The foresight saga

According to Open Theist Thomas Jay Oord in a BioLogos comment to our Eddie Robinson, Calvinists and Thomists are much less easy to persuade to change their views on the fundamental nature of God “from reason, Scripture and experience” than Arminians, Pentecostals, Anabaptists and others. Maybe that explains why I’m fated not to be impressed, though it does raise provocative questions about the reasons this might be so.

In context, the remark seems to imply that the Calvinists and Thomists are more stubborn or stupid, but that rather presupposes that reason, Scripture and experience are on the side of Open Theism, which a majority even in the other groups mentioned doubt. Indeed, if one looks at the critiques of Open Theism, its logical fallacies in the field of reason, its misleading and incomplete exegesis of Scripture, and its denial of the experience of the entire Church (apart from the Socinians) before 1990 are amongst the chief complaints.

That’s by way of being a lead into a more general examination of one of the main issues the Open Theism thing has thrown up, and that is the foreknowledge of God in relation to libertarian free will. (Incidentally, one possible clue to the recalcitrant boneheadedness of Calvinists and Thomists is that they are preeminently the ones who have not adopted the usual libertarian concept of free will.) In fact, one criticism of OT is that its view of divine (lack of) foreknowledge is incompatible with its own claims about God’s governance of history.

Although OTs differ greatly amongst themselves, they largely agree that because the future depends on arbitrary human choices, it cannot be exhaustively known, even by God. Or if it can in principle, God must limit his knowledge kenotically, or else human choice cannot be truly free. Therefore God’s omniscience takes the form of perfect knowledge of present causes, enabling him to predict the future only by deliberation in the same way that humans do, only far more competently.

Most OTs claim that God can be surprised and upset by events, and therefore uncertain in predictive prophecy and repentant of past decisions (but paradoxically never actually mistaken – an example of recourse to “mystery” in Open Theism). They nevertheless believe that he can fulfil his broad aims for mankind because not only natural events, but even many human decisions, can be predicted sufficiently accurately. Greg Boyd likens it to the effects of quantum events: though entirely unpredictable individually at the micro scale (like human decisions) they do not greatly affect events at the macro scale.

But whether this is actually true of human choices is a matter open to debate: it is simply assumed by Open Theists, like so much else, rather than demonstrated. After all, one of the truths of human experience is that becoming highly expert and knowledgeable in a particular field does little to enable one to predict the future even in the short term. Notoriously, monkeys have sometimes been found to predict changes in the financial markets better than highly paid fund managers. Virtually nobody predicted the greatest crash in nearly a century, from whose effects the whole world has still not recovered. In the longer term, far from things reverting to the mean, often changes wrought by unforseen contingent circumstances lead only to increasing divergence from expectations.

It may be possible to explain this in a general way by the fact that so many systems in the world, at both a human and natural level, happen to be chaotic systems teetering on the brink of equilibrium. That’s why it’s possible for humans to affect the world significantly at all, for if most of reality tended towards lawlike stability, we would at most be able to nudge the course of events temporarily. As it is, our choices can, either deliberately or accidentally, start huge trains of events in motion. I would see that as the way God designed the world both for human, and his own providential, activity of change.

Now it may be urged that since chaotic systems are, for the most part, actually lawlike, being unpredictable only through our inability to measure them accurately, the omniscient God would have no problems knowing their outcomes by deliberation. But this fails to account for the OT insistence that human actions are unpredictable and free. If I  trigger a chaotic system by a choice unknowable to God, then the global outcome, too, is necessarily unknowable. A fraction of a degree of difference, and the billiard balls end up completely differently too. This is significant because chaotic sytems exist right up the level of the solar system’s stability: potentially, someone could unpredictably destroy the entire world.

I mentioned in a previous post how Admiral Jellicoe changed the outcome of the First World War by a knife-edge decision at the Battle of Jutland. But what if President Kennedy, in the Cuban Missile Crisis, had teetered on the edge of pressing the button for Mutual Assured Destruction? The wrong outcome would surely have affected God’s intentions for the world. The “risk” OTs say that God takes in limiting his knowledge of the future looks, in practice, like reducing him to the same impotence as a human politician trying to manage impending global catastrophe. Most OTs don’t want that degree of unpredictability – and few ordinary folks would follow them there if they did.

But Open Theism is, admittedly, an extreme – though an extreme with which, astonishingly, 30% of American Evangelicals, I am told, sympathise, and which seems even more popular amongst Evangelical Academics. It has, perhaps to begin to explain its popularity, been seen as the logical extension of Arminian views on free will. Certainly right back in the 17th century, and in many discussions more recently, there were Arminians asking if choice could truly be free if it was fixed in an unchangeable future. However, most Arminians are not too troubled by that, and retain a view of foreknowledge that is not based on God’s deliberation, but on his eternal knowledge of all actual events. They differ from the Calvinists by saying that God foreknows, but does not in any way determine human choices.

Through this absolute foreknowledge of genuinely libertarian choices, they say, God is able to plan whatever responses are necessary to bring forth his aims, for example in turning evil actions to good ends. But this too brings logical problems. For in this scheme God’s infallible knowledge is of all events that will in fact happen, and all decisions that will in fact be made – which are therefore unalterable. This, as I have said, includes the most arbitrary of human choices.

The problem is that, by the same token, that foreknowledge includes all the choices that God himself will make, equally unalterably. The most frequently recognised problem of this is that it seems to limit God’s freedom to act – he knows from the begining what he will do in the future, and is therefore bound “by fate”. That problem is solved by seeing God (unlike the God of Open Theism) as timeless: decisions made in eternity are also free in eternity.

The bigger problem is that divine decisions made in eternity cannot, it would appear, adjust an unchangeable temporal reality foreseen in its entirety. The whole of reality is foreseen infallibly, not just human choices, so it is “too late” for God to adjust his responses.

Maybe considerations like this are what prompted the Molinist solution. In this God has a so called “middle knowledge” of what all his potential creatures would freely do under any set of circumstances. He then creates the one world in which only the free decisions that suit his purposes will infallibly be made. In this way he can be said to determine free choices without destroying their libertarian nature.

But as I recently suggested (following Hugh McCann’s argument) if it’s impossible in Open Theism for God to predict by deliberation  the choices people will make – which is the very essence of libertarian free will – then it’s doubly impossible to predict the potential decisions of creatures who do not, and will not, actually exist. Imagine you are writing a novel, whose characters you know well. You could legitimately ask, “What would Bloggs usually do in this situation?”, based on predictable elements like his character or experience. But if you asked, “What would he freely and unpredictably do, which I could never foresee?”, you’d have no rational basis for writing about his decision at all. If you picked one particular possibility to suit your plot, then it couldn’t be seen as a decision of arbitrary free will at all, but your own determination as author.

Molinism, however, does still indicate that may perhaps be possible for God to determine a choice that is, in the event, made freely, by creating a human being who will freely make that decision. You just don’t need the middle knowledge and the non-existent worlds people by virtual people to get there. God just creates the one world in eternity – and he creates it all, which is why he foreknows it all.

This area, as perhaps you’ve already gathered, is the one in which Calvinists and Thomists – not to mention classical theists of all stripes – operate. Of course they deny the definition of libertarian free will that says, “I must have been able to do otherwise”, because they deny any more than one reality – the one in which you did not decide otherwise. But that is just the same in Molinism and Arminianism. In both the future was foreseen by God, so your decision could only be different had God foreseen differently – which he didn’t. Yet that does not destroy the spontaneity of your choice. Neither, in Molinism, is your spontaneity destroyed by the fact that God (perhaps against logic, as I’ve suggested) knew all your possible free choices and picked one that you would, infallibly, make by creating only that version of you.

Neither, I contend, is a biblical conception of freedom to choose destroyed when middle-knowledge is jettisoned, and God simply by his own free will creates the “version” of you that actually exists and makes the choices you actually make. In short, it’s hard to construct a scenario that doesn’t create contradictions and impossibilities from the idea of God’s foreknowledge, when it is divorced from divine pre-ordination of events.

Or at least, that’s what the Calvinists and Thomists conclude, and it appears to be a part of what prevents them seeing the light and embracing Open Theism. But at least it’s their free choice.

Jon Garvey

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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