Aquinas: Is God’s Will Done?

This is another one of those delightful little traps that Aquinas constructs for himself. Is God’s will done? If so, then is all of the evil and horror of the world willed by God? But if God’s will is not done, then is He really all-powerful? In fact, Aquinas provides a Biblical basis for his answer: he looks at 1 Timothy 2:4, which (in his Bible) reads “God wills all men to be saved and to come to knowledge of the truth.” He also quotes Psalms 115:11 (113 in Catholic Bibles), which reads “Our God is in the heavens; He does whatever He pleases.” So there we go – God wills all men to be saved, and whatever God wants, God does. So, uh, what’s gone wrong? 

One answer provided is that “God’s will does not rule out intermediate causes”. So sure, God wills all people to be saved, but people can do secondary or intermediate things that interrupt that process. Aquinas gives the example of walking – you can will yourself to walk somewhere, but if your leg is broken, you won’t be able to do it. There’s no problem with your will, but there’s this secondary cause that’s interrupting the application of your will. Thus, he suggests, “God’s purpose is not always realised.” 

But this seems to go against the Psalms verse. If God does whatever He wants, surely we can’t interrupt His will? It seems weird to argue that the will of this all-powerful God is conditional on us accepting it. That’s a weird understanding of omnipotence: God wills a certain thing, but we can go and fuck it up and He can’t do anything about it, because He’s actually not all that powerful.

In dealing to this paradox, Aquinas starts talking about particular causes and the universal cause. Let’s use gravity as an example. We know that the Earth has a gravitational pull, and we know that the Earth’s gravitational pull keeps us on the ground. But imagine if you found an anti-gravity machine that cancelled the Earth’s gravitational pull. Suddenly you’ve escaped from the force of Earth’s gravity. That doesn’t mean that you’ve broken the laws of the universe though, right. You’ve just found one force that liberates you from this other force that also exists. You’re still working within the internally consistent laws of the universe: “that one particular cause is stopped from producing its effect comes from the interference of another particular cause, yet this last itself is enveloped by the universal cause.” 

And that’s basically what Aquinas is arguing about God: ultimately you can get away from salvation, sure, but you’re still within God’s universal plan. One particular cause (salvation) is interrupted by a second particular cause (sinfulness), but even the person who sins “nevertheless re-enters [God’s] plan when by divine justice he is punished.” It’s a bit of a weird argument, because it seems to imply that sinfulness is one of the particular causes created and put forth into the universe by God, but maybe it’s just a poorly chosen metaphor.

So Aquinas’s argument is that God’s will is done, because He wills salvation with divine judgement as a back-up for the people who go wrong. He wills salvation, and He wills judgement. And damn if we aren’t on the verge of predestination. At this stage, however, we still have to deal with the initial quote from 1 Timothy: “God wills all men to be saved and to come to knowledge of the truth.” It’s worth noting that my Bible doesn’t say ‘wills’ – it says ‘desires’, and the NIV says ‘wants’. This is a thing that Aquinas does sometimes – he has his system of theology, and he uses certain words to represent certain concepts, and then assumes that the Biblical writers were using those words to mean the exact same thing. That’s sort of the basis for his argument here – we only have an issue because when he reads ‘God wills’, he assumes that ‘wills’ refers to the specific conception of will that he’s come up with and attributed to God. It’s a bit of a bullshit method, if you ask me, but that’s how we got into this mess.

Anyway, let’s finish considering the argument in his terms. His first defense is that the only people who are saved are saved because God saves them. Thus, all men who come to be saved and to know the truth are willed into that position by God. His second defense argues that some of all types of people will be saved – thus salvation is not just for the Jews, but also for the Gentiles, for slaves, for women, etc. Every type of person has a chance. The third defense is probably the most interesting: it’s a distinction between antecedent and consequent will.

Antecedent will is your sort of a priori desire, the thing you want in the abstract. The example is raised that, antecedently, a judge might want everybody to live happily and peacefully. In order for that will to come about, the judge might condemn a criminal to die – maybe because they’re a murderer or a danger to the public. So in order that the antecedent will of a peaceful society may come around, the judge consequently wills the death of the criminal who is disruptive to that society. We can think of it as the distinction between wishing and willing: God wishes for all people to be saved, but realistically His will only brings certain people to salvation. Why? Uh, well, um, ah, um, come back later. We’re not there yet.

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