The divine will and human freedom: A Thomistic analysis

The unity of divine and human wills, as well as human freedom, are vital to Aquinas’ theology.

At the center of Nietzsche’s rejection of Christianity is the idea that Christianity involves an attack upon the human will. In The Antichrist he says the following: “The Christian conception of God…is one of the most corrupt conceptions of the divine ever attained on earth. It may even represent the low-water mark in the descending development of divine types.… God as the declaration of war against life, against nature, against the will to live! … God—the deification of nothingness, the will to nothingness pronounced holy!”1

In this passage, and in much of his work, Nietzsche is reacting against a version of Christianity in which the human will, human individuality, human personality and human greatness is crushed. In his vision of Christianity, individual human persons are transformed into herd animals that no longer have any power, because they no longer exercise their individual wills.

This brand of Christian anthropology, which Nietzsche sees as a threat to the human will, has presented itself in a variety of theological doctrines that have arisen in the history of Christianity. Perhaps the most famous is the heresy known as Quietism. According to the Quietists, a Christian advances in holiness by diminishing the individual will, eventually eliminating it and allowing the divine will to take its place. After all, Jesus told his followers to pray, “Thy will be done,” and as he went to the cross, he said to the Father, “Not my will, but yours be done.” Some seventh-century theologians, seeing Jesus as the perfect exemplar of this negation of the human will, asserted that Jesus did not himself employ an individual human will but acted completely with the divine will. This heresy is known as “Monothelitism.”

In Deus Caritas Est, Pope Benedict XVI sets out to clarify some of the common misconceptions of the day about the loving relationship between God and human beings. He explains that a mature love of God involves a unification of the divine will and the human will. Like many other Christian authors, he states the case in a manner, which if taken out of context, sounds somewhat like the heretical statements of the Quietists. The Pope says, “God’s will is no longer for me an alien will…but it is now my own will.”2 If this passage were taken to mean that the human will is eliminated or shut down and replaced by the divine will, it would seem to be the core doctrine of the Quietists. As we shall see, Pope Benedict XVI’s position, like that of St. Thomas Aquinas, is far from the doctrine of the Quietists.

For Christian theologians who seek a comprehensive vision of the human person, it is important to determine whether or not there can be a coherent anthropology that preserves the integrity of the human will and yet is compatible with Christian doctrine. At the same time, it is important to ask whether or not there can be a rational interpretation of Christianity that does not entail the diminution of the human will that characterizes the Quietists and that so infuriated Nietzsche.


St. Thomas Aquinas is one theologian who put forth a view of the human person in which the individual will is considered a fundamental part of human nature. Unlike Nietzsche’s notion of Christianity, St. Thomas’ conception of Christianity sees the exercise and development of the will as an essential part of human perfection. As St. Thomas sees it, God created us in his image, with intellect and will. As an effect of sin, our wills are weak, but it is not God’s intention that they remain weak. As a part of our path to salvation, we are called to strengthen our wills, and as a part of our ultimate happiness, our wills are to become perfected—to become like God’s will.

In St. Thomas’s vision of the human person, the will is a fundamental part of our nature that is essentially linked to our rational power. If a being is to be rational, it follows that it must have a free will:

But man, judging about his course of action by the power of reason, can also judge about his own decision inasmuch as he knows the meaning of an end and of a means to an end, and the relationship of the one with reference to the other. Thus he is his own cause not only in moving but in judging. He is therefore endowed with free choice—that is to say, with free judgment about acting or not acting.3

The human will, according to St. Thomas, follows directly from the power of reason. In order to destroy the will, one would have to destroy human reason, and from a Thomistic point of view, it is our rational nature that separates us from the animals. Here St. Thomas would agree with Nietzsche. The destruction of the human will would make us like herd animals.

According to St. Thomas, God shows his greatness as a Creator, not by creating puppets, but by creating individually existing and operating creatures, and in the case of human beings, individual and free creatures. In his view, individual humans must freely choose their own paths—paths that lead to self-fulfillment, or paths that destroy the self. The individual choices made by the human agent are essential in the Christian economy of salvation. After pointing out that all perfections come from the Creator, St. Thomas affirms the importance of this active cooperation of free creatures:

Nevertheless, in a secondary manner anyone may be a cause to himself, of having certain good things, inasmuch as he cooperates with God in the matter, and thus whoever has anything by his own merit has it, in a manner, of himself. Hence it is better to have a thing by merit than without merit.4

In other words, it is better to accomplish things freely and willfully. As creatures, human beings are dependent on God for their being and for all of their perfections, because although they have no power to create themselves or to create anything whatsoever, that does not mean that they are mere cogs in a cosmic machine. The individual choices of the will play an essential role in the development of a self. Although power flows ultimately from God as the first cause, free human persons are, in a very real sense, in control of their own path and ultimate destiny.

Far from diminishing the role of the human will, St. Thomas sees the strengthening and perfection of the human will as the very essence of virtuous living. In order for people to act rightly, they have to freely choose what is good—the good for themselves and for those around them. St. Thomas, says, in fact, that “the act of virtue is nothing else than the good use of free will.”5 Goodness for a plant is simply the growth and development that flows organically from the nature of the plant. Goodness for an animal is similar, with the additional actions that flow from sensation, instincts and conditioning. Goodness in humans, however, requires reason and the willful choice of the kinds of actions that lead to ultimate happiness.

From Nietzsche’s point of view, this perfection of the will, or “good use of the free will,” is itself a corruption, because it is tethered to a god and a value system that confines the will and sickens it. For Nietzsche, the will is only free and powerful when it is free from the confines of external influences, such as the commandments of a god or the movements of a herd. In St. Thomas’ view, the will is free and powerful only when united to reason and the will of God. The question then turns to the nature of the will itself and the kinds of choices that could perfect it and give it power. What signs would indicate a strong will, and what signs would indicate a weak will? And, how could a will that is united to another will (human or divine) be independent and free?

Is Christian paradise really another form of nirvana, in which individuals are extinguished and reabsorbed into the one? Did God create human beings just so they could destroy their own wills and dissolve into the divine will? One can find a number of passages in Christian literature that could lead one to have this idea. A close reading of St. Thomas Aquinas, however, gives a different picture of Christian theology. In his vision of Christianity, the human will is to be united with the will of God, but it is to be united in such a way that not only preserves its individuality, but elevates it to a level of power that exceeds its natural capacity.

In paradise, the human will becomes more like the divine will, and it is important to understand that, for St. Thomas, the divine will is infinitely powerful. It is the ultimate power. It is the source of all being and all power in the universe. The divine will is tied to the divine mind, but this link is not seen as a limitation. The divine will, like the human will, derives its power and its direction from the intellect. The human will is strengthened to the degree that it acts in accord with human reason, and human reason is perfected to the extent that it conforms to the Truth that is the divine intellect. The perfected Christian, therefore, is one who sees what God sees and wills what God wills, but this seems to lead us back to the same question: how can one preserve any real individuality when the will is unified with the will of God?

In response to this dilemma, St. Thomas makes several important clarifications. First of all, he makes the point that the unity of wills that is the aim of Christians is not an actual equality. The will of the Christian does not become equal to the divine will.

The human will cannot be conformed to the will of God so as to equal it, but only so as to imitate it. In like manner, human knowledge is conformed to the divine knowledge, insofar as it knows truth: and human action is conformed to the divine, insofar as it is becoming to the agent—and this is by way of imitation, not by way of equality.6

In this understanding of creation, the independence of the creature is preserved. The creature is made in the image of God, and its perfection calls for a sort of likeness, but not a numerical or exact formal unity with the Creator. God wills the good, and the Christian wills the good, but this does not necessarily make the two wills identical. It does not destroy the individuality of the human will.

St. Thomas’ view of creation sees the power, the individuality, and the very being of human persons as something to be preserved, perfected, and valued. From the Quietist’s point of view, Christians should strive for a kind of unity between their wills and the divine will in which the human will is crushed and replaced fully with the divine will. From St. Thomas’ point of view, that kind of unity, that destruction of the human will, would defeat the plan of creation. Why would God create rational and free creatures only to have their freedom destroyed so that they become equal to herd animals? As St. Thomas sees it, this freedom-killing unity of wills is not at all part of God’s plan. St. Thomas does understand God to intend a unity of wills, but the unity that is required between the will of the Christian and the will of God is a unity of friendship. “The conformity of the human will to the divine regards the will of reason: according to which the wills even of friends agree, inasmuch as reason considers something willed in its relation to the will of a friend.”7 In the unity of wills between friends, the individuality and freedom is preserved and respected. If my friend wills to reduce poverty and I will to reduce poverty, one might say that we are of the same mind, or that our wills are united, but it does not follow that our wills become numerically one, and it does not mean that either of our wills are diminished in any way. It does not even imply that we are going to take the same kinds of actions to reduce poverty. Even Nietzsche, who champions a kind of extreme individuality of wills, allows for a unity of wills among friends. At the end of Thus Spoke Zarathustra, when the companions of Zarathustra meet in the mountain cave to mock believers and to deride objectivity, their wills are united in a common purpose. They too choose a kind of unity for their wills. It is not a unity of the herd, but it is in a sense a unity of that particular pack of “enlightened” companions.

In Deus Caritas Est, the Pope explains that the unity of the human and divine wills, like the union of wills between human friends, is something that develops. It “changes, and matures.”8 He says of the human and divine will that “one becomes similar to the other, and this leads to a community of will and thought.”9 When the Pope speaks of God and man being drawn together in a community of will and thought, he is expressing what St. Thomas called a unity of friendship. It is in this context that the Pope speaks of the human and divine will becoming one.

The love story between God and man consists in the very fact that this communion of will increases in a communion of thought and sentiment, and thus our will and God’s will increasingly coincide: God’s will is no longer for me an alien will, something imposed on me from without by the commandments, but it is now my own will, based on the realization that God is in fact more deeply present to me than I am to myself.10

In this context, one can see the abyss between the view that is being presented by Benedict XVI and that of the Quietists. When lovers unite in thought and will, individuality of each will is not diminished or destroyed, but instead is preserved and respected. With the “realization that God is in fact more deeply present to me than I am to myself,” I am able to trust that the will of God is even more perfectly directed to my own good than my own will can be. This increase in trust, like an increase of trust in human love, allows for a deeper unity of friendship.

St. Thomas makes another distinction that helps us to understand how the freedom and independence of a person’s will can be preserved despite its unity with the divine will. For St. Thomas, there is a difference between goodness in general and particular good choices or good things. A good will, in order to be good, needs to make good choices; it has to act for the good in general, but most often, it has a variety of particular good choices available. This range of choices, according to St. Thomas, extends even to Jesus while he was here on earth and to the blessed in heaven. “The will of Christ, though determined to the good, is not determined to this or that good. Hence it pertains to Christ, even as to the blessed, to choose with a free will confirmed in the good.”11

The will, according to St. Thomas, must intend good in order to fulfill its nature. In his mind, the will is an appetite; it is a power directed by nature to things understood, in one way or another, to be good. A good will should not, therefore, be seen as less free because it is “confirmed in the good.” On the contrary, a will that is confirmed in the good is a will to ultimate goodness, fullness of being, perfection and power. The opposite of a good will is a weak will, a sick will, a will to weakness, imperfection, and negation of being and power. From a Thomistic point of view, the will that is detached from the ultimate good, the will that is not aimed at fullness of being and ultimate perfection, is powerless. It is a feeble force that defies reason, lashing about in the dark, asserting its independence. It is like the “tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing” mentioned by Shakespeare’s Macbeth. The will that is confirmed in the good, on the other hand, freely chooses fullness of being and perfection.

For Nietzsche, the way to strengthen one’s will is to move beyond god and beyond good and evil, to make oneself a god with one’s own values. For St. Thomas, the way to strengthen one’s will is to become, to the degree that it is possible, like God, who is infinite strength. In the present life, the human person is significantly limited in the powers of intellect and will, not because of union with the divine intellect and will, but because of its distance from the divine intellect and will. In the Christianity of St. Thomas Aquinas, there is hope for a remedy to this distance. In the theological traditions of the East, there is a doctrine called “theosis.” In the West it is referred to as “divinization” or “deification.” It finds its roots in Scripture, when, for example, St. Peter says,

His divine power has bestowed on us everything that makes for life and devotion, through the knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and power. Through these he has bestowed on us the precious and very great promises, so that through them you may come to share in the divine nature…12

Likewise, St. John says, “We do know that when it is revealed, we shall be like to him, for we shall see him as he is.”13

For St. Thomas, this becoming like God is something that begins for Christians in this life and is brought to completion only in the beatific vision in heaven.

For as man in his intellective power participates in the divine knowledge through the virtue of faith, and in his power of will participates in the divine love through the virtue of Charity, so also in the nature of the soul does he participate in the divine nature, after the manner of a likeness, through a certain regeneration or re-creation.14

By uniting with the divine mind, the human mind is given direct access to all truth, goodness and beauty. In following the example of the divine will, the good human will is strengthened in freedom and power. The divine will is the source of all creation. It is the source of all being and the source of all power, and in a unity of friendship, the creature is invited to become Godlike, with a newfound power to understand and to will the good. With this vision of Christianity, it would be hard to see it the way Nietzsche does, as “the declaration of war against life, against nature, against the will to live!”

Would any of this impress Nietzsche? Would it make him want to convert to St. Thomas Aquinas’ version of Christianity? Probably not—after all, the God in whom St. Thomas has placed his faith and hope does not exist according to Nietzsche. It is not likely that Nietzsche would agree with St. Thomas on much of anything, but there is at least one point on which they certainly could agree. Neither of them would have any part of a religion in which the human will is to be weakened or annihilated.

For atheists who want to attack Christianity for its rejection of the human will, and for Christians who are similarly displeased with that same kind of Quietist rejection of human individuality, it is important to know that, in the mind of St. Thomas Aquinas at least, there is a tremendous respect for the individual human being. In his understanding of Christianity, we find room for a unity of friendship between God and humans that includes a freedom of the individual person. We find “an encounter” with God that “engages our will and our intellect,”15 and calls us to love God and our neighbor with “renewed energy and commitment in…response to God’s love.”16

  1. Friedrich Nietzsche, The Antichrist, in The Portable Nietzsche, ed. and trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Penguin Books, 1954), 585. 
  2. Benedict XVI, Deus Caritas Est, §17. 
  3. St. Thomas Aquinas, On Truth, trans. Robert W. Schmidt, S.J. (Chicago: Nenry Regnery Co., 1954), q. 24, a. 1c. 
  4. St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province (New York: Christian Classics, 1948), III, 19, 3c. 
  5. St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, I-II, 55, 1 ad2. 
  6. St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, I-II, 19, 9 ad1. 
  7. St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, III, 18, 5 ad2. 
  8. Benedict XVI, Deus Caritas Est, §17. 
  9. Ibid.
  10. Ibid.
  11. St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, III, 18, 4 ad3. 
  12. 2 Pt 1:3-4 North American Bible. 
  13. 1 Jn 3:2. 
  14. St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, I-II, 110, 4c. 
  15. Benedict XVI, Deus Caritas Est, §17. 
  16. Benedict XVI, Deus Caritas Est, §1. 
Dr. Kevin G. Rickert About Dr. Kevin G. Rickert

Kevin Rickert received his doctorate in philosophy from the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. He teaches philosophy at St. Mary's University of Minnesota. He lives in Winona, Minnesota with his wife and three children.