3 Characteristics of Foreknowledge and Free Will


In the last post we examined three characteristics of Predestination and the logical conclusions that one can draw from them.

  • Original Conception of the Event
  • Exclusion of anything that can prevent the Event
  • Insurance that the Event as decreed will occur

In this post I will examine these three characteristics from the perspective of God possessing foreknowledge of contingent future actions.

calvin-and-hobbes-on-predestination2Origination of the Event

All events are conceived, willed, and performed by an agent. The difference in the two views is identifying the agent. In Predestination all events that ever occur originate in the mind of God. However, if God has not ordained all events and has given people the power of contrary choice then the origin of the event is in the created person.

In defining free actions we will rely on Richard Watson who gives us this explanation in his Theological Institutes (Volume 2 Chapter 4):

A free action is a voluntary one; and an action which results from the choice of the agent, is distinguished from a necessary one in this, that it might not have been, or have been otherwise, according to the self-determining power of the agent.

In Jacob Arminus’ Disputation #9 section 23 we read:

[God] has employed that form of administration which allows intelligent creatures not only of their own choice or spontaneously. but likewise freely, to perform and accomplish their own motions and actions.

And in Disputation #10, he writes an action’s “first conception [is] in the heart of a rational creature”.

When we say that the origination of an event occurs within a person (agent-causation) we are not denying that the person owes it existence, life, and its ability of contingent action to God who is their Creator. We are also not rejecting the idea that God is sovereign over His creation. As an agent within creation, God’s actions can influence people as well as effect the options that people have to choose from.

Insurance that the Event as decreed will occur

When God challenged Israel and their idols, the task put forth was to accurately tell the future (Isaiah 41:22-23):

Tell us about your earlier predictive oracles,
so we may examine them and see how they were fulfilled.
Or decree for us some future events!
Predict how future events will turn out,
so we might know you are gods.

Knowing what will occur in the future is one of the ways that God proves that He is God. Most will not challenge the idea that God has foreknowledge. However, those who hold to a determinist framework based on decrees, will state that foreknowledge of the future makes all future actions just as certain and just as predetermined by God.

Foreknowledge → Future Actions

But is the claim that God’s foreknowledge necessitates and thus causes future actions true?

Richard Watson, in the same chapter of his Institutes, reminds us that knowledge does not cause actions.

The foreknowledge of God has then no influence upon either the freedom or the certainty of actions, for this plain reason, that it is knowledge, and not influence; and actions may be certainly foreknown, without their being rendered necessary by that foreknowledge.

But here it is said, If the result of an absolute contingency be certainly foreknown, it can have no other result, it cannot happen otherwise. This is not the true inference. It will not happen otherwise; but I ask, why can it not happen otherwise?

The answer is it will not happen otherwise because that is the way it happens. But it can happen otherwise. If an event transpired differently, because the agent chose differently, than God’s foreknowledge would be different because it would align with what actually occurred.

if the action be free, and it enter into the very nature of a voluntary action to be unconstrained, then it might have happened in a thousand other ways or not have happened at all; the foreknowledge of it no more affects its nature in this case than in the other.

Daniel Whedon in Section 3, chapter 3 of The Freedom of the Will, reminds us that knowledge must conform to facts and not the other way around.

The necessity lies not upon the free act, but upon the foreknowledge. The foreknowledge must see to its own accuracy. Pure knowledge, temporal or eternal, must conform itself to the fact, not the fact to the knowledge.

Knowledge by its very nature, accepts the fact as it is; it does not shape the fact to itself, or require the fact to be configured to its own type. … [The act] is perfectly free to contradict the knowledge, and the knowledge must take care of itself.

God does not have to insure that future events will come to pass so that they line up with His foreknowledge of them. God has to insure that the knowledge He has of the future lines up with the contingent choices that will be made in the future. Future actions determine what is known by God.

Foreknowledge ← Future Actions

Both Watson and Whedon remind us that we may never know how God possesses such knowledge of the future, but it is important to recognize that foreknowledge does not require future actions to be determined by God. It only requires God to possess the ability to know with accuracy what occurs in advance of it occurring.

Exclusion of anything that can prevent the Event

This view does not deny Divine Providence, which was succinctly defined by John Wesley as follows (Sermon 67):

That all things, all events in this world, are under the management of God

God is not a passive observer looking across His creation. He does not only sit outside of Time and “see” what choices people are making (if that is how He foreknows). God is personal and interacts with His creation within Time.

In Disputation 9 and 10, Arminius lists some ways in which God interacts with people and the actions they perform. Here is a summary of them (the last two were added be me):

  • Permits the action by giving the person the ability to choose it over other actions
  • Hinders action by taking away the life of the person
  • Hinders action by taking away the capability of the person to act (ie illness etc)
  • Hinders action by inciting or allowing opposition to thwart the action
  • Hinders action by removing the object that inspires the action
  • Hinders action by informing the will that the action is difficult, sinful, or injurious
  • Permits the action when no hindrances are employed
  • Encourages action by informing the will that the action is desirable, honorable, useful
  • Influences action by enabling (or hardening) the will

God knowing the heart of man and foreseeing all actions can influence, hinder or permit actions according to His infinite wisdom and power and according to His purposes. Freedom to choose otherwise does not mean that God is not actively involved in influencing choices or directing the outcome of our actions once we choose to act a certain way.

In arguing against the necessity of events through deterministic decrees or through God’s  possession foreknowledge this view positively acknowledges Divine Providence. Here is how Wesley synthesizes these ideas:

  • God creates

The eternal, almighty, all-wise, all-gracious God is the Creator of heaven and earth. He called out of nothing, by his all-powerful word, the whole universe, all that is.

  • God sustains

And as this all-wise, all-gracious Being created all things,so he sustains all things. He is the Preserver as well as the Creator of everything that exists.

  • God governs

He is infinite in wisdom as well as in power: And all his wisdom is continually employed in managing all the affairs of his creation for the good of all his creatures. … And we cannot doubt of his exerting all his power, as in sustaining, so in governing, all that he has made.

  • God preserves the liberty from which responsibility is derived

Herein appears the depth of the wisdom of God, in his adorable providence; in governing men, so as not to destroy either their understanding, will, or liberty.

the whole frame of divine providence is so constituted as to afford man every possible help, in order to his doing good and eschewing evil, which can be done without turning man into a machine; without making him incapable of virtue or vice, reward or punishment.

Hopefully this post helps explain the positive case for foreknowledge and agent causation, that stands in contrast to the determinism of predestination.

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