Mysteriouser and Mysteriouser: Divine Agency and Human Freedom

Because God is the infinite source and ground of all reality, he transcendently causes everything that is and everything that occurs, yet not in a way that conflicts with the scientific apprehension of the world. As Diogenes Allen explains:

Divine creative activity and a complete scientific account of the relations between the members of the universe do not exclude each other because different kinds of causality are involved in each case: the constant creative activity of God that gives each creature its existence and nature, and the causal relations between creatures studied by the sciences. (Christian Belief in a Postmodern World, pp. 165-166)

We now need to ask the question, How does God actualize his providential purposes in the world? If God’s purposes were restricted to physical phenomena, we could confidently declare that “God achieves God’s intentions through the natural operations of the physical natures God gives to creatures” (p. 166). But God has also made human beings in his image upon whom he has conferred the gift of free-will, with whom he has entered into covenant, to whom he has made temporal and eschatological promises. How can God effectively fulfill his providential ends if his human agents are free to resist him and subvert his well-laid plans? What if we swamp the synergistic rowboat?

At this point controversial words like “predestination” and “predeterminism” immediately come to mind. Eastern Orthodoxy has traditionally rejected all formulations of predestination that seem to compromise or violate the freedom of the human agent. The following patristic quotations may be deemed representative:

We have learned from the prophets, and we hold it to be true, that punishments, chastisements, and rewards are rendered according to the merit of each man’s actions. Otherwise, if all things happen by fate, then nothing is in our own power. For if it be predestined that one man be good and another man evil, then the first is not deserving of praise or the other to be blamed. Unless humans have the power of avoiding evil and choosing good by free choice, they are not accountable for their actions-whatever they may be. (St Justin Martyr, I Apol. 43)

This expression “How often would I have gathered your children together, and you would not” [Matthew 23:37] set forth the ancient law of human liberty, because God made man a free [agent] from the beginning, possessing his own power, even as he does his own soul, to obey the behests of God voluntarily, and not by compulsion of God. For there is no coercion with God, but a good will [towards us] is present with Him continually. (St Irenaeus of Lyons, Adv. Haer. IV.37.1)

We ought to understand that while God knows all things beforehand, yet He does not predetermine all things. For He knows beforehand those things that are in our power, but He does not predetermine them. For it is not His will that there should be wickedness nor does He choose to compel virtue. … Bear in mind, too, that virtue is a gift from God implanted in our nature, and that He Himself is the source and cause of all good, and without His co-operation and help we cannot will or do any good thing. But we have it in our power either to abide in virtue and follow God, Who calls us into ways of virtue, or to stray from paths of virtue, which is to dwell in wickedness, and to follow the devil who summons but cannot compel us” (St John of Damascus, Expos. II.30)

We might describe the position expressed in these citations (and dozens more could be easily provided) as a commonsensical understanding of the relationship between divine causality and human freedom. The authors posit a conflict between the action of God and the free actions of personal agents. Free-will requires the restriction of God’s omnipotent activity. Paul Evdokimov was fond of quoting this patristic saying: “God can do everything, except constrain us to love him.”

At this point a definition of a free action would probably be helpful. Perhaps the following might pass muster with most of the Church Fathers: an action by a human agent is free if it is caused by the agent himself and not by any thing else. If someone slips a drug into my Coca-Cola, and I start to do strange and uncharacteristic things, like running naked down the street, my actions are judged not to have been done freely. I am under the influence of the drug. If someone puts a gun to my head and commands me to give him all my money, the transfer of funds is judged not to have been a free and meritorious action on my part. It was done under the threat of violence. I am morally responsible only for the actions I have voluntarily chosen. I may thus be said to have acted freely if, and only if, I do something and nothing else made me do it. Free actions are self-determined and uncoerced.

One might even say that a free action is uncaused, in the sense that it is not caused by a power or agency external to the person. This does not mean, however, that a free action is unmotivated. Herbert McCabe elaborates:

There are always reasons and motives for free actions. You can say why Fred did this. We can even in English say ‘What made him do it?’ meaning what reason did he have for doing it. When we speak of what made him do it in that sense we are certainly not denying that he did it freely. To assign a reason or motive to an action is not, however, to talk about the cause of the action; it is to analyse the action itself. An action that was caused from outside could not be done for a reason, or at least not for the agent’s reason. If by devious chemical or hypnotic means I cause Fred to eat his left sock, then he does not have a reason for doing it (though he may think he has), it is I who have a reason for his doing it, for the action is really mine, not his. Free actions, then, are uncaused though they are motivated and done for reasons; and these motives and reasons do not take away from freedom but rather are essential to it. (God Matters, p. 13)

I do not know how contemporary philosophers or even individual Church Fathers would assess this construal—and I’m sure it can be improved upon—but it seems to accord with the patristic affirmation of free-will. But there’s a problem here. Do you see it? If you don’t, you might want to go back and re-read the articles on double agency and synergism.

Okay, here’s the deal. We assume that personal freedom requires independence from God’s direct causal activity. To be free is to be autonomous. If God were to cause humans actions, human beings would be reduced to automata. Perhaps we even start imagining scenarios where God restricts his omnipotence and creates a space (let’s call it a freedom-zone) within himself for human beings to freely live and be.  With Jürgen Moltmann we might even appeal to the Kabbalistic concept of the Tzimtzum to secure creaturely independence.

It just seems so obviously correct that it cannot be true that God causes our freely chosen actions. Yet when we posit the metaphysical incompatibility between divine agency and human agency, are we not ultimately treating God’s creative action as external to the human agent, as a violent movement that would compel him to do something or become something against his will? Are we are not in essence introducing God’s transcendent causality into the “field of interacting causalities” (Austin Farrer)? Yet as we have seen in this series, that is precisely not how we want to think about the inconceivable relationship between divine and human agency!

I feel like I am now treading onto thin Orthodox ice, but perhaps only because Orthodox philosophy has not devoted much time and energy thinking about this specific dimension of human freedom. In the first millennium the Eastern Church needed to confront and deny pagan fatalism—hence its joyous proclamation of human freedom; the Latin Church, on the other hand, needed to confront Pelagianism and assert the priority and gratuity of divine grace—but unfortunately St Augustine took a wrong turn and dragged the Western Church down the dark road of the massa damnata and absolute predestination. Calvin’s decretum horribile a thousand years later was but the logical conclusion.

Fr Patrick Reardon recently wrote that the synergistic theology of St Maximus the Confessor, canonized at the Sixth Ecumenical Council, recognizes “the logical impasse inherent in the concept of freedom.” Eastern theology has thus prudently steered away from trying to figure out what cannot be figured out. “If the freedom of man is inherently mysterious (indeed, aporetic),” he asks, “what shall we say of the freedom of God?” The caution may be prudent, but is it always helpful? It is unhelpful, I submit, if it in fact hinders us from recognizing the ineffable mystery of divine-human synergism. Reading popular Orthodox treatments of synergy one discerns little mystery if any at all—just two personal agents working together to accomplish a common goal.

The one theologian I have found most stimulating on this question has been McCabe.  He makes two points critical for our reflection. First, God transcends all creaturely activity, absolutely and infinitely:

God’s activity, then, does not compete with mine. Whereas the activity of any other creature makes a difference to mine and would interfere with my freedom, the activity of God makes no difference. It has a more fundamental and important job to do than making a difference. It makes me have my own activity in the first place. I am free; I have my own spontaneous activity not determined by other creatures, because God makes me free. Not free of him (this would be to cease to exist), but free of other creatures.

The idea that God’s causality could interfere with my freedom can only arise from an idolatrous notion of God as a very large and powerful creature—a part of the world. We see an ascending scale of powerful causes. The more powerful the cause, the more difference it makes. And we are inclined to locate God at the top of the scale, and to imagine that he makes the most difference of all. But God does not make the most difference. He makes, if you like, all the difference—which is the same as making no difference at all. (Faith Within Reason, pp. 75-76)

And again:

So neither motives nor dispositions are causes of action; it remains that a free action is one which I cause and which is not caused by anything else. It is caused by God. From what we were saying last time it will, I hope, be clear that this is not the paradox that it seems at first sight, for God is not anything else. God is not a separate and rival agent within the universe. The creative causal power of God does not operate on me from outside, as an alternative to me; it is the creative causal power of God that makes me me.

Consider how we decide whether or not Fred acted freely in eating his left sock. We look round to see what might have accounted for his behaviour by acting upon him, we look for drugs and hypnotism and infection of the brain, we look for blind powers operating from below the level of consciousness. What we don’t do is look for God. And this is not just because we have forgotten him or don’t believe in him; it is because it would be irrelevant. To be free means not to be under the influence of some other creature, it is to be independent of the other bits of the universe; it is not and could not mean to be independent of God.

It is, of course, our image-making that deceives us here. However hard we try, we cannot help picturing God as an individual existent, even an individual person, making the world or controlling it like the potter making a pot or as an artist making a statue. But the pot is in the same world as the potter, the statue shares a studio with the sculptor. They interact with each other. To, to put it the other way, the potter is outside the pot he makes, the sculptor is outside the statue. But when we come to the creator of everything that has existence, none of that could be true. God cannot share a world with us—if he did he would have created himself. God cannot be outside, or alongside, what he has made. Everything only exists by being constantly held in being by him. (God Matters, pp. 13-14)

The proposition that God limits his omnipotence in order to secure the possibility of human freedom is a logical impossibility. If omnipotence means anything it means that God ultimately causes everything that actually happens. We may wish to make a distinction between God’s ordaining will and his permissive will; but we must not overlook the most obvious consequence of the creatio ex nihilo: everything that happens happens because God wills it to be; otherwise, it would not happen at all. I suggest that the idea that God can restrict his omnipotence has more in common with 18th century Deism than with the transcendent, sovereign monotheism of catholic Christianity. God is God, not a being.

Second, God directly causes the free actions of humanity.  We come now to the most important and incisive passage in McCabe’s writings on God and human freedom:

I am free in fact, not because God withdraws from me and leaves me my independence—as with a man who frees his slaves, or good parents who let their children come to independence—but just the other way round. I am free because God is in a sense more directly the cause of my actions than he is of the behaviour of unfree beings. In the case of an unfree creature its behaviour is perhaps its own (in the case of a living thing—for this is what we mean by a living thing), but is also caused by whatever gave it its structure and whatever forces are operating on it. We can give an account of the behaviour of the dog (or we would like to be able to give an account of the behaviour of the dog) in terms of such causal factors. And may we could go back and explain these causal factors in other more general terms of physics and so on. It is only at the end of such a long chain that we come to the end of this kind of scientific explanation and ask the most radical question of all: yes, but how come any of this instead of nothing? God does bring about the action of the dog, but he does so by causing other things to cause it.

God brings about my free action, however, not by causing other things to cause it, he brings it about directly. The creative act of God is there immediately in my freedom. My freedom is, so to say, a window of God’s creating; the creativity of God is not masked by intermediate causes. In human freedom we have the nearest thing to a direct look at the creative act of God (apart, says the Christian, from Christ himself, who is the act of God).

We are free not because God is absent or leaves us alone, we are free because God is more present—not of course in the sense that there is more of God there in the free being, but in the sense that there is nothing, so to say, to distract us. God is not acting here by causing other things to cause this act, he is directly and simply causing it. So God is not an alternative to freedom, he is the direct cause of freedom. We are not free in spite of God, but because of God. (pp. 14-15)

I can tell you I have mulled on this passage for several years.  I invite you to mull on it, if not for several years, at least for a few days and weeks. I know all the questions that are popping into your mind (how does this impact the Orthodox [and Catholic, Arminian, and Reformed] understanding of human cooperation with divine grace? what does this mean for predestination? how do we reconcile this with the reality of evil?); but I suggest that you temporarily put those questions to the side and just ponder on McCabe’s key claim:

God’s sovereign action is the direct, unmediated, uncreated cause of human freedom and therefore the direct, unmediated, uncreated cause of all free human actions.

Freedom is mystery. Synergism is mystery.  Mystery grounded in the Mystery who is Mystery.

(Return to first article)

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3 Responses to Mysteriouser and Mysteriouser: Divine Agency and Human Freedom

  1. Andy says:

    Fr. Kimel,

    “I know all the questions that are popping into your mind (how does this impact the Orthodox [and Catholic, Arminian, and Reformed] understanding of human cooperation with divine grace? what does this mean for predestination? how do we reconcile this with the reality of evil?”

    I’m sure I have not gotten my mind around all that you, with reference to Herbert McCabe, are trying to say. Either my mind is too small (undoubtedly), or the subject is too large (certainly).

    I am very interested in synergism, because properly understood (it seems to me, anyway) it is both comprehensive of, and exclusive of other lines of thinking.

    I come from a Reformed background, as you know, yet I believe Calvinism says more than should be said; Arminianism, on the other hand, says less than should be said.

    Here is how I understand things: Scripture commands me to repent, and I must do it, God cannot do it for me. The man with the crippled hand had to first stretch it out, in order to be healed. Jesus did not do it for him. And yet, there is something even in the repenting, in the stretching out, that is not solely mine. Would you agree?

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Andy, I hesitate to agree or disagree about anything said on this incomprehensible topic! 🙂

      Your question immediately raised for me the Western debate about what now popularly called Semi-Pelagianism and its dogmatic “resolution” at the Second Synod of Orange. Talk about a useless and unilluminating debate! The more I try to understand what what the real issues were about, the more confused I get—and I don’t think it’s because I am a stupid person. When I find myself nodding agreement and shaking my head when I read both St John Cassian and St Augustine, then that suggests to me that the question is not yet been properly framed or identified. And my suspicion is confirmed by 1500 years of useless (and destructive) Western debate and contention. Everyone has to have an opinion about whether faith or repentance is a gift of the Spirit (I believe it is). But what I want to know is how the preaching of the gospel really differs between those who subscribe to II Orange and those who do not. In the pulpit we are all synergists! Well, maybe that’s not totally accurate, especially when the topic segues into absolute predestination. When that happens, the hyper-Calvinists start worrying about whether it is even possible to preach the gospel.

      I know I haven’t answered your question, Andy. 🙂 Perhaps one day I’ll feel more confident about sharing my thoughts on the Semi-Pelagian controversy. In the meantime, do take a look at Fr Reardon’s article that I cite in the article. Also see the lecture by David Bradshaw on “St John Chrysostom on Grace and Free Will.”

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  2. Victor says:

    Fr. Kimel,

    Thank you for this article. Great indeed is the mystery of our Lord’s working all things, upholding the universe by the Word of His power, as well as our finite cooperation in infinite things. I think you post highlights theosis as a core understanding of what it means to be Christian—nay, what it means to be human. A professor of theology at one of the seminaries here said something along the lines of “to be human is to be baptized;” that is, through participation in Christ, by our recognition and appropriation of who Christ is for us and that our ultimate end is conformity to his image and union with him, we become truly free, truly human.

    “God brings about my free action, however, not by causing other things to cause it, he brings it about directly. The creative act of God is there immediately in my freedom.” This is the creative act of God through Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit beginning with baptism and sustained through the Word and sacraments.

    I am a Lutheran (well, at least nominally—finding myself somewhere between Wittenberg and Constantinople), and have struggled with the inherent tension in the mystery of divine causality and free human action. I have stumbled greatly over Martin Luther’s De Servo Arbitrio (Bondage of the Will). His Deus absconditus, maintains the characteristics in classical theism of God as “totally other,” inherited from pagan Greeks. This necessitates a God who operates on me from outside, as an alternative to me, rather than allowing it is “the creative causal power of God that makes me me.” Even though God is removed outside the realm of creation, due to the influence of philosophical nominalism God’s actions are reckoned in quantifiable sums of power—i.e. He is the most powerful being in a chain of beings. Thus all causality is necessarily accounted to the one who is most powerful, and thus God becomes the sole efficient cause (yet we paradoxically are bound and spurred on by Satan, whom Luther seems to posit as somehow existing as an independent cause apart from God.) I think Luther’s reasoning breaks down when we take a step back and apply the same logic to Satan: by necessity Satan’s actions must be the direct cause of God’s will, and thus all evil, when logically reduced, is the product of God’s will. Similarly, Luther paves the way for the double-predestination of Calvinism (if you ever want to read about it, I wrote a paper about here: http://www.academia.edu/4086911/The_Consolation_of_Philosophy_Omnipotence_Ockham_and_the_Christian_Conscience_in_Martin_Luthers_De_Servo_Arbitrio
    the relevant portions on nominalism are under sub-heading 2.) But I digress.

    “The proposition that God limits his omnipotence in order to secure the possibility of human freedom is a logical impossibility.”

    I agree 100 percent.

    “I am free in fact, not because God withdraws from me and leaves me my independence—as with a man who frees his slaves, or good parents who let their children come to independence—but just the other way round. I am free because God is in a sense more directly the cause of my actions than he is of the behaviour of unfree beings.”

    I’ve not read McCabe nor know his theological predispositions, but this seems like deification pure and simple. This is the sanctified Christian life and the appropriation of the knowledge of Christ and a life empowered by grace.

    I may be way off here, but I picture human existence as existing along a spectrum (let’s call it the “Spectrum of Freedom”). The ends of this spectrum are demarcated by charity and autonomy. Charity is the freedom of Christ, which is the freedom of αγαπἠ, a recognition of personhood and true communion of persons in God. Autonomy is the “freedom” of Satan, tyrannical bondage to sin, death, the passions, and consists of egocentric individuals existing in isolation, essentially what is now heralded as “freedom” within American culture. True freedom is ultimately servanthood in the communion of divine love, as Christ did not come to be served but to serve and give his life as a ransom for many.

    “We assume that personal freedom requires independence from God’s direct causal activity. To be free is to be autonomous. If God were to cause humans actions, human beings would be reduced to automata.” Your first two statements are the error of our generation.I think your last statement is the error Luther’s logic necessitates. It’s an over-simplified reduction of causality which assumes there is only one type of cause, or maybe articulates causality in terms of power. I am not really sure, I haven’t thought it all through… You seem to imply there is only one type of cause, but the nuances of that causality are different from Luther, as they are also different from the Lutheran confessors in the Book of Concord’s “Formula of Concord” article on free will.

    “God’s sovereign action is the direct, unmediated, uncreated cause of human freedom and therefore the direct, unmediated, uncreated cause of all free human actions.” Luther, at the time of his writing, would wholly agree with this assertion, yet what he means and what McCabe means are two different things. Perhaps it’s the whole western Pelagianism debate that’s coloring the situation. Luther, emphasizes a monergist causality, whereas you and McCabe postulate a synergist one, despite an assertion of causality both parties can lay claim to (hooray for semantics!). Perhaps it’s because that particular work of the reformer failed to keep an idea of deification and mystical union with Christ in mind, even though he does teach these things in other writings.

    “So God is not an alternative to freedom, he is the direct cause of freedom. We are not free in spite of God, but because of God.”

    Amen.

    Your post has so much meat I’ll need to chew it over for a long time, just as you have. I wholeheartedly agree we are dealing with a great mystery. I am further convinced that the article “by which the Church stands or falls” is not justification (as articulated in a solely forensic sense), but rather the broader concept of participation in Christ fulfilling all anthropological questions and desires. I wonder to myself sometimes, “why can’t justification just be the same as participation?” I have a nagging suspicion that this is what St. Paul meant in Romans, and actually what Luther ultimately aimed for with his emphasis on the return to baptism in the Christian life.

    Sorry for the long post. You have a plethora of great articles to here 🙂

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