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Why all classical theists should believe in physical premotions, but it doesn’t really matter (for freedom)


“Physical premotions” are a concept associated with Baroque Catholic theological debates concerning grace and freedom. In this paper, I present an argument that the entities identified in this debate, physical premotions, are necessary for any classical theist’s account of divine causality. A “classical theist” is a theist who holds both that God is simple, that is, without inhering properties, and that humans and God are both free in the incompatibilist sense. In fact, not only does the acceptance of physical premotions not entail determinism, physical premotions are the only way for classical theists to preserve the aforementioned two commitments. Nevertheless, the theory of premotions (by itself) cannot help theologians resolve questions of how God causes human free acts without violating their freedom.

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  1. 1.

    ‘Creature’ is here understood to mean any substance distinct from God.

  2. 2.

    Lonergan criticizes Banezian premotions as precisely such a causal mechanism that ursurps God’s transcendent power (2000, p. 109). Stebbins clarifies the criticism succinctly (1995, p. 267).

  3. 3.

    In fact, a general theory on which God has to cause everything in the universe to act by conferring a special premotion that moves it to act seems to me to be occasionalist. I take this to be distinct from the position taken by Thomas Aquinas that God works in every agent, because Aquinas’ position does not seem to require a special premotion for each creaturely act. My views would therefore be different from the ‘premotionism’, for example, of Oderberg (2016). However, some Banezians held that every human act requires God to “reduce’ the human power of choice from potency to actuality—to bring about an act. I believe this could be compatible with my account as follows: there are general premotions in Aquinas (creation involves premotions) that bring into existence a kind of entity and that entity’s acts, and there are special premotions for particular acts. Grace involves special distinct premotions for every act done under grace, but God’s creation of a human being with a will requires the existence of a premotion that gives actuality to the human will in the first moment of its existence and all its subsequent natural acts. So God causes indirectly by means of one premotion all of these acts. Because the natural case is “indirect” divine causality, specific premotions are not required for every human act—only those under grace. I could defend this view at length, but it would make this paper inordinately long.

  4. 4.

    God’ general Providence seems to involve intermediaries. While creation is an instance of a direct divine act, in that God does not employ intermediaries to create, creation is not a case of a change.

  5. 5.

    Here I am assuming that these are all cases of true religious conversion to love of God; merely apparent religious conversions would not likely require grace.

  6. 6.

    For a short overview, see Astrain (1908).

  7. 7.

    Even if the Banezian is ultimately committed to a form of compatibilism, as some have energetically argued, the Banezian is at least nominally or intending to reject determinism.

  8. 8.

    A good overview of these points, followed by Banez’ critique, can be found in RJ Matava (2016, pp. 106–113).

  9. 9.

    Matava (2016, pp. 37–101).

  10. 10.

    I take my argument not to involve any contested views of causality in general. Any classical theist will readily grant that there are causal relations between God and what He causes, whether directly or indirectly. Yet they will not easily admit that these causal relations require the existence of some entities, the properties that are physical premotions, which would be distinct from God or whatever effect He brings about. Instead, the erstwhile classical theist will want to admit such causal relations but try to explain them some other way that does not require positing premotions.

  11. 11.

    O’Conaill and Tahko (2016).

  12. 12.

    Ibid., p. 232.

  13. 13.

    Questions of negative propositions, for example, are not relevant to these positive propositions concerning God’s direct acts.

  14. 14.

    I am not taking any position on whether such a thing historically occurred, as depicted in Exodus. Rather, the point is to have some concrete illustration of a miraculous change. Commitment to divine direct acts was a presupposition, and this change of Moses’ hand is supposed to count as a concrete case where, if it were to occur, would seem a clear example of such a divine direct act.

  15. 15.

    C.f., Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, I, q. 3, a. 6.

  16. 16.

    The distinction is attributed to Lewis (1986). See also Lewis (1979).

  17. 17.

    Brower (2008) and Pawl (2019) have recently defended this view explicitly and I owe my formulation here to their work.

  18. 18.

    This view of divine simplicity is denied, for example, by Plantinga (1980, p. 47).

  19. 19.

    E.g., Lateran IV and Vatican I both define that God is ‘simple’; see Tanner (1990, pp. 230–232, 805). For further accounts, see McCall (2014) and Spencer (2017).

  20. 20.

    The problem, to make it clearer, is how the classical theist can account for the apparently contradictory claims that is both true that “God has no properties” (such that God could not have different properties in different possible worlds) and that “God could do otherwise” (in different possible worlds).

  21. 21.

    Note that, while my account is similar to W Matthews Grant’s account of Extrinsic Divine Causality, I believe the human act produced by God’s causality will not be the truthmaker for God’s causing that act to come into existence. If it were so, it would be essential to that will act that God cause it. For his account, see Grant (2010). One can gather from my remarks in the section on compatibilism why his account will also entail compatibilism because it posits that free acts of human beings are essentially dependent on God.

  22. 22.

    Catholic theology, for example, thinks that a state of ‘sanctifying grace’ would require a direct causal act essentially—there are no states of grace that come into existence without God’s direct action.

  23. 23.

    Heil (2003, p. 138).

  24. 24.

    Ibid., 139–141.

  25. 25.

    Compare a similar view held by Grant (2010).

  26. 26.

    For example, Garrigou-Lagrange (1939, p. 253).

  27. 27.

    Ibid., 258.

  28. 28.

    I am thinking here of controversies surrounding the possibilities of “process ontologies”, where processes are conceived of as fundamental entities akin to classical substances. I take it that processes as properties of objects are less controversial.

  29. 29.

    For a further elaboration of Aquinas’ theory of these processes, see Frost (2018, pp. 1–36).

  30. 30.

    Armstrong (1993). But for a non-Armstrongian account, see Textor (2016).

  31. 31.

    Physics, Bk. I, 7.

  32. 32.

    Helm (2011) uses this term to describe his position.

  33. 33.

    Nevertheless, theistic compatibilist will likely also grant that humans would lack freedom if states of the universe or brain states or some other, natural cause determined their actions. The question is spelling out a relevant sense of “determination” which is valid for God’s acts but not for created causes.

  34. 34.

    Matava succinctly summarizes Lonergan’s often winding digressions into four objections (2016, pp. 216–220).

  35. 35.

    Confusingly, Lonergan and Matava both call these situations ‘Aristotelian’ as opposed to ‘Banezian’ premotions. I drop the terminology here.

  36. 36.

    Lonergan (2000, p. 91).

  37. 37.

    Lonergan (2011, pp. 330–331).

  38. 38.

    It can be noted, again, that this is not intended to be a literal reading of the New Testament account as occurring on this day; the example is supposed to be merely concretely illustrative.

  39. 39.

    Stebbins (1995, p. 251).

  40. 40.

    Lonergan (2011, pp. 330–331).

  41. 41.

    Van Inwagen (1986, p. 56).

  42. 42.

    Matava (2016, pp. 230–235).

  43. 43.

    E.g., “Man is free in his single acts but exercises no free act with respect to the series of acts as a series. Since the series as a series must have a cause, and since God alone operates in the will, it follows that God alone can be the cause of perseverance” (Lonergan 2000, p. 382); “the [will as moved, not as moving] is the reception of divine action in the creature antecedent to any operation on the creature's part. So far from being a free act, it lies entirely outside the creature's power. But though not a free act in itself, it is the first principle of free acts, even internal free acts such as faith, fear, hope, sorrow, and repentance” (p. 424). See also pp. 432–434.

  44. 44.

    For example, Eleonore Stump’s account of conversion is also a variation of the Lonerganian strategy. This is why her theory runs into the following dilemma. A state of affairs comes about in a created free agent: quiescence or non-resistance to God’s grace. Stump says that this state is not an act of will or produced by the will of that agent. Stump describes quiescence as resulting from a division in the self, a sort of failure. Nevertheless, this state apparently necessitates that God causes/infuses the habit of charity into the person, causing that person to love and choose God. If quiescence did not necessitate God giving grace, it would not be the right truthmaker to account for these truths. The dilemma for Stump is that, if the state of affairs was up to the person, the person caused a state that necessitated God’s giving that person grace (i.e., Pelagianism: it would be a good act to quiesce to God, and a person without grace could quiesce); if that state of affairs was not up to the person, God causing a person to choose to love Him in virtue of some state that was not in their control would cause those choices of the person to be determined. (See further Rooney 2015).

  45. 45.

    Matava (2016, p. 277).

  46. 46.

    Matava (2016, p. 282) refers to a lecture by Germain Grisez, “human free choice and divine causality”.

  47. 47.

    Matava (2016, p. 284).

  48. 48.

    Matava (2016, p. 287).

  49. 49.

    The further theological worry here would be that actions performed under grace, like Paul’s conversion, cannot be merely a feature of Paul’s essence. This would make God’s grace essential to Paul individually, and that seems to undermine the coherence of ‘grace’ as conceived in Christian theology to be something not identical with a creature’s ‘nature’ (or essence).

  50. 50.

    Here, as earlier, I am appealing to Van Inwagen’s consequence argument for incompatibilism.

  51. 51.

    C.f., Pohle (1912).

  52. 52.

    Lonergan makes a similar objection in a complicated discussion (2000, pp. 91–93). The arguments are summarized in Stebbins (1995, p. 233).

  53. 53.

    As noted earlier, I claimed that these acts were needed for actions requiring grace to perform. Sins, for example, are not such actions, as sins do not require grace to perform, and so God does not directly cause premotions when people sin.

  54. 54.

    In Catholic theology, these actions can be logically distinguished, but they all occur simultaneously in the moment of justification when one converts.

  55. 55.

    For a summary of these objections, see Stebbins (1995, pp. 266–268).

  56. 56.

    Lonergan (2000, p. 110).

  57. 57.


  58. 58.

    Even though I have classified Eleonore Stump’s view of how conversion comes about as a version of the ‘state of affairs’ theory, my treatment of grace as a case of shared or joint agency is heavily indebted to her (2019).

  59. 59.

    As noted in the section on Banez, Banezianism and Molinism agree to the claim that both Paul’s and God’s action are necessary for Paul to convert. The Banezian qualifies the sense in which God’s action, or Paul’s, are also each individually sufficient for Paul to convert, and I am not intending to prejudice the matter with the way I have put the claim here.

  60. 60.

    C.f., Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 1112a.

  61. 61.

    C.f., the doctrinal declaration of the Council of Orange II. “If anyone contends that in order that we may be cleansed from sin, God waits for our good will, but does not acknowledge that even the wish to be purged is produced in us through the infusion and operation of the Holy Spirit…” in Denzinger (1954, # 177).

  62. 62.

    These prerequisites correspond to what theologians call “prevenient sufficient grace”.

  63. 63.

    This is the classical response that God’s causing something to happen does not determine whether that effect is a contingent, free effect or a determined one. Oderberg defends this line of argument, arguing a premotion “is predetermining in the sense that the secondary cause infallibly does what God moves it to do, but its modal status qua secondary cause is not affected. In other words, if the secondary cause necessarily acts, premotion does not affect this. If an effect is contingent, that it is moved by God makes no difference to its contingency. If an action is both contingent and free, as in the case of human or angelic free will, it remains free albeit predetermined infallibly to the act it performs” (2016, p. 209).

  64. 64.

    The problem which physical premotions addresses is not the same as offering a “Settling Condition” for shared agents: the conditions under which someone ‘settles’ what we are doing as a group, as it seems plausible I can intend to do what the group does only when it is settled. Premotions are merely that in virtue of it is true that an agent is settling. See further: Roth (2017, sec. 2).

  65. 65.

    It remains to be said how God makes things like conversion or love of God possible objects of choice for Paul, if Paul by himself cannot choose those things, but that too is another question.

  66. 66.

    Summa Theologiae I-II, q. 109, a. 4, ad. 2.

  67. 67.

    See Grant (2010).

  68. 68.

    I do not discuss it here, but my proposal would show that classical Molinism was partially wrong. Molinia held these two theses. First, in two states of affairs where God gives grace and one person converts but the other does not, God’s grace is qualitatively, metaphysically identical for both people. This cannot be true, because God, on my view, causes a premotion in one person and not in another. But Molinism also held the famous doctrine about divine foreknowledge and God’s causality of free acts. (Molinism generally held that grace was given to all, but the Congruist Molinists like Suarez and Bellarmine held that God chooses to save people before He knows what they would do, and God therefore gives special graces to certain people when He knows infallibly that they will cooperate with such graces. Molina himself rejected this position). The Molinist can accept the existence of premotions and nevertheless still retain something like this appeal to foreknowledge as their explanation of when and how premotions are given. So my account is compatible with modern Molinist explanations of divine causality.


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Rooney, J.D. Why all classical theists should believe in physical premotions, but it doesn’t really matter (for freedom). Int J Philos Relig (2020).

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  • Divine causality
  • God
  • Freedom
  • Incompatibilism
  • Determinism
  • Premotions
  • Banez
  • Thomism
  • Thomas
  • Aquinas