Is God the Author of Sin?

This article has been revised, expanded, and republished on 13 November 2021.


Is God the author of sin? The question assumes paramount importance when evaluating the construal of divine and human agency advanced by Hugh J. McCann. Popular theodicies seek to protect God from responsibility for human evil. That’s the upshot of the free-will defense, after all: God cannot be justly blamed for the evils and horrors perpetrated by human beings because of the gift of freedom. He is therefore off the hook … yet perhaps not totally. “To be sure,” comments McCann, “this is not the end of the matter. God is still responsible for creating a world that contains beings with free will, and thus for risking moral evil. And he also creates and sustains the natural order that allows our acts of will to have deleterious consequences” (Creation and the Sovereignty of God, p. 77). But in the end we trust that the terrible costs will prove ultimately worthwhile. Matters become trickier, however, with theories of double agency. The double-agency philosopher recognizes that if God is the transcendent cause and sustainer of absolutely everything that exists, then he cannot be exempted from responsibility for the freely chosen actions of human beings, including their sinful ones. The only question is, what kind of responsibility does he bear? McCann tackles the question head-on.

Let’s first recall a few of his statements that pose the problem:

God belongs to an order of being entirely his own, one that transcends completely the order of secondary causes. … Whatever we take event-causation to consist in, causal relations exist only contingently, and so must be created by God. On pain of another regress, therefore, 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. A fortiori, there is no nexus that binds Gods will to ours, nor is there any causal distance whatever between God and us or any of our willings. Indeed, there is not even causal contiguity. Rather, we and all that we do have our being in God, and the first manifestation of God’s creative will regarding our decisions and acts is not a command that causes those acts, but nothing short of the acts themselves. (p. 103)

The relationship between God’s will and ours is not, then, one of control in the sense of manipulation. Rather, just as everything is up to God as creator, so everything is up to me as creature—exactly what we should expect if we take seriously the adage often repeated by the pious: that we should pray as though everything depends on God, and then act as though everything depends on us. There is, of course, something that cannot happen on this view: it cannot be that God should will as creator that I act in one way, and that I act differently. And this is an ontological reality as well as a logical one. But the reason is not that, were I to try to behave differently, I would run up against any obstacle. Rather, were I to will differently, God would be doing so as well. What the impossibility comes to, therefore, is simply that neither God nor I can at once will something and not will it. But that is not a curtailment—of his freedom or mine. (pp. 109-110)

For while the present view [of double agency] offers help with traditional problems regarding human freedom and responsibility, it only makes the problem of evil, especially moral evil, more pressing. No longer may we claim that those acts in which we sin escape God’s creative power, so that his responsibility for them is alleviated. Rather, we have to face the fact that as creator, God is just as involved in our wrongful decisions and actions as he is in all else that goes on in the world—that is, fully, as the source of their being. Is he, then, to be charged with moral evil in their occurrence? (p. 112)

In light of these statements, as well as others quoted in “The World is a Novel,” we have no choice, therefore, but to put Dr McCann into the dock and interrogate him further. Will we end up concluding that God too should join him there?

McCann begins his defense of the Almighty Creator with a concession: “There is no denying that the relation in question makes God the author of sin in one sense: namely, that he is the First Cause of those acts of will in which we sin. All of our willings owe their existence directly to God, just as we do, and could never take place but for his active participation, in the form of willing that they occur” (p. 116). This seems to follow from the creatio ex nihilo, and I have long thought (long before I had ever heard of double agency) that this must be the case. If God is the Creator, then he upholds in being my thoughts and volitions, as well as their historical consequences. He gives them actuality. At the very least he permits and underwrites them. That moral evil exists in the universe flows from God’s creation and conservation of free acting beings. McCann thus cuts off retreat into even a partial deism. God is God. The ontological buck stops with him.

Is God morally culpable for our evil acts? Does he incur guilt? McCann answers no and makes an important distinction: God does not will our decisions in their immorality and wickedness; he wills them in their freedom. He wills that we will freely. The divine Creator is the subject of our being the subjects of our decisions and actions. Consider the example of Smith who decides to kill Jones:

Why might someone think that God’s creatively willing the occurrence of this event makes him guilty of anything? Perhaps the worry is that God might actually participate in Smith’s decision, that when Smith decides to kill Jones there actually occurs a joint exercise of agency, in which Smith and God together settle on doing Jones in. If this were so, it might seem that God must share in the malice of the decision, just as he shares in the decision itself, in which case Smith’s sin is also God’s. This view of things is, however, mistaken. When Smith decides to kill Jones, the decision is predicated of Smith alone, and belongs entirely to him. He alone forms the intention to kill Jones, hence he alone can incur the guilt of doing so. God does not and cannot participate in Smith’s decision, for he belongs to an entirely different order of being. To predicate the decision of him would be the equivalent of saying that when a mystery writer has one character decide to do away with another, she herself is guilty of deciding to commit murder. Nor does God, in providing for the existence of Smith’s decision, decide in his own right to kill Jones. The content of God’s will is not that Jones should die … but rather Smith’s act of deciding. In propositional terms, God wills that Smith decide to murder Jones. And of course, as in all things, his will is efficacious. So if God incurs any blame in the transaction, it has to be for that—for willing Smith’s act of deciding. (pp. 116-117)

For every human act, suggests McCann, we may specify two sets of predicates. While it is certainly true that God wills Smith’s willing the murder of Jones, only Smith intends the crime. Perhaps Smith is having an affair with the lovely but deceitful wife of Jones. Overcome by jealousy and desire, he plans the perfect murder and on the fateful day executes it. Smith alone forms the intention to kill Jones; he alone decides to disobey the sixth commandment; he alone chooses to pull the trigger. Smith does not collaborate with God in the murder nor God with him; nor does God purpose the murder as murder or will Smith’s wicked act for ulterior and malicious purposes. Smith’s reasons to murder Jones are different from God’s reasons to will Smith’s willing. God makes himself the ontological source and ground of the sin, but the sin belongs to Smith alone.

God, on the other hand, has his own reasons to will Smith’s decision to murder Jones. Perhaps he has a standing policy not to override or tinker with the free decisions of human beings, no matter how wicked. “Freedom would mean nothing,” comments McCann, “if an evil intention could never be carried off” (p. 77). Perhaps God knows that he can redeem this evil and thus bring into the world a greater good. Perhaps he intends to bring Smith to a deep repen­tance and transform him into a powerful evangelist. Perhaps the killing will set into motion a series of events that will bear good fruit decades or even generations later. The most famous example of this kind of providential working is told in the Book of Genesis. Filled with jealousy and anger, the sons of Jacob plan the murder of their brother Joseph but at the last moment change their minds and sell him to slavers. Joseph eventually becomes the viceroy of Egypt, thereby achieving a position of power that would enable him to assist his family during the great famine. As Joseph later told his brothers: “As for you, you meant evil against me; but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today” (Gen 50:20).


We are now in a position to better assess McCann’s strong assertion of divine providence and how it relates to the reality of sin and evil:

Our destinies are entirely subordinate to God’s creative will; he exercises full control in all that we do, notwithstanding the fact that our deeds are fully voluntary, and we have every reason to expect that all that takes place in the world will reflect the providence of a perfectly loving father. As for omniscience, here too there is no difficulty. God knows about our decisions and actions simply by knowing his own intentions, for he wills that they occur. Nor is his will exercised from the fastidious distance preferred by Molinists, in which God creates us knowing what we will do, but has no hand in our actually doing it. Rather, God is as much the cause of our sinful actions as of our virtuous ones, or of any other event. Yet, Augustine and Aquinas would both insist, he remains perfectly good and absolutely holy, a being deserving of our complete reverence and absolute devotion. How might such a thing be possible?

Part of the answer lies in the fact that even if my act of deciding to go to the concert tonight has its existence grounded in God’s creatively willing that I so decide, it is still I who act, still I who decide. God’s willing that I decide as I do does not make my decision God’s. Indeed, if it did, if my decision were predicated of God rather than me, his will would fail to achieve its object. But it is not possible for God’s will to be frustrated, as long as what he wills is consistent. So regardless of what we may think of the traditional view’s contention that divine sovereignty and creaturely freedom are fully compatible, that view does not take the operations of our will, or the actions founded upon them, away from us. They remain our own. Consequently, any sin they involve remains ours also. Thus, if I decide sinfully to go to the concert tonight—if, say, I am neglecting duties I know should take priority—the sin is mine, not God’s. If he is to be faulted, it must be for some other reason. It should be noted, moreover, that God’s position in this respect is not much different from what it is on the Molinist account. True, that view takes certain things out of God’s hands. Whether I would decide to go to the concert in the circumstances in which I will find myself tonight is not, according to Molinism, up to God. But it is up to him whether I shall be created in those circumstances, and indeed whether I shall exist at all. On both views, God knowingly and willingly creates a world in which rational creatures sin. The difference is that on the traditional view God does have complete control: he can create any possible world, and he is as much involved as creator in those acts in which we sin as he is in any others. And that means the standard free will defense, which works only by diminishing God’s authority and circumscribing his providence, is not available. But another may be. It must be remembered that even though the actions of free creatures do not escape providence, such creatures are still an enhancement to creation, in that their nature reflects more closely what we suppose to be God’s own nature. As such, free creatures are more suited to the kind of fellowship with God that believers understand to be their ultimate destiny. (“Divine Providence“)

Is God the author of sin? No, for he only wills the good of his creatures. Yes, for he is the divine Creator who has brought into being a world in which evil became possible and, apparently, virtually inevitable. We may speculate on why he did so. Here is where free will theodicists come into their own. Mutual love is only possible between persons who are truly free, as C. S. Lewis so eloquently reminds us. The perfections of a world populated by free beings, even with its (hopefully redeemable) horrors and sufferings, outweighs its noncreation. Perhaps we might entertain the proposals of John HickThomas Talbott, and Tom Belt that an epistemic distance from God is necessary for the development of the kind of personhood that he intends for us. McCann even goes so far as to suggest that God purposefully created a world in which free human beings must sin, as only those who have alienated themselves from the divine presence can appreciate the good of communion and thus make an informed decision to live with God. McCann’s suggestion neatly solves the aporia of moral evil, but I imagine that most believers, including myself, would judge it heterodox. The critical point for McCann: God is not guilty of evil in willing the evil acts of his creatures. The sin is ours, not God’s.

As we saw in “God Makes Us Freely Acting,” Kathryn Tanner affirms a non-competitive understanding of divine/human agency, which in turn makes possible a strong assertion of divine sovereignty. Because God is the transcendent origin and source of all that exists, his “creative intention for the world cannot be hindered, diverted or otherwise redirected by creatures,” she avers. “What God wills for the world as its creator must happen just the way God wills” (“Human Freedom, Human Sin, and God the Creator,” p. 114). She makes no exception for the exercise of creaturely freedom: “Given God’s infallible working, human beings must choose when and what God chooses” (p. 127). But what about sin? If God is supremely good and only wills the good, then by definition he does not and cannot will that which contradicts his nature. The presence of moral evil in the world should be impossible, yet clearly it is very possible.

At this point Tanner concedes that we are confronted with an aporia and surd. “The origination of sin,” she writes, “is properly a mystery, properly inexplicable in a scheme of thought where God is the ultimate principle of explanation” (p. 112). Sin should not exist, must not exist. “It is what, by all rights, should not exist in a world that God creates” (p. 133). She is therefore unwilling to attempt an explanation for the apparent ability of creatures to choose other than what God wills.

But Tanner is willing to speculate on how it is possible for God to know, and therefore account for, that which he does not bring into being:

God’s intention for the world, the creative intention that holds up into being the whole of the world, includes sets of pseudo­subjunctive propositions; propositions, that is, about what else will happen in the world should the creature sin, and what will happen within the world should the creature not. These are pseudo­subjunctive propositions in that God knows from all eternity whether or not the creature does sin. Let us say God intends the salvation of all persons, then with infinite detail what God intends includes the saving of x in such a way y if x does not sin and the saving of x in such and such a way z if x does sin, with the knowledge of whether or not and, if so, when, x sins. If the creature sins, that is contrary to God’s will in that God’s will does not extend to the bringing to be of sin. If the creature sins, what happens in the world will be different (subsequent events will be different), but God’s will for the world will not be.

How does God know whether and when sin occurs? The only crucial point to make here (if the premises we have given above are not to be violated) is that this knowledge of the existence of sin is not a condition of God’s forming God’s very complicated intentions with respect to the world. God’s knowledge of sin is dependent upon, and is logically subsequent to, God’s creative intention for the world. It is therefore part of what could be called God’s practical knowledge, or knowledge of what the created world is like in God’s will for it. God does not directly will sin but sin (insofar as it is a defect) presupposes God’s will for the world in which it occurs. (pp. 133-134)

If you’re like me, you’ll probably need to reread the above passage a few times to grasp its gist. Given that God does not will moral evil, how is it possible for God to know the disobediences of his creatures without introducing passivity into the divine nature? McCann does not explicitly address this question, probably because he does not believe that he needs to, given his conviction that God wills equally the well- and ill-chosen acts of human beings: “God knows about our decisions and actions simply by knowing his own intentions, for he wills that they occur (“Divine Providence“). In any case, both Tanner and McCann wish to strongly affirm the freedom and power of the Creator to accomplish his salvific intentions for the world. His sovereign will is infrustrable; his providential plans cannot be defeated. “At most,” states Tanner,

the existence of sin brings about a different way of getting to the ends God wills, without altering God’s intention about what is to happen on that supposition. With or without sin, or whatever the particular sinful choices made, the same end that God wants will happen. The sinner’s intentions are taken up within the intention of God for the world and are inevitably redirected to the end God wills, in virtue of the fact that God’s will is directly efficacious of everything else in the world besides sin and the fact that God can always will with the same necessary efficacy that a sinner’s heart be transformed. The will of God for the world remains infallible, therefore, in a form much like the fate of the classical Greek tragedies—in whichever way one strikes out one will be brought back to the same point. But, now, what is fated, if one believes in the benevolence and mercy of God, is the good. (p. 135)

And that is very good news.

(Return to first article)

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51 Responses to Is God the Author of Sin?

  1. Desiray says:

    God is not the author of sin. Satan is the author of sin.


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Hi, Desiray. Welcome to EO. I don’t disagree with your comment, but in terms of the article, it still leaves open the question why God allowed Satan to wreak such havoc on this world.


  2. Tom says:

    “Matters become trickier with theories of double agency.”

    That’s getting Tweeted!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Iain Lovejoy says:

    I still can’t follow whether McCann is saying God creates man such that he wills a specific way or forms creation such that man acts in accordance with the internal logical consistency of his will.
    (The distinction being the distinction being between an author who writes a character behaving a particular way in order to further the plot as decided by the author, and an author who allows the nature of the character as already written to drive what the author has the character do next.)
    I would say in the former case we have no agency at all, since what we will or do does not follow causally from ourselves (and God, not us, is responsible for both our will and our sin) but in the latter we do have free will, and, while God is in a sense the author of sin, it is necessary for our existence as real agents for him to permit it.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      “I still can’t follow whether McCann is saying God creates man such that he wills a specific way or forms creation such that man acts in accordance with the internal logical consistency of his will.”

      May not both be true?


      • Iain Lovejoy says:

        Well yes: I think I badly phrased it. The issue is more whether the way God chooses to create us willing he determines by the internal logic of our own nature or the external workings of God’s own purposes.


      • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

        I suspect, Iain, I have probably reached my limit in trying to articulate McCann’s views. It’s a difficult topic. I do think that we need to take McCann at his word that he believes that his construal of divine sovereignty makes possible genuine libertarian freedom. In his article “Divine Sovereignty,” he writes:

        My claim, then, is that when He does not create determining secondary causes of things, God’s creative will is expressed entirely in the being of what He creates, not in any further, metaphysical conditions that determine its nature. If, therefore, God chooses to create a being who decides freely, to undertake a specific course of action, it will be so. … [E]ven though God has complete sovereignty over the universe, we retain complete freedom in our decisions, and full responsibility for them. (p. 596)

        McCann emphatically rejects the criticism that “the view I have offered must still be seen as depriving us of true autonomy, because autonomy is real only if we are able to act in ways that God can neither plan nor, perhaps, even foresee, so that he must finally adjust his projects to ours, bending his will to that of his creatures when it comes to those affairs over which they exercise control” (Creation, p. 111). He considers the wish for freedom from God as a condition for authentic liberty as spiritually dangerous and metaphysically impossible.


  4. Paul Paulsen says:

    God is the creator of SATAN, the DEVIL. 1 John 3:8 reads ὁ ποιῶν τὴν ἁμαρτίαν ἐκ τοῦ διαβόλου ἐστίν, ὅτι ἀπ’ ἀρχῆς ὁ διάβολος ἁμαρτάνει – he who is doing the sin, of the devil he is, because from the beginning the devil does sin. Here we read: THE DEVIL SINS FROM THE BEGINNING. BUT LUCIFER STARTED AS GOOD ANGEL. The LUCIFER BEING SATAN story is a myth coming from EZEKIEL 28, but it happens that actually it is a “Prophecy against Tyre”. The LUCIFER myth of SATAN is obviously false. IS GOD THE AUTHOR OF SIN? Yes, in the sense that GOD CREATED ALL. And in the END GOD WILL BECOME ALL IN ALL 1 Cor 15:28: ὅταν δὲ ὑποταγῇ αὐτῷ τὰ πάντα, τότε καὶ αὐτὸς ὁ υἱὸς ὑποταγήσεται τῷ ὑποτάξαντι αὐτῷ τὰ πάντα, ἵνα ᾖ ὁ Θεὸς τὰ πάντα ἐν πᾶσιν… There you have it: ὁ Θεὸς becomes τὰ πάντα ἐν πᾶσιν… THAT IS BTW THE REASON OF APOCATASTASIS PANTON. Greetings from Germany… PS: Your page served me as example for a good one whenever it comes that I needed good material to show, for it took´me more than 40 years I finally accepted the “BLESSED HOPE” called APOCATASTASIS…


  5. Paul Paulsen says:

    It appears to me, that God “created” sin and reconciliation to Him (according to Col 1:20, which gives the cross a “cosmic dimension” – καὶ δι’ αὐτοῦ ἀποκαταλλάξαι τὰ πάντα εἰς αὐτόν, εἰρηνοποιήσας διὰ τοῦ αἵματος τοῦ σταυροῦ αὐτοῦ, δι’ αὐτοῦ εἴτε τὰ ἐπὶ τῆς γῆς εἴτε τὰ ἐν τοῖς οὐρανοῖς) a kind of interlude creating ways of variations in the flow of eons (commonly known as “eternity”). God is somehow able to comprehend in terms of “eons” while humans ain´t. The most general we can say is: God loves variety. And contrasts. And surprises. But the greatest of all: He loves humans. In Christ God has a human face. John 1:18 – Θεὸν οὐδεὶς ἑώρακεν πώποτε· ὁ μονογενὴς υἱὸς ὁ ὢν εἰς τὸν κόλπον τοῦ πατρὸς ἐκεῖνος ἐξηγήσατο. Interesting is the verb ἐξηγήσατο / exegesato. From that verb does our word exegesis come wich means “explanation”. In Jesus Christ God has His exegesis or explanation. That is the wonder of wonders. No one will ever be lost. Only chastised. But not eternally…


  6. John h says:

    Hi Father

    I am not sure that I understand why McCann’s suggestion that God permitted free creatures to make bad moral choices because only those who have fallen from grace are capable of freely choosing to return to God would be viewed as heretical. Is it because it comes dangerously close to asserting that God needs evil to achieve his ultimate goal which is the reconciliation of all? Thank you for this series of profound reflections on an important topic.


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      I agree. His position is worse thatn your phrase it. The way he puts it, it sounds like he believes that God created the knowing that the Father was necessarily inevitable. I cannot follow McCann at this point. I won’t even try to defend or explain it. Given the doctrinal teaching of the Catholic Church, I’m surprised he even allowed himself to entertain this speculation. Fortunately, it is easily detached from his central argument regarding the relationship between divine and creaturely agency.


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Here’s McCann’s words:

      Ultimately, the, God aims to be not only our creator but our friend. True friendship, however, is a matter of mutual commitment. And this commitment has to be voluntary: it cannot be imposed, or wrested from the other by force. If God only exacts devotion from us, we are reduced to being his subjects. To be friends with him requires something quite different: it takes a meaningful and responsible decision on our part to accept the offer of friendship he presents to us. But (and here’s finally the rub) a responsible choice in God’s favor requires that we understand the alternative—which is to be at enmity with him. Guilt, remorse, a sense of defilement, and the hopeless desolation of being cut off from God cannot be understood in the abstract, because if they are only understood abstratly they are not ours. Only through experience can we understand what it means to be in rebellion against God—and we gain that experience by sinning. By turning away from him we come to know what it means to be alone, and we learn that however successful they may be, our own projects cannot satisfy us. Only then are we in a position to choose responsibly to accept or to reject God’s offer of fellowship. In short, it is only from a stance of sinfulness that we are able to settle our destinies in an informed, responsible, and morally authentic way. (p. 123)

      It makes sense, but I cannot see how it can be reconciled with orthodox Christian teaching.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Iain Lovejoy says:

        I have no idea whether McCann’s idea re sin can be reconciled to orthodox Christian teaching, but I can’t see how it can be compatible with a loving God: he seems to be basically saying God deliberately inflicts sin and suffering on us to drive us into fellowship with him. I can’t see how our decision to choose God becomes more validly moral if we are driven to it by fear of the nastier alternative.


        • Grant says:

          It seems even more problematic than just our decision for God being more moral, it paints a rather Stop correcting disturbing picture of God, and again leads to questions akin to whether God is the author of sin, and whether He can truly be called good if He in freely creating, creates such a situation.

          It would be somewhat analogous to a parent taking their child and locking them in a room with no light, sanitation, and barely any food and leaving them in this terrible condition and then opening a door and saying they are invited to come and live with them in the house in full fellowship
          and love, or they can choose to stay where they are. Even if the parent was competely loving and compassionate to them, and they had all their needs meet, and in other ways were competely loving parents, we would be rightly shocked and horrified by the shocking abuse and callous viciousness in such a situation, and couldn’t consider the parent good or truly loving, a choice like that is no choice at all, but one of fear.

          And since God creates completely freely, and creates the situation, and has nothing forcing or condition Him, it would be similar, He creates this situation of His own choice, and if that were that sin were an intended feature for the purpose suggested, I don’t see how God could be called good or loving at all, at least for those words still to retain any meaning besides on given out of empty piety and fear, and appeals to the nknowableness of God, which in this situation would sound a bit hollow to me I’m afraid.


          • Robert Fortuin says:

            I suppose this calls into question parenthood.
            But yet, interestingly, no parent is held accountable for the deeds of her child. Thank God.


    • Paul Paulsen says:

      Obviously God needs evil to achieve the reconciliation of all… I am a Lutheran theologian. And Luther once said: pecca fortiter – sin strongly, which I never understood fully. I know how difficult it is to face that truth… But since I know of Gods ways I came to see that speaking of God needs to see His love and grace mainly. Today after many years of trials and disillusion (when I was a student I happened to be arrogant and a smart pant) thus finding the path of meekness, after three strokes and sitting in a wheel chair, not being able to move and even to speak, I was given to sense Gods abyss deep love and concernment. For over 40 years I knew of a theological phenomenon called “reconciliation” i. e. “apocatastasis”, but I didn´t dare to believe. I struggled with sin a lot and still struggle. Today I walk with a stick and speak more or less fluently. Anyway. Greetings from Germany. Today it has become clear to me: Pecca fortiter is and never has been a problem. Luther simply knew that famous vers: νόμος δὲ παρεισῆλθεν, ἵνα πλεονάσῃ τὸ παράπτωμα· οὗ δὲ ἐπλεόνασεν ἡ ἁμαρτία, ὑπερεπερίσσευσεν ἡ χάρις (Rom 5:20). Consider both verbs ἐπλεόνασεν – abound and ὑπερεπερίσσευσεν – overabound: sin did abound while grace did overbound… That is Gospel! This is Good News! Theology has always been an art of ….guessing, an art of having the right questions…

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Gary M. Gorman says:

    One of the more difficult topics I struggle to grasp. This order now was written with sin, but the order to come is similar to an author just erasing from the story all death, the characters will appear in life only.


  8. malcolmsnotes says:

    I mean no disrespect – but how exactly does this post answer the question? McCann’s proposal is that God “makes us freely acting” (your language.) That sentence is simply enough, and can be easily grasped intuitively. But how does this not entail that God “makes us freely sinning”? The explanation (I do not see one in this post) should be just as succinct.


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Putting the question of sin to the side for the moment, would it be fair to say, Chris, that your principal objection to Mccann’s position is that you find the assertion of double agency incoherent?


      • malcolmsnotes says:

        I actually don’t. I think it makes sense logically and metaphysically. It just doesn’t make sense from a Christian standpoint, or in terms of believing in a personal God who is good. For it entails that God actively causes evil (or pain, suffering, etc.) in the same way that he causes good (pleasure, joy, etc.) In short, there are a lot of things that make sense metaphysically: pantheism, deism, emanationism, etc. But these have all been condemned on Christian grounds, insofar as they entail some *theological* difficulty: God is separate from creation, he actively cares about the world, he created freely, etc.


  9. malcolmsnotes says:

    I.e. if God causes and creates all, as an author causes and creates all events in a novel, how does he not cause/create sin and evil?


  10. paxamoretbonum says:

    Fr Al explained: McCann even goes so far as to suggest that God purposefully created a world in which free human beings must sin, as only those who have alienated themselves from the divine presence can appreciate the good of communion and thus make an informed decision to live with God. <<<<<

    and also shared McCann's words: In short, it is only from a stance of sinfulness that we are able to settle our destinies in an informed, responsible, and morally authentic way. <<<<<

    While, arguably, evil and suffering can be employed instrumentally, McCann apparently considers them essential raw materials rather than unavoidable, but recyclable, waste products. Of course, some nonconsequentialists would consider evil irredeemable, not recyclable.

    Even if one stipulates to the consistency and plausibility of consequentialist theodicies, I suppose one could broadly or narrowly conceive epistemic distancing. One might consider both natural and moral evil essential. More narrowly, one might consider natural evil as not only necessary but sufficient? In other words, mere human finitude and formative dynamics would suffice. Humans could learn enough from the consequences of exculpable mistakes without needing to suffer the consequences of sin?

    I am not interested in the above nuances toward the end of evaluating their competing plausibilities, not being sympathetic to such projects, in general, but I do wonder about their varying degrees of heterodoxy. I'm also interested in how they relate to the various logical defenses.

    I really appreciate this series and the work you put in, Fr Al, in restating and explicating the very challenging, i.e. difficult, thoughts of McCann.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    I reposted this morning an article I wrote three years ago on the topic of synergism and double agency. I focus on the views of Thomist Herbert McCabe. Note the similiarites and differences between McCabe and McCann: “Mysteriouser and Mysteriouser.”

    Liked by 1 person

    • paxamoretbonum says:

      Thanks for that referral to Mysteriouser, Fr Al.

      I was better able to figure out the similarities between McCann and McCabe. They both begin with McCa. The differences were harder for me to figure out. Which specific differences would you say were most salient?

      Below are my guesses:

      Regarding determinism and free will, both McCann and McCabe seem to be theological but not natural compatabilists/determinists. Both seem to invoke a non-causal view of theological determinism (grounded in the analogical predication of causal concepts between Creator and creatures, hence no threat to human freedom).

      McCann employs a non-causal (teleological) conception of human intentionality.

      McCabe suggests that God brings about creaturely causes, allowing them to cause one another, intermediately. Human freedom is, however, not mediated but directly caused by God.

      McCann, McCabe and Tanner suggest that free human choices are created by God, very intimately so. God’s omniscience and omnipresence seem to be transcendent in the sense that He’s radically, almost inconceivably, intimate with us as persons?

      Both McCann and McCabe reject a free will defense.

      McCann goes on to further suggest a consequentialist, soul-making theodicy, wherein evil is essential in the divine economy. In other places, McCann has drawn a distinction between direct and indirect divine intentions, so, it’s unclear why he wouldn’t embrace a “double effect” theodicy, wherein evil would be unavoidable. McCann hews close to Aquinas and Augustine regarding the creaturely will, so, perhaps a consequentialist stance isn’t wholly problematic if he, similarly, views evil per the Augustinian privatio boni (nothing of ontological substance). Still, I don’t understand while a “privatio as epistemic distance” would “necessarily” require – not just natural, but – moral evil. I suppose that’s what happens when we start arguing plausibilities with an insufficient amount of skepticism or sufficient epistemic humility.

      McCabe, for his part, was much more modest, remaining more mindful of analogical predications and, as a result, staying in a theodicy-free zone. He does suggest that, insofar as they are “good,” God directly creates our free acts. Wrong acts are our perversions, creaturely negations, which God, incomprehensibly, permits. 

      Thanks. This has been a worthwhile head-scratcher.


      Liked by 1 person

      • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

        Thanks, John, for this insightful comment. You write:

        “Regarding determinism and free will, both McCann and McCabe seem to be theological but not natural compatabilists/determinists. Both seem to invoke a non-causal view of theological determinism (grounded in the analogical predication of causal concepts between Creator and creatures, hence no threat to human freedom).”

        I suspect that both McCabe and McCann would object to your use of the term “determinism” to describe their respective positions, given that both assert that creatures enjoy libertarian freedom. But perhaps precisely at this point, at the point where we try (and fail) to fathom the relationship between divine and creaturely agency, our categories break down. Your term “non-causal determinism” hints, I think, at this breakdown. Do you agree?

        Liked by 1 person

        • paxamoretbonum says:

          I wholeheartedly agree. The adjectival “non-causal” is meant to scream “category warning.”

          McCann certainly did not subscribe to the theological determinism of Jonathan Edwards. Arguably, his also must be distinguished from the soft determinism of many compatabilists, especially those who speak too univocally regarding divine causes (or even of natural teloi, for that matter).

          For McCann, divine and creaturely (over)determinations were only analogous, and very weakly so, because, while divine determinations confer existence, natural determinations merely alter various existents.

          That’s my succint observation. I continue with my over-answer:

          McCann’s God wouldn’t determinatively “alter” free human intentionality in a manner mediated via event-causal natural processes. Instead, God’s creative activity would “produce” the very content of any free decision or intention. Such a creative activity would be no mere nomicity among nomicities but the primal ground of all nomicity, itself.

          For other compatabilists, a creaturely act, subveniently, could remain non-nomic and undetermined, while superveniently, hetero-nomic (externally caused) and overdetermined. For example, this could entail a free will, whereby a person’s own intentions, alone, would be sufficient to provide the cause and explanation for their any given act. At the same time, via some causal redundancy (whether God, The Matrix or various neural states), there could be other causes that would also sufficiently explain the very same act. So, we would have two or more independent causes, each which could bring about the same effect in the absence of the other. This would seem to be consistent with some forms of soft determinism or compatabilism, whether secular or theological?

          Of course, Jonathan Edwards’ determinism would not invoke overdetermination as God’s will would be the exclusive cause of any act.

          Hugh McCann’s account allowed for some creaturely acts to be indirectly and intermediately (subveniently) caused by God but not overdetermined (secondary causality & permissive will?), while others could be directly and immediately (superveniently) caused by God, in some sense overdetermined. Presumably, the latter would include “free” human acts. However, McCann’s overdetermination would not in any way be physical, mereological or quantitative, in other words, an act among acts, but, instead, would be existential, conferring their very reality. In other words, he employs no notion of independent competing causes as they’d apply to free human acts, only a broader conception of causation, which refers to both its teleological and existential aspects, both which remain as ineluctably unobtrusive as they are utterly efficacious. I say “refers” and not “describes” mindful that none of us are proffering an explanatory account of causal joints, whether divine or in certain parts of nature, herself.

          Interestingly, it would thus seem that, for McCann, a secular indeterminism would not, necessarily, entail a theological indeterminism, as they are only related analogously. In my view, though, affirming a secular indeterminism, as I do, does makes it easier for me to consistently conceive a theological indeterminism (precisely via analogy), even though further argument would be required to establish same.

          I would like to add that, while not an explanation of synergeia, McCann, McCabe and others’ approach to double agency, are spiritually evocative for me. They seem consistent with the notion that —

          when I am authentically free, traversing various epistemic distances via Marian-like fiats, I am loving with the very Love of God …

          there was only ever one Ascension, while there will be many, many Assumptions …

          whatever is good, beautiful, true, unitive, authentically free comes from the Author and Finisher.


          Liked by 1 person

          • paxamoretbonum says:

            To be clear, I am not, above, defending various compatabilist stances, only trying to understand them. I’m not terribly confident that I’ve even successfully described them. I aspire only to have better understood the questions they raise and the practical implications for the life of faith in any answers
            that we give.


          • paxamoretbonum says:

            RE: Hugh McCann’s account allowed for some creaturely acts to be indirectly and intermediately (subveniently) caused by God but not overdetermined (secondary causality & permissive will?), while others could be directly and immediately (superveniently) caused by God, in some sense overdetermined. <<<<

            I might could abide with something like this by including one's free acts and intentions in the direct divine will but one's motives in the indirect divine will (not to get too forensic, ha ha).


      • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

        Your comments, John, got me wondering why I find the notion of double agency so compelling, even though it slips through my fingers the moment I seem to grasp it. It has everything to do with my own religious and mystical (non-mystical) life. It puts God right there in the depths of my depths. Not just an Other with whom I need to negotiate and barter, but One who is closer to me than I am to myself. If this is true, then so many of the difficulties with which I wrestled for the first twenty years of my adult Christian life are revealed to be non-difficulties based on a faulty understanding of divinity.

        Liked by 1 person

  12. mary says:

    If we could not choose evil, we could not choose love. That simple.

    I appreciate that some people need to argue out all of the possibilities they can conceive of as they struggle to believe (or not) – and thus appreciate your hard work here, Fr. Aidan. But how do we imagine that we can understand, by our own reason and logic, the how and why of God?

    Sometimes I think it is part of that original sin that we think we can. To imagine that I can become God or His equal through my own effort. After all, if it doesn’t make sense to *me*, that it cannot be so!

    Will I not content myself with what He reveals? And pray for understanding when some aspect of that confuses or disturbs me?

    Forgive me. Every now and then I pop into your blog and end up saying such things. Guess I’m not cut out to be a theologian…

    Liked by 2 people

    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Mary, I do not disagree with you. But if I were to adopt your view, I’d have to give up blogging. What would I then do with my life? 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      • paxamoretbonum says:

        I come here to be nurtured by the porridge of your Goldilocksesque religious epistemology, which [metaphor mix alert] nicely threads the needle, avoiding the fideistic or rationalistic extremes. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

    • paxamoretbonum says:

      Thanks for sharing this, Mary.

      It fostered my own reflection on when I find theology even exhilirating and when totally off-putting. I no longer enjoy natural theology as most popular conversations engage only caricatures of history’s greatest a/theological thought. I am really put off by any proselytizing or polemical theology, whether a/theological or internecine.

      I have a deep appreciation for dialogical theology, both interreligious and ecumenical. It gives me hope — for peace.

      Finally, I really support good theologies of nature, which are mostly about inculturation processes and making the Good News more recognizable using the languages, ideas and interpretations of different sciences, philosophies and cultures to better express the kerygma. This is my favorite part of Eclectic Orthodoxy, as much is devoted to exploring (often enthusiastically) what’s the best way to share or talk about the Good News.


  13. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    Last night I added a one sentence quotation from McCann to the original article.
    the first person who figures out what it is will win a one-week paid holiday in Philadelphia—second place, a two-week paid holiday in Philadelphia.


  14. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    I am somewhat surprised that no one has yet commented on the strong universalism advocated by Kathryn Tanner in the last quotation of the article.


  15. mary says:

    Well, if you insist…

    Of course, God can will whatever He wishes and sin does not change that, His will is always efficacious and His will is always for the good.

    “God can always will with the same necessary efficacy that a sinner’s heart be transformed.”

    This too is true and does indeed sound like universalism. Only problem is that we sinful people cannot automatically assume that we know what God wills. Or what is good.

    Wars have been fought over humans’ certainty about what is God’s will and what is good. With one side as certain as the other.

    Perhaps God, in His infinite wisdom, knows that it is “more good” for the sinner to make some effort to choose love than for Him to simply transform his/her heart by the power of His will (and possibly against their will).

    Or any of an infinite number of things God knows that we don’t.

    (Do I win a trip to Philadelphia?)


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Mary, though technically the contest was identifying the quotation I added to the article, I, blogger of bloggers and eclectic of eclectics, am happy to award you second place. The EO travel agent will be contacting you shortly. Enjoy Philadelphia. As W. C. Fields once proposed as his epitaph: “Here lies W. C. Fields. I would rather be living in Philadelphia.” 🙂


  16. Thomas says:

    I have not studied McCann in detail, and I realize he offers provisos, but it strikes me that the metaphor of God as the author of history tends to obscure more than help. An author brings about good and evil actions in a book more or less the same way. God, on the other hand, does not bring about evil (else the proposition “God is evil” would be true in the pros hen sense).

    Actions are either necessitated, or they are not. The author analogy is often misused to say that within the context of the story, a character’s action could have been otherwise; yet given the decision of the author, the character really cannot do otherwise. But the reason an author cannot tread on a character’s freedom is that a mental construction has no freedom; we do.

    To say that we act freely viewed from our perspective, yet are infallibly determined by providence from God’s perspective is just to reject the principle of contradiction, excluded middle, and to reject rational discourse. Characters are really determined, though we might fantasize otherwise. Free people are not.

    The solution that seems perfectly satisfactory to me is that God moves the will to choose, both by final causality (as the Good) and efficient causality (infusing being), yet we specify which course of action to take. We really could have chosen otherwise in any particular case. Whether a person can always reject the good given that the Good is the source and end of the will is the question of universalism. But to say that God infallibly specifies our choices is simply to say we aren’t free, or to reject the principle of non-contradiction.


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Hi, Thomas. Thanks for your comment.

      As the saying goes, an analogy is like a dog walking on three legs. So while you and McCann might disagree on how well the author/novel analogy illuminates the divine/human agency question, you both would agree that the analogy necessarily fails.

      You write: “Actions are either necessitated, or they are not.” I think McCann might ask you to clearly explain your undertanding of necessity (determinsim) in this context. His proposal is expressly formulated to avoid nomic determinism. He might also challenge you (and if he doesn’t, I would) to explain the precise way beings who have been brought into existence out of nothing and are sustained in existence at every moment by the will of God are free or not free.

      Personally, I think you too quickly invoke the law of contradiction here. The intimate, nondualistic relationship between Creator and creature does not allow a clear either/or. IMHO.


      • Thomas says:

        I would want to distinguish more sharply between analogy and metaphor. Metaphor involves a transferred sense (e.g., the might of God’s arm), while analogy is literal (e.g., God is good). I would argue that in light of this distinction the employment of the notion of author is metaphorical rather than analogical. It seems to me you’re using the term ‘analogy’ more broadly in a way that encompasses both. It’s a perfectly correct usage, but the distinction turns out to be important: you can argue from an analogy, you can only illustrate or illuminate from a metaphor.

        With respect to the law of non-contradiction, what I have in mind is not so much McCann, at least I understand him, but the frequent usage of the author metaphor to say that from our perspective we could have done otherwise, while from God’s we could not have, and that this difference is irreconcilable. Thomistic thinkers often avoid this direct contradiction by saying that the claim is merely that human beings are free in the sense that they are not determined to a choice by nature or by other creatures, but of course it punts on the question we want to know: could we have done otherwise, or does God specify our choices? (Or really, it just denies meaningful freedom.)

        Your point (as I take it) seems to be that the relationship between God (or God’s creative activity) is so close that it does not make sense to say that God compels us to act, because God is not some force outside of us. With that much I would agree; however, I would argue that any attempt to say that God specifies our choices cannot avoid ultimately positing God as an agent acting violently (in the metaphysical sense) upon the constrained person.

        The reason for this is that every cause gives its own nature as its proper effect. For finite natures, this specifies and limits (due to the specific and limited nature of the agent). I am a human being, and hopefully something of my rational nature characterizes this response. In God’s case, his proper effect is existence, which is limited by receptive essences (i.e., finite natures).

        So it is perfectly coherent to say that God, as the primary cause, brings about in their totality all beings and their accidents (including their actions) precisely as their first efficient cause. It is also perfectly coherent to say that the divine ideas stand above created things as their exemplars, so long as this is not conflated with the morphological forms in particular creatures. And, finally, it is consistent to say that God draws things to himself as the ultimate final cause. None of this requires one to say that God specifies a free (or even a natural) choice to one alternative or another. Distinguishing between God as the first efficient and final cause, while giving creatures a certain priority on the level of essence and a real independence, is Aquinas’ way of resolving the issue, and I think it is perfectly satisfactory.

        I’ve said too much for a blog comment, and maybe too little to defend the position I want to advance. I’ve enjoyed and benefited from this series of articles, and I hope there is more to come.

        Liked by 3 people

        • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

          It might be fun to explore further the question of analogy and metaphor. I was once fairly well read on the literature, but alas, that was another lifetime and is mostly forgotten. I gather that you are employing Aquinas’s distinction between the two. As you note, I am using the word “analogy” in a broader sense than he does.


        • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

          I hope one day later this year to post on Aquinas’s understanding of the relationship between divine and creaturely agency. I hope you’re still reading the blog when I do and we can discuss this together.

          I’m mulling around in my head right now what questions McCann might raise regarding your exposition of Aquinas. Perhaps paxamoretbonum might have some thoughts.


        • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

          Tom: “With that much I would agree; however, I would argue that any attempt to say that God specifies our choices cannot avoid ultimately positing God as an agent acting violently (in the metaphysical sense) upon the constrained person.”

          I’ve been mulling this over, as it didn’t strike me as quite right. Let’s momentarily assume that God does specify specific human choices (I’m not saying that he does–just pushing the matter for further clarification). Given that God timelessly creates human beings with their histories and in their energetic states, I do not see how it could ever be construed as a violent action. It’s not as if God first creates a person and then subsequently acts upon him. He doesn’t interfere with us or violate us, because there is no “us” that preexists his eternal act of creation. He simply creates us. Or as McCann would say, he creates us acting.

          Would St Thomas disagree with the above?


      • paxamoretbonum says:

        I agree. Noncontradiction (PNC) and excluded middle (PEM) must be judiciously invoked.

        There’s more than mere propositional logic involved when we reason, under uncertainty, backwards from observed effects & properties to putative causes & entities. We must also employ modal logic, which provides conceptual placeholders for temporality (past, present, future tenses), formal distinctions, epistemic in/determinables, metaphysical in/determinedness (possibilities & probabilities) and for both over- and under-determinacy.

        For modal possibilities and overdeterminacy, PNC folds while PEM holds; for probabilities and underdeterminacy, PNC holds while PEM folds.

        When we encounter an explanatory or epistemic overdetermination of cauases, we may investigate further for a putative and genuine ontological overdetermination. It’s not always uncontroversial but many find it extremely plausible. I believe we observe it ubiquitously in our creaturely realm. Analogically, it could reasonably extend to divine causation.

        In the same way that human telos, a non-nomic intentionality transcends and effects downward causations on other creatures, so might we reasonably imagine being similarly transcended and efficaciously effected by a Divine Telos (with no traces of physical nomicities).


  17. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    I just discovered that Hugh McCann edited a collection of essays, just published: Free Will and Classical Theism.


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