Divine Knowledge Theology Proper

Does hypothetical knowledge Calvinism have an odd notion of necessity or possibility?

John LaingIn a long post on March 10, I explained why John Laing is wrong to think that hypothetical knowledge Calvinism is vulnerable to the same grounding objection that Calvinists and Open Theists bring against Molinism. The second criticism Laing made of hypothetical knowledge Calvinism (in his Nov/13 ETS paper) was that it has an “odd notion of necessity/possibility” (pp. 8-11). Laing agrees with me that hypothetical knowledge Calvinism’s idea of constraints upon God in his choice of a good world is “helpful for theodicy,” but he thinks that “the particular manifestation of it in this Calvinist system leads to some perplexing metaphysical positions” (p. 9).

Laing observes that, in hypothetical knowledge Calvinism, if it is false that if John were in situation, S, he would freely eat a piece of chocolate cheesecake tonight, God “can alter circumstances in a variety of ways so that [John does not find himself] in S, or he can override freedom, or he can make [John] different, but God cannot make it the case that it is true that ‘if John were in situation, S, he would freely refrain from eating chocolate cheesecake tonight.’” It is good that Laing understands my proposal correctly at this point. Since God’s knowing what John (being exactly who he is) would do in situation, S, is part of his natural knowledge, it is necessarily the case; it is not something God can will to be different. As I pointed out in my post regarding the grounding objection, what God knows naturally is the principles of causation by which particular kinds of creatures act in a particular way in particular circumstances.

What Laing wants explained “is the locus and nature of that necessity” (p. 9). He posits that

It certainly cannot be logical necessity; there appears to be no violation of the fundamental laws of logic in my refraining from eating cheesecake in S; such action would not violate the laws of identity, non-contradiction or excluded middle.

Fair enough. I concur. But I suggest that God’s knowledge of the principles of causation, which God knows naturally, are analogous to the laws of logic. Just as God knows naturally that he could not create a world in which something both is and is not large and green, so he could not create a world in which a particular creature could both eat and refrain from eating cheesecake in exactly the same situation. This is fundamental to the compatibility of creaturely free agency of a morally responsible kind with God’s meticulous providential sovereignty.

Laing then posits that

it does not seem to be a case of metaphysical necessity either; it does not seem intelligible to claim that my eating cheesecake is a fundamental function of the way things are (p. 9).

Here, all I can say right now is that what does not seem intelligible to Laing does seem highly intelligible to me. I grant that whether or not John eats cheesecake seems to be too trivial to be deemed “a fundamental function of the way things are,” but again we must consider what makes this the case. This is not about John individually, nor is it about the circumstances, particularly not about the eating of cheesecake. It is, rather, the simple fact that a creature exactly like John would or would not eat a particular cheesecake in a particular set of circumstances. There are causative principles, like mathematical truths or laws of logic, which are known naturally to God and which enable him to predict whether or not John would freely eat cheesecake were he to find himself in a particular set of circumstances. John himself would not even be able to predict such counterfactuals about himself with certainty, but this is a limitation of John’s knowledge of himself and of the causative principles at work when moral creatures make free decisions. That is what makes us poor judges of what situations we can trust ourselves to get into without falling into sin, whereas God knows precisely when circumstances are such that temptation would be too strong for us.

Laing thinks that “the view of possibility in play here is not at all clear or obvious, and even seems to contradict our normal notions of possibility” (p. 9). In fact, it “seems tautological in nature” (p. 9 n 10). He finds it hard “to see how a proposition like, ‘If John were in situation, S, he would compatibilistically freely eat a piece of chocolate cheesecake tonight’” has the same status as truths such as “1+1=2,” “all bachelors are unmarried,” and “if an object is blue, then it has extension” (p. 10).

Perhaps the second of those three truths is where the difference between these two facts God knows necessarily is most clear. The truth that “all bachelors are unmarried” is, indeed, tautological. By definition, a bachelor is an unmarried man, but such cannot be said about the fact that a creature who is A would do X in S.  What makes this necessarily true, and hence known certainly by God independently of his will, is not the definition of a person of type A or of a situation S, rather, as Paul Helm asserts, it is a “causally necessary proposition” (“Does Calvinism have room,” p. 447). “It is important to bear in mind,” says Helm, “the distinction between logical or metaphysical necessity on the one hand, and causal necessity on the other, as well as the distinction between ‘God necessarily knows all possibilities’ and ‘All possibilities known by God are necessary’” (p. 447).

It was the difference between truths which are true by virtue of metaphysical necessity and those which are true by causal necessity which first led me to postulate that God’s knowledge of counterfactuals was of a distinct sort, and that we might therefore speak of it in terms of a distinct (“middle”) logical moment in God’s knowing. In my conversation with Helm, however, I came to realize that this was a bad move on my part, particularly because the “middleness” of God’s knowledge of counterfactuals, in Molinism, is brought about by the libertarianly free agency of the creature. In that construct, God’s knowledge of what A would do in S is grounded in A’s decision. As my previous post in this series pointed out, if A is free to do X or not X in situation S, then it is impossible to know what A would do, unless A decides which (X or not X) he will do. So the situation S must actually occur, and A must actually find himself in that situation, and A must actually decide what to do, or no one can know with certainty what he would do. There lies the grounding objection to Molinism. That objection does not challenge hypothetical knowledge Calvinism, however, because God’s knowing what A would do in S is not dependent upon A’s making a decision, it is dependent on God’s knowledge of the causative principles operating when a particular sort of creature, A, is in a particular set of circumstances, S.

What Laing considers an “odd notion of possibility” is, in fact, not odd at all, provided one understands the concept of principles of causation which ground knowledge of counterfactuals. These principles are of the order of mathematical truths, so that they are known naturally to God, not because of his knowledge of particular creatures but of the principles of causation which make it possible for God to choose one of the possible worlds, knowing that everything will happen precisely as he intended when he chose it, not because he determined that it would be so, instance by instance, but because of principles in operation in all possible worlds. As Helm rightly discerned, in the soft-compatibilist model which I affirm, the distinction between what A could do in S,  and what A would do in S, is “a distinction without a difference.” It was my failure to see this that led me to speak of God’s knowledge of what A would do in S as distinct from what A could do in S, hence leading to the suggestion that even Calvinists would do well to affirm middle knowledge. I now grasp much more clearly how soft-compatibilism works. It is precisely because creatures are not libertarianly free that God can know what hypothetical creatures would do in hypothetical situations. That has nothing to do with either the creatures or the situations as particulars; it derives from a knowledge of the causative principles which are necessarily at work in any world which God, being who he is, could choose to create and govern. This is, therefore, not at all an “odd notion,” it is highly comprehensible. But there is more here that troubles Laing, he thinks that hypothetical knowledge Calvinism includes an “odd ontology of personhood.” We’ll take a look at that concern in my next post in this series.

Previous posts in this series: Part 1,



By Terrance Tiessen

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

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