Divine Will and Free Will

Introduction to this Essay

I was contacted by a reader who proposed that human free will was just an extension of the Divine Will. There is a small sense in which that is correct, but overall I am convinced to the contrary and shall thoroughly explain why it is not so. I consider this point of inquiry too important to share in mere email and want to share it with all who may find it interesting. There will be more quotations than usual, and I will post a copy of St. Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica to which readers may refer for this essay. Biblical references will come from the Revised Standard Version for ease of readability unless they are “meta”-quoted by Aquinas.

This will be longer than usual which is why I call it an essay rather than an article, so bear with me, perhaps grab a large cup of coffee. I will do my best to make no assumptions about what readers may already know and explain things in at least a truncated form, but I am bound by human fallibility to not fully succeed in that task. For the most interested of readers, I propose that you read all of Aquinas’ Treatise on God, the first 26 questions of the Summa, for the fullest, most rational picture of God we have available, though we shall dip into other parts of Summa as well.

Please open the document if you wish to follow along.

Summa Theologica

The Wills

Let us now consider the wills in question. The Divine Will is the will of God and man’s will is often called “free will,” though it is not a complete will like God’s. I say complete, because God’s will is unchangeable (Summa Theologica Part I, Q.19, Art. 7) whereas man’s is. It is also worth noting that God possesses free will (Q.19, Art.10) in that He wills some things not from necessity.

Now the proposition goes thus: Free Will (let us assume man’s will) is just an extension of the Divine Will. The proof of this is supposedly Aquinas’ answers to the issue of predestination which we will come to eventually.

The Way in Which the Proposition is Correct

There is a small sense in which this proposition is correct, namely, in that free will is a product of the Divine Will, that is, the Divine Will willed that free will should exist, else it would not exist at all. In this way, free will is dependent upon Divine Will but, as we shall see, it does not follow that all that the free will wills is from the Divine Will.


God wills but not always from necessity.

On the contrary, All good things that exist God wills to be. If therefore His will imposes necessity on things willed, it follows that all good happens of necessity; and thus there is an end of free will, counsel, and all other such things.”

I answer that, The divine will imposes necessity on some things willed but not on all.” – Q. 19, Art.8

If God’s will were always from necessity, the world would be entirely predetermined including man’s free will. Whatever man would will would be a predetermined action that can be ultimately assigned back to the Divine Will from which it originated. Do not confuse this with Divine foreknowledge: just because God knows all things (past, present, future, etc.) does not mean that all actions are predetermined, it simply means He knows exactly how everything will turn out.

This does not seem to square with reality, because we could theoretically blame God for privations in goodness, that is, sin.

Sin Contradicts the Divine Will

It is necessary for this argument that the reader understand the Augustinian explanation for evil, that is, good and evil are not different substances, but evil is a privation of good, or lack of goodness. It is also necessary to understand that God is pure actuality with no potency at all. Understanding those two points, we can deduce that God cannot commit sin because sin is a privation of good, and anything which can be privative must possess potency. Necessarily then, God does not sin.

Accidental Good from Evil

God does not will evil, but that is not to say He cannot bring good out of evil. On this subject, Aquinas states,

“This, however is not correct; since evil is not of itself ordered to good, but accidentally. For it is beside the intention of the sinner, that any good should follow from his sin; as it was beside the intention of tyrants that the patience of the martyrs should shine forth from all their persecutions. It cannot therefore be said that such an ordering to good is implied in the statement that it is a good thing that evil should be or be done, since nothing is judged of by that which it appertains to it accidentally, but by that which belongs to it essentially.” (Q.19, Art.9)(There is a mistake in the epub. It says Art. 8 AND Ninth Article. My citation reflects my correction.)

Let us also consider the words of The Apostle,

“For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, “I have raised you up for the very purpose of showing my power in you, so that my name may be proclaimed in all the earth.” So then he has mercy upon whomever he wills, and he hardens the heart of whomever he wills.” – Romans 9:17-18

God can use evil to show His power. He can also harden hearts, but hardening hearts does not mean He causes men like Pharaoh to sin.

So God can bring goodness out of evil, but He would not cause evil even in order to bring about good. So here is my proposal for why evil exists even though God does not will that it be done: being a privation of good, evil exists in the world because it is of the same substance as good and the world is not pure actuality like God; because there is potency, that is, privation, in the world, there is sin. Further, evil is permitted to exist by God.

“God therefore neither wills evil to be done, nor wills it not to be done, but wills to permit evil to be done; and this is a good.” – Q.19, Art. 19, Reply Obj.3

God will never make a man to sin so He can display His goodness; so if God does not make man to sin, man’s sin must have a source, perhaps itself …

“I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. So then it is no longer I that do it, but sin which dwells within me.” – Romans 7:15-17

Sin cannot be sourced from God. Understanding Divine Pre-Existence, that is, all effects pre-exist in their causes (in this case, all creation), and that God cannot sin means that the privation which is sin, though not a different substance from good, is definitely not from God but from the world.

A section which further elucidates the point of goodness not being the cause of evil is Q. 49 of the Summa.

The next question that presents itself is this: can man will sin? It seems that he must be able to will sin, else we are left with blaming God, an impossibility, or that sin is entirely animalistic, that is, not arrived at by the light of reason. The latter explanation is possible in many cases like sexual immorality or irrational anger, but it would not account for mistakes in man’s will that lead to sin. Take for instance that a man wills to “do good” by aborting a defective baby or somehow has foreknowledge that said baby will be evil. This is most definitely a sin, but because man in this instance does not have sufficient knowledge of good, he mistakenly sinned while thinking he did good. He willed something that is in no accord with the Divine Will; this helps confirm the existence of free will, though in a notably tragic way.

On Predestination

Predestination supposedly proves that there is no free will, but we shall see that this is also not the case. Because the topic is of great complexity, I will refer directly to all Q.23 from the Summa, but will share highlights that indicate that free will is not negated by predestination.

“It is fitting that God should predestine men. For all things are subject to His providence, as was shown above (Q.22, A.2). Now it belongs to providence to direct things towards their end, as was also said (Q.22,AA.1,2).” … “Now the type in the mind of the doer of something to be done, is a kind of pre-existence in him of the thing to be done. Hence the type of the aforesaid direction of a rational creature towards the end of life eternal is called predestination.” – Q.23, Art.1

So predestination is indeed real, despite being a bit butchered by later Protestants. But it is not based upon merit or demerit either:

On the contrary, The Apostle says (Titus 3:5): “Not by works of justice which we have done, but according to His mercy He saved us.” But as He saved us, so He predestined that we should be saved. Therefore, foreknowledge of merits is not the cause or reason of predestination.” –Q.23,Art.5

You can read further to get a fuller answer.

“But as He saved us, so He predestined that we should be saved,” is a temporally difficult statement to grasp, but it indicates that by saving us, we are predestined to life eternal. The act of both saving and predestinating are accomplished by God’s will. Free will seems to not come in to play.

And it is true that human free will is not going to bring anyone to eternal life, but it does not follow that predestination negates free will’s very existence.

Some Absurdities

What follows are not necessarily proofs that free will exists, but an examination of potential absurdities that would crop up if it did not. Consider them arguments that reduce the probability that free will does not exist.

The Final Judgment

If there is to be a Final Judgment and all free will is just an extension of the Divine Will, would not God be judging His own Divine Will which is Perfect? God judging Himself, Who is Perfect, is absurd for the outcome can only be positive; there is no need for a Final Judgment at all.

The Bible’s Advice and Commands

This is not so much as proof of my point so far as it is to show how absurd most of the Bible is if there is no free will. Why should the authors of the Bible advise or command anything at all to Jews in the Old Testament or early Christians in the New? Some instances even indicate choice in the matter:

“I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying Him, and holding fast to Him…” – Deuteronomy 30:19-20 (NRSV) (emphasis mine)

I find it incredibly redundant for me to quote the Gospels as I think we all know that Jesus commands many things. Regardless, the point is that if there is no free will, that all of man’s actions are predetermined, then Biblical commandments are completely vain.

Aquinas on Free Will

Up until this point, this essay has focused on arguing that free will does indeed exist despite Divine Will’s influence by way of the natures of necessity, sin, predestination, and examples of absurdities that would result should free will not exist. What has not yet been mentioned is that Aquinas himself has already argued the matter in the Summa, and is strongly indicative of the importance of reading primary sources for real research (for I myself did not know he answered this question until I began researching).

Therefore, I shall call on the Theologian to seal the deal:

I answer that, Man has free-will: otherwise counsels, exhortations, commands, prohibitions, rewards, and punishments would be in vain. In order to make this evident, we must observe that some things act without judgment; as a stone moves downwards; and in like manner all things which lack knowledge. And some act from judgment, but not a free judgment; as brute animals. For the sheep, seeing the wolf, judges it a thing to be shunned, from a natural and not a free judgment, because it judges, not from reason, but from natural instinct. And the same thing is to be said of any judgment of brute animals. But man acts from judgment, because by his apprehensive power he judges that something should be avoided or sought. But because this judgment, in the case of some particular act, is not from a natural instinct, but from some act of comparison in the reason, therefore he acts from free judgment and retains the power of being inclined to various things. For reason in contingent matters may follow opposite courses, as we see in dialectic syllogisms and rhetorical arguments. Now particular operations are contingent, and therefore in such matters the judgment of reason may follow opposite courses, and is not determinate to one. And forasmuch as man is rational is it necessary that man have free-will.” – Q.83,Art.1 (emphasis mine)

He continues,

“Reply Obj. 1: As we have said above (Q.81,A.3,ad2), the sensitive appetite, though it obeys the reason, yet in a given case can resist by desiring what the reason forbids. This is therefore the good which man does not when he wishes – namely, “not to desire against reason,” as Augustine says.”


Finally, we have reached the end of this topic. Despite the Divine Will indeed directing the universe at large, it does not follow that man’s free will is thereby negated. Were it so, he would just be another brute animal running only on instinct. We have free will as long as we are rational.

I hope this essay has been helpful to those curious, but as I hinted at above, a thorough reading of primary sources is necessary in order to avoid such confusions. In fact, this essay is just a glorified secondary source since all I have really done is distill what has already been written by far better men than me: just go read what I have cited and see for yourself, and I recommend everyone with an intellectual interest in God at least read the first 26 questions of the Summa.