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.