Wednesday, 30 June 2010

Question 19 - God's Will

Why this Question Matters.

Man is made in God’s image and therefore it seems reasonable to inquire as to how much we can infer about God by analogy with man. Aquinas has already talked about God’s intellect in his discussion of knowledge in God, so it quite reasonable for him now to consider whether God has a will and if so, how we are to understand it. That God has a will appears to be affirmed by Scripture; but are we to take this as a literal description or as a metaphor? How also do we reconcile the contingency of events within creation with the will of an infinitely powerful being, the fulfilment of which would seem to be inevitable?

The Thread of the Argument

A1: Aquinas devotes the first article to the fundamental question of whether God has a will. If we work by analogy with certain aspects of human willing, this might seem problematic. In humans, will is associated with aiming at some good or with desire for something not possessed, and is at the very least associated with changing some state of affairs for some perceived better state of affairs. Since God is pure actuality, these would be problematic for such a notion of will in God. Scripture, of course, talks of God’s will and of God’s willing certain things, so how are these reconciled? Aquinas affirmation that God has a will is based on an argument that intellect and will necessarily co-exist in a rational mind. Since God is rational and has an intellect, He must therefore also have a will. In support of this argument, Aquinas recalls that physical things have existence through their form and that they tend to the possession of that form if they don’t fully possess it and they rest in it when they do. In a similar way when a mind understands something by possession of its intelligible form, it perceives it as a good to be gained (insofar as it is a good) and tends towards that good. The will simply is this appetite for the perceived good. (The will is sometimes referred to as the “rational appetite”). Replying to the objections, Aquinas argues that the notion of willing is not restricted to unattained things. The aim of God’s will is Himself; His desiring is His love and delight for Himself.

A2: The answer to the first article may leave us with the impression that God’s will is entirely focussed inwardly and that therefore God does not will things other than Himself. Aquinas’s answer to this is based on one of his most profound and beautiful axioms: “good is diffusive of itself”. Things in nature not only have a natural tendency towards their own good but they also spread their own good to other things. For example, animals not only tend towards their own perfection, but they reproduce, spreading their own good to new beings. We know God through his creation, so we may infer that this axiom applies to creation because it applies primarily to God Himself. We may apply this axiom to wills and willing: wills share their good with others and this latter applies pre-eminently to God’s will. In reply to the potent objection that will is stirred, and therefore changed, by what is willed, Aquinas replies that God wills things other than Himself in willing His own goodness. This is parallel to the argument that God understands things other than Himself in understanding His own essence.

A3: Since God is eternal and unchangeable, it might seem in consequence that everything He wills is willed necessarily. For if His will were contingent and truly open to alternatives, this would imply change in God (at the point at which the choice between alternatives occurs) as well as imperfection (as everything contingent has not achieved full actuality). Aquinas answers by making a technical distinction between “absolute necessity” and “hypothetical necessity” in propositions. In the former the relationship between the terms of the proposition guarantee its truth (e.g. “a human being is an animal”); in the latter the proposition is true as it affirms an actual current state of affairs (“Socrates is sitting” is true if Socrates is actually sitting now). Aquinas now argues that God does will His own goodness with absolute necessity, but that there are other things that He wills with hypothetical necessity. To do this, Aquinas notes that God wills things other than Himself “insofar as they are set towards His goodness as to their end”. In other words, all things being ordered towards God as their end are actually ordered towards God’s goodness. He notes that some things that lead to an end are necessary for achieving that end and that some that actually occur are not (but are contingently open to alternatives). Applying this to God’s goodness as final end, we conclude that God must will with absolute necessity the former class and with hypothetical necessity the latter class. So, God wills things necessarily insofar as “He wills what He wills”, but not all that He wills is willed with absolute necessity.

A4: We know that God causes all things in the sense of a first cause, but does it make sense to attribute God’s causality to His will? Or is it, as the objections suggest, more fitting to attribute God’s causality to his essence or to his knowledge (as might be suggested by the conclusion of Q14 Article 8)? Aquinas offers three arguments that God’s will is the cause of things. The first argument is based on the definition of will as rational appetite: the will is what gets things done based on the knowledge of the intellect. In creation, any physical agent is preceded by an intelligent agent and since God is first agent, His agency precedes any other. He has intellect and will and therefore He “gets things done” through His will. The second argument attacks the idea that God’s causality proceeds from His nature by arguing that natures act as agents in one single determinate way, the way that is natural to them. But God’s nature is not like the natures of created things; the whole perfection of being is contained in God’s nature and therefore it is not ordered to one determinate thing. The analogy between God’s nature and created natures breaks down before we can claim natural causation associated with God’s nature. The third argument mirrors the first in arguing that effects pre-exist in their causes and therefore creatures pre-exist in God’s understanding. They proceed from this pre-existence in His understanding by His will, as will is the faculty of the mind that tends towards the good perceived.

A5: God is the first cause, so it makes little sense to talk of His causing being caused by something else. But can we look for causal structure in God’s will, attributing cause to certain acts of His will due to other acts of His will? If there were no cause behind all of God’s willed actions one might begin to think of God as capricious or even irrational! To answer this question, Aquinas considers a certain aspect of how minds work. Sometimes, he claims, we understand a premise and draw a conclusion from it as separate acts. Other times we grasp both a premise and conclusion together in a single act of intuition. In the latter case we do not say that understanding of the premise causes understanding of the conclusion but we do in the former case. The will behaves in a similar fashion with respect to ends and means. If end and means are grasped in one act, then we do not say that willing the end causes the willing of the means. God, of course, wills everything in His Goodness in a single act, therefore His willing of an end cannot be said to be a cause of His willing the corresponding means. Hence Aquinas concludes that He does not will this because He wills that but rather that He wills this to be because of that.

A6: We might initially think that God’s will must of necessity be fulfilled; after all, whatever could frustrate it? But St. Paul famously wrote that “God wills everyone to be saved and to come to know the truth”, but things do not turn out that way, implying that God’s will can be frustrated. Aquinas affirm that God’s will is inevitably fulfilled, but in doing so he also reaffirms the classical notions of “antecedent will” and "consequent will” in his reply to the objection concerning the failure of universal salvation. He starts by drawing a parallel between formal and efficient causes. A thing can fail to have a particular form, but it cannot fail to have a form. Likewise something can fail to have a particular efficient cause but it must still have a cause subsumed under the universal first cause. No effect can escape from being under the sway of the universal cause. Therefore, as the universal cause of all things, God’s will must be fulfilled; if His will appears to be frustrated from one point of view, it is in fact fulfilled from another point of view. To understand the difference between antecedent and consequent will, Aquinas gives the example that it is good in general that people should live and bad for them to die. However, if they turn out to be murderers then it is good that they should be killed. (Our modern sensibilities might wish to replace Aquinas’s example with freedom and incarceration rather than life and execution!) An antecedent will is a sort of willing that is expressed prior to considering all the facts of a particular situation. When all those facts are taken into account, a judgement is expressed in consequent willing. So, the classical tradition is that St Paul’s words are expressing God’s antecedent will rather than His consequent will, where His justice and mercy will be in balance according His revealed promises.

A7: From certain passages of scripture it might seem that God’s will is changeable. However, there are also other scriptural passages that assert that God’s will is unchangeable. How are we to understand this? Aquinas, as one might expect by now, is firmly on the side of the teaching that God’s will is unchanging. He notes first of all that there is a substantial difference between changing one’s will and willing change. One must also note that even in humans an unchanging will can will contrary things to happen in different circumstances. Aquinas explains those scriptural passages that seem to assert a change in God’s will as invoking metaphor or as, in the words of Gregory the Great, “God changes his sentence, but not His plan”. Things can appear to us as changing when they are in fact unchanging as far as God is concerned.

A8: Aquinas asked whether God wills necessarily in Article 2. He now returns to the question of necessity in God’s will in an article related to the subject of article 6: Does God’s will impose necessity on the things He wills? If this were so, then it would appear that any notion of contingency or of free choice would disappear. Aquinas claims that God’s will sometimes imposes necessity on the things He wills and sometimes it does not. In defending this position, Aquinas rejects a common argument that says that effects are necessary when God uses necessary secondary causes and are contingent when He uses contingent secondary causes (recall his argument in Article 6 that God’s will is always inevitable fulfilled). Instead, Aquinas argues the other way around. As God’s will is the most effective of all causes, God can not only will things to be but can also will the way in which they come to be. Thus in designing the universe, God has ordered necessary causes for some effects and contingent causes for other effects.

A9: In Question 14 Article 10, Aquinas tackled the awkward question of God’s knowledge of evil. There he had to deal with the objection that as God’s knowledge is creative, it might seem that God must therefore create evil. Now Aquinas turns his attention to the question of whether God wills evil. Again, the naive challenge here is that God is responsible for everything and that everything that is has resulted from His will, therefore it would seem that He must will the evils that are present in creation. Aquinas argues (from Question 5 Article 1) that as evil is the opposite of the good, it is impossible that any evil can be directly wanted, be it by the natural appetite, animal appetite or by the rational appetite that is the will. However, it is possible for evil to be willed indirectly when the evil corresponds in some natural way to a greater good. For example, a lion killing a deer to eat involves the evil of death but the evil is associated with the good of the flourishing of the lion. God never wills moral evil but He wills physical evil indirectly by willing the good with which it is associated.

A10: Does God have free choice? Article 3 argued that God wills His own good of necessity but that the other things He wills are only willed with a hypothetical necessity. God clearly has choice over willing these latter things. Now God cannot choose moral evil (as argued in Article 9) but this is, by definition, a turning away from the good and is therefore consistent with God’s free choice over hypothetical necessities.

A11: We can often infer a state of mind in someone from their behaviour. For example, it is often reasonable to infer that someone is angry if they punish their child. We can also sometimes infer someone’s will from what they do or say. We say that the behaviour is a sign of the underlying state of mind. Can we do the same with God’s will? Can we infer God’s will from some of the signs that He gives? Aquinas argues that we can, but he also warns that we often use metaphor in the inference, as God is in many ways quite unlike the way we are. For example, scripture talks of God being angry and of God’s wrath; these are metaphorical applications to God of human emotions which point to some underlying reality. God issues commands from which we may reasonably infer God’s will. There is a difference between these examples: we attribute anger to God metaphorically but sometimes we can attribute willing to God literally. Indeed, we have to be careful in our inference, distinguishing literal willing of God (His “will of good pleasure”) from a metaphorical attribution (a “will of sign”).

A12: Having argued for the possibility of inferring God’s will from signs, Aquinas now proposes five particular signs that are amenable to such inference. He arrives at these signs by analogy with human willing. If you want something done, then doing it yourself, or getting it done by someone else expresses your will; therefore doing is sign of will. If you give permission for something to be done, that is a sign of your will. Likewise prohibiting something indicates your will on the matter. We might direct others through an imperative precept or through an advisory council. Aquinas argues that the analogy with human willing is valid by an appeal to the Lord’s Prayer and to an argument of Augustine.

Handy Concepts

  • The will is the “rational appetite” corresponding to the intellect. The intellect perceives something as a good to be desired and proposes it as such to the will. The will takes this proposal as its object and moves towards it in a fashion parallel to the way our other appetites move towards their objects.
  • “Appetites” can be rational (as with the will) or can be “sensitive” (corresponding to the senses). The term is also applied to non-living things in that they tend towards their perfection. So, in article 1, Aquinas states that “When cognition is absent we call this bearing ‘natural appetite’”.
  • In the second objection to Article 5, Aquinas touches on the idea that God is the immediate cause of all things in the created world through His will. This idea became popular in some branches of Islamic philosophy.
  • For Aquinas, intellect precedes the will (i.e. the intellect identifies an object for the will as a perceived good and the will tends towards that object). Later medieval philosophers argued for the primacy of the will. This led to the idea of voluntarism (which some consider one of the formative ideas behind the Reformation).


  • Articles 6 & 8 together seem puzzling. God’s will is always fulfilled and God orders necessary effects through necessary causes and contingent effects through contingent causes. How does this work? Does Aquinas’s use of the word “contingent” really make any sense? What does it mean to say that God can will the manner (necessary or contingent) in which things come about? How can God “prepare contingent causes”? He will return to this theme in Q 22 on God’s providence.


  1. Leo Carton Mollica15 August 2010 at 05:20

    About "preparing contingent causes," I've always found the following analogy useful: In Christopher Marlowe's "Doctor Faustus," the title character can either repent or fail to repent, but whether or not he repents or fails to repent is still determined by Marlowe's will. Perhaps it is the same with God.

    That is not, I admit, a definitive answer to the problem, nor do I know if it gives anything more than the illusion of a solution. But who "will comprehend the steps of God, and will find out the Almighty perfectly?" (Job XI:vii).

  2. Hi Leo,

    Thanks for your analogy, it's a useful one that ties in, via a play on words, with the idea that that God is the author of creation.

    The "problem" of necessity and contingency isn't simply a problem for the Christian understanding of God; it's a problem for any theistic system, and can even be considered a problem for a purely materialistic understanding of the world.

    For me, the idea that God "prepares" necessary and contingent causes illustrates Aquinas's idea of analogy very well; and also shows us that, as Lateran IV teaches, "between Creator and creature no similitude can be expressed without implying an even greater dissimilitude".

  3. Is God's will a tendency?

  4. Hello Anonymous,

    My first inclination would be to answer no as the word "tendency" has a distinct flavour of unactualized potency about it. But perhaps to give as better answer, I need to know exactly what you mean by "tendency". Specifically, if we are to apply it to God, then we have to know something about its analogical use.

  5. I am searching for God's will... How will you determine God's will fro our own will. In the five particular signs, it speaks more of our own will... How do we know/ determine God's will in the events of life, signs, etc?