God and Foresight

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Bombastic Calvinist James White thinks that the deterministic-Calvinistic view of the sovereignty of God is “the single issue that separates the supernatural religion of Christianity from the man-centered religions that surround us.”1 James White, who echoes the sentiments of Calvinists J.I. Packer and O.R. Johnston (and no doubt others), perceives of Arminian theology as man-centered and not Christian. In his book, The Potter’s Freedom, White asks: “How can anyone read the Bible and not hear its constant testimony to the unfettered, unlimited, undiminished authority of God to do as He wishes with His creation?”2 We Arminians agree entirely! What we disagree with is the Calvinist’s novel theory that God conscripted, decreed, and brings sin and evil into reality as part of God “doing as He wishes.” We believe that our sovereign and triune God is holy and just.

White then asks, via John Feinberg, regarding the knowledge/foreknowledge of God: “[D]oes God foreknow because he foreordains or does he foreordain because he foreknows?”3 The “Arminian” position on this important question is typically framed as: God looked down through the corridors of time, viewed what would happen, and then decreed for all to happen as does actually happen. Arminius thinks otherwise. Calvinist scholar Dr. Richard A. Muller instructs:

Again following Aquinas, Arminius states that God’s understanding is identical with the divine essence in its simultaneous wholeness and since the divine knowledge is, first and foremost, a self-knowledge, God’s knowledge is neither abstractive [considered apart from concrete existence] nor discursive [concluding through reason rather than intuition], compositive [combining two or more existing things] or dialectical [arriving at truth through logic]. God does not know things, in other words, by first apprehending the idea or intelligible species of the individual thing and then applying it to or finding it in the thing — nor does God know by the application of a knowledge of previously apprehended things to other things, newly apprehended. Rather, God knows all things by a simple, infinite, immediate apprehension.4

So, White and other Calvinists — and perhaps not a few non-Calvinists and self-identified Arminians — misunderstand “the Arminian” view of the knowledge/foreknowledge of God. For Arminius, and for Arminians, God cannot learn. How does God know/foreknow what He knows? “God knows all things,” explains Arminius, “by His own and sole essence” as God.5 Exhaustive and meticulous knowledge, then, belongs to God by attribute — that which comprises but one component in the mind of God. “The understanding of God is certain and infallible: So that He sees certainly and infallibly even things future and contingent; whether He sees them in their causes, or in themselves.”6 One might respond: That seems rather Calvinistic. He continues: “But this infallibility depends on the infinity of the essence of God, and not on His unchangeable will.”7

Is, then, necessity imposed on the free will of the individual? “How certain soever the acts of God’s understanding may itself be,” argues Arminius, “this does not impose any necessity on things, but it rather establishes contingency in them [contingency being an act liable but not certain to occur]. For as He knows the thing itself and its mode, if the mode of the thing be contingent, He must know it as such, and therefore it remains contingent with respect to the Divine knowledge.”8 How is this possible? How can God know/foreknow a contingent act that is not certain to occur?

We might appeal to the Westminster Confession of Faith for clarity. From “Of God’s Eternal Decree,” we learn that Calvinists insist that God has decreed whatsoever should occur on the earth and among mortals in time; and then this concession is granted: “Although God knows whatsoever may or can come to pass upon all supposed conditions; yet has He not decreed anything because He foresaw it as future, or as that which would come to pass upon such conditions.” (link) We might challenge the Calvinist thusly: By what method can God foreknow whatsoever “may or can come to pass upon all supposed conditions” if He has already, from eternity past, decreed whatsoever shall occur on the earth and among mortals? Whence derives this knowledge of whatsoever “may or can come to pass upon all supposed conditions”? If the Calvinist is allowed this concession then the Arminian is permitted the concession that God can know/foreknow a contingency.

Arminius insists that the knowledge/foreknowledge of God is not the cause of what occurs.9 This belief is derided by the Calvinist: if God has not decreed whatever occurs then He is relinquishing His sovereignty and omnipotence.10 In essence, then, the Calvinist is the one who will not allow freedom to God to order His own dominion as He sees fit — a dominion that allows for a significant amount of freedom among His subjects. “But,” so someone will ask, “if God knows what will take place, in time, then how can He also know a contingency?” When we suggest that an act is necessary, we frame the matter not by the knowledge/foreknowledge of God, but that the act is rendered necessary by the decree of God from eternity past. We cannot conflate the knowledge/foreknowledge of God with necessity; the two notions are not synonymous.

Until an act is committed, a person is permitted to the choosing of various options, the act of choosing itself being self-caused even if influenced by the Holy Spirit (regarding a good act). Of course, all choosing is enacted within the sovereign reality of God’s governance, since God is the Sustainer of all human beings, and in Him we live and move and have our being. (Acts 17:28) Even the act of sin is carried out by the sinner within the confines of the reality of the sovereignty of God via God’s divine concurrence. Dr. Roger Olson rightly states:

Arminius was puzzled about the accusation that he held corrupt opinions respecting the providence of God, because he went out of his way to affirm it. He even went so far as to say that every human act, including sin, is impossible without God’s cooperation! This is simply part of divine concurrence, and Arminius was not willing to regard God as a spectator. . . . Arminius argued that when God has permitted an act, God never denies concurrence to a rational and free creature for that would be contradictory. In other words, once God decides to permit an act, even a sinful one, he cannot [wills not to] consistently withhold the power to commit it.

However, in the case of sinful or evil acts, whereas the same event is produced by both God [since God is sustaining the very being of the individual while he or she sins, as well as permitting the act to be carried out, even if against His holy will and just desire] and the human being, the guilt of the sin is not transferred to God, because God is the effecter of the act but only the permitter of the sin itself. This is why Scripture sometimes attributes evil deeds to God; because God concurs with them. God cooperates with the sinners who commit them. But that does not mean God is the efficacious cause of them or wills them, except according to his “consequent will.” God allows them and cooperates with them unwillingly [as it were] in order to preserve the sinners liberty, without which sinners would not be responsible and repentant persons would not enter into a truly personal and loving relationship with God.11

This confession is as close as one affords without conceding deterministic Calvinism. God is sovereign in Arminius’ and Arminian theology despite the opinions of James White and others. The mortal can neither think, speak, act or breathe — let alone sin — without the sovereignty of God. But is a person necessitated to sin? Absolutely not — not when God hates sin, willingly gave His only Son Jesus Christ to die for the sin of the world (John 1:29), and commands us not to sin. Jesus even destroyed the works of the Devil himself. (1 John 3:8) Hence when a person sins, that person did not have to sin by any imagined eternal decree of God, as in consistent, historic, deterministic Calvinism — a theology absent in the writings of our early Church fathers.

Wesleyan Daniel D. Whedon offers a devastating critique of consistent, Calvinistic philosophy, which is, unwittingly, a consequential partner of the philosophy of Zoroastrianism and Pantheism:

Zoroaster, as the latest research reveals, held that good and evil are opposite sides of deity. The Infinite of the Pantheist is all comprehending, of evil and of good alike. Nay, Calvinism itself has never yet been able to extricate itself from the charge of placing the intentional primordial authorship of evil in God [since He conscripted, decreed, and brings into reality sin and evil]. But we Arminians hold that God is freely good from eternity to eternity. . . .12

God loves righteousness and holiness and justice. That should be obvious from even a cursory reading of either Testament. Since God is holy, He then “freely chooses to make His own happiness in eternal Right. . . .So between the infinite pleasure of infinite selfishness and evil and the infinite blessedness of infinite benevolence and good, God renders Himself eternally holy by His eternal volition preferring good from the motive good, the same good being both motive and object, preferred for itself.”13 We find the notion inconceivable, then, that God, as both holy and good — to say nothing of just — would conscript from eternity past, decree, and render certain that a person sin or commit unethical, immoral, or heinous evil. God’s knowledge of evil is not immediate, as though such derives from His eternal essence as God or from His decreeing the same, but in a mediate sense that allows the holiness and justice of God to remain intact.

God is not limited by free will (cf. Gen. 20:6). God is involved in our lives every moment of our existence, not merely because He is sovereign, but because He is the Sustainer of our being. But even that truth does not grant us warrant to declare that God has, from eternity past, rendered certain our thoughts, words, and actions as Calvinists insist.14 Yet, for Arminius and the Arminian, the knowledge of God “is particular, not merely universal and general.”15

Moreover, this knowledge is “a complete knowledge of the conditions of all things.”16 A distinction is made, however, between “certainty of knowledge and necessity of existence. The former is in the knower and has no direct relation to issues of causality; the latter is in the object known, arises directly from causality and can be in the object whether the object is known with certainty, with uncertainty, or is unknown.” Muller continues to explain the cause of Arminius: “To argue otherwise would be to impose both a limit and a contradiction on the divine knowing — since an equation of certainty with causal necessity would mean that a certain knowledge of a contingent thing would render the thing necessary, implying an alteration of the mode of the thing known and/or a divine inability to have knowledge of contingent things!”17 In other words, we cannot conflate and confuse knowledge and necessity, especially as we consider the knowledge and/or foreknowledge of God regarding contingencies, since the knowledge of God is in no sense causative. Mere knowledge in no sense causes a mortal to think or speak or act in a particular manner.

Therefore, the individual is free to think, speak, and act because the individual is not necessitated by an eternal decree of God to think, speak, or act in a given manner. How does God know what He knows, according to Arminius and the Arminian? Again, Dr. Muller explains:

Even though God knows all things “by one infinite intuition” or immediate apprehension and not by the exercise of a disposition to know but rather as an eternally and perfectly actualized knowing that is simple, having in itself no succession either temporal or logical, some distinction can be made between modes of divine knowing inasmuch as God may be said to know of all possibilities in a manner different from the way in which He knows all actuality or to know all necessary things in a manner different from the way in which He knows contingencies.18

Therefore, to suggest, as does James White, that there are only two methods of explaining the knowledge/foreknowledge of God (exhaustive, meticulous determinism or God peering into the future to learn what shall take place), or that the only consistent theory of God’s knowledge for the Arminian is Open Theism, is, on both counts, completely false. Arminius and Arminians argue that this view is a biblical understanding of God according to His attributes of holiness, goodness, and justice. He in no sense renders sin and evil necessary for any sinner. God sovereignly allows His earthly subjects a measure of freedom of the will to render their own choices commensurate with His wisdom and counsel, goodness, and ultimate plan or will for the ages. (Eph. 1:11)

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1 James R. White, The Potter’s Freedom: A Defense of the Reformation and a Rebuttal of Norman Geisler’s Chosen But Free (Amityville: Calvary Press Publishing, 2000), 37.

2 Ibid., 41.

3 Ibid., 57.

4 Richard A. Muller, God, Creation, and Providence in the Thought of Jacob Arminius: Sources and Directions of Scholastic Protestantism in the Era of Early Orthodoxy (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1991), 147-48.

5 Jacob Arminius, “Seventy-Nine Private Disputations: Disputation XVII. On the Understanding of God,” in The Works of Arminius, the London edition, three volumes, trans. James and William Nichols (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1996), 2:341.

6 Ibid.

7 Ibid.

8 Ibid., 2:342.

9 Ibid.

10 White, 37-38.

11 Roger E. Olson, Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2006), 121, 122-23.

12 Daniel D. Whedon, Freedom of the Will: A Wesleyan Response to Jonathan Edwards, ed. John D. Wagner (Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 2009), 262.

13 Ibid., 263.

14 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. Henry Beveridge (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 2008), 1.18.1. “That men do nothing save at the secret instigation of God, and do not discuss and deliberate on anything but what He has previously decreed with Himself, and brings to pass by His secret direction, is proved by numberless clear passages of Scripture” — all of which, obviously, are used to support Calvin’s errors; a fact which undermines the reality of hermeneutics, in that, Calvin interprets those “numberless clear passages of Scripture” by a particular method, one which his opponents reject as viable. (Ibid.) He continues in the next section: “[W]hatever we conceive in our minds is directed to its end by the secret inspiration of God. And certainly, did He not work internally in the minds of men, it could not have been properly said that He takes away the lip from the true, and prudence from the aged — takes away the heart from the princes of the earth, that they wander through devious paths.” (1.18.2.) (emphases added) Lest anyone falsely imagine Calvin assumes a measure of free will within the mortals to the performance of wickedness, he assures us, “not that He intends to teach wicked and obstinate man to obey spontaneously, but because He bends them to execute His judgments, just as if they carried their orders engraven on their minds. And hence it appears that they are impelled by the sure appointment of God.” (Ibid.) See also Wayne A. Grudem, Bible Doctrine: Essential Teachings of the Christian Faith, ed. Jeff Purswell (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1999), 143; The Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter III. Of God’s Eternal Decree: i., ii.

15 Muller, 149.

16 Ibid.

17 Ibid., 149-50.

18 Ibid., 150.