Avicenna and Aquinas: Ruminating Divine Freedom and Necessity

I recently wrote the following letter to Dr Rahim Acar, a Muslim scholar and expert on the philosopher Avicenna. For purposes of publication, I have revised and significantly expanded the letter, adding quotations from his book, as well as specific Christian content, in order to articulate my speculations on divine freedom and creation. In other words, it’s no longer a real letter at all and only barely resembles the email Dr Acar received. 

Dear Dr Acar,

We have never corresponded, but I have been reading your book Talking About God and Talking About Creation. I am finding it fascinating and challenging. Until I started reading it, I knew only what my theology professors had taught me about Avicenna: namely, he believed that God was necessitated to create the world. Obviously that is a misleading interpretation, given how close he and St Thomas Aquinas really are on voluntary creation. You note four shared characteristics of their respective positions:

  1. God creates by will;
  2. God primarily and essentially wills himself, and his volition concerning the universe is subsumed in his self-volition;
  3. the universe is not the end of God’s will;
  4. God does not need to create in order to be what he is, i.e., God’s being and goodness do not depend on the existence of other things.1

Despite the above commonalities, scholars have typically  identified Avicenna as teaching necessitated creation:

Avicenna usually is considered to have held that God’s creative action is similar to the actions of natural things acting through their natures. This interpretation of Avicenna’s position is supported by his denial of intention to God in creation and by his claim that the universe is necessary. Despite this, for Avicenna creation is a voluntary action. When he argues that God cannot have an intention in creation, he simply wants to state that other things do not constitute a final cause for God. Furthermore, the necessity of the universe does not make the act of creation like the actions of natural beings. Nor does it take God’s freedom away, since for Avicenna the necessity of the universe is neither imposed on God from outside, nor is it required by something internal to God. The existence of the universe, as well as the form the universe takes, is necessary because God is necessary in all respects.2

Avicennna’s argument is straightforward. God creates voluntarily and freely. He does not need a world to be himself, nor does he gain anything from the world. Yet the creation of the world is nonetheless necessary because of the divine simplicity:

Avicenna takes divine perfection properties only insofar as they are modified by divine formal features. For him, when talking about God divine perfection properties must be considered in the manner they are found in God. For example, at the beginning of the first chapter of Book IX of the Metaphysics of The Healing, when he is about to begin his explanation why the universe, must be sempiternal, Avicenna reminds the reader that God is a necessary being. He is necessary in all respects; nothing new or additional can happen to him. On the basis of the necessity of God, the universe necessarily follows the divine knowledge and will. Yet divine knowledge and the divine will concerning the universe are also necessary. Why? Because God is necessary in all respects. So God’s will concerning the universe is included in the divine self-volition, not because God’s being what he is includes or depends on the existence of creatures, but because of the formal features of simplicity and necessity.3

Divine creation for Avicenna is simultaneously free and necessary. Free because nothing internal or external compels God to create: he has nothing to gain by creating and nothing to lose by not creating. Necessary because he is his perfections in ineffable identity: everything that God is, everything that he has, everything that he does, is necessary because he is necessary in his self-existence. “The First is the willer (murìd) of his essence (li dhàtihi),” writes Avicenna. “This kind of pure intellectual (‘aqliyya) volition (iràda) and this life of his, similarly, are identical to him (bi ‘aynihi).”4 God has one eternal will, and he is both subject and object of his willing. God wills his essence and his willing of the cosmos is comprehended therein. The Muslim philosopher refuses to explicate God’s freedom in creation without thinking together the formalities of divinity (simplicity, eternity, immutability, infinity, necessity):5

Since the divine will is simple, God has one act of will. God primarily wills and loves himself, and God’s willing of other things must be subsumed under his self-willing. Besides being simple, God’s will is eternal and immutable, following from his eternity and his being pure act without any potency. Avicenna touches on the eternity and immutability of the divine will in various contexts, albeit indirectly, but notably to support the contention that God creates eternally. Since creation can be traced back to the divine will, if God’s will were not eternal and immutable, then God would be subject to change, or, in other words, receptive and in need of something external in order to be an efficient cause. Since God is eternal and since there is no change in God, God’s action must also be eternal. If God did not will eternally to create, nothing would be created because this implies a change both in God’s will and in God’s knowledge, due to the identity of will and knowledge in God.6

Avicenna insists that God is free in his creation of the cosmos, while also denying God’s possession of free choice:

For Avicenna, nothing else constitutes an end for God, and God does not pursue an end distinct from himself in creating the universe. He gives two basic reasons for arguing this: (1) that only God exists by himself and everything else depends on him, and (2) that God is simple. Avicenna explains the first by arguing that there is nothing to be intended. Only God exists without a cause, and there can be no reason (sabab) unless it be because of God, in God or by God, or belongs to God. If we assume that God has an end distinct from himself, we propose a voluntary action similar to human voluntary actions, with possibilities independent of the agent. A voluntary agent may seek to realize one of these possibilities. However, with regard to God, since there can be nothing outside and independent of God to be intended, God does not act for the sake of something else. Hence, God creates other things even though other things do not constitute an end for God.

Avicenna’s second reason concerns God’s simplicity and perfection. If God is supposed to have an intention for the existence of other things, three things follow from this supposition: (1) In God there is something distinct from God’s self-knowledge which is the ground for whatever God intends. This thing is God’s knowledge of the necessity or lovability or goodness necessitating this act of intention; (2) God intends, and (3) there is a benefit to which the intention is directed. This is impossible for Avicenna, given that God is simple. God’s simplicity for Avicenna requires that God have one knowledge and one will, which are in turn identical to each other. Since God primarily knows, wills and loves himself, God’s will cannot be directed to an end other than God.7

Thomas, on the other hand, takes a different line on divine freedom of choice and elaborates it under the notion of suppositional, or hypothetical, necessity. He interprets the non-necessity of divine creation as requiring libertarian choice. God might have decided otherwise; but given that he didn’t, we must affirm that his decision to create is eternal, immutable, and necessary.

My question: Do you think Thomas is cheating (perhaps just a little bit) in his employment of hypothetical necessity? You note that on the specific question of divine freedom to create, he separates free choice (God might not have created the world) from the formal features of divinity, allows God to make his choice, and then recombines his choice with the formal features and calls it suppositional necessity. It’s as if Thomas had said to himself: “Let’s pretend that the infinite, simple, eternal pre-creation-God—who in reality is identical to his essence and lacks all potentiality (actus purus)—is a finite being confronted with two alternative courses of action between which he has to choose, despite the mess this makes of our metaphysics of divinity.8,9,10 All we have to do is wave our wand, speak the magic word, “suppositio!” and . . . voila! . . . God immutably wills the world in the mode of free choice, without violating divine simplicity. A brilliant metaphysical insight . . . or impressive feat of prestidigitation?

That God creates freely and voluntarily is clear-cut, for all the reasons mentioned above (and below). But the assertion that he might have chosen otherwise seems at least debatable. In what sense is the pre-eternal decision to create a choice? Is he presented with alternatives? On what basis does he choose? Do we know what we are talking about? Avicenna does not think so:

For Avicenna God’s having free will does not mean that God has free choice. For Avicenna, the idea that God does not have free choice follows from the assertion that other things are not God’s end. If other things could be ends for God, then God would have free choice because one end could be distinguished from alternatives (naqìḍ) in a free choice (ikhtiyàr). Since the one with free choice (ikhtiyàr) chooses one end as better than its alternative, then in order for God to have free choice there must be alternatives placed in front of God. Then God would be required to choose the better alternative. However, there can be no set of independent “possible universes” facing God so that he may choose one. Since there is nothing for God to intend, there is nothing for God to choose over others.11

Hence the critical difference between Avicenna and Thomas on necessitated creation. Despite their fundamental agreements, Avicenna will not isolate divine freedom from the formal attributes that God is:

For Avicenna, one may not even consider the possibility that God could not have created, because God is necessary in all respects. Such a possibility is applicable only to agents that are not fully in act. While Aquinas considers the divine perfections separately from the manner in which they exist with respect to human vantage point, Avicenna modifies his concept of the divine perfections in the light of the divine formal features. Consequently, he limits human speech to what actually is. By limiting himself with what actually is, he argues that the universe is necessary and that God does not choose from alternatives. . . .

The difference between Avicenna and Aquinas concerning the necessity of the universe and God’s free choice can be traced back to their consideration of divine perfection properties. Since Aquinas was able to consider God’s will with regard to the existence of the universe in isolation from God’s formal features, i.e., immutability and eternity, he could make a distinction between absolute and hypothetical necessity. If God’s will concerning the universe is taken together with God’s formal features, Aquinas argues, the universe is necessary and God creates only this universe. This is what he means by the hypothetical necessity of the universe. Avicenna does not make a distinction between absolute and hypothetical necessity, since he does not consider God’s will with regard to the existence of the universe in isolation from God’s formal features. He takes, God’s perfections together with how God is, i.e., necessary, immutable, eternal. As a result, he simply argues that the universe is necessary. Given the fact that the premises on which Aquinas establishes his position are maintained by Avicenna as well, the necessity of the universe as argued by Avicenna corresponds to the hypothetical necessity of the universe in the theological language of Aquinas.12

Am I being unfair to Thomas? Of course I am. But contrary to appearances, I am not persuaded that his assertion of suppositional necessity resolves the problems raised by the attribution of free choice to the transcendent Creator. Thomas should at least have posted a warning: “Caution! Analogous predication ahead! Pushing apophatic limits!”

Here is what I want to say about the necessity of divine creation: Because of the divine aseity and plenitude, we must affirm that God’s creation of this universe is voluntary and free; but because his creative act is immutable, eternal, necessary, God has in fact demonstrated that he eternally wills to create in every possible modal world. Why? Because he is infinite Goodness (bonum est diffusivum sui) and therefore wants—and thus freely wills—to communicate himself in a finite mode. As St Bonaventure states:

Because God is most perfect, he is of the highest goodness; because he is of the highest goodness, he wills to produce many things and to share himself.13

Good is said to be self-diffusive; therefore, the highest good is that which diffuses itself the most. Now, diffusion cannot stand as the highest unless it is intrinsic yet active, substantial yet personal, essential yet voluntary, necessary yet free, perfect yet unceasing.14

God creates the world not because he is compelled to do so, not because he needs to do so, but because in his goodness and love he wants to do so; and in the absence of metaphysical constraints, he eternally and immutably wills to do so. His desire is his will, and his will is his essence (again, divine simplicity). In the words of Barry Miller: “Choice is alien to God because it entails potentiality, but willing is not. And, because it is not necessary that he will to create, his willing is entirely free, notwithstanding the absence of choice.”15 There is no other God before the God who creates; there is no pre-creation Deity who chooses between options. There is only the One who eternally wills into existence the world in which live. As Matthew Levering puts it:

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.16

Or as I might put it: the Deity freely, voluntarily, eternally, immutably determines himself to be the Creator of heaven and earth in every possible world. I call this amatory necessity. I append the word “necessity” simply to highlight our need for a new category to speak of God’s free ex nihilo emanation. Perhaps we might describe God as a source incompatibilist: he is free because he is the ultimate source of his eternal willing of creation. The fact that he would never do otherwise in no way compromises his freedom. Does this mean that God is necessitated by his nature? I am tempted to say yes and shoot back the terse rejoinder, so what? All amatory necessity means is that God always acts according to his over-flowing goodness and self-communicating love. Why is it wrong to suggest that he was “necessitated” by his character to create the cosmos? Are we to imagine that in a different modal world, he might find reasons to do otherwise?

But we probably need to be more precise in our wording. Definition: an agent performs an action by natural necessity when its nature functions as the principle of its action. Avicenna identifies two features of natural necessitation:

  • It does not involve the knowledge of the agent.
  • It does not involve the approbation and consent of the agent.

The agent naturally produces its action akin to the way a fire begets fire. Given the right physical conditions, fire simply spreads. It has no knowledge of what it is doing, nor does it consent to its combustion. The agent’s nature determines its activity. Fire does what fire is. It’s all quite natural, involuntary, inevitable.17

Clearly God’s creation of the cosmos fails to meet Avicenna’s criteria for natural necessitation, as Julie Swanstrom explains:

God does not emanate by nature. Since an action performed by nature is an action occuring without the agent’s knowledge and without the agent’s consent, God would have to emanate without knowledge of the emanation and without consenting to the emanation. God intellectually apprehends Godself, which includes the apprehension of God as the principle of everything else that might exist. God knows Godself, and in knowing Godself, God knows God to be the cause of the existence of anything which might exist. In knowing Godself, God knows everything that is a concomitant of God’s existence. Because God has this knowledge, God fails to meet the first criterion of an act by nature.

God also fails to meet the second criterion of an act by nature, for God consents to the emanation. God is free from any impediment to emanating, and thus God consents to the emanation. Avicenna notes that God, knowing God’s own perfection and goodness, knows and loves Godself. Because knowing God’s own essence entails knowing the necessary concomitants of God’s essence, God also loves the necessary concomitants of God’s essence by extension. God’s object of knowledge and love is God, but God is aware of and approves of those things which follow from God’s essence. Accordingly, God consents to and approves of God’s emanation.18

God is an intellectual, volitional, self-moving being. He always acts with full knowledge and consent in the perfect freedom of divine simplicity:

An action stemming from a being’s nature depends only on that being’s nature, not on its intellect or will. An action that involves an agent’s will (and, accordingly, its intellect) is a voluntary action. The involvement of the will, even though it is identical to God’s essence, means that God’s action is voluntary rather than natural. What it takes for an action to be voluntary is for God to have knowledge of the action and to consent to the action, which means that God’s faculty of will is involved in any voluntary action. The identity of God’s will, knowledge, and essence does not negate that God’s will is involved in God performing the action in question.19

That God creates because he is the Good does not mean that his act of creation is necessitated by nature, as both his self-knowledge and volition are involved, thus qualifying it as voluntary. God knows and loves himself as self-diffusive Goodness and freely wills the emanation of the universe within his eternal willing of his Goodness. Might God have chosen not to create? Avicenna thinks not and points us to the existence of the world as eternally and immutably willed by God. How do we think “ahead” of God’s eternal and immutable willing? Should we even try? The world is necessary only because God is necessary in his transcendent simplicity. The divine knowledge is identical to the divine volition is identical to the divine essence. Avicenna will not entertain the counterfactual of the world’s non-existence, and I think he is right not to do so. Having “become” the Creator, God is eternally Creator, and it is through his self-manifestation in the world that we are led to him. Or as I would Christianly express it: The Father voluntarily, freely, eternally wills to diffuse and manifest his Goodness in and to the finite beings of his world but most especially in and through his incarnate Son Jesus Christ, for whom the world is made.

Aquinas and Bonaventure describe the act of creation as “fitting” (conveniens). Given the fact of creation and given what we know of God’s character as revealed in Jesus Christ, may we not also contrafactually ask: If God had decided not to create the world, would not the decision be fittingly described as unfitting, a denial of who he is as Goodness and Love? The Father’s generation of the Son and Spirit is itself the perfect expression of diffusive Goodness, yet will he not also seek to share his Goodness outside his Trinitarian life, not because he is compelled to but simply because he is Goodness and Love? Perhaps the question is not quite metaphysically kosher, but I ask anyway.

The fact that God has created this world, I propose, reveals that he would freely “choose” to create in every possible world. To suggest otherwise is to declare that divine creation is purely arbitrary and random. Toss a coin. If it’s heads, I emanate a world; if tails, I don’t. But the transcendent God and Father of Jesus Christ never acts haphazardly. He is the reason he acts.20 Or as Bonaventure puts it:

The reason why causality is attributed to the will is that the essence (ratio) of causing, both efficient and final, is goodness. For the good is said to be diffusive, and the good is that for the sake of which all things [are and act]. But an efficient cause does not actually produce an effect except for the sake of an end. Therefore, that which expresses the conjoining of an efficient source with an end explains the actual occurrence of causing. But volition is the act in accordance with which a good is turned toward (reflectitur supra) a good, or goodness. Therefore, it is volition that unites an efficient cause with an end. . . . And that is why we attribute causality to God under the aspect of will.”21

Here we note what may be an important difference between Bonaventure and Thomas. Whereas the Seraphic Doctor explicitly identifies the divine goodness with both efficient and final causality, the Angelic Doctor restricts the divine goodness to final causality. Gaven 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.22

Avicenna would agree with Thomas’s position as presented by Kerr. While he does not analyze the issue through the lens of suppositional necessity, he and Thomas end up agreeing that (1) divine creation is voluntary, and (2) divine creation is necessary given the divine simplicity. The two metaphysicians, however, appear to diverge on the question whether God might have chosen not to create the universe. Avicenna will not entertain that possibility. The existence of the world trumps further speculation.

Am I off-base? All the Catholic and Orthodox theologians tell me that I am—with one exception, David Bentley Hart.23 And so I seek out the wisdom of an Islamic philosopher who is not bound to the Christian theological tradition. I would very much appreciate your opinion on this perplexing question. And please forgive this long email.

Thank you in advance.

Sincerely yours,
Fr Aidan Kimel

(Revised: 16 November 2022)


[1] Rahim Acar, Talking About God and Talking About Creation (2005), p. 131. Also see Rahim Acar, “Avicenna’s Position Concerning the Basis for the Divine Creative Action,” The Muslim World, 94 (2004): 65-79.

[2] Ibid., pp. 132-133.

[3] Ibid., pp. 145-146.

[4] Quoted by Acar, p. 137.

[5] Following David Burrell, Acar describes the formal features of divinity as those properties that “modify the mode in which God has the perfection properties he has. While non-formal properties tell something about what their subject is, formal properties do not directly tell us what their subject is. . . . Formal features concern the ontological constitution, or the mode of existence, of the subject” (ibid., p. 80). “Since Avicenna [unlike Aquinas] considers divine perfection properties only insofar as they are modified by the divine formal features, God’s will to create and to create this universe is necessary and eternal” (ibid., p. 132).

[6] Ibid., pp. 136-137.

[7] Ibid., pp. 138-139.

[8] In a recent email to me (31 October 2022), philosopher Eric Perl writes: “Philosophically speaking, the notion of a God who ‘might-or-might-not-create,’ and who ‘chooses’ to create in the sense of choosing between alternatives, is anthropomorphic nonsense.” Perl then goes on to say that he seriously doubts that Aquinas is guilty of such a blunder: “If God ‘might not create,’ or ‘might-or-might-not-create,’ then (a) God-creating is different from God-not-creating, (b) there is a real distinction in God between the divine essence and the act-of-creating, (c) that act is an accident in God, and (d) that accident is a real relation of God to the world. Aquinas expressly repudiates (a), (b), (c), and (d). So unless he’s totally inconsistent, he can’t mean that God ‘might-or-might-not-create.’”

[9] “There can be no distinction between the One itself and its productive activity. This is the point of Plotinus’ insistence that being is not made through any ‘choice,’ ‘wish,’ or ‘motion’ on the part of the One. . . . Not only would such a ‘motion’ reduce the One to a being and introduce distinction, and hence complexity, within it, but it would mean that this choice or motion, rather than simply the One itself, would be the true cause of beings. . . . But as we have seen, the One signifies simply unity, in the sense of wholeness or integration, as the condition by which beings are beings. As such, the One itself just is the ‘making’ of all things: not a thing-which-makes, which would imply a distinction between the One and its act of making and thus treat the One as a being and as having activities distinct from itself, but simply ‘making’ itself, not an ontic producer but rather the production of all things. As Plotinus so often says, the One is not any thing but rather the “power of all things,” the enabling condition in virtue of which they are beings. Thus if we are to speak of the generation of being in terms of ‘will’ or ‘activity’ at all, we must allow no distinction between the One and its will or activity but say that this will or activity just is the One itself: ‘His, as it were, existence is his, as it were, activity’ (Enneads VI.8.7.47), and again, ‘If we were to grant activities to him . . . and the activities [are] his, as it were, reality, his will and his reality will be the same’ (VI.8.13.5–8).” Eric Perl, Thinking Being (2014), pp. 123-124.

[10] “The disjunctive proposition that either God chooses between possible alternatives or he is necessitated to create situates God within a total framework of possibilities, as though the logical conditions of possibility and impossibility were prior to and more universal than God, conditions to which even he is subject. This presupposition envisions God either as confronted with a multiplicity of logical possibilities among which he can choose, or as subject to a logical law such that there is only one possibility open to him. This is precisely the ‘ontic’ conception of God that Plotinus, and Dionysius, are concerned to avoid by declaring him ‘beyond being.’ God is not a being, subject, as are beings, to the conditions of logical possibility such as the principle of non-contradiction. This is not to say that God can violate that principle; on the contrary, it would be more accurate to say that for the Neoplatonists, God, or the One is the principle of non-contradiction. . . . God is not a being, contained within a framework of possibilities determined by an abstract logic independent of himself. Rather, he is that framework within which all beings are contained, and hence he cannot be considered either as a being who chooses among a multiplicity of logical possibilities, or as a being confined by principles more universal than himself to a single possibility.” Eric Perl, Theophany (2008), pp. 50-51.

[11] Acar, .p. 143.

[12] Ibid., pp. 167-168. For a short and accessible article on Aquinas, creation, and necessity, see Dennis Bonnette, “God: Eternity, Free Will, and the World,” Strange Notions.

[13] Quoted by Kevin Keane, “Why Creation? Bonaventure and Thomas Aquinas on God as Creative Good,” Downside Review 95 (April 1975): 111. In this essence Keane controversially argues that Thomas understands divine creation as an arbitrary choice.

[14] Quoted by Norman Kretzmann in, “A General Problem of Creation: Why Would God Create Anything at All,” in Being and Goodness (1990), ed. Scott MacDonald, p. 225. In this quotation, Bonaventure is speaking of the Trinitarian processions, not divine creation. This essay by Kretzmann is essential reading.

[15] Barry Miller, A Most Unlikely God (1996), p. 105.

[16] Matthew Levering, Engaging the Doctrine of Creation, p. 103. James Brent concurs: “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.” James Brent, “God’s Knowledge and Will,” in The Oxford Handbook of Aquinas (2012), pp. 165-166.

[17] Julie Swanstrom, “Avicenna’s Account of Creation by Divine Voluntary Emanation,” Otrosiglo 1 (2017): 115-116.

[18] Ibid., p. 118.

[19] Ibid., p. 122.

[20] After publishing this article, I came across a couple of pieces by Katherin Rogers on St Anselm of Canterbury. Anselm affirms that God’s creation of the world is free and voluntary, yet because he always acts in and from his Goodness, its creation was inevitable. God always does his best. She elaborates: “But doesn’t the claim that God’s decision to create is inevitable render the divine act of creation unfree? If freedom must entail indeterminately open options, then a choice that could not be otherwise is not free. But by Anselm’s definition, freedom does not require indeterminate options. . . . God himself is a necessary being. In his perfect being and simplicity, he just is an act, and that act is necessarily perfectly and infinitely good. The question is not, “Does creation involve any necessity?” Obviously it does. The question is whether or not the necessarily perfect divine action inevitably produces one best creation, our world, which is the position I have attributed to Anselm, or might it have ended in some entirely different creation, or no creation at all, as Thomas holds. . . . In Anselm’s view, in order to be free and praiseworthy a being must be able to choose a se, from itself. But God exists entirely a se, and so, while open options are very important in creaturely free choice, they are completely irrelevant for God. God’s inevitably willing the best due to His wisdom and goodness does not conflict with divine freedom.” Katherin Rogers, “Anselm on God’s Perfect Freedom,” The Saint Anselm Journal 1.1 (Fall 2003): 3. Like Keane, Rogers also claims that for Aquinas divine creation is an arbitrary, indifferent choice, an act of pure voluntaristic will: “But on Thomas’s analysis, there is no reason why God made the world. That is, God had no preference for making our world rather than some other world or no world at all. All the options were indifferently good, and he simply chose. His wisdom might have issued in a world with nothing but cosmic dust, or it might not have issued in any created world at all. Thomas can grant that our world is a better world than the world of dust or nothing, but God chose it arbitrarily and he does not view his choice of our world as preferable to the equally open options of a world of dust or nothing” (p. 4). Avicenna appears to be closer to both Anselm and Bonaventure than to Aquinas, as he argues that God creates out of his generosity: “For Avicenna, God creates out of his generosity, since he neither expects nor attains anything in return. Generosity requires that the generous agent be free from internal as well as external constraints” (Acar, pp. 141-142). As far as I know, Avicenna does not explicitly incorporate the Neoplatonic notion of bonum diffusivum sui est into his metaphysics of divine creation.

[21] Quoted by Kretzmann, p. 227.

[22] Gaven Kerr, Aquinas and the Metaphysics of Creation (2019), pp. 64-65. Kretzmann criticizes Aquinas for not adopting a necessitarian construal of divine creation based on the Dionysian principle of the diffusiveness of being: “For, according to the Dionysian principle, which Aquinas often appeals to in other contexts, goodness is by its very nature diffusive of itself and (thereby) of being. The principle expresses an important truth about goodness, most obviously about the goodness of agents—goodness essentially associated with volitional action informed by intellect—which is the only kind at issue here. There is no obvious inconsistency in the notion of knowledge that is for ever unexpressed, never shared by the agent who has it, even if the agent is omnipotent; but there is inconsistency in the notion of goodness that is for ever unmanifested, never shared by the perfectly good, omnipotent agent.” Norman Kretzmann, The Metaphysics of Creation (1999), p. 134.

[23] “All too often, this is obscured in theological discourse by such questions as whether we are obliged to think of creation either as a free act of God’s sovereign will or as a product of some necessity incumbent on his will. But this is a false dilemma. God is not a finite being in whom the distinction of freedom from necessity has any meaning. Perfect freedom is the unhindered realization of a nature in its proper end; and God’s infinite freedom is the eternal fulfillment of the divine nature in the divine life. Needless to say, for any finite rational being, since its essence is not identical with its existence, any movement toward the realization of its nature is attended by the shadows of unrealized possibilities, and entails deliberative liberty with regard to proximate ends. This, though, is a condition not of freedom as such, but only of finitude. Every decision of the finite will is a collapse of indeterminate potentiality into determinate actuality, and therefore the reduction of limitless possibilities to the bare singularity of one reality. Yet that prior realm of possibility exists only because there is an inexhaustible wellspring of more original and transcendent actuality sustaining it. God, by contrast, simply is that actuality, in all its supereminent fullness: infinite Being, the source of every act of being. As such, he is infinitely free precisely because nothing can inhibit or limit the perfect realization of his nature, and thus, as Maximus says, he possesses no gnomic will; for God, deliberative liberty—any ‘could have been otherwise,’ any arbitrary decision among opposed possibilities—would be an impossible defect of his freedom. God does not require the indeterminacy of the possible in order to be free because he is not some particular determination of Being, some finite reduction of potency to act; he is instead that infinite actuality upon which all ontic possibility depends.” David Bentley Hart, You Are Gods (2022), pp. 115-116. Note the striking similarity of Hart’s judgment with that of Eric Perl’s.

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25 Responses to Avicenna and Aquinas: Ruminating Divine Freedom and Necessity

  1. Tom says:

    The guy with beard in the first picture looks a bit like DBH. But the inscription says it’s Ibn Sina. Hard to tell.
    يا حببيبي يا معلم! الله أكبر

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  2. I am very curious where this conversation goes! I have found some truly beautiful writings about God in Islamic writings/theology.

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  3. Iainlovejoy says:

    The problem seems to be that concepts like “necessary” and “needs” etc simply become largely incoherent when talking about God.
    A choice is an event, and events require a before and after and a time in which to occur. If God made a choice as to whether to create which is in any sense at all analogous to what “choice” means in its ordinary usage, there would have to be circumstances prevailing in the context of which God made that choice, a moment in which God made it, and then subsequently a change that occurred following which things were different as a consequence of that choice having been made. I challenge anyone to give any coherent account of how any of this makes sense unless you conceive of God acting to create within some wider arena of time and existence outside himself – and a creator god “creating” in this sense would not be God in classical Christian or any monotheistic terms.

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  4. Tom says:

    “Am I off-base? All the Catholic and Orthodox theologians tell me that I am—perhaps with one exception, David Bentley Hart.” (Fr Al)

    I understood these others (most of them at least) were telling you the same as David. What Orthodox theologians are telling you otherwise? I can’t think of an Orthodox theologian who promotes anything even similar to a counterfactual freedom. Don’t Orthodox theologians as a rule find it impossible or impious to contemplate God’s freedom vis-à-vis Creation in such terms?

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  5. Logan(mercifullayman) says:

    The Neo-Platonic line, at least according to Perl in “Theophany” is that conversations around freedom/necessity help delineate being as such. So any tension of contrasting pairs are only issues that occur within the realm of being itself because the very tension of separation helps us delineate intelligible acts, and so thus, the Creator, must lie beyond that distinction. So any conversation about choice is still relevant, but it’s choice in a way that radically transcends any x or y dichotomy. Simply by choosing to act at all, even as generating oneself if one who holds to “actus purus” is a movement that isn’t motion as we know it. It isn’t linear. And that is where we begin to scratch our heads. A doesn’t necessarily lead to B, etc. It isn’t causal in that way.

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  6. Mashsha'i says:

    There’s also a sense in which divine creation is by choice on the Avicennian view. First, insofar as ‘choice’ necessarily involves, not selection among alternatives, but selection of or preference for the good, whether that good is real or merely apparent. (Note that in Arabic ‘choice’ (ikhtiyar) and ‘good’ (khayr) come from the same root (kh-y-r)). And second, insofar as choice involve some motive/reason. In the divine case, God, being pure goodness, chooses the (real) good/best, and His pure goodness i.e., Himself, is the reason/motive for that choice.

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    • Robert Fortuin says:

      I fail to see how choice as you describe it can be coherently understood as such. If there’s no selection among alternatives, what choice is there to be made? Doesn’t God already possess what He desires, and the distinction between potentiality and actuality simply doesn’t hold purchase?


      • Well that is the fundamental ontic question that everyone keeps dancing around. The one about desire strictly speaking. So you get these camps that are either fully accepting that desire is already contained within the divine itself, or that there is a some desire for something that brings about a processional, cosmogonic, or even theogonic issue. So when we talk about choice, I think that’s where everyone is scratching their head in some ways. It isn’t about freedom or necessity, as I said, those are markers of being. This is about something within the very depths of divinity as it resides beyond being itself.


        • Robert Fortuin says:

          Yes that is quite right, Logan. If it can be agreed upon that God is beyond being, and as such beyond freedom, necessity, choice and such, I deem it helpful to think of the divine beyond in terms of excess, of fecund plenitude, instead of lack. The divine/creaturely difference is too easily imagined as a lack of something in God, as not being like us, as a want from our own terms of existence and agency. However, we are speaking after all about absolute perfection, the perfect act of being, lacking any need, actuality, knowledge, and so forth. I see that abundance as the source of the “excess movement”, a spilling over which is the creative act, but which in the self- same movement is also nothing other than the Esse, the act of being, the act of God as God being God. In that sense we can say that to create is to be God, and to create is therefore absolutely necessary to be God.

          That I believe is what you note to be “something within the very depths of divinity”.


          • Joe says:

            Robert Fortuin: “I see that abundance as the source of the “excess movement”, a spilling over which is the creative act, but which in the self- same movement is also nothing other than the Esse, the act of being, the act of God as God being God. In that sense we can say that to create is to be God, and to create is therefore absolutely necessary to be God.”

            This spilling over is nothing other than the essence of Being. Does this not entail that the creative act is eternal, timeless—without beginning, without end?

            Thus, there was never a “time” when God existed without this spilling over (“creation”) as this spilling over is God being God. And there will never be a future where God ceases creating.

            I tend to think of this controversy regarding divine freedom/necessity is partly based on this erroneous idea of creation as an act/event with a beginning and an end; creation as an artifact crafted in time.


          • Robert Fortuin says:

            Joe – yes spot on. The traditional view of ex nihilo affirms your observation: there is no material from, nor time during which creation came to be. We can’t even think of it as an event: and so it is as you point out, the creative act is eternal, timelessly lacking a beginning and end. But this “nihilo”, this nothing is not the nothing as we know it: it is rather God himself, the perfect one, the plenitude of being, the fullness of life, the agent ever in act. “Nothing” can too easily make us think of an empty vacuum, a place and a moment lacking everything; this I think is misleading and not at all what is meant by ex nihilo.

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          • Robert: “In that sense we can say that to create is to be God, and to create is therefore absolutely necessary to be God.”

            And this is the point I’ve been trying to make about God and the idea of the image that we bear. It isn’t reason that is the divine marker, but the ability to create. If our teleological purpose is to become like Christ via theosis (God becoming man so we could become Him after all), then we must reflect what God is. It is the transcendentals + the creative act. It is one where we bring forth the world ourselves in the same way that God brings forth all that is and yet is beyond it. It isn’t just goodness, truth, etc. but rather all of those things combined and put into motion that creates to reflect the ground, that is as you put it the Esse of the divine itself.

            The way I’ve always kind of understood the depths is that excessive bliss must be shared, for not to share would make one selfish. And while there is this Triune sharing that goes on, the Godhead determines it needs to share it further. Not due to lack or some missing piece, but because to create is to give form or an external face to the who and what the Godhead itself is. So, it creates as a way to share the bliss it is in all things, and yet not be all things. It concretizes itself so that it can explore all that it already knows to be true and allow every datum to see itself truly. Some will say but deciding is a choice. Yet I don’t think it has to be between x or y. I think it is more of an overjoyed reaction to the ideas it itself thinks of and much like any creator explores them to their ends, joyfully. Metaphysically that may be messy, but poetically it makes more sense to me.

            Joe:”I tend to think of this controversy regarding divine freedom/necessity is partly based on this erroneous idea of creation as an act/event with a beginning and an end; creation as an artifact crafted in time.”

            Creation very much IS an event. And I think that’s what makes it so special. Any bringing forth would be external to God in some sense, and yet fully immanent in some sense as it is grounded. But clearly there is this moment that time inaugurates. There is this moment that shoots the arrow of time as it arcs. Yet where I think most people mess up is that they see it as purely linear. It is circular. An arrow that unfolds only to return to its bow. It’s a ouroboros whose beginning will always be its end and vice versa, yet that doesn’t denigrate the fact that the tension we see in all things. The shadows of the transcendentals, the antinomies that emerge….those are the tools by which the causality of existence moves and finds its core to create the “artifact” as you call it. But there is a beginning and end, it just happens to be unfolding and returning to itself. He is the Alpha and the Omega after all. He is all. Theos Kai Pan.


          • Robert Fortuin says:

            An event however Logan is already a created moment – a distinction between the creative act and what results needs to be clearly made. The creative act is timeless, without beginning and end (and thus without decision, choice, necessity, freedom – these, like time, are useless and wholly improper markers), whereas creation is an event with a beginning and end.

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          • Robert:”An event however Logan is already a created moment – a distinction between the creative act and what results needs to be clearly made….whereas creation is an event with a beginning and end.”

            Correct. Creation as it exists and even as the mythopoetics of Genesis tell us, is a reified moment. Origen would use this same logic on the Cross, as kind of would Maximus. It is a distinctive event that comes forth. It delineates. It articulates. For it not to be, would be to equate the two and devolve into some odd form of pantheism. So the ability to create, as an “ontic” property for whatever that is really worth in this conversation belies, means that what we see and perceive are not timeless events but merely events that will become timeless in their finality. So the tensions of all we have discussed do hold because thats exactly what creation is. Being as we can discern it. Creation has to have a beginning and a terminus because that distinction is the intelligible marker for us to even know it has being itself.

            So the ability to create is the distinction itself. The act part of the phrase “creative act” is a dormant innate ability by the very by product of what you are. Although I could see it being messy since a Creator who sat on his hands and had the ability couldn’t be said to be a Creator at all. One who never does something when they can, can they truly be said to be that at all? So creation is eternal because it resides within the idea of the divine from eternity, but it isn’t truly real until is actually made. So it is both wholly eternal and yet also fully immanent.

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          • Robert Fortuin says:

            Dormancy doesn’t hold in God, there is no latency, unfulfilled capacity, potential etc.
            The creative act, this agency, is who God is. As a perfection (not a restriction) God cannot be but Himself. This is beauty.

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          • Joe says:

            Robert Fortuin: “But this “nihilo”, this nothing is not the nothing as we know it: it is rather God himself…”

            Yes, precisely. I wonder why the designation “creatio ex Deus” never took off?

            Logan: “Creation very much IS an event. And I think that’s what makes it so special. Any bringing forth would be external to God in some sense, and yet fully immanent in some sense as it is grounded.”

            Yes, as Robert stated, one must maintain a distinction between creation as eternal act and creation as the ever new “product” of this act. The creature, as an individuated instance of the uncreated light, is newly formed and most certainly has a beginning. Inherent in each of us is the union of the created and uncreated. But our newness is absolutely vital, otherwise our “dark night” of suffering would not represent a momentary passage but would be our eternal condition.


          • Robert Fortuin says:

            Joe: “I wonder why the designation “creatio ex Deus” never took off?”

            Me: Because ex nihilo was in direct response to the competing notion that creation came about from existing matter.

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          • Joe: To say Creatio Ex Deo really, in antiquity, would have had such major implications that a lot of people could claim the same idea. A lot of systems had a God bringing forth something from himself etc. It’s the peculiarness of nothing that say “nope, it isn’t demiurgic etc as well as to combat certain Judaic/Gnostic/mystery notions within the language of the early church for the beginning of things. Fleshed out, of course, the nothingness makes sense metaphysically when you extend it to its logical end but I think at the time, it was a semantic problem more than anything.


          • Robert: Agreed. I’m saying that it can’t be dormant. Beauty, to me, is the highest of all goods. So the fact that it is indeed a necessary part of who God is, requires him in such a way that to bring about even being itself is to hold the creative act forward as the highest of ideas. After all, it is the Logos through whom all things are made, and if that isn’t an indicator of the processions of divinity that moves to bring forth what was, is, and will be, shows us a lot. And that same perfection, is our perfection when we become like him.

            For once we pretty much agree, Robert! We’re making some progress lol jk

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Acar devotes several paragraphs to Avicenna on God’s generosity and divine creation. “God is truly generous,” he writes, “since God’s giving being to things can neither be compelled by something external nor required by something internal to God.” But he does not connect it to free choice.

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  7. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    Over the past few days I have done some tinkering with this article. Tonight I added a new fn. 17 on St Anselm of Canterbury. You may be surprised to discover that while Anselm affirms that divine creation is a completely free act, he also affirms that it was inevitable! Check out the footnote.

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