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The Reformed Doctrine of Divine Foreknowledge – A Call for a Coherent and Unified Voice

Molinists and Reformed thinkers agree that God knows all possible counterfactuals of creaturely freedom according to his natural knowledge. In this regard, the significant difference between the two schools of thought is that from a Molinist perspective God’s natural knowledge does not inform him of which possibilities can be made actual. In other words, from a distinctly Molinist perspective God must look to his middle knowledge because not all possibilities can be actualized due to a different understanding of how God’s determination would relate to human freedom and moral accountability. In other words, because Molinism opts for libertarian freedom rather than a Reformed view of compatibilist freedom, there are infinite possibilities that God cannot make actual because they are out of his control. Molinists call such possibilities “infeasibilities”, yet they’re still philosophically (metaphysically) possible.

If the Reformed faith is God’s deposit of the purest doctrine in the 21st century, then being walled in by Reformed confessional theology can keep one believing true doctrine. Thankfully and in God’s kind providence, we have Reformed confessions and catechisms to guide us theologically and provide protection against believing false doctrine. However, merely believing true doctrine and actually knowing true doctrine entails vastly different propositional attitudes. It’s not hard to appreciate that believing in the Reformed doctrines of grace because the Westminster standards teach them is not on par with knowing the doctrines of grace because we’ve seen them for ourselves in the Scriptures. It’s hardly controversial that if our belief in any theological doctrine reduces merely to subscribing to it without sufficient reason, our doctrinal conviction will be either (a) as weak as our understanding of it, or else (b) factiously inflated. Either way – whether we have no clear conviction or spurious conviction – we cannot but lack cognizant doctrinal assurance.

Even though we may have come to the Reformed faith having seen for ourselves predestination in the Scriptures, we should guard against growing comfortable with a Reformed adaptation of the Roman Catholic notion of implicit faith (fides implicita) with respect to the rest of our confessional theology. However, not only should we not be theologically credulous – neither should we be skeptical when we approach the church’s teachings. Rather, we should recognize that although post-apostolic teachings may err and have erred, Christ’s promise to build his church upon the teachings of Scripture presupposes that by attending to the church’s teaching we can lay hold of true doctrine and the substance of genuine Christian piety and practice. Accordingly, through prayerful study and the church’s teaching, we may be confident that we can arrive at the church’s doctrine set forth in Scripture as we attend to the Scripture’s teaching that is embedded in the catholic creeds and Reformed confessions.

God’s Foreknowledge

Although the Reformed doctrine of the divine foreknowledge is not attended to with the scholastic care it once was, there are nonetheless contemporary doctors in the church who ably defend the doctrine against aberrant views that can appear quite enticing. (See James Anderson and Greg Welty.) Notwithstanding, because Reformed institutions today have in large part not seen the need to bring the Reformed tradition into dialogue with contemporary analytic philosophy, those teachers are relatively few. As a result, capable Reformed students can be left with a superficial philosophical-theology if not an incorrect understanding of how to defend against the sophistication and growing influence of modern day Molinism.

What’s at stake?

Before getting into terms of art and an interaction with the contemporary Reformed landscape, it should be appreciated at the outset that the Reformed doctrine of God’s creative decree as it relates to divine foreknowledge and free will are the most distinguishing features of the Reformed faith when compared to all other evangelical traditions. Furthermore, given the interdependence between theological concepts, in particular the doctrines of God and his works, a fragile grasp of either will necessarily lead to a lack of clarity about the other (if we are consistent).

Finally, the name most associated with Molinism is William Lane Craig. In Craig’s estimation:

[Molinism is] one of the most fruitful theological ideas ever conceived. For it would serve to explain not only God’s knowledge of the future, but divine providence and predestination as well…

Although I differ with Dr. Craig’s viewpoint, on some level I do appreciate his enthusiasm. Any Calvinist who is thoroughly acquainted with Molinism recognizes that it provides a robust view of divine sovereignty while offering a view of free will that is attractive to most. Notwithstanding, it is my conviction that only the theological determinism of the Reformed tradition can reconcile God’s exhaustive omniscience and human freedom. In particular, a deeper appreciation for God’s free knowledge can lead to radically profound reflections over the sovereign determination of contingent truths pertaining to creation, providence and grace, while simultaneously rendering the supposed profundity of Molinism utterly fruitless.

Taxonomy

Before interacting with the thoughts of Paul Helm, who has been considered by many to be the go-to Reformed philosophical expert in the doctrines of decree and providence, it might be helpful to consider some terms and concepts when it comes to God’s exhaustive omniscience. Without being familiar with specific terms of art, it will be difficult to understand Helm and just how generally disunited the Reformed camp is in trading in settled philosophical jargon, which in turn makes dialogue with skilled, yet opposing, Christian philosophers like J.P Moreland and William Lane Craig more challenging than necessary.

Natural Knowledge, a very good place to start:

Natural knowledge is God’s knowledge of all necessary truths. What this means is that God’s natural knowledge includes those things that are impossible not to be true, such as the law of non-contradiction (LNC) and God’s attributes. For example, there is no possibility that an object while being a rock is not a rock (LNC), or that God can be other than holy (divine attribute). We might observe up front that objects of natural knowledge are true without God willing them to be so. Rather, objects of natural knowledge are true because they are grounded in God’s unwilled nature. In addition to these sorts of necessary truths, God also knows all possibilities according to his natural knowledge. From a distinctly Reformed perspective, God’s natural knowledge of all possibilities correlates to God’s self-knowledge of what he can do. Which is to say, God can actualize all possibilities, which is not a tenet of Molinism.

Free Knowledge

In addition to God’s natural knowledge, God has free knowledge. Unlike natural knowledge, free knowledge is logically predicated upon God’s creative decree. A comparative example might be useful here. God knew that Tyre and Sidon would not repent because he freely willed that they would not repent. Consequently, God’s knowledge regarding Tyre and Sidon, from a distinctly Reformed perspective, was predicated upon his sovereign determination, which is unlike God’s passive knowledge of his holiness. What is perhaps less obvious in this regard is that God did not only determine the hardness of heart found in Tyre and Sidon, but also the counterfactual truth that had certain miracles been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented. So, although the counterfactual of Tyre and Sidon’s repentance was not decreed actually to occur in history, it was no less determined that: had certain miracles been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented. We may refer to such counterfactuals of creaturely freedom as would-counterfactuals. The takeaway is simply this. From a Reformed perspective, objects of free knowledge don’t just include determined things that will occur but, also, determined things that would occur if certain states of affairs were to obtain (even if they won’t). Consequently, although all would-counterfactuals are objects of God’s omniscience (specifically, God’s free knowledge), not all are foreknown as future. In other words, some counterfactuals are determined merely to be true, whereas others are determined actually to occur. An additional example might be useful in making the point. God decreed that I’d write this piece at precisely this time under certain conditions. However, if God also knows what I would have done had I been distracted by a phone call while writing, then that bit of additional knowledge would be according to his free knowledge of an independently determined counterfactual. In other words, God would not know what I would have done under other circumstances according to natural knowledge but via his free knowledge.*

Consistent Reformed thinkers, a summary of sort:

An entailment of Reformed thought is that the free choices men would make in any situation are divinely determined and, consequently, a result of God’s creative decree. With this understanding comes a recognition that would-counterfactuals, which God freely knows, are in a qualified sense a subset of counterfactual possibilities that God knows according to his natural knowledge. This means that from a Reformed perspective, would-counterfactuals are contingent truths which God freely determines, whereas the set of possibilities from which God chooses to make them true are necessary truths grounded in God’s self-knowledge of what he can actualize.** As 19th century Princeton theologian A.A. Hodge would correctly have it – God determines the relationship of cause to effect. In other words, for Hodge it is the decree of God that makes even contingent events contingent!

The decree, instead of altering, determines the nature of events, and their mutual relations. It makes free actions free in relation to their agents, and contingent events contingent in relation to their conditions.

In other words, God pre-interprets the particulars and wills their relationship of cause and effect. Consequently, true counterfactuals of creaturely freedom are objects of God’s creative decree and consequently posterior to it.

Agreement and disagreement between opposing camps:

Molinists and Reformed thinkers agree that God knows all possible counterfactuals of creaturely freedom according to his natural knowledge. In this regard, the significant difference between the two schools of thought is that from a Molinist perspective God’s natural knowledge does not inform him of which possibilities can be made actual. In other words, from a distinctly Molinist perspective God must look to his middle knowledge because not all possibilities can be actualized due to a different understanding of how God’s determination would relate to human freedom and moral accountability.

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