Aquinas: Predestination and Free Will

So last week we talked about how in Aquinas, people are sinners and God sort of lifts some of them out of that sin. Aquinas argues that God never actively rejects anyone, but that people reject God through their sins and God in His benevolence lifts some people back into holy communion. This is basically the core of salvation for most Christians, although the difference is that many traditions will emphasise our free choice: so we have to choose to come back to God, and if we don’t it’s our own fault. As it happens, Aquinas has a lot to say about free will too.

We’re jumping ahead to the end of Question 23 here – I said last week that we’d be jumping around, and, well, we are. In 1a.23.8, Aquinas asks whether the prayers of the saints can help people get into heaven. In effect, he’s asking whether there’s anything we can do to influence or change the fact of predestination. Initially Aquinas suggests that prayers don’t help predestination, because “what can be helped can also be hindered. But nobody can hinder predestination. Nor, therefore, promote it.”

According to this logic, we might as well just give up on the whole religion thing altogether. There’s nothing we can do one way or another to influence whether we’re going to heaven or hell, so why bother with morality? Why bother with anything? God’s made His arbitrary decision, and that’s that. Aquinas opens his rebuttals by drawing this point out explicitly: “Some… have dismissed prayers as superfluous, like anything else we do towards gaining eternal life, since whether they are performed or not, the predestined will reach it [eternal life] and the reprobate will not.” At the same time, the opposite view – that we can impact who is or isn’t going to hell – seems equally wrong to Aquinas. So he goes for something in the middle.

Here we have to take a quick trip back to an earlier part of the question. In 1a.23.2, Aquinas asks ‘Does predestination really stamp the elect?’ At first, this seems like a bit of a random question. The idea is that in the beginning when God was creating everything, He decided who was predestined and who was a reprobate. If you’re predestined, Aquinas asks, is there anything sort of stamped onto you or inserted into your soul or your personality or something that marks you out as predestined? Ultimately, Aquinas argues no: “Predestination is not anything in the predestined, but only in Him who predestines.” He continues on to argue that predestination is basically just the plan for what’s going to happen. It’s the difference between planning a bank heist and actually carrying it out. And if you think about it, planning to rob a bank doesn’t stamp anything onto the bank itself. It’s just a plan, right, it only exists in the mind of the planner. So therefore, Aquinas argues, predestination doesn’t stamp the elect. It’s just a plan.

Okay, so what? Well, if predestination is just the plan, then the prayers of the saints represent the plan put into action. Someone prays for you to be saved and then because of their prayer you have a chance encounter that sparks your interest in God and then five years later you finally become a Christian and dedicate your life to Christ – and so you’re saved, and the plan of predestination is fulfilled, but that plan was fulfilled because of these practical actions taken by real people in the real world. There’s a plan, and it’s enacted.

Strictly speaking, then, your actions don’t cause people to be saved. Or – well, they do, but they’re considered a contingent cause. There’s an original divine plan, and your actions are just one of many possible routes by which that plan may be carried out. So it is possible for you to help carry out the plan of predestination, Aquinas suggests. You can be the pathway by which someone reaches salvation. And if you fail to act, well, you really weren’t that important anyway. You can’t stop someone being saved through sheer inactivity or disobedience. Your actions are only one of many possible pathways by which that person can reach salvation – that’s the sense in which they’re contingent. You might remember the distinction that Aquinas makes between things that are necessary and things that are contingent (which basically just means optional). What’s necessary is salvation for the predestined individual. What’s contingent is the specific method by which salvation comes about. Maybe it’s your prayers, maybe it’s not – but one way or another, salvation is happening for these specific people. It’s some real Final Destination shit – if you dodge one pathway to salvation, there’s another one just round the corner.

So for Aquinas, what you do does matter – not because it’s changing God’s mind on whether you’re going to heaven or not, but because it’s carrying out the plan that He laid forth. It also brings up a bunch of really interesting questions about how free will works in the first place. You have free will, and your actions affect whether or not someone comes to Christ in a particular moment. But what about your own salvation? You could still try and game the system, I guess – if nothing’s going to change, maybe you can just sit in your room. If you’re going to be saved, God will reveal Himself to you, and if you’re not, then why bother anyway? I think this highlights one of the key elements of predestination, especially as it relates to free will. If you’re thinking about it from God’s perspective, it seems super bullshit, because He already knows everything that’s going to happen. You can’t change anything or do anything – everything is foreknown, and in a sense you’re not really free to choose. You could pray for your friends, but if they’re meant to come to God He’ll bring them into His orbit whether you pray or not. In the more evangelical circles, you have a responsibility to pray for people’s souls because there’s a very real chance that if you don’t, they’ll die without becoming Christian. Under predestination, there’s no chance one way or the other. God already knows.

Of course, for the evangelical, God is still considered to be outside time, and so He already knows who’s going to heaven or hell – because from His perspective, it’s already happened. Part of the issue, then, is the relationship between free will and divine foreknowledge, which again is not a Catholic-specific issue. The thing that is specifically a Catholic issue is the role of God’s choice. If everyone’s basically released unto themselves and God only saves people once they’re prayed for, or once some other human action is performed, then it feels like our actions matter. We’re literally responsible for helping other humans go to heaven. And evangelicals will tell you that God saves, not humans, but there’s still this awkward space where they also want to claim that if you pray for someone’s soul, God can answer that prayer and save them where they might not otherwise have been saved. Push those people on the question of responsibility. Do the prayers of the saints help people get into heaven? Aquinas says no, it’s all God arbitrarily pre-deciding who’s in and who’s out. That sounds harsh, but what’s the alternative? Do the prayers of the saints help people get into heaven? Is it because we prayed, or because God decided to respond to the prayer? If He can make a decision to respond or to ignore the prayer, then isn’t it still just God arbitrarily deciding who’s in and who’s out? What’s the difference, then, between that and predestination?

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