Freedom and Predestination

Michelangelo’s “The Creation of Adam”

If God is not love but only knowledge, then it is difficult or impossible to see how human free will and divine predestination can both be true. But if God is love, there is a way.

Freedom and predestination is one of the most frequently asked questions among my students—partly because of modern man’s great concern for freedom, but also, I think, for the largely unconscious reason that we intuitively know both these things must be true because they are the warp and woof of every good story. If a story has no plot, no destiny – if its events are haphazard and arbitrary – it is not a great story.

Every good story has a sense of destiny, of fittingness as if it were written by God. But every story also leaves its characters free. Lesser writers may jimmy and force their characters into molds, but the greater the writer the more clearly the reader sees that his characters are real people and not just mental concepts. The more nearly the characters have a life of their own and seem to leap off the page into real life, the greater a writer we have. God, of course, is the greatest writer of all. Since human life is his story, it must have both destiny and freedom.

Let’s look first at the side called destiny. Predestination is a misleading word, I think, for it concedes too much to our temporal way of thinking. God is not pre or post anything. He is present to everything. God does not look down rows of dominoes or into crystal balls. He does not have to wait for anything. Nor does he wonder what will happen. Nothing is uncertain to him, as the future is uncertain to us. There is not predestination but destination, not predestiny but destiny. This follows from divine omniscience and eternity.

But our free will follows from the divine love. To love someone is to make them free. To enslave them is always a defect of love.

Now since divine love is God’s very essence, while omniscience and omnipotence are only attributes of that essence, therefore if one of these two truths had to come first – in the sense of being more primordial and non-negotiable than the other – it would have to be freedom.

I do not think either truth needs to be compromised. I think we can do as much justice to the sovereignty of God as a Calvinist and as much justice to the free will of man as a Baptist. Yet it would not compromise the very essence of God to deny predestination. Arminianism, the theological viewpoint that denies predestination and emphasizes the role of man’s free will in receiving grace from God, may be wrong. But it is wrong at a relatively technical, theoretical level. Denying human free will, on the other hand, would cut out something immediately essential to the Christian life: personal responsibility. If I am a robot, even a divinely programmed robot, my life no longer has the drama of real choice and turns into a formula, the unrolling of a pre-written script. God loves me too much to allow that. He would sooner compromise his power than my freedom.

Actually, he does neither. It is precisely his power that gives me my freedom. Aquinas reconciles freedom with predestination by saying that God’s love is so powerful that he not only gets what he wants but he also gets it in the way that he wants. Not only is everything done that God wills to be done, but it is also done in the way he wants it to be done. It happens without freedom in the case of natural things like falling rain and freely in the case of human choices. A power a little less than total may get what it wants without getting it in the way that it wants it. But omnipotence gets both. And the way omnipotence wants human acts done is freely.

In other words, freedom and predestination are two sides of one coin. The omnipotent author chose to write a story about free human beings, not just trees or machines. That means we are really free. We are free precisely because God is all-powerful.

If love and power were not one, we would have the classic standoff, an unending conflict between the two. Once you see the center, love, everything else falls into place like spokes in a wheel.

The oneness of love and power is also why we need not fear God’s power: it is his very love. Therefore, it cannot be used lovelessly. And it is also why we need not fear that his love will ever fail, for it is omnipotent. It is power. The very hands that tossed the galaxies around like grains of sand loved mankind so much that they let mere men nail them to the cross, all for love. The One who loved us even unto death, the supreme weakness, is infinite strength.

In fact, if we only believe and remember the unity of these two things, God’s love and God’s power, if we only believe in the two attributes that can least be subtracted from God, the practical result will be the most revolutionary transformation of joy and confidence imaginable in our lives. To see this all we need do is reread Romans 8:.31-39. “What then shall we say to this?” What is the inevitable consequence of the fact that the omnipotent God loves us so much that he “did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all?” Simply this: “Will he not also give us all things with him?” It follows as the night the day that not “anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God.” No, it follows even more surely than the night follows the day, for the laws of physics will change before the laws of God’s nature ever will.

If God is all-powerful and all-loving, then “in everything God works for good with those who love him.” Even in persecution, torture, and death! For although “for thy sake we are being killed all the day long,” yet “in all these things we are more than conquerors.” Why? Because these tortures, like everything, serve the one single end of the single-minded and single-hearted God who wills only our good. He practices what he preaches: purity and simplicity of heart, 100 percent love. The only way out of his love is not chance or suffering or death, but deadly sin. And even past sins can work for our good through present repentance. If only we will it, everything works for our good because everything is God’s love. It’s so simple that only a child could understand it, or one who has become like a child. “I thank thee, Father, Lord of heaven and earth,” said Jesus, “that thou hast hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to babes” (Mt 11:25).

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About the Author

Peter Kreeft, Ph.D., is a professor of philosophy at Boston College and also at the King's College (Empire State Building), in New York City. He is a regular contributor to several Christian publications, is in wide demand as a speaker at conferences, and is the author of over 55 books including: Back to Virtue; The God Who Loves You; Heaven, The Heart's Deepest Longing; Everything You wanted to Know About Heaven; Your Questions - God's Answers; How To Win The Culture War; The Journey; Before I Go - Letters to Our Children About What Really Matters; and Jesus Shock.

Dr. Kreeft is a convert to the Catholic Church from reformed Protestantism. He earned an A.B. degree from Calvin College, an M.A. and Ph.D. from Fordham University, followed by post-doctoral work at Yale University. He has received several honors for achievements in the field of philosophy, including the Woodrow Wilson Award, Yale-Sterling Fellowship, Newman Alumni Scholarship, Danforth Asian Religions Fellowship, and a Weathersfield Homeland Foundation Fellowship.

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  1. A nun told me something many years ago that i have taught my children. She told me: ‘you can’t love something that can’t love you back’. Is that because of freedom? without freedom there cannot be love?
    And another item is will. Does Islam teach that Allah is pure will? WOuld that mean that His love is not a defining essence? just wondering

  2. God exists outside of time and space. God can see our life’s timeline all at once, from birth to death. God knows what we will do in the future because he sees us doing it. We excercise our free will within time. I think this is all in the chapter on time and eternity in St Augustine’s Confessions. Somewhere, C.S. Lewis has Aslan say “all times are soon to me.”

  3. As Denys Turner has pointed out before (most recently in his excellent book on Julian of Norwich), pre-modern philosophy had a step-up in this argument because it could conceive of a continuum of logical causes between absolute contingency and absolute necessity. Medieval thinkers would often characterize this middle ground as “conveniens”, the type of logical necessity that is “just so” and “fitting”, yet not absolute. Julian of Norwich called it “behovely”.

    And, as Prof. Kreeft points out, this is precisely the logical necessity of the good story: it the narratival logic in which the best of stories happens “just so”.

  4. I think that you accurately portray St. Thomas’ mind on this. God’s loving is the cause of our freedom and salvation. However, you don’t really respond to the objection that if God always gets what He wants, why wouldn’t every single person be saved?

    1. What God wants is for us to be happy. That means that if we say by our actions that we do not want to be with him, he will let us leave, even if it is painful for him. Once one rejects him, then God will let him go, for the rejecter’s own happiness(for the only thing more painful than hell to a person in hell would be heaven[the love there would destroy them])

    2. St. Thomas also addresses this by making the distinction between God’s antecedent and consequent will. Look at ST I q19, art 6 in particular where he gives a good example of the just judge who might will that all men have life but because a man might be a threat to many other lives he would also will that he be sentenced to death.
      It is God’s antecedent will (this deal’s with particulars) that all men be saved, but it is His consequent will that the Good be maximized. The Good could not be maximized if it did not include both His mercy and His justice.

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