Saturday, May 5, 2012

"Without me you can do nothing" - What Calvinists and Jesuits don't understand about divine providence

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)


Pedro Erik Carneiro said...

Great post. Thank you.

God bless you.

Jan Jorgensen said...

I do not think theology is meant to be a competition, rather we have insights gathered from many thinkers - brilliant or otherwise - and these insights often reveal our own intellectual limitations and remind us of the immense mystery of God.

Having proofread a dissertation on Calvin's Theodicy I can only say that you seem to limit Calvinist theology to "double predestination" which you then present in a rather superficial way.

It is dangerous to engaging in "proof-texting" and, excuse me, there are better ways to present your thoughts about the notion of "Freedom"

You demonstrate no real understanding of the complexity of Calvin's thought which of course arose from Calvin's life experiences which included much suffering, and training to be a lawyer, experiences which in turn influenced his reading of such texts as the Book of Job and the Psalms -

You go back to Calvin (10 July 1509 – 27 May 1564) and don't address the writings of contemporary Calvinists.... why?
(nor do you take into consideration the number of years that have passed and the changes that have influenced our world views.)

Having studied at the Ignatian Spirituality Centre in Montreal I can only say that the statements about the "classical" Jesuits
seem contrived, "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."

You speak of "classical" Jesuits - again, why? you speak of Luis de Molina (September 1535 – October 12, 1600, among others, Why?

Because the writings of contemporary Jesuits would be more compatible with your own theology?

The reading that I've done in my course work
at the Ignatian Centre would point us to the importance of "showing up" when God calls -

(Yes, God initiates and we receive grace when we respond) and yes there is the difficulty of learning to relax into the awareness of God's love ...

"this is the work of God, to trust God, and the One whom God sent" -- our work is relational, it is to trust God ...

and yes, it is most certainly predicated on God's gracious action.

Each time we pray, using the Spiritual Exercises, we seek grace for ourselves and our fellow Christians so that we might offer our thinking, our speaking, our actions (operations)
for the praise and glory of God. (Each time we pray we acknowledge our need for divine grace.)

I haven't come across a Jesuit who wouldn't agree with this: [a person] "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."

There is so much "us and them" polarization in the world, it doesn't serve God when we Christians participate in this kind of thinking, argumentation ...

There is no doubt in my mind that St. Aquinas was brilliant .... but our thoughts are not meant to be focused on the Thomists or the Calvinists or the Jesuits, we are meant to be focused on God and Jesus Christ ...

By the grace of God we are all reaching beyond ourselves to grasp the mysteries of grace: freedom, compassion, forgiveness ...

God's peace be with you ...

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mick Jagger Gathers No Mosque said...

Dear Father. I think I can be of help here.

P.J. (a Calvinist) is claiming that Calvin can not be opposed because his personal struggles were the impetus for his exegesis (The sine qua non of exegesis, don'cha'know ) whereas you are simply wrong about everything and you probably are totally against the ordination of women.

Scotty Ellis said...

While the Calvinist and Jesuit positions (as presented) may not be satisfactory, they at least have the advantage of being intelligible. The alternative presented has the great disadvantage of being so ambiguous and equivocal that one cannot really grasp who is responsible for what (this situation is cloaked with the familiar blinder called "mystery" and allows the theologian to have his cake and eat it too: we can have the confusing situation of God being the primary cause of all without taking the blame). For example, consider the pencil and writer metaphor: the pencil may indeed be a secondary cause, but it would be of no use to the writer to say of a grammar mistake in his writing, "ah, there must be a defect in the secondary cause: attribute all the good things in my writings to me, and all the faulty things blame upon my pencil." I recognize that you mean this only as an illustrative analogy of primary and secondary causality, but it does also work as an analogy of the problems with the "mysterious" answer.

Let's make your analogy a little more fitting: let us say that the man was able, somehow, to make a pencil that had a "mind of its own," that is, he was able to make a pencil that might possibly change what he wrote. And, to make the situation even more consonant with God's position, let us say that in doing so the man knew for a fact that what he wrote would be faulty because of this power. What can this man say, when he begins to write with this pencil and it mars what he is writing? He was still primarily responsible for making the pencil (and, indeed, he made it while knowing what the effect would be of making it in the way he made it). Can he escape responsibility for the faulty writing?

So, too, the mystery you present doesn't really answer anything - if we probe the equivocations presented, and the evasions, we discover that even if God creates things with free will He cannot somehow be free of responsibility for the thing He made. We do not even have to address the far more sticky question of whether free will is even possible to discover that God's ability to "not only cause human actions, [but] can even [to] cause them to be free" does not really provide a satisfactory solution even when it is dressed up in the robes of mystery.

Josemaria Paulo Jeromino Martin Carvalho-Von Verster said...

Father,Do You know Personally many Jesuits that still hold the Views of Fr. Molina today?

Dan Buckley said...

Pastor Jan's comment about the modern development of Calvin's thinking would seem to merit consideration since it is contemporary Calvinism with which we deal.

Anonymous said...

This Thomist position doesn't strike me as different from Calvinism. The latter is explicitly compatibilist in its exposition of free-will, the former apparently so.

As the 1689 London Baptist Confessional says:

"Although in relation to the foreknowledge and decree of God, the first cause, all things come to pass immutably and infallibly; so that there is not anything befalls any by chance, or without his providence; yet by the same providence he ordereth them to fall out according to the nature of second causes, either necessarily, freely, or contingently." -

Fr. Chris said...

@ Fr Erlenbush:
Have you ever studied the theology of St. Ignatius of Loyola, Fr. Pierre de Caussade, Henri de Lubac and Luis Ladaria regarding nature and grace? If so, why not include them too? If not, you might want to. Including their teaching would provide a more complete and fair picture of Jesuit theology on this great topic.

Irenaeus of New York said...

Hello Pastor Jan,

I think it would be difficult to write anything about Calvin which would satisfy most critics because Calvin's own writings demonstrate a remarkable discontinuity from his earlier years to his later years. Especially in his ecclesiology. Much like Luther and Lutherism, Calvin and Calvinism represent two different sets of beliefs. Here is a well researched and well footnoted article I think you might appreciate.

Irenaeus of New York said...

Hello Fr Ryan,

I could be wrong, but when I read your post, I couldn't help but think this idea of Primary and Secondary causes also applies to how the Filioque is misunderstood. Is a primary cause the same thing as saying origination? It seems to me that the East focuses on the "origination" or primary procession of the Holy Spirit, which I think the West would agree is the Father, who is the Font of all Divinity. Yet the West is keen enough to recognize this origination or primary procession, does not detract from the reality that the Holy Spirit also proceeds from the Son, but not as origination or primary cause. As you say above with regard to the writer and the pencil, 100% both.

Pencil said...

I appreciate Pastor Jan's 7:43 AM post even more after reading Fr. Ryan's 8:32 AM response. Thank you both!

Ben of the Bayou said...

@ Fr. Erlenbush,

Granted that Pastor Jan's response lack a certain coherency, I was surprised by the ad hominem. Granted also the difficulty in following what he is saying, it seems fair to posit that he is simply disagreeing, but for reasons for which he might have considered not posting.

Be that as it may, it seems clear to me that any dialogue with the good Pastor might be difficult because he seems: [1] to be wholly unfamiliar with the Molinist controversy, [2] to be uncommitted to the idea that man can know truth, either in a natural way or in a supernatural way (by Revelation), which I say re: his very first sentence (which betrays a rather gross form of relativism), and [3] because of the second, he does not see the founders of various movements (heresies: e.g., the Calvinists; no, this is not an anti-Jesuit joke) as normative for the communities the started.

Finally, I have a question for you. Given God's primary causality, is it right to say that God's causality extends even to evil acts? Second question (forgive me), is God's primary causality sufficiently explained by his act of creating our nature (with free will) and his continuous act of holding us in existence?


Ben of the Bayou

Anonymous said...

I think different concepts of what it means to be free also contributed to the diversion between the Thomistic and Jesuit traditions. Fr. Severus Pinckaers, OP distinguishes between "freedom of indifference" and "freedom for excellence." Freedom of indifference is what we moderns normally conceive as our freedom: being an uncaused cause. Freedom for excellency highlights St. Thomas' observation that we are free because only unlimited goodness (God) can satisfy the will. Any limited good draws the will but cannot necessitate that the will choose it. He also observes that our will is most itself and most free when it choose unlimited goodness.

If we consider freedom as freedom for excellence,there is no problem with God moving the will in justification. Moving a woman's will only makes her more free because she is moved to love God Himself, freeing her from the love of sin! In this way, both God and the woman will together and freely.

However, When we consider freedom as freedom of indifference, if God moves the will, the will is no longer uncaused and God has violated man's freedom. I think the Jesuits and the Calvinists conceived of freedom in this way which opposes God's providence and man's freedom. For the Molinist, God cannot move man's will in justification; He must respond to man's aided decision. This veiw seems to diminish God's absolute providence over the world.

Finally, a Thomistic account has a natural fit with the Dogma of the Immaculate Conception. God made it impossible for Mary to sin without stripping her of her freedom. Thomism can naturally explain this because moving Mary's will in no way comprimises her freedom, but only makes her more free. We might consider how irresistably good God is. Mary encountered a lover so Beautiful and Noble that no one would want to resist His advances.

I think that's an accurate account as far as I understand. Please correct me if I'm wrong or obscure on any points.

Peace in Christ,

Howard said...

The analogy I've more often encountered is that of a character in a book. Did Edmund Pevensie freely decide to make the deal with the White Witch for the Turkish delight, or was that decision due to C.S. Lewis? Both were 100% responsible, but not in the same way. Also, although Edmund's actions were reprehensible, the role of Lewis in Edmund's betrayal is blameless.

By the way, was the Thomistic interest in the question of free will in response to Islamic fatalism?

Michelangelo said...

Dear Father,

Thank you for the elegant presentation of the once and future most important question in human civilization.

I'll bet the good Jesuits of our time have incorporated the Thomistic causality of human actions into their thought. Even in highschool, I thought the Jesuit "motto", Pray as if everything depended on God and act as if everything depended on you," was a tad weak as a summary of divine causality and our cooperation (of course we should pray as if everything depends on God, but the follow-through of our action needs your concept of the primary and secondary causality when considering a moral question and our response. If my dear Freshman Greek teacher in HS, a Jesuit Scholastic, had studied with you, he might have returned the next year to teach Sophomore Greek instead of being locked up in jail for pouring blood over draft records... His understanding of causality was a bit messed up- we would say to each-other, we better not tell our parents the kind of crazy politics he discusses during the declensions, or they'll pull us out of this school! Nobody told.) Your point and the apt analysis of the Calvinist and Jesuit positions, cogently summarized for a brief article, is as apparent as it is profound when a theologian such as yourself sets his mind to it.

You make me think of a dad and his toddler son who is just learning how to walk. The father stands his son in a spot a few feet in front of him, and he calls him. When the son accomplishes the feat the first time, how happy the little guy is, and how happy and proud is the dad. Not a direct analogy of course, but if we're attentive to God through prayer, the sacraments, and study to our level of competence, He will bid us come forth. Thank you, Father and God bless you.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

Sorry, accidentally lost my previous comment to "pastor jan" ... from May 5, 8:32am ...

The gist of that comment was to ask for clarification since pastor jan's original remarks seem (to me at least) to be unintelligible ... due to incomprehensible grammar and sentence fragments.

I would be happy to engage the pastor, if the point would be re-articulated clearly and concisely.

Anonymous said...

Father, correct me if I'm wrong, but I believe the Jesuits traditionally have taken a more moderate view of the issue than Molina's (formulated especially by St. Robert Bellarmine) called Congruism (which runs afoul of many of the same issues, but it does seek to avoid them).

However, I think your commenters would benefit from realizing that you didn't post this to accuse all Jesuits of having this view but merely of pointing out the false dichotomy many theologians have made (many of whom were indeed Jesuits).

Thank you for the good work you do! May Our Lady, Mediatrix of all Graces, bless you for it.


Anonymous said...

Sounds like somebody is feeling the call towards Catholicism..

Anonymous said...

A book by John Hardon S.J. called 'History and Theology of Grace: The Catholic Teaching on Divine Grace' is a good read for those interested in determining what makes a Catholic a Catholic and a Protestant a Protestant.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

Yes, you are certainly right to point out that Bellarmine advocated Congruism ... and so did many others besides the Jesuits (like, the great St. Alphonsus).
Still, even Congruism views human and divine causality as being in competition ... and this is the fundamental flaw.

Peace! +

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

@irenaeus of new york,
I think you are certainly on to something with that analogy ... of course, we would most certainly NOT speak of "causality" between the Persons of the Trinity ... but there is something of an analogy to be sure!

Peace! +

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

@Fr. Chris,
I knew Ladaria back when he was still teaching at the Gregorian University (before he became a bishop) ... we had a couple good conversations on the roman buses ... but, no, I do not think that his position clarifies the issue at all.

Still, he is a good man, and a good bishop! +

[of course, I never have met Loyal, Caussade, or de Lubac ... but I have certainly read their writings ... to my mind, de Molina is far more precise in his reasoning.]

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

But the Angel of the Schools explicitly states that there is such a thing as "chance" -- ST I, q.22, a.2, ad 1.
Though, as you say, philosophically, Calvin is closer to Thomas than are the Jesuits. +

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

@Dan Buckley,
Though I really have no dog in the fight ... I must say that "contemporary" Calvinism does not deserve the name of its founder. +

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

@Scotty Ellis,
The pencil analogy is meant to show primary and secondary causality ... it is not an analogy for free will ... so don't try to understand it as something more than it is.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

@Ben of the b.
Yes, I do believe that God is the cause of even evil actions.
A good friend of mine published an article on this subject in "The Thomist" (a journal well worth purchasing) ... check for an article by Matthews Grant ... on divine causality of evil acts. +

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

@I am not Spartacus,
You are too funny!

You are very much on the right track (as far as I can tell). Peace to you!

If ONLY there were still Jesuits out there who held to Molina's teaching ... we would be far better off than we are now!
(likewise, I WISH that I could meet some Franciscans who were true followers of Scotus ... but, alas, we are so lost in these sad days!)
Oremus pro invicem! +

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

@James, I think you are very wise to consider the case of the Blessed Virgin.
She cannot be understood by either the Calvinists or the Molinists ... but the classical Dominican (and Reformed Carmelite) School can begin to direct our hearts and minds to the greatness of this mystery! +

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

Very interesting analogy! I don't know for sure ... but you are certainly making me think! +

Also, no, I do not thing that Thomas was reacting to Islamic Fatalism ... rather, he was responding to a certain degree of Semi-Palagianism which had crept into Scholastic thought (on account of the fact that the decrees of the third council of Orange were not available at that time). +

Anonymous said...

Father Ryan Erlenbush,
Could you elaborate on your view that you think God is the "cause" of some evil acts...I thought this was God's Permissive Will and that he would NEVER condone Evil. Could God "cause" evil without condoning it?? Could you please give an Example of God causing evil???

Pencil said...

Fr. Ryan, how do you reconcile your 9:05 PM belief that "... God is the cause of even evil actions" with the Church's teaching that "God is in no way, directly or indirectly, the cause of moral evil" (CCC#311) ?

Josemaria Paulo Jeromino Martin Carvalho-Von Verster said...

What I Meant Father was:Do you Still Know Jesuits that Hold to the Flawed Theology of Fr Molina of Blessed Memory?

Marko Ivančičević said...

Do you state that God is cause of our evil acts in the sense that God thinks: "You will now break my 4th commandment. Go and sin. Do this."? In the sense that God makes and forces us to do evil?


In the sense, that since God is the cause and author of our free will - because He gave us free will and He makes it possible for us to do evil?

fact said...

In so distorting God's sovereignty, Calvinists apparently imagine that God is not sovereign enough to create beings who can choose to respond to His love.

Jesus has supplied his own analogy: that of the lover and the beloved: It is true, a woman is powerless to become a wife without the man. But he has proposed and won us with his love.

What glory is there in winning the love of a puppet?

Scotty Ellis said...

You will note that I expanded the analogy. But why deal with analogies, when we can speak of the doctrine itself?

Let's assume that God creates creatures with free will whose actions He foreknows. Now if an action of mine has a known and consequent, a consequent that would not and could not happen unless I will that action, then by willing that action I also will that consequent. God foreknows His creatures actions, good or ill, and by creating those creatures it seems quite obvious that He would have to will those consequents, good or ill. I am unconvinced that it solves this dilemma to simply assert that "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." Instead, it seems like a willing avoidance of the question and difficulty altogether. I am left wondering, "does God indeed foreknow the actions of His creatures? If so, how can He not have responsibility for those actions (good or ill) by reason of creating those creatures in the way that He does?"

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

@pencil, et al - regarding "the cause of evil actions",

You will not that I did not say that God is the cause of evil, but that he is the primary cause of all ACTIONS (including even evil actions).

Insofar as an action has being, it is caused by God -- and it is good.
Insofar as an action is disordered and lacks being, it is evil and is not caused by God. This defect arises from either the human or angelic will.

For more reading on this subject, please consider St. Augustine's "De Libero Arbitrio" ... and the article I mentioned earlier by Dr. M. Grant (from the University of St. Thomas).

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

Regarding my response to your first comment ... please understand that I do not mean to dismiss you ... it is only that I do not have time to give lengthy responses.
Hence, I put my reply as simply and concisely as possible -- the analogies given are meant to show that secondary causes are true and real causes.

Now, if free will is conceived of as a secondary cause (as the Thomists insist), it is still a true and real cause.
If you want to read more on the subject, consider the writings of Fr. Domingo Banez, op (Teresa of Avila's one-time spiritual director) -- he offers a very good explanation of the matter by bringing in the theory of "physical pre-motion" ... but I am not sure if his writings are in english (so you would need to be fairly competent in latin).

Peace! +

hurrrrrrrdurrrr said...

I am so happy about the renaissance of liturgical and theological life back into the Church.

That being said, I think two of the greatest temptations of those who are traditionally minded is to slip into arrogance or nostalgia.

While Thomas' construal of grace + free will has a lot that is commendable to it, I don't think it works for a reason you seem happy to embrace, it makes God the author of evil. You should actually respond to Mr. S. Ellis as his critique is the right one here.

While I love St. Thomas and the schools, their arrogant certainties, and certain arrogance, is frustrating at times. The pillar and ground of our faith is not merely Thomas Dixit Father.

JM said...

A related post might have been "What disciples of Thomas, Augustine, and Calvin aren't willing to admit about human freedom."
Van Inwagen has pointed out that we would hold no one responsible for actions which were determined COMPLETELY by factors beyond that person's control. But for most of the schools surrounding Thomas'/Augustine's/Calvin's treatment of grace/free will, ALL our actions are determined completely by God's providential decision -- over which we ourselves exercise no control. So their accounts of the matter seem to do away with human responsibility altogether.
Now apologists for divine determinism always assert that there is no incompatibility between an act being determined and an act being free. Of course, you admit an act can't be free if it's determined by other factors, but you assure us that as long as God is the one determining the act, the act can still be free. You want to give God the one exception -- only He can determine an act while still leaving the agent responsible for it. But divine determinists provide no grounds for that assertion. They just assert it. Or, every now and then, they appeal to notions like "divine transcendence" or "the mystery of God's unique causality."But when they use words like "transcendence" or "mystery," it indicates that they've come to the end of their intellectual rope, as it were. They can't explain themselves, so they try to legitimize the unintelligibility of their position with these theological words. Better, I think, just to abandon their stance.
But one needn't turn to Molina as the only alternative.
Maritain, Pontifex, Most, Journet, Burrell, say simply that while God's grace cannot be accepted without divine aid, His grace can be resisted. The one thing a creature can do without God's help is reject Him. This makes sense of human experience, of the blessed Mother, and of the Scriptures in general -- without, by the way, having the unpleasant conclusion that God, prior to making certain people, decides that He doesn't want them in heaven.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

It would be absurd to state that God is the cause of evil ... and I most certainly never said that he was/is.
Please do not claim that I have said the very thing I explicitly rejected ... namely, that God causes evil.

Rather, God (as the first Cause and unmoved Mover) is the primary cause of all actions -- even evil actions; but he does not cause them to be evil, he is the cause of whatever in them is good (the defect, which is a lack of being, is due to the human/angelic will).

To claim that God is not in any way a cause of those actions which involve sin would mean that those acts are separated from God ... which would lead to the disastrous conclusion that sinful actions are wholly outside of the divine providence and therefore that God is not truly the Lord of all, but only the Lord of the just. +

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

I find both Most and Journet to be very helpful in this discussion ... but, alas, in a simple blog-post I did not find it profitable to include them.

However, I must bristle against your way of lumping Sts. Augustine and Thomas in with Calvin ... as though their THREE theories on grace/freedom are identical -- truthfully, it is a bit blasphemous for you to speak of the Doctor of Grace and the Common Doctor as being forerunners of the heretical Calvinist doctrine.

Distinctions! We need distinctions!
And the point of this article is to show that Calvin (and the Jesuits) do not make the proper distinction between primary and secondary causality.
Fr. Luis de Molina explicitly states that he does not understand what Thomas means by "secondary causes".

Regarding the ability to reject grace ... this is an important point which St. Thomas makes, but which St. Augustine (occasionally) obscured. +

CroJesuit said...

Dear Fr Erlenbush, I find it odd enough to see that you discuss such a highly sophisticated theological topic in a homily. But what I find worrying is putting in the same context a heretical doctrine and a fully orthodox one. I am afraid an ordinary listener or reader of your homily would remember only one thing: the Jesuits are heretics as much as the Calvinists. I hope that wasn't your intention.

Anyway, this article deserves an apology to the Jesuits because, first, the ancient "Jesuit" position is fully orthodox and does not deserve to be treated as a heretical one. Second, many recent Jesuit theologians have had a different opinion (e.g. Karl Rahner considered the "Dominican" solution better). Please, find another topic to express your dislike of the Jesuits (there are more serious and more recent issues indeed).
Fr Dalibor Renic SJ (Croatia)

Anonymous said...

Beautiful post. I could never have come very far in understanding good and evil without Jacques Maritain, personally.

As regards the discussion of God being a "cause" (or not) of evil actions, could it perhaps be put this way? Could we not return again to the Gospel reading?

He's the cause of what's good (human activity, use of faculties, etc.). But evil itself is not a thing. Evil is a deprivation. Evil is "no thing". That's exactly what we do without God: no thing! "Without God we can do nothing, we can do no thing."

It all comes back to the same line of the Gospel, in terms of both good and evil. What we do with God as first cause is good and is a thing. What we ourselves initiate by breaking God's initiated good acts is, or contains, evil and is not a thing (or contains deprivation, an "amount" of nothingness).

Just hoping this comment helps clarify and refocus again on the excellent points made in the original post.

Bobby Bambino said...


To expand upon Fr Ryan's comment, the problem with Van Inwagen's claim is that it indeed lumps together Thomism and Calvinism, failing to understand the Thomistic doctrine on its own terms. My understanding of the Thomistic doctrine (and please remove this post, Fr Ryan if I am in error) concerning the question you raise is that God is the primary cause of our sin in so far as before the foundation of the world, God grants us permission to choose to disobey him. That is the key distinction. Then, once we have been given permission to be allowed to choose against God, that choice becomes 100% our own. Thus, we see in the Thomistic doctrine that the reason we sin is PRECISELY because we choose to partake of that particular action 100% out of our own free will because God's part in this is granting us permission to do so. God love you.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

@Fr Renic, sj (CroJesuit),
I suspect that there must be some language problem here ... for I most certainly DID NOT give this as a homily at Mass (nor did I ever indicate such).
No, I can hardly imagine a situation in which I would find if fruitful to bring up such distinctions explicitly in a sermon.

As to your claim that people who read this article will think that I present the Jesuits as heretics ... only a careless reader would come away with that conclusion:

In the opening paragraphs, I write, "Certainly, the Jesuits are not semi-Pelagian heretics"

And again, when discussing Molina: "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."

In any case, your claim that I have a dislike for the Jesuits (as though it is personal) is quite disingenuous -- we are brother priests, let us not make the matter so petty.

[perhaps you are unaware of the fact that I regularly cite Fr. Cornelius a Lapide, sj as the greatest Catholic biblical scholar]

Passerby said...

Father, you say:

God is omnipotent. He is so powerful that he can not only cause human actions, he can even cause them to be free.

Now, I must ask - can God make a triangle with four angles? Or can God make a stone so heavy that even he cannot lift it? As far as I know, the standard answer to these questions is that omnipotence of God does not cover illogical things. God being omnipotent does not mean he can do contradictory things. But here, in this passage I quoted, you say that very thing - that God's omnipotence means he can do contradictory things. For, if free will means precisely not being caused by alien will, you are saying that God can cause something in way that it is not caused. Which is equivalent of a triangle with four angles. But, as I recall reading thomists and molinists on this topic, there is not even a clear definition what a free will is. They define it differently. Which is fantastic, isn't it. I mean, having such important notion, but not really knowing what it means...

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

It is ridiculous for you to say that "God causing a free act" is equal to saying "a four-angled triangle" ... as though there were a logical (and even analytic) contradiction in both phrases.

Even the most adamant Molinist would have more respect for the Angelic Doctor than that!

But, your real (philosophical) problem is that you are still putting man and God on the same level of causality -- so that they are in competition.
This is why you are unable to understand divine providence. +

Anonymous said...

Father, this is one of the best things you have written, and it is something that I sorely needed to read at the present time.

Thank you, and God bless you!


Strossmayer said...

...double-predestination makes man to be nothing more than a donkey, ridden either by Satan into hell or by God into heaven.

Aptly put.

Passerby said...

Well, father, I must say I am ever more disappointed with your way of making argument. It wouldn't be so disappointing, if this weren't a blog dedicated to reasoning. But when one challenges you to an argument, the best you can do is to say ‘that is ridiculous’?! And compare levels of respect between me and Molinists?! Wow. You really think this kind of 'argument' evokes respect?! No, it doesn't. It just evokes disappointment. Since it is not argument of any kind.

Trying to be serious (after this), I must say that it is not ridiculous when I say that those two phrases contain similar contradiction. On the contrary, that is the heart of the problem. Intuitively, freedom does mean not being caused by another will. So, intuitively, when you say that God is omnipotent in a way that he can cause free will, you are actually saying God is omnipotent in a way he can cause something so that it is not caused. That is precisely the same as to say he is omnipotent in a way that he can make a triangle that doesn't have three angles (but for example four) - just replace word 'cause' with 'three' and there you have it. Of course, one can challenge this intuitive definition of free will, and if I recall well, that is precisely what thomists do. Yet, molinists do define it that way, and I agree with them - that is what is intuitively considered under term 'freedom'. Thomistic definition sounded weird to me (I don't recall it, I just recall weirdness).

Which bring us to another point - would you be so kind as to define freedom of will to me? You keep saying that God and man are on different level of causality. But you illustrated that different levels of causality with the example of pen, in which example pen can never be considered free since it is moved by hand (i.e. by another will), and with the example of messenger in which example messenger does contribute with his free will so that they (as you say it) compete. Of course, you say that those examples do not serve to illustrate free will. But can you then offer examples that do? Since I don't see how it can be. The will is either moved by another or not. I don't see the third option. The first of your examples falls in first category, and the second to second.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

There is no reason why an action cannot be caused to be free ... it would be a self-contradiction to say that God "forces" man to act freely ... but you should be able to recognize that an action can be "caused" without being "forced".

As far as a definition of "freedom": A man is free when he is able to do that which he wills, and when he is not compelled against his will.

Hence, if the will is drawn to something (namely, to a good), and man is able to act as his will moves him -- that man is said to be free and to exercise the freedom of his will.

However, if the will is drawn to something and man is not able to act -- that may is not free.

Now, God can draw the will to himself as the ultimate and supreme Good. If man is able to act as his will desires, then that man is free -- even if the will is inexorably directed toward God.
Thus, even the saints in heaven who cannot NOT love God (because they recognize him as the supreme Good and their wills are wholly ordered toward him) are yet perfectly free --- for they are able to do what they will, and they will to love God. Though they could not will anything else (now that they see God perfectly).

So, you asked for an example of free will -- I give you the supreme human example: the saints in heaven, who cannot do anything other than love God, but who are wholly free.
[it is a matter of dogma, by the way]

Now, if you still cannot see that "causing freedom" is not the same as "a four-angled triangle" ... then I fear that our conversation will never be fruitful.

Passerby said...

You introduce following definition:

As far as a definition of "freedom": A man is free when he is able to do that which he wills, and when he is not compelled against his will.

Is this supposed to be the definition of free *will*? This is good for the definition of free *action* according to the will, but not as freedom of will. The question is not what does it mean to act freely according to the will, but what does it mean to *will* freely. To illustrate the problem with this kind of definition, let us consider following statement of yours:

However, if the will is drawn to something and man is not able to act -- that may is not free.

So, let us say I am in a wheelchair unable to move. I want/will to go buy bread for my old grandma, to make life easier for her, but I am not able to act according to my will. Does that mean I don't have free will?!! Do people in wheelchair have free will according to you father?

To conclude - no, I still don't see that an action can be "caused" without being "forced", and the example of saints in heaven who must will what they will, and can't will differently, but are still free, is, as far as I am concerned, yet another problematic statement of catholic teaching regarding free will.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

You are wasting our time ... if you are truly interested in the truth (rather than silly argumentation about whether a man in a wheelchair has free will with respect to rising and walking [and he does not, by the way]), take a look at St. Thomas' excellent discussion of the matter:
ST I-II, qq.8-10. Especially important is q.9, a.6 (

As far as the difference between a thing being "caused" and a thing being "forced" ... a kind word from a friend can be a "cause" for my encouragement, without "forcing" me to be encouraged.
My goodness! Is it really that difficult? Why, if "cause" and "force" meant the same thing, I don't think we would have two words which are used in such different ways!

John-Mark said...

Good Father, I think it’s important for you to understand that for many of your readers, including your faithful Catholic ones, Thomas’ pronouncements are not magisterial, nor should they be treated as such. So, for instance, when you say that “you should be able to recognize that a free action can be ‘caused’ without being ‘forced,’” and then go on to cite a line from the corpus thomisticum, it’s not a very convincing method. Most of us – really, almost all of us – canNOT see how a free action which is wholly determined before the human agent even exists is intelligible. I think it’s your burden – or Thomas’ or Augustine’s or Calvin’s – to make it clear to us precisely how that happens. And remember, it’s not enough just to assert it. You have to show it.
Bobby, this is precisely the point where it’s very legitimate to draw attention to the relevant similarities between Aquinas and Calvin, which is that for both it seems that the “free” act has been COMPLETELY determined to be what it is by factors beyond the agent’s control (namely, the divine decision from all eternity). Of course, we all know that on Calvin’s view God sends certain people to hell and on Aquinas’ (or, at least Banez and LaGrange’s version of Aquinas) God does not supply the prerequisite conditions for certain people to get into heaven. But they’re alike in that for both all the person’s actions have been determined prior to (metaphysically) the person actually choosing those actions.
Another point: why need we assume that if God doesn’t determine those events that such events would fall outside His providence? If a grandmaster chessplayer goes up against a novice, the former wouldn’t determine the latter’s moves. But we’d still know who is going to win, since the expert can turn all the beginner’s move to his own advantage.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

I do understand that many people will not accept the Angelic Doctor as an authority ... I only present him on account of the clarity of his thought -- in other words, I do not intend to say "Thomas has spoken, the matter is finished", but rather "Thomas has spoken, let's take a look at what he says, and we might learn something!"

That being said, I am sure that my enthusiasm for the Common Doctor is a bit overbearing at times (or even most times!).

Still, I did give a very simple example of the difference between a "causing" and "forcing" ... here is another: your comment "caused" me to respond, but your comment most certainly did not "force" me to respond.
"to cause" and "to force" are very clearly not the same words ... I don't know why some people think that they are identical.

JM said...

Ha! Well, if you're overly enthusiastic I'm sure most of my friends would tell you I'm overly critical of the greatest saint-scholar who ever lived. So my vice is probably the greater.
That being said, I think in philosophy it's usual to distinguish between a cause that produces the effect completely (a determining cause) and a cause which merely contributes(as one factor among many) to an effect. So my comment is not a determining effect of your response, just a contributing cause. Otherwise, your response wouldn't be a free one, would it? Again, it seems to me the question is, does God determine what our free choices will be before we make those choices ourselves?
Thanks for taking the time to respond... I really do enjoy the discussion.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

Well, this may not help much, but St. Thomas gives a very good discussion of the point you are making. [see the citation in my comment above]

Indeed, only God is able to be a total cause on the will without removing freedom ... but it is good to note that the theologians are not claiming that God "forces" the will to be free (that wold be an analyitic contradiction in terms) -- but rather that God "causes" the will to be free.

We see this most clearly in the case of the saints in heaven.
And the reason God can do this is because of the difference between primary and secondary causality ... a difference which both the Jesuits and the Calvinists failed to grasp (as Molina himself admits).

Peace! +

Mick Jagger Gathers No Mosque said...

Re the negative comments about Saint Thomas. Popes have repeatedly taught that he must be studied in the seminaries if the Faith is to remain to be taught and understood rightly.

I sense a lot of fear that Saint Thomas is making a comeback posy V2 and that is an excellent sign. The New Theologians and the personalists thought they had him buried for good.

Stomachosus said...

Father, there seems to be to many issues connected with both schools of thought (Calvinism or Molinism) for either to be fairly characterized by your post, I believe.

The Calvinists I know, who, while they may be a minority in our day, are truly rigorous and scholastic don't differ essentially on the point you are making. In either Thomism or Calvism (or for that matter most Molinists, including Suarez and Bellarmine) we do have uncondition negative reprobation ("passing over", non-election) which is unconditional and founded only on the divine will and positive reprobation which is based on foreseen sins. Calvin explicitly, following Augustine, bases positive reprobation on foreseen sins. There are Calvinists (and there are Thomists!,the 18th century Carmelite Alvarez e.g.) who attempt to ascribe a motive for negative reprobation, e.g. the positive will to exclude from eternal glory, but among the Calvinist tradition this isn't actually the norm.

And as I already said with the Molinists, there is a great number of them who held to unconditional election and negative reprobation, e.g. Suarez. (and, interestingly, this was the "official position" of the Jesuit order back in the day)

That said, even in this "Congruist view" I do think your analysis that it is a denial of analogical causality- an attempt to place God and man on a univocal level, and thus partition the space- is correct with Molinism, even in its stricter forms. But I don't think that same objection can, at least so easily, by shown of Calvinism. Within Calvinist circles it is not exactly agreed upon what is meant by irresistable grace (for that matter Tulip is not a universal among Calvinists). Many I know identify themselves within the Augustian-Thomist-Calvinist school, and there understand is like that of efficacious grace, as expounded by traditional Thomism. The crux of the difference being in the doctrine of sufficient grace (as it would be with Jansenists, and in another way with the Jesuits who reinterpreted the meaning of sufficient)

The notion that Calvinism entails such an absolute predestinarianism is, I'm afraid, a caricature that doesn't respect, at the very least, the different understandings of Calvin/Calvinism that Calvinists actually have. I certainly don't see a basis for claiming they conceive divine action on a univocal level, at least in a similar way of the Molinists

Stomachosus said...

john-mark wrote "why need we assume that if God doesn’t determine those events that such events would fall outside His providence?"

I think that would hinge on what you mean by providence. Certainly it is Catholic dogma (cf. Vatican I) that God's providence governs and directs even the free actions of creatures. The question is understanding this.

If God knew what was to happen because He knows you so well, and all the circumstances perfectly, and everything affecting you, etc, then you have no free will. If that is how divine providence interacts with human action, by changing the circumstances, etc., then God is merely flipping different switches in a system that is deterministic, and free will is an illusion.

If we admit that what it means to have a will is that it can be otherwise, and hence is not a necessary cause, then we could say, perhaps, that God makes really good estimations. He knows you so well, and the circumstances, that He predicts action. But that wouldn't be infallible and would hardly befit God.

We could say God knows because He sees past, present and future all at once. Okay. This is true. But if God's knowledge of my action was dependent upon my choice, as something autonomous and prior in nature to His knowledge, then God becomes a creatur- His knowledge becomes caused and dependent on my choices.

As St. Augustine pointed out, the only way that a free cause can be known with certitude and without passivity to it, is to be its cause. In order to have prescience and free will, one needs to have God as agent in the picture.

On a more basic level, we recognize that God is (among other things) first mover, first agent. All that is is from Him. Hence even the act of the will must be cause by God. If any act, whether of the will or of a dog, or of the planets, did not have God as the first cause, we would be radically denying the nature of God and creation. Every act, here and now, is caused by God...both in effect and in modality. Free effects through free causes, and necessary through necessary and chance and so on. This gets into the key doctrine of Thomists of analogical causation. But even Molinists, and in fact every orthodox Catholic thinker, admits that God immediately cooperates in every act of the will, as the first agent. Molinists and Thomists debate on a smaller particular aspect, namely whether the divine motion is ad unum, but all agree that God is a first cause of every act (even the act of sin, but not of sinning) and God is the infallible author of history.

We should recognize that, at least this side of the beatific vision, we could never fully comprehend how God is "more in us than we are in ourselves", how "in him we live, and move, and are" to quote Scripture. We do not perceive the motion of grace, not even that natural causation derived from God immediately and experientially here.

Mick Jagger Gathers No Mosque said...

On the one hand we have write-backers bickering over the putative untoward influence of the Universal Doctor, Saint Thomas Aquinas, and on the other hand we have the teaching of this Saint-Pope:

Pope Saint Pius X: Studiorum Ducem:

We so heartily approve the magnificent tribute of praise bestowed upon this most divine genius that We consider that Thomas should be called not only the Angelic, but also the Common or Universal Doctor of the Church; for the Church has adopted his philosophy for her own.

We therefore desired that all teachers of philosophy and sacred theology should be warned that if they deviate so much as a step, in metaphysics especially, from Aquinas, they exposed themselves to grave risk.”

Dear Father. Can you please help me solve my problem of whether I ought heed the demurrers or the Saint Pope?

Seraphim said...

Father, I do like your statement that God's causality and man's are not competing with each other. But it is not consistent with Thomism. We ought to go even farther and say that God's causality is of a completely different sort than man's causality, on a completely higher plane, which I think is implied by the "first cause"/"second cause" distinction. This is true in human relations just as much as in the physical world (where God truly does sustain and create the world, but He is not just another gear in the chain of physical causes). This means we truly are autonomously free, which I have always understood to be regarded as heresy by Thomists (and also by Fr. William Most, whose book was my introduction to the topic).

And therefore there is no predestination AT ALL. We are free to accept or reject divine grace. The notion that "sufficient grace" is not actually sufficient at all without "efficacious grace" is pure sophistry - if it's not sufficent, then it's not sufficient and we have no need for it at all. If God is the cause of our freedom, then we are truly free - He cannot physically move us to perform a free act of His choosing. Nobody is predestined to Heaven; if so then God would be a wicked God for not predestining us all to Heaven, since even those "predestined" to Heaven are still free in the same sense that anyone else is. I left the Roman Catholic Church for the Byzantine Catholic Church because I cannot accept such a bald logical contradiction.

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