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Edwards on Foreknowledge - Part I

Foreknowledge[1]

The contemporary fascination with Jonathan Edwards shows little sign of abatement. If anything, scholarly interest is on the rise. Harry Stout believes “the reasons for this compelling attraction vary widely over time and individual persuasion: some have approached Edwards for religious inspiration, others to exorcize the ghosts of their Puritan forebears; some have come to appreciate true virtue, others to understand the reality of total evil; some have discovered a great anachronism, others a prophet of modernity.”[2]

Stephen Stein accounts for Edwards’ popularity by suggesting that some scholars are preoccupied with his “eighteenth-century world; he serves for them as a window into that century. Others address perennial philosophical or theological questions by means of engagement with his answers to those questions. Still others are most concerned about Edwards’s influence on subsequent generations of American thinkers.”[3] And then, notes Stein, “there are the admirers – those who are convinced that he was religiously correct in his formulations of Christian thought and practices or those who simply stand in awe of his intellectual efforts.”[4] I am unashamedly an “admirer” of Edwards and am attracted to him for precisely the reason Stein notes: I believe Edwards was, in large measure, “religiously correct” in his formulation of Christian theology, and in particular his unqualified endorsement of exhaustive divine foreknowledge (hereafter EDF).

            The purpose of this article is not primarily descriptive. Whereas I do hope to provide some insight into the structure and rationale of Edwards’ arguments for EDF, my aim is to use Edwards as a catalyst for a biblical and theological examination of contemporary open theism. Were Edwards alive today I believe his response to open theism would be less one of anger (notwithstanding the title of this article) than of utter incredulity. “One would think,” says Edwards, “it should be wholly needless to enter on such an argument [for EDF] with any that profess themselves Christians.”[5] However, he concedes that “God’s certain foreknowledge of the free acts of moral agents, is denied by some that pretend to believe the Scriptures to be the Word of God.”[6]

The Structure of Edwards’ Argument for EDF p

            Edwards’ argument for EDF appears within the larger framework of his response to the Arminian notion of free will. The Arminianism to which Edwards addressed himself insisted, among other things, that for the will properly to be free, and thus “capable of virtue or vice, and properly the subject of command or counsel, praise or blame, promises or threatenings, rewards or punishments,”[7] it must be contingent, “as to be without all necessity.”[8] But contingency is precluded by EDF. Thus Edwards set himself to the task of demonstrating two things: first, “that God has a certain foreknowledge of the voluntary acts of moral agents; and secondly . . . how it follows from hence, that the volitions of moral agents are not contingent, so as to be without necessity of connection and consequence.”[9]

            Unlike the Arminians[10] of Edwards’ day, contemporary open theists readily concede Edwards’ second point. Classical Arminianism, be it in the 18th century or our own, has typically affirmed EDF (or if not “exhaustive,” at least extensive), but has insisted, no less strenuously, that such is “no evidence of any necessity of the event foreknown.”[11] Much to their credit, open theists have pointed out the inconsistency of this position.

            As I read most open theists, it appears their argument rests on two foundational assumptions. First, human choices are morally relevant, indeed must be, lest we denude life of meaning and depersonalize the love-relationship between God and man (a point, be it noted, with which both Edwards and all compatibilists would heartily agree). But if human choices are necessary, says the open theist, they are unavoidable, and if unavoidable then neither worthy of reward nor punishment. In other words, necessary events are morally vacuous events. The Bible portrays human choice as morally significant and both common sense and experience confirm it as such. Therefore, human choice cannot be necessary. A foreknown choice is a necessary choice. Therefore, God does not foreknow human choice. To this is added the second and corollary point, that morally relevant choices are, by definition, contingent, and contingent choices are, by definition, unknowable antecedent to their being chosen. Therefore, God does not, indeed cannot, have EDF of the volitions of free moral agents.

            Edwards’ case for EDF is thus relevant to contemporary open theism in two respects. First, notwithstanding the latter’s insistence that foreknown choices are morally irrelevant choices, Edwards demonstrates that the Bible says otherwise. He compiles an impressive body of exegetical evidence which he believes proves that God infallibly foreknows human volitions for which he holds the individual morally accountable. These choices, says Edwards, being infallibly foreknown, are necessary. As noted, on this point open theists agree. If EDF exists, contingency or libertarian freedom doesn’t.[12] Edwards’ second argument is that the necessity logically entailed by EDF is perfectly compatible (hence, “compatibilism”) with moral accountability. This latter point is the focus of Edwards’ work on free will, a treatise that in my opinion has yet to be successfully refuted, notwithstanding the many efforts to that end.[13]

            My focus will be on the first of these two points. I want to examine several (but by no means all) of Edwards’ biblical arguments for EDF. I will leave it to the philosophers to determine whether the necessity that EDF demands is compatible or incompatible with moral accountability.[14]

A Biblical Case for EDF[15]

Edwards’ task is to prove “that God has an absolute and certain foreknowledge of the free actions of moral agents.”[16] He appeals to five arguments, only one of which concerns us here.[17]

Edwards’ principal argument is that foreknowledge is proven from the fact of prophetic prediction. In the absence of foreknowledge, prediction is mere conjecture, however well informed it may be. And conjecture, he insisted, was denigrating to the glory of God. What he would have been shocked to discover is that conjecture is precisely what certain open theists today believe divine “prediction” to be. According to John Sanders, “given the depth and breadth of God’s knowledge of the present situation, God forecasts what he thinks will happen. In this regard God is the consummate social scientist predicting what will happen. God’s ability to predict the future in this way is far more accurate than any human forecaster’s, however, since God has exhaustive access to all past and present knowledge.”[18] Such a view of divine prediction opens the door for divine error, something Edwards found abhorrent yet Sanders readily embraces.[19]

Furthermore, to deny God’s foreknowledge of the volition of moral agents is to deny it of those events that are consequent to and dependent upon it. This would serve to increase divine ignorance beyond reason, given the incalculable number of events set in motion by the choices of moral agents.[20] In other words, if God cannot foreknow the future volitions of moral agents “then neither can he certainly foreknow those events which are consequent and dependent on these volitions.”[21] Edwards beckons us to envision, if possible, the seemingly infinite number of events and decisions that are consequent into eternity on but one human choice, the multiplied series of consequent happenings, each of which itself generates multiplied series of complex occurrences, ad infinitum, none of which, if God does not have EDF, is he capable of knowing any more than he can know the first volition from which they issue.

What Edwards has in mind may be illustrated by conceiving of the earth as if it were a giant billiards table. Any single human volition or deed is akin to a cue ball hitting fifteen colored balls and scattering them across the table. In turn, each of the fifteen then becomes another cue ball which strikes yet another fifteen, which in turn become cue balls hitting yet another fifteen, and so on, ad infinitum. This is not to suggest that the universe is an impersonal and mechanistic collision of cause and effect. Rather the point is that for every thought or emotion or resolution or act or word or choice there is set in motion a multitude of diverse effects, each of which has the potential to become a cause of yet innumerable other diverse effects, ad infinitum.[22]

If God does not foreknow the first cue ball (or human choice/deed, as the case may be) on which all its subsequent effects depend, he cannot know the latter, nor the subsequent effects of which they are each the cause, ad infinitum. If God does not have EDF, not only is his ignorance incalculable, but there is no possibility that God could ever predict or prophesy any volition or event or deed in the vast web of interrelated causes and effects represented by the multitude of interactive billiard balls, nor could he even foreknow what he himself intends to do, given the fact that what he does (not to mention when and how) is itself dependent on and only possible within the historical framework created by the incalculable web of human decision-making, the latter of which open theists insist he cannot know.

For example, how can God know an event, say, in the middle of the third set of fifteen balls set in motion by the eighth ball of the second set, set in motion by the fourth ball of the first set, or interpose to do something in their midst, given the potential multiplicity of positions and movements of the balls, as well as factors of changing velocity, resistance, the angle at which they strike each other, the tightness of the rack, etc., all of which physical factors represent only a tiny fraction of the incalculably vast number of spiritual and emotional and volitional consequences entailed by human decision-making and response? Thus what Edwards wants us to see is that no movement of any one ball (i.e., no decision or action of any one person) can be foreknown apart from foreknowledge of every movement of every ball (volition) antecedent to it. But what about that particular “ball” that open theists might identify as the “event” produced by God’s sovereign intervention in human affairs? In response, Edwards would quickly point out that

“these [i.e., the things God himself has determined to bring to pass] can’t be foreseen, unless it can be foreseen when there shall be occasion for such extraordinary interposition. And that can’t be foreseen, unless the state of the moral world can be foreseen. For whenever God thus interposes, it is with regard to the state of the moral world, requiring such divine interposition. Thus God could not certainly foresee the universal deluge, the calling of Abraham, the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, the plagues on Egypt, and Israel’s redemption out of it, the expelling the seven nations of Canaan, and the bringing [of] Israel into that land; for these all are represented as connected with things belonging to the state of the moral world. Nor can God foreknow the most proper and convenient time of the day of judgment, and general conflagration; for that chiefly depends on the course and state of things in the moral world.”[23]

Edwards proceeds to cite extensive biblical evidence where God is portrayed as knowing the future moral quality and conduct of people, i.e., those decisions for which he holds them accountable and thus either worthy of praise or liable of blame. A few examples include the moral conduct of Ahab (1 Kings 22:20-22), of Hazael (2 Kings 8:12-13), and of Cyrus (Isa. 44:28; 45:13; 2 Chron. 36:22-23; Ezra 1:1-4).[24] One example is deserving of more comment. 1 Kings 13:1-6 describes, three-hundred years in advance, the birth and moral behavior of a man, together with the name by which he would be called: Josiah. Sanders argues that predictions such as this may be accounted for in one of three ways, none of which requires EDF: “God can predict the future as something he intends to do regardless of human response, or God may utter a conditional statement that is dependent on human response, or God may give a forecast of what he thinks will occur based on his exhaustive knowledge of past and present factors.”[25] But it would appear that none of these three adequately explains the prediction of Josiah’s birth and behavior three hundred years before it would come to pass.

How could God foreknow that Josiah would become king, unless he foreknew that his father, Amon, Manasseh’s son, would do evil and walk in the ways of his father, as a result of which his servants conspired to kill him? If Amon had chosen, like others, to repent and walk in righteousness (none of which, according to open theism, could God have infallibly foreknown), his life would have been spared. And if he had lived, his son Josiah would not have ascended the throne at the precise time to make possible the fulfillment of the prediction in 1 Kings 13. How could God have predicted the birth of Josiah and his religious beliefs and moral behavior unless God exhaustively foreknew the history of all his ancestors? The possibilities for the disruption of the physical lineage that would result in the birth of Josiah are mind-boggling: the death of any one of hundreds of people, decisions whether and whom to marry, decisions regarding children, decisions by countless individuals in a 300-year span to act or not to act in a way that would terminate the possibility of Amon and Jedidah meeting, falling in love, getting married, having a child, it being a male, and the decision to give him the name Josiah.

And how could God predict that Josiah would live long enough and righteously as king if he did not foreknow that none of those who opposed Josiah would succeed in killing him or that Josiah wouldn’t fall prey to a fatal illness or that he wouldn’t follow the example of others who rebelled against God? God had to know that Josiah would not rebel or fall into unbelief or idolatry as so many before him had. He had to know that his heart would incline toward God. He had to know that Josiah would be so angered by unbelief and idolatry that he would go so far as to burn the bones of the priests. Yet, how could any of this be true, apart from EDF?

Boyd interprets this prediction as illustrative of how God “set strict parameters around the freedom of the parents in naming”[26] Josiah. “It also restricted the scope of freedom these individuals could exercise as it pertained to particular foreordained activities.”[27] The example of Josiah and Cyrus merely “show that Yahweh is the sovereign Lord of history and can predetermine (and thus foreknow) whatever he pleases, but they do not justify the conclusion that he has settled the entire future ahead of time.”[28] But this simply will not do. At the heart of open theism is the insistent argument that necessity is incompatible with moral accountability, praise and blame, as well as meaningful relationships governed by love. But if it is now acknowledged that such does not obtain in all cases, such as that of Josiah and Cyrus, one must ask why it obtains in any case?

Continued in Part Two . . .


[1] I’m grateful to Bruce Ware, Stephen Spencer, and Stephen George, my teaching assistant, for the helpful comments and suggestions they provided in reading an earlier draft of this article. Of course, they should not be held accountable for any errors it may still contain.

[2] Harry S. Stout, “Introduction” to Jonathan Edwards and the American Experience, ed. by Nathan O. Hatch and Harry S. Stout (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), p. 3.

[3] Stephen J. Stein, “Introduction” to Jonathan Edwards’s Writings: Text, Context, Interpretation, ed. by Stephen J. Stein (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1996), xi.

[4] Ibid. Aside from his reservations with Edwards’ salvific particularism, Michael Jinkins provides an excellent introduction to his theological perspective in “’The Being of Beings’: Jonathan Edwards’ Understanding of God as Reflected in his Final Treatises,” Scottish Journal of Theology, 46:2 (1993):161-90.

[5] Jonathan Edwards, Freedom of the Will, ed. by Paul Ramsey (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1957), p. 239 (hereafter cited as FW).

[6] Ibid. Allen Guelzo addresses how Edwards might have responded to contemporary open theism (which he describes as the “’evangelicalizing’ of process pragmatism”) in “The Return of the Will: Jonathan Edwards and the Possibilities of Free Will,” in Edwards in Our Time: Jonathan Edwards and the Shaping of American Religion, ed. by Sang Hyun Lee and Allen C. Guelzo (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), 87-110.

[7] FW, 171.

[8] Ibid., 239.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Edwards directed most of his comments towards three men: Daniel Whitby (1638-1726), an Anglican divine; Thomas Chubb (1679-1747), a deist; and Isaac Watts (1674-1748), a hymn writer who more closely approached Edwards’s general theological perspective than the other two. For more on these men, see Paul Ramsey’s introduction to FW, 65-118; and Conrad Wright, “Edwards and the Arminians on the Freedom of the Will,” Harvard Theological Review 35 (October 1942):241-61.

[11] FW, 257.

[12] It is perfectly demonstrable, says Edwards, “that if there be any infallible knowledge of future volitions, the event [i.e., the human volition] is necessary; or, in other words, that it is impossible but the event should come to pass” (FW, 258). Again, “on the whole, I need not fear to say, that there is no geometrical theorem or proposition whatsoever, more capable of strict demonstration, than that God’s certain prescience of the volitions of moral agents is inconsistent with such a contingence of these events, as is without all necessity; and so is inconsistent with the Arminian notion of liberty” (FW, 268-69). See Edwards’ detailed argument for this in FW, 257-69.

[13] The most rigorous response to Edwards’s work came from the pen of James Dana of Wallingford, Connecticut. It was published in two parts: An Examination of the late Reverend Edwards’s ‘Enquiry on Freedom of Will’ (Boston: Daniel Kneeland, 1770), and The ‘Examination of the late Rev’d President Edwards’s Enquiry on Freedom of Will,’ Continued (New Haven: Thomas and Samuel Green, 1773). See my detailed response to Dana in Storms, Tragedy in Eden: Original Sin in the Theology of Jonathan Edwards (Lanham: University Press of America, 1985), 199-206, as well as Storms, “Jonathan Edwards on the Freedom of the Will,” Trinity Journal 3 NS (1982):131-69. See also the interaction with Dana in Allen C. Guelzo, Edwards on the Will: A Century of American Theological Debate (Middletown, Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press, 1989), 155-64.

[14] An especially insightful engagement with Edwards’ philosophical arguments for necessity is found in Alvin Plantinga’s, “On Ockham’s Way Out,” Faith and Philosophy, Vol. 3, No. 3 (July 1986):235-69. See the brief response by Linda Trinkaus Zagzebski, The Dilemma of Freedom and Foreknowledge (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1991), 28-30; as well as the discussion in George I. Mavrodes, “Is the Past Unpreventable?” Faith and Philosophy, Vol. 1, No. 2 (April 1984):131-46. Although he does not interact directly with Edwards, John M. Frame agrees with him that libertarian freedom, so essential to the incompatibilist and open theistic perspective, is incoherent and actually destructive of moral accountability. See his recent book, No Other God: A Response to Open Theism (Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R Publishing, 2001), esp. pp. 119-41.

[15] My focus will be on the argument as it appears in FW, although Edwards does address the issue elsewhere, but considerably more briefly. See especially The “Miscellanies,” edited by Thomas A. Schafer (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994), Entries u, 16, 19, 29, 63, 74, and 82; and The “Miscellanies,” edited by Ava Chamberlain (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000), Entries 704 and 762.

[16] FW, 239.

[17] The other four arguments are as follows. First, if God does not have EDF “then he did not foreknow the fall of man, nor of angels, and so could not foreknow the great things which are consequent on these events; such as his sending his Son into the world to die for sinners, and all things pertaining to the great work of redemption” (FW, 252; emphasis his). Second, if God does not have EDF then he “must in many cases truly repent what he has done, so as properly to wish he had done otherwise. . . . Yea, from this notion it would follow, that God is liable to repent and be grieved at his heart, in a literal sense, continually; and is always exposed to an infinite number of real disappointments, in his governing the world; and to manifold, constant, great perplexity and vexation” (FW, 253). Third, if God does not have EDF “he must be exposed to be constantly changing his mind and intentions, as to his future conduct” with the result that “he must be a being, who, instead of being absolutely immutable, must necessarily be the subject of infinitely the most numerous acts of repentance, and changes of intention, of any being whatsoever; for this plain reason, that his vastly extensive charge comprehends an infinitely greater number of those things which are to him contingent and uncertain. In such a situation, 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” (FW, 253-54). These latter two points illustrate how antithetical are the perspectives of Edwards and contemporary open theists, insofar as the latter applaud these unavoidable truths of the denial of EDF, seeing in them evidence of God’s notable and praiseworthy “resourcefulness” in “governing”(?) his creation. Fourth, and finally, if God does not have EDF “it will appear to follow . . . that God, after he had made the world, was liable to be wholly frustrated of his end in the creation of it; and so has been in like manner liable to be frustrated of his end in all the great works he hath wrought” (FW, 255; emphasis his). If God lacks EDF, says Edwards, “he could not know, that he should have his desired success, in the incarnation, life, death, resurrection and exaltation of his only begotten Son, and other great works accomplished to restore the state of things: he could not know after all, whether there would actually be any tolerable measure of restoration; for this depended on the free will of man” (FW, 256).

[18] John Sanders, The God Who Risks: A Theology of Providence (Downers Grove: IVP, 1998), 131.

[19] Ibid., 132.

[20] On this point, see the excellent brief article by John Piper, “The Enormous Ignorance of God: When God Doesn’t Know the Future Choices of Man,” December 2, 1997, http://www.bgc.bethel.edu/.

[21] FW, 239.

[22] The temptation among open theists may be to exploit my analogy to demonstrate that the Calvinist worldview, one element of which is EDF, is fatalistic and relationally lifeless and thus incompatible with the spontaneity of human choice and the joy of a love relationship with God as our Father. But this would be to misunderstand the point of the illustration, which is simply to highlight the complex and multifaceted inter-connectedness of what is in fact a highly interactive and dynamic relationship between God and mankind. So again, I’m not saying that people, in their relationship with God and others, are unthinking and unfeeling billiard balls, but that their deeds and decisions are causally interrelated in a way that is analogous to, yet on a far more expansive scale, the physical impact of countless billiard balls one on the other.

[23] FW, 250-51.

[24] Additional examples where God foreknows both the wicked and righteous deeds of moral agents include the future cruelty of the Egyptians against Israel (Gen. 15:13-14), the continuation of iniquity among the Amorites (Gen. 15:16; see Acts 7:6-7), the pride of Babylonian leaders (Isa. 13, 14, 47), the return of the Jews from Babylon (Jer. 31:35-40; 32:6-15,41,44; 33:24-26), as well as the time it would occur (Jer. 25:11,12; 29:10-11; 2 Chron. 36:21; Ezek. 4:5-6). “And yet the prophecies represent their return as consequent on their repentance. And their repentance itself is very expressly and particularly foretold” (FW, 243-44). Yet, if libertarian freedom is true, God could not have infallibly foreknown that they would repent, for it must be in their power equally not to repent. Edwards proceeds to cite more than thirty examples where God predicts the malice, cruelty, conspiracy against, and rejection of the Messiah by individual moral agents (FW, 244-45).

[25] Sanders, The God Who Risks, 136.

[26] Gregory A. Boyd, God of the Possible: A Biblical Introduction to the Open View of God (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2000), 34.

[27] Ibid. Emphasis his.

[28] Ibid. See also Boyd, Satan and the Problem of Evil: Constructing a Trinitarian Warfare Theodicy (Downers Grove: IVP, 2001), 121, n. 7.