Inner Grace: Augustine in the Traditions of Plato and Paul. By Philip Cary


Pp. xvi, 189 , Oxford University Press , 2008 , £29.99/$55.00 .

Cary opens by situating this volume as the second of his three works concerning the dynamic co-action between the ‘internal’ and the ‘external’ running throughout Augustine's theology. The first volume was of course his Augustine's Invention of the Inner Self (OUP, 2000) and the third will soon appear as Outward Signs: The Powerlessness of External Signs in Augustine's Thought (OUP, planned 2008). As such, this current central work must take up Augustine's doctrine of grace as the bridge between the soul and the sacraments. Unlike many readings of Augustine which see the Bishop of Hippo abandoning Plato when the elixir of pagan thought evaporated before St. Paul's doctrine of grace (signaling the 396 work ad Simplicianum as the point of rupture), Cary argues that Augustinian grace is not intelligible apart from the basic tenets of Platonism.

In ‘Platonist Grace’ (pp. 7–32) we see how Augustine was always with a doctrine of grace and that his later, more overt dependence on gratia was a development within and from his Christian Platonism (p. 27). Among the similarities between Plato and Paul descried here are: virtue as the path to godliness and true wisdom, the purifying movement from the external and temporal to the inner and eternal, celestial beatitude as the goal of all human living. In this way Platonist purification was easily translated into Pauline justification (but not without its problems, as is made evident).

Accordingly, ‘Pauline Grace’ (pp. 33–67) follows Augustine's move from believing there was a divine ‘spark’ within the human soul to his understanding of the ontological distinction between creator and creature, thus forming his cosmological template: (1) immutable divinity, (2) mutable souls, and (3) bodies. Within this Platonic triad, soul stand in need of being divinely elevated and hence brought out of their fallen penchant for mutable things. What would prove wholly un-Platonic within this framework, however, is the question of divine election. As long as Augustine's earlier view held, that grace was given contingent upon some future merit, he could easily distinguish the reception of grace by any individual soul's response; however, after he abandoned that view and placed the question of how God dispenses grace firmly within the divine will itself, the created soul appeared inert and inefficacious, and Augustine struggles to understand.

That is why in ‘Anti-Pelagian: Clarifying Prevenience’ (pp. 69–97) Cary sees Augustine's reaction to (what he perceived to be) the tenets of Pelagianism as coming to terms with the necessary prevenient nature of grace as he both interiorizes and renders grace as an inward participation in the Good. As opposed to the Pelagian understanding, grace cannot be understood in terms of (1) keeping the Law, (2) the natural use of the will, or (3) as merit making one soul more worthy of God than others. By drawing from a ‘Platonist epistemology’, Cary writes, Augustine is subsequently able to develop an anti-Pelagian view of grace as an ‘inner teacher’ enabling him ‘to say that our choice to believe in Christ is, like our will to love God and neighbor, a result of God's grace working deep within the inner self … prevenient grace is necessarily inward grace’ (p. 92). Augustine's mature view of grace is hence realized as an inner-delight in God's self, an internal teacher both guiding and divinely transforming the created soul.

Chapter 4 (‘Predestined Grace: Conversion and Election’; pp. 99–126) treats the pastorally delicate problem of divine election: ‘if we are saved we must make the choices that lead to salvation, but we make those choices because God first chose to give us the gift of perseverance’ (p. 117). While such a line of thinking is right, at times it seems that Cary overstates his argument by maintaining that this final understanding of prevenience is ‘so prolonged’ in being articulated because Augustine cannot see in his Platonism the tools with which to reconcile divine election with the soul's freedom. Yet how often do we see Augustine put Platonic principles aside when they gainsay the Gospel? Given such an aporia, could the difficulty not lie elsewhere? Finally, two very illuminating beams shine throughout this chapter: the proper way to understand Augustinian conversion and the providential role of suffering.

Cary is right to point our attention to the interplay between Platonism, Paul, and Pelagius in Augustinian grace. This is a much-needed study, showing how Plato was right to make the thirst for eternal beatitude at the heart of all human activity, yet erred in reducing such bliss to an intellectual vision (thereby disembodying and depersonalizing the Christian's communion with the incarnate Christ). There is much more in these pages and throughout there are many ‘correctives’: e.g., how Calvin misunderstood Augustine, thus setting much of Protestantism off on the wrong course when it came to understand conversion and (the assurance of) salvation, or how such very Protestantism could serve as a corrective to the Orthodox understanding of faith. As such, this and Cary's upcoming work deserve to be studied, especially by those who think they know Augustine best.