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“St. Thomas Aquinas on Predestination and the Distinction between Operative and Cooperative Grace”


By Dr. Lawrence Feingold
Associate Professor of Theology & Philosophy
Kenrick-Glennon Seminary, St. Louis
St. Vince de Paul Lecture and Concert Series
October 15, 2021


I was asked to speak to you about St. Thomas Aquinas’s account of predestination. The topic is impossible to treat in a single lecture because many principles intersect in this topic, and there is considerable tension between different aspects of the problem, which makes it a nodal question. This problem has generated opposing heresies — Pelagianism and Calvinism — and it is not surprising that even within the Church a famous and intractable dispute arose on this topic after the Council of Trent, called the de auxiliis controversy, pitting Jesuits and Dominicans against each other, both claiming to have the support of St. Thomas. My principal goal here is to focus on just one aspect of the problem — the distinction between operative and cooperative grace — and highlight its importance in thinking about God’s plan of salvation. I will present three other principles and elements of the problem that have to be taken into consideration and balanced together: the priority of grace, human free cooperation, and God’s universal salvific will. My thesis is that the distinction between operative and cooperative grace is crucial for maintaining the right balance between the other three elements: the primacy of grace, the ordinary necessity of our free cooperation with grace, and God’s universal salvific will.


Called to a Supernatural End

The first principle involved in the question of predestination is that God has destined mankind to a supernatural end that is a sharing in His divine life. This has many consequences. First of all, it means that we can only attain this end through God’s initiative and grace. In ST I, q. 23, a. 1, St. Thomas starts His treatment of predestination with this idea, using the analogy of an archer. God is the divine archer, we are the arrow, and an eternal sharing in the divine life is the target. We cannot shoot ourselves to this supernatural target. To get to the target we need to be aided above our nature by actual and sanctifying grace.1

This teaching is based on the universal principle of reason that action follows on being, which means that nothing can act above its own nature, unless it is aided by something above that nature.

To act supernaturally to reach a supernatural end, we must be aided supernaturally. We call this supernatural aid grace. This absolute necessity of grace for salvation was forcefully defended by St. Augustine in the Pelagian controversy, and was a gigantic contribution to theology, earning him the title of Doctor gratiae. This thesis was taken up by St. Thomas in his teaching on grace and predestination, and we could view it as the first principle in this matter. Since God orders us to a supernatural end, He must prepare a series of supernatural aids — graces — by means of which we can attain this end. This eternal plan which includes a series of graces eternally prepared by

God so that human beings can arrive at the target of salvation is called predestination.2

In order to clarify this question, it is helpful to distinguish two kinds of grace: actual and sanctifying or habitual. Actual graces perfect us in the order of movement and action whereas sanctifying grace elevates us to the order of supernatural being. Actual graces involve illumination of the intellect and attraction of the will to our supernatural end. An unbaptized adult (or a baptized one who has fallen into mortal sin) needs a series of actual graces to bring him or her to justification,3 in which the habitual grace of sharing in the divine life (sanctifying grace) is infused into the soul. After justification we still need the aid of actual graces to act on the supernatural level, grow in holiness (and sanctifying grace), and persevere in grace to the end. This eternal preparation of a series of graces — actual and sanctifying — to be given to us in the course of our lives is the foundation for all human salvation. This priority of grace that governs this entire question.


We Are Free Arrows

The second key principle in this matter is that we are free arrows who are to reach our supernatural destination through our own free cooperation with God’s graces. That is, if we get to the age of reason we have to reach our supernatural end through properly human actions involving free choice. This is an example of a broader Thomistic principle: everything is received according to the mode of the receiver. Since our mode is that of a free creature capable of choosing his own actions through deliberation, it follows that grace and salvation will be received according to our mode of being free self-movers.

Here we are speaking about freedom of choice between different options. We have this freedom from our rationality and ability to deliberate between particulars means to achieve the ends we naturally (or supernaturally) desire. St. Thomas considers a denial of our capacity for free choice to be both heretical and also a philosophical error of special gravity because it “subverts the principles of moral philosophy,”4 which makes it “extraneous,” which we could translate as “out of bounds.” In what follows I presuppose our capacity to freely choose between different means (real or apparent) of achieving happiness.

In archery, an ordinary arrow will not hit a target either (a) if it is not shot well, or (b) if the arrow is defective, even if it is shot perfectly. In our analogy, the arrow will not get to the target if (a) it is not sent by God with superb aim and a supernatural motion initiated by Him, but likewise, (b) it will never get to the target if it persistently resists the motion imparted to it by the grace of God, making it a voluntarily defective arrow with respect to God’s direction. As free and rational arrows, we have the ordinary power to cooperate with or resist the motion of God’s grace, and so to frustrate it, impeding the arrow from reaching the target. How this occurs we will see in a moment.

God’s plan makes it possible for the rational creature to have a real participation in attaining the supernatural end. This is a great good, because it allows each person not only to participate in the end, which is beatitude, but also in the process of disposing himself for it and meriting it through a trial. The rational creature is given the capacity to cooperate freely in the determination of his own moral identity, which means that he also cooperates in determining his ultimate level of participation in God’s beatitude that is the reward of fidelity. God does not want us to have beatitude without our first desiring it and working for it, insofar as we are capable of it through attaining the age of reason. In the words of St. Augustine: “He who made you without you, does not justify you without you. And so He made you when you were unknowing; He justifies you when you are willing.”5

Although the creature can do nothing without the prior grace of God, the existence of a trial makes it possible for the creature to cooperate with the Creator and receive beatitude as the crowning of that graced effort.6 St. Augustine has given the classic expression to this doctrine, which has been taken into the liturgy: “You are glorified in the assembly of your Holy Ones, for in crowning their merits you are crowning your own gifts.”7 The Council of Trent in the Decree on Justification similarly says that God’s “goodness towards all is such that He wants His own gifts to be their merits.”8

It follows that salvation, to which we are ordered by God’s providence, has two very unequal causes. The first and principal cause is God’s eternal preparation of graces that are sufficient for us to attain the end, but the secondary and free instrumental cause for all who attain the age of reason is our free cooperation with grace, which we can resist and often do, as will be explained below. The persistent lack of human cooperation is the only cause of reprobation.9


Operative and Cooperative Grace

The third crucial element of our problem is a distinction between two types of actual grace: operative and cooperative.10 This distinction stems from our first two principles: the primacy of grace, and the use of our freedom in the reception of grace.

In discussions of the issue of predestination from the 16th century onwards a distinction is generally made between sufficient and efficacious grace. A grace is said to be sufficient if it could result in a salvific action, and efficacious if it actually results in salvific action. Predestination would result from God preparing not just sufficient graces, which are prepared for all, but also efficacious graces. But this leaves unexplained why efficacious graces are prepared only for some, and how this is compatible with the universal salvific will of God, which will be examined below.

When St. Thomas divides grace into different kinds in the treatise on grace in the Summa theologiae (I-II, q. 111, a. 2), he does not make the distinction between sufficient and efficacious at all. Instead, the principal division of graces is that between operative and cooperative grace, which he receives from St. Augustine in Grace and Free Will.11 I hold that this distinction is a key contribution of Augustine and Aquinas, whose implications have not always been sufficiently seen. St. Augustine explains the distinction as follows:

For He who first works in us the power to will is the same who cooperates in bringing this work to perfection in those who will it. Accordingly, the Apostle says: “I am convinced of this, that he who has begun a good work in you will bring it to perfection until the day of Christ Jesus” (Phil 1:6). God, then, works in us, without our cooperation, the power to will, but once we begin to will, and do so in a way that brings us to act, then it is that He cooperates with us. But if He does not work in us the power to will or does not cooperate in our act of willing, we are powerless to perform good works of a salutary nature.

Through operative grace God works in our spiritual faculties of intellect and will — illuminating our mind and inspiring our will with a good desire — without presupposing any prior act on our part or any free cooperation. God is operating in us, and we are not yet cooperating. Hence the name. Through an operative grace, we come to see something regarding salvation we hadn’t seen before, and we find ourselves attracted to salvation, or a particular salvific good, in a way that we hadn’t been before. Our intellect and will are moved without our having brought this about through moving ourselves to it. Conversion stories, like St. Paul’s Damascus experience, highlight this kind of operative grace that enters into our life from above, as it were. This is also called prevenient grace, for it comes before our self-movement. Operative grace is also indicated by the Latin terms excitans (stimulating or quickening) and vocans (calling). Its purpose is to initiate a self-movement towards our supernatural end.12

Cooperative grace, on the contrary, presupposes a prior good will in the soul, already brought about by operative grace. On the basis of the good desire caused by operative grace, the soul can then deliberate about how to achieve the salvific good to which one has been attracted. Desire for the end (caused by operative grace) motivates a self-movement of the will to the subsequent acts of deliberation, intention, more deliberation, choice of the means, and realization of the chosen act, whether it be of prayer, contrition, going to confession, enrolling in RCIA, etc. By having been brought to desire a salutary end through operative grace, we can move ourselves through a process of deliberation to choose particular means. The desire for the end motivates the desire and choice of the means. In this process, the good deliberations and choices are necessarily supported and motivated by the prior operative grace through which we desire the salutary end, which motivates willing the means. Here there is a cooperation between the action of the operative grace and our own self-movement in deliberation and choice. The grace cooperates with our self-movement and vice-versa. In this free choice both God and the person are true movers, but on two different levels.13 St. Thomas explains this in ST I-II, q. 111, a. 2:

[1] Hence in that effect in which our mind is moved and does not move, but in which God is the sole mover, the operation is attributed to God, and it is with reference to this that we speak of “operating grace.” [2] But in that effect in which our mind both moves and is moved, the operation is not only attributed to God, but also to the soul; and it is with reference to this that we speak of cooperating grace.

For example, whenever a sinner is suddenly attracted to repentance and a change of life, there is an operative grace that has attracted the will of the sinner towards God. This grace becomes cooperative when the repentant sinner deliberates about changing his life and makes a salutary choice on the basis of the good desire awakened by operative grace. Such a choice is free, as is its execution, and it could easily be blocked by attachment to some contrary habitual desire prevailing in the moment of decision or execution.

Operative grace is thus the first in a series of actual graces, which does not presuppose any prior movement of the will. Cooperative grace refers to the subsequent action of grace which supports the movement of the soul to the good in its free actions of consent and choice, and which presupposes the good and salutary desire of the will which was first brought about by operative grace. Operative and cooperative grace can be considered to be the same grace producing different effects: an immediate effect of illumination and attraction, and subsequent effects that presuppose our free cooperation with that continuing attraction.14

Since operative grace is the work of God prior to the will’s self-movement, it is efficacious of itself. However, the whole purpose of operative grace is to enable the will to consent freely to the movement of grace. This consent is worked by the will through the aid of cooperative grace. Thus the action of operative grace is perfected by cooperative grace. Cooperative grace, by its very nature requires the will’s free cooperation. Thus cooperative grace is not efficacious of itself alone. God begins by working in the will without the will’s cooperation, attracting it to Himself, precisely so that He can gain the free cooperation of the will in the process of salvation. Thus the illumination and attraction aroused by operative grace are attributed to God alone, whereas the free action of deliberation, consent, and execution accomplished through cooperative grace are attributed both to God’s grace and to the person willing.

To illustrate this distinction St. Thomas uses the distinction between an interior and an exterior act.15 Operative grace brings about an interior act of illumination or attraction of the will, seeing a salvific truth or desiring a salvific end. This desire then moves one to deliberate on how to achieve the salvific end, which would be followed by the exterior act of executing some means conducive to the salvific end. That choice of means and its execution would be an example of cooperative grace.16 Here grace is cooperating (hence its name) with the self-movement motivated by the good desire aroused by operative grace.

The roles of operative and cooperative grace are manifested in Scripture in numerous places, such as Revelation 3:20: “Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if any one hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me.” The action of grace knocking on the door signifies operative grace. However, the purpose of the knocking is precisely that one open the door to Christ. This cannot happen without operative grace becoming cooperative, leading the will to consent and to move itself in the order of grace through conversion and the establishment of friendship with God.

Another example is John 6:44: “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him.” God’s action of “drawing” or attracting the soul towards Christ is the work of operative grace. However, it must culminate in cooperative grace by which the soul freely comes and is converted.

This distinction is crucial in understanding the priority of God’s grace and the necessity of human cooperation. The priority of God’s action is shown by the fact that operative grace must come first and presupposes nothing in the will. In our archery analogy, operative grace is the action of the archer, received by the arrow that is put in motion to the target.

The necessity of human cooperation is shown by the fact that the movement begun through operative grace, by its very nature, is meant to pass on into cooperative grace, in which the will must also freely move itself in choosing salutary acts. Operative grace becomes cooperative grace

as soon as the will begins to cooperate with grace. Operative grace fails to become cooperative grace, on the other hand, if the will refuses to cooperate. In this case, the movement of operative grace remains without fruit, even though it attained its initial effect of attraction. In the archery analogy, cooperative grace is the continuation of the arrow’s trajectory to the target, by which it proceeds with a free self-motion, motivated by the desire given by operative grace. Since it is a free motion involving deliberation, it can also resist the impulse given by the operative grace, thus deviating from the divinely given trajectory, and fail to hit the target.

The possible lack of cooperation is indicated in Jesus’s parable of the sower who sows good seed on the road, where it remains completely without fruit. Operative grace was given, but no cooperation ensued. In the rocky or weed-filled soil some cooperation follows, but not such as to ensure final perseverance. The obstinate lack of cooperation with the movement initiated through

operative grace is referred to in Scripture as the “hardening of the heart” or the “stiffening of the neck.” A classic text is Ps 95:8: “Harden not your hearts, as at Meribah, as on the day at Massah in the wilderness.” God frequently complains that the Israelites “did not listen or incline their ear, but stiffened their neck, that they might not hear and receive instruction” (Jer 17:23).

Operative grace cannot be resisted in itself, but only in its intended effect, which is to pass on to become cooperative grace in motivating a free choice. Operative grace is always efficacious for its immediate effect, but not necessarily for its further effects where grace enters into cooperation with our human freedom. With regard to operative grace we can apply Romans 9:19: “For who can resist his will?” When God acts in us without us He is not resisted. Notice that in the parable of the sower, the seed lands equally on all the different kinds of soil. The landing of the seed cannot be resisted. All have received an operative grace, let us say, in hearing the word not just with the ears but with the heart, at least for a moment. But the seed will not grow if the soil does not cooperate. Is it able to motivate growth of good fruit through action on the part of the recipient? The seed that lands on the road is cut short in its action right away, presumably through being overridden by sinful habits. In the rocky soil and the soil with weeds, it continues to act for a longer time, giving rise to some cooperation with grace. But in the end, there is a loss of perseverance because of fear or attachments to worldly goods.17

This distinction between operative and cooperative grace illustrates what is from the archer alone — the initial impulse of operative grace — and what is from both the archer as first cause and from the arrow as secondary free cause. Only in this cooperative stage can there be deviation and the choking of the fruit that comes from the seed.


Cooperative Grace Can Be Resisted

The fact that cooperative grace can be resisted has important implications for understanding God’s plan of salvation. In St. Thomas’s early work, De veritate, q. 6, a. 3, he takes this distinction into account when discussing the certainty of predestination. How can predestination obtain its effect with certainty if we can freely resist and fail to cooperate with the movements of operative grace? Even if God has prepared for us a marvelous series of operative graces, how does this ensure our cooperation in the phase of cooperative grace? He replies by considering two ways in which an effect can be obtained infallibly: through a necessary cause; and through a coordinated series of contingent causes, each of which can fail individually. It is in the second way that we should think of predestination. He makes an analogy here to God’s providence providing for a species not to become extinct, even though all the members of the species are contingent causes and will each die. Here God obtains His desired effect through the whole series, and thus by providing many dynamic causes, all of which individually can and do fail:

A single effect may be attained only as the result of the convergence of many contingent causes individually capable of failure; but each one of these causes has been ordained by God either to bring about that effect itself if another cause should fail or to prevent that other cause from failing. We see, for example, that all the individual members of a species are corruptible. Yet, from the fact that one succeeds another, the nature of the species can be kept in existence; and this is how God keeps the species from extinction, despite the fact that the individual perishes. A similar case is had in predestination; for, even though free choice can fail with respect to salvation, God prepares so many other helps for one who is predestined that he either does not fall at all or, if he does fall, he rises again.18

In other words, God provides for us a dynamic series of graces, such that if we cooperate, more will be given, according to the words of Jesus in Mark 4:25: “For to him who has will more be given.” If we fail to cooperate, God can still give new operative graces, though He is not bound to.

The same principle is at work in prayer of intercession. We pray for one another so that God provide more operative graces to overcome our resistance. Our prayers that we make in time are taken into account by God in His eternity as intercessory causes19 of the dynamic series of graces that God provides for each one. Our intercessions for others, however, are not infallible with respect to their salvation because even if an operative grace is given by God in response to our prayer, cooperation may not follow. St. Thomas explains: “For it sometimes happens that we pray for another with piety and perseverance, and ask for things relating to his salvation, and yet it is not granted on account of some obstacle on the part of the person we are praying for.”20 This obstacle would likely be the failure of free will to cooperate with an operative grace given.


Universal Salvific Will; God’s Consequent and Antecedent Will

As I mentioned at the beginning, the fourth key element that must be taken into account in this problem is the principle that God “desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth,” as stated by St. Paul in 1 Timothy 2:4. It is for this reason that prayers are to be “made for all men” (1 Tim 2:1). The universal salvific will is inseparable from the fact that Christ in fact “gave himself as a ransom for all” (1 Tim 2:6), not just for the elect as Calvinists21 and Jansenists hold.22 The universal salvific will is a specification of our first principle of the priority of grace. God is calling not just some people to a supernatural end, but He truly wills all human beings to be saved.

St. Augustine gave an unsatisfactory account of God’s universal salvific will, as stated in 1

Timothy 2:4. He interpreted it to mean that God wills to save all of the predestined, who are chosen from all classes of men;23 or that he wills to save all whom He wills.24 He thus denies that “there is no man whose salvation God does not wish.”25 That is, he denies a universal salvific will in the strong or proper sense of the expression.

A far better explanation of 1 Timothy 2:4 was given by St. John Damascene, who distinguished

between two senses of God’s willing: antecedent and consequent. In human willing, a consequent will is said to be one that follows on deliberation or consideration of concrete circumstances, whereas an antecedent will is one that is prior to or abstracts from a consideration of concrete circumstances. For example, a merchant traveling by boat with his merchandise has an antecedent will that his goods not be thrown overboard, but in the midst of a tempest he may consequently will that his goods be thrown overboard to lighten the ship so as to save his life. Similarly, a judge may have an antecedent will that a given man live in peace, but after his guilt has been revealed by trial and conviction, he may consequently desire that the man be executed or imprisoned. The consequent will takes concrete circumstances into account, from which the antecedent will abstracts.

St. John Damascene applied this distinction to explain how God’s universal salvific will should be understood:

One should also bear in mind that God antecedently wills all to be saved and to attain to His kingdom. For He did not form us to be chastised, but, because He is good, that we might share in His goodness. Yet, because He is just, He does wish to punish sinners. So, the first is called antecedent will and approval, and it has Him as its cause; the second is called consequent will and permission, and it has ourselves as its cause.26

In order to affirm a truly universal salvific will of God, and also admit the possibility that some may be lost through their resistance to grace, one must make this distinction between the antecedent and the consequent will of God. This distinction is necessary in order to understand in what respect the will of God is always realized. The antecedent will is not always realized, but only the consequent will, which presupposes the free choices of human beings and their free resistance or cooperation with grace. It seems that St. Augustine did not see this distinction.

St. Thomas followed St. John Damascene in this interpretation of God’s universal salvific will.27 He uses this distinction in ST I, q. 19, a. 6, ad 1, in which he has posed the question whether God’s will is always realized. St. Thomas argues for an affirmative answer on account of His omnipotence. However, a powerful objection is based on God’s universal salvific will.28 St. Thomas responds by saying that the text of St. Paul can be understood in three ways. The first and second are taken from St. Augustine whereas the third interpretation involves Damascene’s distinction of God’s antecedent and consequent will:

According to Damascene (De fide orthodoxa 2.29), they are understood of the antecedent will of God; not of the consequent will. This distinction must not be taken as applying to the divine will itself, in which there is nothing antecedent nor consequent, but to the things willed. To understand this we must consider that everything, in so far as it is good, is willed by God. A thing taken in its primary sense, and absolutely considered, may be good or evil, and yet when some additional circumstances are taken into account, by a consequent consideration may be changed into the contrary. . . . Thus it is clear that whatever God simply wills takes place; although what He wills antecedently may not take place.

In other words, God wills all men to be saved and therefore prepares for them a series of operative graces sufficient — and in fact, superabundant — to bring them to salvation. He gives us free will, however, by which we may correspond with His grace or freely impede it by not cooperating with the attractions given. His consequent will takes man’s correspondence and/or resistance to His grace into account. God’s consequent will is always realized, because it is God’s complete will that takes all the circumstances into account, which here concerns the response (resistance or correspondence) of our free will.

It follows that God’s universal salvific will is His antecedent will, abstracting from His foreknowledge of man’s cooperation with or resistance of grace. Glorification and reprobation, on the contrary, are acts of God’s consequent will, which take into account the condition of the rational creature, and his correspondence with or obstinate resistance to grace.

St. Thomas explains this point masterfully in SCG III, chapters 159–161. He begins by posing a powerful objection:

Since one cannot be directed to the ultimate end except by means of divine grace, without which no one can possess the things needed to work toward the ultimate end, such as faith, hope, love, and perseverance, it might seem to some person that man should not be held responsible for the lack of such aids. Especially so, since he cannot merit the help of divine grace, nor turn toward God unless God convert him, for no one is held responsible for what depends on another. Now, if this is granted, many inappropriate conclusions appear.

St. Thomas solves the difficulty by making a crucial distinction. The work of salvation must begin with the grace of God, an operative grace. However, man can block the effect intended by that grace through his own resistance, through which that first grace fails to progress as cooperative grace. Therefore, it is not absurd for God to reprobate man who does not have grace, precisely because he has culpably resisted cooperating with God’s gratuitous gift, and for that very reason does not have grace so as to be saved:

And since this ability to impede or not to impede the reception of divine grace is within the scope of free choice, not undeservedly is responsibility for the fault imputed to him who offers an impediment to the reception of grace. In fact, as far as He is concerned, God is ready to give grace to all; “indeed He wills all men to be saved, and to come to the knowledge of the truth,” as is said in 1 Timothy [2:4]. But those alone are deprived of grace who offer an obstacle within themselves to grace; just as, while the sun is shining on the world, the man who keeps his eyes closed is held responsible for his fault, if as a result some evil follows, even though he could not see unless he were provided in advance with light from the sun.29

The distinction of operative and cooperative grace is crucial in understanding reprobation. Although we cannot impede the reception of an operative grace, we can impede its bearing fruit leading to salvation by failing to cooperate with it. God’s antecedent will is manifested in granting operative graces, which we can also refer to as sufficient to initiate a dynamic process to justification and salvation. His consequent will is manifested in withholding salvation from those who block the playing out of the dynamic process and who die in that state (of mortal sin).


Development of Doctrine on God’s Universal Salvific Will

There has been a significant and slow but continuous development of doctrine concerning God’s universal salvific will. St. Augustine’s interpretation is no longer tenable. Key steps are Damascene’s distinction, the development of the doctrine of baptism of desire; the Council of Trent’s condemnation of double predestination and affirmation that grace can be resisted, and the condemnation of five Jansenist propositions in the 17th century. God’s universal salvific will was upheld by condemning two heretical Jansenist positions: (a) that Christ died only for the elect and not for all men;30 and (b) that God might condemn someone without having given them sufficient grace to be saved.31

The understanding of God’s universal salvific will was further developed by the affirmation of invincible ignorance by Pius IX, and by the teaching of Vatican II on the universality of God’s salvific plan,32 especially Gaudium et spes, §22, which states: “Since Christ died for all men, and since the ultimate vocation of man is in fact one, and divine, we ought to believe that the Holy

Spirit in a manner known only to God offers to every man the possibility of being associated with this paschal mystery.”33

John Paul II, in his encyclical on the Church’s missionary mandate, also clearly articulated the universality of God’s salvific will. With regard to those who have invincible ignorance about Christ and His Church, he says:

For such people salvation in Christ is accessible by virtue of a grace which, while having a mysterious relationship to the Church, does not make them formally part of the Church but enlightens them in a way which is accommodated to their spiritual and material situation. This grace comes from Christ; it is the result of his Sacrifice and is communicated by the Holy Spirit. It enables each person to attain salvation through his or her free cooperation.34

The grace that “enlightens them” would be an operative grace that illuminates the mind and attracts the will. This enables them to cooperate with that grace through free choices made possible by the grace received — cooperative grace — so as to attain to justification and salvation.

Since God wills all to be saved and prepares sufficient graces for all, the analogy of predestination with an archer given by St. Thomas has to apply not only to the elect who actually attain the target of heavenly beatitude, but also to those who fail to attain beatitude. We have to hold that God has prepared a suitable and sufficient series of graces also for those who fail to attain beatitude. The divine archer has not failed to prepare suitable graces to fuel their trajectory to the supernatural end. They fail because they have culpably resisted those graces at the decisive moments of their lives and have not allowed operative graces received to bear fruit through becoming cooperative.



In conclusion, I have tried to show in this talk that the distinction between operative and cooperative grace serves a crucial role in showing how to harmonize the different principles that govern the problem of predestination, or God’s plan for our salvation. The notion of operative grace highlights the primacy of grace against Pelagianism. In a complementary way, the notion of cooperative grace manifests how our freedom, once touched by operative grace, can cooperate

with the supernatural attraction and illumination given by it, resulting in a free self-movement on the order of grace. The notion of cooperative grace also accounts for how grace can be resisted, not in the first moment of operative grace, but in the successive moments in which free self- movement is unfolding.

This distinction also stands in intimate harmony with God’s universal salvific will and with the distinction between God’s antecedent and consequent will. God’s antecedent will that all men be saved, although it abstracts from our cooperation, is not a mere sentiment without efficacy. It results in the granting of sufficient operative graces to all human beings who attain the use of reason. This makes possible free human cooperation towards salvation, but does not guarantee it, and God’s consequent will takes into account our actual cooperation or obstinate resistance to the end.

This distinction eliminates the opposing errors of forms of Pelagianism, on the one hand, and Lutheranism, Calvinism, and Jansenism, on the other. Forms of Pelagianism in effect deny the necessity of operative grace. Lutheranism, Calvinism, and Jansenism, deny the possibility of cooperative grace. In other words, this distinction enables us to understand how God’s preparation of a dynamic series of operative graces still leaves room for human freedom in responding to those graces which then become cooperative.

There remains a tension in St. Thomas’s writings on predestination. The tension is between the certainty of predestination, which he inherits from St. Augustine, and the universal salvific will that undergoes continual development through the centuries. This distinction between operative and cooperative grace points to how balance is maintained in this tension between divine grace and free will that stands at the center of Christian faith and life.



1 ST I, q. 23, a. 1: “It is fitting that God should predestine men. . . . The end towards which created things are directed by God is twofold; one which exceeds all proportion and faculty of created nature; and this end is life eternal, that consists in seeing God which is above the nature of every creature, as shown above (q. 12, a. 4). . . . Now if a thing cannot attain to something by the power of its nature, it must be directed thereto by another; thus, an arrow is directed by the archer towards a mark. Hence, properly speaking, a rational creature, capable of eternal life, i s led towards it, directed, as it were, by God. The reason of that direction pre-exists in God; as in Him is the type [ratio] of the order of all things towards an end, which we proved above to be providence.”

2 See Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae (ST) I, q. 23, a. 1: “Now the type in the mind of the doer of something to be done, is a kind of pre-existence in him of the thing to be done. Hence the type of the aforesaid direction of a rational creature towards the end of life eternal is called predestination. For to destine, is to direct or send. Thus it is clear that predestination, as regards its objects, is a part of providence.”

3 On the process of justification, see ST III, q. 85, a. 5: “We may speak of penance, with regard to the acts whereby in penance we co-operate with God operating, the first principle [Cf. I-II, 113] of which acts is the operation of God in turning the heart, according to Lamentations 5:21: ‘Convert us, O Lord, to Thee, and we shall be converted’; the second, an act of faith; the third, a movement of servile fear, whereby a man is withdrawn from sin through fear of punishment; the fourth, a movement of hope, whereby a man makes a purpose of amendment, in the hope of obtaining pardon; the fifth, a movement of charity, whereby sin is displeasing to man for its own sake and no longer for the sake of the punishment; the sixth, a movement of filial fear whereby a man, of his own accord, offers to make amends to God through fear of Him. Accordingly it is evident that the act of penance results from servile fear as from the first movement of the appetite in this direction and from filial fear as from its immediate and proper principle.”

4 Thomas Aquinas, De malo, q. 6: “It is also to be counted among the oddest philosophical opinions, since it is not only contrary to faith but also subverts all the principles of moral philosophy. For if nothing is within our power, and we are necessarily moved to will things, deliberation, exhortation, precept, punishment, and praise and blame, of which moral philosophy consists, are destroyed. And we call like opinions that destroy the foundations of parts of philosophy odd, as, for example, the position that nothing is moving, which destroys the foundations of natural science.”

5 Sermo 169.11.13. This text is cited by St. Thomas Aquinas in the Summa of Theology, I-II, q. 111, a. 2, ad 2.

6 See James 1:12: “Blessed is the man who endures trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life which God has promised to those who love him.”

7 Roman Missal, Prefatio I de sanctis, citing the "Doctor of grace," St. Augustine, En. in Ps. 102, 7: PL 37, 1321-1322. Cited in CCC as a heading for the section on merit, before §2006.

8 DS 1548.

9 See SCG III, ch. 159, n. 2, discussed below. See also Philippe de la Trinité, “Notre liberté devant Dieu,” Etudes Carmelitaines (1958): 71: “Our merits are absolutely incapable of being the first cause of our predestination. . . . On the other hand, the demerits incurred in refusing graces are really the first cause of damnation.” (Translated by William Most in Grace, Predestination, and the Salvific Will of God, 392.)

10 As St. Thomas explains in in ST I-II, q. 111, a. 2, this distinction can also apply to habitual grace, but in here I am referring above all to the use of this distinction with regard to actual grace.

11 Grace and Free Will 17.33, trans. Robert Russell, in St. Augustine: The Teacher, The Free Choice of the Will, Grace and Free Will (Washington DC: Catholic Univ. of America Press, 1968), 288–89.

12 Operative grace touches the heart and calls one to conversion, whereas cooperative grace aids one to consent and act freely on the supernatural level. See the Council of Trent, sess. 6, Decree on Justification, ch. 5.

13 The good action done through the aid of cooperative grace can be analyzed as the interaction of two agents, of which God is the principal cause and our free will is the instrumental cause.

14 See ST I-II, q. 111, a. 2, ad 4: “Operating and cooperating grace are the same grace; but are distinguished by their different effects.”

15 ST I-II, q. 111, a. 2: “Now there is a double act in us. First, there is the interior act of the will, and with regard to this act the will is a thing moved, and God is the mover; and especially when the will, which hitherto willed evil, begins to will good. And hence, inasmuch as God moves the human mind to this act, we speak of operating grace. But there is another, exterior act; and since it is commanded by the will, as was shown above (q. 17, a. 9) the operation of this act is attributed to the will. And because God assists us in this act, both by strengthening our will interiorly so as to attain to the act, and by granting outwardly the capability of operating, it is with respect to this that we speak of cooperating grace. Hence after the aforesaid words Augustine subjoins: ‘He operates that we may will; and when we will, He cooperates that we may perfect.’ And thus if grace is taken for God’s gratuitous motion whereby He moves us to meritorious good, it is fittingly divided into operating and cooperating grace.”

16 But it seems that cooperative grace is not only applicable to exterior acts, for the interior acts of deliberation, consent, and choice involve self-movement and thus would also be examples of cooperative grace.

17 Jesus gives great importance to this parable, for when the disciples ask for its meaning, He says, “Do you not understand this parable? How then will you understand all the parables?” (Mark 4:13).

18 De veritate, q. 6, a. 3, in Thomas Aquinas, Truth, trans. Robert W. Mulligan (Chicago: Henry Regnery, 1952), 1:272.

19 See ST II-II, q. 83, a. 2: “Divine providence disposes not only what effects shall take place, but also from what causes and in what order these effects shall proceed. Now among other causes human acts are the causes of certain effects. Wherefore it must be that men do certain actions, not that thereby they may change the Divine disposition, but that by those actions they may achieve certain effects according to the order of the Divine disposition: and the same is to be said of natural causes. And so it is with regard to prayer. For we pray not that we may change the Divine disposition, but that we may impetrate that which God has disposed to be fulfilled by our prayers, in other words ‘that by asking, men may deserve to receive what Almighty God from eternity has disposed to give,’ as Gregory says (Dial. i, 8).”

20 ST II-II, q. 83, a. 7, ad 2.

21 See Canons of Dort, part 2, art. 8, in W. Robert Godfrey, Saving the Reformation: The Pastoral Theology of the Canons of Dort (Sanford, FL: Reformation Trust Publishing, 2019), 49: “God willed for Christ efficaciously to redeem through the blood of the cross (by which He confirmed the new covenant) — from every people, tribe, nation, and tongue — all those and only those who were elected to salvation from eternity and were given to Him by the Father.” See also the Westminster Confession of Faith (1646), ch. 8.8, in Creeds of the Churches: A Reader in Christian Doctrine from the Bible to the Present, ed. John H. Leith, rev. ed. (Richmond, VA: John Knox Press, 1973), 205: “To all those for whom Christ hath purchased redemption he doth certainly and effectually apply and communicate the same; making intercession for them.”

22 See the condemnation of the fifth Jansenist proposition

23 See, for example, Augustine, Rebuke and Grace 44, in Answer to the Pelagians, IV, trans. Roland J. Teske WSA I/26 (Hyde Park, NY: New City Press, 1999), 139: “Scripture said, ‘He wills that all human beings be saved,’ so that we should understand all the predestined, because every kind of human being is contained in them.”

24 See Enchiridion de fide, spe et caritate 27.103, in Christian Instruction; Admonition and Grace; The Christian Combat; Faith, Hope and Charity, trans. B. M. Peebles, FC 2 (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 1950), 456: “Consequently, when we hear and read in the Sacred Scriptures that God wishes all men to be saved, while we are sure that not all men are saved, still we ought not on that account to restrict the omnipotent will of God, but rather to understand the words, ‘Who wishes all men to be saved’ as meaning that no man is saved unless He wishes him saved. The meaning would not be that there is no man whose salvation God does not wish, but that no man is saved unless He wills it, and that His will should be sought for in prayer, since, if He wills it, it must be.”

25 Ibid.

26 John Damascene, On the Orthodox Faith, 2.29–30, in Writings, trans. F. H. Chase Jr., FC 37 (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 1958), 262–63. Damascene says that this will has its origin from us in that God’s consequent will takes into account man’s free and obstinate resistance to grace until the end.

27 For example, in I Sent., d. 46, q. 1, a. 1, St. Thomas says that “according to Damascene, the will is twofold: antecedent and consequent.” The two are distinguished according to whether man as the object of God’s salvific will is considered in all his circumstances and concrete dispositions, or only in his nature and potentiality. In I Sent., d. 47, q. 1, a. 1, and I, q. 19, a. 6, St. Thomas specifies that the consequent will of God is always realized. However, this is not true of His antecedent will, by which He wills that all men be saved, come to the knowledge of the truth, and be perfect in virtue, etc.

28 “It seems that the will of God is not always fulfilled. For the Apostle says (1 Tim. 2:4): “God will have all men to be saved, and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” But this does not happen. Therefore the will of God is not always fulfilled.” 29 SCG III, ch. 159, n. 2.

29 29 SCG III, ch. 159, n. 2.

30 See Innocent X, Constitution Cum occasione to All the Faithful (May 31, 1653), the fifth condemned proposition (DS, 2005): “To say that Christ died or shed His blood for all men, is Semipelagianism.” The condemnation specifies that if this proposition were “understood in the sense that Christ died only to save the predestined,” then it would be “impious, blasphemous, disgraceful, derogatory to divine piety, and heretical.”

31 Ibid., first condemned proposition (DS, 2001): “Some of God’s commandments cannot be observed by just men with the strength they have in the present state, even if they wish and strive to observe them; nor do they have the grace that would make their observance possible.”

32 See Lumen gentium §§14 and 16.

33 See Paul VI, Credo of the People of God Solemni hac Liturgia ( June 30, 1968), §23: “The divine design of salvation embraces all men, and those who without fault on their part do not know the Gospel of Christ and His Church, but seek God sincerely, and under the influence of grace endeavor to do His will as recognized through the promptings of their conscience, they, in a number known only to God, can obtain salvation.” See also CCC §1260, which explains the possibility of salvation for those with an implicit desire for Baptism, which quotes Gaudium et Spes, §22. See also Gaudium et Spes, §45; CDF, Declaration on the Unicity and Salvific Universality of Jesus Christ and the Church Dominus Jesus, §11 (Aug 6, 2000).

34 John Paul II, Encyclical on the Permanent Validity of the Church’s Missionary Mandate Redemptoris Missio (Dec 7, 1990), §10.

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