Monday, April 07, 2014

A Dialogue about God's Foreknowledge and Our Free Will

Here is part of an extended dialogue I had years ago (in 2002) which provides insight on why some people have difficulty accepting a modified view of God's omniscience. My comment initiates the discussion. The subject is Paul's shipwreck at Malta--an event that was foretold before it happened.

>Sure, Paul and his buddies were free to swim or free
>to not swim. Nevertheless, God could know what these
>human souls would do without "peeking" into the future
>or knowing their actions eternally.

Okay, we have to distinguish our points of view
here, since you're viewing God as temporal (not having
to "peek" into the future). But assuming your view, how
could God's "knowledge" of what these passengers
would do once their ship wrecked and they sunk into
the water be called anything more than a supremely
"well-educated guess"? How could he have "known"
(without "peeking") that this or that passenger wouldn't
panic and freak out, or that those who couldn't swim
would encounter a piece of floating timber at just the
opportune moment, or that a freak wave wouldn't smash
the mast down upon the heads of two swimmers and
instantly kill them? I just don't see how this could be
called "knowlege" at all, even in what Hume would call
the relatively "weak" epistemic sense with which we
declare ourselves to "know" that the sun will rise tomor-

>God knew what the
>sons of Israel would do [in the wilderness] by reading their collective
>hearts. He infallibly knew what Esau would do before
>birth, probably based on His knowledge of the human

Say WHAT? This sounds something like reading
tea leaves! How could knowledge of Esau's embryo
in the present furnish God with all the variables (of time,
place, relation, quality, and circumstance) necessary for
Him to know that Jacob would happen to be making an
appealing "mess of pottage" at the precise moment when
Esau would come in starving hungry from an unsuccessful
hunting trip?

>My point is that God is capable of knowing the
>future without necessarily "foreknowing" the future. That is, God
>can predict [or foretell] with certainty what will happen based on
>one's track record or one's present desires and thoughts, etc.

I don't think this can work, because even
omniscient knowledge of a "track record" doesn't
account for the infinite number of variables involving
conditions of chance (future contingencies of weather,
earthquakes, famine, circumstance, and human choices)
that, on your view, God can't know before they are actual-ized.

>And, FWIW, I do not deny God's foreknowledge or foreordination.

Except when you do.

>Only timeless theists say that God does not literally foresee or foreordain events.

Not necessarily: we speak of God "foreknowing"
events just as the Bible does and as you and I, long
after the Copernican Revolution, continue to reasonably
speak of "sunrises." We just don't take such language
without due philosophical qualification when theorizing.


Nathan said...

Hi Edgar,

Thanks for sharing your sharp insights again. So you've been going about this divine foreknowledge thing for at least twelve years huh? I should have seen that coming (excuse the pun).

The points that your colleague raised make perfect sense to me, if and only if one first presupposes a tenselessly propositional view of omniscience. But why think we must presuppose such a view in the first place? Surely it isn't because it's the only way to understand the Scriptural accounts that were cited. It seems to me that the case of Paul's shipwreck actually represents a plausible counter-example to the approach your friend chose in trying to understand God's foreknowledge vis-à-vis the maritime-mayhem at Malta. For instance, instead of reading a classical view of omniscience into the text why not first consider the context of events and the era(s) in which these were first expressed:

* We know that prior to the events in question, Jehovah had ordained the first century to be a time of prophecy and miraculous attestation to the Christian message (cf. Acts 2:17-20).

* We know that prior to even the first century, Jehovah was searching Israel to show his strength in behalf of those who would present a complete heart before him (2 Chron. 16:9).

* We know that prior to even the time Israel, God was judging and suspending judgement on sinful humanity for the sake of his name and for the sake of revealing his will on the imputation of righteousness (cf. Gen 18:23ff; Deut. 9:19; Rom. 5:18).

It's no mystery that within each of these periods God acted providentially in the world, not simply through the exercise of foreknowledge, but with real power and with real consequence. For how could God enable a miracle unless he acted? Or how could God demonstrate his strength unless he acted? Or how could God exercise justice unless he acted? It seems clear that the Scriptures are laden with cases of God acting in behalf of himself or acting on behalf of others. With all of this in mind then, let me propose a possible alternative to the view that your colleague maintained. (I know you know this already, so please indulge me with your patience):

Jehovah knew contingently that a powerful storm would erupt and inevitably destroy the vessel that Paul was being held captive on. As the first century was ordained to be a time of miraculous attestation, God therefore chose to act upon the world in order to deliver Paul and imputed his righteousness to the soldiers, sailors, and scallywags for the sake of the good news and for the sake of his contingent knowledge of the population on Malta.

Now, while I admit that this is just a theory, I do think that given God's history of ordinations and deliverances a plausible case can be made to show that the events that led up to Malta, far from requiring a classical or reformed understanding of omniscience, actually fit well within the character of a God who both knows the future contingently and acts upon the world.



Edgar Foster said...

Hi Nathan,

You do supply a proper and reasonable alternative to the timelessly propositional view, and that's all these kind of discussions require at the minimum level of discourse.

While the Scriptures don't tell us all the details about how divine foreknowledge works--really, the Bible usually does not concern itself with how Jehovah did X or Y--what you're saying can't be easily discounted. Historically, perfect being theology has largely been influenced by Platonism and Aristotelianism. People (a priori) imagine what a perfect being/deity might be like, then reason from there to "that than which a greater cannot be conceived."

To an extent, that's fine and good in one respect; but from another perspective, this approach is limited and may lead us to affirm things about God that either fail to harmonize with the Bible or which do less than full justice to Jehovah's omni-properties. Hence, we find omniscience being defined in such a way that God exhaustively knows everything (simpliciter) or He completely foreknows all things. But the Bible doesn't clearly spell out either one of these ideas, as you demonstrated.