Divine Knowledge

Carson on God’s hypothetical knowledge

Since I started this blog, we haven’t talked about the subject of God’s knowledge of counterfactuals and the way in which I believe it figures into God’s prior decision about which possible world he would actualize. I know that some readers of Providence and Prayer are unaware that I no longer affirm that God’s knowledge of counterfactuals is middle. This has affected my doctrine of providence very little, but I concede to the classical tradition that God’s knowledge of counterfactuals is part of his necessary/natural knowledge, not middle. I now speak of it as his “hypothetical knowledge” rather than as “middle knowledge.” My most recent thoughts on this appeared in a dialogue with Paul Helm, published in Westminster Theological Journal, in the Fall of 2009. (Details of publication can be found here.) We will come back to this at some future time, indeed possibly many times, since it is a subject in which I am keenly interested.

Because of my interest, I keep an eagle eye open for comments about God’s hypothetical knowledge and its usefulness, as I read and listen to others, particularly to fellow Calvinists. I’ll be grateful if you draw to my attention any such items that you discover. One showed up today in comments made by Don Carson  at the Gospel Coalition blog. It is an informative post in which he discusses his perception of the strengths and weaknesses of evangelicalism in Great Britain. Along the way, he makes some wise observations about how God assesses the effectiveness of his servants. He proposes the possibility of God’s being well pleased with some whose visible signs of success are few, because : “At the final Great Assize, God will take into account not only all that was and is, but also what might have been under different circumstances (Matt 11:20ff).”

Here is the larger context in which that sentence appears:

“But there is a bigger issue. We must not equate courage with success, or even youth with success. We must avoid ever leaving the impression that these equations are valid. I have spent too much time in places like Japan, or in parts of the Muslim world, where courage is not measured on the world stage, where a single convert is reckoned a mighty trophy of grace. I am grateful beyond words for the multiplication of churches in Acts 29, but I am no less grateful for Baptist ministers like my Dad, men who labored very hard and saw very little fruit for decades in French Canada, many of whom went to prison (their sentences totaled eight years between 1950 and 1952). I find no ground for concluding that the missionaries in Japan in the 20th century were less godly, less courageous, less faithful, than the missionaries in (what became) South Korea, with its congregations of tens of thousands. At the final Great Assize, God will take into account not only all that was and is, but also what might have been under different circumstances (Matt 11:20ff).”

This is an encouraging recognition of the significance of God’s knowledge of counterfactuals and it is a truth that may encourage some of you at this point in your own ministries.


By Terrance Tiessen

I am Professor Emeritus of Systematic Theology and Ethics at Providence Theological Seminary, Canada.

6 replies on “Carson on God’s hypothetical knowledge”

I recognize your interest in Carson’s post in terms of counterfactuals and God’s hypothetical knowledge. I am troubled, as always, by our lack of subversion of cultural standards in our theological work. Carson remains caught in an accoounting system that ‘counts’, even if God is counting using counterfactual knowledge. Success should be considered in faithfulness not numbers. Carson’s father, on my ‘accounting’ may prove more successful than those who are filling buildings.

This may be taking the discussion in a slightly different direction but…

In the past I have found some resolution & peace in the idea that God may judge those who never heard the Gospel by what they WOULD HAVE done HAD they heard it. It made sense to me that God would know these hypotheticals. However, I suppose that since we as humans can never share the Gospel “perfectly”, perhaps this hypothetical could be applied to all of us — how would you respond if you heard the Good News of Jesus in a perfect way, not marred by human sin or cognitive limitations in its transmission? However, I’m not sure what this means for the role of the Spirit in speaking Truth to us in our humanity…

But I think the idea of hypotheticals may make sense some of the confusion that we tend towards in the area of salvation. Or perhaps I’m just looking for something to ease my mind…

Dixie, you have identified one tack taken by some Molinists (who believe that God knows future counterfactuals and that humans are libertarianly free). I categorize the proposal as “Molinist accessibilism,” in my typology of 14 positions concerning the salvation of the unevangelized.

Other Molinists, notably W. L. Craig, argue for gospel exclusivism, asserting that God chose a world in which the gospel gets to everyone whom he knows would believe if they heard it.

My major problem with the Molinist form of accessibilism is that I consider Molinism incoherent by virtue of the “grounding objection.” This objection posits that it is impossible, even for God, to know what a libertarianly free creature would do if that creature is never actually in the circumstances envisioned. I do affirm God’s knowledge of counterfactuals, but I consider this possible only if creatures are soft-deterministically free (i.e., have the freedom of spontaneity, rather than of contrary choice). Jonathan Edwards described this sort of freedom most clearly. People always act according to there “affections,” which includes all the aspect of their personhood. Since God knows people perfectly, he is able to predict what they would do in any given set of circumstances.

That might make it appear as though God’s knowledge of counterfactuals offers good prospect for a form of accessibilism that is soft-compatibilist, rather than Molinist. Others may disagree, but I don’t find it a helpful direction for monergistic accessibilists to take because it diminishes the importance of actual faith. The Molinist accessibilist proposal requires no faith at all. I think we do better to grant that God is pleased with faith that is appropriate to the revelation he has given people, even if that revelation is less explicit than the new covenant gospel. Within the monergistic perspective, God gives repentance and faith to those whom he has chosen to save, and so we do better, I think, to posit saving faith related to less complete forms of revelation, rather than to suggest that a hypothetical faith in a fuller revelation is God’s instrument.

Thank you for the clarification. I particularly like when you said: “I think we do better to grant that God is pleased with faith that is appropriate to the revelation he has given people, even if that revelation is less explicit than the new covenant gospel.” That is hopeful as well.

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