Free Will and Foreknowledge
Updated: Mar 7
THE FOREKNOWLEDGE OF GOD
THE OMNISCIENCE OF GOD CONSISTENT WITH HIS OWN HOLINESS AND MAN'S FREE AGENCY
BY JOEL S. HAYES
The argument from the Scriptures is one on which our opponents rely with great confidence. It constitutes, indeed, the real basis of their belief. It must be true, say they, that God foreknows contingent events, for the word of God so teaches. Doubtless this furnishes the reason why the simple proposition that a finite agent cannot do otherwise than God foreknows he will do, has not been universally accepted. There cannot be any incompatibility between God's foreknowledge and man's free agency, say some, because the Scriptures foretell men's free actions.
Before proceeding to examine this Scripture argument, however, let us have recourse to the same source for proof to the contrary. Our opponents seem to think that the teachings of the word of God lie altogether on their side. We hope to show that at least a preponderance of testimony from this source is against them. We have proof from God's word that there were some things that God did not foreknow. He did not know, for instance, whether the Children of Israel would obey his commandments or not. In proof of this, notice the following explicit statements of Scripture: "And thou shalt remember all the way which the Lord thy God led thee these forty years in the wilderness, to humble three, and to prove thee, to know what was in thine heart, whether thou wouldest keep his commandments, or no." (Deut. 8:2) "If there arise among you a prophet, or a dreamer of dreams, and giveth thee a sign or a wonder, and the sign or the wonder come to pass, whereof he spake unto thee, saying, Let us go after other gods, which thou hast not known, and let us serve them; thou shalt not hearken unto the words of that prophet, or that dreamer of dreams: for the Lord your God proveth you, to know whether ye love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul." (Deut.13:1-3) "Now these are the nations which the Lord left, to prove Israel by them, even as many of Israel as had not known all the wars of Canaan... And they were to prove Israel by them, to know whether they would hearken unto the commandments of the Lord, which he commanded their fathers by the hand of Moses." (Judges 3:1, 4.) "And the anger of the Lord was hot against Israel; and he said, Because that this people hath transgressed my covenant which I commanded their fathers, and have not hearkened unto my voice; I also will not henceforth drive out any from before them of the nations which Joshua left when he died: that through them I may prove Israel, whether they will keep the way of the Lord to walk therein, as their fathers did keep it, or not." (Judges 2:20-22) "Then said the Lord unto Moses, Behold, I will rain bread from heaven for you; and the people shall go out and gather a certain rate every day, that I may prove them, whether they will walk in my law, or no." (Ex. 16:4.) "Howbeit, in the business of the ambassadors of the princes of Babylon, who sent unto him to inquire of the wonder that was done in the land, God left him, to try him, that he might know all that was in his heart." (2 Chron. 32:31.)
Now, if these statements were made in any other book than the Bible, or with reference to any other being than the Lord Almighty, they would be thought to mean that that being could not without trial know what was in the hearts of the Children of Israel; that his design was to find out by trial what he did not and could not know before the trial. Were there not some things, then, which God did not foreknow? It has been said, however, that God knew what the Children of Israel would do, but wished to know by trial. But evidently, if he already knew whether they would keep his commandments or not, he could not know it by trial; for certainly trial could not be a means of coming to a knowledge of something already known.
Mr. Benson gives the following exegesis of Deuteronomy 8:2: " To know what was in thy heart --That thou mightest discover thyself, and manifest to others, the infidelity, inconstancy, hypocrisy, and perverseness which lay hid in thy heart; the discovery and manifestation whereof God saw would be of peculiar use, both to them and to his Church in all succeeding ages." Also of Deuteronomy 13:3: " To know --Or make known publicly and openly, namely, that both you and others may know and see it, in order that the justice of his dispensations toward you, whether in judgment or mercy, may be evident and glorious." To this exegesis we have two objections: 1. The word (in question) in its Kal form is properly translated to know; it means to make known only in the Hiphil form. There are more than seven hundred and ninety other places in which the Kal form of this word is used, in all of which it is properly translated to know , and in all but two or three of which to make known would not make sense; while to make known is evidently the proper meaning of the Hiphil form in all the seventy places in which it occurs. It would be in order for Mr. Benson to mention just one place in which the Kal form of this word certainly has the meaning which he here attributes to it. The Spirit seems especially to guard against such an interpretation of Deuteronomy 8:2, by using the Hiphil form of the verb in the very next verse, where, with its object, it is properly translated, "He might make thee know." 2. Such an exegesis of Deuteronomy 13:1-3, if so understood by the Children of Israel (and we cannot suppose that the Lord used a word which he intended them to misunderstand), destroys all the force of the exhortation and warning therein contained. The statement that the Lord intended to prove or try the Israelites, to know whether they would obey his commandments or not, is coupled with an exhortation to prepare their hearts and minds for the trial. But, supposing that they understood the Lord to mean that he intended merely to make known what they would do, what incentive would that be for preparation? To an exhortation based on such a supposition it seems to me that they would naturally be disposed to reply, "Just as well let the result be made known now without any trial."
There is other proof from God's word that God tries men for the purpose of knowing them. Notice, for instance, the following inspired prayers--prayers which, because they are inspired, may be offered consistently with God's perfections: "Search me, O God, and know my heart: try me, and know my thoughts: and see if there be any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting." (Ps. 139:23,24.) "Examine me, O Lord, and prove me; try my reins and my heart." (Ps. 26:2.) See also Genesis 22:1, 2: "God did tempt Abraham, and said unto him, Abraham: and he said, Behold, here I am. And he said, Take now thy son, thine only son Isaac, whom thou lovest, and get thee into the land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell thee of." That this trial of Abraham was made for the purpose of knowing him is evident from verse 12: "And he said, Lay not thine hand upon the lad, neither do thou any thing unto him: for now I know that thou fearest God, seeing [because] thou hast not withheld thy son, thine only son, from me." Here the fact that Abraham had not withheld his son is stated to be the cause of God's knowing that he feared him. This knowledge of God, then, was the result of the trial, and certainly the purpose of the trial in this case is manifested in its result. Moreover, the trial evidently preceded its result-the cause preceded its effect. Therefore, the knowledge did not exist till the trial had been made.
But it may be asked, Did not Abraham fear God before that time, and did not God, if omniscient, know that past fact? Certainly; the history of Abraham very clearly shows that long before this trial of his faith he was a friend of God. He certainly feared God before, but doubtless not to the same extent. He both feared and loved God before, but here was afforded to him an opportunity for a new exercise of will power in that direction--for a new exercise of voluntary faith. (See Heb. 11:17.) He embraced the opportunity, and thereby stepped up on a higher plane in the fear and love of God.
Concerning this text Mr. Benson says, "God knew it before, but now Abraham had given a memorable evidence of it." If God knew it before, Abraham did not and could not give to him any evidence of it. For the word evidence (Latin e , from, and videre , to see) signifies that by means of which knowledge is gained, and to one who already knew the fact Abraham surely could not furnish a means of knowing it.
Again. In Genesis 18:20, 21, we have the following: "And the Lord said, Because the cry of Sodom and Gomorrah is great, and because their sin is very grievous, I will go down now, and see whether they have done altogether according to the cry of it, which is come unto me; and if not, I will know." In our English translation there is a difficulty in this passage in any view. It seems to state that God did not fully know something in the past--something which, according to verse 20, he knew. We may, however, consider the doing "altogether according to the cry of it" as past, not with reference to the time of the Lord's using the language, but with reference to the time of his knowing the fact. In the original Hebrew, such an interpretation would be as natural as any other; for as the Hebrew language has only two tenses, the preterite and the future, the preterite "merely expresses in the general that the action belongs to the past, but whether this is to be taken absolutely, relatively, or conditionally, must be learned from the circumstances of the case or from accompanying words." Just as frequently as otherwise, it expresses "the past, in relation to a future, i.e., the future perfect." Let it be noted, however, that I am not objecting to our English translation. Indeed, if the doing "altogether according to the cry of it" was a new free volition or was dependent thereon, as doubtless it was, the translation could not well have been otherwise to express the intended idea. The Lord did not intend to say, I will go down and see whether they will have done altogether according to the cry of it, for their act, being a free volition, was not a will-be thing. Neither did he intend to say, I will go down and see whether they may have done altogether according to the cry of it, for he knew before going both that they might and that they might not. He was simply going to see the result after the trial, and this idea could not have been expressed by a direct translation in any other way than as we find it in our English Bible.
The whole meaning of this scripture seems to be this: God knew that the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah was "very grievous." Perhaps they already richly deserved a visitation of his wrath. Still, in his great mercy, he determined, before destroying them, to give them one more trial, to see if they would not turn and obey and live. That some trial was given in the shape of an exhortation or warning appears in the reply of the people of Sodom to Lot in Genesis 19:9: "And they said again, This one fellow came in to sojourn, and he will needs be a judge." The history of the transaction shows that the Lord did go down in human shape and take two angels with him; that he did exhort or warn them; that he found them incorrigible, and destroyed them. The word , here translated altogether , means to completion , its ordinary meaning as a verb being to finish . The Lord, then, knew before the trial that the people of Sodom were wicked; but not till after the trial did he know that that wickedness had developed to completion.
A parallel text is found in Genesis 11:5: "And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of men builded." His coming down was evidently a means of seeing the city and the tower. He therefore did not fully see them before; that is, there was additional knowledge to be gained with reference to them by coming down. Now, the city and tower could be viewed in different aspects. Cognizance could be taken both of mechanism and their design. As to the former, perhaps the tower was an admirable piece of workmanship; as to the latter, it was a wicked work, adapted and intended to antagonize the design of God that men should multiply and replenish the earth and subdue it. God saw it in both these aspects. He knew both its admirable mechanism and its wickedness. But he knew also that its wickedness had not been developed to completion; in other words, that the determination of its builders to complete it was not so fully made that it was not subject to change. He therefore, as in the case of Sodom and Gomorrah, determined to give them a new trial, to see if they would not of their own free will desist from their undertaking. In this case, as in the preceding, the circumstances and the result show that the Lord came down in trial and judgment, wishing the builders to repent and obey if they would, but determining that in any case the work should not be completed. Can any other exegesis of this text be given? Can it be explained in any other way consistently with God's omniscience how it is that the Lord came down to see the city and the tower? How, in other words, the seeing could in any other way be, in an omniscient being, the result of coming down? The Lord certainly could not come down to see a thing that he already fully saw.
These two texts furnish instances in which God's expectation seemed to be realized. In Isaiah 5:1-7, we have one of the opposite character, an instance in which "he looked for judgment, but behold oppression; for righteousness, but behold a cry." Let the reader turn and read the whole passage. Comment is unnecessary.
The Lord "made known his ways unto Moses, his acts unto the children of Israel," says the Psalmist. (Ps. 103:7) The history of his dealings with them constitutes an index of his general mode of procedure; for he deals with all men on the same general principles. "God is no respecter of persons" (Acts 10:34); with him "is no variableness, neither shadow of turning" (James 1:17). His ways with Moses and the Children of Israel, then, are but a part of his general ways--his ways with all mankind. But the preceding texts teach us that one of his designs in proving Israel was to know their hearts, whether they would obey his commandments or not. We may therefore judge that this is a general design of trial. Now we do not contend that this is its only design. We are willing to admit that God tries men "as silver is tried" (Ps. 66:10), to purge out the dross, "to make them white" (Dan. 11:35), to make them meet for the Master's use. And we admit, too, that this is the prime design of trial, that trials are never sent on men for the mere sake of curiosity. But we do contend that coupled with this design is a desire to know the result. Such at least was the case with the trials to which the Children of Israel were subjected, and we may judge that such is the case with trials in general. Indeed, how can it be otherwise? It is said the "God trieth the hearts and reins." (Ps. 7:9) But what is the design of such trial if he knows the result beforehand? Will it be said that the only design is to promote purity of heart? that, as a refiner tries gold, so the Lord tries the hearts of men, knowing beforehand the result of the trial? But purity of heart is not always accomplished, the dross is not always purged out. The trials to which men are subjected do not uniformly result in their established virtue. Can this, then, be the only design of the trial? Would a man try gold by a process which he knew would not refine it? Or could it be said that he designed to purify it, if he knew beforehand that the means used would not accomplish that end? There must be a want of knowledge in the case of every unsuccessful trial, else it would not in any proper sense be a trial; and therefore, coupled with the main design of the trial, there must be a desire and a design to know the result.
We now turn to those texts of Scripture in which God is said to repent. "It repented the Lord that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him at his heart." (Gen. 6:6) "It repenteth me that I have set up Saul to be king." (I Sam. 15:11) "And the Lord repented that he had made Saul king over Israel." (I Sam. 15:35) Now, the most obvious import of these texts is that the Lord was sorry for what he had done and wished he had done otherwise. This follows, indeed, almost irresistibly from the meaning of the word repent . "Repentance," says Mr. Watson, "is sometimes used generally for a change of mind, and an earnest wishing that something were undone that has been done." He might have said that this is always its signification when applied to mankind. If any one doubts this, let him take a concordance and find all the places in the Bible in which the word occurs. It will be universally admitted to imply a change of mind and an earnest wishing that something were undone which was done, whenever the act is predicated of mankind. Why, 188 then, should it be thought to have a different meaning when applied to God?
Mr. Watson says, "God himself is said to repent; but this can only be understood of his altering his conduct toward his creatures, either in the bestowing of good or the infliction of evil." But can it be said that the Lord altered his conduct that he had made man on the earth? or that he altered his conduct that he had made Saul king over Israel? The Lord is here said to repent of what he himself had done in the past. Does it mean that he altered that past conduct? If so, in what sense did he alter it? He certainly did not undo that which was done; that is, he did not uncreate Adam, or cause the fact that he had made Saul king over Israel to be untrue. The only way in which he could have altered his conduct with reference to these things was to destroy man from the face of the earth and to reject Saul from being king over Israel. This alteration of conduct, if it can be properly so called, the Lord did effect. But is this the meaning of repentance in the texts quoted? When it is said that "it repented the Lord that he had made man on the earth," does it simply mean that he destroyed man from the face of the earth? If so, the destruction of man is said to be the cause of itself; for in Genesis 6:7 we read, "And the Lord said, I will destroy man whom I have created from the face of the earth; both man, and beast, and the creeping thing, and the fowls of the air; for it repenteth me that I have made them."
But these are not exceptional cases. There are other passages of Scripture which go to prove that it is in exact accordance with God's character to repent under change of circumstances. For instance, take Jeremiah 18:7-10, "At what instant I shall speak concerning a nation, and concerning a kingdom, to pluck up, and to pull down, and to destroy it; if that nation, against whom I have pronounced, turn from their evil, I will repent of the evil that I thought to do unto them. And at what instant I shall speak concerning a nation, and concerning a kingdom, to build and to plant it; if it do evil in my sight, that it obey not my voice, then I will repent of the good, wherewith I said I would benefit them." We have here a statement of God's general providence--of his method of dealing with all people. In accordance with this general plan and as illustrations of it, we read in Exodus 32:14, "And the Lord repented of the evil which he thought to do unto his people;" in Jeremiah 26:3, "If so be they will hearken, and turn every man from his evil way, that I may repent me of the evil, which I purpose to do unto them because of the evil of their doings;" and in Jonah 3:10, "And God saw their works, that they turned from their evil way; and God repented of the evil, that he had said that he would do unto them; and he did it not."
Now, repentance is generally admitted to imply either a change of mind or a change of conduct. But, by the doctrine of our opponents, he never really thought to do them evil; for he knew beforehand that they would perform the condition by which it would be averted. Surely the Lord did not think that he would do what he knew that he would not do. But it may be said there was only a conditional thought or purpose to do them evil. Granted; the Lord thought to do them evil only on condition that they continued in their present wicked course. But was there any change of mind with reference to this conditional purpose? After the Lord did not do them evil, did he not still think that he would have done so conditionally. By the doctrine we are combating there was no change either in God's conditional or in his actual purpose, neither was there a change from the conditional to the actual, for both his conditional and his actual course of conduct were perfectly in his view from the beginning. They remained in his mind and intentions the same conditional and actual course of conduct after the nation or the kingdom had turned from its wicked way. According to this doctrine there could have been no change of mind at all; neither could there have been any alteration of conduct, for as yet there was no conduct to alter. Indeed, no conduct of the kind spoken of ever did take place. The Lord only thought to do them evil, but did not do it (Ex. 32:14); the thought never did develop into action.
In his comment on Genesis 6:6, Mr. Benson says, "Properly speaking, God cannot repent, Num. 23:19, 1 Sam. 15:11-29; for he is perfectly wise and unchangeable in his nature and counsels, Mal. 3:6, and James 1:17. Neither is he liable to grief or disappointment, being constantly happy. But this is spoken of God after the manner of men, by the same figure of speech whereby eyes, ears, hands, and feet are ascribed to God, and must be understood so as not to reflect on his immutability or felicity. It doth not imply any passion or uneasiness in God; for nothing can create disturbance to the eternal mind: but it signifies his just and holy displeasure against sin and sinners. Neither doth it speak any change of God's mind, for with him is no variableness; but is signifies a change of his way."
If the fact that with God there is no variableness proves that he does not change his mind, does not the fact that with him there is not a "shadow of turning" (James 1:17) prove that he does not change his way? Why should a change of mind be thought to be more contrary to God's immutability than a change of way? But, in fact, neither a change of mind nor a change of way under different circumstances is at all inconsistent with God's immutability. Mr. Watson says: We are not, however, so to interpret the immutability of God as though his operations [why not say both mind and operations] admitted no change, and even no contrariety; or, that his mind was incapable of different regards and affections toward the same creatures under different circumstances ...Thus in Scripture language "he repents" of threatened or commenced punishment, and shows mercy; or, " is weary of forbearing " with the obstinately guilty, and so inflicts vengeance. Thus, "he hates the evil-doer," and "loveth the righteous." That love, too, may be lost, "if the righteous turn away from his righteousness;" and that hatred may be averted, "when the wicked man turneth away from his wickedness." There is a sense in which this may be called change in God, but it is not the change of imperfection and defect. It argues precisely the contrary. If when "the righteous man turneth away from his righteousness," God's love to him were unchangeable, he could be the unchangeably holy God, the hater of iniquity; and "when the wicked man turneth away from his wickedness," and, by the grace of the Holy Spirit, becomes a new creature, if he did not become the object of God's love, God would not be the unchangeable lover of righteousness. By these scriptural doctrines, the doctrine of the Divine immutability is not, therefore, contradicted, but confirmed.
Again, it is a mistake to suppose that God is a being without passions. Were this the case, it could not be said that he is a God of love, for love is a passion. Moreover, it is not derogatory from his character to suppose that he is sometimes affected with sorrow of grief. To suppose that he is not sorry for the misfortunes of his creatures, or grieved when they go astray, is to suppose him utterly devoid of feeling; it is to suppose that he does not love them. Neither can the ascription of sorrow or grief to the Almighty be regarded as a figure of speech. For, if so, of what is it a figure? The eye is frequently used in Scripture to represent the mental quality of vision, the ear to represent hearing, the hand to represent power or providence, etc. In all such cases the visible is used to represent the invisible. But what does sorrow or grief represent? If it is used figuratively, it must represent something. Will it be said that it represents some quality in the Almighty of which we have no distinct and proper conception? That would be about the same as to say that, when these qualities are ascribed to God, no revelation is made; or that such expressions as that contained in Genesis 6:6 cannot be understood. And, indeed, we agree that they cannot be understood on the supposition that God foreknew from all eternity the wickedness of those antediluvians.
But, it may be asked, what explanation, according to these views, can be given to Numbers 23:19 and 1 Samuel 15:29? "God is not a man, that he should lie; neither the son of man, that he should repent." "And also the Strength of Israel will not lie nor repent: for he is not a man, that he should repent." In substance, the explanation has just been given in the quotations from Mr. Watson. God is an unchangeable being, yet he changes to suit different circumstances; yea, as has been seen, he must do so in order to be unchangeable. There are two kinds of change; relative and absolute. Of the former, God is susceptible; of the latter, not. As the earth revolves on its axis, the sunlight falling on it changes position, yet really there is no change in the position of the sunlight; the earth simply places itself in a different relation to it. The sunlight changes relatively to the earth, but absolutely it maintains the same position. So the Lord does not absolutely repent or change his mind; that is, the principles of his action are always the same. Yet this very unchangeableness in principle constitutes a reason why his mind undergoes a relative change under a change of circumstances. When God created man, he designed that man should be holy. This design, indeed, was the reason for his creation. But man by disobedience frustrated this design, and thereby placed the act of creation in a different attitude before him. It was designed to be an act which would give joy to his heart, for we have no doubt that God rejoices in the holiness and happiness of his creatures; it became, instead, a source of the deepest sorrow.
But President Edwards says, "It will also follow from this notion, that as God is liable to be continually repenting what he has done; so he must be exposed to be constantly changing his mind and intentions, as to his future conduct; altering his measures, relinquishing his old designs, and forming new schemes and projections." Certainly; why not? This is scriptural doctrine; then, why not accept it? God certainly did repent of what he had done, for the Bible says so. In fact, the Lord had so often repented of what he thought to do unto Israel, altering his measures, relinquishing his old designs, and forming new schemes, that at last he declares, "I am weary with repenting." (Jer. 15:6)
But, "In such a situation," continues President Edwards, "he must have little else to do, but to mend broken links as well as he can, and be rectifying his disjointed frame and disordered movements; in the best manner the case will allow." That is, the free acts of men are so numerous, and would so complicate the machinery of the universe if they were not foreknown, that God could have little else to do besides attending to them . The idea seems to be that God's wisdom would be inadequate to the government of this vast universe, unless he had an eternity beforehand to think about it; that, if millions upon millions of events should come unexpectedly before the All-wise and Almighty for adjustment, it would certainly expose him "to manifold, constant, great perplexity and vexation." Indeed, to take care of all these unexpected things continually coming up for adjudication and management, and, at the same time, to attend to the rest of the universe, would be rather too great a task for the Almighty!
"And it is in the power of man," continues President Edwards, "on these principles, by his devices, purposes and actions, thus to disappoint God, break his measures, make Him continually to change his mind, subject him to vexation, and bring him into confusion." Certainly; the Scriptures teach that man can do all these things except the last. According to them, God has often been disappointed and vexed at man's obstinate wickedness, his conditional measures have often been broken by failure of the condition, and he has often changed his mind, only these things have never brought him into confusion. Why should they, his power and wisdom being unlimited?
But it is not necessary to suppose that God is ever under the necessity of acting upon the spur of the moment. Matters do not come upon the stage of action unexpectedly to him, or take him by surprise; for he knows not only all certainties, but all possibilities also. He knew, for instance, that it was possible for Adam to fall. He did not know that he would fall, nor, perhaps, did he expect him to do so in one sense of the term; but, knowing the possibility, the fall could not be said to have been entirely unexpected. And now, cannot God make provision beforehand for a possibility, just as well as for a certainty? That is, can he not determine that, if a certain event shall occur, he will make a certain provision to meet it? I see no reason why he should not do so; and I have no doubt that he determined before the foundation of the world that, if man should fall, he would make provision for his restoration; just the provision, too, which he has made, viz., the atonement through the sufferings and death of our Lord Jesus Christ.
"But how do these things," continues President Edwards, "consist with reason, or with the word of God? Which represents, that all God's works , all that he has ever to do, the whole scheme and series of his operations, are from the beginning perfectly in his view; and declares, that whatever devices and designs`are in the hearts of men, the counsel of the Lord is that which shall stand, and the thoughts of his heart to all generations,' Prov. 19:21, Psal. 33:10,11, `And that which the Lord of Hosts hath purposed, none shall disannul,' Isa. 14:27. And that he cannot be frustrated in one design or thought. Job. 42:2. `And that which God doth, it shall be forever, that nothing can be put to it, or taken from it,' Eccl. 3:14. The stability and perpetuity of God's counsels are expressly spoken of as connected with the foreknowledge of God, Isa. 46:10, `Declaring the end from the beginning, and from ancient times, the things that are not yet done; saying, My counsel shall stand, and I will do all my pleasure.'--And how are these things consistent with what the Scripture says of God's immutability, which represents Him as `without variableness or shadow of turning'?" Of course, God is unchangeable in his purposes, counsels, designs; that is, his absolute purposes, the principles of his conduct, do not change. But this does not argue that there is no change in his relative purposes; indeed, as has been seen, it argues precisely the contrary.