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Free Will, Foreknowledge, and Necessity: Assessing an Incompatibilist Understanding

I have been interacting with Robert Picirilli’s book, Free Will Revisited, which he wrote as a “respectful response to Luther, Calvin, and Edwards.” Those three representatives of a compatibilist perspective were selected because each of them wrote a book to argue for their position, against a prominent incompatibilist of their time. Martin Luther’s book, On the Bondage of the Will (1525), was his response to Desiderius Erasmus’s Diatribe on Free Will (1524). John Calvin wrote The Bondage and Liberation of the Will in response to Dutch Roman Catholic theologian, Albert Pighius, who had written Ten Books on Human Free Choice and Divine Grace (1542), which was itself a reaction to Calvin’s Institutes (1539).

For the thought of Jonathan Edwards, Picirilli has chosen particularly A Careful and Strict Enquiry into the Modern Prevailing Notions of that Freedom of the Will, Which is Supposed to Be Essential to Moral Agency, Vertue [sic] and Vice, Reward and Punishment, Praise and Blame (1754). This was not a reply to any one treatise, but it was written “in opposition to some fairly well-known spokesmen against the Calvinism he espoused” (Picirilli, 61). He referred most frequently to the ideas propounded by three Englishmen, Thomas Chubb, Daniel Whitby, and Isaac Watts.

Picirilli devotes a chapter to each of the compatibilist works he had chosen. This is wise and helpful, given the continued influence of Luther, Calvin, and Edwards in our own day, and Picirilli’s exposition is well done. As a compatibilist myself, I hold some ideas in common with each of those three, and I have revealed my own perspective or model, at some length, in the 5 previous segments of my interaction with Picirilli.

Interaction with Picirilli’s three historical chapters would be very worthwhile, but my own interest is more systematic than historical, so I am not going to say more about chapters 4, 5, and 6 in Picirilli’s book. In laying out his own understanding of free will, Picirilli will be in conversation with the three compatibilists, so we can enter into that conversation when it occurs in the remaining chapters.  In Part III, Picirilli devotes four chapters to address “The Major Issues” which arise repeatedly in the disputes presented in the historical section, and we will examine the first of these in this post: “Free Will, Foreknowledge, and Necessity.”

Christian theology has traditionally affirmed that God knows the future perfectly, and this inevitably raises questions about the nature of the freedom God has given to his moral creatures. Picirilli is an incompatiblist within the classic Arminian sphere, so he has not followed the course taken by Open Theists, who posit an understanding of God’s omniscience which they sometimes dub “presentism.” They assert that God knows everything which can be known, including all past and present events, but he does not know the future acts of libertarianly free creatures, because these do not exist. They have yet to be determined by moral creatures, and so the future is open to us as well as God. Picirilli deems that perspective “clearly unbiblical,” so he concurs with Luther, Calvin, and Edwards, that God “knows every aspect of the future minutely and infallibly, including the moral choices made by human beings” (p. 77).

Arguments for the incompatibility of divine foreknowledge and libertarianly free will   


Luther insisted that if God had foreknown that Judas would betray Jesus, then Judas acted of necessity and “it was not in the power of Judas or of any creature to act differently” (BW 213, cited by Picirilli, 78). Erasmus had stated that Judas could have changed his will, even after Jesus knew that Judas would betray him, but Luther appealed to the infallibility of God’s foreknowledge. It is impossible that God could be mistaken in his foreknowledge, so “’free will’ does not exist” (BW 222). Furthermore, Luther’s protest was not made merely on logical grounds, it derived from his conviction that God’s foreknowledge was the fruit of his foreordination. So, God’s sovereign government of the world was at stake, because the issue is not that “God foreknows nothing contingently, but that He foresees, purposes, and does all things according to His own immutable, eternal and infallible will.” This firmly rules out “free will” (Picirilli, 78, citing BW 80). 


Although Edwards would have agreed with Luther concerning the relationship between God’s foreknowledge and his foreordination, he argues for his position logically, rather than as a theological deduction from the doctrine of the divine decree. Edwards demonstrates that Scripture teaches that God certainly foreknows the volitions of human beings. Edwards posits that Arminians must agree that, since God certainly foreknows all future events, so that “all events are necessary and not contingent,” divine foreknowledge “eliminates free will and establishes the necessity of all things” (Picirilli, 79, citing FW 257-69).

 Picirilli’s response to these arguments from foreknowledge

Picirilli identifies three terms that are critical in the debate: necessity, contingency, and certainty. He thinks, however, that problems arise because Luther and Edwards do not define the terms carefully enough, which results in ambiguity in the discussion (Picirilli, 79). So, he provides the definitions according to which he will use these terms in discussing the concerns of Luther and Edwards.

He defines necessity (as it relates to human volition) as “any force or set of circumstances that make only one choice possible. A “necessity” is therefore “anything that has to be the way it is for any reason other than an act of the will, such as divine action or natural law.” Contingency is “any volition that does not have to be what it is, any choice that can go in more than one way.” Certainty is “anything that was, is, or will be;” it speaks of facts (Picirilli, 80-81).

According to these definitions, every act of the will is certain. It can be certain and contingent or certain and necessary, but “it cannot be both contingent and necessary.” So, certainty “speaks of the facticity of an event: whether it will be or not. Contingency and necessity speak of something else: how or why something is” (Picirilli. 81).

Picirilli then proceeds to analyze the senses in which Luther and Edwards use the three critical terms, and he demonstrates that the two of them do not use the terms with the same sense (82-85). I can’t recall an instance in which I have seen so clear an example of the immense importance, in conversation or controversy, of defining our terms precisely, and agreeing upon how we will use them, at least in that particular conversation. (Otherwise, we find ourselves in the confusing situation that Alice in Wonderland encountered, when she met the mad hatter!) If we assumed that Luther and Edwards used the terms with the same sense, we would badly misconstrue both of their understandings of God’s foreknowledge and its implications for the will of creatures. Neither of them use the terms (at least not consistently) with the sense which Picirilli has given them in his very clear definitions, so the value of Picirilli’s careful analysis of the sense in which they do use the terms, is great. Picirilli’s assessment of this situation is that,

In the end, both Luther and Edwards fail to distinguish clearly between necessity and certainty, and both use contingency as though it must be something uncertain. These failures leave the discussion of human volition and foreknowledge not fully explored and allow those theologians to reach a conclusion that comes too quickly (85).

The question which Picirilli wants us to consider is: “Does the fact that God foreknows the future close the door to the future? . . .  Does the certainty of a future event, known by God, cancel out the possibility that it could be otherwise?” (85). Regardless how we put that question, Picirilli is convinced that the answer is: “no.” “That something will be a certain way does not mean that it has to be.” This is because “knowledge of a fact is not the cause of the fact. Even the knowledge of a future fact is grounded in the fact, not vice versa” (85-86). An event is not certain because God knows it; “he knows it because it is certain.” Picirilli’s explanation for God’s foreknowing the future with certainty is that “he sees it, in advance, intuitively, but the future would be certain even if God did not know it (!)” (86). Though Edwards used the language of cause and effect to describe this, which makes Picirilli uncomfortable, Edwards properly discerned the relationship between future events and God’s knowledge of them (86).

Picirilli posits that:

Unlike the past, the future is not yet fact. It does not yet exist. It is not yet fixed. That God foresees it does not mean that it is already done. In the future are many contingencies, things that can be decided in one way or another, and God knows which way they will be decided. But they will be decided; they have not yet been decided. And when decision time comes, all possible decisions are just that: possible (86).

In the case of contingent events, God knows which events will happen, but that they will happen is decided by moral creatures, not by God (in incompatibilist models), and God’s foreknowing them with certainty does not cause them to happen when they do.

Picirilli also believes that God foreknows future counterfactuals, the decisions which particular people would make in any set of hypothetical circumstances. As biblical evidence, he cites the instance in 1 Samuel 21:1-13, where David has learned that Saul knows that he is in Keilah and is planning to capture him. So, David goes to Abiathar the priest, to ask him to ascertain, probably by means of the Urim and Thummim, whether Saul will come down to Keilah, and whether the people of Keilah will deliver David into Saul’s hands. Abiathar’s answer from God is that Saul will come down, and that the men of Keilah will deliver David into Saul’s hands. In fact, however, neither of these things, which God foreknew, came to pass. David and his men left Keilah, so Saul did not go there, and the people of Keilah did not, therefore, betray David to Saul. God would have foreknown that David would leave Keilah, so that he would not be betrayed, but whether or not David would leave Keilah was contingent upon the decision David would make, given the information Abiathar gave to him; it was not settled by God’s foreknowing the future counterfactuals as well as the actual future (87).

The critical point being affirmed by Picirilli is that “the certainty of the future does not make it a necessary future (88).  God’s “foreknowledge does not close the door to an open future” (88).

Personal reflections on Picirilli’s proposal


I concur with Picirilli that the definition of terms is essential in conversation, and if two people use a term with different meanings, then they are bound to talk past one another. I am glad that Picirilli clearly stated his definitions, but his definition of “contingency,” though it is quite common, appears to me to differ from the use of those terms in Reformed theology, as stated in the Westminster Confession. I seriously doubt that Picirilli’s definition is what the Westminster divines had in mind when they used the term.

Picirilli defines “contingency” as “any volition that does not have to be what it is, any choice that can go in more than one way” (80). In other words, essential to the meaning of “contingency” is reference to libertarian freedom. Clearly, that sort of freedom was not in the minds of the Westminster divines, when they used the term. Otherwise, no creaturely action could be deemed “contingent.” I have no expertise in regard to the Confession, so I can’t speak for the divines, but I am comfortable affirming two key statements in which the term is used. When I do that, I have in mind the definition of “contingency” offered by Paul Helm, rather than Picirlli’s sense. Helm acknowledges that “all propositions are logically either contingent or necessary,” and the same is true of “states of affairs.” These are “causally contingent if their existence depends on the existence of something else, causally necessary or not” (New Dictionary of Theology (p. 167a). Helm is a Reformed philosophical theologian, and a soft compatibilist, and I think that his definition of “contingency” works in reading the WCF, though Picirilli’s would not.

At the beginning of chapter 3, “Of God’s Eternal Decree,” the WCF states:

God from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass: yet so, as thereby neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures; nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established” (WCF, 3.1).

In the 5th chapter of the Confession, “Of Providence,” we read this:

Although, in relation to the foreknowledge and decree of God, the first Cause, all things come to pass immutably, and infallibly; yet, by the same providence,  He ordereth them to fall out, according to the nature of second causes, either necessarily, freely, or contingently (WCF, 5.3).

What I hear in the Confessional statements is an affirmation of the genuineness of creaturely agency. God is not the only actor of the world. He has given moral agency to humans and angels, and when they act voluntarily (i.e. “freely”), they are morally responsible for their actions. These free actions are genuinely effective, but God never allows the creatures to be the determiners of the course of world history, and the sinfulness of creaturely actions “proceedeth only from the creature, and not from God, who, being most holy and righteous, neither is nor can be the author or approver of sin” (WCF, 5.4). Nowhere do we see this more clearly at work than at the cross, where morally responsible people sinned grievously in putting the only truly innocent man to death, but in so doing they contributed to the realization of the eternal plan of God to give his unique Son as a propitiation for human sin, in order to make reconciliation between God and sinners possible. That they unwittingly served God’s purposes did not absolve them of guilt, because the religious leaders acted in their own interest, not out of a sincere desire to please God. The moral quality of an action is determined by the actor’s motive, and their motives were impure.

In short, both Picirilli and Reformed theologians speak of “contingency,” but they do not mean the same thing by that term, and this must be kept in mind when reading statements from these two sources. A helpful contemporary look at this situation from a Reformed perspective is found in the recent work of Michael Horton (The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims on the Way). He writes:

Like nature, history reflects constancy as well as contingency, order as well as freedom, design amid apparent randomness. In fact, writes Calvin, “however all things may be ordained by God’s plan according to a sure dispensation, for they are fortuitous, . . . since the order, reason, end, and necessity of those things which happen for the most part lie hidden in God’s purpose, and are not apprehended by human opinion.” It is not just that they seem fortuitous; rather, they are fortuitous—but to us rather than to God. “For they bear on the face of them no other appearance, whether they are considered in their own nature or weighed according to our knowledge and judgment” (Horton, 356-57; citing Calvin, Institutes, 1.16.9).

Horton then quotes from Turretin’s Institutes of Elenctic Theology:

Nothing was more contingent than the selling of Joseph and his incarceration and exaltation, yet Joseph himself testifies that these were all ordered in the providence of God: “So now it was not you that sent me hither, but God” (Gen 45:8). “Ye meant it for evil, but God meant it for good, that he might preserve in life a great people as he has done this day” (Gen 50:20). Innumerable similar events, plainly contingent and fortuitous, are expressly ascribed to providence (cf. Gen 22:8, 13; 24:12-61; 27:20; Prov 21:31; Mt 10:29—30)” (Horton, 357; citing Turretin, 1:499).

I appreciate Turretin’s humility about our ability to comprehend this compatibility (concurrence) between God’s meticulous predetermined control and our genuine free agency. Turretin believes that this is

incapable of being sufficiently explained, unless we follow the light of the divine word and religiously restrain ourselves within the bounds prescribed by it. These two things we derive most clearly from the Scriptures: that the providence of God concurs with all second causes and especially the human will; yet the contingency and liberty of the will remain unimpaired. But how these two things can consist with each other, no mortal can in this life perfectly understand (Elenctic Theology, 1:511).

Paraphrasing Turretin’s words (1:512), Horton sums up: ”We have no warrant to deny a revealed mystery simply because we cannot explain it” (Horton, 358). 

Foreknowledge and creaturely freedom

Foreknowledge of the actual future

I am aware that many compatibilists deny what Picirilli has argued, with regard to the actual future. Like Luther and Edwards, they posit that it is impossible for people to be libertarianly free in their decisions and actions, if God foreknew what those decisions would be. I disagree with these fellow compatibilists, but my understanding of why that common belief is wrong differs from Picirilli’s. He works with a perceptual model, in which God sees the actual future ahead of time (as though he had already seen the movie, though Picirilli does not use that particular metaphor). God’s knowledge of the future is intuitive, which means that it is an aspect of God’s natural or necessary knowledge.

As I have explained in earlier segments of this review, I concur with William Lane Craig (who agrees with Picirilli that moral creatures are libertarianly free) that a conceptual model is superior to the perceptual model which Picirilli, and many other Arminians, have adopted. In this model, the point is that God knows all truths, and the tense in which the truth of an event’s occurrence is stated is irrelevant. Since I went to the bank on Tuesday, it was true for a short time (in the present tense) that “Terry is going to the bank.” But that makes it true, forever afterwards (in the past tense), on Wednesday, that “yesterday, Terry went to the bank.” Likewise, it was true (in the future tense) on Monday that “tomorrow, Terry will go to the bank.” As part of God’s natural or necessary knowledge, given that he is necessarily omniscient, as God, he has always known the future, even though he was timeless before he created space and time and entered into relationship to it. In varying ways, he is present with everything (omnipresence), and present in all times (eternal).

I agree with Picirilli that, if God had given creatures libertarian freedom, he would still have known, prior to their libertarianly freely chosen actions, what they will do at every moment of their lives. He would know this because, necessarily, he knows all truths, but foreknowing things does not cause them. My problem with the concept of simple divine foreknowledge, as affirmed by many Arminians, is that it is useless to God, providentially. He has always known what every creature will decide and do, at every moment of time, but he also foreknows his own actions. This gives him no opportunity to act personally in a way that governs the course of world history. We can illustrate this with an analogy. Suppose that you foreknow today what number will be drawn in a large lottery draw tomorrow. If you only have simple foreknowledge, you also know today whether or not you have the ticket with that winning number on it when the draw is made. Since you know that truth today, it is too late for you to do anything which will change the reality tomorrow. Your foreknowledge would be providentially useless to you.

So, I am a compatibilist, not because I disagree with Arminian incompatibilists about the possibility of God’s giving creatures libertarian freedom, but because my reading of the biblical narrative convinces me that God does not limit his ability to bring about exactly the world history he chooses. If God gave moral creatures libertarian freedom, most of the events in the course of history would be determined by creatures, not by God, who’s knowing ahead of time what was going to happen made him little more than a spectator. Picirilli asserts that God’s “foreknowledge does not close the door to an open future” (88) but, in his model, the future is only open for God’s creatures. In this regard, I think that Open Theism gives God a much more dynamic relationship with his creatures because, in that model, the future is open for God as well as his creatures, and he is continually at work, inserting his influence in the present, in order to move things toward his ultimate purposes. With Luther, Calvin, Edwards, and other Reformed compatibilists, however, I believe that God decided, in his eternal purpose or decree, how things would transpire, at every moment in time, but a huge percentage of those events is brought about through the voluntary actions of uncoerced creatures. Consequently, God knows the actual future comprehensively, as Picirilli believes, but he does not know this intuitively, as an aspect of his natural or necessary knowledge; he knows it in his free knowledge, as a knowledge of the will of his own eternal purpose.

Foreknowledge of future counterfactuals

At the end of this chapter, as I noted earlier, Picirilli asserted that God not only knows the actual future comprehensively, he also knows all the counterfactuals. Here, Picirilli moves outside classic Arminianism, to appropriate a proposal from Molinism, though he does not accept the whole Molinist construct. Picirilli believes that God knows future counterfactuals, as he does the actual future, as an aspect of his natural or necessary knowledge. Molina, on the other hand, realized the critical difference between knowledge of actuals and knowledge of counterfactuals, and he asserted that God has his knowledge of the latter at a middle moment, logically, in between God’s natural and his free knowledge. Hence, it is called “middle knowledge.”

Although I do not believe that it would be impossible for God to foreknow the actual future comprehensively, even if creatures were libertarianly free, I am convinced that it would be impossible for God to foreknow the counterfactuals if he had given creatures libertarian freedom. This is known as the “grounding objection,” which asserts that nothing grounds the truth value of counterfactual statements about libertarianly free action. Unlike the actual future, no decision exists in hypothetical situations. God could not know for certain that “Saul will enter Keilah,” if Saul were libertarianly free, because the situation in which Saul makes the decision whether or not to enter has never occurred. Even if Saul had previously acted in a particular way, in circumstances identical to the situation in Keilah, God could not assert with certainty that Saul would act in the same way he had acted before. That is the essence of the power of contrary choice. At best, God could have given Saul a statement about the probability, and this would leave room for error in a blanket positive or negative assertion.

Because I do not believe that God gave moral creatures libertarian freedom, I can assert that God knows counterfactuals with the same certainty as he knows factuals, but he knows them for different reasons, or at different logical moments. I have just pointed out that I disagree with Picirilli concerning the logical moment at which God knows all facts about the actual future. He places it in God’s natural/necessary knowledge and I (with Reformed theologians in general) place it in God’s free knowledge, following upon his decree. But, I concur with Picirilli that, if God knows counterfactuals, he knows them as an aspect of his natural/necessary knowledge. I believe, however, that this is only possible if creatures do not have libertarian freedom. God can and does know what every sort of moral creature would do in every possible hypothetical situation, because he knows what I dub the “principles of agent causation.” Having that knowledge, God can predict with certainty what an individual exactly like Saul would do voluntarily or without coercion, in a situation exactly like the one that existed at the time David asked Abiathar to find out from God the answer to his questions.

If you have an interest in this issue of God’s knowledge of future counterfactual, you may want to read a recently published work, Calvinism and Middle Knowledge: A Conversation, a book which I introduced in a recent blog post.  

Earlier posts in this series: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5


By Terrance Tiessen

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

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