St. Thomas on God and Sin

St. Thomas argues that God is the cause of the action of sin, but not of sin itself:

I answer that, The act of sin is both a being and an act; and in both respects it is from God. Because every being, whatever the mode of its being, must be derived from the First Being, as Dionysius declares (Div. Nom. v). Again every action is caused by something existing in act, since nothing produces an action save in so far as it is in act; and every being in act is reduced to the First Act, viz. God, as to its cause, Who is act by His Essence. Therefore God is the cause of every action, in so far as it is an action. But sin denotes a being and an action with a defect: and this defect is from the created cause, viz. the free-will, as falling away from the order of the First Agent, viz. God. Consequently this defect is not reduced to God as its cause, but to the free-will: even as the defect of limping is reduced to a crooked leg as its cause, but not to the motive power, which nevertheless causes whatever there is of movement in the limping. Accordingly God is the cause of the act of sin: and yet He is not the cause of sin, because He does not cause the act to have a defect.

More detail on this distinction is found in the first article, where he directly argues that God is not responsible for sin:

I answer that, Man is, in two ways, a cause either of his own or of another’s sin. First, directly, namely by inclining his or another’s will to sin; secondly, indirectly, namely by not preventing someone from sinning. Hence (Ezekiel 3:18) it is said to the watchman: “If thou say not to the wicked: ‘Thou shalt surely die’ [Vulgate: “If, when I say to the wicked, ‘Thou shalt surely die,’ thou declare it not to him.”] . . . I will require his blood at thy hand.” Now God cannot be directly the cause of sin, either in Himself or in another, since every sin is a departure from the order which is to God as the end: whereas God inclines and turns all things to Himself as to their last end, as Dionysius states (Div. Nom. i): so that it is impossible that He should be either to Himself or to another the cause of departing from the order which is to Himself. Therefore He cannot be directly the cause of sin. In like manner neither can He cause it indirectly. For it happens that God does not give some the assistance, whereby they may avoid sin, which assistance were He to give, they would not sin. But He does all this according to the order of His wisdom and justice, since He Himself is Wisdom and Justice: so that if someone sin it is not imputable to Him as though He were the cause of that sin; even as a pilot is not said to cause the wrecking of the ship, through not steering the ship, unless he cease to steer while able and bound to steer. It is therefore evident that God is nowise a cause of sin.

It is easy enough to see that if God is the first cause, everything else comes from that cause, including human action. In what sense, then, is St. Thomas asserting that something of sin is not from God?

The idea is that “doing evil” is not some positive reality in itself, but the lack of doing good. All positive reality comes from God, but not what is lacking.

The obvious objection, of course, is that if all good comes from God, then if some good is lacking, God must have failed to provide that good, and so he would be indirectly responsible. St. Thomas is responding to this when he says, “In like manner neither can He causes indirectly,” followed by the example with the pilot.

In the case of the pilot, he is not to be blamed for the wrecking of the ship unless he should have been steering and was not. But since God does all that he does “according to the order of His wisdom and justice,” then if he does not provide some good, it was not true that he ought to have provided it. Consequently he cannot be blamed for its lack.

This argument is valid as far as it goes, but we can understand the matter more fully by making a distinction here. In the argument above, St. Thomas virtually equates “causes indirectly” with being morally responsible for a thing, and consequently, based on an argument that God is not morally responsible for evil, concludes that “neither can He cause it indirectly.” But St. Thomas is well aware that causing something (especially causing indirectly) and being morally responsible for a thing are two different things. Thus he justifies killing in self defense:

Accordingly the act of self-defense may have two effects, one is the saving of one’s life, the other is the slaying of the aggressor. Therefore this act, since one’s intention is to save one’s own life, is not unlawful, seeing that it is natural to everything to keep itself in “being,” as far as possible.

Evidently someone who does this causes the death of the aggressor. But he is not morally responsible for it. Thus causing something, especially indirectly, is not the same as being morally responsible for it.

Consider the case of the pilot of the ship. St. Thomas says that “a pilot is not said to cause the wrecking of the ship, through not steering the ship, unless he cease to steer while able and bound to steer.” But if we are considering mere causality, it is evident that whether or not the pilot is under an obligation of steering the ship is irrelevant. St. Thomas’s point is that if the pilot is doing something else more important, then he is not to blame for the destruction of the ship, even if theoretically he could have steered and failed to do the more important thing instead. This is true but the point is about blame, not causality. The destruction of the ship is indeed an indirect effect of the pilot’s action, even if the pilot’s action was morally praiseworthy, because he was doing something else more important.

And in that sense, all things, whether good or evil, reduce to the causality of the first cause, directly or indirectly.

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As the Heavens are Higher than the Earth

Job accuses God:

It is all one; therefore I say,
    he destroys both the blameless and the wicked.
When disaster brings sudden death,
    he mocks at the calamity of the innocent.
The earth is given into the hand of the wicked;
    he covers the eyes of its judges—
    if it is not he, who then is it?

Ezekiel 18 seems to say something very opposed to this:

The word of the Lord came to me: What do you mean by repeating this proverb concerning the land of Israel, “The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge”? As I live, says the Lord God, this proverb shall no more be used by you in Israel. Know that all lives are mine; the life of the parent as well as the life of the child is mine: it is only the person who sins that shall die.

If a man is righteous and does what is lawful and right— if he does not eat upon the mountains or lift up his eyes to the idols of the house of Israel, does not defile his neighbor’s wife or approach a woman during her menstrual period, does not oppress anyone, but restores to the debtor his pledge, commits no robbery, gives his bread to the hungry and covers the naked with a garment, does not take advance or accrued interest, withholds his hand from iniquity, executes true justice between contending parties, follows my statutes, and is careful to observe my ordinances, acting faithfully—such a one is righteous; he shall surely live, says the Lord God.

If he has a son who is violent, a shedder of blood, who does any of these things (though his father does none of them), who eats upon the mountains, defiles his neighbor’s wife, oppresses the poor and needy, commits robbery, does not restore the pledge, lifts up his eyes to the idols, commits abomination, takes advance or accrued interest; shall he then live? He shall not. He has done all these abominable things; he shall surely die; his blood shall be upon himself.

But if this man has a son who sees all the sins that his father has done, considers, and does not do likewise, who does not eat upon the mountains or lift up his eyes to the idols of the house of Israel, does not defile his neighbor’s wife, does not wrong anyone, exacts no pledge, commits no robbery, but gives his bread to the hungry and covers the naked with a garment, withholds his hand from iniquity, takes no advance or accrued interest, observes my ordinances, and follows my statutes; he shall not die for his father’s iniquity; he shall surely live. As for his father, because he practiced extortion, robbed his brother, and did what is not good among his people, he dies for his iniquity.

Yet you say, “Why should not the son suffer for the iniquity of the father?” When the son has done what is lawful and right, and has been careful to observe all my statutes, he shall surely live. The person who sins shall die. A child shall not suffer for the iniquity of a parent, nor a parent suffer for the iniquity of a child; the righteousness of the righteous shall be his own, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be his own.

But if the wicked turn away from all their sins that they have committed and keep all my statutes and do what is lawful and right, they shall surely live; they shall not die. None of the transgressions that they have committed shall be remembered against them; for the righteousness that they have done they shall live. Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked, says the Lord God, and not rather that they should turn from their ways and live? But when the righteous turn away from their righteousness and commit iniquity and do the same abominable things that the wicked do, shall they live? None of the righteous deeds that they have done shall be remembered; for the treachery of which they are guilty and the sin they have committed, they shall die.

Yet you say, “The way of the Lord is unfair.” Hear now, O house of Israel: Is my way unfair? Is it not your ways that are unfair? When the righteous turn away from their righteousness and commit iniquity, they shall die for it; for the iniquity that they have committed they shall die. Again, when the wicked turn away from the wickedness they have committed and do what is lawful and right, they shall save their life. Because they considered and turned away from all the transgressions that they had committed, they shall surely live; they shall not die. Yet the house of Israel says, “The way of the Lord is unfair.” O house of Israel, are my ways unfair? Is it not your ways that are unfair?

Therefore I will judge you, O house of Israel, all of you according to your ways, says the Lord God. Repent and turn from all your transgressions; otherwise iniquity will be your ruin. Cast away from you all the transgressions that you have committed against me, and get yourselves a new heart and a new spirit! Why will you die, O house of Israel? For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, says the Lord God. Turn, then, and live.

If life and death here refer to physical life, then the passage indeed would be opposed to Job’s claims, and Job might well respond:

How often is the lamp of the wicked put out?
    How often does calamity come upon them?
    How often does God distribute pains in his anger?
How often are they like straw before the wind,
    and like chaff that the storm carries away?
You say, ‘God stores up their iniquity for their children.’
    Let it be paid back to them, so that they may know it.
Let their own eyes see their destruction,
    and let them drink of the wrath of the Almighty.
For what do they care for their household after them,
    when the number of their months is cut off?
Will any teach God knowledge,
    seeing that he judges those that are on high?
One dies in full prosperity,
    being wholly at ease and secure,
his loins full of milk
    and the marrow of his bones moist.
Another dies in bitterness of soul,
    never having tasted of good.
They lie down alike in the dust,
    and the worms cover them.

Oh, I know your thoughts,
    and your schemes to wrong me.
For you say, ‘Where is the house of the prince?
    Where is the tent in which the wicked lived?’
Have you not asked those who travel the roads,
    and do you not accept their testimony,
that the wicked are spared in the day of calamity,
    and are rescued in the day of wrath?
Who declares their way to their face,
    and who repays them for what they have done?
When they are carried to the grave,
    a watch is kept over their tomb.
The clods of the valley are sweet to them;
    everyone will follow after,
    and those who went before are innumerable.
How then will you comfort me with empty nothings?
    There is nothing left of your answers but falsehood.

But if we understand Ezekiel to refer to happiness and misery, there is surely some truth in his claims, because happiness consists in activity according to virtue. So one who lives virtuously, at least to that degree, will be happy, even if he did not always live in that manner. At the same time, there is some qualification on this, both because human life is not merely an instant but a temporal whole, and also because even if virtue is the most formal element of happiness, it is not the only thing that is relevant to it.

Job and Ezekiel’s opponents seem to agree in an important way, even if they disagree about the facts. Both seem to be saying that God’s ways are bad. Either God’s ways are indifferent to good and evil, or worse, God supports evil himself. Either God treats the good and evil alike, and thus he is indifferent, or he gives better things to the evil, and is thus evil. Or, according to Ezekiel’s opponents, he unjustly spares the lifelong wicked on account of a moment of repentance.

In the passage from Ezekiel, God responds that it is not his ways that are unjust, but their ways. In the context of the particular dispute, the implication is that people fear this account because it implies that even if you have lived a good life for many years, a single evil deed may result in your condemnation. That is only bad, God responds, if you plan to do evil, in other words if your ways are evil, not his. Isaiah says, speaking of the same thing, namely the repentance of the wicked,

For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
    nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
    so are my ways higher than your ways
    and my thoughts than your thoughts.

As I pointed out earlier, Jesus presents Job’s characterization of God as something to be imitated:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?  Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

God is perfect, Jesus says, and consequently his activity is perfect towards all. And that results in apparent indifference, because it means that God treats all alike. Jesus is quite explicit that this applies to the very kinds of situations that Job and his friends are concerned with:

Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”

This would be inconsistent if it meant that “unless you repent, a tower will fall on you or some similar evil,” because Jesus is saying that the ones are no different from the others. It may be that nine of the eighteen were repentant people, and the other nine wicked. Or it could be broken down in any other way. The whole point is that the virtue of the people involved was not relevant to the physical disaster. The implication is that the physical disaster should be understood as a representation of the moral disaster that necessarily overtakes anyone who does evil. And that same disaster is avoided by anyone who does good.

More importantly, however, Jesus’s understanding is that God treats all alike because of his love towards all. And this implies that even the disaster of the tower resulted from love, just as the rain and sun do in the other examples.

How can this be? This will be the topic of a later post. Of course, a reasonable inductive inference, which may or may not be mistaken, would be that it might be not only later, but much later.