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.”