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  • "The Divine Goodness Could Be Manifest through Other Creatures and Another Order":The Source of Aquinas's Convictions about Divine Freedom
  • Jamie Anne Spiering

WILLIAM ROWE'S 2004 book, Can God Be Free?, revisits a classic argument in philosophical theology, claiming that divine freedom (as it is traditionally understood) contradicts divine perfection. Rowe cites Thomas Aquinas as an author who holds that God's free choice involves the ability to create other creatures, or another universe, than the one he does. However, Rowe argues, Aquinas also believes that there is no "best world," and in that case whichever world God chooses to create is a lesser good. And for Rowe, a God who creates less than he could is a contradiction: "If an omniscient being creates a world when there is a better world it could create, it would be possible for there to be a being morally better than it."1 God cannot be free—if we take "free" to imply having options for acting—and perfect at the same time.

Although it has been several years since Rowe's book was published, and although Aquinas is one of the major thinkers he addresses, there has been little response to the book from Thomists. Brian Leftow used Aquinas's teachings to challenge Rowe's arguments with respect to what we might call the first, or primary, divine freedom: the ability to create, or not create, a [End Page 1] world.2 But when Rowe responded, he demanded an answer to the contradiction involved in the choice between worlds.3 This second type of free choice is the one around which most of his book centers. Leftow's answer to this argument, and his later writings on divine freedom, have not been based on Thomistic premises.4 And although Rowe's book continues to elicit responses from those working in the analytic tradition,5 historical Thomists seem to have remained silent.

In some ways, this lack of response is understandable. The topic of divine freedom is immensely difficult. An ex nihilo creation is not, strictly speaking, a change,6 and so to discuss it puts a strain on almost all of our categories. Moreover, it is of course difficult—it might even be thought unproductive—for those who follow Aquinas to engage with Rowe's understanding of terms like "possible world"7 and "good."8 However, Rowe's [End Page 2] arguments (and those of Leibniz, which he revives) may be of more positive service to Thomists than has often been realized, and it is fruitful for those of us who are dedicated Thomists to consider how to address Rowe in order to uncover the sources of our teacher's own convictions.

In this article I will sketch the argument against divine freedom that Rowe revives, which I will typically call "Leibniz's core argument." Then, I will talk about two Thomistic answers to this argument, suggested by Norman Kretzmann, and explain why Rowe found them inadequate. I agree with Rowe that neither establishing that there is no best world, nor reflecting on the ways in which various creative orders are equivalent, is sufficient to prove the possibility of divine freedom.

To understand why Aquinas is so sure that God has alternatives, we need to look more deeply at the suppositions about the nature of choice that underlie Leibniz's core argument, and try to understand why Aquinas does not hold them. The argument is based upon the premise that the goodness of a choice can only be explained by the superiority of its object. I argue that this premise rests on a mechanical understanding of [End Page 3] the activity of choice. Aquinas's certainty that God could create different creatures is founded on his denial of mechanism and his convictions about the primacy of final causes: the end is the explanation for a choice in a way that the object and agent are not. Once we see this, we can understand why Aquinas does not view a God who chooses a lesser order of creatures as one who is surpassable or imperfect.

I. The Core Argument against a God with Options

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