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Rory O'Donnell August 29, 2019 6 min read

Is God Free to Create the World?

In his great work the “Summa Theologiae,” Thomas Aquinas discusses the will of God and asks two very similar questions: (1) Is what is willed by God necessarily willed? And (2) Does God have free will? 

Aquinas teaches that there is one thing that God wills necessarily, and this has to be his own divine goodness. In a similar way, we humans necessarily desire our happiness (according to what our perception of happiness entails). 

Asking “Is God free to will himself?” is a similar question to “Is fire free to be hot?” The answer isn’t a yes or no response. Fire naturally is hot as a consequence of its nature, and so too every desire and will longs for its ultimate satisfaction. Since God is the ultimate Good and since God’s will stands in this relation to his essence as such, it would be absurd if he (as all powerful chooser) were to not will himself (as the ultimate Good). 

Language of analogy

All this talk needs to be qualified though. Concepts like “the will” and “the good” are of their very nature limited and based on our encounter with reality. So when speaking of God both as having a will and as being good, we have to remind ourselves that we are using language of analogy. We have to use analogy because our intellects, which know only limited instances of existence, never fully capture or understand the infinite (or unlimited) God. 

What further necessitates the use of analogy is God’s divine simplicity. There is no differentiation in God. His being is his goodness, and his goodness is his wisdom, and his wisdom is his justice, and his justice is his mercy, etc. However, we conceive of all these things as different, and so our terms will only be able to point to the divine reality and never fully grasp it. 

In any event, parsing out how God’s infinite will relates to God’s infinite goodness (when they are one and the same reality) is a task that involves properly relating our analogous concepts to one another. All this is done in order to further our meager understanding of the infinite, wonderful, and mysterious God and see how that order found in him is reflected in creation.

Speaking of creation

Another interesting question relating to God’s freedom concerns the creation of the universe: is creation ex nihilo an act necessarily willed by God? 

The reader will notice my choice to ask this in the present tense. This is because the act of creation, as Aquinas understands it, is an ongoing perpetual act. If a thing exists, it is a manifestation of a particular ontological dependence on God and continues to be so. So while we might hold that God created the world with a beginning, we ought to understand God’s act of creation first and foremost as a metaphysical bestowing of existence that is possibly eternal (For more on this, see my article, “Thomas Aquinas and the Dangers in Looking for God in the Big Bang").

At any rate, in response to the question at hand, Aquinas responds in the affirmative: the creative act of God is entirely free. 

What is free choice?

What is involved in free choice? Free choice has two aspects: first, free choice has no compulsion. There can be no authority or force over the agent that makes her perform the action. This first aspect certainly applies to God. There is no higher order or any being higher in perfection. Rather he is the source of all order and perfection. 

Second, a free choice is always informed. This type of knowledge that accompanies actions is what separates actions performed by animals from our own. Let’s take the example of a puppy biting a young child. The puppy instinctively knows to bite when feeling threatened, but the puppy’s bite is not a free choice. He is not aware of what he is doing in any theoretical sense or with any self-awareness, and he certainly is not aware of any alternatives.

By contrast, humans are able to think in this way: we have theoretical knowledge that allows us to be aware of alternatives. We can reflect and deliberate about what we will do, and thus, we think of ourselves as free and responsible for our actions (whereas the puppy was not held accountable). Knowledge makes the choice free. This is why when expressing remorse we might say something like “I should have known better,” in order to express the idea that we are capable of knowing what was the better freely-made decision. In short, the knowledge we have engenders our freedom. 

So does this second qualification of freedom, which is possessing general and theoretical knowledge, apply to God? Indeed, it does and all the more so! God as the immaterial source of all wisdom (and even of all reality), has knowledge more perfectly than ours in his Divine intellect. As so informed—or rather as source of form-ation—we must profess that he wills anything other than himself freely.

How does God both have free choice, but also will himself necessarily? 

Though God’s act of will is a unified activity, we cannot collapse the free aspect of God’s creation into the necessity of his willing and delighting in himself. God is both the Bestower of Being and the Supremely Good, Transcendent Final Cause (or purpose) of all reality.

God as source of existence has to be present to all things, and as the source must possess all their perfections (because an effect is never greater than its cause). As source of all perfections, God must be the most Good, and infinitely so, without any exterior determination from a higher power. 

In creating things outside of himself, without any other thing to determine him, God freely wills the existence of things, but necessarily they stand in relation back toward him as their supreme Good. Although God is free in his act of creation, by the fact that infinite goodness is outside of limited beings, the nature of all movements and existences must necessarily have the glory of God as their purpose and end. However, God gains nothing in creating. John Wippel explains:

Simply put, there can be no addition to infinite and perfect goodness as realized in God. Therefore, while God may decide to create other beings in order to manifest His goodness in different but always finite ways, no increase in divine perfection can result therefrom. God perfectly achieves His end, the manifestation of His goodness, with or without creatures. Hence His decision to manifest His goodness by creating is perfectly free. (John Wippel, “Norman Kretzmann on Aquinas's attribution of will and of freedom to create to God.” Religious Studies 39 (2003): 297-298.)

Aquinas’s subtle explanation, which yolks the necessity of God’s goodness with his creative freedom, invites us to consider, on the one hand, God, completely delighting in his own beatitude and, on the other hand, the contingency of created things. The contrast allows one to see things in the world as good and loved and willed by God unnecessarily. The metaphysical notion of a creation that is free but directed toward the ultimate good offers us an opportunity to be ever more grateful by recognizing that all of creation possesses existence as a gift.

Cover Image: "The Creation of the World and the Expulsion from Paradise" by Giovanni di Paolo / Donated by the Metropolitan Museum of Art / Public Domain

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