Christian Theology and Apologetics

Divine Foreknowledge and Human Freedom: Are They Mutually Exclusive

scaleIn Scripture, we are told that nothing escapes his (God’s) gaze (Psalm 33:13-15). Entire nations are like clay in the hand of a potter (Jer 18:1-6). God possessing omniscience has a complete and infinitely detailed knowledge of this world; he knows its history, present state, and the entirety of its future. God has complete control over this world (omnipotence). God, being omnibenevolent has an exhaustive plan, which exhibits his moral perfection and love for his creation. Thus, God lovingly directs all events and creatures to the end he has predetermined for them.This begs the question: If God foreknows what I will do, then how in any real sense of the word am I free?

Freedom has been seen as inconsistent with divine foreknowledge and foreknowledge would seem to rule out any possibility of freedom. If God knew twenty years ago that I would purchase an orange lawnmower, then this is a belief in which neither I nor anyone else has any control, no one can control God’s past beliefs. Since God is omniscient his knowledge must be perfect and thus his past belief that I will purchase an orange lawnmower is out of my control and must come to pass. Being that this action is unavoidable, it cannot be said to occur volitionally, I have no choice in the matter, it was predetermined.


Generally speaking, there are four positions concerning the relationship between determinism and freedom:

  1. Hard determinism is the view that all actions are determined by external events and are not under the causal control of their agents; this type of determinism is incompatible with human agency.
  2. Soft determinism or Compatibilism as it’s often referred to is the view that externally determined actions, not under the causal control of their agents is compatible with human agency.
  3. Hard libertarianism is the view that a morally responsible agent is the origin of his or her choices, and that prior circumstances do not determine the choice that agent makes.[1]
  4. Soft libertarianism is the view that an agent’s character governs the range of possible choices, rather than the choice itself.


On hard determinism, sometimes referred to as determinist traditionalism, human freedom is illusory, considering all the determining activity of God.[2] Thus free will on this position doesn’t exist. This position is not one that has much support.

Compatibilism is the most common form of determinism and was popularized primarily through Jonathan Edwards’ Freedom of the Will that causal determinism became the bread and butter in Calvinism’s doctrine of divine sovereignty. Compatibilists insist that God as first cause is the ultimate causal determiner of everything. Thus, God’s decrees are not incompatible with genuine human freedom for the reason that God not only determines the events but also the means (whether unfree or free). Compatibilists affirm that everything that happens was caused by sufficient prior circumstances in a way that nothing else could have happened. In this understanding everything that happens could be seen as a string of dominoes with one ultimate cause pushing the first domino; all the other dominoes fall as the chain moves forward.

Some theologians in the Reformed tradition redefine freedom to mean “freedom of one’s strongest inclination.” Thus, what one chooses is determined by their strongest inclination or desire, but the agent has no power over the inclination itself. It is hardly the case that there is any real sense of human freedom in compatibilism; if one has the freedom to choose their strongest desire but has no power over the desire itself, one can hardly call this freedom. This has the implication that God is the author of sin, a problem that proponents of compatibilism recognize.

Under libertarianism, the most prominent defenders of the concept of providence have been the followers of Luis Molina (1535-1600) and among the Reformers, of Jacob Arminius.[3] In libertarianism a morally responsible agent is the origin of his choices; prior conditions and circumstances do not determine the agents choice. Kenneth Keathley observes that a hard libertarian argues that for a person to be free in a genuine sense, that person must always have the ability to choose the contrary. This is to say that hard libertarianism posits that agents are free from external influences.[4]

As mentioned in the above, soft libertarianism is the view that character constrains the range of possible choices for an agent. Thus, what determines choice is internal, not external. This is the sort of freedom that God himself exhibits; God is free to do what is possible, but his character keeps him from making certain choices, choices that are against his character. It’s well established biblically that God “cannot lie” (2 Tim 2:13; Titus 1:2; Heb 6:18). It is not the case that God cannot lie due to a lack of power to do so; it is because his character places metaphysical and moral limits on his decisions. This point is made for the reason that determinists often attempt to make God’s choices determined just as humans are, which limits God by a force external to him. I find no good reason to think determinism is true and its difficulties far outweigh any benefit offered.

Among libertarianism, soft libertarianism is the most attractive. God has this same sort of limit of possible choices are administered by his character and this seems to be the case among humans as well. Soft libertarianism is analogous to a two-way street. A person’s choice is limited by his or her own character, but a persons’ current character is because of previous decisions. It seems to me this is the best view among the available choices. This leaves us with the question, “how can God have foreknowledge, if one has the ability to make free choices.

Molinism posits that a libertarian account of freedom not only philosophically attractive, but it’s also compatible with a strong sense of providence.[5] In this view, God knows counterfactuals of creaturely freedom, which are conditionals that specify for any creature that might exist and any set of circumstances which that creature might be placed and left to make free choices, what that creature would freely choose in any of the given circumstance it’s placed in.[6] God’s ability to know counterfactual statements is what is called middle knowledge and lies between God’s natural knowledge (knowledge of necessary truths) and his free knowledge (knowledge of contingent truths over which he does have control). Given God’s knowledge of counterfactuals of creaturely freedom, God could shape his actions relating to his free creatures so that he achieves his will without violating creaturely freedom. Given this strong understanding of God’s knowledge and human freedom; God has an uncompromising control over all things in a way that does not violate the agency of those he created.

How might the Calvinist respond to this model of divine foreknowledge? Paul Helm—a prominent Calvinist philosopher/theologian—posits these possible worlds as a vast video library. One in which God is attracted to one video (possible world) over all the other videos. This video is exhaustive, depicting the smallest of details; every choice made from free agents from the dawn of creation going forward is contained in this video. Given that this video is complete and containing every choice made, how then can this video (possible world) preserve human freedom?[7]

The answer to this question is rather simple. All God has to do is allow for the circumstances to be freedom-permitting. This is the sort of feet humans do all the time. When law enforcement agencies wish to catch an internet predator, they set up circumstances where the predator will volitionally commit a crime. The predator is not determined by the circumstances at all, rather he freely chooses to violate the law. It is in this way that God actualizes a possible world where creatures endowed with libertarian freedom can commit free acts that are known in advance by God. Hence, foreknowledge and freedom are not mutually exclusive if God’s knowledge of counterfactuals of creaturely freedom (middle knowledge) is taken into account.

Counterfactual statements permeate the bible; one does not have to look very far or hard to find them. In Exodus 32:10 God says to Moses, “Now then let Me alone, that My anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them; and I will make of you a great nation.” Upon hearing this, Moses interceded (Ex 32:11-13) and God’s statement did not come to pass; the antecedent “let Me alone . . . that I may destroy them” is false, it did not come to pass. Hence, the statement is a counterfactual statement; it tells something that did not come to pass, God did not destroy the people.


Another counterfactual statement comes via Jesus:


Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the miracles had occurred in Tyre and Sidon which occurred in you, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes.“Nevertheless I say to you, it will be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon in the day of judgment than for you.“And you, Capernaum, will not be exalted to heaven, will you? You will descend to Hades; for if the miracles had occurred in Sodom which occurred in you, it would have remained to this day.[8]


Here Christ is saying that if Tyre had witnessed the same miracles that occurred in Bethsaida, then they would have repented long ago.

As we can see, the case for counterfactuals of creaturely freedom is established biblically.[9] Thus, there really is no biblical basis for rejecting Molinism; objectors do so on philosophical grounds, but as seen in the above, even those reasons are not valid. All this being said God can have an exhaustive foreknowledge while also permitting libertarian freedom. In the next post, I will discuss the applications of causal determinism (Calvinism) and Molinism to predestination.


[1] Kenneth Keathley, Salvation and Sovereignty: A Molinist Approach (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2010), 69.

[2] Thomas P. Flint, Providence and Predestination in A Companion to Philosophy of Religion (Malden: Blackwell Publishers, 1997), 571.

[3] Ibid., 573.

[4] Kenneth Keathley, Salvation and Sovereignty: A Molinist Approach (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2010), 69.

[5] Thomas P. Flint, Providence and Predestination in A Companion to Philosophy of Religion (Malden: Blackwell Publishers, 1997), 573.

[6] Counterfactuals are conditional “if, then” statements in the subjunctive mood. Simply put, they state, “if this, then that” when the antecedent “if this” is false.

[7] James K. Beilby and Paul R. Eddy eds., Divine Foreknowledge: Four Views (Intervaristy press, 2001), 175.

[8] New American Standard Bible: 1995 Update (LaHabra, CA: The Lockman Foundation, 1995), Mt 11:21–23.

[9] Other counterfactual statements: 1 Sam 13:13-14; 23:10-13; Jer 38:17-18.


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