Can God Know Man’s Free Acts without Them Being Determinatively Necessary?

Calvinists often argue that defending man as possessing libertarian free will (giving a person a true choice between accessible options such as walking with God or not walking with him and, therefore, the outcomes being conditional) not only places man’s salvation in his own hands, but it also creates uncertainties that would mean that God would not know everything since (as the argument goes) one cannot know an uncertainty for certain. On the other hand, the Calvinist idea is that God predetermines all actions either through decrees, compatibilism, or both, and this makes everything certain and therefore knowable. This understanding makes the theological reality[1] of libertarian free will an impossibility in Calvinism. Fortunately, the impossibility is merely a Calvinistic impossibility rather than an actual one.

William G. T. Shedd argues that the undecreed (anything contingent such as a libertarian free choice) cannot be known, saying, “So long as anything remains undecreed, it is contingent and fortuitous. It may or may not happen. In this state of things, there cannot be knowledge of any kind.”[2] He further summarizes the impossibility of such a state, “To know, or to foreknow an uncertainty, is a solecism [inconsistency or error].”[3] He continues to pose decrees as certain and man having otherwise choice as being contingent and uncertain, which means, according to him, “There is, therefore, nothing knowable in the case. To know, or foreknow an uncertainty, is to know or foreknow a non-entity.”[4]

Succinctly, he is arguing that contingency is an uncertainty and, therefore, nothing; for that reason, it cannot be known, and it certainly cannot be known certainly. This understanding leads to the conclusion that for man to have the freedom to choose other than what was predetermined is impossible because such reality undermines God’s sovereignty. Charles Hodge states, “Because all events are included under the categories of the actual and possible; and, therefore, there is no room for such a class as events conditionally future. It is only possible, and not certain, how men would act under certain conditions, if their conduct be not predetermined, either by the purpose of God, or by their own decisions already formed.”[5] As Hodge discusses the subject, he makes it clear that Extensivists (we who believe God desires and made provisions so that every person can be saved, non-Calvinists) are the ones who accept what is now termed Libertarian free will,[6] and Calvinists are Compatibilists.[7]

Shedd considers the differing beliefs regarding the knowability of contingencies held by Socinians (a 16th-century heretical group) and Arminians, saying, “In respect to this point, the Socinian is more logical than the Arminian. Both agree that God does not decree those events which result from the action of the human will. Voluntary acts are not predetermined, but depend solely upon human will. Whether they shall occur rests ultimately upon man’s decision, not upon God’s. Hence human volitions are uncertainties for God, in the same way that an event which does not depend upon a man’s decision is an uncertainty for him. The inference that the Socinian drew from this was that foreknowledge of such events as human volitions is impossible to God. God cannot foreknow a thing that may or may not be a thing, an event that may or may not be an event. The Arminian, shrinking from this limitation of divine omniscience, asserts that God can foreknow an uncertainty, that is, that he can have foreknowledge without foreordination. But in this case, there is in reality nothing to be foreknown; there is no object of foreknowledge”[8] (italics added). Thus, Shedd disagrees that contingencies arising solely from the free will of man exist but agrees with the Socinians that if they do exist, they are unknowable.

I would make the following distinctions. Man knows differently from God since man is not omniscient and did not originate his ability to know or choose. God created man with such ability (always knowing he would have such, which man did not know), and he omnisciently always knew how such endowment could and would be used, which man did not nor does he now know. God’s knowledge is particular, comprehensive, exhaustive, and eternal. Man knows and learns perceptively, whereas God knows because he is essentially omniscient. That is to say, God as God knows everything as an essential part of who he is (even free acts of libertarian freedom) and, therefore, does not look beyond himself for knowledge, i.e., learn perceptively. He does not look down the halls of history to know contingencies; he knows them essentially; conversely, man’s knowledge is not of any such caliber either prior to or subsequent to the choices of others or even his own decisions.

This emphasis upon determinism stresses Calvinism’s inability to perceive God as portrayed in Scripture. While neither side is heretical, it seems to me that our views of man emanate from our different views of God. The Scripture seems to portray God as more than capable of creating man with such freedom, restoring it after the fall, and always knowing everything man would do. God is all-powerful and all-knowing. This includes the actual, potential, counterfactuals of otherwise choice (contingencies), what he will and will not cause, permit, and what he will make conditional even to the point of what option man will choose within the range he permits. He further knows what options flow from that and what man will subsequently choose out of that contingent range of options (new reality or sequence of events for man).

He knows our present and future thoughts, and he has known such eternally. His understanding is infinite. (Ps. 94:9; Ps. 139:1-18; Ps 147:5; Prov 15:3; Prov 15:11; Ezek 6:5; Matt 10:30; John 2:24-25; Acts 15:18; Heb 4:13). It is true that Calvinists believe these verses, as well as the surety and infinitude of God’s knowledge, but they do so for very different reasons than Extensivists; this difference includes the nature and role of causality and even what is meant by “know.” Calvinists postulate that he knows all because he causes all through such means as decretal theology and compatibilism, in which causation may include determined secondary causes.

The following provides some examples of God’s conditional knowledge (counterfactual knowledge). This can be seen in Matt 11:20-24. This passage gives every appearance of teaching that had the people of Tyre, Sidon, and Sodom had the opportunity afforded Bethsaida, Chorazin, and Capernaum, they would have repented; thus, the judgment upon the cities Jesus was addressing would be more severe. Yet, Charles Hodge, who seems troubled by this clear meaning, seeks to make this passage nothing more than “a figurative mode of stating the fact that the men of his generation were more hardened than the inhabitants of those ancient cities.”[9]

However, read without theological importations, it seems clear that Jesus was truly excoriating the people of these contemporary cities for squandering what others would have embraced. He could make such a claim based upon His omniscience, which includes counterfactual knowledge (what if). Jesus says clearly, “they would have repented.” D.A. Carson says, in reference to this judge (Jesus), “The Judge has contingent knowledge: he knows what Tyre and Sidon would have done under such-and-such circumstances.”[10]

I would note that Calvinists are inconsistent when they speak and contend for the existence of contingencies (talk like man has libertarian freedom) while believing in compatible moral freedom. This is true of all the Calvinists I quote in this article who speak libertarianly, and Carson is included in that group.

Charles Hodge says regarding God as the sum of perfection, “Such a being cannot be ignorant of anything; his knowledge can neither be increased nor diminished.”[11] On this, we can all agree. Extensivists differ with determinists by arguing that there is nothing that would or could happen by either particular predetermination (which includes unconditional realities) or predetermined permission (which includes conditional eventualities) of which God has ever lacked infinite knowledge. To wit, uncertainties in time and space and the mind and experience of man were never uncertain in the mind of God. Equating uncertainties of man to uncertainties of God and making contingencies essentially nothing and consequently unknowable is neither reflective of Scripture nor essential omniscience. It is, in fact, to limit God’s knowledge based on what we know about human knowledge rather than Scripture.

God’s knowledge includes every significant counterfactual potentiality, as well as every mundane detail of life, such as knowing every bird that falls from the sky and the number of hairs on everyone’s head (Matt 10:29-30). Both states are ever-changing and rather unimportant, yet God has eternally known everything about all of them because he is essentially omniscient. But such information neither entails nor suggests that he micro-causally predetermined each changing state of every second.

The Bible portrays many things as contingent, such as receiving wisdom based on seeking and asking (Prov 2:1-12; 4:5-7; 6:16; Jas 1:5). He grants grace to the ones who choose humility over pride (1 Pet 5:5). This genre of conditionality as well as the voluminous passages regarding the promise of blessing or cursing as contingent upon the decision of man (Gen 2:16-17; Deut 11:26-28) as well as salvation being contingent upon the choice of man and judgment upon same (Rom 10:8-11); gives every indication of libertarian otherwise choice.

There is nothing contradictory nor deficient in understanding the biblical portrait of human knowledge being uncertain while God’s is certain. As a matter of fact, that is the most lucid understanding. A person may, in fact, even be certain that he will act a certain way, at a certain time, under certain conditions, and actually end up acting differently than he truly believed he would. God’s knowledge of future events and choosing is not so uncertain. Peter offers us an example of such.

Christ told Peter that he would deny him, and Peter adamantly rejected such a notion (Matt 26:34-35). In the presence of Jesus, Peter could not imagine such; however, Jesus knew that one day Peter would not be in his presence, and under the conditions of that moment, Peter would, in fact, choose to deny Christ. This happened after Christ had been taken prisoner. At the time of Peter’s unthinkable denial, the conditions had changed and were far different than Peter could have imagined when he stood so strong in the presence of Christ.

The point of denial came when Peter was alone, scared, sad, and it was night. Peter’s emotions were disconcerted, and the host of uncertainties surrounding him was confusing and daunting; in that crucible of temptation, he did what he previously exclaimed with certainty that he would never do and what Christ said he would do. He denied Christ his Lord whom he loved no less at the temptation than at the time of strength. Christ, knowing all of that and knowing Peter exhaustively, knew Peter would deny him. Peter’s shock and regret that he had failed to stand by his Lord is evident when Peter wept bitterly (Matt 26:75).

This uncertainty about Peter’s decision was not uncertain to God. Christ always knew this, not because Peter was predetermined (the passage does not even hint at such), but rather Christ omnisciently knew the choice Peter would make before he made it, and this despite his determination to do otherwise. As God, Christ always knew what Peter would choose in different circumstances. Christ’s knowledge of such does not necessitate predetermination, either by decree or otherwise, but it only requires essential omniscience. Therefore, that a person will act in a particular way is certain to God, but it is not necessary as to causality. Had Peter chosen to act differently, God would have eternally known that. Even if uncertainty is nothing in time and space, that does not mean it is an absolute uncertainty (nothing) because uncertainty is a property of man’s knowledge but not God’s.

Charles Hodge says, “In virtue of his omniscient intelligence, He knows whatever infinite power can effect; and that from the consciousness of his own purposes, He knows what He has determined to effect or to permit to occur[12] (italics added). Again, I think we can all agree with this statement. The disagreement lies maybe in what his “infinite power can effect” (can he be sovereign over truly free otherwise choice beings or is that beyond his infinite power), or for sure the disagreement lies in what “He has determined to effect or to permit.” Contrary to Calvinism, the biblical narrative depicts man created in God’s image, which includes otherwise choice. With such freedom, God gives the range of options that are available to man “who works all things after the counsel of His will” (Eph 1:11). This freedom is not a potential thwarter to his plan and will. While it is a force, it is not external to his sovereignty. Rather, it is a vital component that bespeaks of his majestic power, wonder, and glory.

It is important to note that the idea of “permit” in Calvinism is quite different than used by Extensivists, Scripture, and people in everyday language. In Calvinism, it is no less causally determined than anything else, i.e., it is decreed or the result of compatible freedom. In contrast, Extensivists understand the idea of “permit” to be God giving freedom to do other than his holiness and mercy would actually desire one to do at that moment; to wit, free to do evil. While always desiring holiness, he permits contrarieties, yet he is not defeated by such. Rather, all such rebellion is comprehended in his will and is ultimately overcome. In contrast to Calvinism’s determinism wherein God desired such horror that he created a world in which such is causally predetermined rather than the consequence of man wrongly using the good gift of otherwise choice, the efficient cause.

The Calvinist’s determinism of all is seen once more when Hodge says, “A free agent, it is said, can always act contrary to any amount of influence brought to bear upon him, consistent with his free agency. But if free acts must be uncertain, they cannot be foreseen as certain under any conditions.”[13] Again we see the Calvinist conundrum being due in large measure to applying the uncertainty of man to God. The fallacy and problem arise from equating the actor’s uncertainty to uncertainty with the Creator God. Of course, the act is uncertain to the actor, but not God. As to certainty and infinite knowledge, his knowledge of such seems no more uncertain than decreeing something to be. Both are in that sense always known within God, intuitively, since he has always known everything potential, actual, possible, and conditional, and he looks no further than himself for such knowledge.

Simply said, what man could do (range of available options) and what he will choose to do from the God-given range of options has forever been known with inviolable certainty by God. He knows this with the same certitude that he knows those things he would directly cause. God’s knowledge of the actual, potential, and what realities he will actualize are inherent in his perfection and omniscience, which does not require microcausality of every act of man. This understanding is, in fact, a more biblically reflective and grander portrayal of God than the Calvinist painting. The God of Scripture can cause or permit (permit allowing results from libertarian free beings), and he can know with certainty (without necessity) the acts of efficient causes–agent causation. He even knew the influences and the intricacies of the deliberative process of each free being. This represents man as having objective liberty in contrast to believing that man’s liberty is merely subjective (objective means that man’s sense of choosing between accessible options is actual rather than merely subjective, imaginary, as in Calvinism’s compatible moral freedom).

God’s certainty of man’s choice within the range of options given by God does not mean that man could not have chosen to do other than what he did, in fact, choose. The act in time is both free and certain. It is free as to choice between options afforded man in time, and it is certain as to God’s eternal knowledge of what said choice would be. Some ask if God believed in eternity that man would act a certain way, and then at the last second man acted differently, would God have believed wrongly or been mistaken. The answer is no.

Regarding man, William Lane Craig notes, “He has the power to act in a different way, and if he were to act in that way, God would have believed differently.”[14] Lewis Sperry Chafer notes, “If the question be asked whether the moral agent has freedom to act otherwise than as God foresees he will act, it may be replied that the human will because of its inherent freedom of choice is capable of electing the opposite course to that divinely foreknown; but he will not do so. If he did so, that would be the thing which God foreknew. The divine foreknowledge does not coerce; it merely knows what the human choice will be.”[15]

To wit, God always knew what a person would freely decide (so the decision is, in fact, free and could have been otherwise had the free agent so chosen), but it is certain in that God’s knowledge of such choice is perfect. Had man chosen otherwise, God would have always known. Thus, Extensivists believe that man will act in a certain way, whereas Calvinism believes man must act in a certain way. Extensivists believe man will certainly act a definite way when he could have truly done otherwise, and therefore man’s deliberative process, freedom, and liberty are objective. The free act of man is certain, but it is not necessary. The only thing that is necessary about man’s choice is that if he would have chosen otherwise, God would have known that choice because God knows everything and cannot be mistaken.[16] Therefore, the concept of liberty is objective rather than merely subjective, as in compatibilism. Further, the belief in libertarian free choice does not mean that God cannot override man’s freedom when he so chooses, and to postulate such is an egregious misrepresentation of libertarianism.

Calvinism teaches that God foreknows because he decreed that man would act a certain way, and thus man necessarily acts a certain way, and God can be certain of that. Extensivism says God foreknows because infinite knowledge of the actual and potential (including new event sequences resulting from otherwise choice of humans) is an essential property of his foreknowledge. Thus, it seems that Calvinism inadequately portrays and comprehends the biblical representation and facts regarding what man could, should, might, and will do, whereas Extensivism does encompass these in foreknowledge.

In both perspectives, there is never a nanosecond that God does not know with certainty the outcome of every act. The difference is that Calvinism permits God to know because he decreed such a certain way, whereas Extensivism makes liberty objective and known by God simply because he is God.[17] The latter reflects the numerous biblical encounters of people with God wherein they are commanded to act a certain way, reprimanded and punished for not doing so, and blessed when they do; thus, making people responsible for their actions against grace very clear.

Of course, such understanding does not make sense to a Calvinist. Part of the reason is that their definitions are derived from and lead to micro predetermination. I understand this does not fit the grid of Calvinism because I am not a determinist with all of its horrors; however, my argument is that it does fit Scripture. It makes both foreknowledge (omniscience) and otherwise choice more consistent with Scripture without theoretical accouterments. Calvinists strongly demur to man possessing such freedom, God being able to create such, and I understand that position. I would argue that their conclusions are largely reliant upon speculative theology and unnecessarily restrictive definitions of terms that require auxiliary concepts. In contrast, Extensivism seems to be more reflective of the biblical portrayal of God’s knowing and man’s freedom than some speculation that God is incapable of knowing what he permits without necessitating such by causality.

According to the knowledge of finite vs. infinite, we must remember that we are similar to ants (metaphorically speaking) under the microscopic lens of omniscience, which sees the deliberative process, influences, and degrees of struggle. All of which has been eternally known by God before the event in time better than man knows his choices after the event. Consequently, neither the slightest aspect of the deliberative process nor the final choice is ever unknown to God. With man having true libertarian freedom, God could always have written Gen 3:1-6, and there was never a point that he could not. Both the actualization of the event and Moses’ writing depended on the start of time, whereas God’s knowledge of such is eternally a part of his being. Thus, foreknowledge establishes certainty without determinative causation.

It is important to remember that causation (etiology) and knowing (epistemology) are different categories, and to treat them the same as Calvinism does is to confuse and conflate the two wrongly. All human examples of God’s foreknowledge break down at some point, e.g., humans never can know the future perfectly, and humans know perceptively, whereas God’s knowledge is essential. The following illustrates the difference between foreknowing and causing, even though foreknowledge is not absolute.

I tell people that I know whom Gina (my wife for 47 years) will vote for when she goes into the voting booth. I know this with mathematical certainty. I can tell you whom she voted for before I ever see her or talk with her after casting her vote. Why? Is it because I forced her, I coerced her, or that I somehow rigged the booth to cause her to vote a certain way (so that her freedom was merely subjective)? Absolutely not! I know how she will vote because I know her intimately. My knowledge of how she would vote actually has no bearing on her choice of whom to vote for, but rather I know because I know her. Simply put, knowledge and causation of certain actions are not synonymous.

With regard to man, God’s knowledge does not necessarily prejudice outcomes.[18] Chafer notes, “Divine prescience of itself implies no element of necessity or determination, though it does imply certainty.”[19] God is not informed by looking beyond himself, nor is he informed sequentially even though he distinguishes the sequence of events.

To know future contingencies, all God must know is himself, which includes his intentions. And he does know himself exhaustively.

[1] I say theological because Calvinist and non-Calvinist alike know that no one lives consistently with determinism; accordingly, libertarian freedom is obviously a real-world reality.
[2] William G.T. Shedd, Dogmatic Theology, vol. I (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1980), 397. He is comparing Socinian and Arminian theology.
[3] Shedd, Dogmatic Theology, vol. I, 398. Solecism meaning an inconsistency or error.
[4] Shedd, Dogmatic Theology, vol. I, 398.
[5] Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, vol. I (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1986), 399.
[6] He later refers to this concept variously as “contingency,” “liberty of indifference,” “self-determining power of the will,” although I do not find his definition to be accurate or precise. Hodge, Systematic Theology, vol. 2 (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1997), 282-83.
[7] Hodge says, “This is one of the points in which theology and psychology come into immediate contact. There is a theory of free agency with which the doctrines of original sin and of efficacious grace are utterly irreconcilable, and there is another theory with which those doctrines are perfectly consistent. In all ages of the Church, therefore, those who have adopted the former of these theories, reject those doctrines; and, on the other hand, those who are constrained to believe those doctrines, are no less constrained to adopt the other and congenial theory of free agency. Pelagians, Semi-Pelagians, and Remonstrants are not more notoriously at variance with Augustinians, Lutherans, and Calvinists, on the doctrines of sin and grace, than they are on the metaphysical and moral question of human liberty.” Hodge, Systematic Theology, vol. 2, 278.
[8] William Greenough Thayer Shedd, Dogmatic Theology, ed. Alan W. Gomes, 3rd ed. (Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R Pub., 2003), Logos, 313. 397-98.
[9] Hodge, Systematic Theology, vol. I, 400.
[10] D.A. Carson, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary on Matthew, vol. 8 (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1984), 273. D.A. Carson is a Calvinist, but he is forthright about the simple meaning of the passage, which I appreciate. As a Calvinist, if consistent, he would have difficulty with this statement and unconditional election. The non-Calvinist has no such problem since we teach that everyone gets an opportunity, but we do not teach that everyone gets the same opportunity to believe, which seems to be an absolute impossibility in a time and space continuum.
[11] Hodge, Systematic Theology, vol. I, 397.
[12] Shedd Dogmatic Theology, vol. I, 398.
[13] Hodge, Systematic Theology, vol. I, 399-400.
[14] William Lane Craig, The Only Wise God (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 1999), 71.
[15] Lewis Sperry Chafer, Systematic Theology, vol. I (Dallas: Dallas Seminary Press, 1947), 196.
[16] See William Lane Craig’s book The Only Wise God for a fuller explanation and illustration of certainty and necessity, pages 69-73.
[17] Craig, Only Wise God, 74. Craig says of logical priority, “To say that something is logically prior to something else is not to say that the one occurs before the other in time. Temporally, they could be simultaneous. Rather, logical priority means that something serves to explain something else. The one provides the grounds or basis for the other. For example, the premises in an argument are logically prior to the conclusion, since the conclusion is derived from and based on the premises, even though temporally the premises and conclusion are all simultaneously true. this does not mean that there was a time at which certain events occurred without God’s knowing about them. The priority here is purely logical, not temporal.” 127-28. See also where he demonstrates the fallacy of the fatalistic argument, 72-74. I think the term explanatorily prior may be more helpful.
[18] The action does not cause (chronologically prior) God’s foreknowledge, but it is logically prior like “four is an even number because it is divisible by two. The word because expresses a logical relation of ground and consequent. Once we understand the logical priority of the events to God’s knowledge of them, we can see more easily why the fact of God’s foreknowledge does not prejudice anything.” Craig, Only Wise God, 73-74.
[19] Chafer, Systematic Theology, vol. I, 194.

Ronnie W. Rogers