Is God’s Knowledge The Cause of What Happens in Time? Yes it is!

Who has measured the waters in the hollow of his hand and marked off the heavens with a span, enclosed the dust of the earth in a measure and weighed the mountains in scales and the hills in a balance?
Who has measured the Spirit of the LORD, or what man shows him his counsel? Whom did he consult, and who made him understand? Who taught him the path of justice, and taught him knowledge, and showed him the way of understanding?
(Isaiah 40:12-14 ESV)

If you have had any encounter at all with a non-Calvinist (Arminian, Wesleyan, Provisionist, or run of the mill Evangelical) on the topic of God’s sovereignty, you will probably have heard this statement: “Just because God knows that something will happen in the future, does not necessitate that He caused that thing to happen.” In this post I hope to show that it is in fact true, that God’s knowledge must be the cause of everything that happens, (with the appropriate distinction between primary and secondary causation) or else we introduce a major threat to the essential nature of God Himself. When it is denied that God’s knowledge is the cause of what happens in time, this of necessity introduces forces and powers into the equation, which determine what shape His creation will take, and these forces are independent of God and constrain God.

Many mainstream theologians and apologists strongly deny that God’s knowledge of the future is the cause of what happens in time. For example, Dr. William Lane Craig says this,

“Some Christian theologians have actually agreed with this point of view. Martin Luther, for example, thought that simply in virtue of God’s foreknowing everything that will happen, everything was fated to occur and would happen necessarily. These theologians equate divine foreknowledge with divine foreordination. If he foreknows it, then in virtue of foreknowing it, it is foreordained and therefore must come to pass. Thus, even the fall of man, on this view, would be something that was foreordained, since God knew in advance that Adam and Eve would fall into sin. It follows that they were fated to fall into sin necessarily, and therefore the fall of man was foreordained as well as foreknown.”

Dr. Craig goes onto explain that this is a logical fallacy; the fallacy of modal logic, but also he says, “This argument has got to be fallacious because fatalism posits a constraint upon human freedom which is completely unintelligible. God’s knowledge is not thought to be the cause of what will happen in the future.” For Dr. Craig, saying that God causes all that happens in time because he knows them, including the choices of men, is tantamount to fatalism. But is this actually the case?

To help us understand this topic, we will turn to Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) and consider a quote from his important work, Summa Theologica:

“The knowledge of God is the cause of things. For the knowledge of God is to all creatures what the knowledge of the artificer is to things made by his art. Now the knowledge of the artificer is the cause of the things made by his art from the fact that the artificer works by his intellect. Hence the form of the intellect must be the principle of operation, as heat is the principle of heating. Nevertheless, we must observe that a natural form, being a form that remains in that to which it gives being, denotes a principle of action according only as it has an inclination to an effect; and likewise, the intelligible form does not denote a principle of action in so far as it resides in the one who understands unless there is added to it the inclination to an effect, which inclination is through the will. For since the intelligible form has a relation to opposite things (since the same knowledge relates to opposites), it would not produce a determinate effect unless it were determined to one thing by the appetite, as the Philosopher says. Now it is manifest that God causes things by His intellect, since His being is His act of understanding, and so His knowledge must be the cause of things, in so far as His will is joined to it. Hence the knowledge of God as the cause of things is usually called the knowledge of approbation”. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, Question 14, article 8.

If you are like me, you’ll have to re read that paragraph five or six times before you’ll be able to begin to grasp it, but let me try to break it down simply.

As you notice, Thomas uses the analogy of an “artificer”, or an artist, and his relation to his art. In our case, lets think of a sculptor and a block of marble that he is planning on turning into a statute. The sculptor clearly has knowledge of what the block of marble will become, right? Of course he does. But why does he know, in the future, what this block of marble is eventually going to be turned into? According to Thomas, it is because the sculptor’s knowledge of what the block is going to become is based on three other qualities within the sculptor himself, namely his intellect, his inclination, and his will. These are qualities within the sculptor himself that bring forth the knowledge of what this block of marble will become. And this idea all these things reside within the being of the sculptor, and not outside of him in some other being, will become a very important concept as it relates to God.

Imagine this man above is the sculptor. He looks at the block of marble and begins, with his intellect, to think about what he wants to create. In addition to his intellect, his inclination, or his desire to create something begins to give shape to his thoughts. Then by an act of his will, he starts to draw what he wants to create on the page in front of him. But notice, these attributes are all internal to the sculptor, they are not external things. And it can be said, that these things are the knowledge, within the sculptor, of what he is going to produce in the future. Are you with me so far?

Now here is a different guy. (Just trying to find photos to make my point!) Now, with his intellect, inclinations and will producing knowledge of what he is going to carve of out of the block of marble, he goes to work creating the sculpture that he desires. What is determining the final product of this piece of artwork? It is the knowledge of this sculptor. His knowledge of what the final product will look like is the determining factor as to what it will become. His knowledge is coupled with his intellect, coupled with his inclinations, which devised the plan, and now his will is taking the tools in hand and carving the sculpture. And notice again, there is nothing outside of the sculptor creating or giving shape to the final piece of art. It is the sculptor alone who is the determiner of the shape and form of that piece of art. In other words, back to the main point, the block of marble will become what is it in the future, because the sculptor KNOWS what it will become. And how does he know, because he alone planned what it would become.

Ok, so what does any of this have to do with the topic at hand? I think this is a very useful analogy to show that God alone is the one who makes and shapes what happens with the time, space and matter that He creates, and to show to problems with other systems which actually introduce a being or force other than God alone that gives shape to the block of marble.

Disclaimer: This analogy fails miserably to capture the mystery of God for one simple reason (pun intended); God does not exist in parts. He is one simple being, as all the reformed confessions clearly state. His essence is not composed of his knowledge, will, thoughts, inclinations, as separate parts interacting with one another. Instead, God is one simple, eternal divine essence. Therefore these analogies which focus on the Ad Extra of God help us understand the Ad Intra nature of the incomprehensible God, because we are creatures who are composed of parts and cannot fathom the depths of His essence.

So in the analogy, if you have been following along, the sculptor represents God. He is the Creator of heaven and earth. He is the artist who, from the riches and wonder of His eternal mind, intellect and will, gives being to the created universe and sustains that same universe by his power. He alone brings forth the creation, and consults no one and needs to conform to no law or rule outside of himself, for he himself is the measure of all things. This is know as the Aseity of God . God is independent of His creation. He is the only self-existent being. All other beings trace their existence back to an ultimate cause, but God Himself has no cause. He is the uncaused cause.

But he is unchangeable, and who can turn him back? What he desires, that he does. For he will complete what he appoints for me, and many such things are in his mind. (Job 23:13-14 ESV)

I think that many proposed understandings of God’s relationship to what happens in time, such as simple-foreknowledge, molinism, and process theology/open theism, end up saying that there is another force, independent of God’s decree and power, that gives shape to the end product of the block of marble. And at the popular level, this force is the libertarian free-will of humans. The final shape of the block of marble, is determined partly by God and partly by the free-will of man. But what is the problem with this view? The problem is that when God, from all eternity, was planning on what He would create (once again this language fails us because God does not make decisions temporally), all potential existence of time, space and matter (including rational creatures) were in Him, and did not have independent existence, therefore they cannot determine the shape of the block of marble because they don’t exist yet!

Obviously the block of marble cannot sculpt itself!

We could wax very philosophical at this point and talk about all kinds of things at this point, and I’ll admit that I am not a trained philosopher. But as a Pastor I want people to understand what’s at stake in this issue. Back to the analogy, it’s as if while the sculptor is sitting to draw up his plans, he has to consider another person coming into the room at some point with his own tools, and apart from the will of the sculptor will give shape to the final product. In these various systems, it’s almost as if God’s universe is shaped not by His will alone (with the proper understanding of secondary causes, concurrence and contingency ) but by forces that he has to interact with which somehow exist apart from his divine decree. As William Lane Craig said once, “God can only play the cards He’s been dealt”…meaning that the shape of the universe God can create is limited by the free-will of creatures. As he said, “The hypothesis is that God has done the very best He can, given the true counterfactuals of creaturely freedom which confront Him.” And as turretinfan has argued well, this opens up the issue of the Grounding objection, which you can read about it you want to go deeper. But did you read that carefully? “God has done the very best He can.” Wow! I don’t think scripture testifies that God has “done the best he can”, do you? But it sounds like Dr. Craig is positing a force called “the counterfactuals of creaturely freedom”, which prevents the sculptor from exercising his intelligence, will and desire from producing the product he wants. In contrast to this, scripture asserts that God accomplishes all His purpose:

8 “Remember this and stand firm, recall it to mind, you transgressors,
9 remember the former things of old; for I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me,
10 declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, ‘My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose,’ (Isa 46:8-10 ESV)

In conclusion, for the lay person trying to have a simple faith in the worship and devotion to the one true, living, triune God of Scripture, this issue is important. We do not sculpt the final outcome of anything. As it says clearly in Ephesians 1:11, “In whom also we have obtained an inheritance, being predestinated according to the purpose of him who worketh all things after the counsel of his own will.” (Eph 1:10 KJV) All things work after the counsel of God’s will. There is no other will, force or being that gives shape to God’s universe…God alone is God.

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