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.

2 replies on “Why is God’s knowledge of counterfactuals valuable to a compatibilist doctrine of providence?”

I am in agreement with you, but I want to understand your take on the Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter 3, stanza 2:

“Although God knows whatsoever may or can come to pass upon all supposed conditions; yet hath he not decreed any thing because he foresaw it as future, or as that which would come to pass upon such conditions.”

FWIW, I’m “semi-Reformed” having come from a 4-point Arminian background. I do embrace the Doctrines of Grace, as does my congregation. However, we are not (currently) confessional, so we are not tied (for better or worse) to confessions like this. I would very much like to understand how you would parse the above sentence in relation to your thesis about God and counterfactuals.

You ask a good question, Greg. WCF III/2 initially looks as though it might exclude God’s use of his knowledge of future counterfactuals of creatures when they act freely, i.e. with moral responsibility for things they do voluntarily. I find the last two phrases of item 2 quite opaque, particularly the final one: God has “not decreed any thing because He foresaw it as future, or as that which would come to pass upon such condition.”

Taken in its context, the chapter on “God’s Eternal Decree,” however, I think the intent of the statement is clear and is not problematic for my “hypothetical knowledge Calvinist” construction. I take it to be a protection of God’s sovereign control of all events in creation, while specifying that divine determinism does not rob moral creatures of their moral responsibility. It addresses the error of the Remonstrants, who made election conditional upon human decision rather than upon God’s decision. In more recent times, this has been represented in the “U” (“unconditional election”) of “TULIP,” which is often described as declaring “the five points of Calvinism.”

Those points are a modern attempt to capture the fundamental truths affirmed in the Canons of Dort (1619). “Article 9” had stated: “This election was not founded upon foreseen faith, and the obedience of faith, holiness, or any other good quality or disposition in man, as the prerequisite, cause or condition on which it depended; but men are chosen to faith and to the obedience of faith, holiness etc.; therefore election is the fountain of every saving good, from which proceeds faith, holiness, and the other gifts of salvation, and finally eternal life itself, as its fruits and effects.”

This point is taken up again in the rejections of Remonstrant affirmation, particularly “Rejection 5,” which states: “That the incomplete and nondecisive election of particular persons to salvation occurred because of a foreseen faith . . . but that the complete and decisive election occurred because of foreseen perseverance unto the end in faith, etc.”

If you are not aware of its existence, you might enjoy the free pdf of The Westminster Confession of Faith: A Commentary, by A. A. Hodge which has been provided by at this address: ref=””

I hear “hypothetical knowledge Calvinism” in Hodge’s statement:

“e. It is just the perfection of God’s adjustments that every event, as well as general results, are determined by his intention. Even the human soul, in the exercise of free agency, acts according to a law of its own, excluding necessity, but not excluding certainty. The springs of free action are within the soul itself. And yet, as these are modified without interfering with the liberty of the agent by the influence of other men, they certainly cannot lie beyond the control of the Infinite Intelligence who created the soul itself, and has determined all the conditions under which its character has been formed and its activities exercised” (Chapter V, Section 3, item 2, (3).

I call this God’s natural/necessary knowledge of “the principles of agent causation.”

Does this help you at all?

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