Aquinas and Divine Freedom: The Willing God

If God is eternal, immutable, and incomposite, how is it that his creation of the cosmos is not a necessary and thus unfree and fettered act? St Thomas Aquinas addresses this question in his Summa Contra Gentiles. In the previous article I presented, in abbreviated fashion, the first three steps of his argument. I continue with the next three.

4) God has will, and his will is his essence (SCG I.72-73).

If God is intelligent, then he also possesses will, for to know reality is to know the goodness and perfection of reality. “For, since the understood good is the proper object of the will,” Thomas writes, “the understood good is, as such, willed“ (I.72.2). The act of knowing and the act of willing are thus indivisible and co-implicative. To know the good is to will the good. This is preeminently true for the transcendent Good:

Hence, he who grasps the good by his intellect is, as such, endowed with will. But God grasps the good by His intellect. For, since the activity of His intellect is perfect, as appears from what has been said, He understands being together with the qualification of the good. He is, therefore, endowed with will. (I.72.2)

If God knows himself perfectly, as he most certainly does, then he knows himself as absolute Goodness and thus wills himself in his Goodness. Just as God does not need created beings in order to know himself, so he does not require created beings in order to exercise his volitional capacity.

The divine simplicity also requires us to say that not only does God have will but his will is identical to his essence. There are no accidents within the Godhead:

Furthermore, if will were something added to the divine substance, since the divine substance is something complete in being it would follow that will would be added to it as an accident to a subject, that the divine substance would be related to it as potency to act, and that there would be composition in God. All this was refuted above. Hence, it is not possible that the divine will be something added to the divine substance. (I.73.5)

If will cannot be added to the divine essence as a part or accident, then it must be identical to the essence. Everything in God is God.

In human beings “will” normally refers, as James Brent notes, either to the power of appetite or to the act of that appetite. “But in God, given the divine simplicity, there is no real distinction between the power of appetite and its act. God’s will is his willing” (“God’s Knowledge and Will,” in The Oxford Handbook of Aquinas, p. 164); and God’s willing, we must go on to say, is his essence in eternal act.

5) God principally and necessarily wills the Good that is his essence (SCG I.41, 74, 80).

To apprehend the good is to will the good. This is a fundamental axiom for Thomas. Once we see that something is truly good for us, we will necessarily seek to obtain it; it would be irrational to do otherwise. Of course, human beings are frequently confused about their good, which means that we frequently make bad choices; but in all such cases, it is a matter of choosing an apparent or lesser good over a real and greater good. But God is never confused. He knows himself as the supreme Good and therefore wills himself, principally and necessarily, as the Good. The Good causes the willing of the Good by the Good. Possessing all perfections in ineffable unity, God ineluctably embraces himself as his happiness and ultimate end.

From what was shown above it follows that God wills His own being and His own goodness in a necessary way, and cannot will the contrary.

For it was shown above that God wills His own being and His own goodness as His principal object, which is for Him the reason for willing other things. In everything willed, therefore, God wills His own being and His own goodness, just as the sight in every color sees light. But it is impossible for God not to will something in act, for He would be willing only in potency, which is impossible, since His willing is His being. It is therefore necessary that God will His own being and His own goodness.

Again, every being endowed with will necessarily wills his own ultimate end; for example, man necessarily wills his own beatitude and cannot will misery. But God wills Himself to be as the ultimate end, as appears from what has been said. Therefore, He necessarily wills Himself to be, nor can he will Himself not to be. (I.80.1-3)

Brent elaborates:

On Aquinas’s account of God’s goodness, God is good, the highest good, essentially good, completely good, pre-containing every actual and possible creaturely perfection, and so lacking in no good whatsoever. Indeed, God is goodness itself. Further, on Aquinas’s account of God’s knowledge, God knows himself completely and so knows himself as goodness. But for Aquinas, to know goodness as goodness is already to love it. So God loves what he is and is what he loves. He rests and delights in being himself. To be God is what God loves to be or to do as a pure end in himself. Furthermore, God cannot be or do otherwise. It is absolutely necessary for him to love himself and delight in himself just for being God. In that sense, God “wills himself to be” [SCG I.75.2] and “necessarily wills himself to be” [SCG I.80.3]. Furthermore, given the divine simplicity, God’s willing of himself is God. (p. 165)

We must not think of this necessity of self-willing as something imposed upon God. By transcendent definition there is no power or principle outside him or above him, nothing that can constrain or compel him. In his eternal self-existence and aseity, God enjoys absolute freedom and self-determination. He knows himself as the Good and thus necessarily wills the Good that he freely wills to be. This divine circularity arises from his transcendence of the dualities that characterize finite existence. God does not suffer from passive potentiality. He does not need to be moved by another to perfect his goodness, for “He is His very act of being” and therefore “goodness itself” (I.38.2). As infinite plethora of bliss and surfeit of being, he cannot hunger for that which he does not have nor yearn for anything to complete him. He does not lack; he does not need. Again Brent: “So in God there is no will as lacking something. There could only be will as possessing and will as giving” (p. 164).

6) In willing himself, God also wills the existence of the cosmos (SCG 75-76).

Here we come to the penultimate controversial point. Note the similarity with premise #3:

For to whom it belongs to will the end principally, to him it belongs to will the things that are ordered to the end for the sake of the end. Now, God Himself is the ultimate end of things, as appears somewhat from what has been said. Hence, because He wills Himself to be, He likewise wills other things, which are ordered to Him as to the end. (I.75.2; emphasis mine)

Because of our natural tendency to envision the Creator as an inhabitant of our universe, we inevitably conclude that God’s willing of the cosmos involves a second act of will following upon his primary self-willing, thus rendering divinity compos­ite; but the truth of divine transcendence and simplicity excludes this inference. As Brandon Watson explains: “On Aquinas’s account of divine simplicity, simplicity is noncomposition, where composition is union of two things as being in some way actual and (passively) potential.” Given that passive potentiality does not exist in the Godhead, we are disallowed from conceiv­ing of the divine self-willing and divine creation as two separate acts. Clearly they are distinguishable; but the distinction between the two cannot be, as the philosophers like to say, a real distinction. Thomists identify the distinction as notional; Scotists as formal. Since we are attempting to exegete Aquinas, I assume that he would, if asked, concur with the Thomist school. We must therefore seek to understand how God’s willing of creation is enclosed within his willing of himself as ultimate end.

Thomas advances several arguments in support of his claim. I find the following particularly suggestive:

Again, everyone desires the perfection of that which is willed and loved by him for its own sake. For the things that we love for their own sake we want to be most perfect, and always to become better and be multiplied as much as possible. But God wills and loves His essence for its own sake. Now, the divine essence cannot be increased or multiplied in itself, as is manifest from what has been said; it can be multiplied solely according to its likeness, which is participated by many. God, therefore, wills the multitude of things in willing and loving His own essence and perfection. (I.75.3; emphasis mine)

I am immediately reminded of the Areopagite’s understanding of divine creation as theophany. In creation Deity proceeds out of itself into differentiation and finitude. The cosmos is the manifestation, presentation, and appearance, the unfolding and self-expression of the One. The relation between Creator and creature is that of reality and icon. The two are distinguishable but indivisible; we can no more separate them than we can separate form and its sensible instantiation. Might this Neoplatonic insight be at work here with Thomas? Consider this passage from the Summa Theologiae:

For since every agent enacts what is like itself insofar as it is an agent, and each thing acts according to its form, it is necessary that in the effect there be a likeness to the form of the agent … If … there is some agent which is not contained in a genus, its effects will attain still more distantly to the likeness of the form of the agent, not, however, so that they participate in a likeness to the form of the agent according to some notion of species or genus, but according to some analogy, as existence itself is common to all things … And in this way those things that are from God are assimilated to him insofar as they are beings, as to the first and universal principle of all existence. (ST I.4.3)

Eric Perl offers this commentary:

Since it is just in that they are beings that all things are like God, and the creature as a whole and everything in it is some being, something that is, it follows that the whole of all things, through and through, is nothing but likeness of God. It is not the case that creatures are, so to speak, first themselves and then, also, like God in some way. In that case, they would not be like God just insofar as they are beings. Rather, Aquinas is here saying that to be, to be a being, just is to be a likeness of God. “Anything has so much of existence [unumquodque habet de esse] insofar as it approximates God” (ST I, 3, 5, ad 2), and again, “All things have existence in this, that they are assimilated to God, who is subsistent existence itself: since all things are only as participants in existence” (ScG 3.19). In that ‘existence itself’ just means the condition such that there are beings, it follows that all beings, the whole of reality, are nothing but many different likenesses, or finite presentations, of existence itself, or God. Wherever we turn our gaze, we are seeing God as it were in a mirror, for this is all there is to see, this is what all being is. As Aquinas emphasizes repeatedly, this does not mean that creatures and God resemble each other in the sense of having something in common, even existence. “The likeness of the creature to God is not said on account of sharing in form according to the same notion of genus and species, but only according to analogy …” (ST I, 4, 3, ad 3), and “while it may be admitted in some way that the creature is like God, it is nonetheless in no way to be admitted that God is like the creature, as Dionysius says … For we say that an image is like a man, but not conversely …” (ST I, 4, 3, ad 4). As the reference to Dionysius suggests, the likeness in question is the Platonic likeness of many images or presentations, e.g., reflections, to their common original, not the mutual likeness of things that have something in common. Thus Aquinas’ thought here coincides with Plotinus’ understanding of reality as consisting of many different finite presentations, or ‘reflections,’ of the first principle, the One or God. (Thinking Being, p. 168 [emphasis mine]; cf. St Bonaventure, The Soul’s Journey into God, chaps. 1-4, and Leonard J. Bowman, “The Cosmic Exemplarism of Bonaventure“)

The Neoplatonic understanding of image allows us to draw together Being and beings into intimate union and helps us to see why the Angelic Doctor does not see the creation of the universe as obviously involving two separate volitional acts, thereby compromising the divine oneness. The cosmos is ordered to God as image and manifestation of his goodness. “Since, then, God wills other things for His own sake as for the sake of the end, as has been shown, He wills Himself and other things by one act of will” (SCG I.76.2). God will not be without his theophany. It is not that there is first Divinity, which then decides to express itself in differentiated finitude, as if there is a quasi-temporal gap between the divine intention and willing. As Kathryn Tanner writes:

In order to produce something, a human being needs to do something; make some decision and then take some steps to realize it. But God’s knowledge and will are unchangeable (ST I.14.15; and I.19.7) and therefore God does not have to come to a decision to create the world; if that is God’s intention, it is always God’s intention. Nor need God put some process into motion in order to bring about the existence of anything according to that intention … Creation is instead an instantaneous happening in the way ‘there is no interval or time between becoming lit and being lit’ (I.45.2.ad3). (“Creation,” in The Cambridge Companion to the Summa Theologiae, p. 155)

In the mystery of his eternal self-determination, God is theophany.

But the pressing question arises: If God principally and necessarily wills the divine essence, and his willing the cosmos is included in this single eternal act, how then can divine creation be truly free and voluntary?

(Go to “God Might Have Willed Otherwise”)

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9 Responses to Aquinas and Divine Freedom: The Willing God

  1. jamesbradfordpate says:

    Reblogged this on James' Ramblings.


  2. Ben Bollinger says:

    Excellent post! It really amazes me how much we can understand about the divine from pure reason.


  3. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    Bill Vallicella has weighed in on this series on Aquinas: “God, Simplicity, Freedom.” Read his article and see if his critique touches Aquinas.


    • Thomas says:

      Vallicella has several mistaken assumptions here. One is the significance of the statement:

      > “the contingent nature of the finite things willed” does not determine the divine will.

      The point here is not simply that “the finite things willed depend entirely on the divine will”. as Vallicella has it. The Thomist view strongly qualifies what it means to say “God wills the world”, by denying that God has an act of will with the world as its object. St. Thomas narrows down what he means by will quite strongly. It mostly means that God as the good, is that towards which any existent is in some way ordered.

      On the issue of abstract objects, in St. Thomas’ metaphysics these are entities (in a qualified sense) that exist when concretely instantiated or thought about. The proposition “7 is prime” is necessarily true, but it does not exist independently. It exists in your mind when you think about it, arguably it exists in a set of seven things. But it is contingent in the sense that, as a formal intelligibility, it requires an act of existence. This is a pretty prominent feature of St. Thomas’ thought, and an example that would better suite Vallicella’s purposes would be separate intellects, which are independently existing things that St. Thomas sometimes refers to as necessary.

      St. Thomas’ demonstration that form and existence differ in all cases save one, and his explanation of how form receives existence (either intentionally or really) more or less solve the general drift of this objection.


  4. David S says:

    Alas it appears that we have flooded the previous thread in this series with so many comments that it can take no more 🙂 I sense I may be dragging on the discussion more than can be helpful, but I thought it would be worth at least logging my response to Robert on the nature of simplicity and the divine knowledge of the world. I thought the least worst place to post that would be here.

    Robert says: “Without expecting agreement, I hope I am making my point clear but I am not sure: that while God’s knowledge is never different, the world can be and is different as our future has not actually occurred as of yet. God’s relation to and knowledge of creation is not like that of a human writ large, a being among beings, whose knowledge is incomplete and constrained by the succession of events. I understand the problem – how can we be truly free if it is already known? The ‘already’ is the problematic (for ‘already’ to us means termination) – the answer lies in that God doesn’t know by determination (as something that has past in time, for that is the only way we know: will you have a cup of tea 6pm tomorrow, we don’t know for you are free, you may or may not. Did you have a cup of tea yesterday at 3pm, yes we know that you did or didn’t). God knows because the future event is present to Him without it having to be determined. But for us, a choice or event has to be determined in time. And the choices that remain truly free, which have not yet been determined, are only those not yet occured, that is to say in our future.”

    Robert, you may be surprised to learn that I am in perfect agreement 🙂 I have no issue in saying that God, in one act, knows everything. I do not think that God needs to ‘wait’ in order to find out what happens: God simply knows what happens from his timeless perspective. He sees everything in one vision, in a way analogous to the way our brain sees a million pixels as one unitary image. I do not think that God knowing what happens eternally is a problem for our free will. That is not the point I am making.

    I am just making the point that, if God has knowledge of contingent events, I think this means the knowledge must itself also be contingent, in the sense that the knowledge really could have been otherwise had the things known been otherwise: it is not necessary that God knows David does X, rather, God knowing that David does X is contingent and could have been otherwise had David acted differently (or, if you like, had God willed David differently). God knowing that David does X is not necessary in the same sense that ‘God is triune’ or ‘God exists’ or ‘the Father loves the Son’. And so, while it might be the same simple act – God looking at himself – that gives rise to God’s knowledge, it does seem that the wordly part of God’s knowledge is logically distinct from God’s knowledge of his necessary attributes, in the sense that God could exist without David doing X, while God could not exist without being triune.

    To put it another way: do you think that God’s knowledge of our free acts ‘makes a difference’ to God’s essence? I don’t mean a temporal change here, but just a difference i.e. it enters into what the essence is, and if the knowledge was different the essence would by definition.

    If it does make a difference, then surely you must admit that there is a contingent and necessary.

    If it does not make a difference, then surely the knowledge must be in some sense external and distinct from the essence?

    Ah, you might say, but that is a false dilemma: God can know different things through the same act without the act changing, it is just the referents to the act which change. As in the mirror example, God’s simple act of looking in the mirror remains the same, it is just what God sees that is different.

    Sure. As I’ve said, I think God can know the world essentially through one simple act: God knowing himself. But my question is: what is the status of the ‘knowledge’ itself? As I’ve stated before, I think knowledge is the same thing as awareness, i.e. it means being conscious that X is the case. So if God is aware that David does X, it means the thought ‘David is doing X’ is in the divine mind. So there is a conscious thought – ‘David is doing X’ – that logically, really could be different. It doesn’t matter that it is eternally fixed and known in the same one simple act. There is a conscious thought, an awareness, and that conscious thought would have been different had the world been different.

    Now if that thought is actually part of the divine nature, surely that makes the divine nature composite, i.e. God’s necessary thoughts + God’s contingent wordly thoughts.

    If the thought is not part of the divine nature, then the thought is external to God, even if known through the one essential simple act that is God.

    Is there a third option, that the thought somehow *just is* the relations between God and the world, the presentness of the world to God through God looking at himself. The thought just is an extrinsic relation between the world and God. But if the thought is an extrinsic relation, then the thought is ultimately a kind of conjuntion between two things – God and the world – and necessarily includes a referent to the world. And doesn’t this just reduce to the thought being external from God as well?

    Father Kimel, thank you very much for your link to Norris Clarke’s interesting article ( – I have actually taken a look at this before and return to it sometimes. I find that I am in basic agreement with Clarke. It is a pity that he does not explicitly discuss the relationship between his understanding of essential vs. intentional being, and the doctrine of divine simplicity, I don’t suppose you know if he does this elsewhere?


    • Robert Fortuin says:


      We disagree about the claim that knowledge of contingent events must mean that God’s knowledge is therefore also contingent. I suggest this is false on account of divine simplicity and divine perfection for this would mean that God is contingent – there is no difference in what God does and what God is. God is knowledge, the perfection of knowledge, God is what it means ‘to know’ in the proper sense. To speak of God’s essence/nature knowing vs. something outside Him, this seems to me incoherent and run afoul of established orthodox theology. I think my position is quite uncontroversial, but perhaps this puts me in the camp of ‘Western essentialists’, but so be it. If I have failed to communicate my position clearly, please accept my apologies.


      • David S says:

        Hi Robert. I understand that you deny God having knowledge of contingent events makes the fact he has that knowledge contingent, but I do not know how you render this a coherent statement. I understand why you would want to deny it – to preserve simplicity -.but I don’t see how it is coherent to claim that it is genuinely contingent whether I choose to paint a wall red or blue tomorrow, while simultaneously claiming God’s knowledge is necessary and could never have been otherwise. I think your claim is coherent if you simply mean that God’s knowledge is ‘necessary’ from God’s perspective, in that from an atemporal perspective everything has already happened and is immutably fixed. This is a kind of ‘suppositional necessity’ – given that the world exists and X has occurred, it is necessary that God knows this. But I don’t think we can coherently hold that is *absolutely* necessary that God knows I do x, while simulaneously claiming that we really could do otherwise.

        Actually, I had thought that the more usual Thomist strategy was to accept that God’s knowledge (of the world) is contingent but deny that this is something ‘real’ in God – i.e. it claims that God’s knowledge of the world is not actually a real property of God. On this very blog you will see Thomas Cothran argue that God’s knowledge of free creatures is not actually a property of God ( Also see Matthews Grant – Divine Simplicity, Contingent Truths, and Extrinsic Models of Divine Knowing. Edward Feser, Peter Geach, Herbert McCabe also talk about God’s knowledge of the world as being simply one of his ‘Cambridge properties’. Indeed I believe you yourself use the language of God’s relation with us and knowledge of the world being by ‘extrinsic denomination’, but I’m not sure in what sense you’re using the term, I’m sure it would be insightful to know. I am not sure what the difference is between saying that God’s knowledge of the world is not a ‘real’ property in God, and that it is known ‘by extrinsic denomination’, vs. saying the knowledge, or the relationship that constitutes the knowledge, is extrinsic to God.

        The other strategy is to accept that God’s knowledge is an intrinsic property and contingent, but deny that this counts as a proper accident in the sense used by Aquinas, on the basis that from God’s perspective reality is fixed – i.e. suppositional necessity. This is the strategy taken by Stump and, I think, Katherine Rogers, amongst others.


        • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

          David, I think that where you and Robert differ is how God knows creation. I may be mistaken, but I believe that Robert thinks of God knowing the world causally; that is to say, he knows the world, and every thing and even within it, in the act of making it. That doesn’t sound like how you understand the matter–or am I wrong about that?

          I have found two articles by Brian Shanley particularly helpful:

          Eternal Knowledge of the Temporal in Aquinas

          Aquinas on God’s Causal Knowledge


        • David S says:

          Thank you Fr Kimel. I have looked at those article before and find them very useful – it is a blessing that you keep them available on this site – I but am not sure where they contradict my thinking here.

          Actually I do agree that God knows the world in the act of making it. God knowing the world does not mean that God needs to ‘look at’ the world: rather, in the very act of God giving the world being, God knows what God is doing. God is looking in a mirror: he sees God, and in the act of seeing God, sees what God is doing.

          What I am saying is that theologians have usually wanted to say that God giving the world being – certainly choosing to give this particular world, with all its contingent free choices – is contingent, i.e. not necessary, it might not have happened, God would still be God had the world not been created or, at least, had the world not taken the particular course it happens to have taken.

          To return to the mirror example, I think we can say this: God is looking at himself, and in doing so sees what God is doing. That God sees himself is necessarily included in God’s act of being God, which is just looking at himself. But that God sees himself *doing a particular contingent thing that could have been otherwise* – e.g. giving being to a world where David does X rather than Y – is contingent. It is all just one act of seeing oneself, but with a necessary and contingent aspect. Of course, you could say that in a sense it is all in a sense necessary, but only on the supposition that the contingent history of the world is fixed: it still seems to be the case that, although God’s act of looking would be the same regardless of what God is doing, the image that God sees will be different depending on what God in fact contingently does.

          I take it that this problem is the reason so many want to describe God’s relations with the world – including God creating the world, and God’s knowledge of the world – as not being a ‘real’ property in God, but a mere ‘Cambridge property’ or at least something that can only be said by ‘extrinsic denomination’.


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