The Thomistic View of the Divine Sovereignty and Human Free-will


            In his article, “Divine Providence”, due to constraints of space, Flint equated the thomistic view with the Calvinistic view, as one of those Christian views which abandons the libertarian view of freedom. “…Some Christians have suggested that the problems arise from our assuming a misguided picture of freedom—that which is often called libertarianism. Abandon this picture…and our problems dissolve; human freedom, properly understood, is fully compatible with God’s complete control and universal foreknowledge.”[1] As we will soon see in detail, and as should already be evident from the definitions, Calvinism and Thomism are in two completely different camps on this issue. As most thomists will agree, attempting to explain the thomistic doctrine of sovereignty and free will in just a couple of pages is an almost hopeless endeavor, because Thomism is a system, and as such, its parts are intricately intertwined. However, with great caution, we will attempt to briefly explain the thomistic position and show why the thomistic position is the only view that can truly answer the problem that is engendered by free will and divine sovereignty.[2]

Divine Sovereignty

            In order to explain the thomistic view of sovereignty we must first consider three preliminary points. First of all, a final end is that for which a thing exists, its purpose or goal, and it is that towards which a thing tends. In the Summa Contra Gentiles, Thomas Aquinas says, “the ultimate end is that beyond which the agent seeks nothing else.”[3]

            Secondly, God is the final, or ultimate end, of all things, even humans.[4] Humans are distinguished from all other created things by the fact that they are rational animals. As Aristotle said, “All men by nature desire to know.”[5] Aquinas shows how reason, that by which humans are distinguished from all other created things, helps us to identify what man’s ultimate end is. “Hence, this must be the end of the intellectual creature, namely, to understand God.”[6] Therefore, the ultimate end of all things, that to which they tend, is God.

            The third thing that plays into Aquinas’s view of Divine Sovereignty is that, “Whenever certain things are ordered to a definite end they all come under the control of the one to whom the end primarily belongs.”[7]

            With these three preliminary points in mind, it follows that God is fully sovereign because he is the ultimate end of all things. “So, since all things are ordered to divine goodness as an end, as we showed, it follows that God, to Whom this goodness primarily belongs, as something substantially possessed and known, and loved, must be the governor of all things.”[8] God, therefore, is sovereign because “everything that happens does so in accordance with what God intends,”[9] and because “he orders all things to an end. He makes them to be and he directs them to their end.”[10]

Freedom of Will

            According to Thomas Aquinas, humans are necessarily free because they are rational creatures.[11] What does Aquinas mean by this? Before we attempt to explain Aquinas’ notion of the will we would do well to hear a word of caution, “Aquinas give a complicated analysis of several acts of will associated with any free action of a person. Scholars sometimes pick out a subset of these acts or even just one of them as if for Aquinas freedom were lodged in that sort of act of will alone.”[12] As Eleonore Stump notes, Aquinas’s analysis of will is multi-faceted, and must be treated carefully so as not to cause confusion.

            The first thing we must note is that the will, for Aquinas, is the tendency, or the desire, towards the good.  As he says in the Summa Contra Gentiles, “things that know their end are always ordered to the good as an end, for the will, which is the appetite for a foreknown end, inclines towards something only if it has the rational character of a good, which is its object.”[13]

            Secondly, it is important to note that for Aquinas, the will and intellect are intimately connected. As Stump explains, “the will is not independent of the intellect. On the contrary, the dynamic interactions of intellect and will yield freedom as an emergent property or a systems-level feature.”[14] Aquinas says that “things cause movement in one way as ends, and this is the way that the intellect moves the will, since understood goods are the object of the will and move the will as ends.”[15]

            With these things in mind, we can say that what Aquinas means, when he says that man is necessarily free due to the fact that he is rational, is that man freely decides which goods to pursue, and freely acts upon his decision. The intellect informs the will of the goods to be obtained, and the will moves the agent to the obtaining of them. Any type of coercive influence by which man is determined to a certain act removes his freedom.[16]

            Davies says that “Aquinas takes this passage [Ecclesiasticus 15:14] as ascribing to people the freedom to decide. And, in general he reads Scripture as teaching, or implying, that people can act with freedom.”[17]

            Whereas Calvinism claimed that God determines the will, Aquinas claims that both man’s will and his actions are free. Whereas libertarians would claim that no antecedent state of affairs can determine the decision of the free agent, Aquinas would claim that there are many things that do in fact determine the will. Our actions are determined by our will, and our will is determined to its end by the intellect, which informs the will of the good to be pursued. The end that is chosen by the intellect is determined by what is available, that is to say, by the mind-exterior reality. For example, I cannot decide to drive my Porsche to the local bookstore and buy a book, because I do not own a Porsche. Therefore, whether or not I “will” to drive “my Porsche”, my action, and my “willing” are determined by the fact that I simply cannot drive any car which corresponds to “my Porsche”. If there were no roads, and no bookstore, then I could not drive to the bookstore in the car that I do own. This seems obvious enough, but all of these facts about the world, are part of the antecedent state of affairs which determines my choice.

            Aquinas, however, goes much further than that. We are not just determined by our goals, or our ends. As mentioned above, all that exists, rational or not, tends towards the ultimate end which is God. The end of a rational creature is happiness; which can only be found in intellectual union with God. In pursuing any temporal end, by which the rational agent is pursuing their own happiness, the rational agent is really seeking God (though they may be going about it in the wrong way, and may, in fact, never arrive). Aquinas explains how in every temporal pursuit God alone is the ultimate fulfillment of that temporal end.[18]

            For Aquinas, therefore, man is free because man is a rational agent, a knowing originator—he is the source of his action and knows that he is the source of his action. In willing and acting, man is determined by the ends that he chooses, and is free to choose and pursue whatever temporal end he desires. However, man, as with all things that exist, tends towards God as his ultimate end, as we showed above.

Fitting Thomistic Sovereignty and Free Will Together

            Hopefully by now it has become clear that Thomism preserves all of the main elements which are necessary to a full account of divine sovereignty. Thomism, as with Molinism, has the problem of fitting together freedom and sovereignty. Aquinas provides a solution to the problem that is nothing like any of the other views.

            First of all, it is important to note that Aquinas vehemently denies any form of causal determinism. “I answer that we must admit without qualification that God operates in the operations of nature and will. Some, however, through failing to understand this aright fell into error, and ascribed to God every operation of nature in the sense that nature does nothing at all by its own power.”[19]

            Secondly, it must be noted that Aquinas’s view of God’s a-temporality, impassibility, and God’s relation to his creation come into the explanation, though we will not have time to fully explain what these doctrines mean for Aquinas, or how they fit into his explanation.

            How then should we understand how God can be fully sovereign and yet allow humans to possess and exercise free will? We will look at two aspects of God’s sovereignty.

First of all, how is it that God knows what is future to us, without removing our freedom? For Aquinas such a question implies a number of previous questions, such as, Can God know? How does God Know? Can God know singulars? Can God know individuals? In De Veritate Aquinas rejects two views that are still held today. “Some wishing to pronounce upon divine knowledge from the viewpoint of our own way of knowing have said that God does not know future contingents…Consequently, others have said that God has knowledge of all futures, but that all take place necessarily, otherwise His knowledge of them would be subject to error.”[20] Having rejected these two options Aquinas concludes that God must know all futures in such a way that futures are still contingent.

This is possible because God knows all things, first of all, by knowing himself. Quoting Dionysius as his authority he says, “Dionysius declares: ‘By knowing itself, the divine wisdom knows all else.’”[21] How does God know all things by knowing himself? “Since God is the principle of things through His essence, by knowing His essence He knows creatures.”[22] God knows things by knowing himself because he is the formal exemplary cause of everything that exists.[23] Therefore, God knows all things by being the cause of all things. It is therefore appropriate to say that God does not know us because we exist; rather because he knows us we exist.

How, then, is it possible for God to know all contingent things infallibly, one might even say, necessarily, without removing their contingency? First of all, there is no problem with having necessary knowledge of contingent things. “God knows all things to the extent that the model of all things is in Him. But the divine model for the contingent and necessary can be immutable, just as it is an immaterial model for the material and a simple model for the composite.”[24] Secondly, God’s knowledge is not at all like ours, that is to say, it is not dependent upon the object known (it is the cause of the object known), it is not discursive (it knows all in one eternal act of knowledge), and it is not restrained, limited, or measured by time (rather it contains time). “It is clear that a contingent can be known as future by no cognition that excludes all falsity and possibility of falsity; and since there is no falsity or possibility of falsity in the divine knowledge, it would be impossible for God to have knowledge of future contingents if He knew them as future…but the relation of the divine knowledge to anything whatsoever is like that of present to present.”[25] God is not measured by time, and therefore knows all things as present, even those things which are future to temporal entities. Aquinas notes that, “the fact that our sense of sight is never deceived when it sees contingents when they are present does not prevent the contingents themselves from happening contingently.”[26] It is evident, then, that if God sees all contingents as present to him, then he can know all things, past, present and future to us, infallibly, necessarily, without removing their contingency, or our freedom.

Secondly, how is it that God can be said to be the cause of everything, without removing the freedom of the creature? Based upon what has been said already, Aquinas concludes the following, “Therefore God is the cause of everything’s action in as much as he gives everything power to act, and preserves it in being, and applies it to action, and inasmuch as by his power every other power acts.”[27]

            Different scholars have interpreted the phrase “God is the cause of everything’s action”, differently, sometimes holding opposite views. Suffice it to say, that Aquinas sees God as actively causing in every act (and even thought), whether the act is voluntary or not. However, it is not, as we noted above, such a causation that removes the efficient causation of the agent.[28] Rather, we should understand Aquinas to be saying that God is active in every free act as first cause because, the agent that is acting freely receives the ability to act, and to act freely, from God (“he gives everything power to act”). The agent is kept in existence throughout the deliberation and the action by God (“preserves it in being”). The agent was created by God in order to freely act, that is, as a voluntary agent (“applies it to action”). All agents, free or not, have the power to act only because God gives them the power to act (“by His power every other power acts”). Simply put, the only reason a voluntary agent can freely choose and freely act upon that choice is that God is acting to give that agent existence, the power to act, the intellect to deliberate, the will which tends towards the good, and the ability to do it all freely.

[1]Ibid., 263.

[2]Admittedly there are many different opinions even amongst thomistic scholars concerning how to interpret different aspects of Aquinas’s position; such as how to interpret Aquinas’s statement that God causes all things, including contingents. There is not enough space in this article to expose all the debates, and views, and it is not the intent of the author to do so. The author hopes to expound the least debatable position on Aquinas’s views.

[3]SCG 3:1, Ch. 2, A. 3, p. 35.

[4]SCG 3:1, Ch. 64, A. 1, p. 209.

[5]Met., Bk. I, 1, 980a20.

[6]SCG 3:1, Ch. 25, A. 1, p. 97.

[7]SCG 3:1, Ch. 64, A. 2, p. 209-10.

[8]SCG 3:1, Ch. 64, A. 2, p. 210.

[9]Brian Davies, The Thought of Thomas Aquinas (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992), 159.


[11]ST I, Q. 83, A.1.

[12]Eleonore Stump, Aquinas (London: Routledge, 2003), 277.

[13]SCG 3:1, Ch. 16, A. 4, p. 70.

[14]Stump, 277.

[15]ST 1, Q. 82, A. 4.

[16]ST 1, Q. 82, A. 1.

[17]Brian Davies, Aquinas (London: Continuum, 2002), 106.

[18]SCG 3 :1, Ch. 63, p. 206-9.

[19]De Pot., Q.3, A. 7, p. 127.

[20]De Ver., Q. 2, A. 12, p. 118.

[21]De Ver., Q. 2, A. 2, p. 61.

[22]De Ver., Q. 2, A. 3, p. 69.

[23]De Ver., Q. 2, A. 3, p. 70.

[24]De Ver., Q. 2, A. 12, p. 118.

[25]De Ver., Q. 2, A. 12, p. 119. Italics added by author.


[27]De Pot., Q. 3, A. 7, p. 133.

[28]This claim is given an interesting twist by Koons, who claims that due to dual Agency, Thomists are truly able to be indeterminists. This is because God’s causation takes place not before the agents’ causation, but at the same time. Therefore the agent’s freedom is not removed. Koons, 403-8.

Popular posts from this blog

How Kant’s Synthesis of Empiricism and Rationalism resulted in Agnosticism

A Short outline of Charles Taylor's: The Malaise of Modernity