Thomas Ralston on Freedom of the Will Part 8: Can Free Agency be Harmonized With Divine Foreknowledge?

Thomas Ralston now tackles the necessitarian objection that God’s foreknowledge of our actions renders the power of self-determination impossible.

II. The next grand objection to the doctrine of free agency is, that it is supposed to be irreconcilable with the Scripture account of the divine prescience.

Necessitarians argue that free agency, in the proper sense, implies contingency; and that contingency cannot be reconciled with the divine foreknowledge. It is admitted by Arminians, and the advocates of free agency generally, that the foreknowledge of God extends to all things great and small, whether necessary or contingent – that it is perfect and certain.

The only question is, whether this foreknowledge implies necessity. That whatever God foreknows certainly will take place, we are free to acknowledge; but that this certain foreknowledge implies absolute necessity, is what we deny, and what, we believe, cannot be proved. All the arguments we have seen adduced for that purpose are based upon the supposition that certainty and necessity are synonymous. Now, if we can show that they are separate and distinct things, and that certainty does not imply necessity, the objection under consideration must fall to the ground.

The burden of proof really lies with the one who wants to claim that certainty and necessity amount to the same thing.  It simply cannot be proven as Ralston demonstrates below. Though our minds might have trouble understanding how something can be foreknown and contingent, it is not illogical.  In fact, when knowledge is properly defined and the distinction between certainty and necessity are properly made, it is not even that hard to understand.  All that cannot be fully understood is how exactly God can possess such an ability (to perfectly foreknow the future).  But this is hardly an objection since there is much about God’s power and ability that is far beyond our comprehension, and this is acknowledged by all Christians, whether they be Arminian or Calvinist in theology.

We remark, in the first place, that this objection labors under the serious difficulty that, while it aims to destroy the free agency of man, it really would destroy the free agency of God. For, if whatever is foreknown as certain must also be necessary, and cannot possibly be otherwise, then, as God foreknew from eternity every act that he would perform throughout all duration, he has, all the while, instead of being a free agent, acting after the “counsel of his own will,” been nothing more than a passive machine, acting as acted upon by stern necessity. This conclusion is most horribly revolting; but, according to the argument of necessitarians, it cannot possibly be avoided. And if we are forced to the conclusion that God only acts as impelled by necessity, and can in no case act differently from what he does, then it must follow that necessity or fate made and preserves all things; but is it not obvious that this doctrine of necessity, as applied to the Deity, is most glaringly absurd? To suppose that the great Jehovah, in all his acts, has been impelled by necessity, or, which is the same thing, that he has only moved as he was acted upon, is to suppose the eternal existence of some moving power separate and distinct from the Deity, and superior to him; which would be at once to deny his independence and supremacy. We cannot, then, without the most consummate arrogance and absurdity, admit the position that all the acts of the Deity are brought about by necessity. Yet they are foreknown; and if, as we have seen, God’s foreknowledge of his own acts does not render them necessary, and destroy his free agency, how can it be consistently argued that God’s foreknowledge of the acts of men renders them necessary, and destroys their free agency?

Again, let us contemplate the subject of foreknowledge in relation to the actions of men, and see what evidence we can find that it implies necessity. It has been contended that God cannot foreknow that a future event certainly will take place, unless that event necessarily depends upon something by which it is known. “The only way,” says President Edwards, “by which any thing can be known, is for it to be evident; and if there be any evidence of it, it must be one of these two sorts, either self-evidence or proof: an evident thing must be either evident in itself, or evident in something else.” This he lays down as his premises, from which he proceeds to argue that God cannot foreknow future events, unless they are rendered absolutely necessary. That his premises, and the reasoning based upon them, may hold good in reference to the knowledge of man, we do not question; but that they apply to the foreknowledge of the Deity, cannot be shown.

If man foreknows any thing, that foreknowledge must result from a knowledge of something now existing, between which and the event foreknown there is a necessary connection. But is it legitimate to infer that because this is the case with man, it must also be the case with God? Have we a right to measure the Holy One by ourselves? Indeed, to infer the necessity of all things from the divine prescience, is to limit the perfections of Jehovah. It is to say either that God could not constitute any thing contingent, or that, after having so constituted it, he cannot foreknow it.  Either hypothesis would argue a limitation to the perfections of God.

This subject, we think, may be rendered plain by a careful reflection on the nature of knowledge. What is it? Is it an active power, possessing a distinct independent existence? We answer, No. It is passive in its nature, and possesses only a dependent and relative existence. It can exist only in the mind of an intelligent being. Knowledge, as such, can exert no immediate and active influence on any thing whatever.

It has been said that “knowledge is power;” but it is not implied by that expression that it is a power capable of exerting itself. All that is implied is, that it directs an active agent in the manner of exerting his power. What effect, I would ask, can my knowledge of a past event have upon that event? Surely none at all. What effect can my knowledge of a future event have upon it? Considered in itself, it can have no influence at all. Is there any event, whether past, present, or future, on which the mere knowledge of man can have any influence? Certainly there is none. Knowledge is something existing in the mind. It has its seat there, and of itself it is incapable of walking abroad to act upon extraneous objects. I would therefore ask, What effect can the divine knowledge have on a past or present event? Is it not obvious that it can have none? The knowledge of God does not affect the faithfulness of Abraham, or the treachery of Judas, in the least. Those events would still continue to have occurred precisely as they did, if we could suppose all trace of them to be erased from the divine mind. And if we could suppose that God was not now looking down upon me, could any one believe that I would write with any more or less freedom on that account? Surely not. If, then, knowledge, considered in all these different aspects, is passive in its nature, how can we rationally infer that its passivity is converted into activity so soon as we view it in the aspect of the divine prescience?

But it will doubtless be argued that although the foreknowledge of God may not render future events necessary, yet it proves that they are so. To this we reply, that it proves that they are certain, but cannot prove that they are necessary. But still, it will be asked, where is the difference? If they are certain, must they not therefore be necessary?

That we may illustrate the distinction between certainty and necessity, we will refer to the crime of Judas in betraying the Saviour. Here we would say it was a matter certain in the divine mind, from all eternity, that Judas would commit this crime. God foreknew it. Although it was also foretold, yet it was not rendered any the more certain by that circumstance; for prediction is only knowledge recorded or made manifest; but knowledge is equally certain, whether secret or revealed. The pointed question now is, Could Judas possibly have avoided that crime? Was he still a free agent? and might he have acted differently? or was he impelled by absolute necessity? We answer, he could have avoided the crime. He was still a free agent, and might have acted differently.

Here it will no doubt be argued that if he had avoided the crime, the foreknowledge of God would have been defeated, and the Scriptures broken. To fairly solve this difficulty, and draw the line between certainty and necessity, we answer, that if Judas, in the exercise of the power of free agency with which he was endued, had proved faithful, and avoided the crime in question, neither would the foreknowledge of God have been frustrated, nor the Scriptures broken. In that case, the foreknowledge of God would have been different, accordingly as the subject varied upon which it was exercised. God could not then have foreknown his treachery; and had it not been foreknown, it never could have been predicted. A free agent may falsify a proposition supposed to announce foreknowledge, but cannot falsify foreknowledge; for if the agent should falsify the proposition, that proposition never could have been the announcement of foreknowledge.

The truth is, the prediction depends on the foreknowledge, and the foreknowledge on the event itself. The error of the necessitarians on this subject is, they put the effect for the cause, and the cause for the effect. They make the foreknowledge the cause of the event, whereas the event is the cause of the foreknowledge. No event ever took place merely because God foreknew it; on the contrary, the taking place of the event is the cause of his having foreknown it. Let this distinction be kept in mind, that, in the order of nature, the event does not depend on the knowledge of it, but the knowledge on the event, and we may readily see a distinction between certainty and necessity. It is certain with God who will be saved, and who will not; yet it is likewise certain that salvation is made possible to many who, according to the certain prescience of God, never will embrace it. God has made some things necessary, and some things contingent. Necessary events he foreknew as necessary – that is, he foreknew that they could not possibly take place otherwise. Contingent events he foreknew as contingent – that is, he foreknew that they might take place otherwise. And thus, we think, foreknowledge and free agency may be harmonized, human responsibility maintained, and the divine government successfully vindicated. (Elements of Divinity, pp. 199-203, Wesleyan Heritage Collection CD)

Ralston’s observations on this subject are excellent.  Necessitarians must deny that God can know true contingencies without any Biblical warrant.  They base their arguments on the unfounded philosophical assumption that what is certain must also be necessary.  Ralston proves that this is baseless assertion and to claim otherwise is to make knowledge causative (which can never be proved and is contrary to our own experience of knowledge), make God’s own actions necessitated rather than free, and to reverse the natural order of cause and effect with regards to the event and the knowledge of that event.  Ralston well points out that the event is the basis of knowledge and knowledge is not the basis (and certainly not the cause) of the event.  While God’s knowledge is dependent on the thing known, God is not dependant on the thing known, nor does such knowledge suggest that God then “learns,” for there was never a “time” (so to speak) when God did not fully and perfectly know all things, contingent or otherwise.

In our final post Ralston will deal with the objection to self-determinism on the grounds of motives controlling and thereby necessitating our actions.  The best is yet to come.  

5 thoughts on “Thomas Ralston on Freedom of the Will Part 8: Can Free Agency be Harmonized With Divine Foreknowledge?

  1. How well he has phrased it here.

    The error of the necessitarians on this subject is, they put the effect for the cause, and the cause for the effect. They make the foreknowledge the cause of the event, whereas the event is the cause of the foreknowledge.

    May I ask if the emphasis is his or yours?

  2. There is a glaring mistake in his logic here:

    For, if whatever is foreknown as certain must also be necessary, and cannot possibly be otherwise, then, as God foreknew from eternity every act that he would perform throughout all duration, he has, all the while, instead of being a free agent, acting after the “counsel of his own will,” been nothing more than a passive machine, acting as acted upon by stern necessity.

    Open Theists believe that God, in fact, does NOT know “from eternity every act that he would perform throughout all duration.” This is the whole point of open theism – Many future actions, both of man and of God, are actually and truly open. To say that God knows all the acts he will perform from all eternity makes God a liar, since He often says that He is going to something, and then Repents of it, and changes his mind. For example, if he knew all along that He was not going to destroy Nineveh, why would he tell the Ninevites that He was going to destroy Nineveh?

    God’s actions are often based on the responses and actions of humans. If future human actions are genuine contingencies, and not certainties nor necessities, then it follows that God’s responses to these actions can also be contingent, not necessary, and not foreknown, even by God himself.

  3. Mike,

    Are you an open theist? It would appear so. You claim that Ralston’s logic does not follow, but I do not see how that is the case at all. You disagree with one of his major premises (exhaustive foreknowledge), but that doesn’t mean his logic doesn’t follow given that premise. You need to remember that Ralston is addressing the Calvinist denial of libertarian free will. He is specifically addressing the Calvinist argument based on foreknowledge, that if God foreknows something it cannot be free. Since Ralston holds to both foreknowledge and freedom, he is pointing out to the Calvinist that if it is true that God’s foreknowledge renders free acts impossible, then God Himself would not be free since He would foreknow all that He would do as well, rendering even His own acts necessary and not free.

    Open theists, like you (apparently), seem to agree with Calvinists that God cannot foreknow free acts, but you take the route of denying God’s foreknowledge, rather than denying free will. Arminians, like me, do not see a problem with freedom and foreknowledge. We see that they are perfectly compatible. If you want, I can give you some resources that address the issue and prove definitively (in my opinion) that God’s foreknowledge is perfectly compatible with libertarian free will.

    God Bless,

  4. BTW, I think the post above makes a very strong case for the compatibility of foreknowledge with true contingency. Did you happen to read the whole thing?

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