Free Will and Providence: Metaphysical Issues

“For God is at work in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”[1]


The Problem

If one were to ask the question “why does a rock fall when released from the hand,” it would, no doubt, be a true yet odd answer to respond, “God wills it.”  Yet, we must not argue that indeed, the falling of the rock does not escape God’s providence.  It certainly did not catch Him by surprise.


However, when asking the question, we are usually seeking the more proximate answer.  To say that “the rock falls because of gravity,” that still hardly understood force that draws massive objects toward one another, is to in no way infringe upon God’s power and providence.

Some find it difficult to understand how natural effects are ascribed to God and to the activity of nature. For it would seem impossible that one action should proceed from two agents: hence if the action productive of a natural effect proceeds from a natural body, it does not proceed from God.[2]


Here we find a difficulty that has bothered logicians, philosophers, and theologians alike. From this problem we get Occam’s Razor, whereby we need to give two explanations when one seems sufficient. “For Ockham, the only truly necessary entity is God; everything else, the whole of creation, is radically contingent through and through. In short, Ockham does not accept the Principle of Sufficient Reason.”[3]


Certainly not unrelated to the nominalism that follows from Ockham’s theories (at least as they were later developed) is the mitigated skepticism of David Hume.  His skepticism towards the reality of causality is well known. “Hume’s account of causation provides a paradigm of how philosophy, as he conceives it, should be done. He goes on to apply his method to other thorny traditional problems of philosophy and theology: liberty and necessity, miracles, design. In each case, the moral is that a priori reasoning and argument gets us nowhere.”[4]


Of course, Hume’s theories had a huge impact on the thought of Kant, who may legitimately be seen as the pre-eminent thinker of modern philosophy.  “In the Preface to the Prolegomena Kant considers the supposed science of metaphysics. He states that ‘no event has occurred that could have been more decisive for the fate of this science than the attack made upon it by David Hume’ and goes on to say that ‘Hume proceeded primarily from a single but important concept of metaphysics, namely, that of the connection of cause and effect.’”[5]


Ockham believed in God, and Hume, most likely, did not. Kant believed we could not prove God, but must act as if he existed. These are but a few of the philosophical results of a poor understanding of causality.


From a flawed or superficial understanding of causality, we also encounter problems in theology. Less often we get the error of Arminianism, which almost seems to entail a limit on God’s sovereignty so as to safeguard man’s freedom. But the more rigorously thought out error is that of the Reformed theologians, who insist that, if all is grace, man is in reality entirely passive in his actions, at least towards salvation.


For example, “Luther having denied the freedom of the will in sinful man as also freedom in the use of grace, logically placed the eternal destiny of the individual solely and entirely in the hands of God, who without any regard to merit or demerit metes out heaven or hell just as He pleases…Calvin is the most logical advocate of Predestinarianism pure and simple. Absolute and positive predestination of the elect for eternal life, as well as of the reprobate for hell and for sin, is one of the chief elements of his whole doctrinal system and is closely connected with the all-pervading thought of “the glory of God”.”[6]


This ‘glory of God’ is, however, falsely portrayed, for, as Etienne Gilson said so well, “When and where piety is permitted to inundate the philosophical field, the usual outcome is that, the better to extol the glory of God, pious-minded theologians proceed joyfully to annihilate God’s own creation.”[7] With St. Thomas, who is rightfully called the theologian of creation, we can see that God’s sovereign causality is not undermined by a correct understanding of the creatures role as a true cause, and this because the causes are not competitive, but each refers to its own proper sphere.


The Solution

The solution to the problem, at least insofar as a solution can be understood by a limited human intellect, is that we differentiate the causes, not as percentages or equals, giving one another a hand with a task, as a strong man may lift 80% of the weight and a weaker helper 20%, but as two causes that are on completely different planes of existence. God transcends his creation, and is not simply the greatest being among many.


It would seem that the issue of ‘divvying up’ the task when we seek either God or creature as cause would be more suited to a monistic or polytheistic and pagan universe than to a Thomistic one, in which God completely transcends the world He created. Even in an example like Plotinus, who to my understanding does his best to have his One transcend the emanating world, one can still hardly deny that his doctrine was very near to pantheism.


In true monotheism, however, God utterly transcends His creation so as to be in no way in ‘competition’ with that creation. Rightly understood, therefore, we need not assign cause to God or creature in a false either/or dichotomy. Each can be true cause, but with respect to the primary causality of the uncreated Creator in His case and, likewise, with respect to the contingent being in his.

It is, also, clear that the same effect is ascribed to a natural cause and to God, not as though part were effected by God and part by the natural agent: but the whole effect proceeds from each, yet in different ways: just as the whole of the one same effect is ascribed to the instrument, and again the whole is ascribed to the principal agent.[8]


Now, assigning the creature merely an instrumental causality is a perfectly good answer when we are considering inanimate beings and, perhaps, even non-rational animals. But we must certainly acknowledge that instrumental causality alone is not sufficient to understand a free creature’s causality as truly free. No one calls a pencil free when it is used as a true cause in the writing of a letter, even if we rightly assign instrumental causality to the pencil. Therefore, we must at least qualify the causality we here speak of if we are to maintain that some creatures are real and free causes.

In government there are two things to be considered; the design of government, which is providence itself; and the execution of the design. As to the design of government, God governs all things immediately; whereas in its execution, He governs some things by means of others.[9]


St. Thomas gives this brief description of God’s providence in dealing with creation as a whole, in which St. Thomas states that God lets true causes intervene between He and the intended effect. This answer must be given to the occasionalism that became very prominent in the thinking of later theologians and philosophers. However, it is only a general answer, applying to all of creation, and only hints at an answer to the problem of creaturely causality when we come to discuss rationally free beings as truly causal. Certainly,

The divine will imposes necessity on some things willed but not on all. The reason of this some have chosen to assign to intermediate causes, holding that what God produces by necessary causes is necessary; and what He produces by contingent causes contingent.[10]


When St. Thomas answers this more specific question of rational and free creatures, it comes in his treatment of man’s end.

I answer that, as Dionysius says (Div. Nom. iv.) it belongs to Divine providence, not to destroy but to preserve the nature of things. Wherefore it moves all things in accordance with their conditions; so that from necessary causes through the Divine motion, effects follow of necessity; but from contingent causes, effects follow contingently. Since, therefore, the will is an active principle, not determinate to one thing, but having an indifferent relation to many things, God so moves it, that He does not determine it of necessity to one thing, but its movement remains contingent and not necessary, except in those things to which it is moved naturally.[11]


If God truly transcends His creation, He can create a world that is, while completely dependent on Him for its existence, still truly independent to the extent that God is not limited to creating creatures that cannot reason and will for themselves. But if God can create creatures that are rational and free, then their actions, while dependent on God for existence, are also truly their own, for that is how God created them. The issue, then, is the question as to whether God can or cannot create things that are both ‘contingent and not necessary.’


The answer, in a monistic, pantheistic world, would be no. The Thomist Norman Kretzman argued according to the Neoplatonic dictum that the good must necessarily be diffusive of itself and must necessarily create, although the Good is free to create whatever He likes. This position may be seen as problematic when asking if God could create beings that were contingent and not necessary, but it is hardly a true Thomistic position. A true Thomist natural theology would affirmatively answer that, yes, God can create beings that are contingent and not necessary, and, what’s more, these beings would have the freedom to do the same. These creature’s actions and choices are contingent, and therefore depend on the first cause, which is God. Yet their actions are not necessary, and thus are truly free.


Reply Obj. 1. The Divine will extends not only to the doing of something by the thing which He moves, but also to its being done in a way which is fitting to the nature of that thing. And therefore it would be more repugnant to the Divine motion, for the will to be moved of necessity, which is not fitting to its nature; than for it to be moved freely, which is becoming to its nature.[12]


If God creates creatures that have free will, then it is repugnant to reason that they be not truly free. God is omnipotent, and this means, not that he can do all things conceived of, but that he can do all things that are true possibilities. As God cannot make square circles because of the intrinsic contradiction in the term, neither can He make rational and free creatures that are completely determined. In a monistic and pantheistic emanationist metaphysics, we would indeed affirm, then, that God could not make free creatures. But when God is understood to completely transcend His creation, we need no longer see a contradiction.


Just as Christian theologians have been able to come to an understanding of the Incarnation whereby Christ is truly man and truly God, and with no admixture of these natures, likewise, using the same ‘non-competitiveness’ of God’s nature with that of His creation, we can affirm God’s ability to make rational and free creatures. And in the history of theology, we see that the difficulties in understanding the two natures of Christ often stemmed from the Neoplatonic philosophical underpinnings of the early Church. The Aristotelian approach, modified by St. Thomas because of his faith in revelation and therefore the data of creation ex nihilo, allows us to overcome this difficultly.


We need not deny God’s providence here. Certainly, philosophers and theologians have affirmed what we have just said, but in too great and one sided a way, and thus come to the conclusion of deism. But these philosophers have neglected to remember that God does not create from pre-existing material, and therefore, He cannot create it and then simply leave it to itself, as an artisan would do in our human understanding. God is always present as efficient (and final) cause to His creation and, therefore, it is always, at every moment, dependent upon Him. Providence, therefore, is in no way rejected. Yet again, providence must be understood according to the nature of each thing that God providentially governs.


It belongs to divine providence to use things according to their mode. And the mode of a thing’s action is in keeping with its form which is the principle of action. Now the form through which a voluntary agent acts is not determinate: because the will acts through a form apprehended by the intellect, since the apprehended good moves the will objectively; and the intellect has not one determinate form of the effect, but is of such a nature as to understand a multitude of forms; so that the will is able to produce manifold effects. Therefore it does not belong to divine providence to exclude freedom of the will.[13]


Thomas’ answer to the question of free will and divine providence is far more intricate that we have space to ponder here. Certainly, even then it would not be a complete answer, as if free will and providence can be comprehended by the finite mind of man. But St Thomas denies neither man’s freedom nor God’s providence, and St. Thomas does this, informed by revealed truth, but in perfect consistency with philosophical reasoning.


Concluding Thoughts

It is a mystery, for sure, that God is present and governing in all His creation, and yet allows free will. Perhaps, through philosophy alone, we would not come to this conclusion. But, informed by revelation, we can also see that it need not be contradictory to reason that we affirm both free will and providence. The above arguments, therefore, are not meant to convince, from reason alone, that free will and providence are definitively the answer. To do so would be to produce a weak argument, as if this were our entire reason for affirming its truth. But, in the manner of St. Thomas’ Summa Contra Gentiles, it is hoped that the result is two-fold: It affirms that free will and providence are not repugnant to reason, and this is a sufficient response to those who do not believe, that at least their arguments against the faith are not demonstrative and, for the believer, strengthens the faith  by presenting it in such a way that we may grasp a little more understanding of God and His creation.


As a practical question, therefore, what does this mean for a believer? It may, at least, help to answer the great question of prayer: Why pray?

So, as natural effects are provided by God in such a way that natural causes are directed to bring about those natural effects, without which those effects would not happen; so the salvation of a person is predestined by God in such a way, that whatever helps that person towards salvation falls under the order of predestination; whether it be one’s own prayers, or those of another; or other good works, and suchlike, without which one would not attain to salvation. Whence, the predestined must strive after good works and prayer; because through these means predestination is most certainly fulfilled.[14]

Lastly, turning briefly from St. Thomas, we can sum up what this means for our life as Christians. The Catechism gives a true and balanced response to the question we have been pondering.

The vocation to eternal life is supernatural. It depends entirely on God’s gratuitous initiative, for he alone can reveal and give himself.[15] The preparation of man for the reception of grace is already a work of grace.[16] God’s free initiative demands man’s free response.[17] God grants his creatures not only their existence, but also the dignity of acting on their own, of being causes and principles for each other, and thus of co-operating in the accomplishment of his plan.[18]

Quotations from Scripture, the Fathers, and the Catechism could certainly be multiplied beyond this, but the Doctor of Grace will be given the final words here. Recognizing that there is an objective and absolute moral law that we must follow, yet finding ourselves in need of God’s mercy and grace to follow His commands, we ask with Augustine that God “”Give me what you command and command what you will,”[19] because “He Who created you without your cooperation, will not save you without your cooperation.”[20]

[1] Phil 2:13

[2] SCG, 3.70

[3] Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Occam

[4] SEP, Hume

[5] SEP, Kant and Hume on Causality

[6], Predestinarianism

[7] Gilson, Etienne, The Unity of Philosophical Experience, p.32

[8] SCG, 3.73.

[9] I, Q.103, ar. 6

[10] ST. I, 19, ar. 8

[11] I-II, Q.10, art. 4

[12] Ibid.

[13] SCG, 3.73

[14] ST I, 23, ar. 8

[15] CCC 1998

[16] CCC 2001

[17] CCC 2002

[18] CCC 306

[19] St. Augustine, Confessions, 10, 29

[20] St. Augustine, Sermon 169, 13

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