God’s Knowledge of the Future Requires Neither Passivity Nor Determinism

Calvinism believes that God knows what will happen in the future, including everything each person will do because he has microscopically determined that humans perform such actions through decrees and compatible freedom. In very stark contrast, Extensivism believes that God knows everything including everything each person will do as well, but for different reasons. Extensivists recognize that Scripture presents the picture that God chose to create man in his image.[1] This includes the ability to choose otherwise within the range of options God has established, libertarian freedom, which is ubiquitously evident in Scriptures reflective of choosing between accessible options. Given that God chose to so endow man, God has eternally known every choice that every individual will make; further, while libertarian freedom is a force, it is a force created by God, and therefore, entirely under his sovereign rule.

Additionally, his knowledge of such contingencies is not merely passive because he actively chose to create man thusly, always knowing every decision, and what he would permit and contravene. He works in and through man carrying out his creative/redemptive plan which, at times, requires that he override the freedom of man. Consequently, God knows some things conditionally because he freely chose to know that way, but he also knows some things because he chose to cause certain events to happen by either contravening man’s freedom, or transpiring totally apart from man’s freedom. The former might be God doing something to stifle man’s freedom when it would otherwise thwart his comprehensive plan like we see in his dealings with Pharaoh and King Nebuchadnezzar, whereas the latter could be exampled in creating the universe or setting the periods of various dispensations.

Sometimes Calvinists argue that to believe in libertarian freedom equals backward causation (our actions tomorrow could change the past—an impossibility), and that it makes God totally passive since he knows some things contingently rather than knowing everything determinately. When considering libertarian vs. compatible worlds, Calvinists seem quite often to receive a pass regarding the validity of such portrayals. Sometimes this is accomplished by their simply starting the discussion subsequent to the true origin of events, as well as stating the scenario so as to only lead back to determinism as the only God honoring option, which makes it very difficult for Calvinists to entertain other possibilities.

For example, in Millard Erickson’s contrast of Calvinism and Arminianism, he says regarding Calvinism, “He foreknows what will happen because he has decided what is to happen…. God is not dependent on what humans decide.[2] (italics added) Regarding Arminianism, Erickson states, “God knows what all of us are going to do. He therefore wills what he foresees will happen. Note that human action and its effects are not a result of God’s decision . . . It is humans who render their actions certain; God simply acquiesces.[3] (italics added)

Such comparison presents Calvinism portraying man as totally dependent upon God’s decision; therefore, God determines what man can and cannot do, which clearly depicts man as subordinate to God. In contrast, he portrays Arminianist—Extensivist—perspectives as God being dependent upon man’s decisions. This leads to man determining what God can and cannot do, which depicts God’s actions subordinate to man. This to the point that God’s part is to will only what he foresees humans will do. He simply “acquiesces” to the decisions of man. To wit, it appears that what man does in Calvinism is from God’s plan—theocentric—and what man does in Extensivism flows from man’s plan and actions—anthropocentric.

In actuality, the eternal reality is, either plan that God determined to create (whether Calvinism or Extensivism, as well as all options, which were eternally known by him) emanated from his essential omniscience and sovereign free choice. Such a decision comprehended all components of each; as a result, each exists and operates according to his sovereign decision and governance. To wit, he is sovereignly active in both scenarios from origin to conclusion.

By appropriately backing up the discussion to the actual initiation point in the eternal mind of God, it is easy to see that the real disagreement is not regarding the priority of God’s initiating decision, which is the same informationally and chronologically, but rather it concerns what the content of his eternal decision would encompass.[4] That is to say, it seems to be a misunderstanding of God’s foreknowledge to impose a sequence in God knowing something because that which is known is sequential.

The presence of a sequence of events does not change this since both perspectives involve a sequence of events and neither entails a sequence in God’s knowledge of such nor dependence upon anything outside of himself; therefore, he is neither passive nor acquiescent in Extensivism. That is to say, given all the options available to Deity, he always knew what plans were available, what plan he would enact, and what degree of human involvement he would comprehend in each plan; none of which occurred to him sequentially or passively.

Additionally, any inference that his foreknowledge is perceptive (God looks outside of himself, e.g., down the halls of history to learn) rather than essential (God always knows everything as a feature of his being) is derogatory, misleading, and grossly in error as well. Thus, it seems better stated that God’s knowledge is informationally different in each scenario. To present it as Erickson does, as though only Calvinism is according to God’s decision wherein he is active and in Extensivist’s perspective where he is merely passive and acquiescent, is biasedly inaccurate.

God’s eternal knowledge of what libertarian free beings would do was prior to creating. Similarly, he knew what compatibly free beings would do before he chose to create them. Accordingly, informationally, he always knew each plan accurately and exhaustively prior to the point of creation, and freely chose to enact one of them; therefore, neither is actually man centered, but both are God centered and can only reflect his originating decision, but only one includes information regarding contingent propositions—what a free being will do in a given circumstance.

It seems from Scripture that God knows because he is omniscient, and out of that knowledge he determined to create a world wherein he would place man with the ability to choose between various accessible options. Such was the result of creative grace, and subsequent to the fall of man, such is the result of redemptive grace. The God we are contemplating is presented in Scripture as essentially omniscient. By essentially omniscient, I mean as an inextricable attribute of his being.

If this God exists, he cannot be ignorant of a true proposition in any world in which he exists. That minimally means that he knows what over seven billion minds are thinking at any given second, at every given second, and he has always known that. This knowledge is innate rather than perceptive. Thus, humility seems to suggest that one must accept that God’s order of knowing is significantly beyond our comprehension and in some respects is quite different from ours. Consequently, it is not essential to be able to explain precisely or prove how God knows (does he know only what he micro-determines or does he know contingencies, acts of otherwise choice), any more than it is to explain or prove how he is omnipotent; he just is.

It only needs to be that according to Scripture, he does in fact eternally know what he knows. This being the case, I would argue that he is reflected in Scripture as one who is quite capable of incorporating what man will do without having to cause or control man’s thoughts or actions through determinative antecedents, i.e., compatibilism, or merely be passively acquiescent. Accordingly, looking at the issue from the appropriate vantage point, which precedes Erickson’s starting point, the knowledge of whatever God would choose to create was informationally prior to his choice. Remember, that even when God chose to create such as the sun, the sun chronologically preceded the sunlight and the sunlight was dependent upon the existence of the sun, but with God there was no chronology of knowing in God; he knew the dependency, sequence innately.

It seems to me to be particularly unwarranted to conclude that God’s free sovereign decision to create a precise state of affairs, actively endow all necessary capabilities, establish all parameters, values, time periods, varied and dynamic ranges of options, his specific response to each choice made by mankind in general and each person particularly in light of incalculable variables known comprehensively only by him, actively working and providing grace-enablements so that fallen man can be saved (something the Scripture presents repeatedly as involving intimate action of the Trinity), governing every free choice of man and choosing which to override for the sake of accomplishing his eternal plan, ad infinitum, in said state can rightly be interpreted as passive or acquiescent.

In order for God to know what humans would do prior to his creation of them means that God eternally knew what would constitute being human, which includes human essence and what abilities and limitations emanate from that essence. Additionally, God’s knowledge would have included all possible circumstances, which ones he would incorporate, and therefore, he always would know how each person would behave in any given circumstance; therefore, eternally speaking, every decision of man was always known by God because God knew what would constitute man before choosing to create him.

Another way to look at this is that as an essentially omniscient being he would have always known innately that he would create libertarian free beings because he has always known himself exhaustively. This includes the fact that he has always known his intentions. Since he always intended to create libertarian free beings, he always knew what they would do, and is therefore, not dependent upon them actually existing for him to know them exhaustively. All that is necessary is that he knows himself—is self-aware.

In compatibilism God knew what man so constituted would do because of the determinative antecedents (nature and past) that he constituted, which would result in the desire from which man would freely choose, along with the limitations of such beings in every given state of affairs. In like manner, in libertarianism he knew what man so constituted would do because of the way he made him, including the range of options and limitations he would possess and how such created beings would act in every state of affairs; all of which includes his intimate involvement in his creation whether that be acting persuasively, conditionally, or contravening decisions that are incongruent with his overall plan.

For clarification, Extensivists do not argue for God’s passivity in the process of decision making either salvifically or even everyday life. Rather we contend that Scripture reflects only that God’s most preferred, freely chosen method is being involved in the decision making of man persuasively, which can be encouragingly or discouragingly, rather than determinately; although as the sovereign, he can and does at times so act. Further, God overriding one’s freedom at particular times does not eradicate libertarian freedom from the person. It only means that the individual is not responsible for that specific decision. Libertarian freedom exists and operates under God’s sovereign jurisdiction. Furthermore, any passivity in God with regard to libertarian free beings is due to his own nature rather than an imposition upon him (he chooses not to act only determinatively, but to act determinatively and according to his innate foreknowledge).

While I am not a Molinist, the following quote is applicable to Extensivism as well—although I do think Molinism is more reflective of Scripture than Calvinism. Thomas P. Flint says of the charge that Molinism forfeits asymmetry, “For the Molinist is committed to saying that, in cases of free action, God’s assistance (prior and concurrent, natural and supernatural) is neutral only in the sense that it doesn’t determine the agent to perform a good action.[5] But assistance that is nondetermining can nevertheless incline an agent toward the good. And this is precisely what God’s assistance does. It is not a gift certificate which can be used just as easily for ill or for good. Rather it is a push (or, perhaps better, a pull) in one definite direction—toward the good—albeit a pull that can be resisted . . . in cases where we resist his influence, it is appropriate to see ourselves as acting in opposition to God, and hence mistaken to ascribe authorship of the act to him.”[6]

God always knew that creating man with compatible freedom would result in certain consequences, and God always knew that creating man with libertarian freedom would result in certain consequences; in each case, God always knew what would happen in a given state of affairs. Thus, in each situation, the elements of each was informationally prior to his choice to create (like the sun is informationally or logically prior to the sunshine); hence, both rely upon him and his essential omniscience and omnipotence and nothing else, and in neither case is he passively acquiescent or perceptively informed.

This understanding coalesces sovereignty, libertarian freedom, and certainty without Calvinistic deterministic causality.

[1] I use Extensivism in this article as a general synonym for non-Calvinism. I also use it to refer only to my own understanding of how certain complexities are explained as I deal with in this article, understanding that other non-Calvinists would explain such differently while agreeing that determinism of Calvinism is in error.
[2] Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2013), 326.
[3] Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2013), 326–327.
[4] I use decision simply to reflect God’s eternal mind and not in the sense of coming to a decision as we would in time.
[5] Asymmetry here relates to “We want to see God as the ultimate source of the good that we do, but not of the evil that we do.” Thomas P. Flint, Divine Providence, The Molinist Account, William P. Alston, ed. (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1998), 115.
[6] Thomas P. Flint, Divine Providence, The Molinist Account, William P. Alston, ed. (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1998), 116.