Augustine on the Will: A Theological Account

Han-Luen Kantzer Komline, Augustine on the Will: A Theological Account. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019. xv+469 pages. $125, hardback.

The Early Church can be a strange and alien place for many Protestants, filled with odd theological fixations and stranger exegesis. But it is more often the case that we Protestants are the ones who are strangers, awaking in our current day with amnesia and no clear idea how we got here. This makes engaging with the Church Fathers one of the most helpful activities for both ourselves individually and the Church corporately; as we learn the priorities and reasoning of our forebearers, we learn to become more grounded and balanced in the doctrines that are at the center of our faith. This is what makes Han-Luen Kantzer Komline’s new work, Augustine on the Will: A Theological Account so helpful.

Augustine is a theologian who could be said to be obsessed with the will, which even the hastiest reader of the Confessions can verify. The desires and loves of the human will and his own heart are some of the primary themes in his spiritual journey. Komline’s study is a welcome addition to the field and seeks to give a deep, robust account of one of Augustine’s most central ideas.

Previous studies of Augustine on the will are mostly examinations of the will’s broader historical development or philosophical usefulness/cogency. While looking at Augustine’s interaction with or reliance upon Stoic thought is fascinating and necessary, Komline argues that examining Augustine’s understanding of the will without its several different theological contexts misses the broader picture. Instead, Augustine’s understanding of the will should be viewed as “theologically differentiated”; the will means different things depending on its theological context. For example, the capabilities of the human will and how it operates differs radically depending on its corresponding state: created (posse non peccare), fallen (non posse non peccare), redeemed (posse non peccare), or eschatological (non posse peccare). Komline is showing not so much how an abstract theology is guiding Augustine, as the biblical story of redemption itself: “Augustine’s conception of will is not only inherently theological; it is inherently biblical” (p. 12).

The book is organized into eight chapters, each of which deals with a single theme in Augustine’s writings where the will is featured. Each theme is then unfolded chronologically over the course of the chapter, but the themes are organized in a way that allows a flow of historical movement to be maintained from chapter to chapter. This results in a vivid sense of Augustine’s development as a theologian. His insights and innovations slowly result in the reworking of vast sections of his theological system.

The first chapter begins with the created will and how Augustine’s early understanding of the will is more heavily philosophical and guided by general theological principle rather than exegesis. He had a high respect for what the human will could perform and how it is a good gift from God. At this stage, his examinations of the will at creation had not yet taken into account the effects of the Fall. Komline continues with chapter two on the fallen will, where Augustine is slowly forced to increase the intensity of the Fall. Though he first views a fallen human will as simply more prone to sinful habits which bind the will, he begins to focus on how assistance is required from God himself. The great watershed event is in his famous exegesis of Romans 9 in Ad Simplicianum where “he comes to affirm that good will itself, not only acting on a good will, is a gift of grace” (p. 116). This central idea is then expanded and clarified with discussions of the redeemed will (chapter 5) and the eschatological will (chapter 8). All the while, Augustine’s thought becomes more and more theologically contextualized and driven by his exegesis of Scripture.

But it is too simple to reduce Augustine’s thought on the will to the four-fold state of man. Though Komline finds this categorization helpful and gives the will in each of the four states a chapter, it is by no means exhaustive. Some of Augustine’s most fascinating insights are when discussing how the divine and human wills of Christ operate (chapter 6) or how the Holy Spirit is working within the will of the believer (chapter 7). There are also helpful discussions of both what the will is capable of (chapter 3) and what God is responsible for in the will (chapter 4). By laying the two chapters side by side, the core of Augustine’s thought is made easily accessible.

One of the chief benefits of Komline’s work is a sense of Augustine’s organic development. His defining focus upon man’s dependency upon God’s grace and love starts a transformation that is not complete until the final years of his life, after decades of engaging in the Pelagian Controversy. Seeing this progression almost forces the reader to ask, “Where am I in Augustine’s life?”

This developmental focus also has the added benefit of offering a fantastic tour of large sections of Augustine’s theology and writings. The meat of each chapter is a series of close readings that deeply engage with the primary material. Exotic stops on this tour include Augustine on marriage, the two trees of Matthew 7:18, or the unity of Christ’s person. Most of the main defining events of Augustine’s life are covered, with the main exception being his involvement in the Donatist controversy. Studying Augustine on the will requires studying far more than just will.

This does make the book relatively dense, but it is also surprisingly well “sign-posted.” Each chapter, section, and subsection lay out precisely what has been covered before and where the argument is going. Komline does not skimp on any portion of her analysis, but practically bends over backwards to make sure that the reader feels comfortable and oriented for the long journey. So, while a tome on Augustine’s understanding of the will might suggest a slog, it is relatively easy to read and not get bogged down in the precise details of a single passage of Augustine.

For students of Augustine, this is an excellent resource. Komline is not merely writing about philosophy, systematics, or biblical theology but something that helpfully speaks to all of them. Of course, the price may be an impediment for some. However, for those who are willing, Komline offers nothing less than a masterclass in Augustine that deserves to be read and reread.


Arthur Rankin
Reformed Theological Seminary, Charlotte