Freewill, Omniscience, and You

Many who’ve been introduced to the notion of God’s omniscience eventually ask, “If God knows all things, including my choices before I make them, then are my choices really free?” Understandably, it is difficult to swallow the idea that we may not be “free” in any absolute sense. That our choices are not solely our own is not very palatable, especially for Westerners who tend to cherish (read “worship”) our freedoms. It seems we have this tenacious bent to believe that our choices really do matter, so much so that no other can possibly influence, much less determine, them.

Ironically, when we make choices that result in negative consequences, we are less likely to hold on to a strong sense of free will, at least when it comes to bearing consequences for our actions. Adam was quick to renounce his “free” involvement with Eve when indicted by God in Eden (Gen. 3:12).

When, as a believer, we discover that God knows all things in advance, including the results of every choice made even before we decide, then somehow we feel cheated out of our freewill.

To get a grip on this difficult notion of God’s omniscience and our freewill, it’s important to define carefully what we mean by what we say. There are different definitions of “freedom” for which philosophers and theologians argue. Therefore, depending on how we define “freedom” will have a great deal to do with how we understand God’s omniscience intersecting with our freewill (or should I say our freewill intersecting with God’s omniscience?). As with any discussion, defining carefully what we mean with our words goes a long way toward advancing our understanding and promoting solid communication.

I’ve wrestled with this issue and written a paper that outlines 4 stages in human history where human freedom is altered due to something that happens in our basic makeup as humans. Each stage carries with it a certain kind of “freedom.” In other words, not all “freedoms” are created equally. Without rehashing all of this, you can refer to Augustine and Freedom: Some Tentative Philosophical Reflections. Reading that carefully will provide a good introduction to Augustine’s thought that, I believe, remains a force to be reckoned with.

Most who’ve not thought more critically about what freedom means hold to some idea of “autonomy,” which is tantamount to choosing anything whatsoever without any constraint. This form of freedom (i.e., autonomy), I suggest, does not exist. Read on and you’ll see why.

Enter…God’s omniscience.

Essentially, humans, by their free acts of thought and/or behavior, do not have the ability to change God’s knowledge of what does or what may occur. This is not to say that God’s knowledge of future events causes human free acts. Only, that no activity is outside the scope of God’s knowledge. Therefore, freedom is confined within the parameters God’s foreknowledge.

On the deterministic side of things, consider this logic between omniscience and freewill:

  1. God’s knowledge is true and consists of all things past, present, future, and contingent, including those acts of the human will.
  2. Since God’s knowledge is true and comprehensive, no human can perform any act that would in any way modify or make false God’s knowledge.
  3. Therefore, all expressions of human freewill are confined to the boundaries of God’s knowledge.

Put differently, humans, by their free acts of thought and/or behavior, do not have the ability to alter (i.e., make false) any aspect of God’s knowledge, since God’s knowledge is “true” and encompasses all that is or could be. For example, if it was a fact in God’s mind yesterday that today I would be writing about this topic, then I am not free to change that fact, since all the information in God’s mind is “true” or potentially “true.” While I am free to write about a different topic, God would have known that instead. Free acts of the will, therefore, exist solely within the parameters of God’s knowledge. This is not to say that God’s knowledge of future events causes human free acts. Simply because God knows what will or might occur does not entail that He is the cause of those occurrences. This does require, however, that God’s omniscience is the stage upon which all human actions play out in time. If God’s knowledge is true and comprehensive, and nothing occurs that has not been known, planned, or permitted by him, then humans are not “free” in any absolute, autonomous sense. Human freedom, therefore, is relative to or confined by God’s true and perfect knowledge.

Now, to say that human freedom is confined does not entail a contradiction. It is to say that there is no such thing as “autonomous” human freedom. I simply have a qualified understanding of what freedom is. To be autonomous is to act without any persuasion or influence whatsoever, and I suggest that no human acts occur in a vacuum. Instead, all acts are influenced by some force, be it our knowledge, inclinations, environment, or whatever. Therefore, there are no autonomous acts isolated from these forces. When we introduce the notion that God knows what will occur, we are not saying that God determines an action by his knowing.

Finally, and to offer some framework within which to understand freewill, there are two ends of a spectrum here: determinism (every choice/attitude/thought, et al. is determined and no one has the ability to choose otherwise) and libertarianism (choices are entirely autonomous and un-coerced by any external or internal forces). I find neither end of the spectrum very philosophically appealing or existentially viable (it does not fit in my head nor in my world). There is a position in between called “compatabilism” in which both freedom (carefully defined, of course) and God’s omniscience coexist where neither cancels out the other, but both work in concert to achieve the overall plan or blueprint of God’s decrees, known only to him.

“The secret things belong to the Lord our God” (Deuteronomy 29:29).

6 thoughts on “Freewill, Omniscience, and You”

  1. Thanks Ken. Appreciate you taking the time to factor into the discussion God’s triune nature that eternally exists in love (1st comment). The puritans were the last to think on this level and, sadly, much of popular Christendom has lost this depth of reflection. ‘Tis a worthy goal to ponder God’s greatness in all of its glorious perfections and to think of every subject in that light!

    Regarding your 2nd comment:
    Bringing this down to a practical level is critical and I so appreciate your heart in doing so. Over the years, I’ve found that giving people a handle on the impact and significance of a doctrine goes a long way toward opening their minds and hearts to learning more about that doctrine.

    Stating that “God draws straight with crooked lines” or annotating “the alternative of having autonomous human free choice apart from God’s eternal decree is that of an open and uncertain story line” makes this immensely practical for the casual reader and I do hope and pray that we ponder and experience the import of these comments. I’m so very thankful that as the sovereign, all-knowing God of the universe, he has an overall ‘blueprint,’ known only to him, in which he has already orchestrated every effect from every cause and every consequence from every condition. In his perfect wisdom and almighty power, God’s resolve is to bring about the precise goal which he intends for his creation. Ultimately, everything that comes to pass is what he has purposed, and everything he has purposed comes to pass (Is. 14:26-27; Eph. 1:11).

  2. I wanted to add one other comment that I believe is important to consider concerning predestination and autonomous freewill.

    People are often very concerned that God’s eternal predestination of all that comes to past in history takes away ultimate meaning in life. However, if we stop to think about this biblically, I believe that the opposite is actually the case.

    It is only through God’s eternal predestination of everything that comes to pass that anyone’s life and human history has any ultimate meaning at all. The storyline that the Triune God has written is the ultimate story which includes all kinds of twists and turns, is often extremely messy, and seemingly very crooked along the way in life under the sun (Ecclesiastes 1:15, 7:13). God draws straight with crooked lines. He is a perfect, but not necessarily a perfectionist when it comes to how history plays out His secret eternal decrees (Deuteronomy 29:29). In all of this, He makes the often messy storyline work out for the ultimate good of His people (Romans 8:28) as well as their final glorification and vindication on the last day (Romans 8:18-29).

    The alternative of having autonomous human free choice apart from God’s eternal decree is that of an open and uncertain story line. God plays no part in one’s choices or perhaps at best merely a reactive role. According to Solomon, all of man’s choices and deeds made during his brief life under the sun, apart from the recognition of God’s exhaustive sovereign control over all things, is nothing but a vapor and ultimately meaningless as death consumes every person in the end. Everything a man choses and does is soon forgotten (Ecclesiastes 9:15).

    It is only by faith in the Triune God’s predestination of all that comes to pass that man can even have any possibility of ultimate and enduring meaning in his choices, work, and relationships. This is the gift of God (Compare the similar language of Ephesians 2:8-10 and Ecclesiastes 3:13 and 5:19. Ephesians 2:8 is spoken in light of what was previously written in chapter 1:3-14 about God’s predestination of all things). For the Christian, God’s eternal predestination of every event that happens in their lives gives eternal and ultimate meaning to their choices (both good and bad) because it works out for their ultimate good in the end. It results in thankfulness and ultimate meaningful enjoyment for the gracious gifts God gives during our silly little vaporous lives (Ecclesiastes 2:24-26, 3:13, 5:18-20). Apart from this, human choices arising and from an autonomous free will apart from God’s sovereign control would be ultimately meaningless and results in a hatred of life and an unthankful heart for God’s gifts (Ecclesiastes 2:24-26). I believe King Solomon would agree.

  3. At the request of seattledrummer, I am reposted an edited version of his orginal post. The first entry to this thread reads…
    ——————————————————————-
    Paul,

    Good stuff dude!

    Where does one begin when dealing with this very misunderstood topic?

    The first thing that comes to mind is that the three divine persons of the Trinity cannot independently act contrary to their nature and their inter-Trinitarian community/covenant law, which the scriptures reflect.

    The individual members of the Triune community are the ultimate free persons and the most free of societies. Because they are an eternal Triune society bound by a covenant of love and devotion to one another, they are free in the highest sense because everything that they do in relating to the world flows from their eternal covenant of sacrificial love for one another. The Triune society is not “free” in the sense to act to the contrary of their covenant/community law.

    The Father is not freely the Father apart from His relationship to the Son and Spirit, the Son is not freely the Son apart from His relationship to the Father and Spirit, and the Spirit is not freely the Spirit apart from His relationship to the Father and Son. In this sense, there seems to be a divine interdependence upon the other persons and that each divine person influences the others in individually distinct and personal ways.

    In Genesis 2:18, God said that it was not good that man should be alone and that he needed a helper comparable to him. A big part of the idea of bearing the image of the Triune God is living in self-sacrificial loving community with other image bearers (Genesis 1:26-27, 2:18). God has eternally existed in the realm of the loving relationships within the Triune community. This is at the heart of what it means to say that “God is love” or to speak of the fruit of the Spirit. Apart from this eternal Triune covenant of love, the fruit(s) of the Spirit are simply the subsequent reactions of the deity to a creature –no different than that of the monad Allah.

    For a man to live in a state of completely individual autonomous freewill is to live in a manner that does not bear the image of the loving and relational Triune community. There is an “aloneness” in this definition of freewill that is less than fully human to say the least, in the sense that it distorts the Triune image that man is supposed to bear by living in loving relationships. with other image bearers.

    So why do I say all of this in regards to the idea of predestination? Well, if we take the model of the self-sacrificing, loving, and relational Trinitarian society out of play when speaking of predestination, we are left with the raw power and omniscience of the unrelational and/or merely reactive monad god.

    For the apostle Paul, predestination is Israel-covenant-love-marriage language as the word is used closely in relation to the Father’s “choosing” of a people as a church-bride for His Son (Compare the similar Israel-covenant-love-marriage language in Ephesians 1:4-5 and 5:22-33 with Deuteronomy 7:6-7, 10:15, 14:2). Paul grounds the predestinating and choosing acts of God’s love for and towards His Son’s bride, the church, [implicitly] in the eternal love within the Triune community throughout Ephesians (1:3-14, 18-21, 3:14-21, 4:1-7, 30-32, 5:18-21).

    My point is that if God’s predestination of all that comes to pass in history (Ephesians 1:11) flows out of a Triune community of sacrificial love, it is something to be really happy about. It is a story about a Father who has eternally purposed to create the gift of a bride for His Son, while the Spirit though history beautifies the bride for the Son. The Son kills the dragon at the end who has been trying to kill the bride in the meantime. The Son marries the bride. The bride moves in with her new husband and the world is put back to rights and brought to maturity forever. Everyone lives happily ever after.

    Predestination flows out of the love of the Triune community and is meant to give God’s people hope and comfort. When such discussions of predestination strike fear, hatred, and gloom and doom in people’s hearts because they can’t take the idea of the loss of their supposed individual autonomous free will, they are at some level distorting the image of the Triune God and relating to him as a single non-relational monad who decrees and reacts from the standpoint of pure raw power. Such a God is neither good news nor is it any basis for hope for mankind and the world.

  4. Very interesting to show how Ecclesiastes 3 bears upon the discussion of God’s providential sovereignty. Passages like “no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end” and “I know that everything God does will endure forever; nothing can be added to it and nothing taken from it” (vv. 11, 14) have much to say to us. Thanks for this insight on the “gatherer’s wisdom.”

    If you’re suggesting I can enjoy a glass of vino or a brewski (in moderation of course) while calling it a kind of “holy revelry,” I’m right there with man!

    Cheers!!

  5. Note: At the request of the author “seattledrummer” the following is an edited version of his original.

    In light of this particular topic of God’s eternal predestination of all things which come to pass, a few thoughts came to mind this afternoon.

    The book of Ecclesiastes is the book of “the Gatherer who gathers together God’s wisdom for the gathered ones”–God’s people.

    Ecclesiastes 3:1-8 is a passage that is often misquoted out of context in song by the secular bards of the day and in cute pictures with bunnies, sunsets, and flowers that are sold in Christian bookstores.

    As God’s people gather together to read and hear the words of Ecclesiastes 3:1-8, they should read and hear this passage not as marching orders how they themselves as autonomous individuals are to determine with wisdom when they must do certain activities in life.

    I believe in this passage the gatherer Solomon urges his gathered hearers and readers in his gathered wisdom to understand this passage as referring to the various times and seasons of life by which all events that God sovereignly predestines come to pass in history.

    In 3:10 the gatherer states that wisdom understands by faith that God is in the process making all things beautiful in His time and not ours, (Romans 8:28) and that though man earnestly desires to completely understand from beginning to end God’s ways and answer all the “why questions,” wisdom will submit by faith that while we live under the sun, it’s just not going to happen right now (3:11, Deuteronomy 29:29).

    So what are God’s people to do about the messy world which they live in, that they can neither control what ultimately happens in the future, nor stop the day of their eventual death? They are to joyously receive the gifts of God of fruitful work and do it with all of their might, they are to eat and drink wine with the people of God, most notably in the context of formal liturgical settings (Deuteronomy 14:22-29) and especially so on Lord’s Day. For Solomon, feasting in light of God’s sovereignty over all things is usually (though not exclusively) to be done in the company of others (Genesis 2:15-25)–God’s people in particular. Very Trinitarian!

    One side note, perhaps it would be a good idea for Christians to learn form the OT how to feast and show unbelievers what it is like to live in a continual state of sacred revelry in a twisted world that doesn’t and was never meant to make complete sense to us, even with wisdom. If Christians did that, I believe that unbelievers would take notice and convert in greater numbers, seeing that their own attempts at pagan revelry are meaningless, a vapor, and juvenile at best.

    Christians will never learn the wisdom of holy feasting in light of God’s sovereignty when they gather for the Lord’s Supper infrequently. When they do so today, it is often the case that they partake of bread the size of and as hard as a fingernail and drink stale grape juice. I don’t believe that Solomon would be very excited about the introspective feasting of God’s people as they gather in American churches at the Lord’s Supper today.

    The Trinitarian feast is a big table with lots of good food, wine, self-giving fellowship, and holy revelry that is to be joyously shared with and proclaimed to the world by Christ’s church. Next time when we see the hard providence of God being played out in the world and we don’t completely understand why, using biblical wisdom and applying it in a timely manner, it might be a good idea to simply sit down and have a good beer with a fellow believer (or an unbeliever), thank God for His gift, and enjoy it by the gift of faith (Ephesians 2:8-10), knowing that death is quickly approaching us all and that God is making all things beautiful in its time. This I believe is wisdom lived out under the sun and a means by which God will fulfill his covenant promise to bless the nations through Abraham (Genesis 12:3) and fill the earth with His glory (Habakkuk 2:14).

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