Tuesday, January 12, 2010

The "Paradox" of Classical Arminianism

“The upshot is that classical Arminianism may involve a PARADOX: God’s exhaustive and infallible foreknowledge (simple foreknowledge) together with libertarian free will” (Roger Olson, “Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities.” Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2006, 198-199).

I stumbled over Olson’s quote above a few days ago while rereading through some of Olson’s “Arminian Theology” once more. And then, on the same pages as the labeling of Classical Arminianism as “paradoxical,” came these words in a footnote:
“Some readers may wonder if I am affirming a logical contradiction here. I am not intentionally and certainly not comfortably doing so. I acknowledge a difficulty but am not convinced it is a sheer contradiction... I FEEL THE WEIGHT OF THE OPEN THEIST CRITIQUE OF CLASSICAL ARMINIANISM...” (199).

Olson states that to some, the idea of God’s exhaustive foreknowledge and man’s libertarian freedom seems to be a “logical contradiction,” although he doesn’t seem to believe it is. And secondly, Olson also notes that he is quite aware of the Open Theist attack of Classical Arminianism.

Bruce Ware gives an example to show what he perceives to also be the Classical Arminian dilemma:

“For example, if God knows that later today Carl will take his family to the Oyster Bar restaurant for dinner and order a shrimp salad, then it must be the case that Carl will do just this and he may not choose differently. That is, because God knows this to be the case, and because GOD’S KNOWLEDGE BY DEFINITION IS INFALLIBLE, it follows that Carl will choose and do precisely and only as God knows he will. BUT IF THIS IS SO, THEN CARL IS NOT IN A POSITION IN WHICH HE COULD CHOOSE CONTRARY TO GOD’S FOREKNOWLEDGE. That is, he is not in which he could choose instead to eat by himself, or to take his family to Rose’s, or to eat leftovers at home and save the money. In other words, it appears that Carl is not able to choose differently than he will in fact choose, and if this is the case, then he does not choose freely. TRUE FREEDOM IN THE CLASSICAL ARMINIAN MODEL REQUIRES THE ABILITY, all things being just what they are, TO CHOOSE DIFFERENTLY THAN ONE DOES. But all things being just what they are, including God’s foreknowledge being just what it is, Carl must choose what God knows he will choose. Hence, he is not able to choose differently. And hence, he is not free. The challenge from open theism to other Arminians is simple: COMPREHENSIVE DIVINE FOREKNOWLEDGE AND LIBERTARIAN FREEDOM ARE MUTUALLY EXCLUSIVE NOTIONS. YOU CANNOT HAVE BOTH TOGETHER. So, if you value libertarian freedom (as classical Arminianism clearly does), then you must be willing to give up your commitment to comprehensive divine foreknowledge” (Bruce Ware, “God’s Lesser Glory: The Diminished God of Open Theism.” Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2000, page 36).

In bold terms, Ware comes right out and states the problem Open Theists have with their fellow Arminian (Reformed) brethren: “Comprehensive divine foreknowledge and libertarian freedom are mutually exclusive notions.” And this is what Roger Olson labels as the “paradox” of Classical Arminianism.

But what would you, the reader say, if I told you that both exhaustive foreknowledge and libertarian freedom are not “mutually exclusive notions”? To see this truth, let’s look at the story of David, Saul, and the men of Keilah again in 1 Samuel 23:10-13.

I wanna take some time to point out the features of this passage that are pertinent to our discussion.

First, notice that the Lord’s words to David indicate foreknowledge. The Lord told David, “He will come down”(1 Sam. 23:11), referring to Saul (v.13), and “they will deliver you” (v.12), referring to the men of Keilah. Saul had indeed planned to enter Keilah and get David, which is demonstrated by the fact that “he halted the expedition” (v.13). This eliminates the validity of the Open Theist position, which states that God doesn’t know something before it happens. Here, God knew what Saul was doing before Saul even did it (that is, before Saul came to Keilah).

Next, look at how real David’s libertarian freedom is: even though God tells him that he will be handed over to Saul, he escapes and Saul doesn’t even arrive in Keilah (v.13).

But this last statement poses a problem for those who believe divine foreknowledge and true libertarian freedom exists. God reveals His foreknowledge to David, but David is allowed to act AGAINST that which God has told him. God tells him that he will be handed over to Saul, but David ends up hiding in such a manner that Saul cannot find him.

How do we account for God’s foreknowledge here? The Open Theist would say, “See, God doesn’t get everything right. He forecasted the future wrong on this one.” However, I would disagree. Because the Bible seems to affirm God’s exhaustive foreknowledge everywhere (cf. Psalm 139), I would say that God’s words to David here are correct. What God tells David is true (Saul really is looking to make his way to Keilah and capture David). And Saul would have done that very thing---IF God’s words to David revealed a PREDETERMINED action! However, they do not, for David is allowed to escape the hand of Saul. David gets to exercise GENUINE CHOICE here; libertarian freedom, as a result, is not an illusion---but a very present reality. Therefore, any theology we hold to must emphasize true, genuine choice, not a choice that turns out to be “predetermined.” It is for this reason that many theologies are wrong. If we are gonna hold to a truly biblical theology, we cannot undermine true libertarian freedom in order to uphold what we believe to be God’s sovereignty. If God is sovereign, surely He can be sovereign DESPITE our choices---and He doesn’t have to “manipulate” us in any situation whatsoever to have His purposes accomplished.

Now, to the paradox. According to Bruce Ware’s comments above regarding the Open Theist critique of Classical Arminianism, we find that there seems to be some “tension” between God’s exhaustive foreknowledge and man’s true libertarian freedom. If God foreknows everything, and what He knows will happen, how is it that man can do OTHER THAN what God already knows? If God already knows what a person will do, aren’t that person’s choices predetermined? The Open Theist tells us, “if you wanna hold on to freedom, get rid of God’s foreknowledge.”

But there is a problem with the Open Theist’s answer. If God is all-powerful, and gives man power to make decisions, then to take away sovereignty from God (foreknowledge) means to take away responsibility from man. Man doesn’t have more responsibility without God’s foreknowledge---but less. This is why taking away God’s foreknowledge is not a good idea. Our power of choice is derived from God. If God is not sovereign, then man does not have free choice (and therefore, he has no responsibility as well). To use the Open Theist attack against the Open Theist, “Open Theists cannot have it both ways.”

Looking at 1 Samuel 23, we find then, that God reveals what He knows to David regarding his immediate future. However, how do we handle the fact that God tells David something that DOES NOT COME TO PASS? God has to be telling the truth, right? Yes. God is telling the truth. But if He’s telling the truth regarding David and yet, David ends up in a different scenario, then God must know that too, right? Yep. So God then possesses two different types of knowledge--- He knows what does happen, as well as “what COULD happen.” “Could” is a conditional statement, which means that true libertarian freedom is present here. When God tells David “He [Saul] will come down” and “they [men of Keilah] will deliver you,” the Lord is saying that, BASED ON DAVID’S ACTION, either Saul could get David or not. It wasn’t of necessity, but certainty (a contingent certainty depending on David’s action in the situation). At the moment God told David, David had a real genuine choice and could make a real, genuine decision about what to do. 1 Samuel 23, then, presents us with not only genuine choice of human beings (David specifically here), but also God’s exhaustive foreknowledge.

But what about Olson’s label of Classical Arminianism as containing a “paradox”? The paradox involves divine foreknowledge. The paradox is solvable, but Olson denies help when he writes the following:

“MIDDLE KNOWLEDGE IS NO HELP because it assumes the possibility of counterfactuals of freedom and leads to determinism” (“Arminian Theology,” page 199).

How else can we explain 1 Samuel 23? Both God’s foreknowledge and human libertarian freedom were demonstrated. We can’t explain away the "seeming" determinism if all God knows is exactly what happens. 1 Samuel 23 does not lie under the label “David experiences EXACTLY WHAT GOD FOREKNOWS.” In fact, David does not experience what God foreknows; rather, he is able to change the course of events and make a choice that denies God’s prophecy from coming about. To account for God’s foreknowledge (His knowledge of David’s future was contingent knowledge based upon David’s choice), we must affirm middle knowledge---which is the very thing Olson denies!

In addition, Olson notes that “middle knowledge...leads to determinism.” I think this is a problematic statement for the simple reason that if you talk to any Molinist, they will tell you that Christians can affirm middle knowledge WITHOUT being Molinist in their theology. Thomas Flint affirms the same:

“Though the terminology of natural and free knowledge is Molinist, it is important to remember that we have thus far said nothing with which any traditionalist could reasonably take issue. No sensible proponent of that view could deny that some truths are necessary, and hence not such that God could choose to make them false; therefore, no such proponent could deny that some of God’s knowledge is natural. Nor could any such advocate plausibly deny that some truths are contingent, and that their truth is dependent upon God’s having freely chosen to act in a certain way; hence, no such advocate could deny that some of God’s foreknowledge is free. Our employment of Molinist language...should not mislead one into thinking that anything thus far affirmed would be controversial within the traditionalist camp” (Thomas Flint, “Divine Providence: The Molinist Account.” Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1998, page 38).

Therefore, one can be Classical Arminian and still affirm middle knowledge---without leading to determinism or even Molinism. Arminius himself held to a certain Middle Knowledge. With regards to Arminius, I will discuss his view of scientia media (middle knowledge) in my next post.


Deidre Richardson said...

Dear Anonymous,

Thanks so much for reading the post. I hope that something I've said has blessed you in some way. Please come again and feel free to join the followers section if you'd like.
- Deidre

Godismyjudge said...

Dear Deidre,

Are you sure Flint is saying one can hold to MK without Molinism? He seems to be talking about nature and free knowledge (which even Calvinists hold), not middle knowledge. While knowledge of what people would do in various circumstances isn't unique to Molinism, it seems middle knowledge is, since it's a part of the Molinist system.

God be with you,

Deidre Richardson said...


I encourage you to read Kirk R. MacGregor's "A Molinist-Anabaptist Systematic Theology." He has a chapter titled "Scientia Media According to Molina, Not Arminius." And in that chapter, he deals with the fact that Arminius utilized middle knowledge in his system WITHOUT becoming Molinist, or advocating Molinism. The name "middle knowledge" is unique to Molinism, but the concept itself is not. See 1 Samuel 23 where David prays about what to do in light of Saul's current pursuit of him in the town of Keilah. The concept of God's middle knowledge is a biblical one, a concept ever-present in Scripture long before Molina and his system came along. Molina and descendant Molinists have only given a name to a biblical concept of counterfactuals.

I'll see what I can do about getting MacGregor's analysis posted here. There's also a journal article by Richard Muller titled "Was Arminius a Molinist?" I will do what I can to see to some small analysis of Muller's article making its way here to the blog at CTS. Right now, if you desire to know what I'm reading, the book is titled "God, Creation, and Providence in the Thought of Jacob Arminius" by Richard Muller. I highly recommend it...

Please contact me here again if you have more questions. Thanks for responding and please continue to read and comment at the blog.