Archive E.J. Hutchinson Early Church Fathers Nota Bene

Augustine on the Hardening of Pharaoh’s Heart

The following passage comes from Augustine’s Questions on Exodus, which forms Book 2 of his Questions on the Heptateuch. The Quaestiones in Heptateuchum was written in AD 419; Allan Fitzgerald comments that Augustine, “rather than being focused primarily on immediate pastoral questions, … seeks to provide an interpretation of those biblical texts that he did not comment on elsewhere or which seemed to pose interpretive difficulties (retr. 2.54–55)”.1 As to what motivated the work, Fitzgerald notes that it probably formed background research and preparation for writing Books 15 and 16 of City of God.

The work is not widely available in English; the only translation of this passage of which I am aware is that in the Ancient Christian Commentary series (which can be previewed here), from which my own translation differs in some places. This particular passage is of some interest in the way it treats both the internal disposition to evil (qualitas), over which man has control and which is caused by his own vice (vitium), and the external causes (causae) by which man is moved to action, and which come from the secret providence of God and are therefore not under man’s power. The coordination of these two factors (internal disposition and externally imposed causes) lead Pharaoh to respond to God as he does. But also worthy of note is the lack of dogmatism Augustine displays in this section: he closes by urging that the matter be examined to determine whether his proposed explanation of “I shall harden Pharaoh’s heart” makes the best sense of the biblical text.

Augustine’s Latin in this passage is often awkward and rather tortured, presumably to reflect the difficulty of the subject he treats. I have tried to modify that as little as possible, so the English will read somewhat awkwardly as well.

The passage translated

Assidue Deus dicit: indurabo cor Pharaonis et velut causam infert cur hoc faciat. Indurabo, inquit, cor Pharaonis et implebo signa mea et portenta mea in Aegypto, tamquam necessaria fuerit obduratio cordis Pharaonis, ut signa dei multiplicarentur vel implerentur in Aegypto. Utitur ergo deus bene cordibus malis ad id quod vult ostendere bonis vel quod facturus est bonos. Et quamvis uniuscuiusque cordis in malitia qualitas, id est quale cor habeat ad malum, suo fiat vitio, quod inolevit ex arbitrio voluntatis, ea tamen qualitate mala, ut huc vel illuc moveatur, cum sive huc sive illuc male moveatur, causis fit quibus animus propellitur. Quae causae ut existant vel non existant, non est in hominis potestate, sed veniunt ex occulta providentia iustissima plane et sapientissima universum quod creavit disponentis et administrantis dei. Ut ergo tale cor haberet Pharao, quod patientia dei non moveretur ad pietatem, sed potius ad impietatem, vitii proprii fuit; quod vero ea facta sunt, quibus cor suo vitio tam malignum resisteret iussionibus dei–hoc est enim quod dicitur induratum, quia non flexibiliter consentiebat, sed inflexibiliter resistebat–dispensationis fuit divinae, qua tali cordi non solum non iniusta, sed evidenter iusta poena parabatur, qua timentes deum corrigerentur. Proposito quippe lucro verbi gratia, propter quod homicidium committatur, aliter avarus, aliter pecuniae contemtor movetur: ille scilicet ad facinus perpetrandum, ille ad cavendum; ipsius tamen lucri propositio in alicuius illorum non fuit potestate. Ita causae veniunt hominibus malis, quae non sunt quidem in eorum potestate, sed hoc de illis faciunt, quales eos invenerint iam factos propriis vitiis ex praeterita voluntate. Videndum sane est, utrum etiam sic accipi possit: ego indurabo, tamquam diceret: “quam durum sit demonstrabo”.2

God continually says: “I shall harden the heart of Pharaoh,” and, as it were, furnishes the cause why he does this. “I shall harden,” he says, “the heart of Pharaoh and I shall fulfill my signs and my portents in Egypt,” as though the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart was necessary, so that the signs of God might be multiplied or fulfilled in Egypt. Therefore God uses evil hearts well for that which he wishes to display to the good or to those whom he is going to make good. And although the condition (qualitas) of each heart in evildoing — that is, what sort of characteristic (quale) the heart maintains toward evil — comes about by its own vice, which has grown from the choice of the will; nevertheless, because of this evil condition (qualitate), it comes about that [the heart] is moved this way or that, when it is moved this way or that evilly, by causes by which the mind (animus) is incited. That these causes exist or do not exist is not in the power of a man, but they come to him from the secret providence (providentia), clearly most just and most wise, of God who orders and administers the universe which he has made. Therefore, that Pharaoh had a heart of such a kind that it was not moved by the patience of God toward piety, but rather toward impiety, belonged to his own vice; but the fact that these things happened by which his heart, so wicked because of his own vice, resisted the commands of God — for this is what is meant by “hardened” (induratum), that he was not consenting [to God] in a flexible way (flexibiliter) but was resisting him in an inflexible way (inflexibiliter) — belonged to the divine ordering (dispensationis), by which a punishment not only not unjust, but manifestly just, was being prepared for such a heart, by which those fearing God might be corrected. Indeed, when profit has been offered [as a reward], for example, so that on account of it murder may be committed, in one way the greedy man is moved, in another way the scorner of money. Thus causes come to evil men that are not indeed in their power, but they do this [deed] on the basis of them [i.e., the causes], as the sort of people they are already found to have become by means of their own vices from their past disposition (ex praeterita voluntate). It must be soberly investigated whether [the expression] “I shall harden” can be received in this way, as though he were saying, “I shall demonstrate how hard [Pharaoh’s heart] is.”3

  1. Augustine through the Ages, s.v. Quaestiones in Heptateuchum.
  2. Augustine, Quaestionum in Heptateuchum libri vii, 2.18 (Quaest. Exod. 18). Text taken from CCSL 33.5; also found in CSEL 28.3; online here.
  3. Augustine, Questions on the Heptateuch 2.18 (Questions on Exodus 18).

By E.J. Hutchinson

E.J. Hutchinson is Assistant Professor of Classics at Hillsdale College.