[asa] How Could God Know the Future?

From: Dick Fischer <dickfischer@verizon.net>
Date: Sat Mar 14 2009 - 17:29:20 EDT

Interesting contribution. It's not just knowing what people will do in
given situations, trillions of external factors effect our lives every day
causing deaths and births and stuff in between.




Perhaps the first thing to note about the question "How could God know the
future?" is that it could be taken in two very different ways. First, by
emphasizing the "How," one might think the question is asking for an
explanation of something that we know occurs-i.e., as asking, "Given that
God knows the future, what accounts for or explains God's knowledge?" So
understood, the question is akin to asking of a magician, "I know you made
her disappear, but how did you do it?" Alternatively, by emphasizing the
"could," we might take the question as implicitly challenging the claim that
God does know the future-as asking, rhetorically, "Why on earth think that
God knows what's going to happen?" Understood in this second way, the
question is similar to reacting to a friend's suspicions by asking
plaintively, "How could I betray you?" On the contemporary philosophical
scene, the question, taken either way, has been much discussed.

Those who call themselves "open theists" deny that God has comprehensive
knowledge of the future. In particular, they deny that God can know what
people will freely do. Some open theists think that there simply are no
facts about future free actions; others say that, though there are such
facts, there's no way anyone can know them, or at least no way God can know
them, since God's knowing now that I will do such-and-such tomorrow would
entail that I'd have no alternative but to do such-and-such tomorrow, and
thus wouldn't do it freely. All open theists, though, agree that God's
knowledge of the future is quite limited, and hence that God needs to take
risks in interacting with creation.
Open theism, though, is very much a minority view among those engaged in
philosophical theology. The far more traditional view-that God, being
omniscient, has perfect and complete knowledge of the future-is still
dominant. But traditionalists are hardly united in their explanations of how
God knows the future.

One traditional explanation holds that God knows what will happen in time
because God isn't in time. The doctrine of divine eternity holds that God is
not limited, as we are, by temporal or spatial boundaries. God's is a
perfect life, not one balanced on the knife's edge of the present, the
barely existing dividing line between the no-longer-existent past and the
not-yet-existent future. God's being outside of time, these "eternalists"
say, affords God perfect access to every moment in time, much as (to use a
favorite eternalist metaphor) an observer on a mountaintop can see in one
glance every member of a single-file troop marching below him, while those
involved in the march have a much more limited perspective. According to
eternalists, speaking of divine foreknowledge is at best misleading. God
knows what, from our perspective in the march of time, is in the future-but
it's not future to God.

Many traditionalists, though, find the eternalist explanation of how God
knows the future unsatisfying. The observational metaphor it employs, they
argue, points to a God whose knowledge of the future is purely passive. But
the God of traditional monotheism, they insist, isn't one who just likes to
watch: God's an active creator, the providential sovereign whose world
develops as it does because God planned that it so develop. So even if God
is outside of time, we can't use that to explain God's knowledge of the

Traditionalists who adopt this line have developed it in two very different
directions. Some suggest that God knows the future because God determines
everything that takes place. As the "first cause," God has complete
understanding of the causal ramifications, both short run and long term, of
all that God does. Everything that occurs, then, can be traced back to God's
own creative intentions; in knowing God's intentions, God knows our future.
The metaphor of the author is sometimes used to explain how this divine
determination is compatible with our freedom. An author decides how a
character in her novel behaves, but in the world of the novel, the character
can still be acting freely.

Other traditionalists find this account bizarre. If God is determining how
we act, then we're just fooling ourselves if we pretend that we have genuine
freedom. God exists and acts in our world, not in a separate authorial
plane. So if God's causing us to act as we do, then we're simply not free.
The only way to reconcile God's active foreknowledge with our genuine
freedom, they say, is to see God's providence as acting through the
knowledge of how we would freely respond if God were to put us in various
situations. Knowledge of this sort is often called "middle knowledge,"
since, as knowledge of what would happen, it can be thought of as located
between knowledge of what could happen (knowledge of what's possible) and
knowledge of what will happen (knowledge of what's actual). A God who has
middle knowledge and decides which situations we will be in, the advocates
of this position contend, would know all that we will freely do-and know it
without causing it, thereby safeguarding our freedom.

This "middle knowledge" answer to the question of how God knows the future
has many advocates (including me), but also many critics, who charge (among
other things) that there's simply nothing in the world that could ground the
sort of what-would-happen-if truths that middle knowledge requires.

So the issue of divine foreknowledge is one that is currently quite
unsettled among philosophers and theologians. Where will this discussion
head in the future? Only God knows. Perhaps.


Dick Fischer, GPA president

Genesis Proclaimed Association

"Finding Harmony in Bible, Science and History"




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Received on Sat Mar 14 17:30:14 2009

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