All God’s Instruments

by Thomas M. Cothran

1. Preamble

God causes all of our actions, including our acts of choosing. He does not merely give mankind the power of choice, he causes the act of choosing itself. We are mere instruments of God’s will. Such is the view of St. Thomas Aquinas. But St. Thomas also believes that human beings choose freely, and that the dependence of human volition in its every movement on God does not violate human freedom. On its face, St. Thomas’ view appears paradoxical, even contradictory. And yet a number of recent religious thinkers appeal to the medieval Dominican in their own attempts to reconcile divine providence and human freedom.

2. The Compatibilists

One such school attempts to read St. Thomas as a compatibilist, holding that while God’s providence determines human choice, nevertheless it does not act on the level of natural causality, and so cannot compromise human freedom. One being in the world can coerce another being in the world, at least in principle. But God is not a being in the world; he is the cause of every being. Without God’s providence, there would be no choosing person. And therefore, there is no conflict between divine providence and human freedom. This, roughly, is the view advanced by Herbert McCabe, Denys Turner, and Hugh McCann.

Herbert McCabe, for instance, insists that “to be free means not to be under the influence of some other creature, it is to be independent of other bits of the universe; it is not and could not mean to be independent of God.” Denys Turner concurs:

For Thomas the divine action of grace could not “interfere” with human freedom even as it infallibly brings about our justification by means of it. It is too easily taken for granted that to speak of God causing my free actions is necessarily a contradiction. For Thomas far from it: worse, to say that my actions are free only insofar as God does not cause them presupposes a plainly idolatrous conception of the divine causality. For Thomas’s is what philosophers today call a libertarian account of free will: my action is free insofar as I, and only I, am its created cause. Here there is a genuine completely disjunctive either/or, it is one or the other and nothing in between. To the extent that an action of mine can be accounted for in terms of any created cause other than my own will, to that extent it fails of freedom.

Hugh McCann is perhaps the most consistent, if extreme example of this view. He likens the relation between God and creatures to that of the author of a novel and the characters within it.

The author of the novel never makes her creatures do something; she only makes them doing it. It is the same with us and God. He does not make us act; he makes us acting, so that the freedom that goes with genuine action can still be present. To think otherwise is to confuse providing for the existence of something and tampering with its nature.

What unites the compatibilist view is the conviction that there cannot, by definition, be a conflict between God’s determination of human choices and human freedom. For humans are free, by definition, if their choices are not coerced by things in the world. And God, by definition, is not a thing in the world. At its extreme end, compatibilism enables the view that not only is God able to determine some of our choices, but he in fact determines all of them so that history has no more contingency than does the plot of a novel.

3. The Trouble with Compatibilism

The compatibilist school runs into two related problems. In the first place, they answer the problem of freedom by changing the subject. Most who ask the question of human freedom are asking: might one do otherwise? Could one have done otherwise? But this is not the question which the compatibilists seek to answer. Their approach is to define freedom at the outset as, in McCabe’s words, “not to be under the influence of some other creature,” or in Denys Turner’s words, “my action is free insofar as I, and only I, am its created cause”. It is no less arbitrary than adding to the definition of torture the condition that, by definition, it is only performed by non-Americans. It is not an answer; it is a way of changing the subject. One might think that, if the compatibilist approach addresses a different question than the one we would tend to ask, still perhaps it asked the question that St. Thomas seeks to answer, and so at least has the sanction of the tradition. If so, perhaps their answer, drawn from St. Thomas, should inform how we approach other questions of divine providence and human freedom.

As a matter of fact, St. Thomas does consider a view that strongly resembles the compatibilist position with its definition of freedom.

Some have held that the human will is necessarily moved to choose things. But they did not hold that the will is coerced, since only something from an external source, not everything necessary, is coerced.

This, of course, strongly resembles the view of McCabe and Denys Turner, though it does not so explicitly beg the question by excluding God as a cause in the definition of freedom. The human will may be necessitated, it could not ultimately choose otherwise, but nevertheless free because freedom is defined in opposition to external principles.

St. Thomas’ response?

But this opinion is heretical. For it takes away the reason for merit and demerit in human acts, as it does not seem meritorious or demeritorious for persons to do necessarily what they could not avoid doing.

4. St. Thomas’ Notion of Freedom

St. Thomas believes that the question of freedom cannot be reduced to the question whether a person is coerced by something out there in the world, or even the broader category of an external principle. He thinks that defining freedom in such a way is heretical and morally destructive.

So the question the compatibilists prefer to ask is not the question of freedom St. Thomas asks, and the answer they give stands uncomfortably close to the one he condemns. The question of freedom is, in the words of Aquinas, whether persons have “mastery of their own acts, so that they would not be bound to the one or other contradictory alternative.” Does a person have the power to choose either of two (or more) alternatives? Again, “the proper act of free will is choice: for we say that we have free-will precisely because we can take one thing while refusing another, and this is to choose.”

St. Thomas puts the question unmistakably in terms of necessity and contingency. To say that an event is contingent is to affirm a potentiality that could, but need not necessarily, be realized. Conversely, to affirm the necessity of an act is to deny the possibility of an existence of a potentiality that it be otherwise. What St. Thomas affirms is an ontological proposition. To say that a person’s choice between choosing A and choosing B is free is not only to affirm the possibility person might choose A, B, or decline to make a choice at all; it is to declare that the choosing person determines which possibility is realized. If a person’s choice could have been different on the sole condition that person chose differently, then that person is the master of their own acts.

This is the second problem with the compatibilist position. The question of freedom is the question of the existence of a potency, and the principle of non-contradiction prevents both and affirmative and negative answer. Something exists or it doesn’t. Hugh McCann’s proposal of the authorial metaphor may seem to suggest a perspectivalism – from God’s perspective, things are necessary; from ours, they are contingent. However, characters of a novel do not really have free wills because they are not persons; and this is why they are subject to the author’s pre-determinative deliberation.

St. Thomas considers at a number of places the objection that God’s foreknowledge vitiates human freedom. Never does he offer the view that the compatibilists ascribe to him. Instead, he affirms that, while God is a cause of the power to choose, and even the act of choosing, this causality does not determine human choice to one or another alternative. St. Thomas could not be more clear:

We should not say that God left human beings in the hands of their own deliberation without acting upon their will. Rather, he did so because he gave human beings’ will mastery over their acts, so that they would not be bound to one or another contradictory alternative.

To modern ears, the notion of a non-determinative cause sounds quite strange. But readers of St. Thomas may already be familiar with these distinctions. The act of existing is a cause of the corresponding thing’s being; it is the reason something differs from nothing. Formal causes specify things as this or that, a hydrogen atom or an amoeba; and the formal cause is what is expressed as a thing’s nature. Only in God is the act of existing identical with nature. St. Thomas demonstrates that in everything other than God, form must differ from the act of existing. It follows that the act of existing does not specify what a thing is; for that we need a formal cause, and existing is not a formal cause.

Even more famously, St. Thomas insisted that the existing of things depends on God. Things, even an infinite series of things causing each other, cannot account for their existence. The act of existing is not a native principle for any thing; it is present as light passes through air. The formal cause, on the other hand, is native to things. While things are not adequate to explain why they exist, they can explain what they are. The action of a non-specifying cause is perfectly ordinary given St. Thomas’ metaphysics, and a general understanding of his metaphysics gives us a very good idea of just what sort of non-determinative cause God might be in relation to the will.

5. A Theory of the Instrument

If we are to understand St. Thomas’ claim that we are all God’s instruments, and yet free, we need to understand St. Thomas theory of the instrument. The initial difficulty in understanding this theory lies in the examples used. Human tools are unthinking, unfree things. This confusion can be dispelled if we attend to the explanation of instrumentality.

Consider the abacus. Prior to the use of the decimal system, there was no good way of performing numerical operations on large numbers. If we were to subtract 249 from 3,927, we could not place the former number in a row under the latter, align the decimal places, carry over number, etc. A mathematician in a culture that lacks the decimal system needs an instrument that aids in calculation.

The abacus represents a number (e.g., 1, 5, 10, 20, 100, 1,000) with a bead. The beads are arranged on rods, and each rod represents the different quantity. Thus, a bead on the top rod may represent 1, a bead on the next rod 5, and so on. Beads are aligned to the left, and when they are counted, moved to the right of the frame. A mathematical problem that is impossible to do in the mind becomes possible with the abacus.

The abacus is an instrument because it jointly produces an effect with the primary cause (the mathematician). Both the primary and the instrumental cause are necessary to produce the effect. In our example, the abacus alone cannot solve a problem, and neither can the mathematician. The effect which they produce together is the solution. The reason that the abacus is the instrument and the mathematician the primary cause is that there is an something in the effect that requires a higher sort of causality than the abacus could account for. An abacus, on its own, is only beads and sticks; and yet when the mathematician is done, he sees in it the answer. When employed by the mathematician, the counting frame participates in a higher order of reality, for the intelligibility of its effect (the answer) is disproportionate to the instrument considered in itself.

6. Free Instruments

The theory of the instrument combined with the participation of things in God as subsistent being resolves our riddle. For all things, on St. Thomas’ account, participate in being on account of God’s providence. Creatures in their concrete being are an effect of God. Yet God is not the only cause, for they also possess a nature, an imminent principle, that answers the question “what is this?” Existence without a finite nature is not a creature, but God. A nature without existence is indistinguishable from nothing. To explain the creature as an effect requires invoking both something proportionate to the creature (form or nature) and something disproportionate: existing.

And this is just to say that creatures are instruments. An effect that requires two causes, one of which accounts for a higher intelligibility than the other, has what we have defined as a primary and an instrumental cause. God is the primary cause because existence is a higher intelligibility than nature or form. We can fancy whatever creatures we like, but knowledge is had in knowing the creatures that actually are. Understanding is in potency to judgement. God is the universal cause of all that exists, and because existence invokes a higher causal order, all things are God’s instruments.

Now we can clearly understand how it is that God can cause human choices without determining them to one or another alternative. For St. Thomas, a thing’s existing is distinct from its nature. Nature is a specifying cause. Existence only “determines” things to be; how things are determined belong to other sorts of causes. If God causes every occurrence, and human choosing is an occurrence, then God causes all human choosing. Yet God need only make them be; he does not specify them. This is no more perplexing than is the distinction between form and existence. A parting thought. It is often noted, and then forgotten, that phrases like “God causes human choice” or “God wills an event” entail no new difference in God that would be lacking had God not caused or willed. If God is infinite (and St. Thomas is by no means unusual in this claim), then God cannot change. For if God has a potential state other than his actual state, he is by definition finite, for he there is something he is not–that which he is about to become. A great deal of the confusion in the discussion of God’s relation to human events arises from attempting to imagine what it is like for God to cause, or know, or will, or provide. We must be content in the knowledge that imagination pertains only to sensible, material realities, and to know that God, by nature, is beyond the material world.

* * *

Thomas Cothran is a writer and lives in Lexington, Kentucky. He blogs at Interstices Between Philosophy and Theology

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10 Responses to All God’s Instruments

  1. John H says:

    According to the Turner quote in the article divine predestination works through human freedom to necessarily guarantee the salvation of the predestined. Predestination is at the level of primary causality and determines through the secondary causality of human free choice (which is indeed contingent) the result that the divine will has preordained from eternity. This is straight from Asqinas on predestination. See Summa Thrologiae First Part, Q 23. Divine predestination is perfectly compatible with human freedom.


  2. Thomas says:

    St. Thomas’ general solution to predestination and human freedom is the same as that of providence and freedom. Human choice is really contingent, it is not necessitated to one or the other option, though it be the effect of providence or within the scope of predestination.

    What I take Denys Turner to be saying is that the question of whether God can be said to compromise human freedom is a kind of category mistake, because freedom is defined in opposition to things in the world. On this account, one could affirm that God decrees a human choice to one or another option, yet maintain God is free because he is not a being in the world.

    That is not St. Thomas’ account on a number of levels. He defines freedom as the real power to choose different alternatives, and he affirms that God does not determine which one chooses. Moreover, he strongly affirms that God does not determine our choices. Given God’s causal agency being what it is, we could still have chosen otherwise.

    The efficacy of grace does raise a specific problem though, for it seems that to say that grace is necessarily efficacious requires determining a person’s choice. In fact, St. Thomas appeals to something a lot like the notion of statistical limits. While any particular action may not be determined, God can shift the probabilities, and with the right relation of probability to time, probabilities become certain. The specific issue of grace isn’t addressed in this post, though.


  3. David S says:

    Thank you for this Thomas. Very interesting article. I had been taking it for granted that the McCabe/McCann interpretation of Aquinas was essentially the correct one. Good to see there’s room for maneuver here.

    One question:
    If God is simple and creates (or ’causes’) the entirety of the world in one timeless act, how can God have knowledge of our free acts in the same timeless ‘moment’ that God wills the creation of the world?

    i.e. God is identical with God’s knowledge, with God’s consciousness. Now God’s consciousness is a simple unity – indeed it is absolutely simple. God does not have two distinct mental states in the same eternal moment (wouldn’t that just be two gods?), and he does not have different mental states over time. To be Creator, God’s one unified consciousness – which is just identical with God – is what causes the world to exist. But if God’s one unified consciousness includes ‘parts’ which are only filled in as a result of human free choices, this implies that God does not logically exist ‘until’ we make those choices, in which case God is essentially created by us, not the other way around – i.e. how can God’s one unified consciousness be the reason if we exist, if that one unified consciousness is logically dependent on our existence? If God just *is* God’s ‘subjectivity’, then that subjectivity cannot ‘come to exist’ until the course of the world and the last autonomous free choice is made.

    This seems to be a problem that only exists once we allow for genuinely autonomous creaturely choices, rather than God just determining everything via primary causality in the same logical moment.

    I’d be interested to know how you (and Aquinas!) might respond.


    • Thomas says:

      That’s a large question! Here’s how I would characterize St. Thomas’ general approach.

      First, St. Thomas rejects the idea that we can imagine what it is like for God to know. His primary stress in the via negativa: we know not what God is, but what he is not. However, we can come to clear propositional truths on God, which can be positively understood. So he is not concerned to say what it is like for God to know, and he thinks that if we imagine it, we have it wrong.

      Second, by saying that God is eternal, St. Thomas is rejecting that God is temporal. Thus, he rejects that we can place God prior to the creation of the world or a given action, and then ask if he learns anything new over time. The approach, St. Thomas would say, pre-supposes that God is temporal.

      Third, St. Thomas rejects the notion that God is different knowing worldly truths than he would be not knowing worldly truths. That is, God having not creating the world, and thus having no finitudes to know, is not different than God having created the world, and knowing everything there is to know about it. Key to understanding this is that God does not know by registering facts, but by virtue of being an infinite act of understanding. An infinite act of understanding, by definition, is not infinite if it could be other than it is. Nor is it infinite if there is something outside its scope. An infinite act of knowledge cannot not know something knowable.

      The fourth point goes to the apparent implausibility of the second. For St. Thomas knowledge is not essentially a confrontation in which a subject registers something about an object. Knowledge is a perfection. If one can demonstrate that God has all perfections to an infinite degree, it follows that there is no knowledge he lacks. Because St. Thomas does not think the confrontation model constitutes knowledge in its essence, there is no need to assert that a subject registers (and is changed by) its knowledge of an object. That does happen in our case, but we are animals.

      If there is a difficulty in getting ones mind around this, that is because one doesn’t get one’s mind around the infinite. In other words, a theory of God’s knowledge that tells us perfectly well what God’s knowing is could not be true of an infinite God. A theory of God’s knowledge that places a grasp of God’s Act beyond our comprehension is required. Just as the scientist has to be on guard about imagining what the Higgs boson is like, as it is a non-pictorial reality; so we must be on guard about insisting on a notion of God’s knowledge that satisfies the desire for an imaginable answer.


      • David S says:

        Thank you for this Thomas.

        I’m not sure my argument depends on any particular understanding of divine cognition, or what it ‘feels like’ for God to know, which I’d certainly agree must be beyond our comprehension. But I am claiming that the content of God’s infinite act of consciousness is in some sense ‘different’ – not in a temporal sense, but logical sense – by virtue of God creating world x rather than world y.

        I am never quite sure what to make of claims that God is not different by virtue of knowing certain worldly truths vs. not knowing them. How can this be? I can understand the claim that, by virtue of being timeless, God never changes from one state to another. And I can understand the claim that God’s essential properties, that which makes God God, do not change as a result of God’s knowledge of the world. But surely God having knowledge of a creature making a free decision is in some sense a property of God’s, albeit a non-essential and contingent one. How can we not say that this makes a difference to God’s consciousness, however we imagine that consciousness to feel like? (I am here particularly thinking of Norris Clarke’s view, set out very well by Fr Kimel here

        So it seems to me that God’s atemporal and infinite act of consciousness has a specific determination, linked to what goes on in the world – God’s knowledge being X, which is part of God’s infinite act of consciousness, can only be X if X actually happens. And on your view, whether X happens is not always up to God as creatures have genuine autonomy.

        My point then is that, given God’s existence is atemporal, and given that God’s existence just *is* this atemporal, infinite act of consciousness… doesn’t God’s existence then logically follow after our free creaturely choices, rather than the other way around? To put it another way, God does not first exist, then create the world, then have knowledge. If that were the case, you could easily see how God was the first necessary principle, who creates the world, and then later picks up a few extra non-essential properties depending on what free creatures do. But on divine simplicity and atemporality, all of these are simultaneous and one single unified act of consciousness. As knowledge of contingent things is now bound up in God’s one act of consciousness, doesn’t that make the whole act of consciousness logically dependent on the world, rather than the other way around?


        • Thomas says:

          Those are incisive questions. I think you hit the crux of the debate here:

          > But surely God having knowledge of a creature making a free decision is in some sense a property of God’s, albeit a non-essential and contingent one. How can we not say that this makes a difference to God’s consciousness, however we imagine that consciousness to feel like?

          If one accepts the idea that knowledge of a creature making a free decision is a property of God, then your conclusion does follow. But this is what St. Thomas rejects. (Clarke’s position on this, whatever its independent merits might be, would not be a historically correct reading of St. Thomas, and I don’t think that is what he was trying to do.)

          St. Thomas maintains that God does not have properties or accidents, if these are taken to be real features distinct from his essence. What we attribute to him (goodness, beauty, creation) has a single ground; they are different points of view on the one divine essence. That is, while, say, goodness or beauty is notionally distinct (we mean different things by it), what these terms refer to in God are not really different realities (God’s goodness and beauty are not really distinct).

          The distinction between attributing goodness to God on the one hand, and knowledge of creaturely goings-on on the other, is that the latter is a form of extrinsic predication. Take the proposition “God knows that I decide to drink green tea”. St. Thomas would say that proposition is contingently true, and the contingency that makes it true or false is whether I in fact go for the green tea. No difference intrinsic to God is required. So the predication of knowledge of contingencies, on St. Thomas’ view, does not attribute a property to God, nor does it say that God is different than he would be had the contingency that God knows were different.

          My hypothesis is that whether this account is plausible or not depends on one’s background assumptions about knowing. If one has a Thomist account of knowledge, it will be quite natural and plausible to say that God is not different depending on the contingencies he knows. And if one adds in the notion that God is infinite, not only will it be natural and plausible: it will be necessary. On the other hand, if one has an opposing account of knowledge, one which entails a specification or determination on the side of the knower, the foregoing will be implausible, or even self-contradictory.

          If my hypothesis is right, then the difference between our positions is that you would argue that knowing requires some difference or determination on the part of the knower, and I would argue that no such difference or determination is necessary for knowledge as such, though it might be necessary to human knowledge. If that is the core difference, then evaluating the difference between our respective positions would require a general account of knowledge, and a specific account of knowledge as it is attributed to God.


          • David S says:

            But what does it mean for God to know something, if this is just a matter of external predication, and not something real in God? You say above that God’s ‘infinite act of knowledge cannot not know something knowable.’ – which implies God’s infinite act of knowledge knows everything that in fact exists, including that free creatures do X. Isn’t this just saying that God knowing X, including the choices of creatures, is part of God’s infinite act of knowledge? And if it’s part of God’s infinite act of knowledge, isn’t it therefore a property of God?

            Similarly, surely God’s act of understanding – God’s act of knowing – is, albeit in a manner impossible for humans to understand, a kind of consciousness, a kind of cognition. It is a subjective, first-person act of understanding. If God’s act of knowing involves God having the subjective act of understanding that X is the case, what is the rationale for not saying that is an intrinsic property of God? And if it is not the case, why call it knowledge?


  4. Thomas, thanks for this thought provoking article. Since I am from the Reformed tradition, I am more or less a compatibalist. However, I am revisiting these issues and trying to get a better sense of where I land presently. That said, the Reformed tradition draws heavily off of St. Thomas in many key areas. One of which was, I assumed, compatibalism. How might Aquinas answer the standard Reformed formulae in the Westminster Confession 5.2:

    Although in relation to the foreknowledge and decree of God, the First Cause, all things come to pass immutably, and infallibly; yet, by the same providence, he ordereth them to fall out, according to the nature of second causes, either necessarily, freely, or contingently

    As I have reflected on these issues further, the Westminster Divines appear to be throwing the kitchen sink of causality at the problem of providence and hope something lands. What do you make of this?

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Paz says:

    Thank you for sharing this very interesting article!
    Often with knowledge comes responsibility and free will… but we also and often have to make choices within the bounds of our abilities, experiences, environment, culture, self-awareness, our (limited knowledge) and understanding. This is certainly a complex but also a fascinating topic!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    Thomas, I’d like to ask your take on Aquinas’s understanding of divine freedom—specifically, his freedom not to have created the universe. In what sense, therefore, is this not a contingent decision and how does this not introduce complexity into the Godhead? TIA.


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