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Is sin and its consequential “hardening of heart” used as a tool through which God bestows mercy, or is it solely the result of man’s free will in turning away from God? To fully understand the import of this question, we must first examine its language, and define “hardening of heart” and free will. For the purpose of this discussion, spiritual hardening of heart is the soul’s inability to receive the grace of God. Thus a human is led into more and more sin, as it lacks the grace necessary to resist sin or, at times, recognize the wrongdoing as such. To the same end, free will can be defined as the ability to choose between good and evil unhindered by any divine influence. It implies that the full knowledge of wrongdoing and therefore full culpability lies on the individual making such a decision. The question of whether these two concepts interfere with one another will be examined by exploring the viewpoints delineated by the narrative of “The Life of Adam and Eve,” those offered by St. Paul in his letter to the Romans, and those given by St. Thomas Aquinas in Suma Theologica.
Throughout his letter to the Romans, Paul expresses clearly several times that God indeed is the cause of certain sin and hardness of heart. He also explores the concept of God’s motivation in causing such infractions. In each of these instances, a central theme of sin and blindness leading to salvation is repeated. Paul uses many examples to prove the point that God, in his divine plan, uses the wicked to bring the righteous to salvation, and also bestows mercy on the righteous in order to bring the wicked to grace. The first example of this that he cites is God’s judgment on idolaters. “Therefore God handed them over to impurity through the lusts of their hearts for the mutual degradation of their bodies.” (Rom 1.24) Thus, because of their sins, God himself removed his mercy and allowed them to continue their idolatry and their impure relations. While God may not have caused the initial sins, he is responsible for subsequent ones because they are the direct result of the removal of his grace.
At another point in the letter (Rom 5.12-21) Paul speaks of the law, the Ten Commandments, and how as a result of such law sin itself increased because it could now be counted against a standard. However, in Paul’s view, this was part of God’s plan, so that through this accounting he could overflow his grace and mercy all the more. He cites that from the time of Adam, the first sin, through the time of Moses, death and hardness of heart reigned even over those who did not sin, because of the lack of law. But the addition of the law, and consequently a greater amount of sin, into the world, was the vehicle for the outpouring of God’s grace, especially through the sacrifice of Jesus. “The law entered in so that transgression might increase but, where sin increased, grace overflowed all the more, so that, as sin reigned in death, grace might also reign through justification for eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” (Rom 5.20).
The most pertinent example Paul provides is his concern with the unfaithfulness of the Jews. (Rom. 9.1-ff) Their lack of belief greatly sorrows him, because he views them as the chosen people of God, and desires to see them gain salvation. As he struggles with this issue throughout the letter, he arrives at the conclusion that such unwillingness to believe in Christ is part of God’s divine plan to bring Christ first to the gentiles through Israel’s disbelief, and then to bestow grace on Israel as a result of the gentiles faith. “But through their transgression salvation has come to the Gentiles, so as to make them jealous. Now if their transgression is enrichment for the world, and if their diminished number is enrichment for the gentiles, how much more their full number.” (Rom 11.11-12) Therefore, God is responsible for Israel’s unfaithfulness and their hardness of heart so that he may bring the salvation of Jesus to the world in a time that he himself chooses. He is the cause of the transgression so that he may bestow mercy. “Just as you once disobeyed God but have now received mercy because of their disobedience, so they have now disobeyed in order that, by virtue of the mercy shown to you, they too may receive mercy. For God delivered all to disobedience, that he might have mercy upon all.” (Rom 11.30-32).
“The Life of Adam and Eve” addresses the causes of Original Sin and the subsequent first demonstration of God’s intention of salvation from the view of a contemporary Jewish writer of Paul’s time. Although this excerpt is given from the point of view of Adam and Eve themselves, in an attempt perhaps to explain their motivations and especially to displace their guilt, several examples point to the actuality of their free will and choice in their actions. The first cause of sin is delineated as covetousness, or acting on an inherent desire. “For covetousness is the origin of every sin.” (19.3) This is the first proof, although seemingly unknowingly given, that Eve did in fact have free will in deciding whether or not to eat of the fruit of the tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Furthermore, in describing her deception of her husband, she herself admits her own decision to do so. “?the word I spoke to him, when I wanted to deceive him.” (23.4-5).
God’s remonstrances to Adam, Eve, and the serpent himself also highlight their free decisions to disobey his will. He announces to Adam, “Because you transgressed my commandment and listened to your wife” (24.1-2). Further, he berates Eve thusly: “Since you have listened to the serpent and ignored my commandment” (25.1), and goes on to reprimand the serpent: “?you have done this and become an ungrateful vessel, so far as to lead astray the careless of heart.” (26.1). All these statements, when viewed together, imply two things. The first of these implications is that the decision that Adam and Eve made, either to deceive one another or to disobey the Lord’s commands, was freely made. The serpent did not force Eve to eat of the fruit, or to subsequently trick her husband into eating it as well; likewise, Adam was not forced to eat. In his admonishments to the serpent, God attributes these decisions to “carelessness of heart”; it is obvious from these remonstrances and the circumstances of the situation that God is not seen as the cause of sin in this text.
The next issue to deal with is the small yet important reference to God’s plan for salvation of the world. Although no hardness of heart is mentioned, as such, as a consequence of the Fall, the casting out of Paradise can symbolize this in the highly symbolic languages of such text. If this is true, it follows, then, that God’s response would be one of mercy and salvation, if we are to examine the text in light of the points made previously. This promise of salvation is highlighted in a few lines at the very end of the document. “Now I promise to you the resurrection; I shall raise you on the last day in the resurrection with every man of your seed.” (41.3) In this way, God takes the situation of sin and transforms it into an opportunity to bestow mercy and grace on the human species. By offering the resurrection, he offers an opportunity for those who are “cast out” to return to the light of his good grace.
St. Thomas Aquinas addresses both of these issues by separating them into three specific and equally important sections: the cause of sin itself, the cause of hardness of heart, and whether both are used to the salvation of the humans involved. He forcefully explains that sin is a result of free will. Even though God is responsible for the creation of man and everything that man can do, sin denotes an action containing a defect. Such a defect cannot be traced back to God because it is a result of free will, and the defect was not intended or generated by God himself. “The act of sin is a movement of the free-will?The act of sin is?an act?it is from God?But sin denotes?an action with a defect: and this defect is from a created cause, viz. The free-will?” (S.T. I-II, Q. 79 Art. 2). God is responsible for a being’s ability to sin by endowing him or her with a free will, but he is not the cause of sin itself.
Aquinas takes time to refute a specific reading of part of Paul’s letter to the Romans.(S.T. I-II, Q. 79, Art. 1) God is described therein as delivering the idolaters up to their sins, and this particular interpretation of Paul implies that God himself intended their subsequent behavior. But Aquinas takes a different reading on the subject. He acquiesces that God does deliver them over into hardness of heart, but only so much as it already existed in their souls. God does not interfere with their free will, with their choice to continue committing evil acts, and only in the sense of non-interference does God hand them over into any type of abhorrent behavior. “He is said to deliver them up to a reprobate sense, in so far as He does not hinder them from following that reprobate sense, even as we are said to expose a person to danger if we do not protect him.” (S.T. I-II, Q. 79 Art. 1).
The next issue Aquinas approaches is the question of the actual causes of hardness of heart. (S.T. I-II, Q. 79, Art. 3). Here there is a duality of responsibility, in his view. He defines hardness of heart as consisting of and implying two separate realities. The first is the reality that the human mind must turn away from God and refuse to turn from the evil of sin. The second reality is the actual withdrawal of God’s grace from that particular soul. Thus the responsibility lies partly with the person and partly with God. God is not responsible for sin itself, which was established above (S.T. I-II, Q. 79, Art. 1); therefore, God is not responsible for the hardness of heart that follows such refusal to end sinful actions. However, responsibility does lie with God in so far as the actual removal of grace is concerned. But even in this case, sin is seen as the main obstacle for the power of grace, and such sin is again the responsibility of the human being. “God, of his own accord, withholds his grace from those in whom He finds an obstacle: so that the cause of grace being withheld is not only the man who raises an obstacle to grace; but God, Who, of His own accord, withholds his grace.” (S.T. I-II, Q. 79 Art. 3). Thus God is the cause of spiritual hardness of heart, but does not bear sole responsibility.
Several scriptural references can be made to support the idea that God, in causing hardness of heart, intends it for the later salvation of those involved. (S.T. I-II, Q. 79, Art. 4). However, Aquinas takes the opposite standpoint in saying that hardness of heart does not necessarily ensure a later salvation. “Therefore blindness, of its very nature, is directed to the damnation of those who are blinded; for which reason it is accounted an effect of reprobation. But, through God’s mercy, temporary blindness is directed medicinally to the spiritual welfare of those who are blinded.” (S.T. I-II, Q. 79 Art. 4). This excerpt raises an important issue not examined earlier. Blindness itself is cited as a punishment for those who have already turned from God, but temporary blindness is seen as a “medicine.” Aquinas goes on to explain that some are predestined to salvation, and thus might undergo trials and tribulations, but in the end are always bettered by their experience, including one of hardness of heart. Further, for those who are in fact “damned”, their sin and hardness of heart is used to some good. They are used as examples to the saved, so that their salvation can be greater in the face of such evil. “Thus He directs the sin of tyrants to the good of the martyrs, and the punishment of the lost to the glory of His justice.” (S.T. I-II, Q. 79 Art. 4).
Several conclusions are apparent when examining the evidence provided in these three works, the most important of which is that God is not the cause of sin. Free will can be identified as the cause of sin and its consequential hardness of heart; but this does not name God as the cause of sin or hardness of heart simply because he is the originator of free will. Aquinas makes the assumption that God is the cause of medicinal hardness of heart; but I argue that this is inconsistent with his definition of the will in general. In Aquinas’ view, humans ultimately have the final choice in sin and in turning from God’s grace. God is neither the cause of sin nor hardness of heart. Spiritual blindness also stems from free will, in so much as a person is completely free to choose to ignore and even to outright refuse God’s influence in his or her life. Paul’s declaration that God is the cause of spiritual blindness in the Israelites in order to convert the Gentiles is thereby incorrect; just as God does not cause sin by creating free will, he does not cause spiritual blindness, which is also the result of human choice. (It is important to note here, that although God does not cause the Israelite’s spiritual blindness, he can still bring them to salvation. The point being made is that he does not cause the initial lack of faith, although he may counteract it through his own mercy and bring them to grace.)
In light of the former conclusion, one must re-examine the idea of spiritual blindness as a tool used to bring about salvation. If spiritual blindness is not caused by God, it is neither medicinal to a soul nor intended by God as an example to others. God cannot use as a tool what he himself did not intend to exist; sin and blindness in themselves imply imperfection or deviation, neither of which were intended by God. In other words, God does not use spiritual blindness or sin as a tool in the common sense; the fact that he might later bestow mercy and grace on those who have turned from him does not imply that he intended the transgressions in the first place. Therefore, the fact that God brings about redemption and demonstrates mercy to those who sin is a result of God’s inherent qualities of mercifulness and justice, not from any pre-determined desire for disobedience. God brings about salvation according to his will alone; therefore, sin and hardness of heart are the result of the purely human trait of free will.
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