Is God the Cause of All That He Foreknows?

Just to get the philosophical juices flowing…..

In De Libero Arbitrio (On Free Will, Book 111, ii, 4, p 172, in Augustine: Earlier Writings) Evodius asks Augustine,

“Since God foreknew that man would sin, that which God foreknew must come to pass. How then is the will free when there is apparently this unavoidable necessity?”

Of the lengthy response, Augustine states:

“God by his foreknowledge does not use compulsion in the case of future events . . . God has foreknowledge of all his own actions, but is not the agent of all that he foreknows . . . he has no responsibility for the future actions of men though he knows them beforehand.”

Ibid. p 177

Given that God’s knowledge entails true future-tense propositions (“true” with respect to a correspondence between an assertion and its eventual instantiation in space-time), I agree with Evodius’ assumption “that which God foreknew must come to pass.” However, knowing accurately how things turn out is not the same as being the agency of their cause. For example, God knew yesterday that I would blog about this topic today, though yesterday I had no idea what I might post. It was, therefore, a true future-tense proposition yesterday that I would blog on this topic, thus God’s knowledge (or database, if you will) contained this true proposition. But it was my choice today to pick this topic, not God’s. That my choice corresponded to God’s knowledge does not entail that my choice was constrained; only that it matches or maps to that which God knew would come about.

Now, lest you jump onto an Arminian high horse, consider that humans, by their free acts of thought and/or behavior, do not have the ability to alter God’s knowledge of what will occur simply because God’s knowledge of all future events is true. This is not to say that God’s knowledge of future events directly causes human acts of the will. Only that no human activity falls outside the scope of God’s perfect knowledge. Therefore, all human activity is confined to and abides within the parameters of God’s inerrant knowledge. This be true, then acts of the human will are not entirely autonomous but bound by God’s perfect knowledge. Absolute independent, autonomous behavior simply does not exist. All human behavior occurs within the pericope of conditions, which are ordained by, created by, and sustained by God.

Before you disagree, consider carefully various passages on God’s autonomous, independent actions and movement on the human will. Feel especially the weight of God’s supreme sovereignty as you celebrate and contemplate the “freedom” of your will.

Ezra 6:22

“For seven days they celebrated with joy the Feast of Unleavened Bread, because the LORD had filled them with joy by changing the attitude of the king of Assyria, so that he assisted them in the work on the house of God, the God of Israel.”

Ps. 33:10-11

“The LORD foils the plans of the nations; he thwarts the purposes of the peoples. But the plans of the LORD stand firm forever, the purposes of his heart through all generations.”

Ps. 115:3

“Our God is in heaven; he does whatever pleases him.”

Ps. 135:5-7

“I know that the LORD is great, that our Lord is greater than all gods. The LORD does whatever pleases him, in the heavens and on the earth, in the seas and all their depths. He makes clouds rise from the ends of the earth; he sends lightning with the rain and brings out the wind from his storehouses.”

Pr. 16:1, 4, 9, 11

“To man belong the plans of the heart, but from the LORD comes the reply of the tongue.” “The LORD works out everything for his own ends— even the wicked for a day of disaster.” “In his heart a man plans his course, but the LORD determines his steps.” “Honest scales and balances are from the LORD; all the weights in the bag are of his making.”

Pr. 21:1

“The king’s heart is in the hand of the LORD; he directs it like a watercourse wherever he pleases.”

Lam. 3:37-38

Who can speak and have it happen if the Lord has not decreed it? Is it not from the mouth of the Most High that both calamities and good things come?”

Is. 46:9-10

“Remember the former things, those of long ago; I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me. I make known the end from the beginning, from ancient times, what is still to come. I say: My purpose will stand, and I will do all that I please.”

Dan. 4:34-35

“At the end of that time, I, Nebuchadnezzar, raised my eyes toward heaven, and my sanity was restored. Then I praised the Most High; I honored and glorified him who lives forever. His dominion is an eternal dominion; his kingdom endures from generation to generation. All the peoples of the earth are regarded as nothing. He does as he pleases with the powers of heaven and the peoples of the earth. No one can hold back his hand or say to him: “What have you done?”

Acts 2:23

“This man was handed over to you by God’s set purpose and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross.”

Acts 4:27-28

“Indeed Herod and Pontius Pilate met together with the Gentiles and the people of Israel in this city to conspire against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed. They did what your power and will had decided beforehand should happen.”

Eph. 1:4, 11

“For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight.” “In him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will.”

Rev. 17:17

“For God has put it into their hearts to accomplish his purpose by agreeing to give the beast their power to rule, until God’s words are fulfilled.”

9 thoughts on “Is God the Cause of All That He Foreknows?”

  1. Hey Paul,

    One thing that I find helpful in such discussions is focusing on what God’s “foreknowing” means. That is, what (I hope) is being referred to here is not just “knowing” per se, but knowing precisely because he is sole creator (in an ultimate sense) of all things and therefore “knows” because he causes it to be so. This is distinct from a typically (in my understanding) Arminian way of looking at God’s “knowing” as simply knowing and speaks nothing about the creative force of God’s “knowing”.

    Along similar lines, one’s view of time has a bearing on such matters (A theory versus B theory). If one takes the view of time commonly understood today among scientists (and thus on a popular level) as an actual extra dimension, which forms a fabric in which we exist. So conceived, one (like God) could theoretically stand outside of “time” and view it from a whole history (also, conceived like this, time travel is theoretically possible). Not so Augustine (end of Confessions) and most prior to modern thought where time is simply the measure of change and no more and thus the only “time” that exists is the here-and-now. The point is that the common view of time lends itself to a God who “knows” everything because he quite literally sees it all at once. Compare this to (what I think is) the biblical understanding where God moves everything in such a way that the here-and-now corresponds to God’s acting to make things as he wills/plans them to be.

    From here I think many people get held up not differentiating between indirect and direct agents. Everything is caused by God but not symmetrically between good and evil. God directly causes the good, but with evil there is always an intermediate agent somewhere. I suppose it would follow from this that if God causes the causer of evil (or to whatever degree of regression one would want), there would be a higher purpose of good to God’s causing act.

    I’ve come across too many pastors/counselors who comfort people in troubling or tragic situations by saying that God “knew” that it would happen. But where’s the comfort in that? Did God know but not act? Was he not able to act or just not willing? Though God did not cause the violence/sin/tragedy, the action/circumstance is still within his acting/guiding will.

    More in line with what Bob G’s request is above, what are your thoughts on a libertarian versus compatibilist view point of “free will”? If “free will” is merely confined to the ability to make a choice such as to become the agent of an act, the discussion is shaped much differently than what libertarians demand “free will” must entail. In my opinion, libertarians make “free will” hold too many absolutes.

    … Sorry for the book-long comment! Appreciate the line-up of verses.

    1. Well Carl…I just composed a lengthy response to your comment, only to have lost it all (I should know better!).

      Will try to get back to you soon. Meanwhile…I’ll brush up on my copy-to-clipboard skills!

    2. Okay….here’s a truncated version of what I originally wrote but lost (from memory)….

      I would not be so inclined to blur the lines between God’s cognition and his volition, as these are distinct faculties of personhood. Of course they work in concert (or should lest one have cognitive and existential dissonance), but they are not the same. God does not choose in the dark. He knowingly chooses and willingly knows. While I do maintain a causal relationship between God’s foreknowledge and our choices, I import a complex, Aristotelian meaning of causation when I say this (see here). I like Godet on this:

      He [God] does not foresee an event which is for us yet to come, but that He sees it, absolutely as we behold a present event; . . . consequently, when He declares it at any moment whatsoever, He does not foretell it, but describes it as a spectator and witness. . . Once foretold, the event undoubtedly cannot fail to happen, because the eye of God cannot have presented to Him as existing that which will not be. But the event does not exist because God has seen it; God, on the contrary, has seen it because it will be, or rather because to His view it already is.
      Commentary on John’s Gospel, p 794

      Seque: God and time
      I’ve read Bill Craig’s Time and Eternity and some of Garrett DeWeese’s God and the Nature of Time and I would side with DeWeese that God is temporal rather than atemporal (good review here).

      As for libertarian versus compatibilist views, I would hold a modified compatibilist view, but am still chewing over the philosophical implications of libertarian views in light of the moral problem of evil.

      If interested in seeing my views on some of the above in relation to soteriology, see my essay Election and Salvation in John’s Gospel.

      1. Thank you for the sources! I was only vaguely familiar with DeWeese’s book. I take it you have not read Paul Helm’s bookbook? I know he takes issue with Craig’s view and obviously defends the standard reformed position.

        Thanks also for the essay. I appreciate and agree with your definitions/explanations of God’s determinations and knowledge being certain and yet conditional. Concerning salvation, I’ve come to see “faith in Jesus Christ” as part of a larger trajectory going back to Genesis 1 and 2 where God’s kingdom/rule is carried out by humanity. In this sense, salvation (or “life” in the ultimate sense) is not actuated until we have aligned with God so as to pursue his kingdom/rule both internally and upon the earth. Thus there is a natural conditionality (when do we join God’s life giving rulership?) and imperative (God must rule and created us to carry this out!) based on God’s design purposes for humanity. (With this last point, I also appreciate your “contra Kant”.)

        Lastly, I always enjoy a strong agreement with Carson! ;^)

        Thanks for the clarifications.

        1. I’ve not read Helm’s work (shame on me). Of the four Helm sources I own, that is not one of them….yet. Though I was aware of it, I need to pick that up.

          Glad you found the essay helpful. I’ve not found many of the Reformed stripe who align on my taxonomy of “conditional but certain.” And, I like your “larger trajectory going back…” If we’re historically honest, not one of us can deny all that God has done and is doing to consummate our salvific status.

          Cheers!!

  2. Hi Paul,
    I just discovered and enjoy your blog. There’s an apparent contradiction here. You say, “That my choice corresponded to God’s knowledge does to entail that it was constrained…” Then you say, “Absolute independent, autonomous behavior simply does not exist.”

    Please help me understand how these notions coexist.

    Thank you and God Bless,
    Bob from Chicago

    1. Hi Bob and thanks for visiting.
      Oops! Typo on my part. It’s since been corrected.
      “That my choice corresponded to God’s knowledge does to entail that it was constrained…”
      Should read “That my choice corresponded to God’s knowledge does not entail that it was constrained…”

      1. Funny, I read it right (i.e. as “does not”), so my question stands. You state that my choice was not constrained, but later say autonomous behavior does not exist. How can both be true?

        1. Apologies for the confusion. Multi-tasking at my age is almost always a bad idea. ;-)

          I think the sticky wicket here is how I intended to use the expression “independent, autonomous behavior.” On one side of the dilemma is God’s knowledge; on the other is human freedom. No human will choose any option that makes God’s knowledge of true future-tense statements false. Thus, no human choice is independent of or autonomous from God’s knowledge. On the other side, however, God’s foreknowledge does not become the active, causal agent of human choices. Live, but limited, options are still available and humans, as moral agents, do make real choices that are genuinely free, but free only with respect to what God knew would occur. This, IMO, does not depreciate human freedom, since options are real. It does, however, exalt God’s character as being omniscient in that he knows all things past, present, future, and contingent (contingency is a whole different discussion; see 1 Sam 23, e.g. of an example of God’s knowledge of contingencies).

          I’ll make a feeble attempt to illustrate: Today you chose to read my blog, yet were free to read an issue of Time magazine. God knew yesterday you would read my blog today and not Time magazine. That God knew your choice to read my blog does not require that you make the choice you did. Yet your choice was made within the parameters of and in accordance with what God knew was true, given the conditions and circumstances he orchestrated that resulted in your reading my blog. Thus, your choice is not contrained by (restricted to) God’s knowledge, since you were free to choose otherwise. Had you chosen Time magazine, then God’s knowledge would involve that option as a true future-tense statement; the alternative option would merely be contingent and neither true nor false. Therefore, your free choice will only be what God foreknows as true and what God foreknows as true will only be what you have freely chosen.

          Clear as mud?

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