God’s Knowing Isn’t Causal
Open and relational theology says God doesn’t foreknow everything that will happen in the future. If God did foreknow all with certainty, the future would be settled. A completely settled future is incompatible with our making free choices.
Some hear this and think open and relational thinkers are saying God’s foreknowing would cause the future to be settled. But this isn’t what most open and relational thinkers believe.
Open and relational thinkers believe God knows what might happen. But God can’t be certain about what free creatures will decide or what random events will occur until those decisions have been made or events happen.
God doesn’t have “definite exhaustive foreknowledge,” to use a phrase common among scholars.
The Argument in Plain Language
The argument against God foreknowing goes like this…
If God foreknows all that will occur and God can’t make mistakes, nothing could happen other than what God foreknows. But to be free, creatures must choose among live options. They must have real say-so or make genuine choices among possibilities.
So, if God knows the future, creatures can’t be free.
Let me put it another way. If God foreknows all with certainty, what we think is an open future must actually be closed. Instead of a realm of live options, the future must be complete, decided, and settled. Instead of being able to make free decisions about life and love, we’re merely experiencing a simulation, like the Matrix.
If God foreknows all events that will occur, freedom, love, and randomness are myths.
A Chocolate Ice Cream Example
Suppose we’re at a self-serve ice cream parlor on a warm summer day. We see Andee pick up her peppermint-striped bowl and walk toward the ice cream. She’s about to select one of three flavors: chocolate, vanilla, or strawberry.
Suppose Andee’s not sure which to choose. They’re all delicious. Decisions, decisions, decisions! Her mouth waters.
Now suppose in some mysterious way it’s already been settled, Andee gets chocolate. It’s not a matter of whether she may get vanilla or strawberry. Andee must get chocolate. She’s not free to choose otherwise, because it’s been determined.
Notice the difference between may and must in this example. May assumes more than one live option; Andee may get any flavor. Must requires Andee to act one way. If she must get chocolate, she’s not free to do otherwise.
Who Settled the Future?
The question arises: “Who or what decided that Andee’s getting chocolate?”
People who think God predestines life will answer, “God settled it.” Those who think existence is entirely determined by atoms, genes, or neurons say, “Nature settled it.” Those who think we’re determined by culture or upbringing point to environments and circumstances as determiners. People who think we’re robots might blame our computer programs or programmer. One might even say, “It’s blind fate.”
Here’s the key idea: saying God foreknows Andee gets chocolate doesn’t cause Andee to get chocolate. Knowing doesn’t force anyone. Instead, God can only be certain about some future event if that future has already been settled, fixed, or complete.
God’s knowledge of past and present events and of future possibilities doesn’t cause them to occur.
It doesn’t matter how it was settled. Maybe it was the atoms, Andee’s upbringing, evolution, or fate. Or some combination of these. What matters is something or someone settled the matter before Andee walked to the ice cream. She’s getting chocolate.
The point: God can only be certain about a future event if it has already been determined. But future events are not determined, because they have not yet occurred. (For a brief explanation on why Molinism fails to help, see footnote[i].)
Free to Choose Chocolate or Something Else
Open and relational theists reject the idea God knows with certainty Andee chooses chocolate. God could only foreknow Andee gets chocolate if her doing so had somehow already been determined. Open and relational thinkers believe Andee is free.
A settled future has no live options from which Andee can choose.
(Most of the previous text is an excerpt from Open and Relational Theology. Click for more on the book.)
[i] One alternative to open and relational theology goes by the name “middle knowledge” or “Molinism.” It says God chose to create this world among the possible worlds God could have created. When choosing, God looked at how all worlds would play out. God can look into the future, says Molinism, and foresee every future decision.
Debates on the details of middle knowledge are technical, such as the status of counterfactuals and the grounding problem. But we don’t need the details to see a problem with middle knowledge. Our story about Andee and ice cream illustrates it.
The middle knowledge view says God can foreknow with certainty that Andee gets chocolate. If a mistake-free God foreknows Andee gets chocolate, Andee must get chocolate. God can’t make a mistake, so Andee’s not free to do otherwise. From the perspective of open and relational theologians (and others), Molinism is incoherent. There’s never a time (even before God created our world) the outcomes of free decisions can be known in advance.