Does God know the future? Historically Christians have answered in the affirmative. The standard answer is that God does indeed know the future and He knows it exhaustively. There is no past, present, or future event that God does not know. Additionally, God knows infallibly so He cannot be wrong about what has happened, what is happening, or what will happen.
Interestingly enough, a fair amount of controversy has been generated over this topic. The controversy usually has to do with the implications this doctrine has on human free will.
- If God knows the future infallibly, then He cannot be wrong about the future.
- If He cannot be wrong about the future, then we cannot freely choose one course of action over another since we cannot choose contrary to what God foreknew.
- If we cannot choose one course of action over another, then we are not free since free will is the ability to choose between alternate possible courses of action.
Thus it seems difficult to avoid the following conclusions:
- God determines all events because He knows everything infallibly.
- Man is not truly free.
- Man is not responsible for his actions.
Unlike man’s knowledge, Christians have often held that God’s knowledge is causal. God doesn’t sit back and watch human history like we watch TV. Rather He knows what we are going to do because He is the cause of our actions. On the face of it, it sounds like a kind of fatalism. Since God causes all of our actions, we can’t do other than what He causes. Since He knows everything that will happen infallibly, we can’t do other than what he knows. If we believe this, it seems that we have to jettison our notion of free will and embrace the truth that free will is simply a fiction.
What is interesting, however, is that even Christians who maintain that God causes all things do not wholly reject the idea of free will. Calvinists reject the idea of an autonomous will, but they don’t think that free will is a mere fiction (some popular writers may think that, but Calvinist scholars don’t usually affirm that). Rather than obliterating free will, they redefine it in order make it cohere with determinism.
Another route that some Christians have taken is to deny that God causes all events. Arminians, for example, may claim that God causes the power of free will, but He doesn’t cause the specific acts of free will. They may uphold that God holds our free will into existence, but that humans are free to use that freedom however we want. Below is a summary of these two views:
- God determines all events
- Man is not free in a libertarian sense, but he is free in a compatibilist sense
- Man is responsible for his actions because he wills them
- God does not determine all events
- Man is free in a libertarian sense
- Man is responsible for his actions because he could have chosen otherwise
However, there is another view that Protestants don’t typically consider. Those who agree with Thomas Aquinas uphold the following:
- God does determine all events
- Man is free as an agent cause
- Man responsible for his actions because he is the secondary cause of his own actions
On this view, God knows and determines all events. He does not merely cause the fact of free will, rather God’s causality extends to the acts of the will. However, Aquinas also thinks that we cause our own actions and he maintains that human free will is required for moral responsibility.
The question is this: How can he uphold both of these?
First, we have to look at why we might judge this view to be incoherent. In saying that God causes our free acts we implicitly assume the following: “If God causes our action, then we are not causing our action.” This presupposes that there can only be one cause of our action. However, there is no contradiction in affirming that two agents cause the same action. It would be a contradiction to say that God both causes and does not cause our actions. Also, it would be a contradiction to affirm that we both cause our actions and don’t cause our actions. But there is no contradiction in affirming that both God and man are causes of the same action.
Second, the way in which God causes a human action is not identical with any finite cause that we know of. He causes in a way that does not do violence to free will, rather His causal power is what sustains free will.
Third, there is an element of mystery in this view. I can theorize as to whether or not God is the primary efficient cause or the formal cause of human actions, but when it comes down to it, I affirm the truth of this view even if I don’t have a model for how dual agent causality works. There are many things like this in Christian theology. I cannot conceive of what three persons in one God looks like. I don’t have a concept in my mind for how Christ can have two natures. I affirm them even though I can’t form a concept of it from the finite world.
This view is not an ad hoc attempt to reconcile Calvinism with Arminianism. It was around long before that debate came into full swing. Nor is the view divorced from Aquinas’ broad theological viewpoints. This view is actually an extension of his view of God’s causal relation to the world. It is my hope that more Protestants would partake of the wisdom that Aquinas offers. Perhaps it will foster some unity on an issue that has brought a good deal of division.
In this short article, I haven’t elaborated on this view, nor have I done much to defend it. In this short post, I only hope to make some people aware of a another view that I think has profound implications. I have not fully fleshed this out, but I think it has the potential to end the Calvinist / Arminian debate. Aquinas’ doctrine of God is closer to the Calvinist conception of God, but his Biblical theology is closer to the Arminian view. My hope is bolstered by the fact that my Catholic friends are puzzled by Protestant difficulties in this area.