God is the infinite source and ground of all reality: he therefore transcendently causes everything that is and everything that occurs. Such must be the case, for the divine act of creation is not a one time event but the eternal gifting of existence. For this reason Christian theologians have distinguished between the primary causality of the Creator and the secondary causality of created beings. Diogenes Allen explains:
Divine creative activity and a complete scientific account of the relations between the members of the universe do not exclude each other because different kinds of causality are involved in each case: the constant creative activity of God that gives each creature its existence and nature, and the causal relations between creatures studied by the sciences. (Christian Belief in a Postmodern World, pp. 165-166)
We now need to ask the question, How does God actualize his providential purposes in the world? If God’s purposes were restricted to physical phenomena, we could confidently declare that “God achieves God’s intentions through the natural operations of the physical natures God gives to creatures” (p. 166). But God has also made human beings in his image, upon whom he has conferred the gift of free-will, with whom he has entered into covenant, to whom he has made temporal and eschatological promises. How can God effectively fulfill his providential ends if his human agents are free to resist him and subvert his well-laid plans? What if we swamp the synergistic rowboat?
At this point controversial words like “determinism” and “predestination” immediately come to mind. Eastern Christianity has traditionally rejected all formulations of predestination that seem to compromise or violate the freedom of the human agent. The following patristic quotations may be deemed representative:
We have learned from the prophets, and we hold it to be true, that punishments, chastisements, and rewards are rendered according to the merit of each man’s actions. Otherwise, if all things happen by fate, then nothing is in our own power. For if it be predestined that one man be good and another man evil, then the first is not deserving of praise or the other to be blamed. Unless humans have the power of avoiding evil and choosing good by free choice, they are not accountable for their actions-whatever they may be. (St Justin Martyr, I Apol. 43)
This expression “How often would I have gathered your children together, and you would not” [Matthew 23:37] set forth the ancient law of human liberty, because God made man a free [agent] from the beginning, possessing his own power, even as he does his own soul, to obey the behests of God voluntarily, and not by compulsion of God. For there is no coercion with God, but a good will [towards us] is present with Him continually. (St Irenaeus of Lyons, Adv. Haer. IV.37.1)
We ought to understand that while God knows all things beforehand, yet He does not predetermine all things. For He knows beforehand those things that are in our power, but He does not predetermine them. For it is not His will that there should be wickedness nor does He choose to compel virtue…. Bear in mind, too, that virtue is a gift from God implanted in our nature, and that He Himself is the source and cause of all good, and without His co-operation and help we cannot will or do any good thing. But we have it in our power either to abide in virtue and follow God, Who calls us into ways of virtue, or to stray from paths of virtue, which is to dwell in wickedness, and to follow the devil who summons but cannot compel us” (St John of Damascus, Expos. II.30)
We might describe the position expressed in these citations (and dozens more could be easily provided) as a commonsensical understanding of the relationship between divine causality and human freedom. The authors posit a conflict between the action of God and the free actions of personal agents. Free-will requires the restriction of God’s omnipotent activity. Paul Evdokimov was fond of quoting this patristic saying: “God can do everything, except constrain us to love him.”
We need a definition of a free action. Perhaps the following might pass muster with most of the Church Fathers: an action by a human agent is free if it is caused by the agent himself and not by any thing else. If someone slips a drug into my Coca-Cola, and I start to do strange and uncharacteristic things, like running naked down the street, my actions are judged not to have been done freely. I am acting under the influence of the drug. If someone puts a gun to my head and commands me to give him all my money, the transfer of funds is judged not to have been a free and meritorious action on my part. It was done under the threat of violence. I am morally responsible only for the actions I have voluntarily chosen. I may thus be said to have acted freely if, and only if, I do something and nothing else made me do it. Free actions are self-determined and uncoerced.
One might even say that a free action is uncaused, in the sense that it is not caused by a power or agency external to the person. This does not mean, however, that a free action is unmotivated. Herbert McCabe elaborates:
There are always reasons and motives for free actions. You can say why Fred did this. We can even in English say ‘What made him do it?’ meaning what reason did he have for doing it. When we speak of what made him do it in that sense we are certainly not denying that he did it freely. To assign a reason or motive to an action is not, however, to talk about the cause of the action; it is to analyse the action itself. An action that was caused from outside could not be done for a reason, or at least not for the agent’s reason. If by devious chemical or hypnotic means I cause Fred to eat his left sock, then he does not have a reason for doing it (though he may think he has), it is I who have a reason for his doing it, for the action is really mine, not his. Free actions, then, are uncaused though they are motivated and done for reasons; and these motives and reasons do not take away from freedom but rather are essential to it. (God Matters, p. 13)
I do not know how contemporary philosophers would assess this construal, but it seems to accord with the patristic affirmation of free-will. But there’s a problem. Do you see it? If you don’t, you might want to go back and re-read the articles on double agency and synergism.
Okay, here’s the deal. We assume that personal freedom requires independence from God’s direct causal activity. To be free is to be autonomous. If God were to cause humans actions, human beings would be reduced to automata. Perhaps we even start imagining scenarios where God restricts his omnipotence and creates a space (let’s call it a freedom-zone) within himself for human beings to freely live and be. With Jürgen Moltmann we might even appeal to the Kabbalistic concept of the Tzimtzum to secure creaturely independence.
It just seems so obviously correct that God cannot cause our freely chosen actions. Yet when we posit the metaphysical incompatibility between divine agency and human agency, we are ultimately treating God’s creative action as external to the human agent, as a violent movement that would compel him or her to do something or become something against his or her will. In essence we are introducing God’s transcendent causality into the finite field of interacting causalities? Yet as we have seen in this series, that is precisely not how we want to think about the inconceivable relationship between divine and human agency!
I feel like I am now treading onto thin Orthodox ice, but perhaps only because Orthodox philosophy has not devoted much time and energy thinking about this specific dimension of human freedom. In the first millennium the Eastern Church needed to confront and deny pagan fatalism—hence its joyous proclamation of human freedom. But to be honest, Eastern elucidations of synergism have been historically superficial. As Robert W. Jenson (unfairly?) jibes, Byzantine and Orthodox theologians just stopped thinking about the subject. The Latin Church, on the other hand, needed to confront Pelagianism and assert the priority and gratuity of divine grace and has therefore addressed the question of divine and human agency in great depth—but unfortunately St Augustine took a wrong turn and dragged the Western Christianity down the dark road of the massa damnata and absolute predestination. Calvin’s decretum horribile a thousand years later was but the logical conclusion.
Fr Patrick Reardon states that the synergistic theology of St Maximus the Confessor, canonized at the Sixth Ecumenical Council, recognizes “the logical impasse inherent in the concept of freedom.” Eastern theology has thus prudently steered away from trying to figure out what cannot be figured out. “If the freedom of man is inherently mysterious (indeed, aporetic),” he asks, “what shall we say of the freedom of God?” The caution may be prudent, but is it always helpful? It becomes unhelpful, I submit, when it hinders us from recognizing the divine causality that necessarily underpins divine-human synergism. Reading popular Orthodox treatments of synergy one discerns little mystery if any at all—just two personal agents rowboating together to accomplish a common goal.
The one theologian I have found most stimulating on this question has been Herbert McCabe. He makes two points critical for our reflection. First, God transcends all creaturely activity, absolutely and infinitely:
God’s activity, then, does not compete with mine. Whereas the activity of any other creature makes a difference to mine and would interfere with my freedom, the activity of God makes no difference. It has a more fundamental and important job to do than making a difference. It makes me have my own activity in the first place. I am free; I have my own spontaneous activity not determined by other creatures, because God makes me free. Not free of him (this would be to cease to exist), but free of other creatures.
The idea that God’s causality could interfere with my freedom can only arise from an idolatrous notion of God as a very large and powerful creature—a part of the world. We see an ascending scale of powerful causes. The more powerful the cause, the more difference it makes. And we are inclined to locate God at the top of the scale, and to imagine that he makes the most difference of all. But God does not make the most difference. He makes, if you like, all the difference—which is the same as making no difference at all. (Faith Within Reason, pp. 75-76)
So neither motives nor dispositions are causes of action; it remains that a free action is one which I cause and which is not caused by anything else. It is caused by God. From what we were saying last time it will, I hope, be clear that this is not the paradox that it seems at first sight, for God is not anything else. God is not a separate and rival agent within the universe. The creative causal power of God does not operate on me from outside, as an alternative to me; it is the creative causal power of God that makes me me.
Consider how we decide whether or not Fred acted freely in eating his left sock. We look round to see what might have accounted for his behaviour by acting upon him, we look for drugs and hypnotism and infection of the brain, we look for blind powers operating from below the level of consciousness. What we don’t do is look for God. And this is not just because we have forgotten him or don’t believe in him; it is because it would be irrelevant. To be free means not to be under the influence of some other creature, it is to be independent of the other bits of the universe; it is not and could not mean to be independent of God.
It is, of course, our image-making that deceives us here. However hard we try, we cannot help picturing God as an individual existent, even an individual person, making the world or controlling it like the potter making a pot or as an artist making a statue. But the pot is in the same world as the potter, the statue shares a studio with the sculptor. They interact with each other. To, to put it the other way, the potter is outside the pot he makes, the sculptor is outside the statue. But when we come to the creator of everything that has existence, none of that could be true. God cannot share a world with us—if he did he would have created himself. God cannot be outside, or alongside, what he has made. Everything only exists by being constantly held in being by him. (God Matters, pp. 13-14)
The proposition that God limits his omnipotence in order to secure the possibility of human freedom is a logical impossibility. If omnipotence means anything it means that God ultimately causes everything that actually happens. We may wish to make a distinction between God’s ordaining will and his permissive will; but we must not overlook the most obvious consequence of the creatio ex nihilo: everything that happens happens because God wills it to be; otherwise, it would not happen at all. I suggest that the idea that God can restrict his omnipotence has more in common with 18th century Deism than with the transcendent, sovereign monotheism of catholic Christianity. God is God, not a being.
Second, God directly causes the free actions of humanity. We come now to the most important and incisive passage in McCabe’s writings on God and human freedom:
I am free in fact, not because God withdraws from me and leaves me my independence—as with a man who frees his slaves, or good parents who let their children come to independence—but just the other way round. I am free because God is in a sense more directly the cause of my actions than he is of the behaviour of unfree beings. In the case of an unfree creature its behaviour is perhaps its own (in the case of a living thing—for this is what we mean by a living thing), but is also caused by whatever gave it its structure and whatever forces are operating on it. We can give an account of the behaviour of the dog (or we would like to be able to give an account of the behaviour of the dog) in terms of such causal factors. And may we could go back and explain these causal factors in other more general terms of physics and so on. It is only at the end of such a long chain that we come to the end of this kind of scientific explanation and ask the most radical question of all: yes, but how come any of this instead of nothing? God does bring about the action of the dog, but he does so by causing other things to cause it.
God brings about my free action, however, not by causing other things to cause it, he brings it about directly. The creative act of God is there immediately in my freedom. My freedom is, so to say, a window of God’s creating; the creativity of God is not masked by intermediate causes. In human freedom we have the nearest thing to a direct look at the creative act of God (apart, says the Christian, from Christ himself, who is the act of God).
We are free not because God is absent or leaves us alone, we are free because God is more present—not of course in the sense that there is more of God there in the free being, but in the sense that there is nothing, so to say, to distract us. God is not acting here by causing other things to cause this act, he is directly and simply causing it. So God is not an alternative to freedom, he is the direct cause of freedom. We are not free in spite of God, but because of God. (God Matters, pp. 14-15)
I can tell you I have mulled on this passage for several years. I invite you to mull on it, if not for several years, at least for a few days and weeks. I know all the questions that are popping into your mind—how does this impact the Orthodox, Catholic, Arminian, and Reformed understandings of human cooperation with divine grace? what does this mean for predestination? how do we reconcile this with the reality of evil?—but I suggest that you temporarily put those questions to the side and just ponder on McCabe’s key claim:
God’s is the direct, unmediated, uncreated cause of human freedom and therefore the direct, unmediated, uncreated cause of all free human actions.
Human Freedom is mystery grounded in transcendent Mystery.
(3 February 2014; rev.)