Monthly Archives: November 2014

God’s Omniscience and Man’s Freedom

In my last five posts I’ve presented and commented on John Sanders’ “summary of openness theology” at his Open Theism Information Site, with the last two posts being on man’s freedom (Libertarian Freedom) and God’s omniscience (God’s Omniscience). Although most Christians believe both that God is omniscient and that human beings have a free will, they differ on what God’s omniscience and man’s freedom involve and on the relationship between them. In this post I’ll state what I think each involves and explain how I think that they are consistent with each other.

I’ll begin by defining “omniscience” as “the quality of possessing all possible knowledge” and considering whether that “all possible knowledge” includes knowledge of the future. The great church father Augustine claimed 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 [having knowledge beforehand] of all future things is not God” (Augustine, City of God, V, 9).

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 Martin 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? Generally they do it in one of three ways:
– They redefine “free” in such a way that it is compatible with being determined.
– They argue that foreknowledge does not involve determination of future actions but mere knowledge of future free actions by seeing the past, the present, and the future instantaneously.
– They claim that how to reconcile the two is a secret of God beyond understanding.
Unfortunately none of the ways is satisfactory:
– Redefining “free” in such a way that it is compatible with being determined gives it something other than a natural meaning.
– As demonstrated in the preceding paragraph, foreknowledge of events logically implies that the events are predetermined and thus negates human freedom.
– Claiming that how to reconcile the two is a mystery might seem to be theologically sound, but it is philosophically unsound.

The failure of these attempts to reconcile God’s foreknowing the future and human beings’ having free will indicates that if human beings have free will the part of the future brought about by their exercising it is not foreknown by God. At the same time true prophecies of the future indicate that at least the part of the future predicted by those prophecies is foreknown by God. Thus it seems as if God foreknows part but not all of the future. Obviously He foreknows those parts of the future which He foreordains, and surely He also foreknows those parts of it which are necessitated by or can be predicted without chance of error from the past and the present. However He doesn’t foreknow those parts of the future which are dependent upon the exercise of the free will which He gave us (and others of His creatures, such as angels).

My conclusion 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. THANK YOU, LORD, FOR TRUSTING US WITH THE GIFT OF FREEDOM!


God’s Omniscience

In this post I’ll give the fifth point in John Sanders’ summary of openness theology at Open Theism Information Site and explain a few of the terms which he used in it. In my next post I’ll consider the relationship between God’s omniscience (the topic of this post) and of man’s freedom (the topic of my last post):

Finally, the omniscient God knows all that can be known given the sort of world he created. The content of divine omniscience has been debated in the Christian tradition; between Thomism and Molinism for example. In the openness debate the focus is on the nature of the future: is it fully knowable, fully unknowable or partially knowable and partially unknowable? We believe that God could have known every event of the future had God decided to create a fully determined universe. However, in our view God decided to create beings with indeterministic freedom which implies that God chose to create a universe in which the future is not entirely knowable, even for God. For many open theists the “future” is not a present reality–it does not exist–and God knows reality as it is.

This view may be called dynamic omniscience (it corresponds to the dynamic theory of time rather than the stasis theory). According to this view God knows the past and present with exhaustive definite knowledge and knows the future as partly definite (closed) and partly indefinite (open). God’s knowledge of the future contains knowledge of that which is determinate or settled as well as knowledge of possibilities (that which is indeterminate). The determined future includes the things that God has unilaterally decided to do and physically determined events (such as an asteroid hitting our moon). Hence, the future is partly open or indefinite and partly closed or definite and God knows it as such. God is not caught off-guard–he has foresight and anticipates what we will do.

Our rejection of divine timelessness and our affirmation of dynamic omniscience are the main controversial elements in our proposal and the view of foreknowledge receives the most attention. However, the watershed issue in the debate is not whether God has exhaustive definite knowledge (EDK) but whether God is ever affected by and responds to what we do. This is the same watershed that divides Calvinism from Arminianism.

Thomism is the theological and philosophical system of Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274). In his Summa Theologica Aquinas argues that God knows future contingent things, including parts of the future brought about by our free will, because He knows them in eternity, which Aquinas believed is outside of time (First Part, Question 14, Article 13). Further on Aquinas also argues that everything is under God’s providence even though that providence doesn’t impose necessity on some things, such as things brought about by our free will (First Part, Question 2, Article 4); this suggests to me that Aquinas believed that another reason that God knows future contingent things is that they are under His providence. Summa Theologica is included in Great Books of the Western World (volumes 19-20), which I have.

Molinism is based on the theory proposed by Luis de Molina (1535-1600) in his Concordia to try to reconcile God’s sovereignty and man’s freedom. It claims that besides knowing what could happen and what will happen, God knows what would have happened if He had created any other world. Because this knowledge logically occurs between knowledge of what could happen (“natural knowledge”) and what will happen (“free knowledge”), Molinists call it “middle knowledge.” They hold that it logically precedes God’s creative decree and thus that He is able to allow free agents to act freely and yet guide them in what He wants them to do. William Lane Craig gives this example in his contribution to James K. Beilby and Paul R. Eddy’s Divine Knowledge: Four Views (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2001):

For example, there is a possible world in which Peter affirms Christ in precisely the same circumstances in which he in fact denied him. But given the counterfactual truth that if Peter were in precisely those circumstances he would freely deny Christ, then the possible world in which Peter freely affirms Christ in those circumstances is not feasible for God. God could <i>make</i> Peter affirm Christ in those circumstances, but then his confession would not be true. (page 123; Craig defines “counterfactuals” as “conditional statements in the subjunctive mood,” page 120).

Not having Concordia, I used secondary sources to learn about Molinism and to make the above explanation of it.

The dynamic theory of time is the theory that God is not timeless and relates to the world within the bounds of time (past, present, and future). See “divine timelessness” below.

The stasis theory [of time] is the theory that God is timeless, experiencing time as an eternal present. See “divine timelessness” below.

Divine timelessness refers to God’s being outside of time, time’s existing for Him as one eternal present. Those rejecting divine timelessness interpret God’s being “eternal” as His being everlasting, having no beginning nor end, and view Him as having a past, present, and future.

For more on the two theories of time, see “The Eternity of God” in God’s Give-and-Take Relationship with Us.

Please let me know in an e-mail or in a comment on this post of any other terms used by Sanders in the quotation from his summary of openness theology that you think should be explained, and I’ll try to explain them.

Libertarian Freedom

In this post I’ll consider the fourth point in John Sanders’ summary of openness theology at Open Theism Information Site:

Fourth, God has granted us the type of freedom (libertarian) necessary for a truly personal relationship of love to develop. Again, this was God’s decision, not ours. Despite the fact that we have abused our freedom by turning away from the divine love, God remains faithful to his intentions for creation and this faithful love was manifested most fully in the life and work of Jesus.

John M. Frame identifies the concept of libertarian freedom as the criterion by which open theists test other doctrines and devotes an entire chapter of No Other God (Phillipsburg, New Jersey: P&R Publishing, 2001) to it–chapter 8, “Do We Have Genuine Freedom?”. Whether or not it is the criterion by which open theists test other doctrines, libertarian freedom certainly is an essential element in open theism. In this post I’ll define it and the alternative view of freedom proposed by some classical theists, compatibilism; identify some of the criticisms made of it; and present an apology for it. Although not quoting from them, I’ve used No Other God and John Sanders’ The God Who Risks (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1998) in preparing this post.

Libertarian Freedom

Libertarians hold that a person is free with respect to a particular action only if he or she can perform the action or refrain from performing it. They maintain that if a person’s decision to do or not do the action is caused by anyone or anything else, including God, then the decision is not properly his or hers and he or she cannot be held responsible for the action. Thus they claim that, since according to the Bible God holds people responsible for their actions, people must have libertarian freedom.

However libertarians don’t claim that people aren’t affected by outside influences in deciding whether or not to perform an action. They just say that normally people can resist these influences and choose in spite of them. Moreover they agree that God sometimes overrides people’s freedom; for example, He may harden a person’s heart and thus determine his or her choice to sin, as He did Pharoah’s before the Exodus.

Compatabilist Freedom

Compatabilists hold that a decision is free with respect to a particular action as long as it is free from external constraint. They maintain that it is free even if God so influences the person’s beliefs and desires that he or she has to make the decision that God wants him or her to make. Thus they claim that God can be in complete control of a situation by influencing the participants’ beliefs and desires and yet hold those participants responsible for what happens.

Libertarians object that God’s guaranteeing actions by determining their remote causes would make Him responsible for those actions and thus, if the actions are sinful, the author of sin. Moreover Saunders claims that compatibilism’s being true would nullify what the Bible says about God’s grieving over sin, changing His mind, and responding to what humans do.

Most of the church fathers held a position similar to that of the libertarians until Augustine challenged it, since which there has been a contest between his and their views. In Protestantism the two views are generally associated with Calvin, his following Augustine, and Arminius, his asserting libertarian freedom.

Some Criticisms of Libertarianism

A criticism of libertarian freedom made by Calvinists is that it is inconsistent with their belief that God foreordains all that happens. However the Bible seems to support both the belief that God foreordains all that happens and the belief that man has libertarian free will. Arminians resolve the apparent inconsistency by asserting that God foreknows everything, including the free actions of humans, and foreordains what He sees in His foreknowledge. Calvinists object that God’s foreseeing everything means that the future is settled and thus humans can’t have libertarian freedom. They resolve the apparent inconsistency by arguing for humans having compatabilist rather than libertarian freedom. Open theists resolve the apparent inconsistency by claiming that humans’ having libertarian freedom implies that the future is at least partly open and by affirming at the same time that God retains control and will accomplish His purposes. Both Calvinists and Arminians reject this way of resolving the apparent inconsistency.

Another common criticism made of libertarian freedom is that the Bible doesn’t explicitly teach its existence. However neither does the Bible explicitly teach the existence of compatabilist freedom. Thus the question is which view is more consistent with the overall teaching of the Bible.

Another common criticism made of libertarian freedom is that it undermines the sovereignty of God by allowing humans to do or not do what God wills. However open theists argue that God’s allowing libertarian freedom and yet ultimately accomplishing His purposes enhances rather than undermines His sovereignty.

Two other criticisms of libertarian freedom made by Frame that impressed me are that God held responsible for their actions even people whose choices He determined, such as Pharoah’s before the Exodus, and that in Heaven we won’t be free to sin. The former seems to negate the libertarian claim that if a person’s decision to do or not to do an action is caused by someone else he or she cannot be held responsible for the action, and the latter seems to indicate that libertarian freedom isn’t essential. Sanders discusses the hardening of Pharoah’s heart on pages 59-60 and our inability to sin in Heaven in a note (#99) on pages 336-37 of The God Who Risks.

An Apology for Libertarianism

Personally, I came to open theistic views while searching for an answer to the question of why God caused or allowed my first wife to die at only 26 leaving behind a husband and four-year-old daughter. John Sanders’ introduction to The God Who Risks suggests that he came to open theistic views while doing a similar search, his being prompted by the tragic death of his brother. Our experiences illustrate one of the values of libertarianism, its role in dealing with the problem of evil.

Another value of libertarianism is that it reflects best our instinctive feelings that we freely choose our actions and thus are responsible for their results and yet that God is in ultimate control.

Another value of libertarianism is the attractiveness of the concept that God loves us so much that He gives us libertarian freedom even though He knows that some will use it to reject Him and His will.

General Rather Than Meticulous Providence

In this post I’ll consider the third point in John Sanders’ summary of openness theology at Open Theism Information Site:

Third, the only wise God has chosen to exercise general rather than meticulous providence, allowing space for us to operate and for God to be creative and resourceful in working with us. It was solely God’s decision not to control every detail that happens in our lives. Moreover, God has flexible strategies. Though the divine nature does not change, God reacts in contingencies, even adjusting his plans, if necessary, to take into account the decisions of his free creatures. God is endlessly resourceful and wise in working towards the fulfillment of his ultimate goals. Sometimes God alone decides how to accomplish these goals. Usually, however, God elicits human cooperation such that it is both God and humanity who decide what the future shall be. God’s plan is not a detailed script or blueprint, but a broad attention that allows for a variety of options regarding precisely how these goals may be reached. What God and people do in history matters. If the Hebrew midwives had feared Pharoah rather than God and killed the baby boys, God would have responded accordingly and a different story would have emerged. What people do and whether they come to trust God makes a difference concerning what God does–God does not fake the story of human history.

What I’ll do in the rest of this post is to define and comment briefly on meticulous and general providence, guided by “Specific Versus General Sovereignty” in John Sanders’ The God Who Risks. For those readers of this post with access to that book, I’d recommend your reading the complete section (pages 211-217).

Meticulous Providence

According to meticulous providence, God ordains everything that happens. Even acts that we view as evil happen because God wants them to happen and serve a good purpose in God’s plan. Thus there are no such things as accidents or tragedies.

Sanders quotes the following passage by Alexander Pope to illustrate this:

All Nature is but Art, unknown to thee;
All Chance, Direction, which thou canst not see;
All Discord, Harmony not understood;
All partial Evil, universal Good:
And, spite of Pride, in erring Reason’s spite,
One truth is clear, WHATEVER IS, IS RIGHT.
(Alexander Pope, An Essay on Man, I, 289-294)

Such divine control seems to rule out human responsibility. However proponents of meticulous providence claim that it doesn’t, arguing that meticulous providence and human responsibility are only apparently contradictory, redefining freedom so that it is compatible with being ordained, or asserting that God ordains on the basis of His foreknowledge of all that is going to happen including the free acts of humans. Sanders doesn’t discuss these three tactics in “Specific Versus General Sovereignty” but instead refers to his consideration of them at other places in The God Who Risks.

Sanders considers the argument that meticulous providence and human responsibility are only apparently contradictory in “The Appeal to Antinomies” (pages 34-37). An antinomy is a contradiction between two statements, both apparently obtained by correct reasoning. Proponents of meticulous providence claim that although it and human responsibility may be contradictory to us, they are not contradictory for God. Sanders responds that theology should be intelligible, intelligibility includes consistency, and thus antimonies such as the co-existence of meticulous providence and human responsibility should not be included in theology.

Sanders considers compatibilism, which maintains that freedom and determinism (the doctrine that all human actions are determined by antecedent causes) are compatible, in “Human Freedom” (pages 220-24). According to compatibilism, God can guarantee all actions that humans perform by determining what their remote causes will be and yet hold humans responsible for the actions because they choose to do them. However those who aren’t compatibilists object that God’s guaranteeing actions by determining their remote causes would make Him responsible for those actions and thus, if the actions are sinful, the author of sin. Moreover Saunders claims that compatibilism’s being true would nullify what the Bible says about God’s grieving over sin, changing His mind, and responding to what humans do.

Sanders considers the assertion that God ordains on the basis of His foreknowledge of all that is going to happen in “Excursus on Omniscience” (pages 194-206). Everyone agrees that God is omniscient, but there are different views on the nature of His knowledge of the future. One view, associated with Calvin, claims that God foreknows everything because He foreordains everything. Another view, associated with Arminius, claims that God foreknows everything because prior to creation He foresaw everything that would happen. Sanders advocates a view, which he calls “presentism,” that holds that God’s knowledge of the future is limited to what can be known and thus doesn’t include the actions of free creatures. He describes this view in the fifth point of his summary of openness theology, which I’ll consider in my November 19 post.

Thus Sanders concludes that all three tactics employed by proponents of meticulous providence in support of their claim that divine control doesn’t rule out human responsibility are unsuccessful. He also observes that meticulous providence rules out certain experiences that the Bible attributes to God, such as His being sorry that He had made man (Genesis 6:6).

General Providence

According to general providence, God sets up general structures and within them allows things to happen, both good and bad, not specifically intended by Him.

God may act to bring about a specific event, but even when He wants humans to do some particular thing He persuades rather than forces them to do it. For example, He chose Moses to free the Israelites from Egypt but persuaded rather than forced him to do it (Exodus 3:1-4:20). Sanders suggests that if Moses had continued to make objections God would have had to find some other way of achieving his goal.

Sanders observes that although the meticulous and general views of providence are clearly different, many Christians switch back and forth between them, depending on the situation. He gives the example of Susan. Many would thank God for her having a good job, but would condemn the rapist/murderer if she were raped and murdered. Their thanking God would imply that God has complete control over what happens (meticulous providence), but their condemning the rapist/murderer would imply that things happen not intended by God (general providence). This is inconsistent.

God’s allowing things to happen not specifically intended by Him may suggest that He is not in control. However although God does not control everything, He is in control in the sense that He initiated the divine project, set the rules under which it operates, and is guiding it towards fruition.