The Augustinian Theodicy: An Assessment

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The Christian approach to the problem of evil has been largely based on two Theodicies, those of St Irenaeus (130-202 CE) and St Augustine of Hippo (354-430 CE). Both use the defence of free-will as their basic answer to the problem of evil, but the two arguments differ substantially in their approach. Although the Augustinian theodicy was the later of the two, it has for many years been the traditional church teaching, in particular its Doctrine of Original Sin. More recently, however, its approach has been challenged, and Irenaean – style theodicies, particularly those proposed by Swinburne and Hick, have been seen as being more correct. This essay therefore, attempts to establish the adequacy of the Augustinian argument today.

Augustine bases his argument on the idea that free will was given, but was then misused. According to him, God created everything perfect, in complete harmony and balance, without evil, but with the gift of free will. Two events then occurred, which were the result of the misuse of this gift. Firstly, there was the fall of the angels, wherein some angels, led by the Archangel Lucifer, made the free choice to rebel against the goodness of God, thus creating evil in the heavens. This evil came to earth in the second event, when Adam and Eve where tempted by a serpent1 , and then made a similar free choice to rebel against the goodness of God. This evil disrupted the balance of harmony which had existed, leading to the world as today. Augustine claimed that ‘All evil is either sin (the result of morally sinful actions undertaken today as they were in the beginning) or the punishment for sin’ (explaining how the innocent can suffer, as they are being punished for the ‘original sin’ of man).

The Augustinian theodicy develops further to give a Soteriological theory that it was felt necessary to allow mankind a chance to atone for the original sin and return to God. The balance had been so disordered, however, by the sin, that in order for this to be possible, God as Jesus had to first make the ultimate sacrifice on the cross, in order to allow mankind a chance to be justified with God. The precise mechanics of how the Crucifixion permitted mankind a second chance, have been much debated, with various differing theories being developed by the likes of Irenaeus, Origen, Anselm, Calvin, and Grotius. Beyond this, however, Augustine argues that now atonement is possible, a Judgement will occur at the end of days, when the evil who have prospered in this evil world will suffer eternal punishment in Hell, whilst the good will receive eternal happiness, thus restoring the original harmony. This theodicy therefore attempts to solve the problem of evil by averting any blame from God (transferring it to the angels and humans who abused free will), and by promising an eventual equalization of existence as a consequence of God’s sacrifice. This theodicy has received much criticism since its conception. Certain doctrinal points have been questioned for a while, but modern changes in religious attitudes and increased scientific knowledge has led to an increased disparagement of what has often come to be seen as an outdated theodicy.

In his own time, Augustine was criticised for his theodicy by the Celtic theologian, Pelagius. He claimed that each soul was created immediately by God, and was not descended from Adam. Mankind therefore did not share original sin, but instead each person had the ability to choose Good or evil themselves, as Adam had. He also argued that if, through the doctrine of salvation, we could not be saved until Jesus’ death on the cross, then it was surely unjust of God to give the commandments prior to that, as even by following them, salvation was not possible for mankind. After much debate, however, Augustine’s views were acclaimed correct, with Pelagius’ being dismissed partly because he was regarded as being “too full of Scotch porridge”2 . Later conferences at Ephesus (431 CE) and Orange (529 CE) further condemned his theology. Greater focus on Augustine’s character may, however, have led to further questioning on the nature of his theodicy. Prior to his conversion, he had had a son by his concubine of twelve years, only to abandon them, an act for which he is reputed to have felt great guilt. His doctrine of original sin conveniently allowed him to argue that he was not to blame for being sinful; rather it was the result of his descent from Adam. Whilst this does not disprove his theology, it is worth considering, particularly if Pelagius’ dietary habits could be used for condemnation. Such a belief in inheritance of evil led to the development of the practice of infant baptism, since it was deemed necessary to baptise a baby as it was born with sin. This practice is largely seen as being outmoded, with certain Christian wings such as the Baptists refusing infant baptism, whilst the Church of England now allows for ‘welcoming services’ instead, although infant baptism is still practiced.

Further thought has led to discussion as to the mechanics of the fall and the idea of judgement in Augustinian thought. If creation was perfect, then it would seem impossible for it to corrupt. Free-will, it is argued, is not a defence, as surely perfect creatures in perfect harmony would not choose imperfection. That the imperfection was chosen implies that those who chose it were themselves imperfect, so were not created perfect. The blame must therefore lie on the creator for creating imperfection; ergo mankind is being punished for God’s mistakes, a conclusion that does not lie well with traditional theories of God and salvation. Augustine tries to avoid this argument by claiming that God created everything good, but there were differing degrees of goodness, and it was the ‘lesser goods’ that chose evil. This suggestion is not logically sound, however, as good must be good, and even if it were not, creation in perfection must entail the creation of the very highest level ‘goods’. The whole idea of ‘greater and lesser goods’ is in fact particularly reminiscent of Orwell’s statement on the practice of Stalin’s Communism that “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others”3 . The inclusion of hell for eternal damnation and suffering of the evildoers also cause problems, as it is difficult to see how the original harmony and perfection can be restored by a combination of eternal happiness for the purposes of reward, and eternal misery, purely for the purposes of revenge.

Modern scientific theories also challenge Augustine’s theory of creation. Whilst it could be argued that such events as Adam and Eve’s fall are symbolic myths, representing perhaps the importance of dependence on God, and illustrating the choice between good and evil, Augustine seems to rely on such events being historically true, and Adam and Eve being our actual ancestors rather than allegory of all humankind, as were they such, then man would not inherit sin, but would have to make moral choices himself. Such an idea is more consistent with Pelagian theology than Augustinian. No evidence has been found to suggest such an original Eden existence as Augustine relies on, and evolution seems to show people moving closer to moral awareness or perfection, as opposed to starting perfect and falling. Evidence has, however, been found to show that natural disasters (which were cited by Augustinian theology as retribution for original sin) predated the existence of man, so seemed an illogical punishment.

In conclusion, we can see that the Augustinian theodicy is open to various levels of attack. On various theological points, such as the fall of perfection, hell, and original sin, it has been challenged for ages, but more modern research has questioned the scientific basis behind the theodicy, whilst changing attitudes have led to infant baptism being phased out (which suggests less acceptance of original sin) and Augustine’s life being questioned, as to how it impacted on his theology. Augustine’s thought therefore seems completely inappropriate and inadequate today, yet it still remains traditional church teaching, with the doctrine of original sin being the ninth of the thirty nine articles used by the Anglican Church. That this is still the situation implies that the church still sees it as relevant, and indeed although through the new ‘Common Worship’ liturgy, infant baptism in becoming less common, it has yet to be removed from the liturgy. That the theodicy endures seems to be due to its close ties with the doctrine of salvation, which is so essential to the church’s teaching, and indeed its existence. An Irenaean theory (more consistent with the imitative approach than the theological) that suggests Jesus gave the ultimate example of how one should live, does not convey the message of salvation through turning to God that is one of the church’s most fundamental points and, cynically, without the need to turn to God in order to live a good life, there is no need for organised religion; ergo, the church is unlikely to be hasty about rejecting Augustine’s theodicy. In the end, therefore, whilst this theodicy may be seen as unsatisfactory today, it is still likely to be seen as an accepted theory until it can be divorced from the doctrine of salvation. As a final illustration, it is not uncommon to see clergy without the ninth button of the thirty nine on their cassock done up, signifying a non-acceptance of the doctrine of original sin.
1This serpent came to be doctrinally seen as synonymous with Satan, who was himself seen as synomous with the fallen Lucifer.2Jerome’s view of Pelagius, who he also described as “that big fat dog of Albion”, and “a great red-faced lump”.3ORWELL, G. Animal Farm (1945)

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