Aquinas: Does He Have To?

As we’re working towards predestination, I’ll cover some of the foundations that Aquinas lays out as starting points. For example, 1a.19.3 asks ‘Is God bound to will whatever He does will?’ Now, predestination is the idea that some people are just destined to go to hell. There’s nothing they can do about it – they’re just fucked. They’ve been fucked from eternity – they were created fucked, they’re going to live fucked, and when they die they’ll go to hell, because they’ve been fucked. Thus 1a.19.3: is God bound to fuck those people over? Does He have to damn them to hell from before the creation of the world? Or could He, you know, not?

I don’t know if I’ve mentioned this before, but the Summa has this structure where Aquinas puts forwards one response to a question, and then shows why that response is wrong, all in a sort of back and forth debating sort of way. So here he begins by saying that yes, God is bound to will whatever He ends up willing – meaning that his eventual position is that no, God’s not bound to will it. He puts forward a bunch of reasons as to why God’s compelled to will what He does, and they’re all linked into a lot of stuff that he’s discussed earlier.

So for example he argues that “everything eternal is necessary”, which is from 1a.2.3 where Aquinas ‘proves’ the existence of God. This is the third proof: basically he argued that everything was caused by something, and eventually if you go back to first causes you end up with God. It’s a bit more complicated than that: there’s a whole bunch of stuff that exists, and for most of it you can say that it’s possible that there was a time when it didn’t exist. If it’s possible that there was a time when nothing existed, then there wouldn’t be anything today, because you can’t create something from nothing. So there must be some stuff that’s necessary – that is, some stuff that absolutely must exist and from which everything else appears. We can call this stuff eternal. If something’s necessary, and it absolutely must exist, then there’s no possibility of it not existing – that’s the whole point of necessary things. Therefore necessary things must have existed forever, because there was never a possibility of it not existing.

Given that everything eternal is necessary, God’s will is necessary, because God’s will is eternal. His will never changes, because otherwise He’d be a God who changes, and if you change you’re either changing towards or away from perfection, and if you’re changing towards or away from perfection then there’s a time when you weren’t perfect. God is perfect, so God is unchanging, so God’s will is unchanging, so God’s will is eternal, so God’s will is necessary. Because God’s will is necessary/eternal/unchanging, it can’t be anything other than what it is – so yes, God is actually bound to will whatever He wills. It’s a bit mind-bending, right? You know what the best part is? Aquinas argues against this position.

In fact, Aquinas has quite a tidy solution. He draws a distinction between hypothetical and absolute necessity. When Socrates is sitting, he says, it is an absolute necessity that Socrates is in a sitting position. That’s an absolute necessity, because it’s sort of by definition. ‘Sitting’ means ‘being in this position where your bum is on a seat’, so if Socrates is sitting then it’s an absolute necessity that his bum is on the seat. However, at the same time, Socrates isn’t always sitting down. So hypothetically, it’s necessary that when Socrates is sitting down his bum has to be on the seat: “the supposition [is] that while he is seated his posture cannot be otherwise.” 

Leading on from this distinction, Aquinas argues that hypothetically God could’ve willed whatever the fuck He wanted. He doesn’t need creation to be any more satisfied. He doesn’t have any need for humanity or the universe or our love. So there’s no absolute necessity for God to will anything to do with us – He doesn’t need us, so why would willing our existence be a necessary thing? However, Aquinas accepts that God’s will is hypothetically necessary: “on the supposition that He does will a thing it cannot be unwilled, since His will is immutable.” So yes, the initial argument is correct: God is perfect, so God is unchanging, so God’s will is unchanging, so God’s will is eternal, so God’s will is necessary. However, “[g]ranted that God wills whatever He does from eternity, the inference is not that He has to, except on a supposition that He does.” Once God wills a thing, yes, it’s immutable and unchanging. But God never had to will those things. He chose to. And once they were willed, they’re immutable, but God could’ve willed any number of different things. The things He did will are only immutable because God chose to will them.

So there’s a couple of things to take from this. One of the intended meanings is that actually, God doesn’t have to create us, and He doesn’t have to save us either. It emphasises the mercy and generosity of predestination – God wasn’t compelled to save anyone. It’s no skin off His nose if we all go to hell. But He chose to save people, and that’s a good thing. And it’s true, it is a good thing. But it sort of leads into the second point. Why didn’t God just choose to save everyone? What kind of shitty God saves half the population and shrugs about the others? Why does it all seem so arbitrary and meaningless? Why – and this is the big one – why should we accept platitudes about God’s love and mercy when people we know and love were damned to hell from before time began?

Note – I’m not a Catholic, but I am a Christian. I don’t believe predestination is a thing, but I am interested in taking the argument Aquinas makes, exploring it, and raising the sorts of issues that reasonable human beings would raise. To some extent the conversation is moot – salvation works however salvation works, and we’ll find out the truth of it later. That’s not to say that we shouldn’t concern ourselves with interrogating ideas of salvation – I’m just not overly attached to any specific theory.


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