Foreknowledge of God

by Herman Bavinck

Consequently—strictly speaking—one cannot speak of foreknowledge in the case of God: with him there are no “distinctions of time.”71 He calls the things that are not as if they were and sees what is not as if it already existed. “For what is foreknowledge if not knowledge of future events? But can anything be future to God, who surpasses all times? For if God’s knowledge includes these very things themselves, they are not future to him but present; and for this reason we should no longer speak of God’s foreknowledge but simply of God’s knowledge.”72 “Whatever is past and future to us is immediately present in his sight.”73 “However the times roll on, with him it is always present.”74 The division of God’s omniscience into foreknowledge, the knowledge of sight (the present), and reminiscence is a human conception through and through.75 Scripture, however, often conveys the idea that God’s omniscience temporally precedes the existence of things. And without this auxiliary image we cannot even speak of God’s omniscience. In theology, as a result, the question arose: How can this divine omniscience be squared with human freedom? If God indeed knows all things in advance, everything is set in concrete from eternity, and there is no longer any room for free and contingent acts. Hence, Cicero already denied God’s omniscience, since he could not harmonize it with free will.76 Along with omnipotence and goodness Marcion also denied omniscience to God on the ground that he allowed humanity to fall into sin.77 In a later period the Socinians taught the same thing. God knows all things, they said, but all things according to their nature. Hence, he knows future contingent (accidental) events, not with absolute certainty (for then they would cease to be accidental), but as contingent and accidental; that is, he knows what the future holds insofar as it depends on humans, but not with infallible foreknowledge. If that were the case, the freedom of the will would be lost, God would become the author of sin, and he himself would be subject to necessity.78

But such a limitation of God’s omniscience is so far from being consistent with Scripture that all but a few theologians rejected it. Christian theology as a rule sought a solution in another direction. Two approaches presented themselves. On the one hand, there is Origen, who made a distinction between foreknowledge and predestination. God indeed knows all things in advance, but this foreknowledge is not the cause and foundation for their happening; on the contrary, God only knows them with certainty beforehand because in time they are bound to happen as a result of the free decisions of human beings: “For they do not happen because they were known, but they were known because they were going to happen.”79 On the other hand, there is Augustine, who also wants to maintain both divine foreknowledge and human freedom of will. “The religious mind chooses both, confesses both, and confirms both by the faith of piety.”80 But he understands that if God knows something in advance, it is certain to happen as a matter of necessity, or else the whole doctrine of foreknowledge would collapse. “If foreknowledge does not foreknow things that are certain to happen, it is nothing at all.”81 He therefore states that the human will along with human nature and all its decisions, rather than being destroyed by God’s foreknowledge, is included in it and posited and maintained by it. “For since he foreknows our will, he foreknows whose will it is going to be. There is therefore going to be a will because he has foreknown it.”82 “Our wills, accordingly, have as much power as God wanted them to have and foreknew they had; and so, whatever power they have, they have most certainly. And whatever they are to do, they most certainly do those very things, for he whose foreknowledge is infallible foreknew that they would have the power to do it and would do it.”83 Scholasticism, however many distinctions it spun out, aligned itself in principle with Augustine.84

The Problem of Middle Knowledge

But the Jesuits, entering the discussion, brought change.85 With a view to squaring God’s omniscience with human freedom, following the semi-Pelagian line, they introduced the so-called middle knowledge (media scientia) between God’s “necessary” and his “free” knowledge. By this “middle” knowledge they meant a divine knowledge of contingent events that is logically antecedent to his decrees. The object of this knowledge is not the merely possible that will never be realized, nor that which by virtue of a divine decree is certain to happen, but the possibilities that depend for their realization on one condition or another. In governing the world, that is, God makes many possible outcomes depend on conditions, and knows in advance what he will do, in case these conditions are, or are not, fulfilled by humans. In all cases, therefore, God is ready. He foresees and knows all possibilities and makes his decisions and provisions with a view to all those possibilities. He knew in advance what he would do if Adam fell and also if he did not fall; if David did or did not go to Keilah; if Tyre and Sidon did or did not repent. Hence, God’s knowledge of contingent events precedes his decree concerning “absolute” future events. Though humans at every moment make their free and independent decisions, they can never surprise God with the decisions they make or undo his plans, for in his foreknowledge God has taken account of all possibilities. This theory of mediate knowledge was supported with numerous Scripture texts that ascribe to God knowledge of what would happen in a given case if some condition was or was not fulfilled (e.g., Gen. 11:6; Exod. 3:19; 34:16; Deut. 7:3–4; 1 Sam. 23:10–13; 25:29ff.; 2 Sam. 12:8; 1 Kings 11:2; 2 Kings 2:10; 13:19; Ps. 81:14–16; Jer. 26:2–3; 38:17–20; Ezek. 2:5–7; 3:4–6; Matt. 11:21, 23; 24:22; 26:53; Luke 22:66–68; John 4:10; 6:15; Acts 22:18; Rom. 9:29; 1 Cor. 2:8).

Though in fact opposed by the Thomists and Augustinians (e.g., by Bannez, the Salmanticenses [Carmelites of Salamanca, Spain], and Billuart), this theory of middle knowledge was also hotly defended by Molinists and Congruists (Suárez, Bellarmine, Lessius, et al.). Fear of Calvinism and Jansenism favored the theory in the Catholic church and in a more or less pronounced form gained acceptance with almost all Roman Catholic theologians.86 Thus, the line of thought set forth by Augustine was abandoned and that of Origen resumed. While Greek theology had taken this position from the beginning,87 Roman Catholic theology now followed. Nor were the Lutherans 88 and the Remonstrants 89 ill-disposed to the theory. In modern times many theologians assert, approximately in the same way, that for God, too, the world is a medium of knowledge. He indeed foreknew future contingent events as possible, but learns from the world whether or not they are actually realized. For all cases, however, he knows “an action that will precisely fit the action of the creature, whatever that may chance to be.” He established an outline of the world plan but leaves the fleshing out of the outline to creatures.90 In contrast to this line of thought, following Augustine’s example, the Reformed rejected the theory of a “bare foreknowledge” (nuda praescientia) and “middle knowledge” (media scientia).91

Now with respect to this middle knowledge the question is not whether things [or events] are not frequently related to each other by some such conditional connection, one that is known and willed by God himself. If this is all it meant, it could be accepted without any difficulty, just as Gomarus and Waldeus understood and recognized it in this sense.92 But the theory of middle knowledge is aimed at something different: its purpose is to harmonize the Pelagian notion of the freedom of the will with God’s omniscience. In that view, the human will is by its nature indifferent. It can do one thing as well as another. It is determined neither by its own nature nor by the various circumstances in which it has been placed. Although circumstances may influence the will, ultimately the will remains free and chooses as it wills. Of course, freedom of the will thus conceived cannot be harmonized with a decree of God; it essentially consists in independence from the decree of God. So far from determining that will, God left it free; he could not determine that will without destroying it. Over against that will of his rational creatures God has to adopt a posture of watchful waiting. He watches to see what they are going to do. He, however, is omniscient. Hence, he knows all the possibilities, all contingencies, and also foreknows all actual future events. In this context and in keeping with it, God has made all his decisions and decrees. If a person in certain circumstances will accept God’s grace, he has chosen that person to eternal life; if that person does not believe, he or she has been rejected.

Now it is clear that this theory diverges in principle from the teaching of Augustine and Thomas Aquinas. Certainly, to their minds God’s foreknowledge precedes events, and nothing can happen except by the will of God. “Nothing, therefore, happens but by the will of the Omnipotent.”93 Not the world but the decrees are the medium from which God knows all things.94 Hence, contingent events and free actions can be infallibly known in their context and order. Scholasticism, admittedly, sometimes already expressed itself on this point in a way that was different from Augustine. Anselm, for example, stated that foreknowledge did not imply an “internal and antecedent necessity” but only an “external and consequent necessity.”95 And Thomas judged that God indeed knows contingent future events eternally and certainly according to the state in which they are actually, that is, according to their own immediacy, but that in their “proximate causes” they are nevertheless contingent and undetermined.96 This, however, does not alter the fact that with a view to their “primary cause” these contingent future events are absolutely certain and can therefore not be called contingent. And elsewhere he again states that “whatever is was destined to be before it came into being, because it existed in its own cause in order that it might come into being.”97

The doctrine of middle knowledge, however, represents contingent future events as contingent and free also in relation to God. This is with reference not only to God’s predestination but also his foreknowledge, for just as in Origen, things do not happen because God knows them, but God foreknows them because they are going to happen. Hence, the sequence is not necessary knowledge, the knowledge of vision, the decree to create (etc.); instead, it is necessary knowledge, middle knowledge, decree to create (etc.), and the knowledge of vision.98 God does not derive his knowledge of the free actions of human beings from his own being, his own decrees, but from the will of creatures.99 God, accordingly, becomes dependent on the world, derives knowledge from the world that he did not have and could not obtain from himself, and hence, in his knowledge, ceases to be one, simple, and independent—that is, God. Conversely, the creature in large part becomes independent vis-à-vis God. It did indeed at one time receive “being” (esse) and “being able” (posse) from God but now it has the “volition” (velle) completely in its own hand. It sovereignly makes it own decisions and either accomplishes something or does not accomplish something apart from any preceding divine decree. Something can therefore come into being quite apart from God’s will. The creature is now creator, autonomous, sovereign; the entire history of the world is taken out of God’s controlling hands and placed into human hands. First, humans decide; then God responds with a plan that corresponds to that decision. Now if such a decision occurred once—as in the case of Adam—we might be able to conceive it. But such decisions of greater or less importance occur thousands of times in every human life. What are we to think, then, of a God who forever awaits all those decisions and keeps in readiness a store of all possible plans for all possibilities? What then remains of even a sketch of the world plan when left to humans to flesh out? And of what value is a government whose chief executive is the slave of his own subordinates?

In the theory of middle knowledge, that is precisely the case with God. God looks on, while humans decide. It is not God who makes distinctions among people, but people distinguish themselves. Grace is dispensed, according to merit; predestination depends on good works. The ideas that Scripture everywhere opposes and Augustine rejected in his polemic against Pelagius are made standard Roman Catholic doctrine by the teaching of the Jesuits.100 The proponents of middle knowledge indeed appeal to many texts of Scripture but entirely without warrant. There is no doubt that Scripture acknowledges the fact that God has put things (events, etc.) in a varied web of connections to each other, and that these connections are frequently of a conditional nature, so that one thing cannot happen unless something else happens first. [For examples], apart from faith there is no salvation; without work there is no food (etc.). But the texts cited by Jesuits to undergird the theory of middle knowledge do not prove what needs to be proved. Admittedly, they speak of condition and fulfillment, of obedience and promise, of assumption and consequences, of what will happen if one path is chosen or another. But none of these texts denies that in all cases God—though he speaks to and deals with humans in human terms—knew and determined what would surely happen. Between that which is merely possible and will never be realized—present in God only as an idea—and that which is certain and has been decreed by God, there is no longer any area left that can be controlled by the will of humans. Something always belongs either to the one or to the other. If it is only a possibility and will never be realized, it is the object of God’s “necessary” knowledge; and if it will indeed one day be realized, it is the content of his “free” knowledge. There is no middle ground between the two, no “middle” knowledge.

The theorists of middle knowledge, furthermore, fail to achieve what they aim to achieve. They want to bring human freedom of the will—in the sense of indifference—into harmony with divine foreknowledge. Now, they claim that this foreknowledge conceived as middle knowledge leaves human conduct totally free, nonnecessary. And this is indeed correct, except that in that case it ceases to be foreknowledge. If God infallibly knows in advance what a person will do in a given case, he can foreknow this only if the person’s motives determine his or her will in one specific direction, and this will therefore does not consist in indifference. Conversely, if that will were indifferent, foreknowledge would be impossible, and only post-factum knowledge would exist. God’s foreknowledge and the will conceived as arbitrariness are mutually exclusive. For, as Cicero already phrased it, “if he knows it, it will certainly take place, but if it is bound to take place, no such thing as chance exists.” Therefore, along with Augustine, we must seek the solution of the problem in another direction. The freedom of the will does not, as we will discover later, consist in indifference, arbitrariness, or chance, but in “rational delight.” This rational delight, rather than being in conflict with the foreknowledge of God, is implied in and upheld by it. The human will, along with its nature, antecedents and motives, its decisions and consequences, is integrated into “the order of causes that is certain to God and embraced by his foreknowledge.”101 In the knowledge of God things are interrelated in the same web of connections in which they occur in reality. It is not foreknowledge, nor is it predestination, that now and then intervenes from above with compelling force; every human decision and act is motivated, rather, by that which precedes it, and in that web of connections it is included in the knowledge of God. In keeping with their own divinely known and ordained nature, contingent events and free actions are links in the order of causes that, little by little, is revealed to us in the history of the world.

71 Tertullian, Against Marcion, III, 5.

72 Augustine, Ad simplicianum, II, 2.

73 Gregory the Great, Moralia in Iobum, 1, 20, ch. 23. Ed. note: See above, p. 188 n. 40.

74 Marius Victor, in D. Petavius, “De Deo,” in Theol. dogm., IV, ch. 4.

75 F. A. Philippi, Kirchliche Glaubenslehre, 3d ed., 7 vols. in 10 (Gütersloh: C. Bertelsmann, 1870–90), II, 67.

76 Marcus Tullius Cicero, De fato liber (Paris: Andream Wechelum, 1565), ch. 14; De divinatione, II, 5–7.

77 According to Tertullian, Against Marcion, II, 5.

78 O. Fock, Der Socinianismus nach seiner Stellung in der Gesammtentwicklung des christlichen Geistes, nach seinem historischen Verlauf und nach seinem Lehrbegriff (Kiel: C. Schröder, 1847), 337–466.

79 Origen, in Homilies on Genesis, I, 14; idem, Contra Celsus, II, 20.

80 Augustine, City of God, V, 9, 10.

81 Augustine, De libero arbitrio, III, 4.

82 Ibid., III, 3.

83 Augustine, City of God, V, 9.

84 Anselm, De concordia praescientiae et praedestinationes et gratiae Dei cum libero arbitrio; P. Lombard, Sent., I, dist. 38; Bonaventure, Sent., I, dist. 38; T. Aquinas, Summa theol., I, qu. 14; Hugo of St. Victor, De sacramentis christianae fidei, I, 9.

85 Cf. H. Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, I, 152 (#48).

86 Ibid.; also Karl Werner, Der heilige Thomas von Aquino, 3 vols. (Regensburg: G. J. Manz, 1858–59), III, 389–442; idem, Geschichte der katholischen Theologie seit dem Trienter Concil bis zur Gegenwart (Munich: Cotta, 1866), 98ff.; G. Schneemann, Die Entstehung der thomistisch-molinistischen Controverse, Supplement 9 to Stimmen aus Maria Laach (Freiburg i.B. and St. Louis: Herder, 1880), 9, 13–14; J. Schwane, Dogmengeschichte, 4 vols. (Freiburg i.B.: Herder, 1882–95), IV, 37–59; D. Petavius, “De Deo,” in Theol. dogm., IV, chs. 6–7.

87 John of Damascus, The Orthodox Faith, II, ch. 30.

88 J. Gerhard, Loci theol., II, c. 8, sect. 13; J. A. Quenstedt, Theologica, I, 316; J. F. Buddeus, Institutiones theologiae moralis, I, 217; F. Reinhard, Grundriss der Dogmatik, 116.

89 S. Episcopius, Institutiones theologicae, IV, sect. 2, ch. 19; Phillip van Limborch, Theol. christ., II, ch. 8, §20.

90 I. A. Dorner, A System of Christian Doctrine, trans. Alfred Cave and J. S. Banks, rev. ed., 4 vols. (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1888), I, 332–37; R. Rothe, Theologische Ethik, 2d rev. ed., 5 vols. (Wittenberg: Zimmerman, 1867–71), §42; H. L. Martensen, Christian Dogmatics: A Compendium of the Doctrines of Chrisitianity, trans. William Urwick (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1871), §16; K. F. A. Kahnis, Die lutherische Dogmatik, historisch-genetisch dargestellt, 3 vols. (Leipzig: Dörffling & Franke, 1861–68), I, 343; A. Gretillat, Exposé de théologie systématique, 4 vol. (Paris: Fischbacher, 1885–92), III, 237ff.; C. Secrétan, La civilization et la croyance (Paris: Alcan, 1887), 260ff.

91 G. Voetius, Select. disp., I, 254–58; W. Twisse, Dissertatio de scientia media tribus libris absoluta (Arnhemii: Jacobum à Biesium, 1639), III, 1ff.; F. Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, III, qu. 13; B. de Moor, Comm. in Marckii Comp., I, 659ff.; A. Comrie and N. Holtius, Examen van het ontwerp van tolerantie, 10 vols. (Amsterdam: Nicholaas Byl, 1753), IV, 281ff.

92 F. Gomarus, Disputationum theologicarum, X, 30ff.; A. Walaeus, Loci communes s. theologiae, in Opera omnia, I, 174–76; cf. H. Heppe, Die Dogmatik der evangelisch-reformierten Kirche (Elberseld: R. L. Friedrich, 1861), 64.

93 Augustine, Enchiridion, 95; T. Aquinas, Summa theol., I, qu. 14, art. 9, ad. 3.

94 T. Aquinas, Summa theol., I, qu. 14, art. 8; Bonaventure, Sent., II, dist. 37, art. 1, qu. 1.

95 Anselm, Cur Deus homo, 16.

96 T. Aquinas, Summa theol., I, qu. 14, art. 13.

97 Cf. C. R. Billuart, Cursus theologiae, 9 vols. (Maastricht: Jacobi Lekens, 1769–70), I, 440ff.

98 G. Jansen, Prael.theol., II, 110ff.

99 J. Schwane, Dogmengeschichte, IV, 52.

100 C. R. Billuart, Cursus theologiae, I, 479.

101 Augustine, City of God, V, 9.



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