|van Gogh: "Man writing, facing left"|
(primary and secondary causality)
5th Sunday of Easter, John 15:1-8
Whoever remains in me and I in him will bear much fruit, because without me you can do nothing.
Jesus did not say, “Without me you can do only a few things,” nor “Without me you scarcely can do even little things,” but rather Without me you can do nothing (John 15:5).
On the one hand, there are the Calvinists who so emphasize the divine causality as to diminish free will. Indeed, their doctrine of double-predestination makes man to be nothing more than a donkey, ridden either by Satan into hell or by God into heaven.
On the other hand, the classical Jesuits (like St. Robert Bellarmine and Fr. Francisco Suárez) generally struggle to give sufficient acknowledgment to the role of divine providence. Certainly, the Jesuits are not semi-Pelagian heretics, yet their writings often tend to lean toward an over-emphasis of the human will and a de-emphasizing of God’s causal powers.
Both the Jesuits and the Calvinists see man and God as competing forces in a battle over who is the “cause” of any given action. This is their fundamental flaw.
The problem of Divine Causality and Free Will
Some people speak of a problem of “grace and free will” – the Church’s answer to this dilemma of how grace and free will co-exist was largely formulated by St. Augustine, the “Doctor of Grace.”
However, in the Scholastic period, the discussion entered a new phase – one which is far more profound. The real question is not so much about the relationship between grace and free will, but rather: How God can be the cause of all things (including the freedom of the human will) while man is still a truly free agent?
If nothing exists without God’s causing it to exist, and nothing is moved without God acting as the first Mover – how can we avoid concluding that every human choice is wholly and entirely caused by God and that the human will is moved infallibly by God’s providence? In short, if God causes all things, how can man be truly free?
The answer of the Calvinists
John Calvin gives a philosophically rigorous answer. He was surely one of the most brilliant thinkers of Western Civilization, but he was brilliantly wrong.
Emphasizing that everything (especially in the order of grace) must be wholly directed and ordered by God’s providence, Calvin so expanded the doctrine of Divine Causality as to destroy human freedom.
The essential claim of Calvinism is that while one man is damned and another saved, neither decree is given in relation to the works of each man (whether good or bad) but is wholly and solely dependent upon the Divine Will which, from the beginning, has infallibly foreordained each man either to heaven or hell.
In this respect, it is difficult to see how a Calvinist can maintain any real freedom of the human will, at least in those matters pertaining to salvation.
The answer of the classical Jesuits
The Jesuit Fr. Luis de Molina attempted to reconcile God’s causal powers with human freedom by introducing a complicated distinction regarding the divine foreknowledge of future contingents. In short, the classical Jesuits seek to emphasize the co-operation of the human will with divine causality – claiming that, especially in supernatural matters, God gives grace but then it is up to man to chose to accept that grace.
The problem with this solution is that man most certainly cannot accept grace without the assistance of God – for the acceptance of grace is itself a supernatural act, and Jesus said Without me you can do nothing.
While the Jesuits are closer to the right answer (since they do not explicitly deny either free will or God’s providence), their theory is much less philosophically rigorous than that proposed by John Calvin.
The underlying problem of both
The real problem with both the Jesuits and the Calvinists – and with most modern approaches to the question as well – is that they see man and God in a competition.
It is as though, for any given act, man and God take away from each other the causal agency. Hence, if an act is 50% from man, then it must only be 50% from God. Or if it is 70% from God, then it can only be 30% from man.
The Protestants and the Jesuits both view man and God as co-workers on the same LEVEL of causality. It is as though man and God are working together to row a boat – if either God or man rows too hard the boat will go in circles.
However, God and man are not on the same level of causality. God is a primary cause, while man is a secondary cause. Thus, there can be no competition between God and man in terms of causal agency.
The genius of Thomism
This is precisely what the Thomists (from the Angelic Thomas, through Fr. Banez and, in our own day, to Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange) have constantly emphasized: God is the primary cause of every action, while man is the secondary cause of those acts which proceed from his free will.
Thus, by way of an analogy, we may consider a man writing with a pencil. Which is the cause of the written word: The man or the pencil? Surely, it is both. 100% from the man, and 100% from the pencil. And none can say that the pencil isn’t really important – since the word would not be on the page without the co-operation of the pencil!
Or, to take another analogy: A king sending a message through his servant. If the servant goes to the queen and reads the message, “I give you all my love,” surely it is the king who is speaking those words to his wife. None would say that the servant is professing his own love for the queen, but rather all recognize that the king is speaking through his servant. So, who said the words: The king or the servant? Surely, it is both – 100% the king and 100% the servant.
Now, these examples are not meant to explain free will, but rather are offered as an explanation of the difference between primary and secondary causality. The king and the writer are analogous to primary causes, while the servant and the pencil are analogous to secondary causes. And, from these analogies, we can see that secondary causes are true and real causes which are in no sense “competitors” with primary causes.
God causes all things, even human freedom
Now, God is the primary Cause of all things, including even the free choices of men and angels. Of those actions which proceed from human freedom, man is a secondary cause – but he is still a real and true agent, with moral responsibility as well.
It is most certainly something of a mystery how God can be a primary cause of a free human act, but it will do NO GOOD for us to set man and God as opposing forces. It would be better to stand in awe of the mystery of divine providence, than to try to war against it (and this, it seems to me, is something of what the Calvinists and even the Jesuits tend to do).
God is omnipotent. He is so powerful that he can not only cause human actions, he can even cause them to be free. The fact that he does this shows not only his greatness, but also our dignity in his eyes.
For an excellent (and very readable) book on this subject, please consider: “Ecumenism and Philosophy” [here] by Charles Morerod, op (now the successor of St. Francis de Sales as bishop of Lausanne, Genève et Fribourg)