God’s Omniscience and Man’s Freedom

Like “O God, Why Did You Let Esther Die?”  this article is based on a paper that I wrote in the summer of 1984 while working on a M.A. in Humanities with California State University Dominguez Hills. That paper included numerous footnotes, some of which I’ve given or referred to here in square brackets. Otherwise the article is almost identical to the paper.

Most Christians believe both that God is omniscient and that human beings have a free will. But are God’s omniscience and man’s freedom consistent? I think that they are and in this article shall try to demonstrate that they are.

It is necessary to begin by defining the terms “omniscience” and “freedom.” I shall define “omniscience” as “the quality of possessing all possible knowledge” and “freedom” as “the state of being able to do something or not to do it.” But does “all possible knowledge” include knowledge of the future? Since most Christians would agree with Augustine’s claims that “to confess that God exists, and at the same time to deny that He has foreknowledge of future things, is the most manifest folly” and that “one who is not prescient of all future things is not God” [Augustine, City of God, V, 9], I shall consider first the implications of God’s omniscience including knowledge of all future things. Then I shall consider the consequences of His omniscience not including knowledge of all future things.

If God foreknows all future things, then everything has to happen in the way that it is foreknown. And if everything has to happen as foreknown, then those involved have to participate in the way in which they are foreknown to take part. And if those involved have to participate as foreknown, then they are not free not to take part. In other words, God’s foreknowledge seems logically to negate human freedom. That the Reformers recognized this can be illustrated by the following quotation from Luther: “For if we believe it to be true that God foreknows and predestines all things, that he can neither be mistaken in his foreknowledge nor hindered in his predestination, and that nothing takes place but as he wills it (as reason itself is forced to admit), then on the testimony of reason itself there cannot be any free choice in man or angel or any creature” [Martin Luther, On the Bondage of the Will, Conclusion].

However most Christians not only believe that God foreknows the future but also that human beings have a free will. How do they reconcile the two? They either argue that foreknowledge does not involve determination of future actions but mere knowledge of future free actions, or redefine “free” in such a way that it is compatible with being determined [in my paper I illustrated this in a footnote with a lengthy quotation from Thomas Aquinas, The Summa Theologica, First Part, Q. 83, Art. 1], or claim that how to reconcile the two is a secret of God beyond understanding [in my paper I illustrated this in a footnote with a lengthy quotation from Stephen Charnock, Discourses upon the Existence and Attributes of God, Discourse VIII: on God’s Knowledge, II. What God Knows]. However, as indicated in the preceding paragraph, I think that foreknowledge of events logically implies that the events are predetermined, and thus I reject the first proposed means of reconciliation of God’s foreknowledge and human freedom as illogical. Redefining “free” in such a way that it is compatible with being determined gives it, in my opinion, something other than a natural meaning, and thus I reject the second means as well. Claiming that how to reconcile the two is a mystery might be theologically sound, but it is philosophically unsound and so I reject it too (I wrote the paper as a philosophy paper, not as a theology paper).

If, against common Christian belief, “omniscience” does not include knowledge of all future things, it would seem to follow that the future is not determined. For if the future were determined but God did not know the future, then He would be lacking some possible knowledge and, according to my initial definition of “omniscience” as “the quality of possessing all possible knowledge,” would not be omniscient. But if the future is not determined, true prophecies regarding the future, which the Bible indicates have been made, could not be made. Thus, if the Bible is true, it would seem that at least part of the future is determined and consequently that “omniscience” includes knowledge of at least part of the future.

Before proceeding, I shall summarize my conclusions thus far. God’s omniscience including knowledge of all future things would imply a determined future and thus would be inconsistent with human freedom. But true prophecies of future events imply that at least part of the future is determined and that God’s omniscience includes knowledge of at least part of the future.

What is my solution? I believe that God’s omniscience includes of the future only those parts that He actually decrees or that are necessitated by or can be predicted without chance of error from the past and the present. I do not believe that it includes knowledge of those things that are dependent upon the operation of human free will.

Thus my final verdict is that GOD IS OMNISCIENT and MAN IS FREE. The basis of God’s omniscience and man’s freedom being consistent is God’s having voluntarily limited the realm of possible knowledge when He created free creatures [in my paper I observed in a footnote that John Lucas had proposed a similar view in his The Freedom of the Will (Oxford University Press, 1970), p. 75]. THANK YOU, LORD, FOR TRUSTING US WITH THE GIFT OF FREEDOM!

My next post will be based on another paper that I wrote in my studies with California State University Dominguez Hills, “From Everlasting to Everlasting, Thou Art God.”

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15 thoughts on “God’s Omniscience and Man’s Freedom

  1. Allison

    Would you provide examples of events which God might decree but which are not dependent upon the operation of human free will? For example, God decreed the arrival of the Messiah, but to a certain extent didn’t this require cooperation on the part of Mary?

    Reply
    1. Bob Hunter Post author

      “Would you provide examples of events which God might decree but which are not dependent upon the operation of human free will? For example, God decreed the Messiah, but to a certain extent didn’t this require cooperation on the part of Mary?”

      God might decree events in nature, such as the Flood, that don’t depend upon the operation of human free will. However, as you observed, decrees that involve actions by humans require their cooperation. John Sanders considers the latter in a section called “Divine Purpose with Open Routes” on pages 230-235 of The God Who Risks. His basic idea is that if humans don’t co-operate with one of God’s plans, He finds another way to accomplish it.

      Reply
  2. B. P. Burnett

    Thanks for this. I actually recently came across a formidable argument for theological fatalism from a friend of mine (incompatibility of freedom and foreknowledge, where in the disjunctive syllogism foreknowledge is preferred), so I have been reading up on some of the work of Linda Zagzebski on the subject (see her essay in ch. 1 of “The Blackwell Guide to the Philosophy of Religion” ed. William E. Mann 2004, pp.3-25). She has some very interesting ways of thinking through the issues. This question is of immense philosophical and theological complexity — more complex than I had previously thought; (previously, I had only encountered the simplistic and invalid form of the incompatibility argument; see below*).

    However, today I had a thought on the way home from the University of Sydney (where, incidentally — and you might like this Bob! — I am currently studying an undergrad in Philosophy with special interest in Epistemology, Theology and Phil. of Rel.). Namely this: If foreknowledge, ultima facie, really /were/ inconsistent with any agent’s freely doing anything, in /what sense/ would that agent not be free? For, as I reflect on this problem, it seems as if I can easily conceive of two possible worlds, W1 and W2, where the causal facts about human interaction and volition across all history are exactly similar in both W1 and W2 (such that the exactly similar state of affairs obtains in the Earth all the way up to now in 2013), yet the difference between the two worlds being that, in W1, there /is/ an essentially omniscient foreknower of all human actions (whom we may call an “EOF”), but, contrary to that, in W2, there /is not/ an OEF. Since the Frankfurt cases intuitively seem to me to provide a fitting counterexample to the principle of alternate possibilities (PAP) in at least some if not all circumstances, and there doesn’t seem — prima facie at least — anything about knowledge (let alone fore-knowledge) which serves to provide some form of causal constraint on creatures’ agent-causal powers per se, I therefore wonder, how is the power of the human agents is mitigated any differently in W1 (EOF world) as compared to W2 (non-EOF world). Are agents in W1 unfree /simpliciter/ (this may indeed be a problem if you’re absolutely committed to a certain form of Libertarianism), or are they unfree merely in a causally irrelevant sense? Maybe they’re “unfree” with respect to the simple nature of space and time, and the closure of the future on the W1 EOF world. But if agents’ “lack of freedom” in W1 is causally irrelevant (i.e., if there are no significantly causally determinate factors forcing agents’ actions in a strong way in W1), I don’t see how the incompatibility of “freedom” (whatever that refers to is the question) and foreknowledge constitutes an interesting claim at all. All causal facts are exactly similar between worlds W1 and W2. And on the incompatibility of freedom and foreknowledge intuition, the acts of agents in W2 are supposed to be free, and the acts of agents in W1 are not! That feels very strange to me.

    I hope that made sense! This, to me, is one of the most interesting things to think through.
    _____________
    * The simplistic and invalid form of the incompatibility argument is as follows (where “P” is some proposition pertaining to any act of an intelligent agent at a future time):
    (1) Necessarily, if God foreknows that P, P will happen; (2) God foreknows that P; (3) Therefore, P will necessarily happen.
    This is clearly invalid given its illegitimate transference of the modal operator for necessity “□”.

    Reply
    1. Bob Hunter Post author

      Regarding the first paragraph in your comment: I don’t have The Blackwell Guide to the Philosophy of Religion or access to it. The only philosophy of religion anthology that I have is Philosophy of Religion: Selected Readings edited by William L. Rowe and William J. Wainwright (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1974).

      Regarding the second paragraph in your comment: I agree with you that God’s foreknowing that agent X will do act Y at time Z doesn’t cause agent X to do act Y at time Z. However, God’s foreknowing that agent X will do act Y at time Z does imply that agent X can’t do other than act Y at time Z; that is, that agent X can’t exercise his free will regarding act Y at time Z.

      Best wishes in your studies.

      Reply
      1. Bob Hunter Post author

        Brendan, I read Linda Zagzebski’s “Omniscience, Time, and Freedom” but didn’t work through all of the arguments in it. I’ve downloaded and started working through a textbook in formal logic (http://tellerprimer.ucdavis.edu/) so that I’ll be better prepared to work through the arguments.

        Others, the link that Brendan provided for “The Blackwell Guide to the Philosophy of Religion” no longer works.

  3. Rich Augustus

    Mr. Hunter,

    I have a couple questions concerning your solution, possibly just clarifications. You said, “I believe that God’s omniscience includes of the future only those parts that He actually decrees or that are necessitated by or can be predicted without chance of error from the past and the present. I do not believe that it includes knowledge of those things that are dependent upon the operation of human free will.”

    You used the word prediction, which also implicitly entails possibility, and therefore, cannot be “predicted without chance of error” or am I missing something?

    Also, how does your statement “I do not believe that it includes knowledge of those things that are dependent upon the operation of human free will” address “whose names are not written in the Book of Life of the Lamb, slain from the foundation of the world (Rev 13:8)”? If Christ was slain from the foundation of the world, then this would necessarily be before any human sinned (no freewill has yet occurred). If no human has sinned, then why slay Christ from the foundation? God must’ve known somehow. There are only two possibilities I see. First, God made man sin in order to have Christ slain from the foundation of the world. If this is the case, then man didn’t really sin (no freewill), but God sinned by causing sin. Or secondly, God knew man would sin by man’s own freewill. But how? This cannot be “predicted without chance of error,” for God doesn’t make predictions, He makes decrees. This scenario always possesses the possibility of error on God’s “prediction.”

    I look forward to your response.

    Rich Augustus

    Reply
    1. Bob Hunter Post author

      Rich, thank you for visiting Open Theism and for commenting on “God’s Omniscience and Man’s Freedom.”

      – You used the word prediction, which also implicitly entails possibility, and therefore, cannot be “predicted without chance of error” or am I missing something?”

      I don’t think that “prediction” implicitly entails possibility and thus I think that some things can be predicted without chance of error. However if “prediction” does entail possibility, then I would have to drop “or can be predicted from” from “I believe that God’s omniscience includes of the future only those parts that He actually decrees or that are necessitated by or can be predicted without chance of error from the past and the present.”

      – Also, how does your statement “I do not believe that it includes knowledge of those things that are dependent upon the operation of human free will” address “whose names are not written in the Book of Life of the Lamb, slain from the foundation of the world (Rev 13:8)”? If Christ was slain from the foundation of the world, then this would necessarily be before any human sinned (no freewill has yet occurred). If no human has sinned, then why slay Christ from the foundation? God must’ve known somehow. There are only two possibilities I see. First, God made man sin in order to have Christ slain from the foundation of the world. If this is the case, then man didn’t really sin (no freewill), but God sinned by causing sin. Or secondly, God knew man would sin by man’s own freewill. But how? This cannot be “predicted without chance of error,” for God doesn’t make predictions, He makes decrees. This scenario always possesses the possibility of error on God’s “prediction.”

      I agree with you that “If this is the case, then man didn’t really sin (no freewill), but God sinned by causing sin. Or secondly, God knew man would sin by man’s own freewill.” Thus since I don’t think that God caused sin, I have to accept that He just predicted that man would sin by his own free will. I also agree with you that this scenerio possesses the possibility of error in God’s prediction. Thus I understand Revelation 13:8 to just indicate that God decided before He made man what He would do if man were to sin.

      Reply
  4. Rich Augustus

    Mr. Hunter,

    Thanks for your response. I would like to understand more of your “all possible knowledge.” Bear with me for a moment, as I will come at this from a different angle.

    You define omniscience as “all possible knowledge,” then qualify unknown knowledge as future events determined by man’s (or other free creatures) freewill. There are a couple things that come to mind at this point: God’s mode of existence and immutability. Does God live in eternity (all things are present—Aquinas) or is He under the constraint of time (past, present and future), where one event follows another? In other words, before God created anything, was there a future (His own future) for God not to know, because, presumably, He had not made some choices which would govern His own future? I would think that if nothing else existed but God, then God’s will would determine His “future” and nothing would be unknown, because God would cause all things to happen according to His will. And if this was so, omniscience would be defined as all knowledge, whether God has a future or not, because whatever He wills would be His “future.” Therefore, as you can see, whether or not God is under the control of time has no bearing on His omniscience—all knowledge, as opposed to all possible knowledge—before creation. But the mode of His existence still remains unknown.

    After creation, however, it is important to the conversation to understand God’s mode of existence (for time certainly exists now), because this would pertain to my second point: immutability. Did God create time, with its constituent parts, or is time consistent with eternity and God also has a past, present and future? As was noted previously about omniscience before creation, with God it would not matter if time existed because there would be no change in knowledge (though I don’t know how you would mark time in this case if nothing changed). But after creation, under your premise of God not knowing the future, His knowledge would change with each new choice (future contingents) of free creatures. In light of this, how do you view the immutability of God? If God’s knowledge changes then His decisions might also change because of this new information. But if God changes, then where is this immutability?

    You also said, “Thus since I don’t think that God caused sin, I have to accept that He just predicted that man would sin by his own free will. I also agree with you that this scenerio possesses the possibility of error in God’s prediction.” How do you reconcile a scenario of an error-prone (capable of making an error—at least in theory) God to one that is understood to be perfect?

    Rich Augustus

    P.S. I would like to read the philosophical paper that you wrote on omniscience, if that is not being too presumptuous.

    Reply
    1. Bob Hunter Post author

      Rich, thanks for your comments and questions. I’ll try to answer your questions, but please understand that I’m a student of the Bible and a dabbler in philosophy rather than a student of philosophy.

      “Does God live in eternity (all things are present—Aquinas) or is He under the constraint of time (past, present and future), where one event follows another?” I understand “eternal” in the Bible to mean “everlasting” and thus view God as living within time.

      “In other words, before God created anything, was there a future (His own future) for God not to know, because, presumably, He had not made some choices which would govern His own future?” I understand that before God created anything there was a future which He didn’t know, largely because of His giving angels and us free will.

      “Did God create time, with its constituent parts, or is time consistent with eternity and God also has a past, present and future?” I don’t know.

      “In light of this, how do you view the immutability of God?…But if God changes, then where is this immutability?” I view God as immutable in character.

      “How do you reconcile a scenario of an error-prone (capable of making an error—at least in theory) God to one that is understood to be perfect?” Genesis 6:6 and 1 Samuel 15:35 indicate that God was sorry that He had made man and that He had made Saul king over Israel. Why was He sorry? Because of their wickedness, which God didn’t cause and apparently wasn’t sure would happen when He made man and made Saul king.

      “P.S. I would like to read the philosophical paper that you wrote on omniscience, if that is not being too presumptuous.” Sorry–it’s too faint to be scanned as text. However the main difference between it and my post is that it contains supporting footnotes.

      Reply
  5. Dave

    I have much sympathy with the trend of your argument. I have some thoughts that I find hard to articulate, so I apologize up front if I say them poorly.

    I have thought a lot about the things presented here. I keep coming back to what seems to be an essential question: “Does the future already exist?” Some of the arguments regarding God’s knowledge (and foreknowledge) present the concept of God existing “outside of time,” and because of this, he “sees” or “knows” a future that already, from his perspective, is. But, so the idea carries through, for those living in time, the future is still the future. In other words, the future is only the future to us because of our perspective, but not in reality.

    That seems to be an essential idea for logical determinism, and yet I can’t find that idea in the Bible.

    Also: If the future does not yet exist (in or outside of time) then that, it seems to me, alters the dynamic of the discussion and lends more credence to your proposal.

    Also, does it deny God’s omniscience to suggest that there IS a possible future (or futures) that he does not know? Only if that future does not exist and therefore leaves nothing to currently know. So God’s knowledge would be fulfilled and complete by knowing what already exists and what God has determined will exist. (This is, by the way, from what I have been told, a teaching that the Pharisees held to in Jesus’ day.)

    Also: Is it limiting God’s omniscience to suggest that there is a future that he doesn’t know, even if that future does not yet exist? Is the non existent future a thing to know?

    Once again, sorry if this is imprecise, but I thought it might add to the discussion.
    thanks.

    Reply
    1. Bob Hunter Post author

      Dave, thanks for your thoughtful comment on “God’s Omniscience and Man’s Freedom.”

      “I can’t find that idea in the Bible.” Neither can I, and so I think that the future is the future in reality and not just because of our perspective.

      “Also, does it deny God’s omniscience to suggest that there IS a possible future (or futures) that he does not know?” Again I agree with you that it doesn’t

      “Also: Is it limiting God’s omniscience to suggest that there is a future that he doesn’t know, even if that future does not yet exist? Is the non existent future a thing to know?” I don’t think that a non-existent future can be known except for what God has determined will exist in it. Thus, since He knows all that can be known, I don’t think that God’s not knowing the rest of the non-existent future is limiting His omniscience.

      For more on how I view the relationship between God and the future, see my February 23, 2013, post, “From Everlasting to Everlasting, Thou Art God.”

      Reply

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