Augustine has been credited as the inventor of the concept of volition (the will), and yet it is not clear from this claim exactly what his concept of volition is. His understanding of the human person, especially his theory of volition, has had profound implications for much of the theological work which followed. This thesis examines various concepts which influenced Augustine’s notion of volition, contemporary ways of understanding volition, and what Augustine himself believed about it. Since the will is central to Augustine’s description of the human person and the human condition a careful examination of the concept is necessary to understand Augustine’s theological project, especially as pertains to his formulation of the doctrine of Original Sin.
Chapter two looks at contemporary analytic philosophy and some ways in which it approaches volition and the mind and how analytic philosophy might be helpful to current theological work related to understanding the human person. I touch upon key figures in action theory, the mind-body problem, decision theory and agency.
Chapters three and four are an extensive diachronic analysis of Augustine’s use of concepts related to volition. I attempt to document the sources which are behind his development of the term, and show how his deployment of volition as a central concept in his anthropology is novel but not without antecedents. I argue that Augustine, contrary to the prevailing opinion, understood the key points of classical philosophy and intentionally rejected several core commitments of the Stoics and Platonists. This rejection was not from a failure on his part to understand what the philosophers were saying, but informed by his theological and anthropological positions. His notion of the will as ruling over the mind is the central point which frequently gets overlooked when people try to read Augustine as a classical philosopher.
In Chapter five I evaluate the commitments which forced Augustine to develop his later doctrine of Original Sin, the antecedent versions of the doctrine found in the Christian tradition, and why his metaphysical, hermeneutic and pastoral concerns of led him to his conclusions. I argue that the doctrine has been mischaracterized and misunderstood by proponents and opponents alike since Augustine formulated it. Finally, I argue that the core of the doctrine does not depend on one particular set of metaphysical principles, or a literal reading of Genesis, but it can be translated into other metaphysical systems by paying attention to the core commitments. I briefly attempt to rehabilitate it for a modern worldview.
Chapter six is an exploration of various different models for thinking about what sin is, and how various atonement theories depend on (or arise from) the different models of sin. I argue that no one model is in itself sufficient. The Christian tradition is wise in not canonizing one, but the open plurality of conceptual models makes room for articulating the Christian theological heritage into different contexts.
The final chapter addresses grief, loss, and how the self is changed through the process of grieving. Since the will is the locus of the self in Augustine’s thought, the ability to will correctly is absolutely necessary for human thriving. When we experience profound loss, we also lose our identity in whole or in part—we can no longer will as we did before. Intrapsychic losses, loss of a sense of self, can be healed through narrating new meaning into our lives. Augustine’s confessions is an example of his own work at dealing with his changing identity through time.
William J. Abraham
Philosophy, Religion, Theology/Religious Education
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Bontrager, Scot, "Augustine's Concept of Volition and Its Significance for the Doctrine of Original Sin" (2019). Religious Studies Theses and Dissertations. 16.