God does not coerce! Without question, this is the most popular, and perhaps most powerful, objection raised against the universalist hope, at least in those circles where the retributive construal of damnation does not hold sway. God has given human beings the faculty of free will, and the exercise of this faculty requires genuine independence and autonomy. St John Chrysostom articulates the traditional Eastern understanding:
Beloved, God being loving towards man and beneficent, does and contrives all things in order that we may shine in virtue, and as desiring that we be well approved by Him. And to this end He draws no one by force or compulsion: but by persuasion and benefits He draws all that will, and wins them to Himself. Wherefore when He came, some received Him, and others received Him not. For He will have no unwilling, no forced domestic, but all of their own will and choice, and grateful to Him for their service. Men, as needing the ministry of servants, keep many in that state even against their will, by the law of ownership; but God, being without wants, and not standing in need of anything of ours, but doing all only for our salvation makes us absolute in this matter, and therefore lays neither force nor compulsion on any of those who are unwilling. For He looks only to our advantage: and to be drawn unwilling to a service like this is the same as not serving at all. (Hom. in John 10.1)
Arminians would no doubt like to see some mention of prevenient grace, but the essential point is ecumenically affirmed—God does not coerce. God has made humanity in his own image, bestowing upon him free will. He so respects the freedom of the human being that he will allow any and every individual to reject him—eternally, irrevocably, absolutely. God does not determine human choice in any way. He persuades and seduces, but he does not force; he does not manipulate; he does not violate.
Philosophers call this libertarian freedom or the power of contrary choice: if I choose to do A, I must also have been able to do B. I am only free if I could have acted otherwise. Robert Kane specifies two conditions for libertarian freedom:
1. The existence of alternative possibilities (or the agent’s power to do otherwise) is a necessary condition for acting freely, or acting “of one’s own free will.”
2. Determinism is not compatible with alternative possibilities (it precludes the power to do otherwise).
An action cannot be simultaneously free and the product of sufficient external causes. Or as Thomas Talbott formulates the libertarian position: “a rational agent chooses freely in a given set of circumstances only when the agent categorically could have chosen otherwise in the exact same circumstances” (The Inescapable Love of God, p. 190).
Given this understanding of human freedom, many Christian philosophers conclude that God does not cause free human actions. Human self-determination and divine agency are mutually exclusive:
I do something freely in this libertarian sense … only if it is within my (unexercised) power, at the time of acting and in the very same circumstances, to refrain from doing it; and I refrain from doing something freely only if it is within my (unexercised) power to do so. It is within my power to refrain some something I do, moreover, only if, first, it is logically possible that I should refrain from doing it, and second, nothing outside my control should causally determine (or necessitate) my doing it. Accordingly, if my act of writing this page is free in the relevant sense, then it must have been possible for me not to write it; and if it was possible for me not to write it, then there is a possible world in which I do not write it. That world—call it W—might be the same as the actual world (at least in certain relevant aspects) up to the time of my writing, but in that world I choose to spend my time in another way. But though W is truly a possible world (a way things might have been), it is a world that God was powerless to create; had he tried to make it actual, he would have failed. He could, of course, have caused me to refrain from writing, but then I would not have refrained freely. In the exact circumstances that obtained, only I could bring it about that I freely refrain from writing. Since I could have chosen not to write, W is indeed a possible world; but since I did not make that choice and God was powerless to bring it about that I did so freely, he was also powerless to create W. If free will (of the libertarian kind just described) is even possible, therefore, there may be infinitely many possible worlds that God, however omnipotent he may be, no more has the power to create that he has the power to produce a sufficient cause for an uncaused event. (pp. 160-161)
Talbott’s argument presupposes divine causality as extrinsic to creaturely agency—only thus can it be said that the two are mutually exclusive. Talbott is aware that providing a rigorous account of “external sufficient causes” is a challenging task. “But,” he comments, “if I am to exist as a distinct agent, then something must qualify as being external to myself, and this would presumably include causes that existed back in 1500 A.D. as well as causes that lie in eternity itself” (p. 156, n. 7).
If the above account of human action is true, then the universalist hope—specifically, hope as lively expectation—is false, so at least free will theists claim. There must be a world where a person freely holds out indefinitely against the divine offer of mercy and reconciliation. Perhaps this is that world. Perhaps this is a world where many or even most human beings irrevocably choose exclusion from the beatific vision.
Talbott has some very interesting things to say about libertarian freedom, such as the necessity of libertarian freedom for the emergence of creaturely personhood and its eventual replacement by perfect freedom in the Eschaton, when the Good is perfectly and unambiguously apprehended. But in this article I simply wish to discuss the alleged incompatibility between divine agency and free human choice. Have libertarian theists taken the transcendence of God and his free creation of the world from out of nothing fully into account? Or have they, to put it crudely, inadvertently reduced the Deity to a being within the universe? They will vehemently deny the suggestion, yet the absence of any sense of mystery in the incompatibilist formulation of free will has me wondering. It’s as if libertarian theists really believe they know what they are talking about.
I would like to succinctly, crudely, incompletely, and probably inaccurately present St Thomas Aquinas’s understanding of divine agency and human freedom, as articulated and interpreted by Herbert McCabe, Brian Davies, and Denys Turner. I do not claim that their interpretation of Aquinas is correct—that is for Aquinas scholars to decide—but for purposes of this article that is the assumption I am making. Nor do I claim that my presentation of McCabe, Davies, and Turner is accurate, though I have certainly tried to make it so. I welcome correction. The Thomist Triumvirate do disagree at various points in their respective construals of Aquinas, but I have muted these differences, again for purposes of this article.
1) God has created the world from out of nothing. Aquinas does not believe that we can conceive what this means. We certainly should not reify nothingness as some kind of undifferentiated metaphysical stuff which the Deity then shapes into beings. God has not made the world out of any preexisting anything. Nor is nothing to be conceived as the space into which God places the things he makes. The point, rather, is that everything owes its existence to God; everything receives its esse from God. Finite being is totally dependent upon infinite Being. The creatio ex nihilo thus stipulates a clear metaphysical distinction between God and everything he creates through his Word by the Spirit.
We immediately note the inconceivability of divine creation. Creaturely making always involves a making from out of something. We take something and change it into something else. We make a difference to it. But divine creation does not involve any kind of changing, as McCabe explains:
To make something, in Aristotelian terms, is to actualise the potentialities inherent in some material. These tomatoes and mushrooms and bits of can can be made into a stew; making a stew is realising this capacity. When something has been made it always makes sense to ask what it is made of or what it is made out of (the two correspond roughly to making by accidental and making by substantial change)—what was it that had the potentiality of being this thing, what did you make a difference to in order to produce this? Now in these terms we can make no sense of the notion that God made the whole universe. There is evidently nothing for the universe to be made of or made out of. In other words creation could not have made any difference to anything—there was nothing for it to make a difference to. If God created the world he operated at a different level, or in a different dimension, from making as we understand it. To bring it about, in this sense, that something should exist is not to make any difference to it or to something else, it is not to change it in any way. It is just for this reason that Aquinas denies that creation is a change (Ia, 45, 1, ad2). But what sense can we make of a making that does not change anything? (God Matters, p. 147)
2) Because he has created the world from out of nothing, God does not exist alongside the world. He is not one existent among a host of existents. God plus the world does not equal two. If God is the creator of everything, there is nothing he is alongside or next to. Nor is it the case that Deity and creatures belong to different genera. Divinity is outside every genus and is the uncreated source of every genus. God can be “compared to other things,” says Aquinas, “only as transcending them” (ST Ia, q6 a2 ad3). God is not a god:
God must be incomprehensible to us precisely because he is creator of all that is and, as Aquinas puts it, outside the order of all beings. God therefore cannot be classified as any kind of being. God cannot be compared to or contrasted with other things in respect of what they are like as dogs can be compared and contrasted with cats and both of them with stones or stars. God is not an inhabitant of the universe; he is the reason why there is a universe at all. God is in everything holding it constantly in existence but he is not located anywhere, nor is what it is to be God located anywhere in logical space. When you have finished classifying and counting all the things in the universe you cannot add: ‘And also there is God.’ When you have finished classifying and counting everything in the universe you have finished, period. There is no God in the world. (McCabe, God Still Matters, p. 37)
This apprehension of the radical metaphysical difference between God and the world grounds Aquinas’s reflections on divine and creaturely agency. Any philosophical formulation that does not acknowledge this difference and its implications for construing the relationship between divine agency and creaturely agency profoundly misrepresents the Christian God and can only lead to the idolatrous conception of the Deity as an all-powerful being who stands over against all other beings.
3) Divine causality is unique and does not interfere with creaturely causality. Just as God radically transcends the world he has brought into being, so he radically transcends the network of creaturely causes. God is primary cause in that he causes everything to be. McCabe suggests that we think of divine agency along the same lines that we think of divine omnipresence. As I put one apple after another into a basket, there is less and less room for the oranges that I also want to put into it. Each fruit competes with the others for available space. But God does not take up space. No matter how many apples and oranges I toss into the bin, the divine presence remains undiminished. “The apples do not have to shift over to make room for God,” remarks McCabe. “The presence of God does not leave less room for the apples. On the contrary, it is because of the presence of God that the apples are there at all” (Faith Within Reason, p. 74).
Just as God causes apples and oranges and everything to be, so so he causes the activity of every creature. His causal activity does not compete with creaturely causality, for the same reason that his presence in the world does not compete with the spatial presence of his creatures—namely, because of the divine transcendence. Wherever something is, God is; whenever something acts, God acts. Thus Turner:
For as to any natural causation, it is true that no natural cause can cause an effect unless God sustains the whole action in existence through his creative power. It is true of anything at all that exists, as the creed of Nicaea puts it, “visible and invisible,” that unless God causes it to, it does not exist; unless God causes it to, it does not act. But when God is said to cause a natural cause to effect what it does, this is not as if to say that God suspends the natural law governing that cause’s efficacy—on the contrary, God’s action in virtue of which heavy objects fall is effective because of God’s sustaining the laws of gravity that are alone sufficient to explain why they do so. So, Thomas concludes, you could say that God brings about natural effects by means of natural agents effecting what it is in their nature to do, as if those natural causes were instruments of his will, unfreely acting as “servants” of their master’s will—natural causes are God’s tool kit. (Thomas Aquinas, pp. 158-159)
We must posit a simultaneity of and concurrence between divine causing and creaturely causing. God’s creative operation does not make a difference to creaturely activity and being. When we try to think of how something makes a difference to another thing, we might imagine two or more existents coming into contact and changing some aspect of reality. When the cueball impacts the other billiard balls on the table, they go all over the place. The physicist can explain the hows and whys and accurately predict the directional vectors of each ball. The transcendent Creator, however, does not make a difference to his creatures … he makes all the difference. He is the reason why anything and everything exists to begin with. Yet as McCabe observes, we understandably find this notion of causal concurrence nearly impossible to imagine:
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 makes 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. Or, 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, p. 14)
4) God is the transcendent cause of free human choices and actions. Here is where things really get interesting. When free will theists talk about libertarian freedom, they assume the incompatibility of divine determinism and free creaturely determinism. As Alvin Plantinga writes: “Now God can create free creatures, but He can’t cause or determine them to do only what is right. For if He does so, then they aren’t significantly free after all; they do not do what is right freely” (God, Freedom, and Evil, p. 30). Thus we may speak of a logical limitation of the divine omnipotence. Just as it is logically impossible for God to create square circles, so it is logically impossible for him to determine the free choices of his rational creatures. An action cannot “be both free and the product of external sufficient causes” (Talbott, p. 156).
The Thomist understanding of human freedom may be construed as self-determination: I act freely if, and only if, I am the cause of my actions, independent of other creaturely agents or forces. If my action is determined by someone else (I have been hypnotized or brainwashed) or by something else (I am under the influence of a mind-altering drug; my genes made me do it), then it is not a free action. Free actions are self-determined and uncoerced, determined by the agent himself and not by any other creature. We may even speak of them as “uncaused,” if we mean by this that they are not generated by a created power or agency external to the acting person. This does not mean, however, that a free action is unmotivated.
Free actions are always motivated: they are done for reasons. They may be good reasons or bad reasons, but they are reasons. “Why did you not go to work today?” you might ask me. “Because,” I honestly reply, “the roads were icy and slippery.” Whether you assess my explanation as weighty or not, it is the reason I judged compelling at the time and the reason why I decided to stay home and watch “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy. The reason did not determine my action. I freely made it the decisive motive for my one day holiday. “Free actions, then, are uncaused [by external factors] though they are motivated and done for reasons,” McCabe avers; “and these motives and reasons do not take away from freedom but rather are essential to it” (God Matters, p. 13).
The Thomist understanding, therefore, may be described as a qualified libertarianism. But—and this is a huge but—Aquinas also insists that a free human action is simultaneously caused by God, as Davies explains:
God is the Creator, the source of the existence (the continued and total existence) of everything other than himself. If God is this, however, then my making a choice has to be something that God is making to be. If everything that exists owes its existence to God, then God must be the source of my free actions, not someone who merely observes them, permits them, or somehow merely supports (what could that mean?) a context in which they are caused by me and not by God. To think otherwise, it seems to me, can only stem from the conviction that God is really an item in the universe, something able to distance itself from its fellows so as to let them act independently of its causality. Yet God, I have argued, is not an item in the universe. As making the world to be, his causality extends to everything that exists, and free choices are as real as anything else in the world. If you think that Mount Everest needs God to account for its being as opposed to not being (for as long as it is), then you ought to think that all human choices need God to account for them being (and therefore being what they are) as opposed to not being. There can be no such thing as a creaturely reality which is not produced or creatively made to be by God. (The Reality of God and the Problem of Evil, p. 122; also see Davies, Thomas Aquinas on God and Evil, chap. 7)
This analysis, though, must be pushed a bit further. “The proposition,” comments Turner, “that God’s agency could stand in a disjunctively exclusive ‘either/or’ relationship with human freedom is, for Thomas, inconceivable” (p. 157).
God cannot cause my acts of free choice by means of any natural cause as his instrument, because, as we have seen, if any natural cause other than my own will brings about my action then it follows that that action is not free. Hence God’s creative power exerts itself upon my free actions only directly, that is, as unmediated by any natural cause: or, as one might put it in the more appealing language of Augustine, God’s action is too intimate to me, too within me, too close to my deepest freedom, to stand in any kind of coercive relationship to it. For God is more within me even than I am to myself—which is, after all, but another way of saying what Thomas himself says, namely, that God is the cause of the freedom with which I consent to his infallible agency. Therefore, of my free actions only God and I can be the cause, and in every case both God and I are the cause of them. … You cannot say that insofar as God caused my free action I did not: for God is the cause not only of the action itself, so that the action is his. God is the cause of the free choice that makes the action also mine. (p. 159)
Oh my. Now we are treading upon grounds that analytic philosophers fear to tread. Is Thomas here proposing one of those antinomies that offends reason? McCabe thinks not: “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” (God Matters, p. 13).
I have quoted McCabe, Turner, and Davies at some length because I do not feel confident expressing in my own words their understanding of the relationship between divine and creaturely agency. Let me close with this long but illuminating passage from McCabe:
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 maybe 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)
This analysis of freedom by Aquinas and his disciples raises many questions, yet it seems very right to me (on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays). I invite Dr Talbot and others to engage Aquinas’s arguments and help me to come to a better understanding of what I presently consider to be an unfathomable conundrum—the interaction of divine and creaturely causality, sometimes referred to as double agency. The libertarian position makes perfect sense, yet I just cannot get away from St Thomas’s explication of the doctrine of creation.