A Reconciliation of God's Foreknowledge with Human Freedom

Reconciliation of God's Foreknowledge with Human Freedom

by Seth Brotherton

Introductory Remark

In order to understand this article fully you must first understand the proofs of God's existence and nature.

Whether God Knows Our Future Free Actions?

God does know our future free actions. If He did not know our future free actions than His knowledge would have a limit. Since, every one of God's attributes is identical with His essence, if His knowledge were limited, then God Himself would be a finite being, and not an infinite being.

A second reason He knows our future free actions is that He is the cause of our future free actions. God is the cause of every being, beside Himself. Nothing can come into existence without the first cause. Since God is the source of all being, he must also be the cause of our future free actions. Since He is the cause of our future free actions He must know what they are, just as an artist know his own art.

Can Our Future Free Actions Remain Free, if God Already Knows Them?

Problem -- Since God's knowledge of our future actions is infallible, our actions cannot be otherwise. Thus, since our actions cannot be different from the way they are, they cannot be free.

Solution -- Not only does God know what we will do, but He also knows that we will do it freely. This solution seems to be rather simple, but it will be explained more fully below.

How Does God Know Our Future Free Actions?

Before answering this question we must first get rid of a common misconception. Many people think that the reason God knows our future free actions is because He has already seen what we will do. This cannot be so. If this were so, then God's knowledge would be dependent on a mere creature. Since God's knowledge is identical with His very essence (as a consequence of His supreme simplicity), if His knowledge were dependent on a creature, then His Being would also be dependent on a creature.

This would turn the Uncaused Cause into a Caused Uncaused Cause, which is a contradiction. Again, since God is Pure Act, His knowledge cannot be completed, or determined by a creature. If a creature could contribute to the knowledge of God, then God would have potency. This would make God, if you will, the Impure Pure Act; again this is a contradiction. Therefore, God does not know our future free actions because He has already seen what we will do.

Since we have seen that the reason for God knowledge cannot be found in a creature, it must be found in Himself. In fact God knows all of our future free actions, because He has decreed from all eternity what they will be. Not only does God predetermine what we will do, but He also predetermines that we will perform these actions freely. Everything is caused by God; our free action is not an exception. Every effect comes from God.

Indeed, what our free actions will be is an effect (otherwise it would be God Himself). Therefore, what our free actions will be is predetermined from eternity by God. This is because, a second cause cannot influence an effect in any way, except with the influx of the first cause.

This fact may come as a surprise to many people, Catholics included. So, I am providing certain scripture quotations that show the truth of this:

Eph 2:10 "For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them."

John 15:5 "....for apart from me you can do nothing."

I Cor 4:7 "What have you that you did not receive? If then you received it, why do you boast as if it were not a gift."

Comment: If, in fact, God has not caused everything that is in our good actions, then we would have the right to boast, for we would be the cause of our good actions, excluding the causality of God. This is obviously absurd.

Phil 2:13 "For God is at work in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure."

Eph 1:4 "Even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him."

John 15:16 "You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bare fruit and that your fruit should abide."

Rom 9:18 "So then he has mercy upon whomever he wills, and he hardens the heart of whomever he wills."

Rom 9:20-23 "But who are you, a man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, "Why have you made me thus?" Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for beauty and another for menial use? What if God desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience the vessels of wrath made for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for the vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory...."

Prov 21:1 "The king's heart is a stream of water in the hand of the Lord; he turns it wherever he wills"

Sirach 33:10-13 "All men are from the ground, and Adam was created of the dust. In the fullness of his knowledge the Lord distinguished them and appointed their different ways; some of them he blessed and exalted, and some of them he made holy and brought them near to himself; but some of them he cursed and brought low, and he turned them out of their place. As clay in the hand of the potter-for all his ways are as he pleases- so men are in the hand of him who made them, to give them as he decides."

Ezech 36:27 "And I will put my spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances."

Objections and Replies

Objection 1

If God has determined from all eternity what we will do, we cannot do otherwise. Thus, our actions will no longer be free.

Reply to Objection 1

Again, not only has God determined what we will do, but He has also determined how we will do it, i.e. freely. Since, God is omnipotent His power extends to, not only what will become, but also to the mode in which it will become, e.g. necessarily or freely.

Objection 2

If God has willed from all eternity that I will do a certain action, I cannot do otherwise, since nobody can resist the power of His will.

Reply to Objection 2

Although God has preordained what we will do from all eternity, God's application of this eternal preordination, or premotion, on our will is simultaneous in time with our actual action, although prior in nature. Thus, in the words of St. Thomas, our action is not absolutely necessary, but contingently necessary. Just as it is not absolutely necessary that Socrates be sitting, because it is a free action, but it is contingently necessary that Socrates be sitting, while he is sitting. Thus, God's application of His premotion, and our free action are simultaneous in time, resulting in a free, but contingently necessary action. Hence, it is more proper to say that God infallibly preordains our action, than to say that he necessarily preordains our actions.

Objection 3

In order for a person to act freely, he must be the determiner of his own action. But in your opinion God is the determiner of a person's action, which thus leaves no room for the freedom of that person. Therefore, your opinion contradicts the fact of free will.

Reply to Objection 3

It is true that in order for a person to act freely, he must be able to determine what his act will be. But, it is not true that he must be the first determiner of what his act will be. Thus, God determines people to determine themselves in a specified way.

Objection 4

If God determines all the actions of a person, then since people sin, God would be the cause of sin.

Reply to Objection 4

In this case God would not be the cause of sin, He would only be the cause of the act of sin, as St. Thomas say in De Malo q.3 a.2. The act of sin, or inasmuch as a sin is a thing, comes from God, but the sinfulness of a sin comes from the sinner, or the "deficient cause" as St. Thomas calls it. Thus, God's preordination of the act of sin has two aspects, namely, permissive and effective. God permits the deficient cause to cause the deficiency of the act, and He causes the existence of the act of sin.

Objection 5

But God would not preordain some to perform acts of sin, and others to acts that are good. This would imply injustice in God.

Reply to Objection 5

In the words of St. Thomas from S.T. I a. Q. 23 a. 5 ad. 3

"The reason for the predestination of some and the reprobation of others, must be sought for in the goodness of God. Thus, He is said to have made all things through His goodness, so that the divine goodness might be represented in things. Now, it is necessary that God's goodness, which in itself is one and undivided, should be manifested in many ways in His creation; because creatures in themselves cannot attain to the simplicity of God. Thus it is that for the completion of the universe there are required different grades of being; some of which hold a high and some a low place in the universe.

"That this multiformity of grades may be preserved in things, God allows some evils, lest many good things should never happen, as we said above. Let us then consider the whole of the human race, as we consider the whole universe. God wills to manifest His goodness in men; in respect to those whom He predestines, by means of His mercy, as sparing them; and in respect of others whom be reprobates, by means of His justice, in punishing them."

But you may press further and ask, "But how does He decide who to show mercy on, and who to show justice on?" And we will have to answer in the words of St. Augustine (Tract. xxvi In Joan)

"Why He draws one, and another He draws not, seek not to judge, if thou dost wish not to err."

This is the mystery of predestination. But, we should not feel disappointed at the fact that we have arrived at a mystery. Everything dealing with God eventually will lead to a mystery, because God is so much more perfect than us; we cannot understand God through our natural powers. If we could know everything about a God then I would not want to worship that God. A mystery reveals the supreme superiority of God's perfection.

Objection 6

But God wills to save all men (cf. 1 Tim 2:4,6; 2 Peter 3:9). So, how can it be that God has preordained some to live sinful lives?

Reply to Objection 6

In the words of St. Thomas S.T. I a. Q. 23 a. 4 ad. 3

"God wills all men to be saved by His antecedent will, which is to will not simply but relatively; and not by His consequent will, which is to will simply."

In other words, God wills all men to be saved if they merit it through God's grace in doing good works; but, God does not will the men to be saved that do not merit it. But, again we are faced with the question, "Why did God preordain some to merit through God's grace, and others not?" and again we are faced with a mystery.

For more information on this subject see:

Predestination, by Garrigou-Lagrange, O.P.
God: His Existence and His Nature, by Garrigou-Lagrange, O.P.
S. Thoma et Doctrina Praemotionis Physicae, by Dummermuth, O.P.
Summa Theologica Prima Pars Q. 23, 24, 116, and his treatise On Grace by St. Thomas Aquinas

Seth Brotherton


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