Augustine's View of God

Augustine has already explained his notion of God as the being who created the universe ex nihilo. There are several other components to this view. First, Augustine provided an argument for the existence of God. More famously, he gave an explanation of how God's goodness could be explained in light of the evils in the world.

Augustine's Neo-Platonism

Augustine was a Neo-Platonist, meaning he accepted Plato's notion of a world of physical realities knowable by the senses and a world of eternal objects known only by thought. Physical realities are particular, temporal, and changing, and they are known from experience. By contrast, mathematical laws and numbers are universal, eternal, unchanging, and discovered only through the intellect.

Though Augustine is in the Platonic tradition, he had several points of disagreement with Plato. Augustine didn't devalue the senses as much as Plato, since he believed that God created them, along with the natural world they reveal. Also, Plato believed that the mind retains knowledge from a previous existence before this life. Augustine could not accept this view, since there is no mind with information prior to birth when beings are “ensouled.”

To explain how the human mind knows higher truths, Augustine invokes his theory of illumination. “There is present in us the light of eternal reason, in which light the immutable truths are seen,” he wrote. For Augustine, this illumination comes from God, just as light comes from the sun.

Neither does Augustine believe that these truths are known via the natural intellect, as the philosopher knows Plato's forms. Rather, Augustine claimed that you discover these eternal truths through the illumination of the divine light. He believed that the divine light is to the mind as the sun is to the eyes — a metaphor straight out of Plato's allegory of the cave. Every human mind needs God's light to uncover the forms or to see the truth. If a person thinks she has discovered this on her own, she simply misunderstood the source of their light.

He also includes ethical truths among those higher truths known by the intellect. Truths like “We should live justly,” “The worse should be subordinate to the better,” “Equals should be compared with equals,” and “To each should be given his own” are also “immutable truths of reason,” according to Augustine. They are not human creations but objective truths that we discover.

Notice that this is a “causal” argument for God's existence. It might be recapitulated with two premises and a conclusion:

  • Persons have ideas of eternal truths.

  • They could not have arrived at these truths on their own.

  • Therefore, to arrive at these truths they need the illumination that comes from God.

The eternal truths in the human mind are like effects. These effects require causes, and that cause is God.

God and the Problem of Evil

When he was a young man, Augustine's Christian ideas seemed inadequate to him. He was flummoxed by the ever-present problem of moral evil. The Christians said that God is the creator of all things and that God is good. How, then, is it possible for evil to arise out of a world that a perfectly good God had created? Because the young Augustine could not find an answer to this question, he turned away from Christianity.

Ever since the time of Augustine, more than 1,500 years ago, one of the most difficult problems facing believers is the problem of evil. What is the problem of evil and in what ways does Augustine try to solve it? If God is all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-good, how is it that evil exists in the world? Breaking it down further, if God is all-knowing, he knows how to stop evil. If he is all-powerful, he can stop evil. Finally, if he's all-good, he cares to stop evil. Why then is there evil in the world? These evils can be divided into willed evil, which results from the free choices of human beings, and natural evils, which include hurricanes, mudslides, tornadoes, and so on.

In responding to how both kinds of evil occur, Augustine showed his Platonic influence. When it comes to willed evils, Augustine argued that God does not cause such evils. Moral evils can be traced to the absence of goodness. It results from something gone wrong with the will. As disease is the absence of health in the body, so sin is the absence of health in the will. Plato had used the same analogy to describe the soul in the Republic.

There are two parts to Augustine's doctrine about the will. One part is that the universe itself is the result of God's free and sovereign will in making it. With respect to humanity, everything is to be explained on the basis of the will. So Augustine is unlike the Greeks in thinking that will and not reason is primary. The intellect follows the will, not the other way around.

But what determines the will? Augustine's contention is that nothing determines the will. The will is completely free.

To explain how natural evils occur, Augustine made use of Plato's thought. In this world of changes — what Plato called a world of “becoming” — change gives rise to natural processes, and these give rise to famines, diseases, plagues, and so on, which in turn give rise to human suffering.

From Plotinus Augustine acquired the idea that evil is not a positive reality but a privation — that is, the absence of good. The world is imperfect. But this does not imply that God is imperfect or responsible for the imperfections of the world.

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