Saturday, November 12, 2011

Grace and Free Will: A Thomist Double-Standard?

The question of grace and free-will is one of the thorniest in theology. How are we to affirm that every good act of the human will is a grace from God (God being the only possible cause for goodness in something, of course) without either slipping into Pelagianism or Semi-Pelagianism, and yet without turning God into either the author of sin in a Calvinist way? Exploring the history of this debate in the Church and trying to wrap ones head around these questions is daunting to say the least, and has left many a theologian feeling like he was running in circles.

I've discussed this question in a few posts before. Most recently, I think, was when I was explaining the correct sense of Cardinal George's statement that "God loves some more than others." This statement is no doubt true in a very real sense, as God's love is the cause of goodness in things, things are only "good" inasmuch as He wills them to be, and so the very fact that some people have more goodness than others...means by definition He loves them more in one sense. I will quote Aquinas again on this point, which it is essential to believe in order to properly understand the metaphysical relation of God to the concept of goodness:

Since to love a thing is to will it good, in a twofold way anything may be loved more, or less. In one way on the part of the act of the will itself, which is more or less intense. In this way God does not love some things more than others, because He loves all things by an act of the will that is one, simple, and always the same. In another way on the part of the good itself that a person wills for the beloved. In this way we are said to love that one more than another, for whom we will a greater good, though our will is not more intense. In this way we must needs say that God loves some things more than others. For since God's love is the cause of goodness in things, as has been said, no one thing would be better than another, if God did not will greater good for one than for another.
No orthodox person who really understands the issue disputes this. The "debate" is really over why God loves some more than others. Is it pure gratuitous whim on His part? After all, He doesn't have to love anything in any particular way anymore than He has to create any specific thing (which means, after all, to love it in the sense of willing it the good of existence). Or, is there some way in which consideration of human free will can play a more substantial role in determining to whom God gives which or how much grace (yet without positing anything Pelagian like a good act independent of or prior to God's willing it first)? The Church has allowed this question to remain discussed for centuries and never definitively favored any of the tolerated schools.

I've discussed this before in relation to the solution that I have found most appealing for a long time, the one proposed by Fr. William Most. However, discussions I had in the comments section of that post, as well as discussions I had elsewhere with strict Thomists on the issue afterward...gave me some pause and made me wonder whether that solution really actually solves anything, for reasons of an objection I will summarize below.

And so for a while I doubted my preferred solution and was sympathetic to erring on the side of speaking in the language of strict Thomism, at least (even if something felt a little too "Calvinist" in it, and I really thought that it must simply be expressing a sort of chicken-and-the-egg mystery). However, another blog post recently made me realize that there is sort of a double-standard inherent in the objection Thomists were making to the Fr. Most solution to this predestination question.

The strict Thomist opinion (though I'm not entirely convinced it is what Aquinas himself had in mind when he was writing) certainly has a robust and internally consistent theology of grace and free will that avoids any sort of Pelagianism, but to many of us it can seem to make God's decision just a little too arbitrary, can seem like it turns "free will" and "sufficient" grace into just a sort of ontological legal fiction by which God is able to exculpate Himself from active causation from sin through how He defines the terms of secondary causes.

And yet, if He arbitrarily doesn't stop sin some cases, by not granting the grace of non-sinning that we all need to not sin, isn't that sort of a cheat, sort of a passive causation given that He's also the one who designed the system to work in such a way that sin is the "default" if He doesn't actively provide grace?

The answer is actually, technically, no, not in any coherent understanding of causation and intent (in fact, the allowance for NFP hinges in part on this important distinction regarding active causation vs. permissive will, though it's different here given that God set the conditions in the first place too). And yet, often a technicality is all this seems to be when it comes to our gut reactions to it. There is still a sense in which God's non-giving would seem to "lead to" sin inevitably (even if we can't call it an active "cause") given how He made the requirement about needing His giving to not sin, and could give, and yet then didn't. It seems like stacking the deck; the person never even had a fair shot, and "blaming" it on their free will (even though God was the one who made that free will in the first place in such a way that it could do no good without His grace) like sort of a legal loophole for God.

On the other hand, of course, that's just the problem with the non-Thomist schools: how can non-sinning be anything other than a grace? If we are to avoid Pelagianism or Semi-Pelagianism, then a notion of free will that says "some people chose to reject grace, and that's why they didn't get it" is problematic. It's true in a sense, to be sure. But the other people's choice not to resist grace like that...must itself be a grace, and the people who chose to reject grace obviously weren't given that grace of a choice of non-rejection, and why not? So we're back to where we started.

And so, the "best" solution I've seen is something along the lines of Fr. William Most redefining the problem so that sin is not the "default" (which indeed would seem to make God look like a real jerk if He arbitrarily left people in that default, even if that's technically a "passive" non-choice, given that He's the one who set the default in the first place.) Or, rather, defining the "sufficient grace" that is given to everyone to mean that a good choice is made the default (through that grace).

In other words, shifting the burden of active choice (or passive non-choice) from God to man. Non-resistance, rather than sin, now becomes the default requiring no further causation from God (and yet is still attributable only to grace), and so sin can be attributed only to man's making an additional active choice to reject (and no longer relies in any sense on God's non-making of a choice to give grace for some).

Of course, the Thomists would object, that solves nothing as the other people not making such an active choice must itself be a grace (and one that that the people who do actively reject obviously did not get). However, I think that the solution to such an objection would have something to do with the fact that in such a scenario goodness has already been made the "default" by way of the sufficient grace, and so such non-sin would not necessarily require explanation by any additional cause, because it is not an additional active choice (though the sin is).

And this is where I see a certain double-standard here: the objections to this theory I have seen all rely on insisting that a spontaneous evil free choice on the part of the sinners implies that a corresponding additional grace of not doing that has been given to the saints, distinct from the "default" non-resistance of the proposed sufficient grace. However, this notion of causation, inasmuch as it parses continued non-choice as a sort of good choice in-itself requiring an additional cause...seems to go against the very notions of passive non-choice that they use to excuse God not giving grace to everyone in their theory!

In the Thomist scenario, God choosing to give efficacious grace (only) to some is not taken to be an active willing of the (nevertheless then inevitable) sin of the others, anymore than me giving alms to one beggar should be interpreted as me actively or positively willing the poverty of the others. True enough, and it remains true technically even if I could give to the others but simply don't (my giving being gratuitous in the first place).

But. If that passive non-choice on God's part is recognized as a sort of metaphysical zero in such cases (ie, the choice to grace some is not equivalent an active or positive choice not to grace the others, even if that is the practical effect)...then why should a similar non-choice be interpreted as an active act requiring an additional cause/grace when it is human wills in question? Why would not positively choosing to actively work against the "default" be a metaphysical zero with God when it comes to giving grace to prevent sin, but then something requiring additional explanation with humans? Why can non-choice be written off as totally non-causal on God's part, a mere negative, but then construed as something substantial, a positive reality requiring an additional intervention, when it comes to us? It seems like two different metaphysics of causation and choice suddenly.

As such, I'm back to being convinced of Fr. Most's explanation. It is not that God arbitrarily doesn't-give (albeit that would "only" be a non-choice) efficacious grace to some, leaving them (albeit in a "passive" and "negative" sense, not an active causation) to sin by default (which really does seem to me to make talk of "sufficient" grace and "free" will into technicalities). Rather, in His universal salvific will (which thus has a very real sense), He gives sufficient grace to everyone, making good (and not sin) our default. If some people then spontaneously actively resist (as are truly free to do), that is on them, their freedom alone is the inscrutable and irreducible explanation for it (just as God's will is the inscrutable explanation for "Why these?" in the Thomist theory).

But for the rest, their non-resistance requires no additional cause or grace or explanation as it is non-act (just as God's non-act of giving to the sinners is not a positive reality; "Why these?" can be answered, but "Why not those?" is asking an explanation for a negative, which is erroneous; my choice is do what I do, it would be absurd to think of it as a positive choice to not do every other conceivable thing possible), and so the original "default" carries them through to a good act; efficacious grace, then, is sufficient grace non-resisted rather than something substantially distinct.

Of course, I may be making a distinction where there is none. Perhaps there is nothing mutually exclusive about what I'm saying and a Thomist position, really. Perhaps answering, "Why did God give grace to these?" with "His will alone," and answering "Why did these choose to sin," and answering, "Their will alone," while at the same time recognizing that asking "Why didn't God give grace to those?" and "Why didn't those choose to sin?" is impossibly asking the causes of negatives...are really just saying the same thing looking at it from two different directions or perspectives. As either way it comes down to this: our good choices can only be attributed to God's sheer grace, our bad acts can only be attributed to our own free choice. It feels rather Eckhartian to me, but perhaps God's freedom and our freedom are in some sense just two sides of the same coin, the limit of each being only each other.


Roman said...

I personally like Fr. Most's idea of non-resistence being an "ontological zero" - so that if that "non-resistence" is somehow "there", sufficient grace moves forward to elicit and secure a positive act (such as, for instance, a positive resolve not to sin).

But, I think we have to keep in mind that there is an element of mystery here that no theological school of thought can solve -- not even Fr. Most's.

Fr. Most himself concedes that there are *some times* when God does use intrinsically efficacious graces, in the Thomistic sense (the kind of grace that intrinsically will infallibly over-come all resistance, while leaving the recipient truly free). Such is the case with, for example, cases where some great sinner is converted on their death bed. Fr. Most reasons that this is extraordinary and not often used in the course of providence (for the extraordinary cannot, by definition, become ordinary). Hence the element of mystery: "why exactly *this* sinner and not *that* one?" Fr. Most himself admits that we can't explain this. It's ultimately left up to the gratuitous will of God in the end.

A Sinner said...

I'm not sure why the example of a sinner on his deathbed requires something extraordinary anymore than in any other situation; if he at last does not resist, then the default of that grace which was constantly being rejected previously (but now, at last, is not-rejected, a metaphysical zero requiring no further explanation than the grace itself)...will simply "move forward."

Yes, it is a mystery in that I am getting the sense that really God's will and our will are "two sides of the same coin" in the chicken-and-the-egg fashion I hint at in the post. And that neither cause can ultimately be attributed as prior.

That Freedom (on God's part and ours) is in some ways "circular" such that we can only attribute people not having grace to their sin and only attribute their sin to not having grace in a sort of mysterious irreducible causative circle, such that whether to put the causation ultimately on God or on Man is to be asking the wrong question, or a question by nature unanswerable.

Another way to phrase the causative loop might be something like "grace was infallibly efficacious IF it secures a good act, an act is good IF it is caused by efficacious grace" without being able to give precedent to one or the other order of causation, like somehow they are "simultaneous" and yet perfectly "synchronized" in the order of the cosmos.

I have a sense this sort of direction might lead to some insight (I referenced the Eckhart quote about "the eye with which I see God, is the eye with which God sees me") regarding the ultimate relationship of our intellect and free will "in the image of God" and God's own intellect and free will.

I'd also think it could open up some insight into the relationship (and inequality) between being and non-being, and how (not being dualists) the latter is in some ways not really the "opposite" of the former.

Poster said...

"I'm not sure why the example of a sinner on his deathbed requires something extraordinary anymore than in any other situation..."

A man who sins all his life has acquired a habit (vice). It would be harder for him to convert than, say, another sinner who hasn't acquired such a habit, and therefore needs special graces to overcome his resistance.

Fr. Most puts it this way,

"a) Physical incurability: A man becomes physically incurable, i.e., such that he cannot be healed by ordinary graces, if, by repeated sins he makes himself so hardened and blinded that he can no longer perceive ordinary graces, and so that by the very force of bad habit, even without deliberation, he resists ordinary graces. It is obvious that such a man cannot be converted by ordinary graces: an extraordinary grace will be required, so as to forestall or overcome all human resistance.21 Now even the most vehement salvific will does not mean that God will regularly grant extraordinary graces: the extraordinary cannot become ordinary


3) God can also use an infrustrable grace to bring about perseverance. "

From Part 1, Chapter 8 of his book, Grace, Predestination and the Salvific Will of God: New Answers to Old Questions (

A Sinner said...

Hm, then I disagree with him a bit here, though I think the position he takes in this case is mainly to appease strict Thomists regarding their notion of infrustratably efficacious grace.

Forget a distinction between ordinary and extraordinary graces. I think "sufficient" grace means just what it says: sufficient. In ALL cases. Sufficient for salvation. Sufficient for even the hardened sinner enslaved by vice. Everyone is given sufficient grace up until the last moment, that is the ordinary way of things.

If a hardened sinner does not resist at last (his will is still ultimately free, after all, even in the face of habit) sufficient grace will be just that: sufficient. It is sufficient to have him overcome the force of that vice/habit. If it weren't, if it required something extra, something "extraordinary" wouldn't be truly sufficient.

Clearly in the final consideration God's final act of the Will must involve His foreknowledge that His conditional Will will either be resisted or non-resisted. Thus the grace will, in actuality, be either infallibly efficacious or not.

But that infallibility may involve foreknowledge of the human response. No where is there a dogma that says efficacious grace must be efficacious (unconditionally) prior to any consideration of how a soul responds to (conditional) sufficient grace. In fact, the dogma on the matters says, "The Human Will remains free under the influence of efficacious grace, which is not irresistible. (De fide.)"

Maybe I'm starting to sound a bit too Molinist this time, lol, but I think efficacious grace being infallible doesn't mean it has to be independent of consideration of human freedom. I think really efficacious and sufficient grace are the "same thing" on God's end, and it is the human will (which He foresees) which makes it efficacious or sufficient.

God's will in either case, formulated conditionally, is something like "I will a good act into existence, UNLESS sheer human freedom rejects the opportunity I give"...and that "unless" clause, as it were, is "activated" (in terms of formulating God's will in the final absolute and unconditional manner) by His foresight of that condition (of spontaneous sin on the part of human freedom) even in the face of the sufficient (ie, conditional) grace.

I think that was Fr. Most's great insight. Previously, theologians seem to have conceived of conditionality on God's part hinging on an "if" regarding human free will (thus requiring an "unexplained" good act on the part of the human agent, a metaphysical impossibility, hence the attempts to appeal to either arbitrary grace or scientia media). Fr. Most was brilliant to recognize that grace doesn't hinge on an "if" but rather on an "unless"

Roman said...

" is the human will (which He foresees) which makes it efficacious or sufficient."

I think we have to be extremely careful there. The human will can't make grace efficacious (and all schools of thought -- whether it be Thomism, Molinism, or Fr. William Most's-- are in agreement here. To say otherwise would be semi-palegianism). There's a common misconception out there that views grace as this thing which God sort of dangles in front of a person, and he waits to see if he or she accepts. But this can't be the case because the very act of cooperating with grace itself requires grace. This, however, can't go on ad infinitum (i.e, if God gives you a grace, then you need another grace to accept that grace, but you need another grace to accept that grace too - and so on). Hence the classical problem of grace and free will arises and the different theories.

As you know, Thomism proposes an inherent distinction between sufficient grace and efficacious grace. But this raises the problem you brought up: if sufficient grace needs an additional different type of grace to make it efficacious, how can it be said to be truly sufficient? Thomists have proposed various answers to this of course. But suffice it to say they believe that if one doesn't resist, God will not refuse the efficacious graces needed for one to be saved.

Otoh, I think Fr. Most's idea of how grace works with free will a great insight as well. I'm only half way through his 700+ page book, (you can read online through that link I gave), but so far, from what I've read, he takes pains to make clear that his view does not mean that grace is made efficacious by free will. Rather it's man doing nothing ("metaphysically zero", his words) in the beginning, and if that "nothing" or that "absence of resistance" is there, then grace will proceed to move the will to make an act of cooperation with grace. The problem with this, as I see it, is that it can't explain why God gives greater graces to others (like hardened sinners on their death bed). You, in your last response, dismissed Fr. Most's explanation in that quote I gave, but still - I think it's common sense that hardened sinners need extraordinary (i.e., out of the ordinary) graces to change their ways. Otherwise, we can all rest assured in sinning knowing that we can have sufficient help to return to God at any time. When point of fact is that we have no such guarantee.

Molinism is far more complex imo and I'm not too familiar with it to be quite honest. But even here, I think they hold that God chooses the circumstances or different world scenarios (through his "middle knowledge" as they call it) where he foresees the elect will infallibly respond with the graces he gives given the circumstances they're in. So even here, God is the one who ultimately decides who will be saved or who he will pass over, only he does it through deciding the circumstances favorable for the elect, and not through intrinsically efficacious graces. This, however, arises a whole host of problems considering how God is pure act and the first cause of all our actions (i.e., all schools agree that God being pure act, he is not the recipient of knowledge but the cause of things known. He is the first cause of all our actions in the here and now as well, so that he doesn't merely observe our actions - he in fact truly causes them to be the way they are at any given moment, even the actions we make freely! How to reconcile this with the concept of middle knowledge is where the Molinists get into trouble...).

Anyways, it's a very thorny issue, isn't it? And thinking about these things for long certainly makes my head hurt lol so I'll let this topic alone for now.

A Sinner said...

"I think we have to be extremely careful there. The human will can't make grace efficacious"

No it can't. But I think that's the genius of Fr. Most switching from an "if" to an "unless" formulation. Human will can't make grace efficacious. All Good must come from God. But what about the other way around: is Human Will may be able to "make" grace NOT efficacious?

"There's a common misconception out there that views grace as this thing which God sort of dangles in front of a person, and he waits to see if he or she accepts. But this can't be the case because the very act of cooperating with grace itself requires grace."

Right. But, at the same time, if what we're really talking about is rejection and non-rejection of a default, rather than cooperation and non-cooperation (ie, an "unless" rather than an "if" formulation) then the latter is not a positive act, it's a metaphysical zero.

"we can all rest assured in sinning knowing that we can have sufficient help to return to God at any time. When point of fact is that we have no such guarantee."

I disagree. We CAN rest assured that we always have sufficient grace to return to God at any time. The lack of a guarantee comes from ME and MY sinfulness.

I can trust God. But I can't trust MYSELF. The fear that should frighten us is not that we will become such terrible sinners that God's (even "ordinary") grace no longer is sufficient for us, but rather that we will become such terrible sinners that I MYSELF will never stop sinning, will never, in fact, not choose sin for even a moment of non-resistance before my death.