It is an honor to have this distinguished group of scholars not only understand and beautifully articulate some of the most important claims of my book but also observe some of its more controversial sub-arguments and further implications. Together, their responses create synergy between the forest and the trees. I reflect along with them in what follows, considering an individual branch here or there, and pausing now and then to take in the larger landscape, letting the focus of each response guide me.

Interiority and Irresistibility: A Reply to Phillip Cary

OUP, 2019

Phillip Cary and I agree about Augustine’s eventual affirmation of God’s liberative internal redirection of the will, but he takes issue with my argument that Augustine affirms an interior operation of grace already in Ad Simplicianum and with the application of the term “irresistible grace” to Augustine’s thought in any period. These concerns, which I will address in turn, provide the opportunity to unfurl the reasons for one or two of my interpretive moves.

Interior Operation in Ad Simplicianum

For Cary, Ad Simplicianum does not provide “an account of the inner working of the Holy Spirit or God inwardly moving the human will.” In his view, this idea of “interior operation” occurs only in Augustine’s mature writings from 418 and after.Cary is following, broadly speaking, the interpretation of Patout Burns, which pinpoints Augustine’s first affirmation of an interior, direct, operation on the will in 418 with his ep. 194. See J. Patout Burns, The Development of Augustine’s Doctrine of Operative Grace (Paris: Études Augustiniennes, 1980). For discussions of Burns’s interpretation of Simpl. and its reception in more recent literature, see Augustine on the Will, 100 n.122, 184 n.43, and 195 n.79.

But Cary’s interpretation fails to explain Augustine’s statements in Ad Simplicianum presupposing or explicitly affirming the kind of interior operation Cary denies is present.Interested readers can see more on pages 88–107 of my book. Augustine does not leave us guessing about whether God works in people to produce a good will. Explaining Philippians 2:12–13, he writes that Paul “shows sufficiently that even a good will itself is made in us by God’s working.”Simpl. 1.2.12 (CCL 44:36; my translation): satis ostendit etiam ipsam bonam uoluntatem in nobis operante deo fieri. This text was cited in my book on page 100 n. 122 and page 194 n. 78, but Cary does not explain how his interpretive framework can account for this statement. Unless otherwise noted, translations used will come from Boniface Ramsey, Responses to Miscellaneous Questions (Hyde Park, NY: New City Press, 2008). Here we have God as the agent at work (operante deo); the will as the object God’s work produces (ipsam bonam uoluntatem . . . fieri); and a clear affirmation that this happens, not merely through the manipulation of external circumstances, but by God working within us (in nobis). There is an operation, it happens inwardly, and God is doing it.

This statement from the thick of Augustine’s reflections on Romans 9 finds confirmation toward the end of his reflections in question two of Ad Simplicianum, book 1. Here, Augustine explains that for belief to take root in a person it is not enough for her to be exposed to certain phenomena. Augustine begins by saying, “But who can believe without being touched (tangatur) by some call—that is, by the evidence of things? Who has it in his power for his mind to be touched by such a manifestation as would move his will (uoluntas moueatur) to faith?”

Had Augustine said only this, it might be possible to read this passage as speaking about God moving the will and touching a person only through external means, but Augustine goes on, clarifying that not only external exposure, but internal delight is needed:

Who embraces in his soul (in animo) something that does not delight him? Who has it in his power either to come into contact with what can delight him or to be delighted once he has come into contact? When, therefore, things delight us whereby we may advance towards God, this is inspired and furnished by the grace of God; it is not obtained by our own assent and effort or by the merits of our works because, whether it be the assent of our will (nutus uoluntatis) or our intense effort or our works aglow with charity, it is he who gives, he who bestows it.This is Boniface Ramsey’s translation from WSA I/12, with some adjustments to make it more literal.

In order to bring a person to belief, God must supply inner motivation (in Augustine’s words, in animo) in addition to exposure to certain external possibilities.Simpl. 1.2.21 (CCL 44:53): qui autem animo amplectitur aliquid quod eum non delectat? One needs to be “touched (tangatur),” one’s will must be “moved (mouetatur),” to “delight (delectat)” in the good. How does this happen? God inspires us with delight by grace. And God must grant the very “assent of our will (nutus uoluntatis).”See Simpl. 1.2.21 (CCL 44:54), esp: cum ergo nos ea delectant quibus proficiamus ad deum, inspiratur hoc et praebetur gratia dei, non nutu nostro et industria aut operum meritis comparatur, quia ut sit nutus uoluntatis, ut sit industria studii, ut sint opera caritate feruentia, ille tribuit, ille largitur. In short, Augustine states at the end of this paragraph, “we could certainly neither will nor run unless we were enabled by him moving and rousing us.”My translation (CCL 44:54): quando quidem nec elle nec currere nisi eo mouente atque excitant e poterimus.

Augustine makes clear in this passage that we need more than for God to orchestrate external stimuli. God needs to step in and shape our responses by moving us inwardly so that our will assents to what is best. These statements from Augustine complicate Cary’s claim that “the mature Augustinian doctrine of election is already in place before the Pelagian controversy begins, but it is not tied to an account of the inner working of the Holy Spirit or God inwardly moving the human will.”I note that the idea that Augustine already affirms God’s interior operation on the will in Simpl. is not peculiar to me but has also been affirmed by a number of other scholars who have disagreed with Patout Burns, whom Cary is following in seeing the “interior operation” of grace to cause a good will as a doctrine that emerges in 418. See Volker Drecoll (Die Entstehung der Gnadenlehre Augustinus, 1999), esp. 232 n. 202, where he observes that Burns’s thesis that Augustine avoids operative grace is “derived from an interest in assuming that a change in Augustine’s doctrine of grace whereby God directly works on the will does not happen until 418. In view of the alleged changes in 417/18 the statements of Simpl. I.2 are then relativized.” For English-language objections to the idea that Simpl. should be associated only with an exterior, and not an interior, operation of grace, see also Carol Harrison, Rethinking Augustine’s Early Theology (p. 150) and James Wetzel, Augustine and the Limits of Virtue (p. 191). Cf. p. 195 n. 79 of my book. Augustine’s point in this passage is that solely external influences on our willing cannot be relied upon. For us to be moved to faith, we need God to work on the level of our internal motivation. Already here, as Augustine states in so many words, God must give the assent of our will.

Irresistible Grace in Augustine

Cary also believes the notion of “irresistible grace” is alien to Ad Simplicianum and indeed to Augustine’s entire corpus. He takes the idea of grace being irresistible to be logically incoherent when applied to Augustine’s mature understanding. According to Cary, given that Augustine comes to see grace as bestowing on a person the freedom “to enjoy one’s inmost delight,” the idea that grace could be resisted is absurd. By definition, one would never want to resist it. Therefore, he concludes, “both labels, ‘irresistible’ and ‘resistible,’ are out of place in Augustine’s doctrine of grace.”

Here, Cary and I share an understanding of the character of grace for the mature Augustine and the desire to distinguish Augustine’s view from caricatures of grace as a coercive external force. But whereas Cary believes the incompatibility of “resistibility” with mature Augustinian grace disqualifies “irresistibility” as a modifier, one could just as easily argue that this same incompatibility justifies such language.

Augustine’s thinking accords more with the latter approach, even though it is true that Augustine never quite uses the exact phrase “irresistible grace,” a phrase primarily associated with Calvin and his heirs. Repeatedly, both in Ad Simplicianum and beyond, Augustine refutes the idea that grace can be resisted, precisely to demarcate genuine grace from counterfeit. For example, he states, “the effectiveness of God’s mercy cannot be in man’s power so that he would be merciful to no avail if man were unwilling (si homo nolit).”Simpl. 1.2.13 (CCL 44:38). His meaning is clear: God’s mercy cannot be rendered ineffectual by human unwillingness; it is not possible to resist it.

Elsewhere, Augustine explicitly denies the “resistibility” of God’s will, making Cary’s charge that it is illegitimate for contemporary interpreters to attribute such a notion to Augustine difficult to sustain: “But if it is disturbing that no one resists his will (nullus resistit), because whom he wills he sustains and whom he wills he abandons . . . if it is disturbing, O man, who are you that you talk back to God?Simpl. 1.2.17 (CCL 44:43): sed si hoc muet quod uoluntati eius nullus resistit. Augustine builds here on language employed in Romans 9:18–19. For these reasons, I stand by the thesis that Augustine characterizes grace as irresistible not only in his late works, but also already in Ad Simplicianum.See James Wetzel, Augustine and the Limits of Virtue, 197–206.

As for how De spiritu et littera fits into this picture, I would refer readers not only to page 104 n. 137 (which Cary mentions), where I endorse the general contours of the solution Sarah Byers has proposed to this conundrum, but also to Chapters Three and Four, in which I offer my own variation on her explanation of this seeming about-face, filling out the picture of the developments during the Pelagian controversy whereby Augustine reprises and deepens the series of insights he reaches in Ad Simplicianum (see pp. 124–26). De Spiritu et littera falls into the first phase of these evolutions, from 411–17. While I agree that it would be odd for Augustine to forget the striking breakthroughs of Ad Simplicianum, I think we can make sense of Augustine’s ensuing thinking on grace and the will after Ad Simplicianum as a period of testing and refinement. I find helpful the image I used in the book to explain how this process might have worked—Augustine was like a scientist who had to put the disquieting new hypothesis of his youthful thought experimentation to the test—“Augustine spends the rest of his life after he writes Simpl. questioning, exploring, deepening, and defending a line of thinking he had already expressed in nuce in that work” (p. 126).

From Division to Delight: A Reply to Sarah Stewart-Kroeker

When I read Sarah Stewart-Kroeker’s opening comments on the centrality of delight to Augustine’s account of willing, I was reminded of my book’s original title: From Division to Delight. A number of factors led me to abandon this name in the end, but one was a desire to affirm delight’s presence at the beginning of Augustine’s story—perhaps not so much in the story of Augustine’s development as a thinker, since in his earlier days his reflections on will were not yet so susceptible to delight’s gravitational pull as they would be later—but in the sense that the theological story he would spend his mature life narrating featured delight, not division, at its inception. Delight explains why we are here at all. Delight was the very first, as well as the last, word of the Christian story in Augustine’s telling. In the beginning, God was also saying: “Let there be delight.”In the beginning, God was also saying: “Let there be delight.”When it comes to sexuality and eschatology, two further themes related to delight in Stewart-Kroeker’s response, we also have to do with beginnings and endings. Every human life finds its origin in sexuality and its end in God’s final purposes. Yet, as Stewart-Kroeker aptly observes, both sexuality and eschatology permeate our lives in the present, shaped and oriented as they are by both our bodily desires and hopes for the future. How does human willing affect human sexuality and sex and vice versa? How are we to understand the kind of willing that we may hope for in glory and how might such an understanding expand our imagination for how willing works currently? These are profound questions that push us to consider how human willing functions in our lives on an immediate, as well as ultimate, level.


Why, then, Stewart-Kroeker wonders, did I not dedicate more of my book to considering passages about sex and sexuality from Confessions and City of God? This is a very natural question to raise. There is indeed rich material here, which it would be rewarding to think through at greater length. For example, Augustine’s accounts of his own struggles with sexual desire and his evolving reflections on sexuality could be considered as a case study for larger issues of willing he diagnoses in his corpus as a whole. While I will no more be able here than in my book to escape the limitations of time and space that prevented a full treatment of these issues, let me at least take the opportunity to gesture toward some of the reflections in this vein that I might have liked to make.

Though there are a number of important texts in Confessions where Augustine discusses his own struggles with sex and sexuality before the famous agonies of book eight (Stewart-Kroeker notes conf. 2.3.7–8, 3.1.1, 4.2.2, and 6.11.20–6.15.25), these passages have something in common when it comes to language of will. This is that such language is missing. Strangely enough, Augustine does not once use terminology of voluntas in these earlier passages from conf. that I omitted from my analysis.Only once does Augustine apply the verb velle to himself in these earlier passages Stewart-Kroeker has identified. See conf. 6.14.24 (CCL 27:89), where he refers to the fact that the preferences of the wives whom he and some of his friends “wanted to have (habere volebamus),” prevented them from pursuing plans for setting up a common household. Rather, he restricts himself to other words such as libido, votum, consuetudo, amo, etc.

When we step back to consider how this absence fits into larger patterns in Confessions, we see that—intriguingly—between book one and book seven, Augustine uses terminology of “will (voluntas)” only twice, and in these two cases he is not referring to himself (see conf. 2.3.6 and 6.7.11). After the frenetic infant activity he so famously describes, the will lies dormant in his narrative until he enters the territory of the intellectual struggles and spiritual self-diagnoses of book seven.Terminology of voluntas resumes at conf. 7.3.5. This is followed by the seething tumult of book eight, at which point he floods the text with a torrent of voluntary language (see esp. 8.8.19–8.10.24).

Not until it is time to recount his struggles on matters of faith in books seven and eight does Augustine begin leaning heavily on language of will. These struggles enfold sexuality, along with the full span of human experience, of course. But the contrast of this abundance with the absence of language of will from his earlier discussions of sex and sexuality is striking. For some reason, language of will is dispensable when it comes to describing the sexual passion of his youth. Looking back, does Augustine see his will as so submissive to his every sensual whim and so insensible to the attractions of Christ, that it is not even worth mentioning as a salient factor? In this earlier material on sex and sexuality Augustine does not characterize his will as active in a constructive way; indeed, the will does not figure into the picture at all. These scenes are riven with conflict, but Augustine does not describe this conflict in voluntary terms. Has his will been so deadened that it lacks even the vivacity of discord?

If in Augustine’s accounts of his youthful struggles with sexuality pre-book seven, his will lies dormant, disengaged, and impotent, in City of God 14.23–26 we see the will, in the context of sex, springing to a state of serene energy, intentionality, and responsiveness. When Augustine imagines procreation in paradise, he describes the antithesis of his own earlier experiences recounted in Confessions—the human will come alive. Augustine’s account of sex fully controlled by the will can seem bizarre or even comically mechanical. But attending to the role of the will in this vision, especially as contrasted against his former descriptions in Confessions, helps us to understand why Augustine might imagine sex in the state of true happiness in such unusual terms. This heavenly scenario, in contrast to his earlier experiences, is one in which a person is whole-heartedly present, not holding back, or hiding, or haunted by some deeper desire or latent longing that is being contradicted, stifled, or ignored. The will has fully awoken.

In these passages on sex in Confessions and in City of God, then, we have the bookends of Augustine’s account of sex and the will. As Augustine tells us pointedly in City of God, his vision of sex as it might have been in paradise is hypothetical; sex of this variety never did happen in paradise, since the first parents spoiled things before they had a chance to enjoy it.Civ. 14.26. Here, in an unexpected place, then, we find the fitting correlate to my book’s original title—the Augustinian story of the will’s journey from division to delight.


Regarding Stewart-Kroeker’s comments on the significance of eschatology, I am in complete agreement. My observations at the start of the chapter on the eschatological will about the more limited information Augustine has to work with were not intended to minimize the importance of his eschatology, but rather to echo Augustine’s own acknowledgement of our partial knowledge until perfection before I launched into what he does say about eschatological willing.Civ. 22.29. As I pointed out in the book, for Augustine the eschatological represents “the purposeful culmination, not just the arbitrary arrest, of the various transformations Augustine depicts…the flower to the seed of the will’s previous phases” (p. 381).

With Stewart-Kroeker, I see Augustine’s necessarily limited but evocative eschatological discussions as a way into the wide-open vistas of his larger thought. But I also readily admit that there is much more to these vistas than I was able to capture in my final chapter. In this sense, Augustine’s reflections on eschatology are but one instance of a larger pattern that applies to his entire oeuvre. As a finite person, he can only say so much. Yet in the fixed number of his words we may find inexhaustible interpretive possibilities. I look forward to continued exploration of these possibilities in the future through both my own work and the work of others.

Rehabilitating the Will: A Reply to Alex Pierce

Alex Pierce asks three broad questions about the relation of my book on the will to other Augustinian themes. How does the work of transforming the will relate to rhetoric—to the larger pattern of God’s work in the world as a physician who heals through his own persuasive speech? What role does the church play in God’s healing of the will? And how does the idea of insatiable delight affect our understanding of the eschatological will? These questions may seem quite different from each other on the surface, yet they all relate to how God grants wholeness to human willing.


I would see characterizations, such as mine, of the divine economy in terms of four stages (created; fallen; redeemed; fully free) and characterizations of the divine economy as one of therapy through rhetoric as complementary frameworks, though each has a complexity and depth of its own exceeding what the other provides. The four-stage view highlights the linear progression in the economy over time and the disjunctions between the major chapters of the story of human willing. At the same time, even in this four-stage account, there is a consistency to the narrative in that all of its permutations locate the human will in relation to its Maker. The framework of God the Rhetor who creates and heals a fallen creation by his loving words, set forth in Scripture and above all in Christ, beautifully accents this consistency.

I think there is much to be gained from putting these two frameworks into conversation and, more specifically, from thinking about how God, acting as divine physician, works through rhetoric to rehabilitate the human will. Not just diversity between the four overarching stages of will Augustine describes, but also gradations of development within these four stages, lend more modulation to the topography of Augustine’s account of humanity’s story than one might expect. After the initial conversion of the will, to take one important example, its healing is not over. This turning point simply inaugurates a stage through which the will’s struggles and growth in goodness can continue, now with the possibility of choosing the good restored. Divine rhetoric, in Scripture and Christ, and the persuasive speech of other human beings have a vital role to play in this process.

Augustine gives us both theoretical and practical fodder for reflection on the role of rhetoric in fueling the redeemed will’s continued transformation. For one example of the former, see On Christian Doctrine 4.19.38, where Augustine repurposes Cicero’s threefold theory of rhetorical styles, proposing that preachers may employ the highest style to convince people who are unwilling to do what they ought to do.Doct. chr. 4.19.38 (Simonetti, 312): cum uero aliquid agendum est et ad eos loquimur qui hoc agere debent nec tamen uolunt, tunc ea quae magna sunt, dicenda sunt granditer et ad flectendos animos congruenter. Augustine’s preaching exhibits this rhetorical strategy at work on the ground as he draws on the rhetoric of Scripture in his own exhortations of his flock toward right willing. Examining Augustine’s persuasive speech toward this end helps significantly to fill out the picture of his expectations for the growth of the good will in this life.See my forthcoming essay, “God’s Grace and Our Willing in Augustine’s Preaching,” in the Cambridge Companion to Augustine’s Sermons. I treat material pertaining to the voluntas from Augustine’s sermons that I was not able to incorporate into my book, including Augustine’s use of the imagery of Christ as physician of the will in his sermons. There is much more one might say about how the rehabilitation of the will happens, but I hope these brief comments gesture toward the fruitfulness of thinking through Augustine’s theological account of will in relation to God’s economy of healing words.


The church is surely a crucial context for the outworking of this economy. How might the church, though, Pierce asks, be more than the chief stage on which this drama of rehabilitation unfolds? What role does the body of Christ itself enact?

Introducing Letter 98 to prompt discussion on this point is a helpful idea on Pierce’s part. In response to his invitation, let me offer a few observations on this specific case study of one of the sacraments received through the body of Christ and the way it affects and is affected by human willing.

As Pierce points out, Augustine strikingly refers to an infant being “reborn through the spiritual will of others (per aliorum spiritalem voluntatem).”Ep. 98.1 (CSEL 34.2:520). But Augustine goes on to qualify the nature of the contribution these others are making by their voluntary involvement. What happens to be done through another’s will, Augustine emphasizes, is the Spirit’s doing: “But that the child can be reborn through the act of another’s will (per officium voluntatis alienae) when it is presented to be consecrated to Christ is the work of the one Spirit because of whom it is reborn when it is presented” (ep. 98.2). Human willing is instrumentally involved but the rebirth needs to be attributed first and foremost to the Spirit. For Augustine, this distinction is mandated by the Bible: “For scripture does not say, ‘Unless one is reborn from the will of the parents (ex parentum voluntate) or from the faith of the godparents or of the ministers,’ but, Unless one is reborn of water and the Holy Spirit (ex aqua et spiritu) (Jn 3:5)” (ep. 98.2). The prepositions are important. Rebirth happens “through (per)” the good offices of the will of another but it is not from (ex) them in any ultimate sense. The will of the parents is the instrument by which the grace of rebirth comes from the Holy Spirit. To the extent that the good will of the parents does contribute, this is achieved also by the work of the Spirit, in that the child and those presenting her for baptism are knit together in him: “And so through this society formed by one and the same Spirit the will of the sponsors benefits the little one who is presented” (ep. 98.2). We see here that the role of the Holy Spirit is crucially important, in multiple respects, to thinking through how the willing of members of the body of Christ impacts others and their reception of grace through the sacraments.

So largely does the work of the Spirit loom in Augustine’s account, that what individual human wills do as part of the body of Christ to bring about baptism can seem almost incidental, or even expendable. For instance, even if parents will to present a child for baptism for the wrong reason (e.g., to pursue temporal rather than spiritual benefit), baptism still works to the child’s advantage. What matters is the efficacy of the Spirit’s work, not the worthiness of the willing of those presenting the child: “But the Holy Spirit . . . produces his effect even through the service, at times not merely of those who are simply ignorant, but also of those who are damnably unworthy” (ep. 98.5). Willing on the part of other members of the body of Christ does not have to be right for the Holy Spirit to use it. The Holy Spirit can work through a will out of whack.

Much more important than the will of sponsors is the impact of the love of the universal church on the infant. It is this wider society “by whose holy and undivided love they are helped to come into the communion of the Holy Spirit.”Ep. 98.5 (CSEL 34.2:526): “Little ones are, of course, presented to receive spiritual grace, not so much from those in whose hands they are carried . . . as from the universal society of the saints and believers. For they are correctly understood to be presented by all who are pleased that they are presented and by whose holy and undivided love they are helped to come into the communion of the Holy Spirit. The whole Church (tota ecclesia), our mother, which exists in the saints, does this, because the whole Church gives birth to each and every one.” In describing the impact of good human willing in the body of Christ and the sacramental blessing of each member thereof, then, Augustine de-emphasizes the role of individual believers and emphasizes the impact of the church as a whole (tota ecclesia). The whole church unified with Christ her head, rather than the will of any single individual or even group of individuals, has the wherewithal, by the Holy Spirit, to bring a person to spiritual birth. Now we see Augustine relativizing the importance not only of individual wills, but even of cherished nuclear family units, in comparison to the role of the love of the whole family of God, the church universal.

In letter 98, then, Augustine characterizes the willing of individual members of the church as a vehicle the Holy Spirit takes up in bringing about spiritual rebirth, but at the same time places some boundaries on the impact of this willing. Wills of individual humans are not crucial to effecting baptism. Baptism, though, has the potential to have a great impact on the future willing of the infant. While the sacrament of faith, rather than the will of the infant itself, makes the infant a believer, when a person has the wherewithal to do so, he will align his will with the reality of the sacrament: “When a human being begins to think, he will not repeat the sacrament, but will understand it and will also conform himself to its truth by the agreement of his will (voluntate).”Ep. 98.10 (CSEL 34.2:532).

The overall picture that emerges in this letter, then, is a highly pneumatological one in which the church, the body of Christ, and her sacraments, do indeed have a significant role to play in relation to the will. Augustine does discuss how the wills of individual members of the church impact the sacraments and thereby each other. But of equal, if not more importance, is the reverse dynamic: the way the love of the church as a whole that is expressed in baptism impacts the wills of individuals. It would be interesting to explore the extent to which these patterns are mirrored, or perhaps configured differently, in other texts in Augustine’s corpus.


Regarding the relation of Augustine’s paradoxical notion of “insatiable satisfaction” to eschatologically willing, I will sketch just a few possible directions of inquiry that extrapolate from themes considered in my book: history, love, and conversion. Here I will focus on the big picture, having gone quite deep into the weeds in the previous section.

First, I wonder if, for Augustine, perpetual insatiability in the eschaton might be tied—if not explicitly by him at least by a reasonable readerly synthesis—to the ongoing significance of our past, of the history of our willing, in the eschaton. In s. 362 Augustine attributes ongoing insatiability to continued delight. I wonder to what extent the realities of our histories, which Augustine makes very clear we will never transcend but will always recollect and wrap into our praise, function so as to augment our insatiability, both directly and indirectly—directly, by inspiring delight in God and what God has done for us, and indirectly, by reminding us of our radical dependence on our Creator.

Second, in response to Pierce’s question “what might it mean for the eschatological will that Augustine commends us to enjoy God enough to seek him evermore?,” it seems to me that one way we might think about this unending search is in terms of increasing intensity. Pierce cites Augustine’s injunction in Expositions of the Psalms: “as love grows, so let the search for one already found become more intense.”Augustine also affirms that we will the more vehemently the more certainly we know the good and the more ardently we desire; for him will, knowledge, and desire are not all or nothing enterprises but open to continued growth. See pecc. mer. 2.17.26 (CSEL 60:99): tanto enim quidque vehementius uolumus, quanto certius quam bonum sit nouimus eoque delectamur ardentius. Given that love is for Augustine a form of willing, this notion of ongoing growth in love inherently entails an ongoing strengthening of good willing. The orientation of will is the same: the will cleaves to God. But if growth in love follows the finding of the beloved, even in the eschaton, growth in good will must result as well. This means the Augustinian eschatological will is not static but dynamic, ever growing in ardor.

Third, Augustine’s emphasis on the continual need for God to create and re-create good willing in us, and hence on the will not so much as a settled disposition or ability but as something that needs to be continually bestowed, fits in very well with the idea of ongoing insatiable desire. Even as we are satisfied, we still are constantly in need of God to sustain us in right willing, even as God sustains us in being, and perhaps this creates a kind of constructively life-giving nervous energy and attention, “an unsatisfied satisfaction,” that would keep us from ever lapsing into the boredom that precipitated an Origenian-type fall.

As is well known, Augustine concludes many of his sermons with the refrain conversi ad dominum, a phrase which epitomizes Augustine’s anthropology of radical human dependence upon God’s rescue. For him, the need for conversion abides in this life, well after the initial infusion of love into a person whereby her will is set free from sin for the good. Conversion is the continual pattern of Christian existence. Is there a sense in which this remains true even into the eschaton? The eschatological freedom from sin will be so secure that any such conversion cannot be a matter of rejecting sin. But could there be a sense in which human beings can home in ever more precisely on the objects of their love? Perhaps one might build on Augustine to argue for such a view.

The notion of “turning to the Lord” in fact draws together the broader themes of economy, ecclesiology, and eschatology upon which Pierce has invited me to reflect. This phrase of Augustine’s persuasive speech serves as a microcosm of what the Augustinian sermon sought to do: prompt a turning of will, a conversion of will, in its listeners in response to the healing words of Scripture, spoken by the divine Physician. Yet this phrase was in the plural. The turning happened, not in isolation, but as the congregation stood together as one body of Christ, smack dab in the middle of corporate worship, on the way from the sermon to the sacrament of the eucharist. And we may at least wonder: is there a sense in which the saints in glory keep converting, ever singing, in the words of the old Quaker hymn, “To turn, turn, will be our delight”?

Defining the Augustinian Will: A Response to Ian Clausen

Ian Clausen thoughtfully probes what he describes as the “beautiful, troubling mystery” that is the will, touching on—among other things—the difference between the will and choice, the complexities of defining the will, and the relationship of the will to some of the peaks and troughs of human experience: evil, confession, and love. His response itself provides substantive food for thought as well as prompting continued reflection, to which I will seek to contribute by building on his observations about the relation between will and choice and taking up some of his questions.

With respect to the relationship between will and choice, Clausen rightly notes that will and free choice should not be conflated, even though Augustine calls free choice a property of the will. To treat human willing and choice as interchangeable would be to overlook one of the distinctive features of Augustine’s account of the will, his vision of what willing is really all about when extraneous features have been stripped away. For him, willing always has to do with attraction and only sometimes with selection. And freedom of will, consequently, is more about having and loving what is good than it is about being able to reject alternatives while choosing from an array of options.

But if identifying willing with deliberation reduces the mystery, does referring to voluntas as “the” will calcify it? More specifically, Clausen asks, is “the Augustinian will” like “the Augustinian self” more a creature of modern invention than a native feature of Augustine’s thought? English translations often insert the freestanding word “self” to render reflexive pronouns in Augustinian texts, though in Latin these pronouns do not contain the freighted terminology of “self,” as they do in English. In this sense, “Augustine does not actually talk about the thing we moderns call, and we post-moderns used to call, ‘the self.’”See John Cavadini, “The Darkest Enigma: Reconsidering the Self in Augustine’s Thought,” Augustinian Studies 38:1 (2007): 119–32. But language of “will (voluntas)” does not arise from a parallel process of invention in translation. The translation “will” corresponds to a specific word original to Augustine’s Latin: voluntas. Terminology of willing appears all over his writings, from the start to the end of his career, not only in various forms of the verb velle, but also as a substantive, voluntas.The index of the Corpus Augustinianum Gissense indicates that various forms of the noun voluntas appear 5,690 times in Augustine’s extant works. The verb velle occurs 17,268 times in his corpus. Whereas it can be difficult to justify translations involving the English word “self,” it is impossible to avoid Augustine’s use of the word voluntas.

Yet, even bearing this linguistic fact in mind, it still could be possible, as Clausen fears, that we are projecting later preconceptions about the meaning of voluntas onto Augustine. Such concerns have contributed to the proposal that we jettison the article “the” in translations of voluntas.See, for a recent example, Sarah Catherine Byers, Perception, Sensibility, and Moral Motivation in Augustine: A Stoic-Platonic Synthesis (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013). Why choose to retain the article in my book, even using it in the title?

Getting clear on the reasons for using or not using the definite article before the term “will” is not as easy as it might at first seem, even aside from material issues in Augustine’s thought. The grammatical criteria alone present a morass. Native speakers rely on deft intuition, but it is notoriously difficult to apply the relevant rules and account for all cases. Is a thing countable? Is it a known and recognized entity? There are many considerations; the list goes on.

Adding to this complexity is the fact that Augustine uses voluntas in a number of different ways, sometimes to refer to discrete acts of will, what we might call “wishes” or “wants,” sometimes to refer to a settled disposition, and sometimes even to describe a “power of the soul (potentia animi).” Each of these different usages relates differently to grammatical conventions on the use of the definite article.

Why, then, do some object to the use of the definite article before “will” when it comes to Augustine? Perhaps the aim of such scholars is precisely to disrupt our conventional language and the assumed connections between Augustine’s conception and subsequent understandings, including those of our own day. Of particular concern is the idea that the will might be a kind of fixed faculty, along the lines that later became common in medieval understandings.

While some faculties or built-in features of the human person such as “the mind” or various body parts such as “the lungs” do take the definite article, however, other faculties like sight, thought, and memory often do not. So avoiding the article will not solve the problem of potential confusion with medieval conceptions of will.As Jesse Couenhoven observes, misunderstandings threaten even when we limit ourselves to the notion of “will,” without the article: “What we tend to mean by ‘will’ is a unified volitional power, related to but separate from the mind. Our most influential conceptions of will conceive of it fundamentally as an ability to stand back from the factors that influence oneself and to choose in a manner that makes the self the ultimate source of one’s actions. Looking for such a faculty in Augustine is more likely to be misleading than to be helpful.” See “Augustine’s Moral Psychology,” Augustinian Studies 48:1 (2017): 23–44.

In my view, there is no need in the case of “the will” to reject conventional usage unless there is a clear and compelling reason for doing so. Furthermore, I do appreciate how the conventional usage suggests that there is a kind of coherence and integrity, even a personal center, to human willing such that it is a feature of human existence whose various forms are sufficiently recognizable and unified that one might tell a story about them, characterize them with concrete substantives that are countable—such as “hinge (cardo),” “chain (ansula catenae),” “eye (oculus)” and “root (radix)”—and link “the will” closely to “the heart” (see pp. 254–65).

Yet a definite article does not mean we have to, or can, define the will for Augustine. In fact, one of his distinctive contributions may be precisely that his mature understanding resists any kind of humanly self-sufficient or purely self-referential definition of the human will.In contrast to his earlier thinking, in which he did offer a definition of sorts. It is clear that “the will,” along with the heart with which it is so intimately connected, is at the core of a human person. But in the way Augustine narrates the will it is impossible to speak coherently of this core reality without continually locating it in the larger panorama of God’s loving work. God creates, God redeems, God draws to the end of the journey. This lack of autonomous self-definition, then, this eccentric character, itself seems to be a defining feature of the Augustinian, theological, understanding of the human will.


The theme of dependence calls to mind once again each of the contributors to this symposium. Through this exchange they have helped me attain much greater insight than would have been possible on my own. I am grateful to each of them for sharing their time and energy so graciously with me!