Is God's knowledge the cause of all things?

There is a common argument that says God’s knowledge causes all things. It goes like this: If God foreknows that something (x) is going to occur, then something else (non-x) cannot occur. If something (x) does not occur, then God’s knowledge was false. Curiously since they make strange bedfellows, this argument is used by theological determinists like Calvinists as well as those holding to process theology and Openness against orthodox Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox and orthodox non-Calvinist Protestants. The argument is used by theological determinists to show that God must determine all things before they come to pass and alternatively, by those who hold that God cannot know the future for free will to be actual and not mere rhetorical sophistry.

In practice the Calvinist says that if God foreknows our choices then that knowledge guarantees those choices must occur. Therefore, says the Calvinist, determinism must be true. Conversely, the open theist argues that if God foreknows our choices then that knowledge guarantees those choices must occur. If this is so then free will cannot be true unless the future is open and God’s knowledge of the future is limited. Thus both Calvinists and Open theists argue that the Arminian must be wrong on the virtues of the same argument.

Calvinists and Open Theists, by making the argument, confuse foreordination with foreknowledge. To understand this confusion it is first necessary that I visit how orthodoxy, or, if you prefer, how everybody else understands how our Lord knows in relationship to our actions:

Within orthodox theology is the school of thought that our Lord has predetermined a plan to have a people who love Him and are motivated in all things by their love for Him. According to this school, all of the predestination passages are the expression of our Lord’s sovereign determination of the criterion of election. In other words, to make one’s election in Christ sure, one must have faith in Christ for the atonement of one's sins and continue to maintain faith in Christ to the grave. The criterion of faithfulness in Christ becomes the defining characteristic of the people of God. Our Lord’s people are then defined not by whether they are rich or poor, strong or weak, smart or slow, or in agreement in their theology. Our Lord’s people are defined as those who trust in Christ for their salvation. Our Lord's plan necessarily consists of two groups: those that come to Him and those who don't. In this, the four places in the Bible where predestination is directly noted in the Bible are understood to apply to our Lord's overarching plan to have a people to call his own and not to individuals who make up either group. Likewise in orthodox thinking, our Lord's foreknowledge of events is not said to come about because our Lord has first predestined all things. Rather our Lord's foreknowledge is determined by what will happen. Yet, as Geisler well summarized, this does not deny that God:

a) Works to effect things.
b) Allows things.
c) Positively commands things.
d) Negates or negatively requires something not to be enacted.
e) Teaches and advises but does not coerce an action.

Simply knowing for sure that a person will freely do something is not enough for God to control the world. This is because foreknowledge of an event does not imply direct influence or omnicausality or absolute determination, but merely knows what other wills are doing. In other words, foreknowledge doesn't mean absolute determination. Dr. Oden makes expands upon a subtlety: God not only grasps and understands what actually will happen, but also what could happen under varied possible contingencies. If God's knowing is infinite, God knows even the potential effects of hypothetical but unactualized possibilities, just as God knows what has or will become actualized (Oden).

This idea stated as an argument looks like this:

1) God knows all potential choices.
2) God knows the exact choices.
Therefore, God knows not only what is, but what possibly could be.

Thus it is said that God doesn't merely have a will, but a knowing will. Therefore God's knowing is said to be:

1) Eternally actual, not merely possible.
2) Eternally perfect, as distinguished from a knowledge that begins, increases, decreases, or ends.
3) Complete instead of partial.
4) Both direct and immediate, instead of indirectly reflected or mediated--God knows all things simultaneously.

Therefore God doesn't "think," He knows.

If we accept Oden's argument then we can view the relationship of human willing to our Lord's willing:

To accomplish human willing it is necessary that one (a) know what is to be done; (b) decide or will to do it; and (c) have the power to do what is willed. One may fail to accomplish an act of willing by either (a) failing to know how something is to be done; or (b) knowing what should by done but not willing it; or (c) knowing and willing that it should be done but still lacking the power to do what is willed. God lacks none of these since (a) God enjoys untrammeled awareness of what can be done; (b) God wills that the good be done, even if beyond our finite perceptions; and (c) God has the power to accomplish what God wills (Oden).

While process theologians escape the implications of an orthodox understanding God knowledge through their belief that God is temporal and that God is getting older and wiser, Calvinists and Open Theists who share the orthodox belief that God is spirit who is not creation cannot escape the implications of orthodoxy: God can know something beforehand because he has determined beforehand that it should come to pass but he can also know of the unrealized choices of his creatures as part of his nature. By way of thought experiment we can ponder how God can know everything if we consider a universe where freedom is not only assumed to exist but really does exist. Now we consider a special camera that witnesses freedom in this universe. The camera is special for two reasons: the first reason is that it exists in a dimension that compresses all time to a mathematical point and the second reason the camera is special is that the dimension in which it exists also compresses all space into a mathematical point. The result is a camera that can see all things throughout all time in a universe where real freedom exists. Now consider that the camera is more than a camera and ask yourself why the future must be open for freedom to exist?

If we think it through we can see how the logical determinism of the argument “God knows x, then x must occur” confuses foreknowledge with foreordination. Our Lord can know things in the future because He has determined beforehand that it should happen (i.e., predictive prophecy and the criterion of election). But He can also know what other wills are doing as a natural course of his own nature: that of a Supreme Being. As Keith Schooley astutely observed,

This doesn't mean that He caused that action; merely that He knows about it. To say that "God knows I will do x, therefore I don't have the ability not to do x," is to conceal a tautology with the phrase, "God knows." It resolves down to the simple fact that I can't both do and not do the same thing at the same time. If I do it, then I can't not do it, and if I don't do it, then I can't do it. It only means that I must choose between two alternatives; it certainly doesn't mean that my choice is determined.

This is where Calvinism and Open Theism become strange bedfellows. Both accept the idea that God's foreknowledge implies foreordination, and therefore limits human autonomy. Calvinism replies: God has perfect foreknowledge, therefore humans are not autonomous; Open Theism replies: Humans are autonomous, therefore God doesn't have perfect foreknowledge. But there is no reason why God cannot create beings with the capacity to make free decisions and at the same time know what decisions they will make. To say that He can't is to diminish His sovereignty simply because we can't quite grasp how it is possible (available 6/9/07:


Return to the Freed By Grace Index

Return to the Protestant Apologetics and Theology home page