God and the Governance of His Universe (Pt. Two)

Does God always "get His way"? The question is loaded, no doubt, and is asked within the context of my presupposition that God does not always "get His way." Calvinists reject my presupposition, insisting that God always gets His way, because He has decreed every minutiae of our existence. An obvious example promoting an Arminian understanding of this issue regards God's hatred of sin. "My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin," writes the author John, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit (1 John 2:1). God's will for us is sanctification (1 Thess. 4:3) -- a setting apart from sin. He does not want us to sin. Yet people sin. "There are six things that the LORD hates, seven that are an abomination to him" (Prov. 6:16). Yet people commit all seven. God does not always get what He wants.

I think this has a profound implication for how we are to view God's relationship to His creation, namely, the creatures He created in His image. If God's will is for the holiness of believers (1 Thess. 4:3) then God would not and could not have decreed or foreordained for us to sin. If we sin not by God's decree, but by our own freedom, then any notion whatsoever of God conscripting by decree the events of our personal histories which includes sin cannot be instantiated. This rules out Calvinism in toto. Simplistically, our other viable options are Molinism, Arminianism, and Open Theism.

As to Molinism, the idea that God accomplishes His purposes in free creatures through His middle knowledge seems biblical, plausible and a viable option -- at least at face value. But one wonders, at least philosophically, whether a possible world exists where God could have sent His Son, Jesus, into the world to pay the price for the sin of each and every person ever to exist. In this world, God could have, on the basis of Jesus' suffering, and the pouring out of His wrath on His Son in full, unconditionally elected each and every person to faith in Christ and ultimate, eschatological salvation. He could have irresistibly drawn each person to faith in Christ by regenerating each individual, thus (allegedly) guaranteeing the outcome.

If this world were possible, and given that God is the Greatest Good and longs to bring about the best of all possible worlds, then why would God not bring about that world? If that world were possible, and I have yet to understand why that world would be impossible, then this world is not the best of all possible worlds. That world posits the salvation of all persons, the wrath of God being displayed in the Cross of Christ at Calvary, and God's glorious and unconditionally-universal redemption. That world is a better world than this world, where more enter hell than heaven (Matt. 7:13, 14), even though Christ received the full wrath of God. Which, in a Molinistic context, only causes us to ask whether God really is the Greatest Good in the universe.

Moreover, what of the possible world where Satan was banned from contact with human beings, and Adam and Eve, not being tempted to disobey God or coming to any semblance of a notion that God was trying to hide knowledge from them (cf. Gen. 3:1, 2, 3, 4, 5), decided instead to eat from the Tree of Life, and they and their offspring perpetually ate from the same Tree, avoiding the forbidden Tree? In this scenario, the fall never occurs, and human beings remain in their original righteousness; death and sin and evil are never introduced into our world; Christ Jesus does not have to die a substitutionary death; and we are privileged to live with God in His original Garden-Paradise for eternity. If that world were possible, and I fail to see why it is not, then this world is not the best of all possible worlds.

If these two worlds are not possible worlds -- and Molinists confess that there is an "infinite upon infinite number of possible permutations of how things could have been"1 -- how can we know this, apart from divine revelation? From my perspective, Molinism is far too speculative, fails to answer life's most significant questions regarding meaning, purpose, and knowledge; it inherently questions God's goodness, granted that we can imagine better worlds than this world; and even, at times, appears rather deterministic.

Regardless, Arminians disagree with Dr. Kenneth Keathley even when he states, "Molinism -- and its advocacy of the concept of middle knowledge -- is the one view of providence that holds to a consistent view" of God's sovereignty and humanity's free will.2 (emphasis added) We fail to see how Molinism's claim here is, in actuality, any different than Arminianism's same insistence. Molinists and Arminians hold to a high view of God's sovereignty and humanity's free will. Arminians do so, however, without any notion of God unconditionally electing one person unto faith and salvation and not another, as some Molinists (like Dr. Keathley) maintain. How God can accomplish this unconditional election without violating one's freedom is appealed to via middle knowledge.

We do, however, agree with Molinists regarding God's knowledge of the future, as against the confessions of Open Theists, especially as the latter conflate certainty with necessity. Dr. Keathley rightly insists: "Certainty is a property of persons. Necessity is a property of statements."3 God's foreknowledge of our future free will choices is certain without naming the choices as necessary. Our choices are certain because we choose them. They would only be necessary if God decreed them.

Is the future fixed because God foreknows what we shall do? Yes, yet this in no sense whatsoever detracts from the fact that what we shall do in the future we do freely, not by definition at least. What we shall do in the future we do not because God decreed it, not even because He foreknew it, necessarily, but because we were granted a measure of freedom by our Creator to the performance of it. Since God's foreknowledge is in no sense causal, we are free to perform what He foreknows we will freely perform.

Can we do otherwise than what He foreknows we will freely do? No, not because His foreknowledge of our acts renders them necessary, but because they are certain -- we still perform the action(s) freely. That is the rub here, I think. Open Theists believe we are not truly free to perform the action that God foreknows we will perform. But based on what qualification? The point of the matter is the freedom of the act, not God's relation to the act itself, be it foreknown or otherwise. What we do we do freely and not because He decreed it or foreknew it. We could have chosen otherwise, with certainty, and God would have still foreknown the contrary choice.

If God's foreknowing the act was the primary or secondary cause of the act then I could agree with Open Theists. However, the act itself remains free by definition -- even sufficiently and primarily caused by the one performing the act -- regardless of God's foreknowledge of it.

Arminians and Molinists agree in part with certain aspects of Freewill Theism. For example, Dr. David Basinger explains that Freewill Theists are incompatibilists since they deny, in the words of Dr. Bruce Reichenbach, "that one agent can bring [an act] about, either directly or indirectly by constituting the nature of the agent in a determinate manner, that another agent freely chooses or acts in a certain way." Basinger concludes:
Thus, unlike limited compatibilists, they [Freewill Theists] deny that a person can ever be said to have chosen voluntarily if God has influenced this person's decision-making process itself in such a way that he has ensured (determined) that the choice he would have her make has in fact been made.4
This view, if maintained strictly regarding one's free choice to trust in Christ for salvation, could perpetuate Pelagian or semi-Pelagian notions; for the claim here is that, in order for us to consistently advance the concept of free will, then God cannot in any sense influence a person's "decision-making process." I fear, however, that some Open Theists confuse and conflate influence with control or determinate cause. But influence does not guarantee an outcome. Hence one need not deny the influence of the Holy Spirit on the person's decision-making process in order to rightly defend libertarian freedom and rightly deny determinism.

Still, we agree with Freewill Theists who argue against the concept that "God can still somehow bring [an act] about that the voluntary decisions individuals make will always be the exact decisions he [God] would have them make." Basinger insists that "this contention is not an apparent contradiction that must nevertheless be accepted as true ... [but] an actual contradiction that must for that reason be rejected."5 We can charge some Molinists who adopt a compatibilistic conception of God's relationship to free creatures in the same vein. If any act is brought about by necessity then human freedom has been violated.6 If an act is manifested through influence, then the person came to a conclusion via his or her own volition, through cognitive means of adopting or adhering to what the person found influential.

Incidentally, Compatibilists would have us believe that a person always acts upon his or her strongest desire. But we do well to keep in mind that a person does not always act upon one's strongest desire, but often performs an act that he or she would rather avoid, and only performs the act out of obligation, or fear, or intimidation, etc. If one insists that the performance of an act is always the strongest desire, the person fails to consider that motivations for an act are not always consistent; that to perform an act can be the lesser desire of a greater desire; and thus they are not the primary tell-tale signs for an absolute strongest desire.

Open Theists generally argue that God cannot know our future free will decisions because they are not yet a settled reality.7 Before the Cross event, it was not yet a settled reality, yet its future reality was not only foreknown by God but was also predetermined to occur (Acts 2:23; 4:28). If God cannot foreknow all future decisions that concern an event, then how could God foreknow that He could render certain the atonement, to say nothing of actually foreknowing the Cross event itself? I ask this question because of Jesus' decision to endure the Cross. Michael Saia writes that God could know
that Jesus would be delivered up to death [referring to Acts 2:23] because he had planned this for the salvation of mankind. God declared to Eve that he would send a seed who would crush the serpent's head. Jesus himself knew why he had come -- it was to die (Matt. 20:28). So it would not require any special foreknowledge of future events on God's part to know ahead of time what he had planned to do.8
First, given that prophecies in the Hebrew scriptures have failed, as notable Open scholars have highlighted (link), then this prophecy of the Garden to Eve could also have failed. But that point is merely a diversion. Second, certainly someone could have, by an unknown and unforeseeable decision, thwart God's plan of redemption -- the notion has to be at least plausible in an open system. Third, if one suggests that God knows what He can bring to fruition, we are forced to ask how, since He cannot foreknow all contingencies -- contingencies that could potentially hinder His plan. If we suggest that God knows how to manipulate circumstances to ensure the Cross event, then we are advocating overt determinism, the very notion Open Theists (Arminians and Molinists as well) deny and seek to avoid.

Fourth, by considering the following, perhaps this particular position of Open Theism is even more implausible than one imagines. Dr. Clark Pinnock writes, "Decisions not yet made do not exist anywhere to be known even by God."9 Would that include Jesus' decision to willingly die for the sin of the world? If God the Father can, in no sense imaginable, foreknow decisions not yet made then neither could He foreknow Jesus' decision to endure the future event of the Cross. If God the Father reserves the divine privilege to change His mind, as framed by Open Theists, then certainly God the Son reserves the same right, and could have, theoretically at least, changed His mind about the Cross, and His Father would not have known about it until it happened.

Furthermore, Jesus Himself is viewed as foreknowing "who were the ones that did not believe, and who was the one that would betray him" (John 6:64). I am not here interested in defining or debating the phrase "from the beginning." I am curious as to how Jesus could foreknow who would refuse to believe in Him, since future belief and non-belief or rejection did not yet "exist anywhere to be known even by God." Even if we grant Open scholars the present tense verb -- that Jesus knew those believing in Him -- how could Jesus foreknow the one who would betray Him, since Judas' decision to betray Jesus was still a future event, and future decisions "not yet made do not exist anywhere to be known even by God"?

Michael Saia addresses this topic head-on; but I disagree with his conclusion entirely. He claims that Judas was the one betraying Jesus, but Judas had not yet explicitly decided to betray Him.10 Though Judas was already expressing traitorous motives, he could have had a change of heart and mind in the future. Jesus, then, from the present tense context, could not have foreknown whether or not Judas would forge ahead with his betrayal -- not until he actually made that decision, which was still future, which did not "yet exist anywhere to be known even by God," according to an open system. Yet Scripture declares that Jesus knew Judas in such a manner. I am not convinced by Open Theists on this particular subject.

Dr. F. Leroy Forlines underscores Dr. Richard Rice's nuanced Open Theistic beliefs: "Rice argues that God knows much about the future. For example, He knows everything that will ever happen as the direct result of factors that already exist. He knows infallibly the content of His own future actions, to the extent that they are not related to human choices."11 God knows what He is capable of doing about future free will acts and works to fulfill His own purposes. Still, he concedes the point made by Pinnock and others, that God cannot foreknow "the content of future free decisions, and this is because decisions are not there to know until they occur."12 Yet we just witnessed at least two explicit instances where God did foreknow future free will decisions: 1) the Cross event, and Jesus' free choice to endure it; and 2) who would betray Christ.

My point is this: Christians do not need the gratuitous and philosophical theory of Molinism, or the biblical theory of Open Theism, in order to rightly understand the relationship between God's sovereignty and humanity's free will -- or in order to avoid the error of theological determinism. This subject will be continued in the following post, where I will outline and define the Arminian view of God's sovereignty and humanity's free will, both of which deny and defy determinism; glean from certain aspects of Molinism, while not adopting the system wholesale; and must reject Open Theism as being unnecessarily critical of certain passages of Scripture.


1 Kenneth D. Keathley, Salvation and Sovereignty: A Molinist Approach (Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 2010), 17-18.

2 Ibid., 19.

3 Ibid., 32.

4 David Basinger, The Case for Freewill Theism: A Philosophical Assessment (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1996), 32.

5 Ibid., 32-33.

6 We must hold to God's sovereignty "in such a way so as not to violate human freedom." See R.C. Sproul, Chosen by God: Knowing God's Perfect Plan for His Glory and His Children (Carol Stream: Tyndale, 1986), 17.

7 Clark H. Pinnock, "From Augustine to Arminius: A Pilgrimage in Theology," in The Grace of God and the Will of Man (Minneapolis: Bethany House Publishers, 1995), 25.

8 Michael R. Saia, Does God Know the Future? A Biblical Investigation of Foreknowledge and Free Will (Fairfax: Xulon Press, 2014), 158.

9 Pinnock, 25.

10 Saia, 174-75.

11 F. Leroy Forlines, Classical Arminianism: A Theology of Salvation, ed. J. Matthew Pinson (Nashville: Randall House Publications, 2011), 62.

12 Richard Rice, "Divine Foreknowledge and Free-Will Theism," in The Grace of God and the Will of Man, ed. Clark H. Pinnock, 134.


Post a Comment


My photo

My name is William Birch and I grew up in the Southern Baptist tradition but converted, if you will, to Anglicanism in 2012. I am gay, affirming, and take very seriously matters of social justice, religion and politics in the church and the state.