Free Will: Comparing Aquinas & the Holy Scriptures
Thomas of Aquinas is recognized by the Orthodox as one of the foundational theologians, particularly in that he provided an important step in towards the Renaissance by helping to reacquaint Christianity with Aristotle, who he refers to throughout his as "the Philosopher." As one who draws inspiration from Aristotle, he is particularly interested in rational philosophy as applied to the realm of religion and theology. This makes his defense of free will particularly strong, though at points one feels he lacks the necessary sense of ambiguity to completely address the Biblical texts. What is important to glean from his work, however, is a message that is also prominent in the Scriptures: that man is "made to God's image, in so far as the image implies an intelligent being endowed with free-will and self-movement..."
Summa Theologica, II:1:1)
Some thinkers believe that humans do not have free will, but that our actions are determined either by our environment or by God himself; Thomas Aquinas recognizes and addresses these objections masterfully. One objection is that our actions do not display free will because they are determined by what modern functionalists would call outside stimuli, and result entirely from outside determing factors. He answers this by explaining that they free will is an intrinsic act, but it can have extrinsic influences. Free will is defined by the inclination of the knowledgeable mind towards a specific end -- and while the desirability or possibility of an end may be determined by circumstances, the inclination resides in the will. His response to the claim that free will cannot exist because God determines our future and holds all our movements in his mind is a little less satisfactory. He mainly suggests that God's influence is similar to any other extrinsic influence, but when he cannot entirely hold up this point in argument he draws his argument from definitions. This needs to be addressed in more detail to be completely understood. However, the primary threat to the doctrine of free will in our modern time does come from behaviorists and their ilk who suggest outside forces control the mind, and this Aquinas refutes neatly.
His argument for free will explains that while a rock which is thrown does not have free will in deciding to fall, this is because it has no knowledge or decision making power. Yet a human who jumps and falls has a knowledge of the reason behind their actions, and falls then according to the inclination of his desires. Drawing from Aristotle, Aquinas defines will as being primarily based in knowledge of intended ends and in the inclination that leads to actions towards those end. He says: "those things which have a knowledge of the end are said to move themselves because there is in them a principle by which they not only act but also act for an end...Therefore, since man especially knows the end of his work, and moves himself, in his acts especially is the voluntary to be found." (ST: II: 6:1)
Aquinas presents a very rational argument that, while Christian in nature, does not depend on Scripture for its entire justification. However, it is also possible to have arguments for and against free will from scripture alone. If one were to object to the idea of free will from a Biblical standpoint, one might bring up both the idea of God's omnipotence typified in verses such as John 15:5 which says "Without Me you can do nothing." Many theologians, especially of the amateur sort, might think that this suggests God makes all the decisions himself and that our own choices are just an illusion covering up the decisions he already decided we would make. God's stated pre-knowledge of all our choices makes this a more seductive idea.
Additionally, the fact that human choices are frequently attributed to God or Satan might make a case for this. For example, in Exodus Pharaoh chooses repeatedly to deny the Israelites their freedom, and each time God punishes him for his choices. Yet, at the same time, almost every time the text says some version of: "the LORD hardened Pharaoh's heart, so that he would not let the children of Israel go..." (Exodus 10:20) So one might suggest that we only choose what God tells us to choose, and that real choice is an illusion.
However, the Bible seems to suggest that this is not what we are meant to believe. Throughout the Scriptures, humans are treated as if they had the ability to make real and meaningful decisions and choices, even ones that God didn't want them to make. There are at least four arguments from scripture regarding the existence of free will. First, that God is just and righteous, and that it would be unjust to punish people for making choices that God himself had actually made for them.
Secondly, that God repeatedly bases salvation in belief, saying for example that "He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned." (Mark 16:16) Belief is a choice, and if this is the basis of salvation it seems to imply that one has free will to make that choice. (This is, to some degree, the flip side of the punishment argument)
The third argument is an argument from example. There are multiple places in the Bible where individuals make choices directly contrary to the stated wishes of God, and often these are choices which make God angry. Unless one assumes that God is lying about his emotions and desires, this indicates a degree of free choice. For example, the people of Israel demanded a king even when God begged them not to ask for one, and even tried to warn them that it was a bad idea. They also repeatedly turned to idolatry, which angered God.
The final argument from the Bible is based in individual verses that suggest that choice exists. For example, in Deuteronomy 30:19, God says: "I call heaven and earth to record this day against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing: therefore choose life, that both thou and thy seed may live." This verse seems to be talking about free will and choice. Likewise, in Joshua 24:15 this prophet says, " And if it seem evil unto you to serve the LORD, choose you this day whom ye will serve;" once more implying that there is a choice to be had and that free will exists. If one accepts that the Bible is the inerrant word of God, these arguments are relatively strong.
One can see the main issues and points of Aquinas' theory represented and discussed in the Bible, in addition to seeing that his most poorly justified points line up with apparent (though obviously illusory) contradictions and ambiguities in the Scriptures. This goes to indicate the degree to which Aquinas was drawing from a Christian background and was in touch with the Spirit of the Word.
One of the most important points which Aquinas makes regarding human actions is that humans always choose to act rationally according to what they see as the greatest good in the situation. This ties in with his Aristotelian sympathies and way of seeing humans as rational creatures. So to make a modern example, a person might choose to watch TV rather than exercise because they feel at that moment that the greatest good would be enjoyment, and rationally they know that watching TV is more fun than exercising. So most of sin and most poor choices are based on misguided assumptions, ignorance, and wrong applications of rationality. (For example, assuming that physical good is greater than spiritual good, or failing to take into account future results when calculating the most rational course of action)
The Bible shows this to be very true. For example, in the story of Adam and Eve, Eve does not choose to eat the forbidden fruit because she thinks to herself that she would like to be bad and to anger God. Rather, she eats because she becomes convinced that the greatest good in the situation will arise from eating this fruit and gaining knowledge. Likewise Joseph's brothers sin by selling him into slavery because they think more of the good of having their father's attentions to themselves than they think of the future ill effects of their actions.
One of the defining features of Aquinas' theories of free will is his idea that free will is impossible to violate. This can be a slightly confusing point, because he attempts to be balanced and to also be brief in his analysis. He says that will cannot be compelled because "The act of the will is nothing else than an inclination proceeding from the interior principle of knowledge... Now what is compelled or violent is from an exterior principle....in like manner a man may be dragged by force: but it is contrary to the…