Foreknowledge and the Handcuffs of God

Note: This is an intellectual exercise, designed to present a view I no longer hold. A further article here will explain the contrary view.

There are four fundamental positions in theology about the foreknowledge of God. They are:

  1. handcuffsGod knows the future because he decrees everything that takes place (Reformed Calvinism)
  2. God knows the future and can interact with it, but does not determine it (Reformed Arminianism or Exhaustive Divine Foreknowledge)
  3. God knows the future and cannot interact with it (Simple Foreknowledge)
  4. God knows the future as partly settled and partly free, with the settled parts being those which apply only to his own planned actions (Open Theism)

We may also consider Molinism and Middle Knowledge along with Process Theology in other posts.

In this piece I will attempt to show that Exhaustive Divine Foreknowledge (EDF) is fundamentally no different to Simple Foreknowledge (SF).

Simple foreknowledge has it that God foreknows or foresees the future at whatever his earliest opportunity is, and having foreseen it is unable to act in it in order to effect change because to do so would render his original foreknowledge false. God is, in effect, handcuffed by his own knowledge of the future.

Dr. Greg Boyd of the Open Theist camp, speaks of a hypothetical book of known future facts handed down to us in November 1963, in which we are seen to cheat on our taxes 40 years hence. Boyd’s argument is that with this knowledge we can see that we are not free to do other than cheat, as God’s foreknowledge must be perfect. It’s the essence of a fine argument, but ignores the fact that we would never see such a book, and in 2003, when we did indeed cheat on our taxes, it was a free decision. In fact, we are never affected by God’s foreknowledge, but God is, because it is he who sees a determined future. If the future he sees is not determined then his foreknowledge isn’t infallible, and this is closer to an Open Theist position than any other theological stance.

In supposed contrast, Exhaustive Divine Foreknowledge, as practised by the majority of Arminians, is a form of foreknowledge which DOES allow interaction from God. Having seen the direction the future is going in, God can either make adjustments on the fly or put them in place at outset, thus keeping full control.

Here’s my problem:

Just as in simple foreknowledge, once God has seen the future it has become fixed, and any interaction renders his knowledge false. This is where exhaustive foreknowledge crosses into Open Theism. If God is able to change anything he has seen then he must only have seen what he has seen as possibilities, not fixed events. I find this conclusion inescapable, as to see an event as truth renders it unchangeable.

Of course, acting with foreknowledge of anything other than planned events is a logical contradiction, and as such all sorts of philosphical arguments need to be brought in in an attempt to harmonise the theory. One is the theory of the Eternal Now (see my brief explanation here) which I reject as a contrived way to protect the perfection of a God who needs no help from us, and posits a simultaneous past, present and future. God views all three simultaneously, in direct contradiction to everything about time which has been revealed to us, i.e. that it is linear and sequential and that God works within it, not outside of it. But the most desperate defence I have heard was relayed in another online group only yesterday:

“No Open Theist has responded to my challenge regarding historical knowledge. Can God know past events infallibly? If so, does that mean He had to cause them? No. Just like you and I can have accurate knowledge of the past without controlling it, so God can have infallible knowledge of the past and future without micromanaging the decisions of people. How would you respond to that?”

I replied that if anyone having a serious discussion thinks that God knowing the result of a past contingent (yet completed) event thinks this carries the same philosophical weight as knowing with certainty the result of a future (as yet incomplete) contingent event, then he probably isn’t thinking very carefully. OK, it was words to that effect and earned me an admonishment by a group administrator, but you get my point. In order to make any sort of foreknowledge work, one has to fully embrace the view that time is not as we experience it, and that the future is sitting somewhere, entirely complete, waiting for us to walk into it. And that, in anyone’s book, is predetermination.

By the way, I was not arguing for predetermination, as any decision I ever make can be freely made, but from God’s perspective, if he sees it and knows it as truth then it never be any other. The main objections come from a limited and strictly theological understanding of two words: predetermination and necessity. Traditionally, predetermination is a deliberate act of God, and necessity describes the only possible course of action. But I’m not talking “theology” I’m talking “English”. God’s knowledge of the future “passively” determines it. The act of knowing has the “necessary” effect of fixing an event. If these arguments make sense to you and you ever think of using them, be clear with your opponent that you mean what the words mean, not the divisive theological spin he will inevitably put on them.

My conclusion then, is that God’s foreknowledge is indeed limited to those things that he determines for himself, and those things which remain open. To know with certainty is to fix those events, and the difference between Exhaustive Divine Foreknowledge and Simple Foreknowledge is non-existent in every practical sense..

Where is God?

388px-But435.1.1r.wc.300Group member Wayne Scott recently asked fellow member Chris Fisher about his views on the omnipresence of God, which sparked an interesting discussion. For centuries Christians have taken for granted that God is Omniscient (all knowing), Omnipotent (all powerful) and Omnipresent (present everywhere).

The first two attributes are universally accepted by all but process theists; God can do what he wants and he can know everything there is to know, and some would add “and then some…”, but the third attribute, being in all places at all times, is tougher to pin down. Chris runs the Reality is not Optional blog and wrote the following article in support of his position, the title of which speaks for itself:

God is not Omnipresent

One beautiful and positively cinematographic passage Chris uses in his argument is 1 Kings 19:11- 13:

11 And he said , Go forth, and stand upon the mount before the LORD. And, behold, the LORD passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and brake in pieces the rocks before the LORD; [but] the LORD [was] not in the wind: and after the wind an earthquake; [but] the LORD [was] not in the earthquake:

12 And after the earthquake a fire; [but] the LORD [was] not in the fire: and after the fire a still small voice.

13 And it was [so], when Elijah heard [it], that he wrapped his face in his mantle, and went out, and stood in the entering in of the cave. And, behold, [there came] a voice unto him, and said, What doest thou here, Elijah?

Here we see one of a number of Old Testament “arrivals” of the LORD, where at one point he was not, and then he was. It seems clear that an Old Testament view of God is that he was either highly anthropomorphised or did indeed appear in a virtually human form. In the Garden of Eden we have the following, in Genesis 3:8-10

8 And they heard the voice of the LORD God walking in the garden in the cool of the day: and Adam and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the LORD God amongst the trees of the garden. {cool: Heb. wind}

9 And the LORD God called unto Adam, and said unto him, Where [art]thou?

10 And he said, I heard thy voice in the garden, and I was afraid , because I [was] naked; and I hid myself 

Certainly here we see God as a fellow being with Adam, with more than a hint that God was enjoying a pleasant afternoon stroll, even looking for his new friend. But this human vision of God does not sit well with the traditional Church view of God, as immutable and distant, aloof, unseen and dispassionate. Chris sees this latter view as having it’s roots in paganism, and quotes Plotinus, another Greek philosopher of the Platonic tradition:

The authentic and primal Kosmos is the Being of the Intellectual Principle and of the Veritable Existent. This contains within itself no spatial distinction, and has none of the feebleness of division, and even its parts bring no incompleteness… every part that it gives forth is a whole; all its content is its very own, for there is here no separation of thing from thing, no part standing in isolated existence estranged from the rest, and therefore nowhere is there any wronging of any other, any opposition. Everywhere one and complete, it is at rest throughout and shows difference at no point; it does not make over any of its content into any new form; there can be no reason for changing what is everywhere perfect.

This view is as far away from the ancient Hebrew view of God as it is possible to get, where God is personal and relational. And it’s that personal attribute which casts doubt on the notion of Omnipresence.

Chris’ argument is really not about whether God is omnipresent or not, but rather what the authors of scripture thought. And it’s certainly clear that some took the omnipresent view and some the view that God need to see something to understand it, or that he came from somewhere to view something. I think Chris weakens his argument here:

Can God see everything but not be omnipresent? I can watch a live golf match on TV, I do not have to be present. How many more resources does God have? And note, as in the case of Sodom and Gomorrah, God can choose not to know something.

I’m personally uncomfortable with the concept of a self-sufficient God pulling on resources, but perhaps Chris meant it less literally. With regards to God choosing not to know, we have to be careful about how literally we take the words of bronze age inhabitants, recorded well after the event, in terms of their presentation of God.

If you’d like to join our group you can read the whole discussion here

167px-The_Lord_Answering_Job_Out_of_the_Whirlwind_Butts_setMeanwhile, here is my view: We lack both the language and the comprehension to fully understand the concept of omnipresence, yet we seem to speak of omniscience with no trouble at all. We can never explain how God can hear all prayers globally simultaneously; it is entirely beyond our language. God is personified in the Old Testament and walks and talks with man, something we have either lost now, or anthropomorphised in the past. I lean in favour of a God who was present with man when he chose to be. These appearances are known as theophanies, where the Deity communes with man in human form. But equally I believe that a being who can create all that is ex nihilo can certainly be omnipresent if he so chooses. It’s not an either/or situation. The writers of Genesis held to both views, and many hold the first five books of the Old Testament to be the work of one author. I don’t, as I hold to higher criticism, but its clear that both views are represented in scripture and we believe scripture to be inspired by the Holy Spirit, so both views must hold, particularly as they are non-contradictory.

Read the whole of Chris Fisher’s blog here.