Total Personal Creation: The Restoration of Philosophical Sanity?
Divine Causality and Human Free Choice: Domingo Báñez, Physical Premotion and the Controversy de Auxiliis Revisited
By R.J. Matava
Publisher: Brill Academic
Price: $204 ($25 for students and scholars affiliated with an institution that has purchased a Brill E-Book or MyBook option)
Review Author: David D. Jividen
R.J. Matava’s Divine Causality and Human Free Choice: Domingo Báñez, Physical Premotion and the Controversy de Auxiliis Revisited (hereafter De Auxiliis Revisited) tackles what has been the most perplexing and longest running unsolved debate within Catholicism — namely, how does free will co-exist with God’s infallible divine causality? This dilemma’s resolution is not apparent in Scripture. For example, the Bible doesn’t explain why the Lord “hardened Pharaoh’s heart, and [Pharaoh] did not let the people of Israel go out of his land,” despite Moses’ warnings (Exod. 11:10), yet the Lord stirred the spirit of Cyrus, King of Persia, to issue a proclamation allowing the Jewish diaspora to return to Jerusalem to build Him a temple (cf. Ezra 1:1-4). Indeed, Matava, dean of Christendom College’s Graduate School, in framing this debate early in the book, notes the seemingly irresolvable tension between scriptural affirmations of divine sovereignty and scriptural insistence that human persons can make free choices. Specifically, Matava cites St. Paul’s teaching that salvation depends not on human activity but on divine mercy, as persons are clay in the hands of the Divine Potter who “has mercy upon whomever he wills, and he hardens the heart of whomever he wills” (Rom. 9:18). In contrast, Sirach reminds us that He “created man in the beginning and he left him in the power of his own inclination. If you will, you can keep the commandments, and to act faithfully is a matter of your own choice” (15:14-15). For Matava, passages in Deuteronomy and Sirach “connect the notion of free choice to covenant…and it would seem that the very notion of covenant assumes the ability to freely accept or reject God’s offer.”
The clash of two differing theological theories purporting to resolve this theological debate underlies the de Auxiliis controversy (which takes its name from auxilium, the word for “actual” or “helping” grace) and sets the stage for Matava’s elegant resolution of this dilemma through an approach he calls “Total Personal Creation.” By explaining these two theological positions and their modern counterparts, and then carefully sketching out how Total Personal Creation addresses the shortfalls of each historical approach, Matava resolves the tension between God’s infallible will and human freedom in a manner that is at once simple and profound. By so doing, Matava takes a great step toward ending academic silence on the de Auxiliis debate imposed by Paul V’s papal bull (1607), which ordered the proponents of each historical position to cease accusing the other of violating Catholic dogma.
As Matava recounts, on one side of the debate were the proponents of the doctrine of physical premotion, of whom arguably the most important was Dominican Friar Domingo Báñez (1528-1604). Matava focuses most of his attention on Báñez’s physical premotion theory because it has been the least studied over the past half century and because Báñez employs classic Thomistic thought and is relatively inaccessible in English. Physical premotion theory posits that God “moves [a person’s] free will from a state of potency to a state of act by a created motion that is distinct and naturally antecedent to the [person’s] own free act.” In other words, God wills a particular choice among several options an individual faces and, through physical premotion, causes the individual to make that particular choice. Báñez determines that physical premotion does not eliminate human freedom due to the way he defines and explains three related concepts: human freedom, vital acts, and choice.
In Báñez’s view, human freedom is not determined by its nature to will, or decide, any particular choice because human nature disposes a person to be fulfilled by a variety of different goods. Moreover, every act of choosing by an individual is also a “vital act,” meaning it is an act that originates in a person’s human soul and its capacities (in this case, intellect and will). Nevertheless, all of a person’s actions depend on God for their being, meaning that every human action, including choice, depends on a transition from potency to act — and nothing can be changed from potency to act except by something that is already in act, which is ultimately God. For Báñez, every individual act determined by physical premotion is nevertheless free because the person is indifferently disposed toward that choice in the “divided” and not “composed” sense, a concept derived from Aquinas’s explanation of why God knows contingent future things (or possible future occurrences). That is to say, in abstraction from God’s premotion, the person could will this way or that (since his will is disposed toward a variety of goods), even though his will is determined under the influence of God’s premotion. Moreover, it is premotion that accounts for there being any action at all, rather than none. An illustrative example is helpful. Although a man named Peter, at the time of a choice between X and Y, is determined to choose X through physical premotion, his will is nonetheless still free, as he is indifferently disposed toward X and Y in the divided sense.
The opposing theory competing with Báñez’s in the de Auxiliis controversy is found in Luis de Molina’s epic work, often referred to as The Concordia, published at Lisbon in 1588. Molina’s approach in reconciling human freedom with God’s providence differs from Báñez’s primarily in his approach to free choice and Divine Providence. Regarding human freedom, Molina thinks that, in choosing freely, human liberum arbitrium is a self-mover that is not determined by any other. Molina believes that God concurs in bringing about one’s acts. Unlike Báñez’s physical premotion, which is metaphysically prior to and determining of an individual’s choice, Molina’s general concurrence is metaphysically simultaneous with the human act of free choice and indifferent to the final determination that characterizes that specific choice. In other words, Matava explains, Molina believes there is only one act, the human act of free choice, which is immediately produced by both God and the human person. However, according to Molina, to safeguard the integrity of free choice, God’s action does not supplant human action but rather cooperates alongside it, not unlike two men towing a barge together. God and man are partial, coordinated causes because neither alone can produce the effect that both produce together acting as a single cause. Note that in Molina’s view of free choice, God’s causation takes place not on the human agent but with the human agent.
God, in Molina’s view, does not determine how free creatures would react to various circumstances of life in which they can be placed, or make them choose among options in those circumstances, but He does have knowledge of their reactions in each potential circumstance through a concept called “middle knowledge.” Middle knowledge, notes Matava, is the “linchpin that allows Molina to hold divine sovereignty together with creaturely freedom” since God knows prior to creating (by simple knowledge) not only what creatures He would create but also (by middle knowledge) exactly how these creatures would behave in any of the infinite variety of circumstances in which they could be placed. In short, God creates creatures, including persons, and places them in one of a variety of circumstances, knowing how a person would react in that particular circumstance.
Accordingly, a key difference between Báñez’s and Molina’s theories is their conceptions of what constitutes free choice. Báñez thinks liberum arbitrium means that a person, when choosing, is a self-mover without being the only mover, while Molina thinks that, in choosing freely, liberum arbitrium means that a human is a self-mover who is not moved by any other but moves in concurrence with God. In a particularly insightful section, Matava highlights Báñez’s and Molina’s main critiques of each other’s theories. He illustrates how Báñez exposes the flaw in Molina’s middle knowledge construct — namely, how anything contingent can obtain prior to creation. Molina, in turn, sees Báñez’s physical premotion theory as undermining human freedom, by collapsing it into the divine. Further, Molina argues that Báñez’s understanding of the composed and divided senses fails to agree with the Council of Trent’s teaching on justification. According to Matava, Báñez and Molina succeed in their critiques of each other, but their positive accounts of God’s causation of human free choices are both flawed: “Báñez and Molina each grasped part of the mystery, but both failed to grasp its whole truth.” Matava fills in the missing piece of the explanation that resolves the free choice and divine providence conundrum by explaining Total Personal Creation (TPC), the name he coined for his theory.
TPC advances the view that God creates human acts of free choice. Matava, building on earlier thinkers who postulated various forms of TPC, explains that God “wills the whole reality of a human person’s free choosing, including the particular determination of the person’s choice” (emphasis added). TPC, Matava argues, does not suggest that God is a determining antecedent to an individual human choice, in the manner of Báñez’s physical premotion, for two reasons. First, TPC does not confuse human choice itself with God’s willing a particular human choice. Instead, TPC highlights God’s creative action — namely, God’s effectuating and maintaining in existence the entire act of choosing itself. In other words, TPC focuses on the divine causation of existence. What God properly does, Matava writes, “is to cause things to be…from the top down.” In developing his argument, Matava first textually scrutinizes Aquinas’s Summa Theologiae and offers a compelling and systematic interpretation of Aquinas’s writings that provides TPC with a solid Thomistic theological underpinning. This includes the potent argument that Aquinas understood God’s motion of the human will as an exercise of His creative causality. This portion of De Auxiliis Revisited is particularly compelling, as it offers groundbreaking work not accomplished by other TPC advocates. It exhibits Matava’s expertise in reading Aquinas, and by itself is a valuable contribution to modern Thomistic studies.
Using Aquinas’s interpretive support, Matava posits that God wills the entire reality of individual human freedom through time, including individual free choices in time. The radical extent of God’s creative causality in TPC, Matava explains, “reaches to the very bottom of things.” The necessity that is implied by divine omnipotence is not the sort that excludes freedom from the created order. Rather, “it is the very basis of the existence of creaturely freedom” — including choosing. “God’s causing Peter to freely choose A,” Matava emphasizes, does not imply an “antecedent condition to Peter’s freely choosing A (such as physical premotion) that would be otherwise were Peter to freely choose B.” Driving the point home, Matava notes, “The operation of God’s will is not an event independent of choosing in TPC’s calculus because there is nothing ‘left over’ if one subtracts the act of deciding from God’s act of creating.” Put succinctly, human choice in TPC is not a distinct state of affairs caused by God’s willing; rather, TPC encompasses human choices. Free human choices, according to Matava, are “the very thing God wills, the actual content of his act of commending [their] existence.”
TPC views God’s creation of human free choice as just one instance of the broader mystery of creation, and the transcendence and incomprehensibility of God’s nature and operations preclude the judgment that it is impossible for a human act of choice to be free simply because it is caused by God. “As soon as one grasps what a radical and thoroughgoing claim the doctrine of creation is,” Matava observes, “the idea that God creatively causes free creaturely acts poses no special difficulty.” Matava, in typical Thomistic style, then articulates, considers, and rebuts five potential objections to TPC: that it is metaphysically unsatisfying; that it undermines free choice; that it implicitly denies the universal purview of divine causality; that it is a form of occasionalism; and that it makes God responsible for sin. Matava also explores a possible objection to TPC from Francisco Suárez, a follower of Molina, describing Suárez’s position on divine causation.
In sum, Matava sees a common error assumed by both sides in the de Auxiliis controversy: that “divine causality is a kind of energy or influx that mediates between cause and effect and which, as such, is physically prior to the effect.” This erroneous supposition, one that forces God’s creative omnipotence into our way of thinking about causes within the world, led Báñez and Molina and their respective supporters to think of divine and human action as a “zero-sum game.” This zero-sum game has now, thanks to Matava, been replaced with TPC’s coherent account of how the tension between God’s infallible will and human freedom is resolved in a manner that acknowledges what all sides of the debate accept: the transcendence and incomprehensibility of God’s nature. Matava’s TPC theory corrects errors injected into modern thought by thinkers such as Nietzsche and Feuerbach, errors that can lead to deadly secular humanism. With TPC, as Matava recognizes, no longer does the existence of God demand the negation of human freedom.
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