by Rob R
A question has come up several times from some of the skeptics on the issue of God's omniscience and free will. I said several times that I don't believe that God knows the outcome of our future free acts. A skeptic with the moniker “AndThenSome” wondered if I could know that claim. What follows is a broad overview of the position I take starting with my biblical reasons for taking it and extending to philosophical reasons and an explanation of how my view relates to concepts of foreknowledge and omniscience. While I consider much of this to be the tip of the iceberg of this topic which has been a hot button for so much of Christian scholarship today, I don't consider it completely defensible in the context of a single blog topic. So many of the issues and references that will be brought to light deserve their own topics. But for much of what I will present, few of the considerations stand on their own, but instead, together, they represent a pattern that contributes toward a cumulative case for my position.
Given the breadth of this topic, I'll be loose on my usual insistence to stay on topic, but I do ask that chit-chat be minimal.
QUESTION: Does God know how every specific detail will turn out in the future?
SHORT ANSWER: No.
God changes his mind: The Divine Repentance Passages *
11But Moses implored the LORD his God and said, "O LORD, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you have brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? 12 Why should the Egyptians say, 'With evil intent did he bring them out, to kill them in the mountains and to consume them from the face of the earth'? Turn from your burning anger and relent from this disaster against your people. 13Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, to whom you swore by your own self, and said to them, 'I will multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your offspring, and they shall inherit it forever.'" 14And the LORD relented from the disaster that he had spoken of bringing on his people
Many have objected to this as an instance of a genuine change of plans because it would make God look like he was going to do something wrong and needed Moses' corrections (giving an important theological reason not to take this as reflecting an actual change of mind.). Moses gives God 3 reasons not to destroy the Israelites: 1)he took the effort to deliver them, 2) what would the Egyptians think? 3)what about the promises to Israel? God, if he so desired, could've answered these questions if he wanted to. 1)That he delivered them with mighty acts and wonders makes their sin all the worse and them all the more faithless. 2)The Egyptians will realize the nature and seriousness of this God, and 3) God can fulfill his promises to the patriarchs through Moses.
Why did God change his mind if he didn't have to? God values our involvement in his project. Moses is one who is close to God and God values Moses’ intercession, especially since that intercession demonstrated that Moses valued God's purposes and goals.
1 Sam 2
Regarding the priest Eli and his faithless sons
30Therefore the LORD, the God of Israel, declares: 'I promised that your house and the house of your father should go in and out before me forever,' but now the LORD declares: 'Far be it from me, for those who honor me I will honor, and those who despise me shall be lightly esteemed.
10When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil way, God relented of the disaster that he had said he would do to them, and he did not do it.
God changed his mind after the Ninevites repented of their sins. They repented because they believed that God really intended to destroy them and that their behavior might affect God's change of heart. They pondered, “Who knows? God may turn and relent and turn from his fierce anger, so that we may not perish." (vs 9)
Why are these passages relevant to the question of God's knowledge? A planned or known change of mind is not truly a change of mind, unless it is a contingency that actually might and might not happen. A planned or known change of mind is really just an extension of the old plans. I believe that would contradict the beliefs and actions of Moses and the Ninevites and it would've been very disingenuous To Eli's family to say that God promised that he would've preserved their line in the priestly role when ultimately, God really didn't plan such.
Why do I take such pains to spell out what might appear obvious with fewer considerations? Because the idea that God changes his mind goes against a history in the church of interpreting these as metaphorical (not that that would really decide the matter since “literal” language itself is often basically metaphorical).
God says “perhaps”
17 Then it came to pass, when Pharaoh had let the people go, that God did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines, although that was near; for God said, “Lest perhaps the people change their minds when they see war, and return to Egypt.” (NKJV)
3As for you, son of man, prepare for yourself an exile’s baggage, and go into exile by day in their sight. You shall go like an exile from your place to another place in their sight. Perhaps they will understand, though they are a rebellious house.
2"Thus says the LORD: Stand in the court of the LORD’s house, and speak to all the cities of Judah that come to worship in the house of the LORD all the words that I command you to speak to them; do not hold back a word. 3 It may be they will listen, and every one turn from his evil way, that I may relent of the disaster that I intend to do to them because of their evil deeds.
The two latter passages give strength to the perspective that the future is open and the first demonstrates that the way that events hang together has an element of indeterminism. The first passage is particularly interesting as it shows God considering a hypothetical situation and noting that in such a situation, the outcome wouldn't be clear.
God's expectations do not come to pass
7And I thought, 'After she has done all this she will return to me,' but she did not return, and her treacherous sister Judah saw it.
35They built the high places of Baal in the Valley of the Son of Hinnom, to offer up their sons and daughters to Molech, though I did not command them, nor did it enter into my mind, that they should do this abomination, to cause Judah to sin.
One might conclude that God in these instances was mistaken. I choose the title of this subsection for a reason. I don't believe that expectations are necessarily instances of supposed knowledge. If God believed that he knew that Israel would return to him, then he would have been mistaken. I instead believe that God knew that there was a less likely chance that Israel would continue in her rebellion after some specific actions by God but he knew that at this juncture, there was a greater chance of repentance. His hope and expectation were with the likely chance of their repentance.
I think an analogy is in order: a music tutor who prepares his student for contest. Perhaps the student has had both successes and failures and is nervous, and the tutor tells the student that he expects that the student will succeed. I think this is consistent with the knowledge of the tutor that the student still might fail. In short, one can expect something while knowing that something else might occur. Since he knows that the expectation may not come to pass, he is not truly mistaken in the expectation which is rooted in the reality (and very well the more likely reality) that what is expected also may come to pass.
Freedom, Scripture and Knowledge
It is important to note what it is when we are speaking of free will. One may say that she is free if she does what it is that she wants to do. Some may also insist that they are free when they act without compulsion. While these are important concepts and they play a role in this debate, the free will I am discussing is that which is a part of the free will tradition in theism. The first two are relevant to what is called compatibilistic free will, that is, free will that is compatible with determinism. The free will of the free will theistic tradition (also called Arminianism but it really extends further back in the tradition than the theologian Arminius) is incompatibilistic freedom, or libertarian freedom. Libertarian freedom is defined as the faculty one exercises when he performs an action which is absolutely possible to perform and also absolutely possible to refrain from performing.
Before addressing the issue of freedom's relationship to knowledge and the future, I will provide a few biblical reasons as to why I believe that libertarian freedom is implied in scripture. While scripture does speak of free will and freedom, these are not necessarily instances of freedom of the libertarian. These may involve libertarian freedom, but that is beyond the scope of this post and is not something I have investigated nor might be able to investigate.
1 Cor 10
13No temptation has seized you except what is common to man. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it.
The problem for the anti-libertarian camp, or theological determinists is when Christians sin. There are scriptures that appear to immediately suggest that real Christians never sin, but I believe that those scriptures are motivational, intended to get the Christian to see himself in a new way to empower him not to sin. Furthermore, there are also many scriptures that imply that Christians do sin. I will not go into a lengthy discussion of this here but will assert what most people believe, including Christians, that Christians do still sin (backslide) and still occasionally need to confess, repent, and make amends to hurt parties (if that is relevant). Finally, on a common sense level, this verse itself, as many others, just really seems to imply that there is a danger for Christians to sin.
In the instances when Christians sin, if vs 10:13 is true, then God could not have determined everything and free will must be in place. Otherwise, God was not faithful to make a way out, because there is no way out of performing an act that you were determined to do before you were born.
Secondly, (no scripture will be cited as it is ubiquitous) scripture assigns moral responsibility to humans. But as I will demonstrate, moral responsibility requires self-determinism which is not compatible with theological determinism and requires libertarian free will for temporally finite creatures (this is explained in my “3 problems of evil” thread under the subheading “one matter of consistency.”)
1. If I am morally responsible for an action, then that action is within my control.
2. If determinism is true, then everything I do is a result of events that took place long before I was born.
3. I am not in control of anything that happened prior to my birth.
4. If determinism is true, then I am not in control of my actions(2,3)
5. If determinism is true, then I am not morally responsible. (1,4)
6. Moral responsibility is a necessity of human nature.
7. I am human.
8. Since there are humans whoare morally responsible, determinism is false. (5,6,7)
There are many other scriptural considerations for free will, but these are the shortest to argue and I think they are amongst the best.
I believe one of the best demonstrations of the incompatibility of free will and exhaustive definite foreknowledge comes from Christian philosopher William Hasker's book, God, Time, and Knowledge.
1.It is now true that Clarence will have a cheese omelet for breakfast tomorrow. (Premise)
2.It is impossible that God should at any time believe what is false, or fail to believe anything that is true. (Premise: divine omniscience)
3.God has always believed that Clarence will have a cheese omelet tomorrow. (From 1, 2)
4.If God has always believed a certain thing, it is not in anyone’s power to bring it about that God has not always believed that thing. (Premise: the unalterability of the past)
5.Therefore, it is not in Clarence’s power to bring it about that God has not always believed that he would have a cheese omelet for breakfast. (From 3, 4)
6.It is not possible for it to be true both that God has always believed that Clarence would have a cheese omelet for breakfast, and that he does not in fact have one. (from 2)
7.Therefore, it is not in Clarence’s power to refrain from having a cheese omelet for breakfast tomorrow. (From 5, 6) So Clarence’s eating the omelet tomorrow is not an act of free choice. (From the definition of free will.) (p 69 copyright 1989)
Now, after reading the above argument, it may be helpful to open a new window on this blog and scrolling to this argument because I will be referring back to it several times. This way, as you read, you may simple get back to the argument by clicking it open instead of scrolling back and forth constantly (or fold the corner of the paper if you've printed this out).
Many view God's omniscience as the source of prophecy. This is actually only part of the picture. Prophecy (when it is “prophetic”) is more so about God's sovereignty and guidance. God doesn't give prophetic visions just to prove he can tell the future. God is revealing his plan, showing his power, and/or giving a warning.
6"O house of Israel, can I not do with you as this potter has done? declares the LORD. Behold, like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel. 7If at any time I declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, 8and if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will relent of the disaster that I intended to do to it. 9And if at any time I declare concerning a nation or a kingdom that I will build and plant it, 10and if it does evil in my sight, not listening to my voice, then I will relent of the good that I had intended to do to it. 11Now, therefore, say to the men of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem: 'Thus says the LORD, Behold, I am shaping disaster against you and devising a plan against you. Return, every one from his evil way, and amend your ways and your deeds.
Here God describes a general MO (modus operandi/mode of operaion.) This would be cited to explain prophecies such as at Nineveh where the people repented and God didn't bring the destruction, but who's to say how many other prophecies that were fulfilled weren't also conditional prophecies that could have gone the other way had people responded in the opposite direction?
There are also other possibilities with prophecies. A prophecy could be set in stone if God gives it on the basis of what he has determined, or what people determine as time goes on.
The Theological/Traditional Concern
(some categories utilized in this section are taken from Christian philosopher, Alan Rhoda's blog)
So at the end of the day, one might say that I don't believe that God foreknows the future and that God isn't omniscient. I disagree. So what follows is a brief exploration of several different approaches to the question of omniscience and the position I have described taken by several different people who hold a position similar to mine.
Voluntary Nescience: The future is alethically settled but nevertheless epistemically open for God because he has voluntarily chosen not to know truths about future contingents. Dallas Willard espouses this position. (Rhoda)
The term “Alethically settled” I believe refers to the state of affairs where there is an exhaustive set of true and false propositions about the future which all involve the statement “...will happen” or “...will not happen.” To put it another way, for every free act you perform in the future, there is a fact about how that free action will turn out. Epistomological categories are those having to do with knowledge. So what this position holds is that God could know the future if he wanted to, but for the sake of our freedom, he has chosen not to. Does such a person believe that God foreknows the future and is God omniscient? My guess is that the answer is no, but I suppose they may take the position that the following group takes on the definition of omniscience.
Involuntary Nescience: The future is alethically settled but nevertheless epistemically open for God because truths about future contingents are in principle unknowable. William Hasker espouses this position.(Rhoda)
The difference here is that God did not choose to not know our future free actions, but rather, future free actions are, logically speaking, unknowable (Hasker demonstrated this using the example I have above regarding Clarence and his cheese omelet). Again, like the proponent of voluntary nescience, Hasker believes that there is a fact about how future states. Hasker also claims to believe in omniscience. He defends this belief by utilizing a shift attributed to Thomas Aquinas utilized which defines omnipotence as the ability to do anything that is logically possible. Hasker makes what I consider a highly reasonable adjustment to the definition of omniscience to only include truths of which are logically possible to know (thus he disagrees with premise 2 of the argument above regarding Clarence). I agree that this definition is sufficient to establish that one of my position can indeed say that God is omniscient. But I do not agree that the future is alethically closed.
Non-Bivalentist Omniscience: The future is alethically open and therefore epistemically open for God because propositions about future contingents are neither true nor false. J. R. Lucas espouses this position. (Rhoda)
As every perspective presented here holds to presentism (that only the present exists), this group takes that view and insists that since future does not exist, since it hasn't happened yet, there is nothing for truths of the future to be based upon.
Bivalentist Omniscience: The future is alethically open and therefore epistemically open for God because propositions asserting future contingents that they "will" obtain or that they "will not" obtain are both false. Instead, what is true is that they "might and might not" obtain. Greg Boyd (and yours truly) espouses this position.(Rhoda)
Alan Rhoda likes it and I like it, too. Here, omniscience is fully robust because one can say that God knows everything about the future. To the question of what future rests upon that the non-bivalentists raise, the answer is that they rest upon what has been determined in the past and present and what has been determined to be indeterminate, such as future free actions. God knows everything about the future which entails that he knows everything that will happen and he knows everything that might and might not happen (from now on referred to as “conjoined mights.”) Some may object that conjoined mights count as real objects of knowledge. I disagree. These sorts of statements describe substantial facts about reality and how things causally hang together. Furthermore, even when they are used to describe one's lack of knowledge, they reflect a substantial way in which ideas hang together. If I don't know how a future event will turn out (or a past event for that matter) and I say “x might and might not happen” or “x might and might not have happened,” I am saying, that given everything I know and given my understanding of x's occurrence and x's failure to occur is consistent with that. This is a statement that can be true and it can be false, ergo, we should treat the conjoined mights as substantial truths that may be true or false.
Also, note that in this picture, statements such as “x will be the case” and “x will not be the case” are not to be considered contradictory. If two statements are contradictory, it means that the truth of one guarantees the falsity of the opposite claim and vice versa. Instead, these statements on the definition of the future are contrary. Contrary statements cannot both be true, but they can both be false.
Alternative Views Within Free Will Theism
God is Timeless
When confronted with the problem of libertarian free will and God's foreknowledge, most Christians will not take the position I have presented here. What the majority would say (excluding theological determinists, though that was implied in the first sentence of this paragraph) is that the answer to the question of free will is that God is outside of time. First of all, I would observe that there is an evangelical take on this and then there is the view of divine timelessness of the historic church and of the philosophers and theologians. I do not believe they are the same.
The evangelical approach (or approaches) sometimes wants to view God as one for whom all time is present in a sense that I believe is best understood with the term “omnitemporal.” (A philosopher, William Lane Craig coined that term, but he uses it to express the exact opposite concept, but nevertheless, people(certain laymen) have, in my opinion, naturally misunderstood his usage of the term.) What this term can express is that God is present in all times and he can interact with all times as they are present before him. I believe this idea is reflected in fiction with time travelers or like a comic book story I read where there was this building outside of time and some superheroes could use this to travel to times where they were needed and they could manipulate time to their hearts’ content.
One way of making sense of this is to note that views of divine timelessness aren't just about God and time but also involve the nature of time itself. There are basically two philosophical theories of time and one is called eternalism which states that all of time, from the beginning to the indefinite end, exists on a temporal plane. The other one is called presentism which suggests that past is what used to exist but doesn't any more; the present is what exists, and the future is what will exist but doesn't right now. To complicate things even more, we have two different theories of how objects exist through time. One theory, similar to eternalism, called perdurantism, suggests that objects (and people) have spread out over time. To say that an object perdures is to to say that it doesn't completely exist at just one moment, but it has parts spread out through time. The opposite theory, endurantism, which lines up with presentism, suggests that objects (including people) are completely present within one moment of time.
To flesh out these categories, let’s take a real world example. It would be the common sense view to say that my laptop is completely present in front of me. It is wholly there. It was 40 miles south of Toledo with me a year ago, and it was 50 miles north of Toledo when it was with me six months ago. The lap top endures. It was completely present in those other areas months ago and now it's completely present in the Toledo area in front of me right now. This is endurantism. Perdurantism says that my computer is not completely in front of me in the Toledo area right now. It has temporal parts in the space-time region 40 miles south of here 1 year ago and some parts 50 miles north of where I am at 6 months prior to this moment.
So here, one evangelical points out that if we watch someone perform a free act, just because we know it is happening doesn't mean it isn't free. So for God, all of our acts are happening in his present as we, as purduring creatures, are performing them, and since present knowledge doesn't remove freedom, God's knowledge is consistent with all of our free acts.
There are in my opinion several problems with this view. First of all, I do not buy the picture of perdurantism and its cohort, eternalism. I find it to be so profoundly at odds with our constant day by day, minute by minute, second by second experience as conscious, willful beings. That view is nice and all, but what, pray tell, does it have to do with humans?
Secondly, this argument really doesn't refute the omelet example. The argument is valid and in this picture, all of the premises remain true. There would be only one technical change (switching from speaking of what is now true to assigning specific times to that truth), but that would not affect the argument. Someone might be tempted to suggest that premise 4 is wrong, but that just brings about a radical skepticism of history, and that would undermine a religion that is principally about the flow of history from creation to eschaton with all of the biographically important developments in between.
The more traditional take on divine timelessness is more successful. God is so far removed from time that premise 2 of the omelet argument is wrong. God's timelessness is also identical to his immutability. There is no temporal becoming for God; there is no before and after for him. So what this means is that premise 2 is wrong because not only does God not know anything about omelets right now, God doesn't even exist right now. Why? Because right now refers to what is in time and that ain't God.
I object to this because I believe (though prooftexts to the contrary may follow in the comment section) that the overwhelming testimony of scripture is of a God who is with us at all points of history who experiences temporal progression. God plans, and God remembers and God acts in history with an involvement that is best understood temporally. But one of the most important criticisms that have been laid against an atemporal God is that our God forgives. Forgiveness is necessarily a temporal act where there is a rift at one point and then there is healing at the next and then there is wholeness. Both the evangelical and the traditional view of God's “atemporality” (in quotes because it's not clear how consistently the evangelical view of timelessness is actually timeless) are not fully consistent with the concept of forgiveness.
There is also the problem with the incarnation and timelessness. While much of Christendom speaks of God “stepping into time,” it's not clear how coherent this idea is. Once one steps into time, there is temporality in which there is before and after in the involvement of time.
A view both of God's foreknowledge and God's providence is called Molinism which utilizes what is called middle knowledge. Middle knowledge is the knowledge that is not of what actually occurs in the world, but rather, it is knowledge of what would occur if a certain state of affairs had obtained. The true propositions of middle knowledge are called “counterfactuals.” Counterfactuals are stated like so: I would have had a more powerful laptop if I had upgraded to 2 gigabytes. (Note that these are not simple conditional statements. There are technical logical differences, but I will not go into them.)
According to the Molinists, there is an exhaustive fact of the matter about what we would freely choose in any situation where free choices are possible. So if I had been in a situation in which I would have to choose between chocolate ice cream and green tea ice cream, the counterfactual of freedom would be that I would've chosen green tea. According to them, God chose which counterfactuals would become true by choosing which world to create. Now Molinists believe that freedom is preserved because God cannot determine what the counterfactuals of freedom are.
Molinism represents the closest thing there is to a middle ground between free will theism and Calvinism because God exercises almost as much control as he can over the course of human history, and yet he can't determine that persons would choose just anything because there are only certain things that they would freely choose in certain situations. This allows for God, according to most Molinists, to create the best possible world even though such a world involves evil.
I can't tell that this does anything to address the omelet argument, but Molinism also has its own unique problems. For one, there are what are called grounding problems. There is the question of what makes the counterfactuals true when they are true regardless of our existence and before we exist. I have observed a problem that arises from my own category of self-determinism (this is explained in my “3 problems of evil” thread in the section “One matter of consistency.”) Free will of the libertarian sort is supposed to establish self-determinism, or, in other words, it is supposed to establish aspects and behaviors, the necessity of which arises within us through our own conscious decisions. The counterfactuals of freedom are quite true apart from our actually conscious actions; hence, the counterfactuals of freedom are not really determined by us.
Furthermore, given that counterfactuals describe deterministic physical events (eg: if the meteor had hit the moon, it would have moved out of orbit), it is highly dubious that they could describe libertarian free actions. It seems to be contradictory to add the layer of counterfactual over the description of the libertarian act. If I am free with respect to x in such and such circumstance, then it isn't the case that I would choose x and it isn't the case that I would not choose x. What is true is that I might and might not choose x.
Open Theism! What's That!?!
I have been accused of being an open theist on account of my approach to these questions and that accusation is right on the mark. But people wrongfully say that the position I have articulated here is open theism. Well, it is a central part and it is the most controversial aspect, but the point of open theism is not to solve some unimportant theological logic puzzle that only overly rationalistic nerds get exited about. The open view is a development primarily within evangelical Christianity that desires to consistently work out the notion that God, who is personal, can be affected by what we do and we can affect God's plans (e.g. through prayer or sin.) While most evangelicals would respond to that claim with, “Well yes, of course, duh!” there is the issue of consistency. There is a strong strand within the tradition of the church that says that God is immutable (that means he can't change in any way shape or form), impassible (which means that God either has no emotions or if he does have emotions, he is perpetually, completely happy), timeless, simple (he has no parts) and he exercises meticulous sovereignty (meaning, God determines and controls everything that happens.) While the tradition has treated some of these claims with more controversy than others, the open view says no to all of them (though simplicity is related, it's not quite as important, and some open theists may hold to it.)
Besides many of the biblical and philosophical reasons described in this post, there are other reasons for open theism such as concerns about the effectiveness and influence of prayer and my reason for searching it out, the problem of reprobation which I find to be one of the greatest theological mistakes ever made in the history of the church. I won't spell out that problem, however, and may leave it for another post.
For more resources on Open Theism, I recomend the following websites:
*Scriptures are quoted from the ESV unless otherwise noted.