philosophy notes - 1 St. Anselm of Canterbury De Libertate...

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St. Anselm of Canterbury De Libertate Arbitrii (On Freedom Of Choice) 1. Historical background Between the time that Augustine penned De Libero Arbitrio Voluntatis (On Free Choice of the Will, written 388-395 A.D.) and Anselm’s time over six centuries later, the twin foci of that work (the problem of evil and free will) had both generated far-reaching and unexpected effects. Augustine’s answer to the question regarding why God allows evil had been the outweighing goodness of human free will, and in that general respect it was a monumental success. But the lack of further specifying details of exactly how human free will is defined—especially in a fallen universe—seemed to cause more problems than it solved, eventually leading to more controversy than any other principle of his philosophy, as its misinterpretation sparked the Pelagian heresy, against which Augustine would devote more attention than any other topic during his long career. Pelagius was a monk from the British Isles who misinterpreted Augustine’s view of free will to mean that human beings born after the Adamic fall from grace possess the ability to live perfect sinless lives and thereby merit salvation without the need of grace, which he believed was helpful but not necessary. In so doing Pelagius and his followers (the Pelagians) effectively denied the doctrine of original sin, the condition of a disordered, unharmonious and hence unjust soul and corresponding corrupted body that is inherited by generation from humanity’s first parents due to their forfeiting their original union with God by sinning. Although Pelagius and his followers were condemned as heretics during several ecumenical councils (Carthage in 416 & 418 and Ephesus in 431), a less severe version of the problem arose again as ‘semi-Pelagianism’ in the polemics between Augustine’s disciple, Prosper of Aquitaine, and the Eastern monk, John Cassian, which wasn’t resolved until its condemnation at the Council of Orange almost a century later in 529. The problem of semi-Pelagianism seems a perennial one, however, emerging about once a century, most recently in the ‘decision theology’ of Billy Graham and others. Although one might be initially perplexed at Anselm’s description of a free will as a will whose primary ability is an act of preservation of justice that it receives from another, namely God, the Pelagian and semi-Pelagian controversies over the relationship between fallen human nature (and hence a disordered will) and grace can provide some helpful explanation by way of historical background. The dialog begins with a question from Anselm’s student that acknowledges that a misinterpretation of Augustine’s earlier writing is at least part of the motivation for re- examining the topic of free will (“freedom of choice consists in being able to sin and not to sin as some persons are accustomed to say”). And the additional Christian doctrines mentioned along with it (grace, predestination & divine foreknowledge) point to the inextricable relationship between the whole set of Christian theological first principles 1
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and any argument made for any one of them. Accordingly, if a Christian philosopher’s
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This note was uploaded on 04/07/2011 for the course PHILOSOPHY 105 taught by Professor Heter during the Spring '08 term at Saint Louis.

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philosophy notes - 1 St. Anselm of Canterbury De Libertate...

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