Who Hardened Pharoah’s Heart?

Ezekiel 12:1-16

In the Exodus story of the ten plagues, who hardens Pharoah’s heart, God or Pharoah? Verses can be cited to support both, and Bible readers have wondered ever since. Modern readers have noted that we should not expect pre-scientific peoples to have understood the distinction between divine causality and secondary causality, which is true; but the philo­sophical problem remains. We feel uncomfortable with the biblical claim that the LORD caused Pharoah to reject the summons of Moses to free the Hebrews, thus forcing the final devastating plague, the death of the first-born. It raises for us theodicial concerns about the character of God and confronts us with the metaphysical conundrum of divine providence and the interaction between Creator and creature.

The same concern is generated, so Robert Jenson believes, by the prophecies of Ezek 12:1-16. I’m not sure he’s right, but it provides an opportunity for him to ruminate on the mystery of divine and creaturely agency:

Thus God is said both to blind and deafen Israel and to send prophets in the hope that they may see and hear and repent. This is not mere incoherence. It is rather one manifestation of a logic that runs through all scripture.

The questions always come up, wherever the realities of God and faith are taken seriously. Putting them in the popular language about salvation: If salvation depends wholly on God, and if not everyone is saved, then if God does not choose to save me, what is the use of my faith or works? Or if I am responsible to open my own eyes, how can I fully rely on God as my Savior, since I may at any moment undo everything by failing that responsibility?

What we must come to understand is that neither question is appropriate, for the simultaneity of “God decides and works all things” and “see, hear, and be saved” is itself the truth about our situation with God. Believers are bound to “work out [their] own salvation,” precisely because “it is God who is at work” in them (Phil. 2:12–13). Both propositions can be true, and true only together, because between God’s will and a creature’s will there is no “zero-sum game.” When you and I must decide some matter, to the extent that you choose I do not, and to the extent that I choose you do not. Thus we are always negotiat­ing, for we are both finite creatures with a limited scope for choice. But it does not work that way when God decides to open my eyes and I must, in response to his simultaneous appeal, myself decide to open my eyes. High medieval Scholasticism’s statement of the relation between God’s choice and ours is so simple and so patently right that it is very hard to grasp: God’s will is impeded by nothing; therefore if he chooses that I shall do x, I will do it; and if he chooses that I shall do x of my own free will, that is how I will do it. (Ezekiel, pp. 100-101)

Readers of Eclectic Orthodoxy will recognize here the theory which Austin Farrer called “double agency“—more recently described by Kathryn Tanner as noncompetitive or noncontrastive agency. St Thomas Aquinas is, perhaps, the most famous proponent of the double agency theory, and it enjoys a long and contentious history in the Roman Catholic and Protestant Churches. As far as I know, the theory is unknown in the Orthodox tradition and has never been seriously entertained by Eastern theologians, much less critiqued.

The gist of the position is that as the ultimate source and ground of being, God is too transcendent, too different, to be understood as existing in competition with the actions of creatures, including the free actions of rational beings. He does not act upon his creatures in the same way that creatures act upon each other; indeed, he does not act upon them at all. What he does, rather, is speak creatures into being from out of nothing, continuously and eternally. It is not the literal case that God first creates something and then acts upon it (which is how, I think, we all tend to picture the matter). There is simply God creating reality out of nothing in one eternal act.

Here’s one way of imagining the Creator-creature relationship that I have found helpful. Forget your parents, forget history, forget everything science teaches us about cosmolog­ical beginnings, forget the Big Bang and everything that happened afterwards. Instead imagine yourself as coming into existence at this very moment. In creating you, God does not act upon you, because there is no you, no object, to be acted upon. There is simply you suddenly appearing as a freely acting being, right along with the rest of the cosmos. And the same is true not only at this moment but at every subsequent moment. The thought experiment must be continuously repeated. (The experiment has its dangers, as it might suggest what theologians call the heresy of occasionalism, but that is a problem for another day.) This is why Jenson can say that the divine will is “impeded by nothing.” Creatures are never an other to the Creator in the way that creatures are other to each other. We are nothing … and yet not nothing. Whatever the “not nothing” is, it is not a some thing that God moves around, manipulates, or interferes with. Divine agency does not compete with creaturely agency, because God exists, as it were, on a different metaphysical plane. His relationship with beings is too intimate to be understood as coercive or controlling. As Bishop Robert Barron puts it: “Everything in the world is a relation to God.” Note what Barron does not say: he does not say that everything has a relation to God; everything, rather, is relation to God. In that difference lies the mystery of divine creation and the Ipsum Esse Subsistens.

As difficult—and perhaps impossible—for us to conceive, we can, I suggest, see why it is reasonable to state both that God hardens Pharoah’s heart and that Pharoah freely hardens his heart. Both statements must be true if the creatio ex nihilo is true.

(Go to “Idols and the Return to Mount Carmel”)

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33 Responses to Who Hardened Pharoah’s Heart?

  1. HAT says:

    What you’re describing is like *shunyata.* !

    Liked by 1 person

    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Hi, HAT. I’m afraid I’m unfamiliar with shunyata. Perhaps you can elaborate. I expect there will be significant differences between the shunyata and the Christian understanding of divine creation, but always best to first understand each other.

      Liked by 1 person

      • HAT says:

        Yes, indeed, it was just so striking.

        Shunyata is the Buddhist idea of “emptiness” or “transparency” – here is Roger Corless on that: “The interdependence of their [all beings] flashing into and out of existence is called … interdependent arising. Because of interdependent arising the dhrmas are said to be *shunya*, empty or transparent to analysis since they are not found to exist independently but *interdependently*. Thus, Reality is transparent to analysis, or space-like.” (The Vision of Buddhism, Paragon House, 1989, 24)

        Another way to think about it is that things do not have “substantial self-existence” because of this fundamental characteristic of being interdependently arising, and thus “empty” (of substantial self-existence).

        I have (casually) supposed this concept/basic vision of things was a fundamental difference between Buddhist and Christian metaphysics. So this vision of creation you shared was astonishing for that reason – it suggests possibly otherwise.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

          Thank you for that explanation. I can see the similarities—particularly the radical contingency of all beings. Entities do not carry within itself the reason for their existence; they are not self-existing. On the other hand, I’m fairly sure that Christian metaphysicians will want to insist that God (whether understood as Being or Beyond being) creates each being with a nature—i.e., they are a composite of essence and existence. I don’t know how that maps onto shunyata.

          Too bad David Hart doesn’t regularly read my blog. He could explain the similarities and differences right off.

          Liked by 1 person

          • HAT says:

            I see this about the beings; and I’m thinking that Christians will want to keep God out of the interdependent arising. Still – this was really illuminating! Thanks!


  2. mary says:

    Hi Fr. Aidan,

    I’m simple-minded when it comes to the finer points of theology but decided to read this one as it is an interesting question. And an interesting explanation you provide.

    I tend to look more at why was the story told the way it was. It seems to me that two vital points were being made. First, that it was God who was setting the people free. While Pharaoh was obviously a major actor, the Children of Israel were going to be saved (or not) because of God, not Pharaoh acting alone. Second, the story may have been told this way as a type or prefiguring of the sacrificing of the Christ for the ultimate “Exodus” in salvation history. This sacrifice too is sometimes regarded as indicative of God being cruel, requiring that blood be shed, etc. – but we know that is a grave misunderstanding.

    The stories of the Old Testament, of course, are best understood in the light of Christ. With a story like this one, we cannot know what blend there may be of historical fact and story told to relate a message. But, if Scripture is inspired as we believe, this does not matter as much as it being True.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Mary, I will confess to you (but please don’t tell anyone else) that I introduced the hardening of Pharoah’s heart only as click-bait (though in my defense I do think it poses nicely the free will question Jenson discusses in his commentary). 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Maximus says:

    Father, bless!

    I was interested in your statement, “As far as I know, the theory is unknown in the Orthodox tradition and has never been seriously entertained by Eastern theologians, much less critiqued.”

    From the vantage of one newly-illumined, the Orthodox Church seems to consistently teach election according to divine foreknowledge. I wonder, however, does the noncompetitive agency view of creation assume unconditional election? I am drawn to the idea of simultaneity, but I cringe a bit when i consider this view of human freedom: “God’s will is impeded by nothing.” I probably shouldn’t, because I know that statement is true! But unconditional election seems to impede synergy in salvation, a reality at the core of Orthodox life in Christ.

    Along these same lines, would the the noncompetitive agency view of creation also imply absolute divine simplicity? I know this doctrine is debated among Orthodox academics, but is generally not held by Orthodox theologians, I think.


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Greetings, Maximus. Welcome to Eclectic Orthodoxy, but most importantly, welcome to the Orthodox Church!

      Synergism is much spoken about in Orthodoxy and rightly so, but I suspect that it is often misunderstood and mistaught. If it is presented as if God as a being alongside beings, who does his part for our salvation (by giving grace), and we do our part (ascetical and moral works), then I believe synergism has been misunderstood. It treats God as a being rather than as the transcendent source and ground of being and salvation becomes a transaction.

      A superior way of talking (both metaphysically and evangelically) is to say that God contributes 100% to our salvation and we contribute 100% to our salvation, yet our 100% is itself 100% divine gift (or something along those lines).

      Our metaphysical hangup is that we cannot see how it could be possible for God to will (what God wills happens) that I freely do x. That would seem to lead to some sort of hard predestinarianism, and we end up with the Calvinists fearlessly asserting that God wills the damnation of the reprobate, which is perhaps the most unevangelical and perverted thing any Christian can say and therefore must not say (or even hint at).


      • Maximus says:

        Thanks for the warm welcome, Fr Aidan. And thank you for the clear reminder about God’s and our 100% contribution to salvation, his gift being “prior.” I knew this truth, but it’s so easy to slip back into univocal thinking about God’s and our existence. That God would will that I freely do x, indeed, is where the great mystery of providence lies.

        For me, however, unless divine election is somehow conditioned, (1) I cannot make sense of the word “freely” in that last sentence, and (2) it seems hard predestination of the reprobate is a necessary conclusion. Of course, a universalist approach would alleviate (2). But (1) would still remain, in my estimation, for the unconditional election position.

        I suppose the perennial problem (in my mind) is whether there exists any true “back-and-forth” between God and man. Does God ever re-act to our act? Not if he’s Pure Act (and absolutely simple)! 🙂 A conditional view of election is not possible in this kind of theology, and for me, it sort of sucks the “drama of decision” out of creation/consummation, a drama that seems quite biblical.

        But perhaps the noncompetitive approach is the best one—concealing the mechanics of providence and salvation while preserving their mystery in God.

        Liked by 1 person

        • James Criswell says:

          “Does God ever re-act to our act? Not if he’s Pure Act (and absolutely simple)! 🙂” This is also my current difficulty with actively affirming the most philosophically purist forms of divine immutability and impassibility. I suppose they can be true in ways I don’t understand, but they’re hard for me to get excited about as part of the Christian understanding of God.

          Liked by 1 person

          • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

            James, I believe you are correct that together the eternity and simplicity of God raise questions about how we are to understand God’s reactions to our actions or his responses to, say, our petition and intercessions. Existentially there is no problem, since the conundrum does not affect our daily lives. We live and act as if God responds to us, even while recognizing that to think of God as literally responding brings him right down into time and reduces him to a temporal being. Metaphysically, of course, we are presented with a paradox or antinomy, but we can see that the problem lies our finitude and our placement in space-time. We do not and cannot apprehend what Austin Farrer calls the “causal crux,” and because we cannot apprehend the causal crux, the metaphysical antinomy cannot function to answer the kinds of questions that we inevitably pose about human freedom and divine “determinism.” I put scare quotes around “determinism” because of the inaptness of the word, for the reasons cited in the article.

            Divine agency does not, therefore, fit into our libertarian-compatibilist categories. Hence we are stuck with the aporia.


          • Maximus says:

            James (and Fr Aidan), another interesting addition is that such a staunch proponent of absolute divine simplicity as D.B. Hart consistently understands election to be based upon divine foreknowledge throughout his NT translation (in the notes). In his Postscript, he comments on the Greek verb, pro-orizein, usually rendered “to predestine”:

            “It certainly possesses none of the grim, ghastly magnificence of the late Augustinian concept of “predestination”: an entirely irresistible predetermining causal force, not based on divine foreknowledge but rather logically prior to everything it ordains, by which God infallibly destines only a very few to salvation and thereby infallibly consigns the vast majority of humanity to unending torment. Thus, in two of the six instances of the verb’s use in the New Testament (Romans 8:29-30), Paul—blissfully innocent of later theological developments and anxieties—explicitly treats this divine “pre-demarcation” as *consequent* upon divine foreknowledge, and does so without any qualification or noticeable pangs of theological conscience. (1 Peter 1:1-2, more concisely, says the same thing.)” (pp 551-52)

            I’m not sure I can reconcile the notion of election as consequent upon divine foreknowledge with the notion of God as Pure Act and absolutely impassible. Foreknowledge (understood literally) would seem to “press back into” God’s life, somehow affecting His knowledge by an “external” influence, giving Him an external basis upon which to enact his electing decision. I wonder how Hart reconciles Paul’s (and Peter’s) teaching with “classical theism.”


          • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

            Maximus, regarding divine foreknowledge, I prefer to take a Thomistic tack, namely, to eliminate the “fore-“. God knows what God does. Check out: “What does God know and when did he know it?”.

            Liked by 1 person

        • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

          Maximus, regarding #1, the first thing we need to do is to agree on the criteria for a free act and specify how that might apply to God.


  4. Thomas says:

    > High medieval Scholasticism’s statement of the relation between God’s choice and ours is so simple and so patently right that it is very hard to grasp: God’s will is impeded by nothing; therefore if he chooses that I shall do x, I will do it; and if he chooses that I shall do x of my own free will, that is how I will do it.

    Jenson’s summary here is not correct for many (most? virtually all?) of the figures in the high Scholastic period, including St. Thomas Aquinas.

    St. Thomas considers the view that the human choices may be called free when necessitated, but not coerced. Both necessity and coercion mean that a person will inevitably make a particular decision. But (so the theory goes goes) the will is not coerced unless there is an “external cause” determining the choice. Otherwise it may still be said to be free.

    This view is exactly what interpreters like Denys Turner and Herbert McCabe attribute to St. Thomas when they say that God can cause one to choose x rather than y without vitiating human freedom, because God is not one being among other beings.

    However, St. Thomas presents this view (so often attributed to him) only to immediately conclude: “But this view is heretical.”

    A harsh way to put it in my view, but the point is that St. Thomas vehemently rejects the notion that human choices are determined to an particular choice by God. I’m not sure that view Jenson puts forward here is characteristic at all of the high medieval period. But I agree with St. Thomas that divine determinism, though arising from the best intentions, undermines both theology and moral conduct.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Hi, Thomas. You write: “However, St. Thomas presents this view (so often attributed to him) only to immediately conclude: ‘But this view is heretical.’” Please direct me to the specific places where Thomas rejects the view that Jenson, McCabe ad other commonly aattribute to him.


      • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

        In defense of McCabe & Company:

        “Reply to Objection 3. God moves man’s will, as the Universal Mover, to the universal object of the will, which is good. And without this universal motion, man cannot will anything. But man determines himself by his reason to will this or that, which is true or apparent good. Nevertheless, sometimes God moves some specially to the willing of something determinate, which is good; as in the case of those whom He moves by grace, as we shall state later on (I-II:109:2).”



        • Thomas says:

          St. Thomas considers the question “Whether the will is moved of necessity by the exterior mover which is God?” here. Here is the main body of the answer:

          > As Dionysius says (Div. Nom. iv) “it belongs to Divine providence, not to destroy but to preserve the nature of things.” Wherefore it moves all things in accordance with their conditions; so that from necessary causes through the Divine motion, effects follow of necessity; but from contingent causes, effects follow contingently. Since, therefore, the will is an active principle, not determinate to one thing, but having an indifferent relation to many things, God so moves it, that He does not determine it of necessity to one thing, but its movement remains contingent and not necessary, except in those things to which it is moved naturally [i.e., the general end of happiness].

          In general, though, I think I understated the difficulties that can come up as a result of this affirmation. While God does not determine our will to one option, nevertheless St. Thomas does teach the efficacy of grace and the surety of predestination.

          The answer here lies, I think, in an analogy to the mathematical notion of the limit. God may change my habitual disposition, circumstances that lead me to understand my own failure to understand the good (etc.), yet still in any particular case I might decide wrongly. Nevertheless, God’s actions affect the balance of the probabilities. Despite it being possible in a particular case for me to decide against God’s offer, what are the chances that I might do so over time? The greater God’s understanding of my motivations, and the longer the time frame, the chances of my holding out approach 0.

          This statistical approach makes sense of the Scriptures. How many times was grace offered and declined? Yet God not only continued to offer grace to mankind, he continually affected the circumstances under which we make those decisions, which affects probabilities we will accept. At the limit, there can be no doubt his purposes will be achieved, and this does not require any coercion or necessitation.


      • Thomas says:

        Well, there’s the passage I was quoting, De Malo, Question VI, art 1. I’ll quote it at a bit more length:

        “Some of 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… But this opinion is heretical. For it takes away the reason for merit and demerit in human acts … It is also to be counted among the oddest philosophical opinions, since it is not only contrary to faith but also subverts all the principles of moral philosophy.”

        It should be noted that he’s considering other things that may necessarily move the will here as well, such as the orientation of the will toward the good. But God is certainly one of the things he has in mind, as he explicitly mentions in objection 5.

        The places where St. Thomas denies that God necessitates choices are legion. I give a few more examples in All God’s Instruments.

        As I can tell, the error revolves around the kind of causation involved in God moving things. God moves things to act by virtue of efficient and final causality, but neither are specifying causes. Formal, specifying causes are internal (at least according to St. Thomas), and God is not a formal cause. (Though grace imparts a form, and there is something to be said about the exemplars.)

        Anyway, there’s way too much mystification around the notion of the will being moved, hearts being hardened, etc. It reminds me quite a bit of the obscurantism surrounding the notion of a premotion.

        My will is moved all the time without any decision on my part. If I hit my thumb with a hammer, anger may come over me before I can decide to do anything. If I am in a dark mood (perhaps because of my bout with the hammer) and my toddler smiles at me, my heart instantly softens. The will involves many acts other than decisions. The issue, in my opinion, has been taken to be more complex than it really is.

        Liked by 1 person

    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Thomas, in case you missed it, Dr Taylor O’Neill, whose specialty is Aquinas, stopped by Eclectic Orthodoxy yesterday and commented in his podcast thread. You might want to query him about your interpretation of Aquinas.


  5. Iain Lovejoy says:

    Without God I have no heart, or brain, or mind, or existence at all. God is the medium in which I exist, and the means by which I do or decide anything. Whatever my consciousness or spirit consists of, how can it exist and persist and have coherence other than by God providing the medium in which and through which it does so. If I will myself to do anything, how is it that my willing it is converted into physical motion in the world other than by the will and action of God?
    Even if the above is true, however, I still don’t see that what I will or do is therefore predetermined, decided or willed by God.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Stephen says:

    Would anybody know any author or text that speaks to the other side of the spectrum? Specifically, what if I, knowingly and consciously, sought to impede/hinder/reject whatever I thought God’s will was at all times? How do I know in any way that I am successful, any more or less than my brother who strives to align his thoughts and actions at all time with whatever he thinks God’s will to be? I’ve heard the answer to be “look at the fruit of the tree”, and I can accept that to a degree. But are there limits? If the hardening of Pharoah’s heart – or anybody’s heart – is somehow part of the economy of salvation, does that not force us to incorporate the potential of “collateral damage” of souls?


    • Robert Fortuin says:


      As secondary agency, though real and undetermined, does not add to primary agency so it does not constitute a necessity. So while the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart is not a necessity, by the free exercise of secondary agency it becomes part of the economy of salvation. Does an expanding universe add to God’s creative act? We are thus prevented from considering the collateral damnation of souls as God’s intentionality.

      The limit is our God given and God directed nature – this cannot be thwarted ad infinitum as this would be to deny the existence of God who is the very ground of our agency. Unless of course it is believed that the darkness triumphs over the light, in which case we can either chuck the whole paschal good tidings out the window or re-define what “good” may mean. Neither of those are options worthy of consideration if I understand the NT correctly.


  7. Robert Fortuin says:

    I don’t favor notions of double or non-competitive agency as it misleads one to think of God as yet another agent among agents. I prefer “supra-competitive” or “supra agency” – God is beyond our diastematic categories and we must refuse to put him alongside them.

    This, coincidentally, addresses the misunderstandings as to what denotes absolute divine simplicity (and God as Actus Purus, and heck we can add transcendence/immanence as well). We are not speaking of simplicity as simplicity writ large, or activity as activity writ large – as if the infinite modal disjunction can be ignored (it most certainly cannot, unless one prefers idols).

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Grant says:

    God’s creative act as the Primary Cause for all secondary causes and actions contains all those actions both from and within it, this would include all references to all creation and all things in creation actions, reactions, choices, movements and so on in ever mind-defying complexity is all part of and within God’s Act of creation (including what we would see as accommodations and actions in relation to that, God’s providence from our perspective), and of it comes from God’s call creation into being out of nothing, and all that is part of it’s being, both in whole and in part. That includes our whole being of finite existence called to partipate in and towards God, and that would also being in relation with each other (in terms of all humanity, and beyond with all creation) all part of and effecting each other, and all of our existence in terms of time and space, all our moments and movements and all things moments and movements is the whole being called into existence from nothing, and donated being. That also means all liberty of being to the various degrees, but also in relation to all other things of created being, are part of God’s act of creation. God just isn’t acting in the same sense as we do, rather our acting, and anything acting or being is both the consequence and indeed is God’s dynamic and creative act, which gives us being, and in our case as part of creation, our degree to act and think both ourselves and as part of each other, which is gifted from Him, moved by Him as calling that existence and nature to be, and that freedom to be comes from and by Him, and is secondary fully us, and yet all of it, including both all our actions are all His creative act, all things whole being part of the God as Creator, His call into being from nothing. Even our very freedom of being is both enfolded within, part of, accounted for within, and also nothing but God’s act of creation for nothing, and of participating in and with God ‘in Him we live, move and have our being’ in all things, including the entirety of all things existence, space, beginning, middle, end and eternity.

    It also brings to mind St Origen’s idea of a fall from proto pre-creation state of perfection, in God’s call from nothing, in Him what we should be and truly are is all called into being, which is fully and wholly in terms of an our entirety of being, and is something complete within God (in that our true selves are hidden within Him) and as part of the eternal creative act. Within our secondary actions, and our sense of coming into being would be a falling away from that whole true self and growth towards that both in part and whole, giving a situation of a Fall, but that itself is still part of God’s overall creative Act and is part of and accounted in it. And so our call to true self, and the true self that to us is hidden in God remains, and even all our secondary actions, and all other things secondary actions are continued within and in fact only exist and are given from by His creative act and grace, and so cannot evade that call into being. As even our fall and all in it is part and there and only possible by God and in Him, and from Him, every thought, action and movement in both the entirely of space and time, and all natures, and the fact of us being and having existence, and our nature in it’s very giveness and inherent dependence to be, would mean that within Him and His creative power and grace, all secondary freedom will nevertheless be part of that which both leads to and even in the period of falleness can only even by Him be part of our call into our true selves which are hidden (at our current present) in Christ.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. JT says:

    Years ago, when struggling over this text, I noticed something subtle (and surely, I can’t be the first to have noticed it; there must be one or more church fathers who commented on this).

    For roughly the first half of the plagues, the text says that pharaoh hardened his heart. It’s only for the second half of the plagues that the text says that God hardened pharaoh’s heart. It’s as if God gave pharaoh every chance to cooperate before finally confirming pharaoh’s choice to be stubborn.



  10. Thomas says:

    Fr. Kimel:

    With respect to the podcast you mention, the host bases his arguments on several mistaken interpretations of St. Thomas:

    1. The will cannot resist a perfect good (i.e., happiness)
    2. The movement of the will refers to a determination to an outcome.
    3. God binds the will to a particular choice, because he does not coerce the will. Put slightly differently, God necessitates the will in that he determines the choice, but it’s not necessitated in the sense of coercion.
    4. Although God infallibly binds the will to choose one option over the others, nevertheless the will retains a real potency to do otherwise. Yet it is not possible for it to do otherwise, given God’s will.

    All four contradict the texts, and the latter is self-contradictory.

    With respect to the first, St. Thomas says we cannot choose the opposite of happiness, but we can decline or distract ourselves from that choice. He does not say, as the host says, that we are bound to choose the perfect good when presented with that choice. In fact, the very passage the host is quoting denies that the exercise of the will is necessitated by any object, including the perfect good. (See the body of ST I-II, q. 10, a. 2).

    With respect to (2), when St. Thomas speaks of motion, he’s talking about an actuation of a potency. God actuates all things by giving them existence. This includes not only all things, but all aspects of all things. Our choices are aspects of ourselves, and therefore God not only makes us be, but makes our actions be as well. But existence does not determine a thing to be one way rather than another — that is formal causality, which St. Thomas is very emphatic is different from existence. Existence does not determine a thing in any way. Therefore, by making our decisions exist, God does not specify or determine them.

    With respect to (3), the notion that God (or anything) determines our choices to A or B, but that it doesn’t count as violating our freedom because it is not a form of coercion, is exactly the position St. Thomas condemns in that De Malo quote as heresy. St. Thomas vehemently rejects the view that our decisions may be determined by God (or our own natures) yet not coerced, and therefore still free. What he condemns as a heresy is any view that would eliminate the real possibility of our choosing otherwise, other than our own choice. (I’m not endorsing the view that this is heresy, just illustrating how strongly St. Thomas abhors the view that is being attributed to him.)

    With respect to (4), the host is self-contradictory. Potencies aren’t some kind of stuff which we might store in our pockets but never be able to use. If a thing has a real potency to do otherwise, it is possible that the alternative could have occurred. Now, either it is possible we could have chosen otherwise or not. If God’s infallible will means that it is not possible, then there exists no potency to choose otherwise. If, however, it is possible we could have chosen otherwise, God could not have determined our decision. It’s a straightforward contradiction to assert both.


  11. Iain Lovejoy says:

    The first time God hardening Pharaoh’s heart is mentioned is in fact in God’s briefing to Moses before Moses even meets Pharaoh in chapter 7.
    The Hebrew phraseology in this passage raises an intriguing question, however: I know a little Hebrew, and the word order suggests not a consecutive narrative but a conditional sentence (Hebrew often omits the “if” in these). What Exodus 7:2-4 (where hardening of the heart appears) would then read would be:
    “2: You shall speak all that I command you, and Aaron your brother shall tell Pharaoh that he shall send the sons of Israel out of his land.
    3: And if I harden the heart of Pharaoh, then I shall multiply my signs and wonders in the land of Egypt,
    4: And if Pharaoh will not listen, then I shall lay my hand on Egypt, that I may bring out my armies, my people, the sons of Israel, from the land of Egypt by great judgments.”
    Bearing in mind that “heart” in Hebrew idiom refers to the reasoning mind, and “harden” means “make stubborn”, I suspect the real answer to the problem of God “hardening Pharaoh’s heart” is that God is not talking about some supernatural influence on his emotions at all, but rather making the more prosaic statement that Pharaoh is reacting with stubbornness in response to God’s demands.


  12. Thomas says:

    St. Thomas directly considered the question whether God hardens human hearts with sin or spiritual blindness. This he denies. “God is not the cause of spiritual blindness and hardness of heart, just as He is not the cause of sin.” (ST I-II, q 79, a 3)

    He does say that God may be said to be a cause of the hardness of heart somewhat as the sun is the cause of a shadow. The obstacle (the sinfulness that causes hardness of heart as spiritual blindness or sin) is within the sinner. God by his grace could remove the obstacle, but he does not do this for everyone (or so St. Thomas thinks).

    It is clear enough that for this high Medieval thinker (admittedly not the most influential, at least at the time), there is not a divine double causality by which God causes a sinful hardening of the heart. God does not cause sin, we do. The question is not resolved along the lines of divine determinism, but by how generous God is with his grace.


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