Aquinas, Free Choice, and Divine Sovereignty, Part 1

Thomas Aquinas dealt with the issue of divine sovereignty and man’s free choice 300 years before reformation theologians were a twinkle in their father’s eyes. As a most careful theologian, he slices the problem twelve ways to Sunday and deals with it in many ways, facets, angles, and does his best to answer every nuance of the problem. In doing so, he does not provide a simple summary, and tends to make us regular folks work hard to find his answers.

Thomas deals with the question in more than one place. He of course includes teaching on man and choice in his massive Summa Theologica, but also in shorter works such as On Truth. Shorter is a relative term, for On Truth is three volumes, a life’s work for most theologians, whether from the reformation era or today.  The subject of Thomas’ view of man, choice, and divine sovereignty is too massive to present here in one blog post, so we will periodically post parts of his views on the subject, and perhaps over time we will gather some insights from this genius of past centuries, a man whose work is largely ignored today.

In On Truth, Question 24 deals with Free Choice, and Article 11 asks the question “Can the free choice of man in this present life be obstinate in evil?” In other words, ‘Can man be so corrupt so as to not be able to exercise his free choice in anything other than evil?’ In Thomas typical way, he lists 10 difficulties surrounding this question, and answers each one. In much of Thomas’ thought he sets about to make fine distinctions between two or more aspects of the question he is answering, and in this one is no exceptions. Thomas responds:

Now the inability to turn from sin can be understood in two senses:

In the first sense the person’s own powers are not sufficient to free him entirely from sin. It is in this sense that anyone who falls into mortal sin is said to be unable to return to justice. But from this sort of firmness in sin a person is not properly called obstinate.

In the second sense he has a firmness in sin such that he cannot even cooperate in rising from sin. But this inability can be of two kinds: (1) It is such that he is unable to cooperate at all. This is the perfect obstinacy by which the demons are obstinate. For their minds are so hardened in evil that every motion of their free choice is ‘inordinate and sinful. They can accordingly in no way prepare themselves to have the grace by which sin is remitted. (2) It is such that the person is not able easily to cooperate in his deliverance from sin. This is the imperfect obstinacy by which a person can be obstinate in this present life, as long as he has a will so hardened in sin that there do not arise in him any except weak motions to good. Nevertheless, because some arise, the way is open by their means to prepare for grace.

The reason why no one can be so obstinate in evil in this life that he is unable to cooperate in his liberation is clear from what has been said.For passion is dissipated and repressed; habit does not wholly corrupt the soul; and reason does not cling so stubbornly to what is false that it cannot be led away from it by a contrary argument.

Note that Thomas states that a sinful man is such that “he cannot even cooperate in rising from sin.” But this inability has two aspects, and he then explains that man is not in such a state that “no one can be so obstinate in evil in this life that he is unable to cooperate in his liberation.”  This distinction in the condition of fallen man is not made by most modern theologians. Those who hold to a strict reformation stance end up effectively denying that the image of God is still present in fallen man, and many who hold to a strict free will tradition end up effectively denying the total sinfulness of man. Thomas makes an important distinction, which is that man is completely fallen to the point that he cannot cooperate in his rising from sin, but this is an “imperfect obstinancy” that has not wholly corrupted the soul. A wholly corrupted thing ceases to exist. A wholly moth-eaten sweater is a hanger, and a wholly corrupted soul would not exist. So Thomas’ position is that we have an inability to even cooperate with our deliverance from evil, but we also have enough of the image of God remaining that we can welcome grace when it arrives to pull us out of the muck.

To read the rest of Thomas’ response to this question, look here.

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About humblesmith

Christian Apologist & Philosopher
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