The Providence Problem


In thinking through God’s Foreknowledge there are three basic approaches. Actually, there are four but the view known as Middle knowledge will not be explored in this post.

Name Description Determinism     Fore knowledge Libertarian  Free Will
Determinism God determines all events prior to creation. The foreknowledge of all future actions that God has is based on what He has decreed will occur. God is providentially active but this activity is part of what is decreed. yes yes (based on the decrees and not on the actions of people) no (compatibilistic free will)
Open Theism God does not have foreknowledge of future contingent actions. God is providentially active and responds to future events as they occur. no no (the future is not knowable) yes
Simple Foreknowledge God has complete foreknowledge of future contingent actions prior to creation. God is providentially active and interacts with His creation. no yes (based on the actions of people in the future) yes

One of the challenges posed to those holding the Simple Foreknowledge view is that God can not use his foreknowledge to providentially interact with His creation.

In Terry Tiessen’s article in Didaskalia he writes:

If God only has simple foreknowledge, then he can not decide how he will act on the basis of a knowledge of how other creatures would respond. He knows eternally, his own action and the creature’s at the same logical moment.

In this article, the example is given of a lottery player who has both the foreknowledge of the winning lotto numbers and the numbers that she will play. The basic problem is that unless the player has knowledge of the winning numbers prior to the foreknowledge of the numbers that she will actually play during the game she cannot use the winning numbers to guarantee victory. Since the player has complete foreknowledge she cannot alter her choice of numbers to align with the winning numbers without altering (potentially) what was foreknown.

Stated as premises that might look like this (where E0 is a “time” prior to creation):

  1. At time E0 the player has FK of the numbers that she will play at T1
  2. At time E0 the player has FK of the winning numbers that will be generated at T2
  3. The player cannot play the foreknown winning numbers at T1

In the the article “Why Simple Foreknowledge is still Useful”, David Hunt tackles this challenge by suggesting that God foreknows in increments.

As an Agile developer I am used to breaking down complex things like software projects into smaller increments. As part of developing software we often take a large project and break it down into 10-15 day increments called sprints. This allows a development team to work on the project based in what is known at the time and give regular feedback to the stakeholders on how things are progressing. The stakeholders can take this regular supply of information and adjust things like the resources, the schedule, and scope of the project based on the progress being made as well as on any new information that comes up that may impact the needs of the business.

If I understand Hunt’s proposal, God is a stakeholder in an agile process that gets regular feedback on what is occurring and then acts based on that information.

Hunt provides an example of how incremental foreknowledge might work by proposing that God and Satan are going to play rock-paper-scissor. In this post I expand on his example and examine the game from the three views of foreknowledge being considered in this post.

In the determinist view, God determines what He will pick and what Satan will pick. Thus He controls the outcome of the game. Satan would not have the ability to choose anything except what was decreed.

  1. God decrees that He will pick rock at T1  (E0)
  2. God decrees that Satan will pick scissors at T2 (E0)
  3. God picks rock at T1, Satan necessarily picks scissors at T2, and God wins the game at T3

In the open theist view, both God and Satan have freedom (ability to choose otherwise) in what they will pick. God has no advance knowledge of what Satan will choose and thus cannot control the outcome of the game.

  1. God picks rock without knowing what Satan will pick at T1
  2. Satan can pick rock, paper, or scissors at T2
  3. God happens to win the game because Satan freely chose scissors at T3

In the simple FK view, what God foreknows are things as they actually will occur. It is assumed that God acquires all of His foreknowledge of all events at one point in time. Therefore God cannot foreknow something earlier than his foreknowledge of something else. Since what God knows is dependent on what will occur in the future and everything is known at the same “instant” God is not able to act on what He sees or change what occurs.

Those that challenge simple foreknowledge would see the game like this:

  1. God foreknows what He will pick at T1 (E0)
  2. God foreknows what Satan will pick at T2  (E0)
  3. God cannot take advantage of His foreknowledge of what Satan will pick at T2 to guarantee He will win the game because His choice is also already foreknown.

Hunt, as I understand it, seems to suggest that God does not acquire foreknowledge in one complete moment.  Hunt suggests something more like this:

  1. God foreknows that Satan will pick scissors at T2 (En)
  2. God knows that He will choose to pick rock at T1 based on Satan’s pick of scissors at T2 (En+1)
  3. God picks rock at T1, Satan freely picks scissors at T2, and God wins the game at T3.

Although God acquires His FK in increments, God acquires the FK of all events that will occur prior to creation. Hunt does not propose how God acquires His foreknowledge.

I am not sure I have my head fully around what Hunt is suggesting, but it is an interesting solution to the challenge determinists and open theists pose to simple foreknowledge.


Hasker, William, “Why Simple Foreknowledge is Still Useless”, JETS 52/3 (September 2009)  537-44

Hunt, David, “Why Simple Foreknowledge is Still Useful”, JETS 52/3 (September 2009)  545–50

Tiessen, Terry, “God, Time, and Knowledge: What Does God Know and When Does God Know It?” Didaskalia (Winter 2007) 141-63

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