The Absolute Freedom of the Simple Life

In the preceding article, we were left with questions about divine freedom: specifically, if the act of creation of essential to the divine being, as Hugh McCann claims, how does this not entail the enslavement of Deity to necessity? McCann begins his rejoinder by speci­fy­ing the necessary conditions of libertarian freedom.1 He lists three:

  • absence of determining cause
  • spontaneity
  • intrinsic intentionality

That God fulfills the first condition is patent. By definition, nothing compels God, either externally or internally. That the second condition is fulfilled is also given. The timeless and simple Deity does not sit around deliberating upon options. As McCann puts it: “Everything about God is pure doing.”2 The third condition is fulfilled by the fact that all volitional acts are intrinsically intentional. We do not will anything without meaning to do so. Free action implies intention. We do not intend to decide to act; the decision is included in the intention. So also for God. “Exactly the same applies to the act of will that is God: it too is intrinsically intentional, an action he fully understands, and intends with complete commitment, meaning it to have exactly the nature it does.”3 Note: the capacity “to do otherwise” is not included in the above list of conditions for freedom.

Now comes the startling McCannian assertion: “God is, essentially, an act of will—an act with no prior determination of any kind, in which he freely undertakes to be and to do all that he is and does.”4 The intending of God is the willing of God is the doing of God and only thus is God:

That is, the reality that is God’s having the nature he does is itself the action of his freely undertaking to have it, and all that is essential to him is founded in this exercise of freedom. It does not follow that God confers existence, or any other aspect of his nature, on himself, in the sense that his act of so doing is prior to or causally productive of the aspect being present. But it does follow that his nature falls under his own sovereignty. For even though his nature is essential to God, it is “up to him” in the sense that there is nothing that makes it what it is beyond the very exercise of voluntariness that constitutes it. Thus, just as the features of voluntariness give us control over our own acts of will, so God controls the act of will that constitutes his very being, and thereby exercises sovereignty over it.5

There is nothing prior to God, ontologically or otherwise—no pre-existing template or model of divinity waiting to be instantiated. God wills to be the good event he is. All of his attributes and activities are what he intends. This divine willing is primordial, constitutive, definitive, irreversible. God timelessly and immutably purposes to be the One disclosed to reason and faith. There is no other Creator, no other Deity. Here is the McCannian answer to the conundrum posed in our first article. Is God a slave to his nature? Absolutely not! God freely determines himself in his eternal act of being. Such is his simplicity and liberty.

The assertion that God wills his being God might easily be misinterpreted as self-creation, God creating himself out of nothing. McCann rejects the idea as nonsense: “The fact is that nothing, eternal or otherwise, can confer existence on itself, in the sense that its own being counts as a causal product of some activity in which it occurs.”6 Not even God can generate divinity ex nihilo; God is not ontologically prior to God. Yet neither do we wish to concede that the essential attributes of divinity are metaphysical givens, “conditions of his being, independent of any exercise of will on his part.”7 If this were so, then he would be as much a prisoner of his nature as we are of ours. “You think it’s tough being human, Job? You ought to try being me for a day!” The only way to avoid this captivity to nature, argues McCann, is to assert God’s volitional responsibility over the dynamic state of affairs that he eternally and immutably is.

But what about all those possible worlds of which modal philosophers speak? They don’t exist!

To speak at all of possibilities and necessities about worlds God might have created is to presuppose that prior to his act of creating the world—the act which, as it turns out—is God himself, there were possibilities and necessities as to what God might be. But that is exactly what we cannot do if . . . any abstracta pertaining to God have their first being in the action that is God himself. For if that is so, then there is nothing prior to the actual state of affairs that is God, nothing prior to his willing both himself and the universe in the one, free act with which he is identical. As to whether worlds other than the one we have are possible in relation to God, then, we can answer only that the world is as it is, that the creator of heaven and earth has made it so. Beyond this we can say nothing, for beyond this there is nothing [to] be said.8

The counterfactuals and de re possibilities imposed upon divinity by the advocates of modal collapse do not obtain. They have made a category mistake. Modal logic does not work, cannot work, when analyzing the perfectly simple Deity who is his timeless act of willing. The transcendent God is too primordially actual to be subjected to our contin­gen­cies. Hence we cannot say that “in creating the world God can do otherwise than he does. . . . Prior to creation it is impossible to speak of options.”9 God is the producer of possibil­ities and necessities. “His freedom as creator is such as to transcend all modality.”10 The simplicity of God is his absolute freedom.

Incompatibilists will of course continue to insist that the “could have done otherwise” is integral to authentic freedom, despite the decisive difference between Creator and creatures. In this case, McCann remarks, all we can do is concede that God does not display libertarian freedom. “I would suggest, however, that if this were done it would only become necessary to define a better, higher type of freedom—one transcending even the libertarian variety—and then to attribute this higher freedom to God.”11 The key point stands: “God is not only a being who by his own choice exists a se, but also one who by his own choice transcends logical possibility itself.”12

Readers are no doubt wondering the extent to which McCann has broken from the classical theological tradition. I’m wondering about that, too. Yet his references to Aquinas throughout his book suggests that he intends a real measure of continuity with the medieval tradition.

1) Radical transcendence

As for Aquinas, so for McCann—both philosophers invoke divine simplicity to secure the Creator’s transcen­dence of the created order. God differs differently by the absence within his nature of composition and potentiality—hence McCann’s insistence that the modal and tempo­ral cate­gories appropriate to finite being cannot be employed to analyze divinity and its relation to the universe. God is the transcendent source of our logic, not its cap­tive. McCann does not explicitly invoke the via negativa (though what else are simplicity, immuta­bil­ity, and atemporality but negative attributes?), yet it makes its presence curiously felt in his con­tro­versial claim that universals are created with be­ings.13 Universals, propositions, geometrical figures, and all the rest of the Platonic horde acquire their reality by their instantiation in existing entities. They do not exist in a realm independent of the “concrete world and the mental activities of thinkers.”14 He believes that the entities of the conceptual order, including the abstractum of possible worlds, are the products of divine imagination and agency. “Prior to its creation,” McCann contends, “an abstractum has no being whatever, not even in abstracto.15

Thus, on an absolute creationist account, God is not subject to abstracta, in the sense of being hemmed in by the possibilites they define. Rather, he is able to act with perfect freedom. He is not limited by prior possibilities, because a part of creation is the production of the very possibilities them­selves. . . . Absolute creation . . . is a single, timeless act in which all of creation is produced in one fell swoop, and the natures of things, along with the entire Platonic menagerie implicit in them, are created in their exempli­fi­cation—that is, as manifested within the concrete reality that is the temporal world.16

Clearly McCann envisions Deity as inhabiting a transcendent dimension beyond the logic and contingencies of the created order. One is almost tempted to apophatically identify his God as beyond being, despite his repeated statements that God is a being. In one of my articles on Dionysius the Areopagite, I suggested that modal logic breaks down when confronted with hyperousios divinity. The situation is analogous to what happens to scientific measurement as cosmologists trace the history of the universe to its beginning. Eventually it reaches a singularity, a point of infinite density in which the known laws of physics have broken down—hence the impossibility of measuring anything “before” the beginning—and so likewise the impossibility of interpreting the eternal determinations of God through the conceptual lens of possible worlds.17 I would think that my Dionysian analogy would equally apply to the theism of McCann and Thomas. “Before creation” there is only impenetrable Mystery, Deus Incognito. Our minds cannot think God alone. At this point God becomes indistinguishable from Nothing. And of that which we cannot speak, we must remain silent.

If McCann is correct that the modal collapse objection breaks down once analysis crosses over the “before creation” abyss, then cannot the same be said about his question “Is God a slave to his nature?” Can this question be asked of the One who transcends our categories of freedom and necessity? Can it be asked of the One whose will is his nature–is his goodness–is his truth–is his essence? Once again David Bentley Hart identifies the crucial issue:

In the calculus of the infinite, any tension between freedom and necessity simply disappears; there is no problem to be resolved because, in regard to the transcendent and infinite fullness of all Being, the distinction is meaningless. God is not a being choosing his nature from among a range of options; he simply is reality as such.18

Given McCann’s clear affirmation of divine aseity and simplicity, I confess I am a tad surprised that he did not question the meaningfulness of his voluntarist notion of divine self-determination. Consider this passage from early in his book:

The most important property [God] must have has already been mentioned: that of aseity. If the creator is to ground the existence of contingent beings, he himself must exist of his own nature; there can be no distinction in him between essence and existence. . . . Still, it is difficult to comprehend: the thought is that, were we sufficiently cognizant of the divine nature, we would see in it complete self-sufficiency and fullness of being—so that there could be no question of its depending on anything else, no question of how or why such a being should be. . . . Instead of being the subject of conferred (and hence, not-self-derived) being, God is his own existence, and his fundamental nature is being itself.19

Sounds awfully like an Angelic Doctor we know. As the ineffable fullness of being, God transcends genus and species, number and differentiation, necessity and freedom.

2) God is his willing

As the God of Thomas wills the Good as his final end and in this willing simultaneously wills the world as ordered to the selfsame Good,20 so the God of McCann simultaneously, and eternally, wills his divine nature and the world. Nothing is prior; nothing compels. God freely determines his divine life, being, and action. As quoted above: “God is, essentially, an act of will—an act with no prior determi­nation of any kind, in which he freely undertakes to be and to do all that he is and does.” Thomas would disagree, I think. A key difference between Thomas and McCann is that the latter elides Thomas’s distinction between the necessity of God’s willing of himself as the Good and his voluntary willing of creatures.21

To apprehend the good is to will the good. This is a fundamental axiom for Thomas. Once we see that something is truly good for us, we will necessarily seek to obtain it; it would be irrational to do otherwise. Of course, human beings are frequently confused about their good, which means that we frequently make bad choices; but in all such cases, it is a matter of choosing an apparent or lesser good over a real and greater good. But God is never confused. He knows and loves himself as the supreme and perfect Good and therefore wills, principally and necessarily, the Good that he essentially is. Possessing all perfections in ineffable unity, God ineluctably embraces himself as his happiness and ultimate end. Thomas writes:

From what was shown above it follows that God wills His own being and His own goodness in a necessary way, and cannot will the contrary.

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. In everything willed, therefore, God wills His own being and His own goodness, just as the sight in every color sees light. But it is impossible for God not to will something in act, for He would be willing only in potency, which is impossible, since His willing is His being. It is therefore necessary that God will His own being and His own goodness.

Again, every being endowed with will necessarily wills his own ultimate end: for example, man necessarily wills his own beatitude and cannot will misery. But God wills Himself to be as the ultimate end, as appears from what has been said. Therefore, He necessarily wills Himself to be, nor can He will Himself not to be.22

And again:

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.23

God necessarily wills himself as the Good, for the Good is perfect and immeasurably desirable.

For Thomas, God does not need to create because he is the infinite plenitude of Being and Goodness. He lacks for nothing. To put it bluntly, no thing is good for him. That he should choose to create the cosmos displays a gratuitous and glorious excess. McCann agrees, but his embrace of divine voluntarism nullifies the distinction between necessary and volun­tary willing. God is free in every respect, and this includes his determination of his nature and of finite creatures.

Does McCann’s assertion that God determines his nature represent a significant departure from Aquinas? It would seem so. Both men affirm that God is not a haver of attributes; his essence is simple and indivisible. Clearly Thomas does not think of the Deity as helplessly bound to a nature imposed upon him—the question does not appear to have risen for him. At no point does he suggest that God determines his nature in voluntarist fashion. God is his willing; his willing is his essence. And because he comprehensively knows his essence in its infinite perfection, he loves himself for his own sake:

Everyone desires the perfection of that which is willed and loved by him for its own sake. For the things that we love for their own sake we want to be most perfect, and always to become better and be multiplied as much as possible. But God wills and loves His essence for its own sake. . . . Moreover, whoever loves something in itself and for its own sake consequently loves all the things in which it is found: for example, he who loves sweetness for itself must love all sweet things. But God wills and loves His own being in itself and for its own sake.24

He who perfectly loves himself for his own sake can hardly be described as a slave. The metaphysical identification of will and essence immediately renders nil the McCannian concern. How can his nature be a burden to God when his nature is himself? God does not have an essence; he is his essence.

Thomas’ distinction between God’s necessary willing of himself as the Good and his voluntary willing of creation, as Brian Davies reminds us, functions as a negative way of distinguishing divinity and the world: “Aquinas’s ‘God is free to create’ is a comment on what God is not. God is not something whose nature forces him to create.”25 In other words, we have waded into apophatic territory: the terms “necessary” and “voluntary” cannot be interpreted univocally according to common usage. The infinite interval between Creator and creature remains in play. In willing his essence as the Good, and with it the world, God freely and befittingly determines himself to be the Creator and Maker of all things. Gaven Kerr elaborates:

Just as God’s intellect is identical with his essence so too is his will; for His will is nothing more than His intellectual appetite for the good that He Himself is. Moreover, insofar as the object of God’s will is nothing other than the divine essence itself, God’s will is not moved by anything outside of Himself, but by the very good that he is essentially. Nevertheless Aquinas maintains that God wills things other than Himself, not because He is moved by such things but because of a feature of the good itself, namely, its self-diffusiveness such that what is genuinely good seeks to diffuse its goodness to others. Aquinas accordingly holds that in being the good itself God seeks to diffuse His goodness. God thus always wills His goodness, and to diffuse it He wills other things, i.e. creatures, for that end. God thus wills that creatures be in order that they be for the end which is the divine goodness itself.26

Thomas’ identification of the Good as self-diffusiveness is crucial: Bonum est diffusivum sui. Thomas is clear that God’s decision to create is a non-necessary act of grace, in contrast, say, to the inner Trinitarian processions. Yet even so, the creatio ex nihilo accords with the divine Goodness. The Good diffuses itself in the making of contingent beings to participate in its Goodness. Goodness is as Goodness does. At the same time, Thomas secures the divine freedom by attaching the choice to create to the final cause (the end and goal the sake of which a thing is done) rather than efficient cause (the source of the doing). Kerr explains:

Aquinas does not interpret the self-diffusiveness principle as pertaining to efficient causality, as something forcing Him to create; rather, he sees it as pertaining to final causality. The good is self-diffusive insofar it is the end towards which all are drawn. Hence, Aquinas holds that God must necessarily will His own goodness as an end, but that this does not entail that God must will the existence of creatures. Creatures are only willed as ordered to the end which is God’s goodness. . . . God’s goodness is perfect, nothing can add to it, and thus it can be without the aid of others; this is because God stands in potency to nothing, so nothing can be good for God. Given the latter, it is not necessary for God to will others so that He may will His own good. Hence God wills others as ordered to the good out of sheer gratuity, i.e. He wills others to exist as ordered to the good that He is because He wants to not because he has to. So unlike light from the sun, the good that God diffuses over creatures in creating them does not necessarily emanate from Him but has been willed to do so.27

I do not find the reasoning convincing. It feels artificial and ad hoc. Given the indivisible simplicity of the divine essence, how can God as end be divorced from God as actor? Surely the Good is the efficient author of all of its actions. The separation of efficient and final causality also raises the question: Why did God create? Was it a purely arbitrary, motiveless choice?28 Is Thomas guilty of voluntarism after all?

God does not, of course, need to create beings—he is replete in his infinite perfection and Trinitarian joy—but if the divine goodness is self-giving love, then the claim that God might not have created the world becomes implausible. It would be like asking love to not be love. Love is its own necessity. The surprise is not that God has created the world; we would be surprised only if he had not. The actions of absolute love are free in their giftedness, yet utterly inevitable. In the words of George MacDonald: “Nothing is inexorable but love.” Perhaps we need a new category to name the necessity that is the divine love. I propose the term amative necessity. At this point we need to squarely ground our reflections upon God’s self-revelation as Holy Trinity: the Goodness that is God is nothing less than the self-communicating love that binds together the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in perichoretic unity. From the infinite fecundity of its inner life, triune Love self-diffusively pours itself out into finite beings that constitute the world.29 Love is the motive for divine creation and the only explanation that is needed. In its self-giving, love is both free and necessary, and this obtains for both the Trinitarian processions and the divine act of creation. “And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, a sixth day” (Gen 1:31).

Back to Aquinas: James Brent elaborates on the Thomistic understanding of God’s free and necessary creation of the cosmos:

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.30

Given the divine simplicity and given the fact that God has in fact freely created the universe, we must finally conclude that God’s act of creation is metaphysically necessary, yet it is a necessity grounded in God’s transcendent freedom and infinite actuality.

Something critical is lost by McCann’s neglect of Thomas’ identification of God as the transcendent Good, yet both philosophers are able to insist that God’s making of the cosmos is both free and necessary. In that eternal moment in which God wills his goodness, he simultaneously determines himself as the Maker of heaven and earth. As Matthew Levering comments:

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.31

While I personally prefer the apophatic theological tradition, as expressed in Dionysius and to a lesser extent Aquinas, I find there is much to admire in Hugh McCann’s presentation of divinity. He is an compelling advocate of the Western theistic tradition and unabashed defender of divine simplicity. What I have learned from him is this: the simplicity of God is his absolute freedom. When this is understood, one begins to see why the modal collapse objection does not obtain; it misses the point. God is the creator of possibilities and necessities and thus transcends our modal worries.

(2 October 2018; rev.)


[1] Hugh J. McCann, Creation and the Sovereignty of God, p. 231.

[2] Ibid., p. 231.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., pp. 231-232.

[6] Ibid., p. 215.

[7] Ibid., p. 217.

[8] Ibid., p. 233.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid., p. 234.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid., p. 235.

[13] See William Vallicella, “McCann, God, and the Platonic Menagerie.”

[14] Ibid., p. 201.

[15] Ibid., p. 211. The divine ideas of Augustine and Aquinas do not have a place in McCann’s metaphysics.

[16] Ibid., p. 201.

[17] “Divine Knowledge, Creation, and Modal Collapse.” Also see Alexander Earl, “On the Putative Threat of Modal Collapse,” and David Mahfood, “Divine Simplicity: Into the Negative Zone.”

[18] David Bentley Hart, You Are Gods (2022), p. 116.

[19] McCann., p. 12.

[20] See my article “The Willing God.”

[21] See my article “Aquinas and the Divine Freedom.”

[22] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles I.75.3-4.

[23] Ibid., I.38.5

[24] Ibid., I.80.1-3.

[25] Brian Davies, “A Modern Defense of Divine Simplicity,” Philosophy of Religion (2000), p. 555.

[26] Gaven Kerr, Aquinas and the Metaphysics of Creation (2019), pp. 63-64. Also see Bernhard-Thomas Blankenhorn, “The Good as Self-Diffusiveness in Thomas Aquinas,” Angelicum, 79/4 (2002): 803-837.

[27] Kerr, pp. 64-65.

[28] See Kevin Keane, “Why Creation? Bonaventure and Thomas Aquinas on God as Creative Good,” The Downside Review 93 (April 1975): 100-121; and Norman Kretzmann, “A General Problem of Creation: Why Would God Create Anything at All?” in Being and Goodness, ed. Scott MacDonald (1991), pp. 208-228.

[29] As St Bonaventure declares: “Because God is Good, God wills to diffuse himself; and because God wills to produce a creature, he wills that the creature be; and thus, because God is Good, we are.” Quoted by Ilia Delio, “From Metaphysics to Kataphysics: Bonaventure’s ‘Good’ Creation,” Scottish Journal of Theology 64/2 (May 2011): 166.

[30] James Brent, “God’s Knowledge and Will,” in The Oxford Handbook of Aquinas (2014), pp. 165-166; my emphasis.

[33] Matthew Levering, Engaging the Doctrine of Creation (2017), p. 103.

(Return to first article)

This entry was posted in Hugh McCann, Philosophical Theology and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The Absolute Freedom of the Simple Life

  1. To be sincere, this article is a reminder to me that formal, academic theology is all a bit too complex and heady for me. I don’t think the Apostles would have comprehended it, either.


    • andrewofmo says:

      You want to blow your own mind? Then consider that JESUS may not have fully understood what was trying to be said here. However, it has a function in the Church as the Church exists today. And Paul was already working along these very lines of thought, so at least one Apostle would have been comfortable with this level of discourse.

      That being said, we are not saved by theology, only be God’s saving action. Sometimes, theology helps us to fully understand and appreciate that gracious gift.

      Liked by 1 person

Comments are closed.