Category Archives: Predestination

Aquinas on God ordaining punishment

Short post. I’ve been reading Aquinas’s commentary on John lately (particularly, examining his Christology and Incarnational/Two Nature theory). Anyway, ran across this text of his about God ordaining punishment. I’ve written on this before: in particular Aquinas seemed to hold that God ordains punishment (even eternal, never ending, tormenting punishment) for the “perfecting of the universe.” This to me seems a wicked thing to do, and inconsistent with saying that God loves creatures. Anyway, here is the quote.

Commenting on John 17:11

A Gloss says that a “son of death is one who is predestined to perdition.”[18] It is not customary to say that one is predestined to evil, and so here we should understand predestination in its general meaning of knowledge or orientation. Actually, predestination is always directed to what is good, because it has the double effect of grace and glory; and it is God who directs us to each of these. Two things are involved in reprobation: guilt, and punishment in time. And God ordains a person to only one of these, that is, punishment, and even this is not for its own sake. That the scripture, in which you predicted that he would betray me ‑ “Wicked and deceitful mouths are opened against me” (Ps 109:2) ‑ might be fulfilled.


Open Theism and Selective Foreordination

If God is a free being then he can freely selectively ordain whatever he chooses. All that means is that there are a particular number of events in the created world which are NOT up to the free willed choices of creatures, and therefore a particular number of events that ARE up to free willed creatures. Why can’t this whole matrix itself – this whole set of possibilities+certainties – be what it is by the free and sovereign choice of God? I don’t see how his character is impugned here. All you are really saying by holding this view is that God gives free will to creatures with respect to certain things that come to pass. It’s just that those “certain things” are not “everything” (which would actually make free will impossible since choice presupposes some degree of fixity.) Where, exactly, is the problem? I suspect the frustration arises from not knowing the mind of God and being thus unable to know to what degree our free will actually extends. But again, that doesn’t show any logical difficulty with the Open Theist’s theodicy.

St. Peter’s Idea of Destiny

Let’s not beat around the bush. The New Testament strongly affirms predestination – so much so that some Christians are driven to believe that God causally determines absolutely all things that comes to pass, even evil. Some of the strongest verses in support of such an idea are those like the following:

Now to you who believe, this stone is precious. But to those who do not believe, “The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone,” and, “A stone that causes people to stumble and a rock that makes them fall.” They stumble because they disobey the message—which is also what they were destined for.” (1 Peter 2:7,8)


When the Gentiles heard this, they were glad and honored the word of the Lord; and all who were appointed for eternal life believed.” (Acts 13:48)

There are, of course, many other verses which speak about predestination. I choose only these two because they seem the hardest to wiggle out of. The logic of these texts seem to be that those who believe were predestined to believe and those who disobey were predestined to disobey. And this implies the doctrine of double predestination – before the foundation of the world God chose specifically who he will save and who he will damn.

Notice, however, a strange fact. Following many of these double predestination texts there are appeals made by the author to his audience that they continue in obedience to God. I call this strange because, if God in fact predestines minutely every act of history, particular people themselves do not really have any ability to abstain from sin and disobedience. I’d like to use the passage from Peter above to flesh out what I mean.

After Peter has just told us that there were people “destined” to disobey, he basically devotes the rest of his letter to urging people to do good and resist evil. With that in mind lets examine the logical implications of the Calvinist doctrine that God determines all, even disobedience. Try to follow closely because this theological seed bears good fruit.

If it is true that from before the creation of the world God has unilaterally predestined all that comes to pass, it is false that things could possibly be different than they in fact will be. If God predestines all there is no real possibility in things themselves to be actually other than they in fact are or will be. Everything that exists gets its actual existence from God’s eternal decree. All human choices – good and evil – ultimately are what they are, not because humans have freely determined how they will choose, but because God has created them to be what they in fact are. Given God’s decree, nothing can in fact be otherwise than it eternally will be.

Now, this is a logical implication of the idea that God has predestined all that comes to pass in the Calvinist sense. The problem is, this implication is refuted several times over in the remainder of Peter’s letter. Peter clearly believes that possibilities are real. That is, he clearly believes that certain things depend, not on God’s predestined and irresistible determination, but on the free acts of human beings themselves. Peter believes that the universe God made is one in which various things might – and therefore might not – come to pass.

To prove my point I’m going to paste a large portion of the remainder of his letter and insert my comments. The words in red are words that become non-sensical if absolute determinism is true.

*****1 Peter 2

9 But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. (This “may” becomes meaningless if God has determined all. The chosen people either will declare praises, or they will not, there is no middle ground.)11 Dear friends, I urge you, as foreigners and exiles, to abstain from sinful desires, which wage war against your soul. 12 Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us. 13 Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human authority… (Commands to abstain and submit are meaninglessly made to those who are tempted if they do not themselves have any ability to follow the command. That would be like commanding water not to boil at a certain temperature or commanding the grass to grow when it has not received any rain. Furthermore, what is with Peter’s urgency? If God has determined everything, nothing actually CAN happen that he should be worked up about. God’s will is always being done everywhere, hence the anxiety should evaporate.)

20 But how is it to your credit if you receive a beating for doing wrong and endure it? But if you suffer for doing good and you endure it, this is commendable before God. 21 To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you,leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps(Again, this “if” – this conditional – is meaningless if God has determined everything because there really are no possibilities in the first place. Everything follows the necessity of God’s decree. Notice too how Peter says we “should” suffer for good’s sake. That is a proclamation about how things ought to be. Therefore either they can be a certain way but sometimes are not, or they cannot be a certain way, regardless. The first can only be true if it is possible for God’s will to be thwarted or resisted. The second can only be true if God determines everything. Yet if God determines everything what sense is there in saying things “should” be different? God has determined absolutely all things. That would be equivalent to saying God should have done differently than he did, which no one believes – Calvinist or Open Theist.)

24 “He himself bore our sins” in his body on the cross, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; “by his wounds you have been healed.” 25 For “you were like sheep going astray,” but now you have returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls. (“Mights” and possibilities are meaningless if God has determined all. Notice too Christ is “overseer” of souls, not “absolute determiner.”)

3 Wives, in the same way submit yourselves to your own husbands so that, if any of them do not believe the word, they may be won over without words by the behavior of their wives, when they see the purity and reverence of your lives... You are her daughters if you do what is right and do not give way to fear. (Conditionals are impossible if God has determined all.)

Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult. On the contrary, repay evil with blessing, because to this you were called so that you may inherit a blessing. (Again, this conditional is impossible if God has predetermined everything. Also notice in this verse Peter implies that our calling itself has a conditional aspect to it. I.e. we were called so that we should freely imitate Christ.)

18 For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive in the Spirit. 19 After being made alive, he went and made proclamation to the imprisoned spirits— 20 to those who were disobedient long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built… (How can God “wait patiently” or “endure with much longsuffering” that which he has absolutely determined should be just the way it is?)

Therefore, since Christ suffered in his body, arm yourselves also with the same attitude, because whoever suffers in the body is done with sin. As a result, they do not live the rest of their earthly lives for evil human desires, but rather for the will of God (This “but rather” implies that God’s will is something that can – and therefore cannot be – lived for. The people beforehand were living through early and evil desires, which was not the will of God, or Peter could not go on to make the contrast with living in accord with God’s will. Thus he assumes it is possible to live “against” the will of God, which is impossible if God determines all.)

The end of all things is near. Therefore be alert and of sober mind so that you may pray. Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins. Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling. 10 Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms. 11 If anyone speaks, they should do so as one who speaks the very words of God. If anyone serves, they should do so with the strength God provides, so that in all things God may be praised through Jesus Christ… (These commands to be alert, to love, and to use various gifts are all nonsensical if those to which they are spoken do not themselves possess the ability to carry out the commands themselves.)

12 Dear friends, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that has come on you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you... (The notion of God “testing” that which he has predetermined in absolutely every respect is meaningless.)

16 However, if you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name…19 So then, those who suffer according to God’s will should commit themselves to their faithful Creator and continue to do good. (This implies that there is a way to suffer that is NOT according to God’s will: i.e. by being bitter and ashamed of God rather than “praising God that you bear that name.” But it is impossible to do anything contrary to God’s will if he determines all.)

Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. Resist him, standing firm in the faith, because you know that the family of believers throughout the world is undergoing the same kind of sufferings. (If God has determined all, “resisting” Satan – in fact “resisting” anything – is impossible for the creature itself. It only will resist if God has preordained that it will.)


So – it seems to me that whatever Peter meant when he said people were “destined” to disobey, he did not really think that God predestines absolutely everything that comes to pass. Once again, Scripture, taken as a whole, presents a bigger picture than what many theological systems try to define. Where they try to pin it down, it rears up. Where they try to encompass it, it alludes them. As CS Lewis said,

“I am afraid that is the sort of thing we come up against in Christianity. I am puzzled, but I am not surprised… Reality, in fact, is usually something you could not have guessed. That is one of the reasons I believe Christianity. It is a religion you could not have guessed. If it offered us just the kind of universe we had always expected, I should feel we were making it up. But, in fact, it is not the sort of thing anyone would have made up. It has just that queer twist about it that real things have.”

On Divine Providence

“Did Ophelia die because Shakespeare for poetic reasons wanted her to die at that moment—or because the branch broke?’ I think one would have to say, ‘For both reasons’. Every event in the play happens as a result of other events in the play, but also every event happens because the poet wants it to happen.” CS Lewis, Miracles

How to reconcile free will and predestination? Scripture verses can be stacked quite high supporting both sides. But the two things seem to be mutually exclusive: if humans are free, their actions seem to be up to them. Whether or not they do a or b is something not in God’s control. Yet if this is true it is possible that God not get the outcome he wants in certain circumstances. Consider the case of the crucifixion. If Jesus’ death depended on the evil free willed acts of humans, and if those acts were ultimately decided by the agents themselves making the choices, then it was not ultimately up to God whether or not Jesus would be crucified. The only way God could guarantee a particular outcome – and this need not be only the crucifixion, any species of divine providence will do – the only way God could ensure that a particular outcome came about would be if he overrode free will. But if he is prepared to override our freedom, we’re left wondering a) why he gave it at all; and b) how those who did such actions could be morally responsible for what they did, seeing as God “overrode” their “normal” freedom.

On the other hand, if we are all indeed free, how does God’s providence work? If God wants the crucifixion to occur, but he also wants free beings, how does he get both?

At first it seems a possible solution is to say that God can foreknow what any free being would do in any circumstance, and, thus knowing this, he can providentially arrange things such that he places free beings in various circumstances the outcomes of which are certain to occur. This is the idea that God has “middle knowledge.” But the problem here is that prior to the creature’s existence, there is no truth to speak of regarding it. Before a free person exists, how could God know what it “would” do, unless he determined that action himself beforehand?

Another popular solution is to say that God can know what beings will do simply by “observing” them outside of time. But this solution has a crippling catch. If God only passively observes by seeing all things at once, then he cannot also be orchestrating the circumstances of history in any providential sense. What God sees is an already existing thing – an already determinate reality. Time and all of history that fill it are already out there, existing over and against God. As such what goes on in time and history determine God’s knowledge itself. Therefore his knowledge, even if it is timeless, would come to him too late to be useful, for reality is already how it is. His knowing is simply his act of understanding what has already occurred without his providential guidance. (Anyone interested in more on this can see my past posts about problems in the purely observatory account of timeless knowledge.)

I believe the solution to the problem of free will and providence certainly involves God being outside of time. But it is not only this idea that is needed. As the last paragraph states a timeless being could be one that is timelessly impotent in doing anything with the knowledge that it has. (Ironically, this is also the case if God is in time learning what we do from moment to moment. Once he knows what free acts we will do it is already too late for him to do anything about those choices. He can only “guess” or “risk” with the possibility of failure.)

What must be coupled with the notion of a timeless God is also the idea that he is, from within, the determining source of all finite and created being whatsoever. Augustine, Aquinas, and most all classic theologians held that God’s knowledge is not caused by the existence of things themselves. For this would make him a contingent and dependent being. Contingent because his particular state of being was what it was because of other things (free choices of creatures.) And dependent because for God to be this – that is, a being who knows such and such – he needs the existence of free beings first. What the tradition has always said, rather, is that it is God’s knowledge which cause the things.

Now this at first immediately raises the problem of predestination and absolute determinism. If God’s knowing causes my actions, how are my actions not ultimately determined by God himself? And if this is the case, how can I be free?

They key is in understanding the fact that God’s power and creative motion themselves give to the will their very freedom itself. God and creatures are not on the same level of being. They do not face each other like two people do in a conversation, nor do they work together when an action takes place in the world, as if each one contributed some share to the project. Two people can both build a house. One person may lay the foundation and the other may do the roof. But the relations between man and God – that is the cooperating between the two – is not like this. God is at all times actively upholding every atom of the universe. Any action we do, even free ones, are ultimately possible only because of the movement and causal influence of God.

God therefore when he moves the will – when he creates it in a particular state – does so in a manner consistent with the wills nature. In fact his creating and moving the will just is what a natural human free will is. In short, what God creates is a will that is freely inclined and moved towards such and such. It is just that God’s action, since it is responsible for the very conditions of all reality – which themselves include the parameters of free will – itself causes both the inclination and movement of the will as free.

To put it in more metaphysical terms, we say that certain things are “necessary” or “contingent.” Most people normally assume that mathematical truths are necessary. 1 + 1 has to equal 2. On the other hand most people normally assume that free acts are normally consider contingent. Although I chose pizza for dinner, it was possible for me to have chosen a cheeseburger. Now, both the necessary and contingent as such are different modes of existence and reality. They are, if you like, different “species of being,” different metaphysical pieces of furniture that reality is populated with. Therefore they must get their particular realness and distinction from somewhere – God. But God in creating them in their particular modes does not destroy their individual metaphysical realness, but rather perfects and completes it.

Aquinas, in his question on providence and necessity, puts it like this. “We must remember that properly speaking “necessary” and “contingent” are consequent upon being, as such. Hence the mode both of necessity and of contingency falls under the foresight of God, who provides universally for all being.” Thus he goes on to say in his questions on the will that “As Dionysius says “it belongs to Divine providence, not to destroy but to preserve the nature of things.” Wherefore it moves all things in accordance with their conditions; so that from necessary causes through the Divine motion, effects follow of necessity; but from contingent causes, effects follow contingently.”

Hence the idea is that God is able to move things – that is, he is able to determine and cause things – such that their freedom and contingency is not destroyed, but rather established. God causes then not only the particular things that occur but also the *manner* in which they occur themselves. The only reason this seems problematic is because we imagine that there is first an “us” or a “free will” and then God goes about moving that will to either this or that thing. Hence all the talk before about God having to “override” our freedom to get what he wants. But to think this way is to fail to grasp the all comprehensive creative power of God. Apart from God’s creative activity there is no “us” to speak of. We have no being independent of or “before” his power and motion. Rather, his creative action as making us as we are just is our very existence itself. There is no gap between God creating us as we are and the subsequent movement of our free will to something. For any movement of the will would also have God as the source of its very existence too. God, as the absolute creator of all that is, does not need a medium by which to create us free. God, all at once, creates us in our very state of free willing itself, and this action does not violate our freedom but rather establishes it.

The best way I think to conceive of the situation is like that of an author to the characters and story in his novel. No one would say that the author in creating a character violates the free will of that character. Rather, the character just is the creation of the author. Nor would it make sense to ask why the author made one character to be this character – say an evil one – rather than that character – say a good one. For insofar as the author creates this particular character it and not another must exist. He could of course refrain from making it, or make some other in its place. But it is absurd to suppose he could make “it” into a different character entirely. For then the first particular character would never have existed.

With the idea of “particular characters” in mind we can perhaps get a better understanding of divine providence and predestination. Each character plays the precise role that God has made it to play. And it does this freely. For the character itself was made for its circumstance and the circumstance made precisely to accent or bring out the personality of the character. Thus, since God is the author he can get what he wants in the story while also ensuring that each character gets what they want in it.

Of course we can ask why God allows this particular character to do such a particular act. And we can also ask how it is consistent with God’s perfect goodness that he creates just this type of novel. But to answer the objection fully we would have to know the entire novel – for instance the destination of each character and how small each affliction was in light of the ending. We would also have to know the exact effects of each choice of every character as they effect every other character and element in the story. This may no doubt raise a moral concern. But notice we are no longer talking about a metaphysical or logical one – i.e. how to reconcile providence and free will. For though the two are closely related they are nevertheless distinct.

(How then does God know our free acts – how do you resolve free will with foreknowledge? He does not know them by being determined by them and “seeing” them over and against himself. Rather, he knows them by knowing his own free creative action of them in themselves.)

I end with a quote from Lewis.

“…we are not to think of God arguing, as we do, from an end (co-existence of free spirits) to the conditions involved in it, but rather of a single, utterly self-consistent act of creation which to us appears, at first sight, as the creation of many independent things, and then, as the creation of things mutually necessary. Even we can rise a little beyond the conception of mutual necessities as I have outlined it—can reduce matter as that which separates souls and matter as that which brings them together under the single concept of Plurality, whereof “separation” and “togetherness” are only two aspects. With every advance in our thought the unity of the creative act, and the impossibility of tinkering with the creation as though this or that element of it could have been removed, will become more apparent.”