This is part 3 of an intermittent series on Thomas Aquinas’ view of free will and divine sovereignty.
In the Summa Theologica, 1.83.1, the question is posed “Whether man has free choice?” As is Thomas’ custom, he presents several objections to his position, and his response to the objections. Here is one objection and Thomas’ response:
Obj. 3: Further “what is free is cause of itself,” as the Philosopher says. Therefore what is moved by another is not free. But God moves the will, for it is written (Prov. 21:1): The heart of the king is in the hand of the Lord; whithersoever He will He shall turn it; and (Phil. 2:13): It is God Who worketh in you both to will and to accomplish. Therefore man has not free choice.
Reply Obj. 3: Free choice is the cause of its own movemment; because by his free choice man moves himself to act. But it does not of necessity belong to liberty that what is free should be the first cause of itself, as neither for one thing to be cause of another need it be the first cause. God, therefore, is the first cause, Who moves causes both natural and voluntary. And just as by moving natural causes He does not prevent their acts being natural, so by moving voluntary causes He does not deprive their actions of being voluntary, but rather is He the cause of this very thing in them; for He operates in each thing according to its own nature.
What Thomas is answering is a very common point of discussion today. Strong reformed theologians point to the many verses which indicate that God is in total control. Here Thomas mentions two of many, Prov. 21:1 and Phil. 2:13. We are told that since these Bible passages indicate that God moves the will of man, therefore the human cannot be the cause of his own movement. We are told that it is either God or man, and to suggest that a human be the cause of his own will would be insurrection against a divine Lord, an act of rebellion that takes away glory from God. Strong reformed theologians tell us that since God moves the will, man cannot, and to suggest otherwise takes glory away from God.
But here, 300 years before the Reformation, Thomas anticipates the objection and provides a suitable answer. He makes a distinction between first causes and secondary causes, which, by the way, is also made in no less than the Westminster Confession. He maintains that just because the human will causes itself to make a decision does not prevent a first cause working outside of the person. God is the first cause, moving our will to make a free decision. This is possible for the same reason that God causes natural events to occur. For example, if we cut our finger, the natural growth process will heal it. But just because natural processes cause healing of our finger does not prevent God from being the first cause of the natural healing process. Just because God caused it does not prevent the healing from being according to how skin naturally heals.
Likewise, we make a free will decision to accept Jesus Christ. It is ours to make, and we make it of our own power of choice, with ourselves moving our own thoughts and decision process. But God is the first cause, moving us according to His will. Just because God caused it does not prevent the free will decision from being according to how humans naturally make decisions. Thus the typical “either/or” contrast that is made between God’s sovereignty and man’s free will, as contrasted by the typical Reformed theologian today, is a false dichotomy.
Divine sovereignty and human free will are both maintained. God can cause a totally free act in man, for it is man’s nature to have free will, and God’s way is to work through the nature of the object He is moving. Also note that here Thomas makes no mention of desires, which is a cornerstone of Reformed theology since Johnathan Edwards. Desires are dealt with in an earlier section of the Summa, which will be another topic for another day.