God Makes Us Freely Acting

This article has been revised and republished under the title “Breaking the Cords of Fate”(8 November 2021)

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“We seem almost compelled,” remarks Hugh McCann, “to think there is some competition here: that when it comes to free will there is no way that both we and God can both have legitimate prerogatives, no way that one can be free without the other being reduced to subservience” (Creation and the Sovereignty of God, p. 110). If God wills my decisions and actions, then how can they be genuinely ours? The either/or seems intuitively obvious and inescapable. Either we are responsible for our decisions and actions, or God is. We can’t have it both ways. Yet McCann believes we may have it both ways, if the doctrine of the creatio ex nihilo is understood properly. His solution is, to say the least, provocative: “[God] does not make us act; he makes us acting, so that the freedom that goes with genuine action can still be present” (p. 108; see “The World is a Novel“). God makes us acting. He repeats this phrase multiple times in his book. It’s easy to see why one might read it in a determinis­tic fashion. If the world and its inhabitants simply pop out of God’s imagination as a finished product, like a novel coming off a printing press, then historical existence certainly appears to be divinely scripted and finalized. How can we do otherwise if God has already written the story? I think McCann might have made matters a bit clearer if he had instead written, God makes us freely acting. That little word “freely” clears away a lot of confusion. Or as I prefer to phrase it: God creates us in our freedom.

Underlying McCann’s proposal are four interconnected claims:

  1. God does not exist in the same metaphysical world as his creatures: “God belongs to an order of being entirely his own, one that transcends completely the order of secondary causes” (p. 103).
  2. God does not bestow existence through a mechanism of cause-and-effect but directly and immedi­ately: “There can be no event-causal means—not even the operation of his own will—which God employs as creator. Rather, his will is, in itself, immediately efficacious in the task of creation, so that all that is, including rational creatures and all that they do, find their being in the very act through which they are created” (p. 103).
  3. In the eternal act of creation, God brings into being the universe and its unfolding history as a whole, not in temporal piecemeal: “God is timelessly eternal and is engaged in a single creative act in which the world in all its history is produced” (p. 28). This last point in no way suggests that temporal becoming is unreal. It only highlights the radical difference between divine and creaturely modes of being.
  4. God brings the world into being from the infinite depths of his freedom, spontaneity, creativity. He does not need to deliberate. He does not act according to a blueprint. “Rather, the plan of the universe emerges just as the plan of a work of art does: in the creation of the thing itself” (p. 173).

If we think these four points together, perhaps we can begin to see the plausibility in the double agency position. Or perhaps not. William Vallicella is not convinced:

The problem, however, seems to remain: if our exercises of will are brought into being and maintained in being by divine omnipotence, then how on earth (or in heaven) could such exercises count as libertarianly free? If God creates my decision to review McCann’s book, then it would seem that God is the free source of this decision and I am not. McCann’s solution is to maintain that, just as my free decisions have no temporally antecedent event-causes in the natural order, they also have no logically antecedent divine event-causes. My decisions are free because they are neither naturally nor theologically determined. God does not operate upon us, making us do this or that, “he operates in our very willing, so that his will is done through ours, but without any kind of forcing” (106). The relation of divine to human willing is like that of a novelist to his characters, not like that of a puppeteer to his puppets. The novelist cannot make a character do something; he can only make him doing it. The will of the novelist and the will of the character do not conflict but coincide. (“Hugh McCann on the Implications of Divine Sovereignty,” p. 152)

McCann is well aware that the analogy between author and novel ultimately fails—characters in a novel only enjoy fictional existence, whereas we enjoy a very real existence. But what does it mean to say that we are real? asks Vallicella. We are not real in the way that self-existent divinity is real. Our reality is qualified by radical contingency: “We are real, but wholly dependent on God for our entire being at every instant.” The maverick philosopher then draws a conclusion that I find curious:

But then, it seems to me, we do have a mental existence after all: we exist as merely intentional objects ‘in’ or rather before the mind of God who is, of course, a pure spirit or mind. The upshot is that on McCann’s scheme we cannot be subjects capable of an I-Thou relation with God any more than characters in a novel are subjects capable of an I-Thou relation with the novel’s author. We are as it were sucked into the divine mind and reduced to the status of merely intentional objects whose entire being is our being for God. (p. 153)

If I’m reading him rightly, Vallicella’s objection applies not only to McCann’s position but to the classical Christian teaching on the creatio ex nihilo. He appears to have been misled by McCann’s employment of the analogy of author and novel. When McCann first wrote on this topic in 1995, he too found the analogy unhelpful:

We are not, after all, like characters in a novel, whose transactions occur entirely within its boundaries. There, no doubt, the author may make her characters free or determined as she pleases, since in neither case will they offend against her or us. Their freedom will be as real as they are, and the critics will not complain that it is bogus, in that all along it was the author who made the characters do what they did. But with us it is different. When we choose, we transact with our creator. Even in this world He is said to reward or punish our deeds, and in the Christian as well as many other religious contexts we have an eternal destiny for which we are responsible. And we might wonder how this is possible if we are not the ultimate cause of our choices. If we can only decide as God wills we decide, it seems unfair that He should allow us to suffer for our choices. We cannot resist his will. So why, as Paul has the Christians at Rome asking, does He still find fault? (Romans 9:19). (“Divine Sovereignty and the Freedom of the Will,” p. 593)

Between his 1995 essay and the publication of Creation and the Sovereignty of God in 2012, McCann came to see instructive value of the analogy. The analogy, of course, fails, for the very reasons mentioned by McCann in 1995: because real human beings fulfill—in actuality and fact—the three criteria of libertarian freedom: absence of nomic necessity, spontaneity, and intentionality (see “Freedom and Determinism“). That we possess libertarian freedom demonstrates both that we are more than mental constructs and that God can intend our free actions. Our creaturely actions are founded in God’s action as creator, but not produced as a consequence of it. We are, therefore, created in our spontane­ity, “which is as genuine as it can be” (Creation, p. 107). Whereas creaturely artists are incapable of creating rational beings that are truly autonomous and self-determining—as Aulë, one of the Valar in The Silmarilion, discovered when he secretly created the Dwarves—such is not the case with the divine Artist. Ilúvatar explains to his angelic servant: “For thou hast from me as a gift thy own being only, and no more; and therefore the creatures of thy hand and mind can live only by that being, moving when thou thinkest to move them, and if thy thought be elsewhere, standing idle.” Only God himself can bestow the gift of freedom. We may not be able to explain how this can be true, but we can at least see that McCann is not speaking nonsense:

To put the question in classical form, how can I do otherwise if God wills that I decide as I do? The trouble with this argument is that it fails to understand what causal determinism in the nomic sense consists in. It is true that from premises about God’s will and its efficacy we may deduce a description of everything I will ever decide or will. So far, however, this bespeaks only a logical relation between premises and conclusions, and logical relations do not obtain among events. They exist only in the realm of propositions. The mere availability of this sort of inference does not, therefore, destroy my freedom. After all, from the premise that I decide to vacation in Italy, together with a traditional belief—namely, that we can do nothing apart from God’s will—we may also infer validly that God wills as creator that I decide to go to Italy. But we would not want to conclude on that basis that I causally determine God’s will, and still less that he and I determine each other’s wills. What is needed for causal or nomic determination is not just the availability of an inference from laws and causes to the effect, but the relevant sort of ontological relation as well: a situation in which my decision occurs as the outcome of a natural—or in this case, quasi-natural—process that begins with ontologically independent states and events that act upon me, rendering me a passive player in creation’s history rather than an active one. But that is precisely what does not go on in the relationship between God and his creatures. The operation of his will is not an event independent of my willing; there is nothing “left over” if we subtract my act of deciding from God’s act of creating it. (Creation, p. 105)

If in a single eternal act God creates me (or perhaps more accurately, me in and with the world) from nothing, then at no point in my temporal existence is there an independent me for God to manipulate, determine, or compel. There is simply contingent me, deciding, acting, and blundering along in all of my libertarian glory. Hence the mere reiteration of the either/or (either we are causally responsible for our actions, or God is) hardly constitutes a compelling objection to McCann’s presentation, for it is this either/or that McCann rejects.

Human Freedom, Human Sin, and God the Creator” by Kathryn Tanner may be profitably read alongside Creation and the Sovereignty of God. It fills in some of the blanks and perhaps offers a correction or two, just as McCann offers a correction or two of the position she advances. Like McCann, Tanner asserts the radical ontological difference between Creator and creatures, thus eliminating competition between divine and creaturely agency:

The relation [between Creator and creature] must be said to be all inclusive or universally extensive: everything nondivine, in every respect that it is, is dependent upon God’s creative activity, which brings it forth. God’s creative activity calls forth or holds up into being throughout the time of its existence what has its own integrity as a nondivine existence, and this nondivine existence has to be considered the consequences of God’s creative calling forth and holding up as a whole, in its order and in its entirety, in every detail and aspect. Nondivine existence maintained by God’s creative power constitutes, therefore, a whole plane or level of nondivine existence, inclusive of every item or order that is or happens or becomes in the world as we know it. … This relation of dependence upon God is, furthermore, always and in every respect a direct or immediate relation of dependence upon God. Picture the plane of nondivine existence (which is the whole of the world as we know it) suspended in existence at each and every one of its points, and therefore in its entirety, by God’s creative action. In such a picture every nondivine being in every respect owes all that it is directly to God whatever its relations with other nondivine beings, the specific natures of those relations, their presence or absence, etc. (pp. 113-114; cf. “The Grammar of Transcendence“)

In this metaphysical vision competition between divine and creaturely causality is excluded, as it rejects the notion “that God is one actor among other possible actors within a single plane of cooperating and/or competing causes of a comparable sort.” She elaborates:

According to our picture, if a creature exercises any power at all, it does so on a different plane or axis, so to speak, from that along which God’s creative agency is exercised. God works to hold the whole of that created plane in existence and does not work within it. If a nondivine cause works to produce an effect, it does so only insofar as it is held up into existence in those respects by God. No matter how genuine the creature’s power, that does not render superfluous, therefore, God’s own working. (p. 118)

Created causes are part of the world that God has called into existence and thus serve the sovereign will of their Creator.


Tanner identifies three common objections to the possibility of libertarian free will within the world of double agency:

(1) If God creatively causes me to choose, the choice is no longer a matter of my own choosing.

She answers: when God summons into being someone’s choosing, he does not replace that person’s choice with his own; rather, he “brings it about as something that is the human being’s own” (p. 124).

(2)  If God creatively causes me to choose, he may well be making me to choose a course of action against my will.  

She answers: God never forces anyone to choose against their will. It is God who brings about “the human agent in its very moving of itself so to choose” (p. 124). I thus remain free to choose according to my inclinations.

(3) If God brings me to make a choice, then I’m not the one doing the choosing but God is choosing for me.

She answers: it makes little sense to speak of God as compelling anyone to choose something that he would not otherwise choose. “The creature has no inclinations to choose except for the ones God gives. The human being may have had inclinations to the contrary a moment before, but given God’s calling forth of a change in them, the creatures has just those inclinations, which God intends, in the next moment, and no others” (p. 124).

The superiority of McCann’s formulation of double agency over that of Tanner’s is manifest. I think he would say that she comes too close to the cause-and-effect model that he so decidedly rejects. At various points she sounds like a compatibilist, even when attempting to defend libertarian freedom. In my judgment, Hugh McCann’s proposal—God makes us freely acting—represents a fresh and helpful advance in philosophical reflection on the mystery of divine and creaturely agency.

(Go to “Is God the Author of Sin”)

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16 Responses to God Makes Us Freely Acting

  1. Susan Price says:

    My issue with ‘free will’ is that so much of our behavior is shaped by our genetics and by our experiences. I’m not saying that we aren’t ‘free to choose’, but I am saying that our choices are very often framed in these contexts.


  2. paxamoretbonum says:

    A lot of philosophical analysis to me seems over-invested in the employment of the excluded middle, which ends up in all or nothing & either/or thinking. When Charles Sanders Peirce formulated his modal ontology of firstness (roughly possibilities), secondness (actualities) and thirdness (roughly probabilities), in that category of thirdness vis a vis reality’s regularities, Peirce precisely prescinded from necessity to probability, where, while noncontradiction still holds, excluded middle folds. Whether regarding epistemic in/determinables or ontological in/determinacies, then, different realities are recognized as more vs less determined in varying degrees, on a case by case basis. For example, we might say a given entity is “adequately” determined without at all implicating “absolute” determinism.

    Thus it may be, I’ve always thought, that, when deliberating over monergisms and synergisms, we certainly needn’t treat those dynamics in an absolutist frame. When attributing monergism or synergism to entities, we must ask both 1) regarding what particular attribute (as well as predicated univocally or analogically) and 2) to what extent?

    McCann’s coreligionists would never countenance an absolute monergism and neither does he. Neither would it object to an adequate monergism while, at the same time, regarding other attributes, emphasizing an indispensable synergistic dynamic, between an Agent, Who’s absolutely sovereign (free), and an agent, who’s free-enough to aesthetically attain the beatitude of divine participations.

    For my part, I’m not threatened by the image of my being divinely ravished, especially by such a courtly Suitor/Seductress, Who so coyly woos but never slav-ishly (double entendre intended) coerces my erotic attentions. I’m just desperately trying to better attune my tone-deaf self to Her overtures (insert your favorite composer du jour).

    Liked by 1 person

  3. malcolmsnotes says:

    But the account of sin?


  4. Tom says:

    Thanks for linking to Bill Vallicella’s summary and review. I was thinking about posting it to my Scribd, but you beat me to it. 😀

    Just some quick thoughts:

    1) In the end, I don’t see the need for the “meticulous” sort of providential control that McCann wants to bring into compatibility with libertarian agency, so I’m not motivated on the level he is on this question.

    2) In addition to the criticisms Vallicella makes, I’d only add that it seems to me that on its own terms McCann’s view isn’t a view of ‘providence’ at all. If God “creates/wills us (freely) doing what we do,” whence providence? The divine willing has at least to logically/explanatorily precede creaturely choice for those choices to be an object of providence. Saying God doesn’t (temporally) ‘pre-ordain’ anything, he just ‘wills us freely doing what we do’ doesn’t give us a doctrine of providence, for then divine and human willing are explanatorily coterminous (as the argument shows, i.e., if we freely choose X, then God eternally wills us freely choosing X and if we freely choose ~X, then God eternally wills us choosing ~X), and such convertibility is providentially vacuous.

    3) To say that God’s providential creation of us is inscrutably inaccessible to any examination by us is a conversation stopper. It makes McCann’s view unfalsifiable. How do I argue with a position whose truth begins and ends on the inside of an inscrutable transcendence?


    Liked by 1 person

    • paxamoretbonum says:

      Not sure I was thinking exactly the same thing re: such a “meticulous providential control,” but the logical consequences that I was intuiting regarding such a sovereignity seemed to lie in the same direction that I’ve called the Baskin Robbins account of the divine will, which comes in 31 classic flavors, mostly designed to feed theodicial appetites. I can imagine God being exculpable vis a vis sin in a double agency framework, but I can’t tell if McCann has succeeded in meeting such criteria (via some combination of sub- and super- venience). Where the price of such a sovereignity gets uneconomic, for me, comes at the expense of including evil and suffering in one’s divine economy, such as in an Irenaean theodicy. I cannot conceive of a “G”od, Who has anything whatsoever to do with author-ing evil or needing suffering, including annihilationism. The Brothers Karamazov makes more sense to me than metaphysics when it comes to those divine attributes. I’m more frightened by the thought that some atrocities might ever be made morally intelligible than I am of
      remaining forever befuddled or intractably theologically skeptical.

      Liked by 2 people

    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Good morning, Tom. We got about five inches of snow yesterday here in Roanoke. Now that you have moved to California, are you going to miss the snow?

      You ask, “How do I argue with a position whose truth begins and ends on the inside of an inscrutable transcendence?”

      I would argue that an understanding of divine providence that doesn’t end up, suffering with Job, inside inscrutable transcendence cannot be true and therefore ain’t worth believing.

      As you know I have little sympathy for presentations, like those of Greg Boyd’s or Tom Oord’s, that seek to absolve God of the horrors and evils of this world. I honor and affirm their confession of the absolute Love of the Creator, but all attempts to get God off the hook simply misunderstand, IMHO, what it means for God to be God.

      I believe that an understanding of double agency, however inadequately stated, must be in the ballpark of truth, as it acknowledges the truth of God’s radical transcendence, and therefore does not bring him into the mix of creaturely causality as one agent among many, while at the same time acknowledging his radical presence in the depths of creaturely existence as transcendent cause. It is at this point that I have found Aquinas most helpful.

      I have two more posts in mind for the series on McCann. The last will be devoted to the question of divine sovereignty and providence. I look forward to your response to it. 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

      • Tom says:

        It will take some time to get used to CA. It seems that my arrival occurred at the same time as the end of CA’s drought. The rains have been torrential. I guess it’s my being a Pentecostal – I brought the “latter rains.”

        Fr Al: You ask, “How do I argue with a position whose truth begins and ends on the inside of an inscrutable transcendence?” I would argue that an understanding of divine providence that doesn’t end up, suffering with Job, inside inscrutable transcendence cannot be true and therefore ain’t worth believing.

        Tom: I agree. Any view of transcendence that can be escaped or outside of which any belief we have about anything can finally stand, is not a view of ‘transcendence’. That goes without saying.

        I don’t want a view of providence vis-à-vis the integrity of creation’s agencies in which human agency excises itself from the sustaining will of God. I really do want to maintain that, though I can appreciate how it might appear to the different parties in this debate that each of the others doesn’t have a true doctrine or providence or transcendence because they don’t have my view of transcendence. I want all that I believe to stand “within” the truth of transcendence. I don’t want to exile mystery and its humility from theology. That humility endears us to God, and I want that more than I want to be right.

        What I was balking at isn’t the idea that a true doctrine of transcendence should be all-encompassing or reflect a mystery that possesses us ineffably (as opposed to our possessing it entirely within our cognitive grasp), but the tendency to make the divine unknowability the very truth value of one’s position regarding this or that doctrine, so that all one’s doctrines become as inaccessible (and so unfalsifiable) as God is unknowable.

        I don’t mind ending up in the ineffable. That’s where theology rightly done aims to deliver us. It’s actually making what we don’t know about God the very defense of our claims about God that I’m concerned about. Maybe I’m drawing too fine a distinction or doing a poor job of describing my frustration.



        • paxamoretbonum says:

          As far as any tendency to make divine unknowability the truth value of one’s position, at least regarding the problem of evil, what’s not defensible, in my view, are any ad hoc retreats into theological skepticism. Generally, though, that’s not what I encounter. Disagreements regarding whether or not theodicies are un/necessary or even im/possible are, instead, rooted in one’s religious epistemology, systematically. I get frustrated trying to figure out what implicit, alternate epistemological approaches might be the locus of some impasses. I’m not sure I’ve spoken to your frustration but you did remind me of my own. In my approach, for example, I suppose I could say that a positive theodicy remains unnecessary, largely because it’s virtually impossible.


  5. Gary M. Gorman says:

    It’s interesting to take the accounts of Jer. 9 and Mark 11 here. God chose to “not permit” humans by acting upon “their” animals and plants and water. It seems so obvious, but I really never made the connection till now.


  6. Tom says:

    Fr Al, you’ll definitely want to hear Sarah Coakley as you prep for McCann’s view on evil.

    It’s long and tedious, but worth every word. I don’t always agree with her, but Coakley is one of my top 4 or 5 favorite theological thinkers. It’s review and commentary up to minute 51:18 at which point she starts discussion her (Thomisitc) position (which I’m guessing is your own view).


    Liked by 1 person

  7. paxamoretbonum says:

    I don’t have trouble with logical, deductive accounts (which basically cycle abductive and deductive inferences), whether a logical defense to the problem of evil or an alternate quantum interpretation. Those approaches help establish the reasonableness of — not only our questions, but — the external congruence, logical consistency, internal coherence, hypothetical consonance, interdisciplinary consilience and a host of other epistemic virtues regarding any given account.

    Now, in the normal methodological scheme, such an abductive-deductive inferential cycling can fall into epistemic vice if, at some point, it is not also interrupted by inductive testing, if you will, falsification and empirical investigation.

    So, beyond our establishment of logical possibilities, we pursue evidential plausibilities.

    However, we must be mindful of our subject matter, even in that metaphysics pertaining to the origins of the cosmos, life, sentience and human agency, precisely because of transcendence, minimalistically conceived. These problems remain intractable because we haven’t been able to reconcile emergent nomicities from one level of complexity to the next.

    So, as we encourage a plurality of logical interpretations at various of nature’s causal joints, we resist any rush to closure, especially aspiring to
    avail ourselves of falsifiability and empirical probing. We don’t ever presuppose that we are, in principle, necessarily ontologically occulted, only imagine, instead, that, for now and in this case, we might remain epistemologically thwarted, methodologically.

    Now, to the extent this describes our situation regarding, for example, the origins of life and human symbolic language, ontologically and nomically nearby, so to speak, then, how much more so will this epistemic distance obtain as our thermodynamic equations break down as we approach t=0 near the Big Bang?

    That’s why evidential approaches, such as the attempt to establish irreducible complexity by ID proponents, remain seriously misguided. For one thing, some anthropic principle approaches confuse the math between chance and coincidence. More importantly, though, we simply do not know enough about the cosmos’ initial, boundary and limit conditions to say with any confidence what should or should not be expected. (I generously grant each person their unique bayesian priors but all might properly concede that those are rarely universally held). To boot, irreducible complexity is unfalsifiable.

    So, if a healthy degree of metaphysical agnosticism remains defensible, how much more so theological skepticism?

    The problem is, as Pascal and William James realized, the matter of God remains existentially vital and axiologically forced. So, we evaluate what might be live options. Now, by evaluate, I certainly include logical interpretations of primal reality and logical defenses of the problem of evil. But our final evaluations simply cannot turn on informative necessities, logically, but, instead on the performative significance of our leaps, existentially. So, there’s an evidential aspect that, with no little epistemic virtue, warrants our leaps of faith, and evaluates them in terms of how much value we can cash out of them in terms of what Don Gelpi, SJ (building on Lonergan) would describe as intellectual, affective, moral, social and religious conversions or, in short, human authenticity. Faith, in such an approach, is much less so warranted epistemically vis a vis inductive testing of abductive-deductive “best explanations,” and more so normatively justified. The leap takes place at an existential disjunction as a “living as if” in the face of competing and intractable equiplausibilities, where we wager or choose the most life-giving and relationship-enhancing response (is that a rope or a snake coiled up on the floor of my cave? i shall leave it alone until i can light the fire and see! meanwhile, i’d best jump over it).

    So, while I find evidential theodicies terribly off-putting, some worse than others, more fundamentally, they seem epistemically misconceived. We simply don’t know enough about — not only the cosmos’ initial conditions, but — G*d’s essential nature to say what should or should not be expected vis a vis creatio, metaphysically.

    So, the problem of evil, logically, invites a plurality of defenses, none which must necessarily hold, evidentially remains way epistemically distanced but, existentially, suggesting certain normative responses and requiring creative pastoral solutions.

    I don’t say all that with as much confidence as might come across in a tenor and tone that likely sounds pedantic. That’s to say that I’ve learned way more from you all, not just answers but new questions, than I could reasonably pretend to have offered. I’m just taking the training wheels off of my theological bike surrounded by such a nice bunch of folks who’ll kindly catch me if I fall.


  8. Iain Lovejoy says:

    I am still unclear from the above whether it is McCann’s case that we have free will because God creates us such that our will is in accordance with the divine plan (so we “independently” will what God intended us to will) or that (by analogy with an author allowing the delevoping personalities of the characters created to drive how they behave) God creates us on an ongoing basis to act is in accordance with our own internal logic, desires and will. I would have thought only the latter really counts as free will, or indeed existing as a self-consistent autonomous creation.

    Liked by 1 person

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