Daniel Whedon's Free Agency and Foreknowledge

Corroborating with the last three posts on God's foreknowledge and the governance of His universe comes a brief section from Daniel D. Whedon's Freedom of the Will: A Wesleyan Response to Jonathan Edwards (Wipf & Stock), edited by John D. Wagner, the chapter entitled "Reconciliation of Free Agency and Foreknowledge," which challenges both Calvinism and Open Theism. Whedon writes the following.

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The advocates of Calvinistic predestination [i.e., unconditional election] and necessity [i.e., determinism] maintain, with great show of logic, that free agency, as we hold it, is inconsistent with God's foreknowledge. A finite agent, they maintain, cannot possess power to do otherwise than God foreknows he will do. Nor can any event be otherwise than God foreknows and so contradict his foreknowledge. We address our argument to this point.

I. We may first remark that our view of free agency does not so much require in God a foreknowledge of a peculiar kind of event as a knowledge in him of a peculiar quality existent in the free agent. This is a point apparently much if not entirely overlooked by thinkers upon this subject.

Power is a substantive quality intrinsic in the agent possessing it. It is a positive element in the constitution of the being. To a knowing eye it may be perfectly cognizable. If any power is planted in an agent, God, who placed it there, must know it. And if that power is, as we shall assume to have proved, a power to do otherwise than the agent really does do, God may be conceived to know it and to know it in every specific instance.

That is, God knows in every case that the agent who wills a certain way possessed the elemental power of choosing another way, or several elemental powers of choosing several other ways. God may know the way in which the agent will act, and at the same time there may be seen by him in the same agent the substantive power of acting otherwise instead. The two facts, namely, that he will act thus, and that there resides in him the power of other action, may be seen at the same time by God and be mutually consistent with each other. God's foreknowledge, therefore, of the volition which will be put forth is perfectly consistent with his knowledge of the agent's power of willing otherwise. That is, prescience in God is perfectly consistent with freedom in the finite agent.

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This view reduces the whole question to discussion of man's nature, or the proper analysis of the nature of a free agent. It becomes a discussion not of the metaphysics of events in regard to their necessity or possibility, but of psychology or anthropology, or rather (what is of momentous consequence in the controversy) the psychological investigation and decision to overrule and predetermine the metaphysical.



If there is, in the free agent, ascertainable by psychology, or required by intuition, or supposedly seen by the divine eye, the power of putting forth the volition with full power of alternative, then God knows that power. And, then, God knows, or knows not, the agent's future acts. If he knows them not, his foreknowledge does not extend to all free acts. If he does know them, then he knows what future act will be, while there is full adequate power for it not to be.

If these views are just, the question is settled. The free agency of man is consistent with the foreknowledge of God. What is true of one free agent may be true of all. Agents, acts, and events may exist, free in their character, which are known of God in perfect harmony with their freedom.

COROLLARY RESULTING

As a corollary resulting from these views, we note that an agent may be supposed to possess a power of acting otherwise than the way that God foreknows he will act. The proposition that an agent cannot act otherwise than God foreknows he will act is not clearly certain, nor possible to be proved. He can act otherwise, for there is seen by God in him the element of adequate power for other action. And yet God will not be deceived; for such is his perfection of knowledge that it is known to him which power of action will be exerted. So that there is a perfect compatibility between the two propositions: an agent can act otherwise than the way that God foreknows and God can never be deceived in his foreknowledge.

II. There is a class of thinkers [Open Theists] who avoid the difficulty of reconciling foreknowledge with free agency by denying the existence of the possibility of the foreknowledge of a free or contingent event. They affirm that a free act is, previous to its existence, a nothing, and so not an object of knowledge. The knowing it, therefore, supposes a contradiction. And as the impossibility of performing a contradictory act is no limitation of Omnipotence, so the impossibility of a contradictory knowledge is no limitation of Omniscience. Undoubtedly this view would be preferable to the admission of predestination, provided it solved the difficulty and was necessary to its solution. But it may be doubted both whether it is necessary, or whether it solves any difficulty.

Whether there is any foreknowledge or not, it is certain that there will be one particular course of future events and no other. On the most absolute doctrine of freedom there will be ... one train of choices freely put forth and no other. If by the absolute perfection of God's omniscience that one train of free events, put forth with full power otherwise, is embraced in his foreknowledge, it follows that God foreknows the free act, and that the foreknowledge and the freedom are compatible. The difficulty does not indeed lie in the compatibility of the two. The real difficulty (which we distinctly profess to leave forever insoluble) as may soon more clearly appear, is to conceive how God came by that foreknowledge.

But that is no greater difficulty than to conceive how God came by his omnipotence or self-existence. It will be a wise theologian who will tell us how God came by his attributes. It will require a deep thinker to tell how the universe or its immensity came about by its real or actual deity; or how the present self-existent came to be, and no other.

III. Freedom, in every individual case, as we have defined it, implies, that of several possible volitions, one and no other will take place: one in opposition to many -- numerically; one in opposition to any other instead -- alternatively. And so of a whole series of volitions, namely, of the entire existence of any free being, temporal or even eternal, each volition and the entire series of his individual volitions, though possible to be otherwise, yet each will be one particular way.

Certainly, when we define that a free volition is one which is or will be put forth one way, by a will able to put forth some other way instead, we do not deny that such particular one will be put forth; nor that such ones, infinite in number, through a whole series endless in length, will be put forth. And so we may affirm of the infinite number of individual volitions of each of an infinite number of free agents, in one vast totality -- interweaving in mutual correlations with each other, in infinities of infinities -- that while there is power that each volition should not be, yet each and all will be in its own one way, and not another instead.

Such a free totality can be viewed simply in itself as being just as free as if it were unforeknown; just as free as if there were no God to foreknow it. So the freedomist, with perfect ease and consistency, is enabled in conception to survey the one great free whole of all future volitions as a valid conception. And he can speak of it, and argue about it as that one which in each particularity could not be, and yet individually and wholly will be.

This conception of a system of free alternatives stands opposed to the conception of a universal system of absolute necessity, as taught by [Jonathan Edwards and other Calvinists]; of which every event is a fixed product of fixed causes; and the totality, one solid fixation of which it is a contradiction to suppose, that either for the whole or for a single item of the whole, there is the least possible power to be otherwise. Of the former, the entirety, all the elements are pervaded by the will-be, and yet the can-be-otherwise; the other by the must-be and the can-be-no-otherwise. The former is pure certainty; the latter is necessity. 

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Daniel D. Whedon, Freedom of the Will: A Wesleyan Response to Jonathan Edwards, ed. John D. Wagner (Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 2009), 227-30.

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ABOUT WILLIAM BIRCH

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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.