Finally we come to the contentious question driving this series on Aquinas: Is the divine act of creation truly free?
7) God wills the world freely and non-necessarily (SCG 81–83, 88).
While it may appear that if the metaphysically simple and eternal God necessarily wills himself as his end he must also necessarily will the creatures he brings into existence, St Thomas denies the inference. Divine creation is free because the cosmos is unnecessary to his well-being and happiness, nor does it add to his well-being and happiness:
For God wills other things as ordered to the end of His goodness. But the will is not directed to what is for the sake of the end if the end can be without it. For, on the basis of his intention to heal, a doctor does not necessarily have to give to a sick person the medicine without which the sick person can nevertheless be healed. Since, then, the divine goodness can be without other things, and, indeed, is in no way increased by other things, it is under no necessity to will other things from the fact of willing its own goodness. (SCG I.81.2; emphasis mine)
Clearly Thomas’s dual commitment to actus purus and the Christian dogma of gratuitous creation (as well as the doctrine of the Trinity) is informing his reflection at this point. One might question the aptness of Thomas’s illustration of doctor and medicine, as it does not highlight the absolute gratuity of divine creation, but I suppose that all creaturely analogies break down fairly quickly at this point. We typically think of freedom of choice as selecting one course of action from among many. A doctor may prescribe one of several available antibiotics or none at all, proposing instead a regimen of rest and good nutrition or perhaps nothing at all. Let nature take its course and all will be well (hopefully). But God is already and always well. He gains nothing by creation. This is his absolute freedom. As Thomas writes: “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“ (SCG I.80).
As we saw in my articles “To let be or not let be” and “Transcending Freedom and Necessity,” Christian theologians have long suspected the Neoplatonic tradition as positing an impersonal and therefore necessary emanation of the cosmos from the One. In response they have asserted divine volition. As St John of Damascus declares: “But God, through the exercise of will alone, has brought all things into existence out of nothing” (De Fide Orthodoxa I.8). The Angelic Doctor agrees. Interestingly, he seems to be less concerned in the Summa Contra Gentiles to defend the non-necessity of creation, which he believes is easily demonstrated by reflection upon the divine attributes, than he is in defending God’s free choice to bring into being the present world, as opposed to another. Deity is not compelled, he tells us, to realize all possibilities: “Moreover, God, in willing His own goodness, wills things other than Himself to be in so far as they participate in His goodness. But, since the divine goodness is infinite, it can be participated in infinite ways, and in ways other than it is participated in by the creatures that now exist“ (I.81.4). Given that God has not realized all possibilities in his creative act, his freedom of choice is thereby confirmed. In this series, though, I am principally interested in the gratuity and nonnecessity of creation itself.
Why did God create the cosmos? Thomas gives the only possible answer: because it was fitting according to his goodness to do so:
Moreover, the communication of being and goodness arises from goodness. This is evident from the very nature and definition of the good. By nature, the good of each thing is its act and perfection. Now, each thing acts in so far as it is in act, and in acting it diffuses being and goodness to other things. Hence, it is a sign of a being’s perfection that it “can produce its like,” as may be seen from the Philosopher in Meteorologica IV. Now, the nature of the good comes from its being something appetible. This is the end, which also moves the agent to act. That is why it is said that the good is diffusive of itself and of being. But this diffusion befits God because, as we have shown above, being through Himself the necessary being, God is the cause of being for other things. God is, therefore, truly good. (I.37.5)
The language of diffusion evokes the writings of St Dionysius the Areopagite, of whom Aquinas was a keen reader. It is appropriate that the Good should communicate being and goodness to others. Whereas God’s relation to himself is necessary and natural—infinite Good inexorably wills infinite Good—his “relation to other things is according to a certain befittingness, not indeed necessary and natural, nor violent and unnatural, but voluntary; for the voluntary need be neither natural nor violent” (I.82.9). “To have free choice befits God” (I.88.2). Hence while God is absolutely free and could have done otherwise, it was, as Stratford Caldecott comments, most certainly ”fitting that God should create all things as an image of divine Wisdom, and God will always do what is fitting, though he is not constrained to do so. If we deny this, we are implying that his acts are merely arbitrary or whimsical. No, things are beautiful, and they are created in order to reflect and participate in the beauty of God” (The Radiance of Being, p. 195).
Thomas distinguishes between absolute and suppositional necessity. The former is exemplified in God’s willing of his divine essence: because God is the Good and all-encompassing perfection, he cannot not will himself as the Good. God cannot be happy with anything less than God, and for the very same reason he need not have willed other things. Kathryn Tanner elaborates:
The will is required to will only what is necessary for its own happiness; anything without a necessary relation to that happiness is a matter of free choice, because one can be happy without it (ST 82.2). But God includes within God’s own nature the complete perfection of all goods; therefore God necessarily wills only himself. Nothing short of God is required for God’s happiness and therefore God’s decision to create any of that is free and not necessitated. God’s will is ‘necessarily related to his own goodness, which is its proper objective. Hence he wills his own good necessarily.’ ‘But since God’s goodness subsists and is complete independently of other things, and they add no fulfillment to him, there is no absolute need for him to will them’ (ST I.19.3). (“Creation,” in The Cambridge Companion to the Summa Theologiae, pp. 152-153)
Yet once having freely and voluntarily created the cosmos, we may say that he has created by a necessity of supposition. In contrast to absolute necessity, suppositional necessity starts with the postulation of a case: “if it is the case that … then necessarily it is the case that …” Boethius called this conditional necessity. Hester Gelber cites the popular example: “while it is not necessary that Socrates must sit, it is necessary that given that he is sitting, Socrates must necessarily sit while he sits” (It Could Have Been Otherwise, p. 122). The necessity is consequent on a prior condition.
This, I’m sure, is all very interesting to logicians and scholastic philosophers, yet its relevance to the topic of divine freedom and creation is not initially obvious—until, that is, we remember that the cosmos, with all of its particulars, is an expression of suppositional necessity. We may pose counterfactual questions like “Could God have not created the world?” or “Could God have created a different world?”—yet the fact remains that not only did the good God freely choose to create a world, but he freely chose to create and redeem this world and we along with it. The facts of the case, therefore, must govern our philosophical speculation. We cannot position ourselves outside the Creator-creature relation, so as to achieve some neutral, objective perspective. We stand inescapably within this relation; indeed, we are this relation. We are creatures made from nothing and do not possess existence as our own. Hence we cannot see and judge the matter as God does. We are constrained by our apophatic condition. We do not comprehend the divine essence. We cannot fathom divine simplicity. Thomas well understands this. Hence he does not begin his theology with an a priori construal of divinity, as we find in some analytic philosophers; he begins with the mystery of the world’s ontological insufficiency and thus its dependence upon a transcendent explanation. From this he deduces the attributes and perfections of divinity. Thus Rudi te Velde:
The starting point of our knowledge of reality does not coincide with the starting point of reality itself. In order to argue that all things in fact proceed from God as from their efficient cause, we must start from the indirect and negative understanding of God on the basis of his effects … It is not possible to take one’s starting point as God himself and then to argue from God that everything else depends on him. In identifying God with ‘self-subsistent being’, the existence of finite beings which depend on God is presupposed … We do not have knowledge about God independently of the causal relation between God and creatures. Affirming that there must be a first cause which is called ‘God’, is the same as saying that the things are, in fact, effects of this cause, that is creatures. (Aquinas on God, p. 129)
Given that “the divine will is immutable,” Thomas reasons, “assuming that it wills something, God must by supposition will this thing” (I.83.2). If God freely wills to create, the effect must follow; given that we exist, it is necessary that God has freely willed us to exist. He cannot unwill what he is now willing in a second volitional act. “It is therefore necessary by supposition that He willed whatever He willed, and also that He wills it; neither, however, is absolutely necessary, but, rather, possible” (I.83.4). This may seem like a trite distinction (if something has happened or is happening, it must be), but as James Brent points out, it hammers home the fundamental truths of God’s freedom and love:
Aquinas often repeats that God wills creatures as a means to an end. What Aquinas means is that God gives esse to creatures as his way of being God or as his way of living and delighting in being himself. For “the things that we love for their own sake we want multiplied as much as possible. And God wills and loves his own essence for its own sake” [SCG 1.75.3]. Therefore, God wills the multiplication of esse, that is, God gives a share in esse to other things. And to give a share in esse to other things is God’s way of being God. Furthermore, God need not have willed (given being to) things other than himself as his way of being God. He could have and would have been God, been goodness itself, known goodness itself, loved goodness itself, possessed goodness itself, and enjoyed goodness itself, and lacked nothing, simply by being himself—even if he had never given being to anything other than himself. So it is not absolutely necessary that God will (give being to) other things. But God in fact wills to be himself in this way: by giving a share in his esse to creatures. What is the modal status of this fact? From the point of view of merely logical possibilities, that God wills creatures is contingent. But from the point of view of “conditional possibility,” that God wills creatures is necessary. For God is immutable in every respect. Therefore, his will toward creatures could not have come into being in God and could not cease to be in God. Rather, God’s act of willing creatures simply is God. Given that God in fact wills creatures, God cannot do or be otherwise. In that sense, God’s willing of creatures is necessary. (“God’s Knowledge and Will,” in The Oxford Handbook of Aquinas, pp. 165-166)
Has Thomas violated the divine simplicity? He does not think so. Given that the divine willing is his essence, and given that he has willed the world, then his production of the world is only suppositionally necessary, “because the will of God does not have a necessary relation to this willed object” (I.83.3). As Matthew Levering puts it: “God could be God without creatures, and so his willing of creatures cannot have the absolute necessity that his willing of himself has” (Engaging the Doctrine of Creation, p. 103). That is the fact of the case, as it were. Granted the making of the world by a simple, immutable, and eternal Deity, we have no choice but to accept the apparent aporia:
Indeed, there is no ‘moment’ in God’s eternity in which he does not will all that he wills; there is no God ‘prior’ to God’s will to create. In this sense, God can be said to will necessarily everything that he wills. The potency or possibility stems not from God’s will, but from the contingent nature of the finite things willed; they do not and cannot determine the divine will. (Levering, p. 103)
We can notionally distinguish between the absolute and contingent dimensions in God’s single act of willing both himself and the cosmos, but we may not separate them nor posit a real distinction. The following consequence follows, as Tanner explains:
Because it is free in this way, God’s creation of the world becomes a loving act of unconstrained generosity for what is other than God. Without any intention of profiting himself, God freely chooses to give creatures a share in what God is (ST I.19.2). What God intends is for creatures to enjoy in the limited, imperfect ways appropriate to them the goodness of God’s own perfect being. The object of God’s action is God himself as something now sharable beyond God’s own existence and nature. God’s intent, when diffusing God’s own goodness in creating the world, is only to give and never to acquire (ST I.44.4). (p. 153)
It’s all grace. Thomas did not learn this truth through philosophical reasoning. He first heard it in the faith of the Church: “The fact of saying that God made all things by His Word excludes the error of those who say that God produced things by necessity. When we say that in Him there is a procession of love, we show that God produced creatures not because He needed them, nor because of any other extrinsic reason, but on account of the love of His own goodness” (ST I.32.1).