Sunday, November 27, 2011

Arminian conundra

According to Roger Olson:

God simply knows the future because it will happen; his knowing future free decisions and actions of creatures does not determine them. Rather that they will happen determines God’s knowing them because God has decided to open himself up to being affected by the world…Simple foreknowledge is simply future vision.

Perspectives on the Doctrine of God, 156-157.

On the face of it, this explanation generates four interrelated problems for the Arminian:

i) Olson is describing retrocausation. God knows the future because the future is the source of his future knowledge. In that case, God doesn’t know the future because he causes it (or decrees it). Rather, his foreknowledge is a retroactive effect of the future itself.

But this places God in the role of a passive observer rather than an active creator. How can God be the cause of the world if the world is the cause of God’s knowledge thereof? Doesn’t that make the existence of the world oddly independent of God’s creative fiat?

It won’t do to say this confuses the order of knowledge with the order of being, for on Olson’s scenario,the object of knowledge is also the source of knowledge.

ii) Apropos (i), this seems to make the eventuation of the future inevitable or unavoidable. God sees it coming down the pike. And not because of something he did. Rather, he’s on the receiving end.

But isn’t that necessitarian? Doesn’t that make the world metaphysically necessary? Que sera, sera?

iii) This also means that if God enters into dialogue with Abraham or Moses, God knows what they will say, as well as knowing what he will say. So his foreknowledge of that dialogue already includes or contains all his questions or replies. But in that event, it’s a rather stagey conversation. God is giving prepared answers. Reading from the indelible script of his foreseen answers.

But from an Arminian standpoint, isn’t that just as artificial as a predestined dialogue between Yahweh and Abraham or Moses?

iv) If the future causes God’s knowledge of the future, then what’s the point of praying to God–from an Arminian standpoint? God can’t change the outcome if his knowledge is predicated on the outcome. If his foreknowledge takes the outcome for granted, then the outcome is unalterable.

If he foresees what is going to happen because the future causes his prevision, then he can’t prevent the foreseen future from happening. So what does prayer accomplish, from an Arminian perspective? What are we asking God to do?

On simple knowledge, what God knows is not a hypothetical future (i.e. alternate possible timelines), but the actual future.

Why is that acceptable, but predestination is not? At least in predestination, God causes the outcome. Hence, the outcome is open for God. God was free to decree otherwise. He has total control over the end-result. 


  1. After reading that some verses come to mind. Some questions. Some thoughts.

    Job 9:2 "Truly I know that it is so: But how can a man be in the right before God?
    Job 9:3 If one wished to contend with him, one could not answer him once in a thousand times.
    Job 9:4 He is wise in heart and mighty in strength --who has hardened himself against him, and succeeded?--


    Psa 33:8 Let all the earth fear the LORD; let all the inhabitants of the world stand in awe of him!
    Psa 33:9 For he spoke, and it came to be; he commanded, and it stood firm.
    Psa 33:10 The LORD brings the counsel of the nations to nothing; he frustrates the plans of the peoples.
    Psa 33:11 The counsel of the LORD stands forever, the plans of his heart to all generations.
    Psa 33:12 Blessed is the nation whose God is the LORD, the people whom he has chosen as his heritage!
    Psa 33:13 The LORD looks down from heaven; he sees all the children of man;
    Psa 33:14 from where he sits enthroned he looks out on all the inhabitants of the earth,
    Psa 33:15 he who fashions the hearts of them all and observes all their deeds.

  2. To what extent would you argue God decrees future events? From your reading and study, does God decree everything that happens, or is there some room for a mitigated conception of freedom within creation?

  3. God decrees everything that happens. The world is not a runaway train.

  4. Is there any distinction for you between 'decree' and 'cause'? In reading Calvin and Beza I sense a preference for the language of decree, so I'm wondering if there is a nuance that I'm missing there.

  5. "Decree" is a theological term whereas "cause" is a philosophical term.

    I think "decree" is used as a synonym for "predestine," which is a biblical term.

    Calvinism is ultimately about affirming and defending Biblical teaching, and not philosophical categories.

    Philosophical categories can intersect with Biblical categories, they can be used to possibly model or explicate Biblical categories, but they are not generally a substitute for Biblical categories.

  6. The NIV translates utilizes the word 'cause' 96 times in its translation of the Old and New Testaments, and a good number of those relate to God's causing something to come to pass. Are you saying that the language of 'cause' is a poor translation of the original languages in these instances?

  7. "Cause" is a loaded word, very theory-laden, and shouldn't be used as a synonym for predestination.

  8. Psalm 139:16 comes to mind: "Your eyes have seen my unformed substance; and in Your book were all written The days that were ordained for me." God knows all because He controls all and He couldn't control all unless He knew all; omniscience and omnipotence are interrelated and distinguishable but not separated.

  9. Isaiah 14:24 says: "...Surely, just as I have intended so it has happened, and just as I have planned so it will stand," Isa. 14:27 says: "For the LORD of hosts has planned, and who can frustrate it? And as for His stretched-out hand, who can turn it back?" Isa. 37:26: "Have you not heard? Long ago I did it, From ancient times I planned it. Now I have brought it to pass..." Isa. 46:10-11: "...My purpose will be established, And I will accomplish all My good pleasure...Truly I have spoken,; truly I will bring it to pass. I have planned it., surely I will do it." God not only knows the future, He holds the future!