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Does Divine Omniscience Hinder Human Freedom?

A friend and I recently discussed the impact of divine omniscience as it pertains to human freedom. Omniscience is the term used to describe the complete knowledge of God. The critical question of God’s omniscience in theological circles is whether divine omniscience hinders a person’s choice to choose x or y. If God knows with certainty that person A will choose x and person B will choose y, do persons A and B really have the freedom to choose? I argue that God’s knowledge does not impede human freedom. I would like to present four reasons why divine omniscience does not hinder human freedom.

The “Could, Would, Will” omniscient knowledge of God.

In his book Salvation and Sovereignty: A Molinist Approach, Kenneth Keathley argues that divine omniscience includes what he calls the “‘could,’ ‘would,’ and ‘will’”[1] knowledge. “Could knowledge” represents God’s natural knowledge; that is, that “God knows all possibilities.”[2] God knows all the possibilities that could take place. “Would knowledge” is more popularly known as God’s middle knowledge. Middle knowledge is a concept that is accepted in Molinist and Congruist perspectives.[3] In other words, “God knows which possibilities are feasible.”[4] Put another way, God knows what free creatures would do when placed in certain situations. Finally, “will knowledge” is God’s free knowledge in that “God exhaustively knows all things.”[5] Thus, if God knows with certainty what could happen in the potentials of the created world, and God knows the things that will happen from His knowledge of what free creatures would do in certain circumstances, then there is no reason to believe that God’s knowledge would impede human freedom in any way. Now God may place people in certain circumstances to bring about a certain reaction. But even in doing so, the free creature would still have the freedom to choose x from y.

The relationship of omniscient knowledge to future actions.

If one grants that God holds could, would, and will knowledge, some would still argue, “But now if God knows with certainty what will happen, doesn’t that still imply that a person could not have chosen differently?” This view is called theological fatalism. Is it true? Not really. The person is given an opportunity to choose and willfully does so. Knowledge holds no bearing on a person’s choice. For instance, given the model provided by Keathley, picture someone you know who is quite the hot-head. And suppose that this hot-head really steams up over liberalism. Now suppose that a hyper-liberal approaches this conservative hot-head (and by the way, the roles could easily be reversed) and tries to coerce the conservative hot-head to accept hyper-liberal philosophies. You know the result of the encounter. The hot-head will blow up and lose his cool. Did your knowledge of his reaction impede the freely chosen response by hot-head in this story? No! Knowledge is just that—knowledge. Thus, God, even given His placement of events in a person’s life to lead one to salvation, does not hinder a person’s free will by the certain knowledge of future events that will transpire.

The intimacy of omniscient knowledge.

The debate between Calvinists and Arminians often revolves around the issue of how God chooses whom to save. The Calvinist will say that God elected to save some and reject others due to God’s own will. The Arminian will say that God chose whom to save because He foreknew what people would do in advance. But why couldn’t the answer involve both? Thomists, Molinists,[6] and Congruists hold that God’s election involves His intimate knowledge of individuals. For instance, evangelical Thomist Norman Geisler notes that “whatever God fore-chooses cannot be based on what He foreknows. Nor can what He foreknows be based on what He fore-chose. Both must be simultaneous, eternal, and coordinate acts of God. Thus, our moral actions are truly free, and God determined that they would be such.”[7] God’s election is greatly based on His intimate knowledge of individuals. For instance, God told Jeremiah “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations” (Jeremiah 1:5).[8] God knew Jeremiah intimately before Jeremiah’s birth. This, however, does not mean that Jeremiah did not have a free will. Consider the issue with Pharaoh. Yahweh tells Moses, “When you return to Egypt, see that you perform before Pharaoh all the wonders I have given you power to do. But I will harden his heart so that he will not let the people go” (Exodus 4:21). But how did God harden the heart of Pharaoh? This question is answered in chapter 8 of Exodus. God had brought forth a plague of frogs. Pharaoh had asked that God would take away the frogs. Yahweh did just that. He provided His grace to Pharaoh and the people of Egypt. But what did Pharaoh do? One reads that “when Pharaoh saw that there was relief, he hardened his heart and would not listen to Moses and Aaron, just as the LORD had said” (Exodus 8:15). Did Pharaoh have the opportunity to choose differently than he did? Yes. Did Yahweh know what Pharaoh would choose when He provided grace unto him? Yes!!! So, did God’s knowledge hinder Pharaoh’s freedom to choose? No, not at all. God’s omniscience as it pertains to election is based on His intimate knowledge of each individual.

The sovereign nature of omniscient knowledge.

Due to the fact that God is beyond the scope of time and creation, God is sovereign over all things. God cannot lie (Titus 1:2), thus if God promises to bring about a certain thing, it is certain that the promised thing will come about. However, God has given individuals the freedom to choose how to live and how to respond to His grace. If God can be trusted in what He says about future things, then one must accept God’s complete and thorough knowledge of the past, present, and future. Yet, this knowledge does not demerit the ability of free creatures to choose. If God is sovereign, then He must know what would take place when mixing two parts hydrogen with one-part water—the creation of water. God would know what would need to take place for live to be able to exist. Thus, it should not trouble anyone to think that God would hold absolute knowledge of a person’s future choices. It is because of this thorough knowledge that we can trust in God’s amazing sovereignty while holding to a view of human freedom.

Conclusion

As this article has sought to demonstrate, there need not be a conflict in holding God’s sovereignty along with a healthy view of human freedom. Thomas Aquinas felt that if there were no freedom of the human will, then laws and morality made little sense.[9] I concur. Too often people think that the theologian must choose between divine sovereignty and human freedom—an either/or paradigm. Yet, when one considers the potential “could, would, will” knowledge of God; the relationship of God to future actions and outcomes; the intimate nature of divine omniscience; and the sovereign nature of omniscience; then the theologian can rest in the choice of a both/and scenario. God is sovereign AND people have freedom. Theologically speaking—it’s the best of possible worlds (pun intended).

Sources Cited

Aquinas, Thomas. Summa Theologica: Complete Edition. Translated by the Fathers of the English Dominican Province. New York: Catholic Way Publishing, 2014.

Geisler, Norman L. Chosen but Free: A Balanced View of God’s Sovereignty and Free Will. Third Edition. Minneapolis: Bethany House, 2010.

Keathley, Kenneth. Salvation and Sovereignty: A Molinist Approach. Nashville: B&H Academic, 2010.

Copyright, 9/19/2016. Brian Chilton.

Notes

[1] Kenneth Keathley, Salvation and Sovereignty: A Molinist Approach (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2010), 17.

[2] Ibid.

[3] It is here that Congruism parts ways with classical Thomism. Congruism accepts effectual grace which also differs from classical Molinism. Congruism is best seen as the middle path between Molinism and Thomism.

[4] Keathley, Salvation and Sovereignty, 17.

[5] Ibid.

[6] There are differences of opinions in the Molinist camp concerning this issue.

[7] Norman L. Geisler, Chosen but Free: A Balanced View of God’s Sovereignty and Free Will, 3rd ed (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 2010), 145-146.

[8] Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture comes from the New International Version (Grand Rapids: Biblica, 2011).

[9] See Thomas Aquinas, “Of Free Will (Four Articles),” Summa Theologica, Kindle.

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