Free Will and the Omnipotence of God

In Principles, Poetry, and Pedantry.


God is:1 Omniscient, all knowing (sees past, present and future)

God is: Omnipotent, all powerful (nothing is impossible)

God is: Omnipresent, author of plenitude (everything that can be, is or was or will be)


Free will, according to God the Father in Paradise Lost, III, 95-128:

                       ... So will fall
Hee and his faithless Progenie: whose fault?
Whose but his own? ingrate, he had of mee
All he could have; I made him just and right,
Sufficient to have stood, though free to fall.[1]
Such I created all th' Ethereal Powers
And Spirits, both them who stood and them who faild;
Freely they stood who stood, and fell who fell.
Not free, what proof could they have givn sincere
Of true allegiance, constant Faith or Love,
Where onely what they needs must do, appeard,
Not what they would? what praise could they receive?
What pleasure I from such obedience paid,
When Will and Reason (Reason also is choice)
Useless and vain, of freedom both despoild,
Made passive both, had servd necessitie,
Not mee. They therefore as to right belongd,
So were created, nor can justly accuse
Thir maker, or thir making, or thir Fate,
As if predestination[2] over-rul'd
Thir will, dispos'd by absolute Decree
Or high foreknowledge; they themselves decreed
Thir own revolt, not I: if I foreknew,
Foreknowledge had no influence on their fault,
Which had no less prov'd certain unforeknown.
So without least impulse or shadow of Fate,
Or aught by me immutablie foreseen,
They trespass, Authors to themselves in all
Both what they judge and what they choose; for so
I formd them free, and free they must remain,
Till they enthrall themselves: I else must change
Thir nature, and revoke the high Decree
Unchangeable, Eternal, which ordain'd
Thir freedom, they themselves ordain'd thir fall.

[1] "Sufficient to have stood, though free to fall." This phrase is the kernel of Milton's sense of free will. Compare Augustine's teaching in Rebuke, Chap. 31; the reformation debate about free will and predestination was framed by Erasmus, On Free Will (1524), and Luther, The Bondage of the Will (1525).

[2] Milton's conception of predestination can be usefully compared to Augustine's in Anti-Pelagian Writings in the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Series 1, Volume 5. It seems to me that Milton leaned a bit to the Pelagian side, i.e., he believed more in personal responsibility than did Augustine.


From a sermon by Father Don Carlo Campanati at Sainte Devote, Paris, in October 1919, as recounted in Earthly Powers by Anthony Burgess (Simon and Schuster, 1980), pp. 148-152:

Man was God's creation, and therefore perfect. The devil got in in the Garden of Eden and taught man how to be evil, and he was still doing it. Why didn't God annihilate the devil, then, and all his works? Because of free will. ...

Now how do we define this evil? Very simply. As a principle, an essence designed to counter God's good and, through a series of acts of war, eventually to defeat it. Blind angels, misled in their sinful pride, hopelessly setting themselves up against the ever powerful, their own Creator, Him who could, with a snort from His divine nostrils, puff their being out like a candleflame! But God is defined as the Creator, not as the Annihilator, nor is it in His nature to destroy what He has created. Why, then, the ignorant may ask, did He not quell that act of rebellion in its initiatory spark, choke the avowal of disobedience in the very throat of him who enunciated it? Because He gave to His creatures the awful and mysterious benison of freedom of choice.

It may be said that God, being omniscient as well as omnipotent, foreknew from the very beginning that the act of angelic rebellion would be conceived and fulfliled, and that this foreknowledge must, of necessity, be a denial of the freedom of the creature. But this is a shameful and all too human imposition on the nature of the Godhead, of a limitation which leaves out of account the illimitable fervor of His love. He loves His creatures so well that He grants them the gift of His own essence -- utter freedom.

To foreknow would be to abrogate that gift, for what can be foreseen is predestined, and where there is predestination there is no freedom of will. No, God, in His terrible love, denied Himself foreknowledge, imposed upon Himself a kind of human ignorance which we may take as the very seed of his eventual incarnation in human form. With the ghastly cataclysm of the Fall of the Angels God begins already to assume the potentialities of the Reedeemer. ...

Take it, anyway, that, at some point in the long workings of time, the creature called man emerges, flesh, blood, bone, into whom His Creator breathes a soul, and the essence of this soul is the endowment of freedom of choice, the pledge of His love. ... Indeed we may say, as certain Church Fathers have said, Theodosius among them, that evil is a necessity, since if there were only good there would be only good to choose, and that would be no choice. ...

Holy Church teaches that the capacity for sin derives from that first sin committed by our first parents when they listened to that seductive voice of the Father of Evil and ate of forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden. We have inherited this capacity for sin from them as we have inherited the other features of the Adamic, or human, identity.

Now sin we may define as a transgression made possible by our ingrained capacity for confusing the truly or divinely good with what the fallen Son of the Morning represents as a higher good. Of course, there is no higher good than God's good, but, in our blindness, in the fleshly net that exalts mere appetite, in the credulity of our fallen state -- a state we must blame on the fact that evil had already been brought into being by the devil -- we may all too often succumb to the diabolic skill and cunning, accepting the ugly as beautiful, the false as true, and the evil as good. Now I say to you this: do not mourn that this should be so but rather rejoice in the struggle to perceive the truly and beautifully good, in the great and divine gift of freedom to pursue the struggle.

Man was made by God in His own image. God made man without flaw, but also free to become flawed. Yet the flaws are reversible, the return to perfection is possible. If we call ourselves, sometimes with great justice, "miserable sinners," we must remember that we have willed ourselves to be so, that this is not the state that the Divine Creator has imposed upon us, that this is the working of free will. But that free will which enables us to sin is the most glorious gift of the Heavenly Father. We must learn to join that will to His, and not to that of the Adversary. This is, in a word, the meaning of our human life.

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