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Divine Foreknowledge and Human Freedom

I have written briefly on why I believe free will is not compatible with determinism in my post, The Problem With Compatibilism. I would like to write about the doctrine of Providence, as I understand it, but first, I need to write briefly about why I believe that human free will is compatible with divine foreknowledge.

First, a note about what I mean by “free will”. I have written about it briefly in my post, Free Will: Some Basic Concepts. When I say “free will”, I am referring to libertarian free will, because I believe that compatibilist will is not really free will. Libertarian free will involves either leeway or sourcehood. Leeway means the ability to do otherwise. There are two or more future paths open to a person, and the person could choose either one. Sourcehood means that the person himself is an agent who makes a choice. The choice originates from within the person himself, rather than being caused by a chain of events that runs through the person to a source that is ultimately outside the person. The person himself is a first mover.

There is a debate as to whether God’s exhaustive divine foreknowledge is compatible with (libertarian) free will. Calvinists and open theists both deny that God can have foreknowledge of (libertarian) free choices. Calvinists respond by affirming God’s exhaustive foreknowledge and denying (libertarian) free will. Open theists respond by affirming (libertarian) free will and denying God’s exhaustive foreknowledge. Classic Arminians, Molinists, and Ockhamists affirm that God can and does have foreknowledge of (libertarian) free choices. Thomists affirm that God has foreknowledge of free choices, but scholars debate as to whether Thomism affirms libertarian freedom or compatibilist freedom.

The arguments for the incompatibility of divine foreknowledge and human (libertarian) freedom, and their rebuttals, are complex arguments made by professional theologians and philosophers. I can follow the arguments intellectually, but it is difficult for me to articulate them in their full complexity, and I don’t believe that is very helpful anyway for the sake of thinking about things like God’s providence in an intuitive way. So I will give a simplified version of the argument for the incompatibility of divine foreknowledge and human (libertarian) freedom, as well as a simplified version of its rebuttal. Then I will look at an objection to the rebuttal, and why I believe that objection fails.

Here is a simplified version of the argument for the incompatibility of God’s foreknowledge and human (libertarian) freedom:

Let’s say that time T0 comes sometime before T1. For example, T0 could be before the foundation of the world, and time T1 could be November 10, 2023. At time T1, person P has a choice to make between option A and option B. Options A and B are mutually exclusive. P will choose one of them, but not both. If, at time T0, God knew that, at time T1, P would choose A, then it follows that, at time T1, P could not choose B. Because God had prior knowledge that P would choose A, it was certain that P would not choose B, therefore, it was impossible that P would choose B. God’s foreknowledge determined that P would choose A and not B at time T1.

There are lots of logical terminologies that can be used in answering this argument. I will use a few of them to try and get my point across. The most intuitive terminology to me is that the argument assumes that because God’s knowledge is temporally prior to P’s choice, that means that God’s knowledge is also logically prior to P’s choice. I see no basis for this assumption. Rather, I should say, I used to see no basis for this assumption, until I learned of the objection to this counterargument which I will mention later. That clarified why people still use this argument, even after it has been rebutted by philosophers of religion. I still disagree with the argument, but at least now it makes sense to me.

But first, what do I mean by logical priority and temporal priority? When I say God’s knowledge is temporally prior to an event, I just mean that God’s knowledge comes earlier in time than the event. That is what foreknowledge means: “fore” means “before”, or prior in time, or temporally prior.

When I say that some X is logically prior to some Y, I mean that there is a dependence relation between X and Y. If X is logically prior to Y, then Y is dependent on X in some way. Maybe that relation is a causal relation, such that X causes Y. Another way to put it is that there is a directional relationship between X and Y. To say that X is logically prior to Y is to say, “X → Y” is true and “Y→ X” is false. For example, in a logical argument, the conclusion depends on the premises and not the other way around. The premises are logically prior to the conclusion. Maybe this analysis is not very good, but I hope the idea of one thing being logically prior to another is intuitive enough.

My answer to the above argument is simply that, even though God’s knowledge is temporally prior to a human choice, that human choice is logically prior to God’s knowledge of that choice. In other words, God knows what I choose because I choose it. The causal relationship between my choice and God’s knowledge goes, “My choice → God’s knowledge,” not “God’s knowledge → my choice.” The fact that God’s knowledge comes before my choice in time is irrelevant to this logical order.

Alvin Plantinga explained it by saying, essentially, that if P had chosen B at T1 rather than A, then God would have known at T0 that P would choose B. This is an explanation using the language of counterfactuals, which are statements about what would happen if things were different than they actually are. If P were to choose differently at time T1, then God would have known differently at time T0.

Another logical terminology is the language of necessity and possibility, or modal logic. William Lane Craig makes the point that the argument for the incompatibility of divine foreknowledge and human (libertarian) freedom confuses certainty with necessity. In other words, it makes the assumption that because something will happen, that means it must happen. This assumption is a logical mistake.

Whichever logical terminology we use, the essence is that we must not assume that God is bound by time in the way we are. We must not assume that the normal logical relations between knowledge and the thing that is known are different, just because the knower and the thing known are situated at different moments in time than is typical in human experience. God’s ways are higher than our ways, and there simply is no reason to assume that where certain moments fall on a timeline affects the logical relationship between God’s knowledge and the things he knows.

However, there may be another reason to believe that the logical relationship between God’s knowledge and the things he knows is different from ours. This reason is completely independent of whether we are talking about God’s knowledge of the future, his knowledge of the present, or his knowledge of the past. It is because of this other reason that theologians continue to use the argument against the compatibility of divine foreknowledge and (libertarian) free will, even when the argument as it stands has been thoroughly refuted by philosophers. This independent consideration introduces an additional premise into the argument which makes it logically sound, but also makes it tautologous.

This other reason has to do with God’s attributes, especially his metaphysical attributes, including immutability, impassibility, and aseity. Immutability means God never changes. Impassibility means God does not have emotions, or that he cannot be acted on by creatures. Aseity means that God exists in himself. He is the ultimate reality, the bedrock of all existence. He is not dependent on anyone or anything.

When we combine God’s knowledge with the attributes of immutability, impassibility, and aseity, we get a kind of knowledge that cannot change, cannot be acted on by creatures, and cannot be dependent on creatures in any way. Thus, God’s knowledge is logically prior to human choices, by definition. If the thing that God knows were logically prior to God’s knowledge of that thing, that would mean the following:

  1. God and his knowledge would be dependent on that thing in some way. That would be a denial of a certain way of understanding divine aseity.
  2. That thing would have to act on God in some way in order for God to know it. That would be a denial of a certain way of understanding God’s impassibility.
  3. God’s knowing that thing would bring about a change of some kind in God. That would be a denial of a certain way of understanding God’s immutability. 

I believe the conceptions of divine immutability, impassibility, and aseity referred to in this analysis are overly rigid and impersonal. I have a different understanding of these attributes. Aseity primarily means that God is not dependent on anything or anyone for his essence or his existence. He is, in and of himself. This does not mean that things that are not essential to his nature cannot depend on creatures. Similarly, God’s immutability means that God cannot change in his essential nature. His relationships to creatures, however, can change. And divine impassibility is just plain unbiblical. God is acted upon by people. He responds to people’s actions and words. We see that all over the pages of Scripture.

To relate God’s attributes to his knowledge, the attribute of knowing everything is essential to God’s nature. However, the particular contents of God’s knowledge are not essential to his nature. The fact that God knows that I went to the bathroom at 2:00 this afternoon is not essential to his nature. I could have gone to the bathroom at 1:30 instead, and God’s knowledge of that different fact would not change who he is. This sounds like a silly, trivial, obvious point, but this is exactly the point that is denied by those who combine God’s knowledge with his metaphysical attributes to conclude that God’s knowledge is determinative. That determinative view of God’s knowledge is a result of holding such a strict view of God’s metaphysical attributes that the particular contents of God’s knowledge are essential to his nature.

The view that God’s knowledge is determinative is really founded in a radical view of God’s metaphysical attributes. This understanding of God’s knowledge is prior to, and not dependent on, the argument that is commonly given for the incompatibility of divine foreknowledge and (libertarian) free will. I reject that view of God’s metaphysical attributes and their relationship to God’s knowledge. Once this determinative view of God’s knowledge, based on his metaphysical attributes, is rejected, the argument for the incompatibility of God’s foreknowledge and human (libertarian) free will is readily disassembled.

Those who want to advocate for a deterministic view of God’s providence by appealing directly to passages from Scripture are welcome to do so. I believe that, in addition to Bible passages that witness to divine sovereignty, there are also passages that, when properly understood, lend support to the idea of libertarian free will. As students of Scripture, we should appeal to Scripture and rightly divide the Word of Truth. In doing so, it is important that our systematic thinking be logically coherent, and that we not use fallacious philosophical arguments to support our views. The argument given in this essay for the incompatibility of divine foreknowledge and human libertarian freedom is one such fallacious argument that should be put to rest.


John Peckham. Divine Attributes.

Alvin Plantinga. “On Ockham’s Way Out”.

William Lane Craig. The Only Wise God.

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