The 3rd Rail: The Fallacy of a Restrictive Foreknowledge

KH LogoBy Ken Hamrick

See all the posts in the series, ‘The 3rd Rail’

One fallacy in the debate between Calvinists and Traditionalists is the idea that God’s foreknowledge makes all events necessary. Such logic insists that, since God already knows what you will decide on a certain occasion, then it “would be impossible” for you to decide otherwise (since it is “impossible” for God’s foreknowledge to fail). Like most arguments provided by either side of this debate, it is overly simplistic and fails to consider the full reality.

God & Time

Time, like space, is part of the world that is transcended by its Creator. God is outside time—beyond its limitations and in full knowledge of events throughout the past and future. God created this world to be both temporal and spatial. Each moment is its own exclusive reality, but inseparable from the order and progression of events. In other words, the now of any moment is reality, past moments are no longer reality and future moments are not yet reality.

God ever sees the reality of each moment, but He sees it in its own time, and not as reality before or afterward. Once an event has occurred, it becomes a fact of the past for all future moments; but until it occurs, it is not yet real. While God at times has foretold of an event, He never invalidates the temporal progression. He does not punish based on what a man will do in the future, or forgive a sinner based on his future repentance. Justice and the reality of our world are inseparable from the order of events on the timeline.

No Temporal Progression in God’s Thinking

It is important to keep in mind that there is no temporal progression outside of time. God does not know anything “ahead of time” or before it occurs, because there is no before or after outside of time. God’s knowledge never changes. He has ever known all that He ever will know—but even this fails to accurately describe what is without any “before” and “after.” It is difficult, when discussing God’s atemporal view, to not slide into before-and-after thinking; and this is a point at which Necessarians (Calvinists) stumble. Dr. Tom Nettles, an eminent Southern Baptist theologian and a senior leader of Founders Ministries, recently stated:

If God’s relation to the events of the world is one merely of foreknowledge understood as pre-cognition, we still must establish when the knowledge of these events came into the divine cognition. Is it the result of perfectly drawn deductions from exhaustive knowledge of all factors present in this particular possible world from the first moment of his creation of it? Then such perfect deductions render the event necessary.[1]

Strictly speaking, foreknowledge is not precognition, but atemporal cognition. It is a view of events from outside time and not from a prior time. If it were true that God is limited to seeing things “ahead of time,” then it would be reasonable to speculate that God might employ infinite calculations in His unlimited understanding of cause and effect to “figure out” and predict what all the end results would be—and even to plan His providential interventions. Dr. Nettles thinks “God’s foreknowledge renders [an] action just as necessary as if he had decreed it.” But his logic depends on a temporal progression in God’s thinking. There was no time at which any knowledge “came into the divine cognition.”

Necessity v Transcendent Certainty

Like Jonathan Edwards[2], whom he closely follows, Dr. Nettles thinks that God cannot know with certainty that any thing will occur unless there is a certainty within the thing itself. When he describes this certainty as, “the result of perfectly drawn deductions from exhaustive knowledge of all factors present in this particular possible world,” he is describing a certainty based on causes in this world—a certainty in the thing itself. But he (like Edwards) also allows for a certainty based only on the intuitive (or possibly, atemporal) knowledge of God:

Is it an intrinsically intuitive knowledge of all things actual and potential, a knowledge on the basis of which he created the world? Then such intrinsic intuitions render the event necessary.[3]

However, this use of “necessary” has a distinctly different meaning than that based on causes in this world. If God knows, “intuitively” or atemporally, that an event will occur, but does not base that certainty on any causes in this world (or any “perfectly drawn deductions from exhaustive knowledge of all factors”), then this can be nothing more than mere certainty. Just as God transcends the world, His knowledge transcends the world and cannot be said to be “in the thing itself;” so if the certainty is only in God’s knowledge, then the certainty is not in the thing itself. Edwards disregards this transcendence, and so he sees certainty as synonymous with necessity, as does Dr. Nettles. Edwards defines necessity:

When the subject and predicate of the proposition, which affirms the existence of any thing, either substance, quality, act, or circumstance, have a full and CERTAIN CONNECTION, then the existence or being of that thing is said to be necessary in a metaphysical sense. [4]

This amounts to no more than to assert that if something is certain, it is necessary. It matters not whether the certainty comes from foreknowledge or from the laws of cause and effect in the universe, such a Necessarian view sees it as necessary if it is certain. But such a view fails to properly acknowledge the transcendence of God. He is other than creation; and while He is immanently present within creation, He is never part of it. This world is temporal, while God is eternal. This world is finite, while He is infinite.

But this is all but lost on Edwards, who sees the entire created world as continually being recreated (out of nothing) at every moment:

It will follow from what has been observed, that God’s upholding of created substance, or causing of its existence in each successive moment, is altogether equivalent to an immediate production out of nothing, at each moment. Because its existence at this moment is not merely in part from God, but wholly from him; and not in any part, or degree, from its antecedent existence.[5]

He sees the universe as falling out of existence at every moment and continually being created again by God. To Edwards, every detail at every moment is exactly as God has created it. Rather than God’s thoughts transcending this world, this world is merely an expression of His thoughts! Transcendence becomes a lost concept of no importance.

Whether or not Dr. Nettles follows Edwards to this extent, I don’t know. But this problem in Edwards’ theology is behind his equating of certainty with necessity. Only when God transcends the creation can divine immutability and certainty coexist with a world of possibility, contingency and potential. Without this transcendence, the world’s trajectories of events are as immutable as God Himself.

Edwards misses this distinction, insisting that any certainty about a thing—even if seemingly only in God’s foreknowledge—is a certainty in the thing itself, if for no other reason than that the thing is certain and cannot but be.[6] Edwards’ error pulls the knowledge of God down into creation itself, blurring the distinction between the created world and that which transcends it. How is it “impossible but that the event should be?” If it consists only in the impossibility that God’s foreknowledge fail, then it is strictly an impossibility that transcends the world and the nature of that event. If the impossibility disappears when the scope is limited to the created world, then what we are really looking at is certainty and not impossibility or necessity.

In this world, the nature of that event may be completely contingent—without necessity—and still be certain in the knowledge of God who sees all events from outside time. By losing sight of the transcendence of God’s foreknowledge, Edwards misses the distinction between a certainty in the thing itself and a certainty that is in God’s knowledge alone; and so he falsely views certainty as nothing other than necessity.

Possibility and impossibility are terms that only apply to this temporal world and are foreign terms improperly applied to God’s transcendent foreknowledge. In God’s foreknowledge, all things are immutably known and are thus certain, even those things for which alternative possibilities exist within this temporal world.

Within the scope of the creation, it is not impossible that a foreknown event may fail to be. Even events that are completely random in this world, if there are any, are certain in God’s transcendent view—but without losing any of the contingency of their nature. God merely foreknows with transcendent certainty which of many alternative possibilities will come to pass.

Foreknowledge, Prophecy & Alternative Possibilities

When God has shared with men what is future to us (prophecy), His view is just as much of a “live” event as our own present. God is not describing merely what we will do, but rather, He sees the live action of what we freely choose to do in that future moment. How then can we claim that we were forced to comply with what was foreseen? If we had chosen differently in that moment (and it was in the power of our hand to decide) then God would have foreseen the living out of that different decision. The fact is that we retroactively write God’s foreknowledge with every temporal decision that we make, and there is no restrictive effect of foreknowledge whatsoever.

Every logical proof that can be presented to the contrary incorrectly attempts to apply a “before” and “after” to God’s atemporal view, by saying, “If God knows something to be true before it occurs, then it cannot but occur.” But God is not knowing it before it occurs. Outside of time, God knows it as it occurs. This vital distinction presents an interesting problem, which we can use to Scripturally verify this as true.

There must be more involved to prophecy than simple revelation. God must factor in any changes that such a prophecy might introduce. Revealing a prophecy introduces a new variable into the world, and might cause a change to what will occur. A prophecy of destruction as a judgment may cause a person or people to repent, thereby prompting God to relent and not destroy. It is not only possible, but probable, that what God sees taking place in the future, in some cases, cannot be revealed to men without changing what will take place. And in all cases where God has foretold an event that has or is to come to pass, it was foreseen that the foretelling itself would not change the outcome.

However, there has been at least one occurrence in the Bible where God has told a man the future, and the man’s reaction changed that future.

David inquiring of the Lord at Keilah:

1 Sam. 23 ESV
9 David knew that Saul was plotting harm against him. And he said to Abiathar the priest, “Bring the ephod here.” 10 Then David said, “O Lord, the God of Israel, your servant has surely heard that Saul seeks to come to Keilah, to destroy the city on my account. 11 Will the men of Keilah surrender me into his hand? Will Saul come down, as your servant has heard? O Lord, the God of Israel, please tell your servant.” And the Lord said, “He will come down.” 12 Then David said, “Will the men of Keilah surrender me and my men into the hand of Saul?” And the Lord said, “They will surrender you.” 13 Then David and his men, who were about six hundred, arose and departed from Keilah, and they went wherever they could go. When Saul was told that David had escaped from Keilah, he gave up the expedition.

If David had remained at Keilah, then Saul would come down there. But since David departed, then Saul did not come down. This account establishes that God knows contingent as well as actual outcomes. It also establishes that the contingent is as valid as the actual until the pivotal event occurs, since God does not lie. God told David that Saul “will come down.” He did not say, “Saul will not come down because you will not be here.” Therefore, it was true that Saul would come down, but it was only true until the pivotal event of David leaving Keilah. This is not to say that God did not know that David would leave and Saul would not come down. Rather, David’s inquiry presupposed that David would remain in Keilah, and God told him what the true outcome of that course of action would be.

There is another account in Scripture that illuminates this principle:

Matthew 26 ESV
51 And behold, one of those who were with Jesus stretched out his hand and drew his sword and struck the servant of the high priest and cut off his ear. 52 Then Jesus said to him, “Put your sword back into its place. For all who take the sword will perish by the sword. 53 Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels? 54 But how then should the Scriptures be fulfilled, that it must be so?”

If there was any event in human history that was necessary, it was the central event of the crucifixion of the Savior. But here we have the surprising revelation of Jesus that alternative courses of action were indeed possible. His question to Peter serves well as a rebuttal to all who think that the foreknowledge or the sovereign plan of God invalidate or preclude the possibility of alternative choices or actions: “Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels?” Those who think that there are no genuinely possible alternatives would have to answer Him, “No, I do not think You can.” And although Christ implicitly affirmed the possibility of the alternative, he also affirmed that the Scriptures will indeed be fulfilled (God’s foreknown plan will indeed be carried out): “But how then should the Scriptures be fulfilled, that it must be so?”

The balance is found in God’s use of certainty, rather than necessity, to carry out His perfect plan. If He had used necessity, then no other alternative choices or courses of action would be possible. But by using certainty, God left intact all alternative possibilities within our temporal world. God’s plan is unfailingly carried out not because men cannot do otherwise, but because they will not do otherwise.

If God reveals to you His foreknowledge of your future actions, He has already considered whether or not that prophecy will change your future decision. So there is no restricting of your freedom. On the contrary, you are free in the face of such a prophecy to change your future actions. It is possible, in fact, to make it impossible for God to reveal your actions in a certain case, if you have already decided (and are able) to do the opposite of whatever will be prophesied. You will not make foreknowledge impossible, but you can make accurately revealing it to you an impossibility. In such a case, there will be no prophecy, but God still knows what will happen. This is not to say that God’s will can ever be thwarted, however, since He accomplishes that through His providence and not through mere foreknowledge.

So then, any revelation of what you will decide in the future has already factored in how such knowledge might affect your future decision, so that you remain completely free in that decision, and are still within the clear foresight of God.


[1] Tom Nettles, “God Who Cannot Lie,” part 11 of 13 in the series, “Southern Baptist Theology,” Founders Ministries, accessed at http://founders.org/2017/07/28/god-who-cannot-lie/ .
[2] “On The Freedom of The Will,” The Works of Jonathan Edwards, (Hendrickson: Peabody, 2003), Vol. 1, Part II., Sect. XII., p. 38. Also accessed electronically at http://www.ccel.org/ccel/edwards/will.html
[3] Nettles, Ibid.
[4] Edwards, Ibid., Part I., Sect. III., 5., p. 9.
[5] Edwards, “The Great Christian Doctrine of Original Sin Defended,” Works, Vol. 1, Part IV., chap III., p. 224.
[6] Edwards, “On the Freedom of the Will,” p. 37, states:

Whether Prescience be the thing that makes event necessary or no, it alters not the case. Infallible Foreknowledge may prove the Necessity of the event foreknown, and yet not be the thing which causes the Necessity. If the foreknowledge be absolute, this proves the event known to be necessary, or proves that it is impossible but that the event should be, by some means or other, either by a decree, or some other way, if there be any other way: because, as was said before, it is absurd to say, that a proposition is known to be certainly and infallibly true, which yet may possibly prove not true.

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