A limit to God's free will?

If God necessarily wills the Good, then does He do so freely?

It might be the case that God is free to will one particular good rather than another. But if He is a necessarily Good being, then it would seem as though he could not even in principle ever will anything evil. In that case, it would seem as though he cannot do otherwise than to will the Good. But if he cannot but will the Good, then does he do so of his own free will?

The apparent problem in denying that God freely wills the Good is that it seems intuitively to remove the grounds for praising God for His Goodness. If God’s Goodness is not freely willed by Him, then why should He be praised for it?

Any help will be much appreciated.


Out inability to breathe underwater does not limit our free will, even though we are not free to live underwater. Our lack of wings does not limit our free will, even though we are not free to soar through the air.
This is the common analogy and it seems rather insufficient at first sight, but it really does get to the heart of the matter. Our nature does not allow us to do the things mentioned above.
It is God’s nature to be perfectly good. He cannot be any other way, because that is not His nature.

Looks like the Angelic Doctor already beat you to this question:

[quote=Summa Theologica, Part I, Question 19]Article 10: Whether God has free-will?

Objection 1. It seems that God has not free-will. For Jerome says, in a homily on the prodigal son [Ep. 146, ad Damas.]; “God alone is He who is not liable to sin, nor can be liable: all others, as having free-will, can be inclined to either side.”

Objection 2. Further, free-will is the faculty of the reason and will, by which good and evil are chosen. But God does not will evil, as has been said (9). Therefore there is not free-will in God.

On the contrary, Ambrose says (De Fide ii, 3): “The Holy Spirit divideth unto each one as He will, namely, according to the free choice of the will, not in obedience to necessity.”

I answer that, We have free-will with respect to what we will not of necessity, nor be natural instinct. For our will to be happy does not appertain to free-will, but to natural instinct. Hence other animals, that are moved to act by natural instinct, are not said to be moved by free-will. Since then God necessarily wills His own goodness, but other things not necessarily, as shown above (Article 3), He has free will with respect to what He does not necessarily will.

Reply to Objection 1. Jerome seems to deny free-will to God not simply, but only as regards the inclination to sin.

Reply to Objection 2. Since the evil of sin consists in turning away from the divine goodness, by which God wills all things, as above shown (De Fide ii, 3), it is manifestly impossible for Him to will the evil of sin; yet He can make choice of one of two opposites, inasmuch as He can will a thing to be, or not to be. In the same way we ourselves, without sin, can will to sit down, and not will to sit down.

I think the difficulty is that the modern understanding of free-will is different than the classical, orthodox understanding of it that Catholic theology requires. The modern understanding of freedom seems to me to be existentialist, i.e. the truly free agent has the ability to determine anything, even what his own nature or essence is. If you are constrained by anything, even by what you are, then you are not really free. Hence, God’s being perfectly good seems to limit His freedom.

Unfortunately that is not what pre-modern thinkers would have argued that free will is. Free will is not contrary to nature, but an aspect of it. In the above passage, Aquinas seems to define free will as that faculty in our nature which allows us to will things that are not desired of necessity or natural instinct. He says that we all desire to be happy necessarily (happiness being understood as perfect beatitude or blessedness, not merely “feelin’ okay”), which seems to be self-evidently true since everyone seeks beatitude as an end and not as a means to some further end. This beatitude seems to be that which is infinitely desirable in itself, universal goodness, God Himself, so we do will universal goodness of necessity. Our wills are said to be free because particular goodness is not willed of necessity. That we desire universal goodness necessarily means that I may choose between finite, particular goodnesses that reflect this universal goodness. Free will applies only to things subject to our nature, not our nature itself.

It is the same with God. He wills universal goodness of necessity. However, the particular ways He chooses to actualize His universal goodness in particular, finite ways is not performed out of some necessity but is performed freely. He really could have actualized a different set of particular goodnesses.

God always wills the good. How is that not freely willed? Besides, we worship God because He is pure goodness, the source of all goodness.

Balto: Thank you SO MUCH for that Aquinas passage! It was extremely helpful. I’m totally satisfied with Aquinas’ reply.

I don’t think that in order to be free we have to be able to determine what we are. I just think that in order to be free to x we have to be free either to x or not to x. Aquinas seems to affirm this principle in the passage you linked me to. He also explicitly affirms it in I-II, q. 10, a. 4.

Thanks again! Your explanation of the Aquinas point seems right to me, by the way.

Thanks also to all who have responded! Everything has been helpful.

Your question reminded me of something I read in ‘Our Saviour and His Love for Us’ by Rev. Garrigou-Lagrange. I will share some important snippets of his writing. They are well worth a read!

"But as reason is the faculty for knowing the true and not the false (although it can be put to bad use by incorrect thinking), so true liberty… is the power to choose not between good and evil but between several goods whose attraction does not necessitate the will. It is this free will that exists in God, in the sacred Soul of our Saviour, and among the blessed in Heaven…
He [God] is in no sense free to sin, that is, to turn away from Himself, from His divine goodness that He necessarily loves. **Yet He enjoys sovereign liberty in the order of goodness, inasmuch as His divine goodness leads Him to love the creatures which He can create or fail to create as He wills. It is with perfect liberty that He created us to manifest His goodness. This is the dogma of divine liberty

As St. Thomas says,** “since the goodness of God is perfect, and can exist without other things inasmuch as no perfection can accrue to Him from them, it follows that His willing things apart from Himself is not absolutely necessary.”**

Likewise God has freely raised angels and men to the life of grace, and He could without any disadvantage to Himself not have so raised them. Furthermore, God has freely willed the Incarnation, and He might well not have willed it and have remitted sin in some other way…

He does not have the liberty of evil, which is a form of our defectiveness, but He has the liberty of goodness in its absolute fullness…

Yet He [Jesus] retains the liberty of goodness, if not in the act of loving God seen face to face, at least in His love for creatures. The same is true of the saints. St. Dominic in his heavenly abode loves God whom he clearly knows with a love superior to liberty, but it is freely that he prays for one or another of his sons to obtain certain graces for them…

This doctrine also teaches us that the more we love God, as our Lord and the saints do, the freer we shall be with respect to all created goods to dominate the attraction of worldly goods and not to fear the threats of the impious. The martyrs have demonstrated the power of Christian liberty, which endures all kinds of torture rather than be unfaithful to God, and which is more concerned with union to God than with union to the body." (p. 174, 175, 176, 180, 181)

Or as St. Thomas puts it: “The will of Christ, though determined to good, is not determined to this or that good. Hence it pertains to Christ, even as to the blessed, to choose with a free will confirmed in good.” (quoted on p. 178)

I’m glad that you found it useful! I will confess that I am something of an amateur on these matters, so hopefully others and myself and coming to a better understanding of Aquinas’ thinking by considering his writings.

I think you are confusing will and intellect. It is the intellect that knows or states what is good.
The will is not in a determinate state, to do good things only, already knowing what is good, but is a power that can love many things (love is the primary movement of the will).

But it does not know what to love until the person, in his intellect, reasons or understands that some one thing is good. The will then loves that thing only.

That is the will.
Free will is then another aspect of the will which comes into play when the will is already loving something that the intellect said, “It would be Good to be one with this thing”…

The will commands the reason: Tell me what is the way to have this union with this good.
Free will happens when it is a long arduous journey to join with what the will loves, when there are multiple ways of getting to “my love”. And the way chosen is not pleasant, absolutely nothing you would do if it did not lead to the union with what the will loves.

Free will is not about choosing vanilla or chocolate ice cream. It is about doing a drawn out messy difficult task or going down a treacherous road, choosing to do it for the sake of something at the end of the task or journey. And, not doing it under compulsion as a slave, but jumping in head first to the ugly task, smiling because of the picture of the beloved ever closer to union.

But, God is not like this - he knows and speaks and what he knows has being. He loves, He says, “this is good” and it is suddenly good, and he is united with his love, his Spirit, uniting with what he said is good. He doesn’t know things defectively, which is evil (defect of being), but in perfection, so everything he wills he wills in a good order without defect.

The defect only comes in conditional being, where the being itself turns away from good order of being.

God is praised for his goodness because it is really quite something good. Good means “desirable”. It is desirable to be united with what is truly desirable. We praise him because he is supremely desirable to be united with, and because he thinks of us the same - desirable to be united with. It is a lover and a beloved both wanting to be together and understanding the other as ultimately desirable for union with.
The unique thing about God’s thinking, is that he puts desirableness in us (Grace, the sanctifying Virtues, which make us supremely desirable (good), and when we choose to use these virtues, our works are good like God’s also, our acts of Free Will, when we resolve to do each of our doings with “I am going to do this now Virtuously”).

Thanks so much! This was really helpful. I’ll have to look into Rev Garrigou-Lagrange.

Thanks! I think this is a helpful way of thinking about God’s praiseworthiness. I must say, however, that I’m not sure I see how I was confusing the intellect and the will-- especially not in any way that had any bearing on the way I set up the question about God’s free will.

You’re welcome :slight_smile:

He has written some great stuff. ‘Reality…’ is a great book of his. I don’t agree with everything he says about predestination, but otherwise I highly recommend him! Frank Sheed is another genius.

Knowing in God is “simple”, knowing all in one knowing, not a knowing of this thing is good and that thing is good and this other thing is not good. And willing in God is also “simple”, it is “one movement” to unite to the one knowing of what is desirable for union.

Free will is about doing something by your own intention, “willingly”, not about choosing alternates. Its opposite is doing something by being moved to do so by something or someone else.

If there is no one or no thing moving God to choose one thing in his intellect as good over another thing (which you would call “evil”, but which his intellect would call “good”, because the intellect is always looking at “good” as meaning “I see or know this ‘thing’; would it be desirable to be one with this ‘thing’ I know and see?” If the answer is “Union is Good”, then the will moves to unite to it, so that union is a Fact, and not just a projection.

In God (and also not in us) there is no movement of the will at all when the intellect has an understanding of “this ‘thing’ I understand is not desirable to be united with” If the will is moved to anything, it moves to distance the person, or God, from such an understanding, because “love”, which is the first movement of the will is to unite with self, and in this case of “undesirable” it becomes “hate” in order to maintain “love of self” or "“good only united to self”.

The “aspect” of the intellect that answers the question “Is this good for union” does only that one thing, it answers “desirable for union” or “undesirable for union”. It is the proper part of the intellect that understands things without asking “good” or “not good”, but only understands, “Truth” or “not Truth” so that the conclusion can be stated, “now I understand”. The will’s only movement there would be to pose the command to the other aspect of the intellect, “Is it desirable to be united to what is understood now?”

In God, since his “knowing” of the truth of what he also “knows to be desirable” is all about what is in his “divine imagination” (if it could be called that, and it cannot), he only knows or imagines Truth. He only knows or ‘imagines’ being without defect (being without evil). “Not True” would be “defective being” which is not known to God,

And, as far as his choosing one good over another, There is only one “knowing” in God; he knows differently than we do when we consider one thing then consider a different thing then choose. He knows all in one knowing, and knows all good in one knowing of desirable to be united with, and his will (his Holy Spirit) operates to union with all good simultaneously (what we would think is simultaneously) . To us it looks like he is choosing one good over another, but to him he has chosen all good in one choosing, and we are moving in the actualization of his Spirit operating at union.

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