guaranteed to reject it. Sin will be impossible.

To some, the attractions of this kind of willing may be less than obvious. Will eschatological willing not make us less free than Adam and Eve were before the fall because it deprives us of the choice between evil and good? How can Augustine claim that the eschatological will is superior to the created will if the eschatological will is less free? Augustine refutes this objection by rejecting an assumption on which it rests. That assumption is that more options mean more freedom. Augustine concedes that Adam and Eve enjoyed a certain kind of freedom because they could choose between good and evil. Yet he argues that the freedom we will enjoy in the eschaton is even greater – not lesser – than this Edenic freedom.

True, we will not be free to sin in the eschaton. But does this really entail a loss for us? Augustine thinks not. Sin does not really promise to enrich our lives or add value to them in any way. Though it seems to promise self-fulfillment, the one sure thing about sin is that it will ruin us. It will ultimately eat away at what is good in us, oppressing us rather than freeing us for self-realization. Being unable to sin really means only that we will be unable to perform the types of actions that will inevitably harm, weaken and enslave us. Thus the inability to sin protects our freedom rather than undermining it.

The eschatological will, then, is free, but in a different way than the created will. The eschatological will is not free by having the option of evil but by being guaranteed the good. And this freedom, Augustine argues, is a freedom superior to that enjoyed even by the created will in its integrity or the redeemed will, which has begun to be set free by God’s grace.


The story of Augustine’s multifaceted, evolving thinking on the human will has at least three implications for life in the modern world. It can teach us something about flexibility, something about identity and something about freedom, three lessons that transfer from Augustine’s age to ours.

First, we can learn something about flexibility. Augustine’s views of will only became as complex and compelling to the subsequent tradition as they did because he was willing to change his mind. He could have adhered unbendingly to his original views from the beginning of his career. But he was not content to do that. In conversation with earlier thinkers, his personal experience and other members of his community of faith, he was always testing his ideas against Scripture. When he discerned a conflict between the teaching of Scripture and his own views, he concluded it was time to correct what he had previously thought. This is what led him to his mature, multifaceted view of the human will. Augustine was willing to be proven wrong by the Word of God and to change his mind accordingly.

Augustine’s view of the will also teaches us something about human identity. As we have seen in our discussion of the redeemed will, Augustine did not believe that will and love are always distinct entities. In fact, he identified a good will as love. Furthermore, just as he identifies a good will with love, so he identifies the seat of good willing – the will – and the seat of loving – the heart. Augustine was the first person to make clear that will is just as much a matter of love and the heart as it is of the intellect. In this sense – in that he more closely linked the will and loving and the heart than had anyone before him – there is a way in which he unseats the intellect from its throne in common understandings of human identity. Augustine’s view of will shows us that a person’s heart – what a person loves – is at the core of who she or he is.

Finally, from the story of Augustine’s thinking about the will, we can learn something about freedom. Especially in the context of a capitalist country, it is easy for us to become fixated on the allure of options. The invisible hand of discriminating consumer choice among options is what fuels the engine of capitalism, ensuring that the cogs of competition spin smoothly, yielding maximal profit for the economy, which will then trickle down to each member of society. In such a system, having alternatives is seen as the ticket to financial well-being and freedom. Capitalism assumes and promotes choice; technology and leisure, both available to us to a greater extent than ever before, multiply it. The resulting plethora of choices has produced a crisis of sorts.

According to two recent books, the millennial generation (those born between 1978 and 2000) suffers under a cruel irony (Twenty Something, Hudson Street Press, 2012, and Mission Adulthood, Diversion Books, 2012). On the one hand, millennials are obsessed with keeping the maximum number of alternatives open. But on the other, they are overwhelmed, often to the point of paralysis, by the need to adjudicate between the seemingly infinite sets of choices before them. Millenials want their options open. But they are in agony because they don’t know what else they want.

Augustine’s view of will offers a response to this paradox of choice. Augustine teaches us that the kind of freedom most worth having is not about having alternatives. Augustine asks, If you have what you want, who needs alternatives? True freedom does not hesitate. It does not deliberate. True freedom knows immediately and exactly what it wants and therefore does not need or want any other options. True freedom is the wholehearted willing and enjoyment of the only thing that can really satisfy. True freedom is a love for God like God’s love for us; it can never be shaken. In the final analysis, Augustine’s multifaceted view of will is eccentric, centered outside of itself. It inevitably directs our attention elsewhere, to the God who made our restless hearts and who alone can bring us perfect peace.

Han-luen Kantzer Komline teaches church history and theology at Western Theological Seminary.

Photo: Lawrence OP/Flickr, withCC BY-NC-ND 2.0 permission