Where St Augustine had made man into a mere thing, Pelagius in restoring man, was on the way to making a mere thing of God. St Augustine had been right to ascribe the credit not to himself but to God, wrong to seem to say that he himself had had no say in whether he would do God’s will or not. Pelagius was right to stress man’s freedom, wrong to convert autonomy into autarky, and freedom into pride (Lucas 1976: 1-2).
So writes J. R. Lucas (website) at the start of his essay ‘Freedom and Grace’, in which he attempts to articulate the connection between God’s grace and human freedom, especially as it concerns salvation. It’s a great essay and Lucas’s approach is a helpful one. The topic, he says, can be framed in terms of a problem: as theists we are committed to human freedom (because we are committed to individual responsibility), yet believing in God as creator we are also inclined to ascribe all things to God. This produces a tension and Lucas’s solution revolves around noticing that in ordinary language we use the term ‘cause’ in two different ways.
The first use is that which tends to specifying the complete set of antecedent conditions which together are sufficient for the event in question. The second use highlights only the most significant condition. Crucially, when we pick out one factor among many to designate as the cause we may do so for a variety of reasons: because it was abnormal in some way, or was the factor most under our control, or the factor most deserving of praise or blame, or the weakest link in the causal chain (p. 2, 15).
Moreover, our reasons and strategies for selecting one factor as the cause are varied and complex. All this leads to different accounts of what counts as the cause: “the coroner will say the cause of death was drowning, the unsuccessful rescuer will think the cause was his failure to dive well enough, the teenage chum will know that it was his folly in having dared his friend to swim to the wreck …” and so on (p. 4).
This helps in the following way. With Augustine, we can ascribe responsibility for our coming to faith to God. God deserves the praise, because God is by far the primary contributor. Augustine might have been so acutely aware of this because he experienced God as relentlessly pursuing him: though nourished by the Christianity of his mother as a child, he resisted; turning to this worldview or that he found them all wanting; listening to the preaching of Ambrose was still not enough; finally in the garden he hears God’s voice and accepts. At work in these many ways, it’s clear God deserves all the credit. And we can explain this by saying that God was the cause of Augustine’s conversion, where ’cause’ here is used in the selective sense, picking out only the most important contributing condition.
Where Augustine goes wrong, however, is in saying – or saying as much as to imply – that his decision was therefore irrelevant to whether he would, in the end, commit to God. Lucas’s point is that we can agree with Augustine on the former because we can recognise that God was acting in these many ways – all of which became part of that set of conditions that was eventually sufficient for Augustine’s conversion. Nevertheless, we should still affirm Augustine’s own choice in the matter. His choice – however feeble – was still necessary, and still part of that set of collectively sufficient conditions. To deny that would be a step too far; it would make us machines not children.
Lucas then addresses a possible consequence of this view. Some people do not share the experience of St Augustine; they don’t experience God as relentlessly pursing them. For example, a person who carefully considers the claims of Christianity upon first encountering them and commits might well feel their faith was very much dependent on their own choice. And as a result they will not be able to ascribe their conversion to God in precisely the same way that St Augustine did (p. 9). Still, once we bear in mind the use of ’cause’ which tends to include all of the conditions needed for the performance of the action (the choice to accept Christ) we will see that God was indeed active.
I think Lucas’s system could be improved at two points. First, it seems that if we increase the precision of the acts involved in coming to faith, we want to refrain from saying that “we can ascribe to God the responsibility for man’s actions without thereby denying man’s responsibility too” (p. 7). That’s because once we make things more precise we would be able to distinguish God’s acts of setting up this condition or that, God’s bestowing a person with this ability or giving to the person this bit of knowledge, from the person’s own decision to accept Christ. Moreover, agreeing with Lucas that all actions take place in a context, we should recognise that sometimes that wider context contributes to the very identity of the action performed. “The decision to accept Christ”, while useful in our practice, is perhaps too general a description of an action to facilitate accurate ascriptions of responsibility.
Second, more needs to be said on when conditions – background or otherwise – count as divine actions. I take it that Lucas doesn’t want to say all conditions are divine actions, as this would make God the agent of evil events. But in that case we need to say something that allows us to, if not identify, then at least affirm that there are particular conditions or events which are the result of God’s agency.
Lucas, J.R. (1976) ‘Freedom and Grace’, in Freedom and Grace, 1–15. London: Almark Pub.