Can God determine our actions? One need not think more than a second or two. Of course he can, we answer. If CIA brainwashers and television advertising can cause us to act in specific ways, then the Creator of the universe certainly can. Let’s rephrase the question: Can God determine our actions without violating our freedom and autonomy? Here the spirits divide between libertarians and compatibilists. The former believe that divine agency and human agency are mutually exclusive. Our actions are free only if we might have done otherwise. To the extent that they can be sufficiently explained by a set of nomic conditions that temporally or logically precede them, I live in a state of thralldom and do not enjoy genuine autonomy. If God causes my actions, then they are not my actions and I am reduced to the status of puppet. In the words of Jessica Rabbit: “I’m not bad. I’m just drawn that way.” Compatibilists, on the other hand, claim that free agency is compatible with divine determination. Libertarian freedom or determinism—they seem to be the only options. Or are they?
In Creation and the Sovereignty of God, Hugh McCann asserts a version of double agency that seeks to split the difference. Contemplate the relationship between an author of a novel and the characters he or she creates:
The author does not belong to the world she creates, nor do her characters and their actions exist as an event-causal consequence of anything she does. Rather, their first existence is in her creative imagination, and they are born and sustained in and through the very thoughts in which she conceives them, and of which they are the content. The interesting thing about this relationship is that it is too close to permit the author’s creative activity to damage her characters’ freedom. On the contrary, it is perfectly legitimate for her to present them as free and responsible beings. Indeed, it is not even possible for the author to enter into the world and interact with her characters in such a way as to undermine or pervert their integrity as agents. Only other characters in the novel can do that—subject, of course, to the will of the author.1
A good story draws us into its world, and once we are in that world, we do not experience the characters as playing out a script, unlike, say, the robots in Westworld. The fictional characters enjoy an integrity of their own. They live out their lives in credible, consistent, and convincing fashion. Even when a character surprises us, it is the character, not the author, who surprises. Only poorly written stories shock us out of the narrative and return us to the “real” world. Some novelists, such as J. R. R. Tolkien and J. K. Rowling, go to remarkable lengths to create imaginative universes that are compelling and utterly convincing.
I draw your attention to this sentence from the above quotation: “The interesting thing about this relationship is that it is too close to permit the author’s creative activity to damage her characters’ freedom.” McCann seems to be suggesting that fictional characters, and the narrative world in which they dwell, enjoy a genuine measure of freedom because they live within the imagination of the novelist. They are not external objects that can be manipulated or meddled with. The relationship is too intimate, too immediate for interference. Dorothy Sayers might disagree with McCann here: his proposal underestimates the “element of pure craftsmanship” that is necessary to the creation of a good story. “Nevertheless,” she concedes, “the free will of a genuinely created character has a certain reality, which the writer will defy at his peril.”2 A fictional world is not the real world, of course, but McCann still finds the analogy illuminating:
As I see it, our relation to our creator is much the same. We, of course, have more than a mental existence; we are real. But we too are brought to be and sustained in being entirely in and through our creator’s will. We are not self-creating in any way, and we can no more engage in decision and action apart from our creator’s will than can the creatures of fiction. Here, too, however, the relationship is too close to undermine our freedom. God does not, in creating us, act upon us, or produce any intervening cause, even an act of will on his part, that somehow makes us do what we do. There is indeed an exercise of his creative power, but in it he simply becomes the ground of our being, holding us in existence as the content of his creative act. God does not, that is to say, alter our nature or that of our actions merely by providing for our existence. This, I claim, permits all that legitimately belongs to responsible freedom to characterize our actions, just as it does those of fictional creatures. The author of the novel never makes her creatures do something; she only makes them doing it. It is the same with us and God. He does not make us act; he makes us acting, so that the freedom that goes with genuine action can still be present. To think otherwise is to confuse providing for the existence of something and tampering with its nature. Nor should God’s action as creator lead us to worry about our integrity as agents—about whether we will turn out to have a substantive and genuine moral character, or will come across as contrived and manipulated, as somehow lacking a true and unified self. There is no reason to expect the latter outcome, especially when an all-wise and powerful God is producing the work. Bad authors may sometimes have to manipulate their characters; a perfect one never does.3
God does not cause our acts, as in deterministic models, nor does he place us on a deistic stage upon which we autonomously live out our choices, as in libertarian models. God makes us acting. He is as intimately related to his creatures, as the storyteller to his tale or the singer to her song. As James F. Ross has so beautifully worded it: “The being of the cosmos is like a song on the breath of a singer.“4 The eternal Creator is an artist, not an engineer. Just as he does not create entities without their properties and powers, so he does not create human beings apart from their free agency. God’s creative “Let there be . . .” simply is our historical existing. McCann thus seeks to move philosophical reflection beyond the “causal joint” that binds divine and human agency.5 He takes us to a deeper metaphysical or transcendental level. Perhaps we should not even employ the notion of causality when speculating on divine creation—hence McCann’s suggestion that we think of the relation between God and creatures as analogous to the relation between intention and content:
The existence of creatures belongs to God’s act of creating them, rather than being a consequence of it. One good model for this is the relation between acts of will and their content. Consider, for example, the case of deciding. When I decide to do something—say, to go to Europe next summer—the intention thereby formed does not appear as a consequence of my act of decision making. It is, rather, the content of my decision, so that by the time the decision is over, I already hold the intention to go to Europe. The intention, which can be expressed as, “I shall go to Europe next summer,” is intrinsic to my act of deciding to go there. It belongs to it, in the peculiar way that content always belongs to acts of thinking. What I want to suggest is that the relation between God’s activity as creator and the entities he creates is analogous to this. It is not, of course, the same: the content of mental acts has only mental existence, whereas the things God creates are quite real. Nevertheless, I want to say, creatures belong to God’s act of creation in much the same way. We are not products of God’s creative willing, but the very expression of it.
If something like this is correct, the gap between creation and creature is closed. There is no distance whatever between us and God, hence we need not invent a causative process or nexus to fill the imagined void. Yet we are not made parts of God, or descriptive modifications of him—any more than the content of a thought would be a part of a predicate of a thinker. Rather, the relation is analogous to that between a story and its author or a song and its composer. The world has its existence in God, but God is in no way composed or constituted by the world. A second upshot of this view is that any remaining vestiges of conflict between God’s activity as creator and the operation of secondary causes is wiped away. They are not even the same sort of process. God’s creative activity is not a determining condition of the being of the world, but an endeavor in which he himself serves as the foundation of reality, the source in which we live, and move, and have our being. That, of course, is as it should be, and it is in keeping with the idea that God is completely involved with his creatures, that his providential care extends immediately and comprehensively to all that exists.6
God is closer to us than any cause. He creates the world ex nihilo, and this creating is a causing unlike any that we know, not a nomic determination of events and states of affairs but the conferral of being itself, thus making possible both creaturely freedom and divine providence. One certainly can’t fault McCann for lack of ambition and daring.
Compare McCann’s construal of artistic double agency from what he calls the model of command and causation. In Genesis 1 God speaks the world into being: “And God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light.” One might interpret the divine word as a command, followed by the intended effect. If divine and human agency is construed along these lines, then outright determinism is the result. God thinks the mental command “Let there be Al Kimel typing these lines on his computer,” and voila! here I am typing. The divine decree is followed by the consequence. God has commanded and so I type. My typing is no more free than the billiard ball that falls into the corner pocket.
We are prone to represent creation in terms of a model of command and causation: thus, in the present case, to believe that if God is indeed creatively responsible for our decisions and volition, these must occur through a mechanistic relation. He must first engage in some activity specifically directed to creation, some sort of command or concurrence, which in turn has the event-causal consequence that we will the things we do. If such were the case, it would indeed be plausible to think that involving God as creator in our decisions must destroy creaturely freedom, for then the relation between the operation of God’s will and ours would be perfectly analogous to what would obtain if our decisions were caused by our strongest desire. The apparent active quality of deciding would be destroyed, and we would be just as passive in deciding as we are in experiencing the onset of desire.7
McCann’s proposal of double agency needs to be carefully distinguished from deterministic views that envision Deity as causing volitional acts in the same way that creaturely beings cause events. Let’s return to Genesis 1. Instead of reading the text as a display of cause and effect, we might instead read it as an intellectual, even imaginative, fait accompli. Its wording, McCann suggests, “implies that in the very command itself, the appearance of light was achieved, that in the very exercise of God’s creative will, dry ground finds its existence.”8 The world in its actuality is the content of God’s eternal decision to create, analogous to the way intention is intrinsic to human decision:
There can be no event-causal means—not even the operation of his own will—which God employs as creator. Rather, his will is, in itself, immediately efficacious in the task of creation, so that all that is, including rational creatures and all that they do, find their being in the very act through which they are created. A fortiori, there is no nexus that binds God’s will to ours, nor is there any causal distance whatever between God and us or any of our willings. Indeed, there is not even causal contiguity. Rather, we and all that we do have our being in God, and the first manifestation of God’s creative will regarding our decisions and actions is not a command that causes those acts, but nothing short of the acts themselves.9
McCann does not discuss historical elaborations of the command and causation model (though he does mention the Neo-Thomist Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange as a possible representative). Whatever their differences, they share one feature in common—they deny libertarian freedom:
Applied to human willing, command and causation models would certainly restore God to full knowledge and governance of the world, but only at the expense of making his will as governor an independent determining condition of creaturely willing—the very thing any definition of libertarian freedom must rule out. If the relationship between God’s will and ours took this form, the spontaneity of free will would be gone; we would have every right to feel we were mere puppets, and God the puppeteer. The problem is substantially similar for views that provide God a role in creaturely action, but treat it as a concurrent or assisting one, in which his action is both independent of ours, and necessarily efficacious with respect to it. Here too it is possible to guarantee God full sovereignty and omniscience; but as long as his action is conceived as independent of ours, the situation regarding freedom ends up no better.10
These problems are avoided, McCann assures us, if we think together cosmos and divine act. The world is not an artifact of God’s making, abiding outside of God as manipulable object, but the artistic expression and content of his eternal willing: “So God does not create us or our works by means of commanding our existence, where this is conceived as a kind of causal device. Rather, His commanding our existence is our production, and we have our being in His very act of creating us.”11 McCann understands himself as a classical theist, but I wonder if his approach might be more accurately described as an idealist form of panentheism or perhaps theistic idealism. We exist only because the divine Mind thinks us into being. In him we live and move and have our being.
Yet . . . surely divine determinism remains hidden somewhere in McCann’s proposal. The nagging feeling won’t go away. Watch Robert Lawrence Kuhn’s interviews with McCann. It’s clear that Kuhn thinks that his theology of creation is deterministic. The Texas A&M philosopher vigorously objects:
Even though, as primary cause, God provides for the existence of my decisions and actions, the minimal requirement for libertarian freedom is preserved: there is no independent condition or state of affairs by which my exercises of will are deterministically caused—none on earth, and none in heaven either.12
God neither acts upon us, as a cue stick acts upon a billiard ball, nor forces us to behave against our will. “That is precisely what does not go on in the relationship between God and his creatures,” McCann insists. “The operation of his will is not an event independent of my willing; there is nothing ‘left over’ if we subtract my act of deciding from God’s act of creating it.”13 I am created in my willing and acting, and apart from this willing and acting, there is no me for God to manipulate, coerce, or control. Hence the divine act that puts my decidings and actings in place cannot do violence to me: “God’s creative determination of my decisions does not rule out their being free, for in fact the determination and the decision are one and the same.”14 If we find ourselves straining at McCann’s logic, perhaps it’s because we still keep thinking of God as a being alongside ourselves rather than as the transcendent source of being. Creator and creatures do not exist on the same metaphysical plane and therefore cannot be coordinated in an ordinary way.
In God’s activity as creator we encounter no event or state that is ontologically independent of our will, and determinative with respect to it. He does not operate upon us, or from without; he operates in our very willing, so that his will is done through ours, but without any kind of forcing. There is no standing condition that is out of our control, no fait accompli prior to the very act that is our decision or volition.15
When God summons me into existence—and he’s willing me into existence at every moment—he simultaneously wills my decisions and actions. He creates me in my freedom; he creates me freely acting. The divine author does not make us do things; he makes us doing them. His decision that I shall go to the theater to see Dune just is my freely-enacted decision to see Dune. Nothing is forced upon me. I am not compelled and can always do otherwise.
God is responsible for the being of all that is, but He does not produce it by operating to change something else, and He does not produce our decisions by operating on us. . . . In the end, I would suggest, what truly constitutes God’s activity as creator of the world is simply His being eternally given over to serving as the ground of being for the world and all that belongs to it. And the true manifestation of that is not some descriptive condition determining the nature of things, but rather their very existence. So far as my decision is concerned, God’s creative activity does not, even on the eternal level, stand as a determining condition which settles what I shall decide. It is fully manifested simply in my deciding as I do.16
The above is a key paragraph for comprehending McCann’s metaphysical vision. Note the unity of divine and creaturely agency. This unity is only possible if we grasp the noncompetitive relationship between the transcendent God and the finite beings he has made from out of nothing. Here’s another long paragraph that I hope will further clarify:
A useful analogy that may be drawn here is to the relationship between the author of a story, and the characters within it. The author does not enter into the story herself, nor does she act upon the characters in such a way as to force them to do the things they do. Rather, she creates them in their doings, so that they are able to behave freely in the world of the novel. On the traditional account, God’s relation to his creatures is similar. As creator, he is the “first cause” of us and of our actions, but his causality works in such a way that we are not acted upon, and so are able to exercise our wills freely in deciding and acting. If this is correct, then as Aquinas at least seems to suggest, God’s creative activity does not violate libertarian freedom, for it does not count as an independent determining condition of creaturely decision and action. On the contrary: assuming God’s own will is free, there is no event in heaven or earth that is independent of my deciding to attend the concert tonight, and which causes my decision. God’s creative activity does not act upon me or render me passive in any way, for it consists solely in God’s freely giving himself over to being the ground of being for me and all that I do. Accordingly, I can still display libertarian freedom. My decision is a spontaneous display of creaturely agency, free in the libertarian sense because it does not occur through event causality, and because in it I am fully and intentionally committed both to deciding and to deciding exactly as I do. There are no further legitimate requirements for libertarian freedom. There is, of course, something that cannot happen on this view: it is not possible for God’s activity as creator to be devoted to my deciding to attend the concert, and yet that I should forebear to decide at all, or decide to do something else. But that is not because if I were to try it, I would find myself in a losing battle with God’s efficacious will. It is because there is no manifestation of that will regarding my decision short of the decision itself. The impossibility that God’s will as creator and mine as creature should diverge suggests trouble because we can view what goes on either from God’s perspective or from mine. That suggests two events, and a potential conflict between them. Properly interpreted, however, the traditional view appears to call for only one event, and as far as it is concerned, all the impossibility comes to is that I cannot at once both make a decision and not make it. To be incapable of the logically impossible is not a failure of freedom, libertarian or otherwise.17
It sounds all quite schizophrenic, yet if we stay with McCann’s reasoning long enough, it does begin to make sense, the way things sometimes do when we turn them upside down. At least I think it makes sense. How can God and I both be the subject of my willing? Think about it along these lines:
I alone am the subject of my decision. It is predicated of me, and its defects are mine. What God does is create the event of my deciding as I do. He is, as it were, the subject of my being the subject of my decision—which is really just an expression of the point that we have our being in him.18
Nondualistic double agency—think back to the analogy of the novelist and her characters.
But could I have done otherwise? the libertarian asks. Yes, of course. But if you had done otherwise, God would have willed otherwise. But can I do otherwise? Again yes. Just go ahead and do otherwise. What’s stopping you? Certainly God isn’t. You are free to pursue whatever goods you wish to pursue, free to prioritize your motives as you choose, free to follow your desires or not follow them—everything an incompatibilist could ask. “God’s activity as creator,” notes McCann, “operates in such a way that my integrity as an agent is exactly what it would have been if the subject of creation had never come up, and we had concluded that, as many libertarians believe, my decisions and actions have no determining cause of any kind, primary or secondary.”19 God is too close to us to damage our interior freedom. But given that God creates the volitionary event, this necessarily means that I cannot decide other than what God eternally decides (sin excepted). I cannot simultaneously decide and not decide to go to the theatre to see Dune. “But since the only manifestation of His will in this regard is my deciding,” explains McCann, “all that this limitation comes to is that I cannot decide anything else while at the same time deciding as I do. That, of course, is not a limitation at all.”20 “Paradoxical though it may appear at first, therefore, even though our decisions are set in place by the creative power of God, we could, even on the eternal stage, have done otherwise.”21
But if I am free to do otherwise, how does that not mean that I am determining God‽ It sure sounds like I have a hook in the divine nose. On a mere whim, I can make God do whatever I want, will whatever I will, like the young John Connor commanding the T-800 Terminator to stand on one foot. What a conundrum, yet it really isn’t. It only looks that way because we keep separating the divine and creaturely side of things; but there is only one event of decision and action, analyzed from two perspectives: God freely wills as Creator and we freely will as creaturely agents.
If this seems obscure, consider again the relationship between the author and her characters. Their first existence is, of course, in her thoughts. But there is no independent mental act of the author that gives rise to her characters; they are born with the very thoughts themselves in which she first conceives them. The same holds of us in our dependence on God for our existence, and it holds of our decisions also. Thus, the first manifestation of God’s will in creating me the person who decides to vacation in Colorado is not an event independent of my decision, but simply my deciding to go there. . . .
True, I cannot decide in opposition to God’s will—and since he is the foundation of my being, not I of his, his will is in that sense determining. But if, in all of my decisions, the first manifestation of God’s will is simply my deciding as I do, then as far as the actual events go all the determination comes to is that neither God nor I can will as we do and yet be willing something else. My freedom is in no way curtailed.22
God does not have a hook in our noses, nor do we have a hook in his. There aren’t any hooks, just as there aren’t any causal joints or nexuses.
But this makes divine grace irresistible, we object. What is this but an expression of Augustinian determinism? The objection, though, reveals that we are still thinking of Creator and creature in dualistic opposition.
It is true that God’s will cannot be resisted, but that is not because in the operations of our own will he has us cornered, or in any way overpowered. It is because God’s will is not the kind of thing that can be resisted, in that it does not operate by force. Indeed, where God’s action as creator is concerned, we do not even “follow” his will, in the true sense of the term. There is no point in our lives as decision makers where we are presented with a decision God has ordained for us and then are driven to accept it. Rather, we are presented with specific moral choices to make and to act upon. In making and carrying out those choices we decide and act for reasons—that is, for the sake of certain ends—and in so doing we select our own destiny every bit as much as God does. That we and our doings are known and ordained to be from eternity changes none of that, for the knowing and ordaining is nothing apart from God’s act of creating us as the beings we are.23
The only difference between his construal of human freedom and the typical libertarian construal, McCann tells us, is that his account presents our decisions and actions as grounded in God as primary cause, “whereas on the standard libertarian view their existence is grounded in nothing whatever.”24 The divine Creator not only respects our freedom; he is its ground and source. “It is true that our destinies are written,” he remarks; “but the handwriting is ours.”25
Yet we remain uneasy and unpersuaded. Another objection comes to mind: if God creates me willing and acting, then that would seem to imply that my agential purposes are subordinated to God’s purposes, thus destroying my autonomy. We may think we are acting in accordance with our own reasons and motives, but in reality we are being constrained by God to advance his own covert agenda. Our belief in free agency is illusory. We are mere dupes and puppets, no more free than the androids in Westworld who have no idea that an outside world exists or that they were made for the sole purpose of fulfilling the desires of the guests. McCann concedes the possibility of subordination but denies the negative consequences:
Subordination occurs only when yours or my ends are selected only because they are congruent with the other, so that if they did not suit, one or the other would have to give way. And we may grant that since God wills our decisions for the good he sees accomplished in and through them, it is possible that our ends are subordinate to his in this way. But it does not follow that they are. That conclusion would be in order only if we could be sure that God’s purposes finally conflict with our good as morally responsible agents—so that they can be achieved only at the expense of our exercising our wills in just those ways that yield for us a robust and consistent moral character, uniquely appropriate to each individual. And there is no reason whatever to think such a thing is the case. On the contrary: it may well be that as creator God has no more paramount objective than that we should exercise full autonomy in forming and executing our intentions, and come to display precisely the moral character to which they give rise. Or, if he does have higher objectives it may be that they cannot be achieved except through this expedient. Indeed, it is not implausible to think that nothing less than this is in keeping with the complete and loving involvement with each creature’s destiny that is so often claimed by believers to characterize divine providence.26
I keep pondering upon this objection. It seems to me that McCann might have given a stronger response. If God’s willing to my action not as nomic cause to effect, but as will to content” (p. 155), then my reasons for my action are part of that content. Is not the possibility of inappropriate subordination thereby excluded, given that God wills the reasons that lead to my decisions? Or am I thinking about this in the wrong way? In any case, I believe that McCann’s position should be corrected by the assertion of humanity’s teleological orientation to the Good: our Creator wills for us the very good that we ultimately will for ourselves. It is precisely this truth we do not believe, and because we do not believe, we fear his sovereignty and construct our fortresses of personal autonomy. Here is our sin and the root of sin. If we had faith, we would not fear God’s control of history nor resent our ontological dependence as creatures and so would not worry ourselves about the impossible possibility of God sacrificing us on the altar of providence. One way or another, the divine Novelist who is absolute Love, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, will bring the cosmic narrative to glorious consummation in his Kingdom.27
(28 December 2016, 2 January 2017; rev.)
 Hugh J. McCann, Creation and the Sovereignty of God (2012), p. 107; emphasis mine. McKann cites Katherin Rogers as an inspiration for his reflections on God as novelist: “How a Perfect Being Creates: Anselm’s Theistic Idealism,” The Anselmian Approach to God and Creation (1997), pp. 223-261.
 Dorothy Sayers, The Mind of the Maker (1941), p. 54.
 McCann, p. 108; emphasis mine.
 James F. Ross, “Creation II,” in The Existence and Nature of God (1984), p. 128.
 Austin Farrer coined, or at least popularized, the term “causal joint” in his metaphysical writings. See Jeffrey A. Vogel, “A Self-effacing Gardener.”
 McCann, pp. 44-45.
 Ibid., p. 103.
 Ibid., p. 43.
 Ibid., p. 103.
 Ibid., p. 106.
 Hugh J. McCann, “Divine Sovereignty and the Freedom of the Will,” Faith and Philosophy, 12 (October 1994): 592.
 McCann, Creation, p. 104.
 Ibid., p. 105.
 Hugh J. McCann, “Divine Sovereignty,” p. 594.
 McCann, Creation, p. 106.
 McCann, “Divine Sovereignty,” p. 595; emphasis mine.
 Hugh J. McCann, “Divine Providence,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy; emphasis mine.
 McCann, “Divine Sovereignty,” p. 595; emphasis mine.
 McCann, Creation, p. 105.
 McCann, “Divine Sovereignty,” pp. 595-596.
 Ibid., p. 596.
 Hugh J. McCann, “Sovereignty and Freedom,” Faith and Philosophy, 18 (January 2001): 114-115.
 McCann, Creation, p. 109.
 Ibid., p. 109.
 Ibid., p. 111.
 Ibid., p. 110.
 See David Bentley Hart, That All Shall Be Saved (2019), meditation #4:
For those who worry that this all amounts to a kind of metaphysical determinism of the will, I may not be able to provide perfect comfort. Of course it is a kind of determinism, but only at the transcendental level, and only because rational volition must be determinate to be anything at all. Rational will is by nature the capacity for intentional action, and so must exist as a clear relation between (in Aristotelian terms) the “origin of motion” within it and the “end” that prompts that motion—between, that is, its efficient and final causes. Freedom is a relation to reality, which means liberty from delusion. This divine determinism toward the transcendent Good, then, is precisely what freedom is for a rational nature. Even God could not create a rational being not oriented toward the Good, any more than he could create a reality in which 2 + 2 = 5. (pp. 178-179)
Also see my article “The Necessary Choosing of the Good.”