Friday 25 January 2008

Human agency according to Augustine, Paul, and Lou Martyn

In his extraordinary book on the history of Christian spirituality, The Wound of Knowledge, Rowan Williams describes Augustine’s understanding of human agency:

“Augustine is less concerned than almost any of the Greek Fathers with freedom…. The human subject is indeed a mystery; no one could be more painfully and eloquently aware of this than Augustine. But the mysteriousness and unpredictability have more to do with the forces that act on the subject…. Augustine’s undiminished appeal to a post-Freudian generation has much to do with this aspect of his thought. He confronts and accepts the unpalatable truth that rationality is not the most important factor in human experience, that the human subject is a point in a vast structure of forces whose operation is tantalisingly obscure to the reason. Human reality is acted upon at least as much as acting” (pp. 82-83).

This reminds me of a provocative SBL paper in November by the great Paul scholar, J. Louis Martyn (he was in a session with Douglas Campbell and Susan Eastman, with responses from Darrell Guder and Telford Work). Martyn presented Paul’s understanding of human agency along these lines: the human agent has no subjective autonomy and no moral competence to choose her own path. She is under the sway of inscrutable cosmic powers – and will remain so except for the militant, apocalyptic interruption of a divine agent who vanquishes the enslaving powers and creates a new moral subject.

Further, according to Martyn (much to the displeasure of his respondent, Telford Work!), Paul’s apocalyptic conception of human agency is a deliberate critique of the “classic moral drama” which underlies much of the Old Testament, e.g. in Deuteronomy, where “morally competent” agents are said to stand at a crossroad between two possible choices.

For Paul, there is no crossroad, no moral competence, no “choose this day.” To be sure, there is a real alternative: slavery or freedom! But this alternative doesn’t lie in our power or depend on our agency. This means that God’s action cannot be said to “help” us or “enable” us – the divine action is a unilateral liberation which constitutes us as new agents.

After his paper, Martyn was asked: “Why are you so uncomfortable with the word ‘enable’?” He replied: “I’m not uncomfortable with it. It’s just wrong.”


Anonymous said...

J. Louis Martyn paper sounds great. I love his Galatians commentary. (you don't have a copy do you?)

Drew Tatusko said...

So in the paper does Martyn seem to agree with the notion that any human agency as liberated by God is a liberation that God must choose first? This sounds close enough to a doctrine of absolute decree. And in Galatians it is the notion of I, not I, but Christ.

Patrick McManus said...


do you know if Martyn has published this anywhere?


Anonymous said...

"Lord, help/enable us to ..."

Thus ministers pray in leading public worship - and I can be as guilty as the next guy. But (sorry about the shameless name-dropping!) I remember having a converstaion with Colin Gunton about the Pelagian overtones of such pleas for assistance. The theologically correct alternative is to speak in imperatives. So, e.g., not "Lord, help us to be peacemakers," but "Lord, make us peacemakers."

Richard Beck said...

I don't know if what I'm about to say is correct, but it seems to me that with the rise of neuroscience and behavioral genetics theologically robust views of human agency are being chastened and will become more and more untenable in the future. For better or worse we live in a post-Cartesian world, in the wake of the demise of Cartesian dualism with all its accoutrements (e.g., free will). In a post-Cartesian world the only true forms of agency and freedom will be God's.

The point is, I come from an Arminian tradition, but neuroscience (and my own discipline) is forcing me to read more in the Augustinian/Reformed tradition, where views of human agency are more modest. But I find the doctrine of election morally repugnant. Thus, in my humble opinion, the only tenable soteriology and eschatology in the post-Cartesian world is a universalist stance. And I ground this conclusion in my diminished views of human agency.

Anonymous said...

A couple suggestions: First, read Barth's Church Dogmatics II.2 for an account of election that I doubt you will find morally repugnant. Second, read CD III.3 for Barth's doctrine of divine concursus, which I find to be a profound understanding of the relation between divine and human agency.

Anonymous said...

Is Richard Beck suggesting that "human agency" and "free will" depend upon substance dualism? It's not clear to me why (a) "we have given up on substance dualism" would entail (b) "human agency and free will are untenable." Some steps seem to be missing, since there are lots of non-dualistic accounts of freedom and agency. I suppose (b) could follow if its scope were limited to (what Mr. Beck describes as) "theologically robust" understandings of freedom and agency, where "theologically robust" apparently just means "substance-dualist." But why would we equate theological robustness with dualism?

Richard Beck said...

Thank you for the recommended reading. One question (I'm not a theologian, I'm a psychologist). Can the Dogmatics be "dipped into" like that? Or is some primer necessary before dipping in?

I don't want a free will debate to beak out in Ben's space. So, just a brief rejoinder.

I have yet to see a fully materialistic account of human "agency" or "freedom" that skirts the soteriological and eschatological obstacles I have in mind. Models of what I call "complex causality" or "top-down causality", appeals to quantum randomness, or changing the topic to phenomenology, just aren't persuasive. To me at least. And I’m a psychologist. I’ll trust my opinion on the human agency/freedom literature than over any theologian’s account (we all have issues of professional pride; I know little about the doctrine of election but a bit about human agency).

Phrased another way, theological systems have to deal with moral luck, that who we are, as moral agents, is often largely out of our hands. And with this realization, all notions of human blameworthiness must be rethought. The best work I've seen in this area is McCord Adams' work in Christ and Horrors. That is, the problem of human freedom (or the lack of it) is no longer a soteriological issue. It's now, in a post-Cartesian world, a theodicy issue.

Anonymous said...


thank you for posting this. I agree with both Augustine and Martyn.

I have a question for you, since you "know" Barth; I have posted a question at my blog---that ironically fits well with this discussion---I need some clarification on Barth's understanding on freedom for God, in Christ. I would really appreciate it, if you could come over and read my question; and hopefully shed some light for me.


Ben Myers said...

Hi Andy: yes, Martyn's commentary on Galatians is one of my favourite books — I reckon it's among the most profound and most important theological works I've ever read.

Drew: the question of predestination wasn't raised in his paper, but I think you're right — it does point in that direction. (I don't know about the term "absolute decree", though: Martyn would perhaps be thinking from a more Barthian direction. In fact, during his paper in November he remarked that his interpretation of Paul had been aided by conversations with Barth scholars such as George Hunsinger. Meanwhile, my own SBL paper tried to show that Martyn's work can help us better to understand Barth!)

Patrick: no, as far as I'm aware Martyn's paper isn't going to be published. But I should be able to send you a copy if you email me.

Bobby: thanks for your query, I've just posted a quick comment on your blog.

Richard: another very helpful book which you might like to check out is Kathryn Tanner, God and Creation in Christian Theology: Tyranny or Empowerment? (Fortress, 1988). It doesn't directly address the kinds of scientific questions that you're raising, but I found it very helpful as a theological account of divine and human agency, etc. And as Chrismo also suggests above, Barth's theology is extremely important as an alternative to both indeterministic and deterministic models of human agency. (And it's worth mentioning, too, that Barth's brilliant account of the divine concursus is basically just a revision of Aquinas.)

Richard Beck said...

Thank you for point to some additional resources.

My point in commenting wasn't to stake out any "scientific" or "deterministic" stand on human agency. I just wanted to note that modern neuroscience is putting pressure on Arminian positions making the theological resources in Reformed theology more and more valuable. It is an interesting convergence of science and theology I thought worth noting.

Ben Myers said...

Yes, thanks for raising this point, Richard. It's certainly very interesting. Just a few nights ago I saw an interesting documentary about some researcher who was saying that our "consciousness" measurably follows our actions by a fraction of a second — i.e., that we become aware of our actions only after we've already acted! I don't understand anything about this kind of research, but it's certainly food for thought.

Richard Beck said...

That was the work of Benjamin Libet, which is famous in my field. Libet's work seems to suggest, although it is open to alternative interpretations, that consciousness comes "after the fact," volitionally speaking: Actions/choices are initiated in the brain prior to the "feeling" of choosing. The psychologist Daniel Wegner suggests, in light of this research, that "free will" is mainly a "feeling," specifically the feeling of "ownership" or "authorship." As in, "this action is mine." In this view, free will is the feeling of "agenic integrity."

Putting issues of determinism aside, I like this perspective, theologically speaking, for the following reason. It suggests that God's formative/salvific work in us has little to do with human "choice." Rather, volition has more to do with the psychological integrity of the agent, the strong identification of action with identity. When we act "freely" that is really all we are experiencing: I am doing what I want to do.

This suggests that God's work with us is very deep, volitionally speaking. "Free will" is not being causally unconstrained (whatever that means). It is, rather, the alignment of identity with action.

The trouble is, it is hard to "chose" our way to a new identity. An extrovert can't chose to be an introvert. Habits are hard to break or acquire. Deep characterological change is extraordinarily difficult.

What I'm suggesting is that "sin" is finding ourselves volitionally disordered, our actions are often out of sync with our identities. And, unfortunately, there is little we can do on our own to get in sync. We are "captives" to sin. Stuck.

This very modern account of human agency seems to jive nicely with Reformed views of sin and salvation. I find myself "enslaved" to sin with no real hope of "chosing" my way into the clear. I need some assistance, a divine initiative to act upon me. Sanctification becomes the God-initiated alignment between identity, action, and the will of God. I love what God loves.

Sorry for the long comment. I just wanted to give a sense of the connections I see between scientific views of agency and Reformed thinking.

Richard Beck said...

Oh, one last thing. As you'll note in the model above: Humans don't begin in freedom. We, after the act of God, end in freedom. Human freedom is not cause. It is consequence.

Ben Myers said...

"Human freedom is not cause. It is consequence." I couldn't agree with your more, Richard. I like this idea of freedom as the agent's "integrity", too.

Jnorm said...

When he said Paul. Did he mean the Apostle Paul? If so then I would have to say that Martyn was mis reading him.


Anonymous said...

Thank you, Ben. I appreciate you responding to my question over at my site! I have responded more fully over there.

In Christ

Weekend Fisher said...

I'd raise a question about the supposed moral competency in the Old Testament ("choose this day ..."). Please bear in mind that these people had already experienced the divine intervention, already experienced their "election" / becoming the Chosen People, already been gifted with God's self-revelation. It was then and only then that the "moral agency" language came to play. I.e. God's self-revelation is the context necessary for moral competence/incompetence.

Btw I really do wish there were more consideration of alternative views of election besides "Calvinist v. Arminian". Not wishing to stir the debate here (I think this board is fairly civilized and wouldn't descent into a flame-war anyhow), but in Ephesians, Paul portrays election as happening *through Christ* as the mediator of election.

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF

Ben Myers said...

Hi Anne. That was pretty much what Telford Work said about the OT as well, in his response to Martyn.

Anonymous said...

Richard makes some excellent points, but why must the emphasis on divine initiative be equated with a Reformed oint of view? It's not only because we're "stuck" or sinful that we need divine initiative. It's more generally because we are human, that is to say, not God. This basic idea is, or should be, common to all Christian theologies.
Patrick C.

Unknown said...

I am surprised at the extant to which this continues to be carried on in an either/or fashion. I am sure the arguments are much more nuanced but it seems that categories need to be challenged as Anne pointed to.

I don't have any fresh categories at the moment I am still working on trying to stop asking God for help (thanks Kim, I can't believe I was misguided for so long ;) )

Richard Beck said...

Just a clarification. Any crude simplifications or false dichotomies that I've introduced are likely due to my lack of theological training. The only point I wanted to make is that, coming from an Arminian tradition, I've found the formulations from the Reformed tradition of great value in the face of neuroscience, behavioral genetics, and cognitive psychology.

I'd again like to plug how McCord Adams' view of human agency in Christ and Horrors is, from where I stand as a psychologist, spot on:

"Starting with the horrendous predicament of humankind, I have painted a more pessimistic picture of human agency than traditional free-fall approaches draw of Adam and Eve in Eden...I insist that human agency could not have enough stature to shift responsibility for the way things are off God's shoulders onto ours. I deny our competence to organize personal animality into functional harmony, much less to anticipate and steer our way clear of horrors" (p. 50)

I'd like to see more theological systems adopting this more "pessimistic" view of human agency. Of particular note is her recognition of volitional ruin:

"Individual (as opposed to merely collective) horror-participation can break our capacity to make positive sense of our lives, can so fragment our sense of self and so damage our agency as to make authentic choice impossible" (p. 207).

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