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GOD AS ORDINATOR OF SIN IN ST. AUGUSTINE’S CONFESSIONS

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Michael Twohig, Christendom College

In Book One of the Confessions of St. Augustine, Augustine relates the sinfulness of his boyhood, especially with regard to his love of games, shows, and his scornful attitude towards his studies. He leads into this discussion, however, with an interesting but seemingly tangential extended vocative address of God: “Et tamen peccabam, domine deus meus, ordinator et creator rerum omnium naturalium, peccatorum autem tantum ordinator.”[1] In this direct address, Augustine refers to God as the “orderer and creator of all natural things, however only the orderer of sins.” Augustine’s use of the word ordinator raises some intriguing questions, especially in relation to peccatorum. Ordinator as a noun takes its root and meaning from the verb ordino, which has three principal translations. Ordino can be taken to mean “to set in order, arrange, or regulate”, “to govern or rule” or “to record chronologically”. All three cases, including the ones which could feasibly be used to capture Augustine’s intent, imply an activity, a conscious ‘doing’ on the part of the ordinator. How, then, can Augustine address God as the ordinator of peccata when God Himself is not their creator? The answer can be found through an understanding of Augustine’s conception of evil and God’s relation to it, an analysis of his use of the word ordinator as an expression of Divine Providence and the redemption of fallen man, and a contextualization of this direct address in the greater arc of Augustine’s conversion throughout the Confessions as a whole.

The radical nature of Augustine’s address in Book One can only be understood within the context of his conception of God and his response to the problem of evil. Augustine held to the traditional ontological understanding of God as Being Itself, Eternal, Unchanging, and the Highest Good. [2] Thus, insofar as God is Being and His Being is perfectly Good, all creatures are good by virtue of their having being since He created the world.[3] This conclusion, that all creatures are good simply because they have being, and that all being is derived from Being Itself, raises the ultimate question: how can evil exist in such a universe created by a Supremely Good Author? At the time St. Augustine was writing, both the Manichees and the Platonists attempted to answer the same question, and yet the conclusions they arrived at were “fundamentally dualistic in character and in so being are unsatisfying both to the logical sense of the necessary oneness of Being and to the human sense of the unity of experience.”[4] Rather, Augustine answered the question by denying that sin has a positive being of its own, describing his own sinful adolescence in Book Two as a regio egestatis, ‘a region of lack’ in which he had “‘emptied himself’ not in the way Christ did, but in the sense of evacuating oneself of oneself in exchange for precisely nothing, of simply canceling the gift of selfhood in favor of nothing.”[5] At its core, sin is fundamentally a lack of being, a ‘reality’ that, in fact, has no reality of its own. Augustine traces the root cause of this falling away from being into non-being to God’s creation of the world ex nihilo. While God’s creation is good insofar as it has being, all beings created ex nihilo have the capacity to fall back into the nothingness from which they were created.[6] This inherent tendency to return to a state of non-being is not unavoidable for free creatures, but the falling away lies in the created being’s conscious willing to turn away from being to non-being.[7] Any creature with the capacity for free choice can choose against being, a choice which manifests itself primarily when a creature chooses “love of things, love of self, and love of others” over the love of God. However, even these explanations fall far short of explaining the utter emptiness and irrationality of sin in the eyes of Augustine.[8] This choice does not proceed from any basis in rationality but is rather the ultimate expression of irrationality.[9] In fact, Augustine ascribes the free choice of non-being to a deficient cause that simply lacks any reason except that it can be chosen. Nevertheless, when choosing to fall into the non-reality of sin, man consciously and directly rejects God’s love and breaks his relationship with Him, a relationship founded upon grace; in so doing, man cuts himself off from the source of grace and thus incurs the very real penalties of his choice.[10] Thus, Augustine’s resolution of the problem of evil (insofar as something that is inherently irrational can be understood and reasoned about) absolves God, so to speak, of any association with sin, as sin is a necessary consequence of ex nihilo creation and the ability of free creatures to fall back into non-being. And yet, this resolution does not fully explain God’s ordering of sin, a dynamic that can only be understood within the context of Divine Providence.

As a master rhetorician and writer, Augustine most certainly would have recognized the importance of syntactical word order. Therefore, his placement of ordinator before creator in his direct address in itself implies an important insight into his thoughts. As has already been shown, God does not cause sin, and seeing as one of the meanings of creator besides “to create” is “to occasion or cause”, Augustine appropriately associates God as creator only with the rerum omnium naturalium. However, Augustine’s syntax suggests that God sets in order the world before He causes it to be. Since he follows this by stating that God sets in order sin, Augustine would seem to imply that God orders sin before creating the world. Additionally, since God is outside of time, Augustine would seem to imply that God knew sin would enter the world He would create.[11] Indeed, in their notes on this passage, Campbell and McGuire interpret Augustine’s passage to mean that God “allowed [sin] a place in the divine order for the world.”[12] In other words, through His permissive will, God allows free beings the ability to choose sin in His plan of Divine Providence. However, Campbell and McGuire’s interpretation does not seem to capture the agency invoked by the meaning of ordinator. In contrast, O’Donnell connects St. Augustine’s use of ordinator to a passage in Book One, wherein Augustine addresses the three Persons of the Trinity.[13] He makes note of Augustine’s developed concept of triadic theology, by which St. Augustine associates the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit with the modus, species, and ordo of creation.[14] By associating the Holy Spirit with the ordo of creation, Augustine imbues the word with the dynamic activity of the “animating and governing force of the third person of the trinity.”[15] Therefore, by associating inordinatio (disorder) with sin, Augustine understands the ordo of the world and the Divine Providence by which it is governed as dynamically responding to the entrance of sin and immediately righting the course.[16] Like an expert weaver taking independent strands of thread and uniting them into a complex and beautiful pattern, the ordo of God takes the disordered strands of the world caused by the introduction of sin and recreates the pattern of the tapestry that was torn. However, God’s ordo does not end there, for ordinator can be taken to have a double meaning within the Christian context of Augustine’s thought. God not only orders sin within His Divine Providence for the world, but He takes sin, that ultimate rejection of Himself, and orders it towards an even greater end: the redemption of sinners.

Paradoxically, God uses sin as the very vehicle by which He redeems the entire human race through the Person of His Son, Jesus.[17] The evil of those who condemned Him, both in that particular moment in time and throughout the entire history of the world, brought Christ, who is without sin, to His Passion and Death on the Cross.[18] As St. Paul writes in his Second Letter to the Corinthians, “Him [Christ], who knew no sin, he hath made sin for us, that we might be made the justice of God in him” (2 Corin. 5:21, D-R). Augustine’s realization that God always brings good out of evil, with the most profound example of this being the death of His Son on the Cross, influenced his own thought profoundly. In fact, throughout the Confessions, Augustine celebrates God’s hand at work throughout his life, a hand that ordered his own sinful desires and actions to his eventual conversion and salvation. For instance, when speaking about his childhood, Augustine relates that he hated studying and was compelled to do so against his will by his teachers; sin was involved in both his own sinful obstinacy towards studying and his teachers’ indifference to what end he used the education he received.[19] Nevertheless, Augustine states that “neither they who were urging me, were doing good, but good was being done to me by You, my God.”[20] Augustine identifies this early education as crucial in developing his intellect such that he could receive an education in rhetoric. At first, Augustine only pursued this education in rhetoric as a means of achieving worldly success and acclaim. However, God took Augustine’s worldly love of rhetoric and used it to inspire him to read and grow in admiration of Cicero’s Hortensius.  This admiration would then lead him to a love of philosophy and subsequently towards a conscious longing for God that would finally lead to his conversion.[21] Although it would be many years before Augustine’s final conversion, God’s providence, working through each and every event of his life, subtly drew Augustine towards his salvation. This theme of God drawing good from Augustine’s own sinfulness is omnipresent throughout the Confessions. God’s providential action also included using his own words and actions, and those of others, as vehicles for Augustine’s chastisement and to lead him away from his sinful ways; for example, ­­­­­­the blows and reprimands of the teachers were deserved punishments for Augustine’s truant love of games over his studies.[22] However, he even goes so far as to attribute every conceivable good in his life to God’s providence, such as the good he received from nursing at the breasts of his mother and nurses.[23]

Augustine’s sensitivity to the all-encompassing scope and efficacy of Divine Providence manifests itself clearly in his Confessions.  Perhaps his status as a convert, and a zealously pious one at that, better disposed him to see God’s subtle, mysterious hand at work in his life.  However, while Augustine would be the first to admit that no one can understand God’s plan fully and completely, this does not preclude one from growing in a greater understanding of and appreciation for God’s wisdom and love as manifested through His Divine Providence.  In fact, Augustine’s deep appreciation for God’s Divine Providence and his limited understanding of the route by which God led him to Salvation, as well as the theological and philosophical understanding of sin that he arrived at, led him to address God as the ordinator of peccata.  However, when placing all of Augustine’s life and thought into context, one can say that this particular address can be viewed as an address of praise and thanksgiving towards God, for it is only by means of God’s ordering of sin that man is saved from sin.  One can only be reformed in the image of Christ by uniting oneself through Baptism to Christ’s death on the Cross, a death caused by and suffered for the redemption of sins.[24]

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Augustine. The Confessions of St. Augustine: Books I-IX (Selections), edited by James M.            Campbell and Martin R.P. McGuire.  Chicago: Bolchazy-Carducci      Publishers, 1984.

Cavadini, John C. “Book Two: Augustine’s Book of Shadows.” A Reader’s Companion to                       Augustine’s Confessions, edited by Kim Paffenroth and Robert P. Kennedy. Louisville:    Westminster John Knox Press, 2003.

Cavadini, John. C. “God’s eternal knowledge according to Augustine.”  The Cambridge                           Companion to Augustine, edited by Eleonore Stump and David V. Meconi, S.J.                             Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014.

Maker, William. “Augustine on Evil: The Dilemma of the Philosophers.” International Journal               for Philosophy of Religion 15, no. 3 (1984). JSTOR. Accessed October 8, 2018.  

Mann, William E. “Augustine on evil and original sin.” The Cambridge Companion to                              Augustine, edited by Eleonore Stump and Norman Kretzmann. Cambridge: Cambridge     University Press, 2001.

Mathewes, Charles T. “Augustinian Anthropology: Interior Intimo Meo.” The Journal of                          Religious Ethics 27, no. 2 (1999). JSTOR. Accessed October 8, 2018.

O’Donnell, James J.  Augustine: Confessions, vol. 1.  Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992.

O’Donnell, James J. Augustine: Confessions. Oxford University Press, 1992. Accessed October   7, 2018. http://stoa.org/hippo/

Strozynski, Mateusz. “The Fall of the Soul in Book Two of Augustine’s Confessions.Vigiliae                Christianae vol. 70 (2016).


                [1]Augustine, Confessions, trans. James J. O’Donnell, vol. 1 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), 1.10.16.  Subsequent citations will be from this volume, abbreviated as Conf.

                [2]William Maker, “Augustine on Evil: The Dilemma of the Philosophers,” International Journal for Philosophy of Religion vol. 15 no. 3 (1984): 153.  Maker claims that St. Augustine borrows much of his ontological views of God’s Being from his predecessors, implicitly understood to mean Platonic, Post-Parmenidean, and Christian philosophers.

                [3]Maker, 153.  “In addition, he is the source of all other being and the source of all value and happiness, ‘the highest existence from which all things claim their existence.’”

                [4]Maker, 150-151.  Maker identifies in both Platonism and Manicheeism a dualistic way of viewing the human condition.  In brief, Platonism considered material things as evil and the spiritual world of the Forms as good, whereas Manicheeism taught that the two cosmic principles of Good and Evil exist throughout the world coeternally and co-powerfully.  Augustine rejected both as tenable explanations for evil.

                [5]John C. Cavadini, “Book Two: Augustine’s Book of Shadows,” A Reader’s Companion to Augustine’s Confessions, edited by Kim Paffenroth and Robert P. Kennedy, 1st ed. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003): 26-27.  Cavadini argues, among other things, that Augustine’s use of words and phrases denoting emptiness or lack and the rhetorical structures of his paradoxical questions are his attempts to explain something (sin) which has no explanation.

                [6]Maker, 156-157.  Maker identifies creation ex nihilo as fundamental in trying to understand how and why a being could sin.  He puts it quite succinctly: “Because before there were created things there was nothingness and thus in all created beings there is a possibility of a tendency toward non-being.”

                [7]Charles T. Mathewes, “Augustinian Anthropology: Interior Intimo Meo,” The Journal of Religious Ethics vol. 27, no. 2 (1999): 205.  Mathewes connects creation ex nihilo with our capacities for free will, stating that sin ultimately arises from a free creature’s choice to return to a state of non-being (i.e. sin).

                [8]Mateusz Strozynski, “The Fall of the Soul in Book Two of Augustine’s Confessions”, Vigiliae Christianae vol. 70 (2016): 91-97.

                [9]William E. Mann, “Augustine on evil and original sin,” The Cambridge Companion to Augustine, edited by Eleonore Stump and Norman Kretzmann, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001): 101-105.  Mann claims that just as God created with no apparent cause, so too does a “human’s will in sinning has no cause.”

                [10]Strozynski, 91. While sin is essentially a nothing, it involves and results in the most real and concrete of all actions, that of the rejection of God.

                [11]John. C. Cavadini, “God’s eternal knowledge according to Augustine”, The Cambridge Companion to Augustine, edited by Eleonore Stump and David V. Meconi, S.J. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014): 42-43.  In other words, God knew everything about His Creation before He created, which would imply that He knew of the possibility, and indeed the reality, of sin before it happened.

                [12]Augustine, The Confessions of St. Augustine: Books I-IX (Selections), eds. James M. Campbell and Martin R.P. McGuire (Chicago: Bolchazy-Carducci Publishers, 1984): 76. 

                [13]Conf. 1.7.12: a quo est omnis modus, formosissime, qui formas omnia et lege tua ordinas omnia, “by which He is the manner of all, most Form-like of all Forms, You who fashion all and by Your law order all” (my trans.).

                [14]James J. O’Donnell, Augustine: Confessions, (Oxford University Press, 1992), commentary on Conf. 1.7.12.  In brief, O’Donnell explains that Augustine considers modus to be the initial matter of creation, the “manner of being”, species to correspond to the Forms of Plato, or that which differentiates each created thing at the internal and external levels, and ordo to be the creative structuring of the modus and species.

                [15]Ibid. commentary on 1.7.12

                [16]Ibid. commentary on 1.7.12

                [17]Catechism of the Catholic Church (New York, NY: Crown Publishing Group, 1995), 599-609.  Subsequent citations will be from this edition, abbreviated as CCC.  “The Scriptures had foretold this divine plan of Salvation through the putting to death of ‘the righteous one, my Servant’ as a mystery of universal redemption, that is, as the ransom that would free men from the slavery to sin.”

                [18]CCC, 597-598.  “In her Magisterial teaching of the faith and the witness of her saints, the Church has never forgotten that ‘sinners were the authors and the ministers of all the sufferings that the divine Redeemer endured.’”

                [19]Conf. 1.12.19

                [20]Conf. 1.12.19: Nec qui urgebant, bene faciebant, sed bene mihi fiebat abs te, deus meus. Also, errore omnium qui mihi instabant ut discerem, utebaris ad utilitatem meam, “by the errors of all, they who were threatening me so that I may learn, You were employing to my utility” (my trans.).

                [21]Conf. 3.4.8 and 3.5.9: Apud te est enim sapientia.  Amor autem sapientiae nomen graecum habet philosophiam, quo me accendebant illae litterae, “For near You is wisdom.  However, love of wisdom has the Greek name philosophy, by which those letters were inflaming in me” (my trans.), and Itaque institui animum intendere in scripturas sanctas et videre, quales essent, “And so I determined to direct my thoughts towards the Holy Scriptures and to see, what they were like” (my trans.).

                [22]Conf. 1.12.19: Ita non de bene facientibus tu bene faciebas mihi et de peccante me ipso iuste retribuebas mihi, “And so You were doing good for me by those who were not doing good to me and You were giving me back my due by justice from my sin itself” (my trans.).

                [23]Conf. 1.6.7: Nam bonum erat eis bonum meum ex eis, quod ex eis non, sed per eas erat: ex te quippe bona omnia, deus, et ex deo meo salus mihi universa, “For good for them was my good from them, which was not from them, but through them: from You surely are all good things, and from my God my entire salvation” (my trans. with reference from Campbell and McGuire’s commentary).

                [24]Conf. 1.11.18:  …et terram potius, unde postea formarer, quam ipsam iam effigiem conmittere volebat, “and she was wishing to entrust me to the clay, thence afterwards I would be formed, rather than to entrust me now to the image of Christ” (my own trans. with reference to Campbell and McGuire’s commentary).  See also CCC 537.  “Through Baptism the Christian is sacramentally assimilated to Jesus, who in his own baptism anticipates his death and resurrection.”

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