Can God Know Everything and Still Give us Free Will? by Kevin DeYoung

Kevin DeYoung is the pastor of University Reformed Church in East Lansing, Michigan.  He blogs at DeYoung, Restless and Reformed.

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Permit me a little exercise in theological philosophy and logic.

Almost every Christian believes that God knows everything. Many Christians believe human beings have free will. Some Christians affirm free will but deny traditional omniscience (e.g., open theists). Some Christians affirm omniscience but deny free will (Calvinists). Other Christians try to affirm both (Arminians). It’s no secret that I’m a Calvinist so it will surprise no one that I agree with the middle sentence. I think open theism is a grave error. But given that it is very much a minority position among Christians, I am not concerned about it in this post. My reflections are focused on the disagreement between Calvinists and Arminians.

Of course, I’m not going to settle such a long standing debate with a single blog post, but I do want to think for a few moments about whether divine omniscience and free will are compatible. That is, can the Arminian have Free will Fridaysit both ways and affirm that God knows everything and that we have free wills?

Definitions

Let me define a few terms I’ll be using. By omniscience I mean that God knows everything. A related term (that can also be used as a synonym for omniscience) is foreknowledge. By foreknowledge I mean that God knows everything that is yet to happen in the future. By free will I mean free will as Arminians define it. Arminians argue that we have a libertarian free will, which simply put means that we have the power of contrary choice; or to put it another way, that our choices can be otherwise than they are.

What’s for Breakfast?

Let’s put these terms in a typical scenario. Tomorrow morning I will open my freezer and choose whether to have Eggo waffles for breakfast or Eggo french toast. Arminians and Calvinists (although not Openness theologians) believe that an omniscient God has foreknowledge of what choice I will make. That is, God knows with certainty that tomorrow morning I will choose the waffles and not the french toast. Arminians go on to argue that libertarian free will is consistent with divine foreknowledge. I have libertarian free will to choose the waffles or the french toast. I have power of contrary choice. I may choose the waffles; I may choose the french toast. The outcome of my choice is not fixed. It is up to my free will to decide. Nevertheless, God, who knows all things, knows for certain that I will choose the waffles tomorrow morning.

By this understanding, we are led to believe that divine omniscience, or foreknowledge in this case, is wholly compatible with libertarian free will. God’s knowing what I will choose is simply a knowledge based on foreseen evidence, and this knowledge in no way determines my choice of waffles. God simply looked into the future and saw what my choice would be. It is as if he put into his cosmic VCR the tape marked “Kevin’s Breakfast October 27.” He saw that I would choose waffles and therefore he knows for certain what my free choice will be. But when I wake up tomorrow and look in the freezer I will have the power of contrary choice. God’s knowledge is certain, but my choice is in no way necessary or fixed; it is free and can be otherwise. Thus, according to the Arminian, foreknowledge co-exists just fine with free will.

But this is not so. Here’s why. If an omniscient God has foreknowledge as to my choice of waffles, than this knowledge must be of an event that is fixed and necessary. For if God’s knowledge is always correct, that is, infallible and certain, then what he knows of the future will certainly and infallibly come to pass. Take our Eggo example. Suppose God knows for certain that tomorrow morning I will choose the waffles. Then if I were to ask you, “What will I choose, the waffles or the french toast?” All of you would say, with certainty, “You will choose the waffles.” My choice cannot be Calvinist license plate 2otherwise. If it could be otherwise, then the possibility exists that God in his foreknowledge is mistaken. But if God’s foreknowledge is infallible, then what he knows will certainly come to pass. So when I open the freezer tomorrow morning, although the choice may seem very free to me, in reality my choice cannot be other than waffles. It is a fixed and necessary consequence that I will eat waffles and not french toast. I can possess no libertarian free will (with the power of contrary choice) where God has a sure and certain knowledge of the future.

What About After-Knowledge?

You may object that foreknowledge of an event has no more influence on the necessity of that event than after-knowledge. If you can look into the future and see that I will choose waffles tomorrow, all you have done is seen the future. Your knowing the future, you may argue, has no bearing on my choice of Eggos tomorrow. It’s no different than after-knowledge you may say. If you read in my journal entry for today: “Yesterday, ate waffles for breakfast” you simply know that I had waffles yesterday. Thus, as the reasoning goes, just as your after-knowledge of my choice did not make my choice necessary, neither does your foreknowledge of my choice make it necessary.

To which I would respond, that this misses the point. You are quite right to argue that knowledge of an event does not make that event necessary. Knowing something ahead of or before its occurrence does not cause the necessity of the occurrence, but it does prove that it cannot be otherwise. If you have after-knowledge of my breakfast choice because you read my journal from today, you can have certain knowledge that I ate waffles. Your knowledge of this did not cause my choice, but your infallible certainty about the waffles proves that yesterday’s breakfast cannot be other than waffles. Any certain knowledge of a choice proves that the choice itself is fixed and cannot be otherwise.

In other words, foreknowledge does not affect future certainty; it assumes it. We see this plainly with after-knowledge. What you know for certain about the past does not cause the past event but it does assume that it is fixed, or else your knowledge would not be certain. So when it comes to foreknowledge the same applies. For all certain knowledge of a choice (before, after, or during) demonstrates that the choice is necessary, fixed, and cannot be otherwise than it is. And if my choice cannot be otherwise, then I have no free will in the libertarian sense.

A Middle Ground?

Someone at this point may raise the question “What about middle knowledge?” According to middle knowledge, God does not determine human choices but he does create the circumstances necessary to actualize these choices. God knows all things actual and potential, hence he knows what I would do in any given circumstances. God knows that if I wake up tomorrow morning and find the box of waffles in front of the french toast I will choose the waffles. Since God’s perfect plan is for me to choose the waffles he manages the circumstance such that I will choose the waffles (i.e. having the box of waffles in front of the french toast). By this knowledge of all possible decisions and outcomes (middle knowledge) God can direct the future and know for certain what my decisions will be.

Middle knowledge is an attractive “middle” ground, but it fails on two accounts. First, if God never violates human free will how can he effectively and consistently create the circumstances necessary to actualize my decision? God may try to arrange the situation such that the waffles are in front of the french toast, but he can’t prevent my wife from getting up before me, eating the french toast and putting the french toast box in front of the waffles. My wife is free to do as she chooses and her choice may disrupt God’s intended circumstance.

The second problem is that in the middle knowledge system where humans have libertarian free will, how can God know even my potential decisions? Can God really know for certain what I would do in any given situation? What makes God so sure that I will choose the waffles just because they are in front of the french toast? That may be a good hunch on his part, but as long as I have the power of contrary choice God has no way of knowing for sure that I will not reach behind the waffles and grab the french toast. So any middle knowledge that is certain undermines free will just like any other certain kind of knowledge.

God’s Timelessness?

There is one other objection that may be raised: What about God’s timelessness? God does not look into the future per se because all of history past, present, and future happens for God in the eternal now. He does not need to put in a tape of “Kevin’s Breakfast October 27″ because he is there right now. If we make the analogy fit a God who stands outside of time and can experience the past, present, and future simultaneously, we can imagine that God is watching (and experiencing) on his cosmic VCR all my breakfasts from eternity to eternity. There is no before or after for God; he is outside of time and experiences all of our time all the time. Therefore, since there is no succession of time for God, the argument runs, he simply knows all our free choices because he is right there with us. God knows what I will eat for breakfast tomorrow because he is already there.

But arguing for God’s timelessness (which is a proper thing to argue) does nothing to help secure libertarian free will. The same issue still surfaces. If God has certain knowledge of an event, whether that knowledge is a foreknowledge or strictly speaking a timeless knowledge, what matters is that God’s knowledge is certain. Because if it is certain, by whatever means, then the event will come to pass as it has been certainly known. If God knows that fifty years from now Canada will invade the United States, it matters not (for our discussion) if God knows it because the event, 50 years away for us, is present to God. What matters is that God knows the event with infallible certainty. Since God knows that in 50 years Canada will invade the United States, in 50 years it cannot be otherwise than that the United States will be invaded by Canada. If this were not so fixed, God, in 50 years may prove to be mistaken in his knowledge.

Hence, free will (as Arminians understand it) does not exist even if it be argued that God’s knowledge is timeless. In fact, that God’s knowledge has no succession of time points to a more important inference, namely, that God’s knowledge never increases. God has a perfect and never-failing knowledge. Nothing can occur other than how God knows it to be. All events must come to pass as God knows them because they are to a timeless God if they had already been. Therefore, the timelessness of God actually strengthens the argument against libertarian free will.

Conclusion

It is true, that none of this proves that God is the determiner of all things. What it does show is that the determination and necessity of future events is really no greater for the Calvinist than for the Arminian. The Arminian objects to the Calvinist God because God’s predetermination of all things does not allow for libertarian free will. But by my reckoning the Arminian scheme does not allow for libertarian free will either. For if God certainly knows the future, then the future must for certainty come to pass as God knows it. And if future choices are fixed and necessary, there is no place for the power of contrary choice.

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10 responses

  1. to go one step further:

    The free choice of what to eat for breakfast is limited to what is in the cupboard – waffles or french toast. So as much as he would freely choose to have Cinnamon Life for breakfast, that choice is not available to him if there is none in the cupboard.

    1. We see the effects of the fall played out here – if it were not for indwelling sin, he would have the desire to have Frosted Flakes, Corn Pops or Hostess chocolate cupcakes for breakfast.

  2. Wait, God can be sovereign AND we can still have free will (choice). Wow, some Guy must have been pretty smart when He created this world. It is like He knew what he was doing. It is almost like He planned it all this way.

    1. So we’re all on the same page here – BTW, thanks for stopping by and commenting – you should probably define your terms: a) sovereign, b) free will, c) planned and d) all. God Bless.

  3. It is important to ask: can there be good without free will? In other words, is an action good if it is not chosen?

    In the theology with which I am most familiar, God created man with free will so that man will choose to know, love, and serve Him. Can man truly love if he does not have free will?
    So, then, why would God create man without free will? In a predetermined world, it seems that man could not love; this would require a different reason for God to create man.

    Could someone please enlighten me on the Calvinist teaching of why God created man in the first place? Or does God need a reason at all? I am so confused…

    Thanks

    1. Mr. Mehlman:

      Thanks for your comment.

      I think there may be a misunderstanding. Calvinists never say man doesn’t “choose.” Of course he chooses.
      Then you say “can there be good without free will?” If you define “free will” in the terms of being able to make any of all possible decisions, for example, then God does not have free will because He cannot choose to sin. All created beings can only choose what their nature allows them to choose. By your definition, then God cannot love and I don’t think that’s really what you believe.

      Upon what basis do you ponder the issue of God creating man without free will? God is not obligated to crate us in the manner we see fit – He creates as He sees fit and He is indeed the potter over the clay and He created the clay and all its characteristics as well. Paul addresses this in Romans 9 when he knows people will object to his teaching that God sovereignly chooses some for salvation and reprobates (hardens) others and he knows the objections will be a) “That’s not fair!” and b) “How can God hold man responsible for the hardening that God Himself causes?” Paul’s response: who are you to question God? A hard one to swallow but swallow we must.

      God did not need to create. His own love and fellowship within the Trinity has always been perfect and in need of nothing. He created by His own sovereign will and pleasure in bringing glory to Himself. Beyond that, we don’t have the answer and best not try to find it. Praise God.

  4. themehlman,

    I don’t believe the reason God created man was so that man would love God. To my thinking, that seems to imply that there was something lacking on God’s part, so he created man to fill that void. God by his very nature cannot lack anything, so there has to be a different reason God created man.

    Furthermore, God was not obligated to create man – the potter does not consult the clay. God was also not obligated to redeem man after the Fall. BUT, even before He created the world in which He permitted sin, He planned the Cross. The lamb was slain from the foundation of the world (Rev 13:8)

    1689 Baptist Confession of Faith – Ch. 2, Par. 2:

    “God is all-sufficient, and all life, glory, goodness and blessedness are found in Him and in Him alone. He does not stand in need of any of the creatures that He has made, nor does He derive any part of His glory from them.”

    Why did God create man? The only answer that makes sense to me is that creating man brings Him glory. He is glorified by justly sending unregenerate sinners to an eternal hell, and glorified by mercifully saving regenerate sinners. Showing both His justice and His mercy brings glory to Him.

    I would reject any reason for creating man that makes man the focus.

    Hope this helps a bit.

  5. How does this relate to one of the other posts? Maybe I’m blind… because I could’ve been on a differnet blog. lol Nevermind. At any rate, it was a solid post. Thanks

    F. Wilson
    Custom software development

  6. It is interesting to see such a lengthy discussion about GOD without offering one single passage of HIS WORD where HE has revealed HIMSELF.

  7. Thank you for sharing your info. I really
    appreciate your efforts and I am waiting for your next post
    thank you once again.

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