Divine Knowledge Providence Theology Proper

Why is God’s knowledge of counterfactuals valuable to a compatibilist doctrine of providence?

Yesterday, I was asked: “how important is it to your theology to add the hypothetical knowledge into the mix, since, in omniscience, isn’t knowledge of all possible things presupposed?

That is an excellent question, so I want to post my response here as well.

For me, God’s knowledge of counterfactuals, that is, of what free creatures would  have done in hypothetical situations (and hence, in possible worlds) is extremely important to compatibilism (i.e., the compatibility of human moral responsibility with God’s comprehensive control of the world). Classic theism affirmed that God knows counterfactuals, but theologians disagreed about whether he knew them as part of his natural/necessary knowledge or as part of his free knowledge. In other words, they differed as to whether God’s knowledge of counterfactuals precedes or follows from his decree (logically). It is important to me to affirm that God has this knowledge naturally or necessarily, though Molinists frequently argue that I should assign it to God’s free knowledge. I posit that God knows naturally the “principles of agent causation,” like he knows mathematical truths and other abstract objects.

So, Calvinists have always affirmed that God knows counterfactuals of hypothetical creaturely decisions, but very few have been willing to grant, or at least to emphasize, as I do, that God made use of this knowledge in determining created history (i.e., in forming his decree). They fear that it threatens to make God dependent upon his creatures, in his knowledge. But that is an unnecessary fear, because what God knows about counterfactuals is not dependent on the actual decisions made by moral creatures, it derives from his knowing what particular kinds of creatures would do in all hypothetical situations. This is what I call “the principles of agent causation.”

Thus, God is not dependent on his creatures in any way. But, where this affirmation is hugely helpful to a compatibilist theology is that this knowledge enables God to choose a particular world history, one which comes about to a large degree through the decisions and acts of creatures, maximizing their morally responsible freedom, without inhibiting God’s control. This helps us to understand how God knows comprehensively all that his creatures will do voluntarily, without his having to coerce them. My construct appropriates all the benefits that Molinism was wanting to gain, but it does so in a way that is coherent. Molinism fatally fails because of the grounding objection. If creatures have libertarian freedom, the power of alternative possibilities, or the freedom to have chosen differently than they did choose, in given situations, it is impossible to predict with certainty what they would do in hypothetical situations. But, if humans are morally responsible so long as they are free to act voluntarily, without external coercion, then God can know what they would do in any hypothetical situation, because he knows the principles of agent causation.


By Terrance Tiessen

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

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