Divine Knowledge Providence Soteriology Theology Proper

Does hypothetical knowledge Calvinism flirt with fatalism?

John LaingThus far, I have responded to 3 criticisms leveled against hypothetical knowledge Calvinism in John Laing’s ETS paper in 2013:

In this post, I will consider his concern that what I call “hypothetical knowledge Calvinism” flirts with fatalism (pp. 17-23). Laing observes that his initial response to the proposal that God knows counterfactuals of creaturely freedom by natural knowledge was fatalistic because it left God with no options (p. 17). He came to see, however, that this is not necessarily true, since it could be seen as no more than an appropriation of Molinism’s concept of world-feasibility. But Laing continues to believe that “the position does have the potential of slipping into a form of theological fatalism due to the combination of the necessity of the truth of counterfactuals of compatibilist freedom, along with the argument against libertarian freedom on the basis of logic/coherence and rationality of choice” (p. 18). In particular, if the argument against libertarian freedom is applied to God, so that he only has one option in regard to his actions, then the charge of fatalism is unavoidable. On this point, perhaps surprisingly, I agree.

It has been common for Calvinists to deny that even God is libertarianly free because they charge that libertarianly free choices are arbitrary and hence irrational and amoral. But I have come to believe that God has libertarian freedom, and I have therefore stopped using that particular objection to creaturely libertarian freedom. Laing discusses the manner in which Paul Helm defends something like compatibilist freedom on God’s part but denies that this leads to fatalism, “because the constraint upon which world God can actualize is not logical or external to Him, but is His own perfect nature” (p. 22). Helm says that “the argument does not depend on the idea of God choosing between equally optimific outcomes, which would appear to make God’s instantiation of any universe an act of pure reasonless will. Rather the argument is that God’s freedom consists in the rationality of his choice, in his having a good reason for what he instantiates, not in his having no reason” (Eternal God, 178).

Like Helm, I have rejected the idea that there was a best possible world which God necessarily chose, but I did this in order to protect God’s libertarian freedom, which is not Helm’s intention. To a large extent, I concur with Laing that if God is compatibilistically free in the same way as moral creatures are, not having the power of contrary choice, then it is hard to see how fatalism is avoided.

Thus, I believe that I have avoided the risk of fatalism concerning God’s decision to create this particular world rather than some other possible world. God could have chosen a different world, but he had good reasons for choosing this one. Whether or not we will ever be capable of understanding God’s reasons in that regard, we can be confident that God’s choice was good as well as reasonable. God knew the counterfactuals of creaturely freedom, and he was able to do this because creatures are not libertarianly free, and because our choices are predictable in every possible set of circumstances if one knows with certainty what a particular kind of creature would do in precisely those circumstances. This God knows naturally, through his knowledge of what I have referred to in earlier posts as the “principles of agent causation.”

Laing notes that the Dominicans saw Molina’s views as dangerous because they were concerned to protect the efficaciousness of grace in Aquinas’s soteriology. “They were concerned to preserve the absolute sovereignty of God over salvation, and so saw truths related to creaturely belief as dependent upon the Divine willing” (p. 18 n 23). I too want to preserve God’s sovereignty in salvation, as in the governance of his creation in every aspect. But it seems to me both unnecessary and unhelpful to make counterfactuals of human choice and action dependent upon God’s decree. To do so, increases the risk of fatalism. Thomists avoided that danger by positing a hard compatibilism in which God is meticulously sovereign, even while moral creatures are libertarianly free. Molinism endangered that sovereignty, because it made God’s knowledge of counterfactuals dependent upon the creature’s will, positing a form of incompatibilism, albeit one in which God’s determination is as strong as it could possibly be in an indeterminist framework.

Soft-compatibilism maintains God’s control of each and every incident in creation, including the repentance and faith of sinners. But its essence, I suggest, is integrally related to the tenets of hypothetical knowledge Calvinism. God chose this particular world, including the beliefs and unbeliefs of all the spiritual beings in it, not because it was the world in which an optimal number of libertarianly free people would choose to believe God, but for good and wise reasons which we do not fully comprehend. Unlike the Molinist model, however, hypothetical knowledge Calvinism posits that saving faith is effected by God’s grace in the lives of the elect. So the possible world which God chose to actualize was a world in which God effectually calls and graciously preserves in faith all who are saved in this world. He was able to do this without making acts of human belief meaningless, because they were genuinely free, being voluntary and uncoerced, and because they come about with minimal divine “intervention.” Thus fatalism is avoided, but so is deism.

Previous posts in this series: Part 1Part 2Part 3


By Terrance Tiessen

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

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