Sunday, January 08, 2006

A Dialogue on the Nature of God's Foreknowledge and Sovereignty (vs. Dr. Alex Pruss)

The following is my friendly dialogue (from 1997) with Alexander Pruss [an orthodox Catholic with Ph.D.'s in mathematics and philosophy] on the subject of middle knowledge (or, scientia media; for helpful background to this theologically technical discussion, see Catholic Predestination). I'm quite aware of my limitations in this area, not having directly studied this particular question (I have, however, taken my share of philosophy courses, and have studied much theology). If I botch basic or crucial distinctions, the more philosophically- or theologically-trained reader has been forewarned. But I am very interested in this topic, so I will rush in where angels fear to tread, hoping for the best. Alex's responses will be in green. Citations from Ludwig Ott will be in purple. My older words will be in blue.


I would state very broadly that middle knowledge (as an attribute of God's omniscience) must indeed be possible and perhaps even logically necessary for two things to coexist:

1) God's omniscience and providence;


2) Man's free will, encompassing both freedom of contrary choice and voluntary action.

As I see it (provisionally, to be sure), there are essentially two choices vis-a-vis the relationship of God's infallible providence and man's freedom:

1) God absolutely determines everything and man must respond accordingly, just as physical matter is bound to the laws of nature (in other words, fatalism);


2) God, by virtue of scientia media (middle knowledge), foresees even possible, conditional acts of His free creatures, and acts accordingly to bring about His perfect will for the course of human history. So He still causes and determines what will happen, yet in a way which allows true freedom of action and participation on the part of His creatures.

Thus, if men are truly free, it seems to me that #2 follows (at least as a possible theory, if not a necessity), since the contrary would lead to a scenario whereby either men are not free (#1), or God is not sovereign, and unable to bring about His desires for world and salvation history. Once evil and the power of contrary choice are brought into the picture, God has to "work around" our too-common "counter-wills" in order to orchestrate His providential designs. Thus He must have knowledge of conditional actions so that He can still cause to occur the "best of all possible worlds" (given the existence of sin).

Since we know that "all things work together for good" (Rom 8:28) - at least for the believer - I think God must providentially and sovereignly act according to what He foresees our free response would be in any given circumstance. Otherwise, we would be able to put a monkey wrench in the divine plan and the world would end up in a mess, rather than as the "new heaven and earth" which it is destined to be. Since this cannot happen, middle knowledge must not only be possible, but necessary.

As one might guess, I am a Molinist (at least as far as I understand it). I believe free will can be maintained in such a way that it does no violence either to God's sovereignty, predestination of the elect, or the doctrine of non-Pelagian, non-semi-Pelagian grace. And the solution to that - in my humble opinion - is precisely what the Molinists have proposed. This is not the only possible theory, but personally I think it is the best one, which solves the problem quite satisfactorily for me.

As to the question of whether such notions are infallibly binding for all Catholics, I have found a few citations:

Fr. John A. Hardon, in his Pocket Catholic Dictionary (New York: Doubleday, 1980, 296), states:
The secondary objects of divine knowledge are . . . the purely possible, the real, and the conditionally future. He knows all that is merely possible by what is called the knowledge of simple intelligence. This means that, in comprehending his infinite imitability and his omnipotence, God knows therein the whole sphere of the possible.

Likewise, the ubiquitous Ludwig Ott writes in his Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma (Rockford, IL: TAN, 1974 [orig. 1952],40-43):

While exhaustively knowing His creative causality He also knows therein all the operations which flow or can flow from this, and indeed, just as comprehensively as He knows Himself. 1 Jn 1:5: 'God is light and in Him there is no darkness.' . . .


. . . Holy Writ teaches that God knows all things and hence also the merely possible
[cites Est 14:14, 1 Cor 2:10, S. Th. I, 14,9] . . .


By these are understood free actions of the future which indeed will never occur, but which would occur, if certain conditions were fulfilled. The Molinists call this Divine knowledge scientia media . . . The Thomists deny that this knowledge of the conditioned future is a special kind of Divine knowledge which precedes the decrees of the Divine Will.

That God possesses the certain knowledge of conditioned future free actions (futuribilia) may be positively proved from Scripture. Mt 11:21: 'Woe to thee, Corozain! Woe to thee, Bethsaida! For if in Tyre and Sidon had been wrought the miracles that have been wrought in you, they had long ago done penance in sackcloth and ashes.' Cf. 1 Sam 23:1-13; Wis 4:11.

The Fathers assert Divine foresight of conditioned future things when they teach that God does not always hear our prayer for temporal goods, in order to prevent their misuse; or that God allows a man to die at an early age in order to save him from eternal damnation [cites St. Gregory of Nyssa, which will be cited below] . . .

Speculatively, the Divine foreknowing of conditioned future things is based on the infinite perfection of the Divine knowing, on the infallibility of the Divine providence, and on the practice of prayer in the Church . . .

Molinism, deriving from the Jesuit theologian Louis Molina (+ 1600) explains the infallible Divine prescience of future free actions by recourse to scientia media, which precedes the Divine decrees of will conceptually, not in time, and which is independent of them. Through scientia simplicis intelligentiae God knows from all eternity how every creature endowed with reason will act in all possible circumstances. Through scientia media He knows how it would act in all possible conditions, in the case of new conditions being realised. In the light of scientia media He then resolves with the fullest freedom to realise certain determined conditions. Now He knows through scientia visionis with infallible certainty, how the person will, in fact, act in these conditions . . .

The mode of the scientia media, which is the basis of the whole system, remains unexplained.

William A. Jurgens, in his The Faith of the Early Fathers (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1979), offers three passages from the Fathers on this particular point:

Origen, Commentaries on Genesis , 3,6 [ante 232]

When God undertook in the beginning to create the world, for nothing that comes to be is without a cause, - each of the things that would ever exist was presented to His mind. He saw what else would result when such a thing were produced; and if such a result were accomplished, what else would accompany; and what else would be the result even of this when it would come about. And so on to the conclusion of the
sequence of events, He knew what would be, without being altogether the cause of
the coming to be of each of the things which He knew would happen. (vol. 1, 200,
Then what was the cause, if it was not God, and if each thing has a cause? This is my greatest puzzlement.

God is the First and Primary Cause, and man in a vastly inferior, secondary sense. Without the former, theism and Christianity collapse; without the latter, fatalism results, and God becomes the author of evil. They both must be held together in paradox. And the free will of man entails middle knowledge on God's part, in my opinion.

St. Gregory of Nyssa, On the Untimely Deaths of Infants, Migne, PG 46, col. 184
[c. 381]

It is a reasonable supposition that God, who knows the future just as well as the past, checks the advance of an infant to perfect maturity of life so that the evil which, by virtue of His foreknowledge, He has detected in the future, may not actually develop . . . This, we suspect, is the reason for the deaths of infants; He who does all things rationally withdraws the material of evil in His great love for men, granting no time for the actual doing of evil works to one whom, by virtue of his foreknowledge, He knows would indulge a propensity for evil.

(vol. 2, 57, #1059)

St. Augustine, The Gift of Perseverance, 9,22 [c.429]

. . . certainly God, foreknowing that certain men would fall away, was able to take them from this life before that would happen. (vol. 3, 174, #1996)

Thus, this opinion would seem to be firmly entrenched in the Catholic faith, with even St. Thomas Aquinas giving assent to it (unless I am missing some of the subtleties in this difficult discussion, which is entirely possible).

I agree that God knows all the actual future actions of people---that is obviously de fide. I agree also that He knows all the possible actions that people could commit. But I am not sure if middle knowledge is necessary to God's sovereignty. There are also two possible kinds of middle knowledge:

(1) the knowledge of what persons whom God chose not to create would have freely done, and

(2) the knowledge of what persons whom God did create would have done under different circumstances.

I do not think type (1) middle knowledge is absolutely necessary to God's sovereignty. As to type (2) I am not sure.

Personally, with regard to (1), I don't see any logical distinction between possible (but not actual) actions of real people and those of uncreated "people." In both instances there are non-existent, purely theoretical "possible actions." I think the non-created "possible people" enter into the equation in the sense that in working out His plan, God could have involved others which He chose not to involve by not allowing them to be conceived (!). He knows how their lives would have changed things as well, and in that sense they are as "involved" in God's providence (indirectly) as the created people are.

In these scarcely comprehensible speculations, a non-life is not that distinguishable (as a potentially-causative agent) from a greatly shortened life or a vastly different one (as in, e.g., that marvelous movie about providence, It's a Wonderful Life). In other words, I don't see how the lack of existence, compared to potential acts of existent creatures, is significantly different vis-a-vis sovereignty and providence (but I could very well be confusing things). So then, I would conclude that the non-created group falls under the category of the "possible," which you have already accepted. If not, I would be very interested in your logical distinction between the two concepts.

As for (2), again, I don't see any particularly compelling distinction between the "possible" and the "conditional" or "circumstantial." I was a bit fuzzy on this point with regard to Ott's two categories as well. Perhaps you can elaborate on this a bit. Therefore, I accept both propositions as flowing from the notion of the "possible" within the sphere of God's omniscience. I may be all wet. Basically, I'm just thinking out loud. :-) "His ways are above our ways . . ."

Once evil and the power of contrary choice are brought into the picture, God has to "work around" our too-common "counter-wills" in order to orchestrate His providential designs.

Yes. However, it is not clear to me that God cannot arrange things so that He can work around our counter-wills with just simple foreknowledge, without middle knowledge. I agree that it might be difficult. But I do not know if it is a logical impossibility or not.

I continue to suspect that it is logically impossible (not that I'm supremely confident or anything! - after all, Thomists disagree, and that definitely makes me quake in my boots).

It is a matter of what comes "first" conceptually in the plan of providence and God's decrees: foreknowledge (i.e., seeing but not causing) or predestination (efficient causation). I think granting human free will, which is the crux of the issue, in my opinion it is the former, and once one accepts that, then it seems to me he must accept Middle Knowledge and Molinism (or Arminianism of some sort if one is a Protestant).

If the latter, then isn't free will in some way seriously hindered (as Ott admits), and is not God causing all our actions without our "input" at all (or at least a greatly reduced participation)? That was the whole point of Luther's thesis in his seminal work The Bondage of the Will, I think: that God does all, causes all. He denied (as far as I can tell) our "secondary, participatory causation" (i.e., relative to our appropriating salvific grace). And almost all Protestants deny any notion of "merit" on the same basis.

After all, could not God always miraculously ensure that His ends should be realized in ways that do not rely on middle knowledge? I don't know for sure...

Two things: first, as for the "miraculous," that is always the exception to the rule, by definition. I don't see that miracles are normatively necessary to ensure the working-out of providence. Second, I think this would affect adversely the true freedom of will which is dogmatic Catholic belief (and also the majority Protestant view - though not of its Founders).

Thus He must have knowledge of conditional actions so that He can still cause to occur the "best of all possible worlds" (given the existence of sin).

But do we really have the "best of all possible worlds"? After all, God was free not to create a world (Vatican I, definition). It would seem, thus, that He would also be free to create a world that is not optimal. I am not saying He did that: but He could have done it. Did God create the best of all possible worlds? Maybe He created the best world possible for the believer. But must this be absolutely the best world?

Of course, God is not bound by any limitations other than logical impossibilities and evil actions contrary to His essence. So this doesn't have to be the best world, but I tend to think it is (i.e., post-Fall, which itself resulted from free will) because of both God's infinitely merciful love and His omnipotence (in concert with His omniscience).

Cannot God in His condescending love something inoptimal, and choose to create it in order that He might be able to lavish even more grace on it?

Certainly. I would say He indeed did that by allowing the Fall. But I still tend to think it is the best possible world post-Fall, given our freedom.

. . . I would be wary of saying what God must know in order to accomplish His ends.

Yes, good point. I meant it in the sense of whatever logical necessity entails, since Christians can devoutly believe God is "bound" by the law of non-contradiction, just as we are.

Otherwise, we would be able to put a monkey wrench in the divine plan and the world would end up in a mess, rather than as the "new heaven and earth" which it is destined to be.

Could we? How? I presume God would prevent it in some way.

I meant this in the purely hypothetical sense of us having a radically free will that God couldn't "work around." He can prevent eschatological disaster either by eliminating our free wills or working His divine plan taking them into consideration in some way, albeit in a fashion which doesn't undermine Himself as the ultimate Supreme, Sovereign Cause of all. There will always be paradox in this area of speculation.

I am not sure if there is anything we can do that would upset His plan in a way in which He would need middle knowledge to fix up. After all, suppose I wanted to blow up the world in a nuclear explosion, and I had access to the requisite button. God could still, surely, prevent me physically from pressing it or prevent the current from flowing along the wire, even without middle knowledge (indeed, in this case even without foreknowledge).


What I am trying to say is that without middle knowledge, God could still do much arranging in omniscience. And certainly He could, if He so willed, know what we would likely do in any given circumstance, and in the cases where He would foreknow that in some actual circumstance we would not do what was likely, He could always will in His omnipotence to miraculously prevent our action from bringing fruit contrary to His will.

But isn't that still middle knowledge, being, as it is, a case of potential and circumstantial action? Maybe I am confused . . .

I am very sympathetic to your argument. I have a very hard time seeing how without middle knowledge God could arrange the universe in the way in which we believe He does. But at the same time, I do not want to make an inference from "I have a very hard time seeing how" to "It is impossible that." God is beyond what I know.

I'm the first to admit that we should not speak lightly or over-confidently of God's prerogatives, actions, will, or other attributes. Thus - in this area particularly - I hold my opinions completely provisionally, always subject to overthrow by counter-argument or Church teaching to the contrary. The very fact that there are competing schools of thought in Catholicism lends itself to that interpretation. Thus, I have in all likelihood already overstated my case! A bad habit of mine . . .

My problem with middle knowledge is that I still do not know what it would mean to say something like "If A was not bitten by a dog at age ten, then he would have freely chosen to not be studying philosophy now." I was bitten by a dog at age 10, and I am freely studying philosophy now. What does it mean to say that I would not have made a given free choice in different circumstances?

Well, to us intellectually-finite and fallen beings in time it means precious little. But to an omniscient, perfect Supreme Being Who sees everything - actual and possible - at once in its fullness (being out of time), it has a considerable and evident meaning. We just can't grasp it, given our manifest limitations. So we can posit these things of God under the broad category of omniscience (which we sort of, half-comprehend), but we can't understand the full meaning of these things, according to the Bible's teaching of God's transcendence (I think, e.g., of the ending of Job), just as the flatlander can't comprehend a third dimension.

Let me be more precise. If an agent acts freely, then it seems to me that it is the agent himself who determines the action. So if we take an actual (past, present or future) free action that I commit, the action is as it is because of me. I am responsible for it.

Yet God as Final Cause is "wrapped up in it" as well (cf. Acts 17:28, Col 1:17, Heb 1:3). E.g., we know that whatever good things we do are prompted by God's grace: indeed must be. And even our evil acts are allowed by God, whereas He could have eliminated their occurrence altogether, by a number of means, as you mentioned.

But who is responsible for hypothetical actions?

No one, because they aren't actual. But they can still be a meaningful construct of omniscience.

Suppose we want to say that if I weren't bitten, then I would have chosen not to study philosophy (though of course it is not clear what connection, if any, there is between the antecedent and the consequent here). Who is responsible for the truth of this statement?

If true, it would seem to be God in His omniscience, in my opinion.

Since this statement is about a free act, it seems only a free agent can be responsible for it. What free agent is this statement about? Is it about me?


If so, then this would mean I may be responsible for hypothetical sins I never committed, and also for hypothetical meritorious acts that I never committed.

No , not at all, because you are unnecessarily mixing foreknowledge and middle knowledge with human responsibility, the human and divine perspectives, and the potential and the actual. It is meaningless to link together things which really cannot be, by the nature of things.

I cannot see how I could be responsible for the truth of the statement "If I weren't bitten, I would not have chosen to study philosophy" (assuming that this would indeed have been the case). But if I am not responsible, who is?

God, in some fashion. He would know the statement, if it is true. But I'm not sure it makes sense to say He is "responsible" for it.

I don't want to say God, because that would make God responsible for my hypothetical sins.

No, just as He was not responsible for the Fall and evil, which were as much a part of his sovereign plan as anything else.

So who? Chance? No, we are not fatalists or hazardists. I suppose the only one that is responsible is "my hypothetical self", i.e., the self that I would have been had I not been bitten. But I have some trouble with placing responsibility on "my hypothetical self". This trouble probably is not insurmountable, but it does make me uncomfortable with the notion.

One simply doesn't have to make such a choice. The logic here doesn't require it. You clearly aren't responsible for acts you haven't committed, and neither is God. He merely sees them, or else anticipates their possible occurrence and works His sovereign will in consideration of, and "around" them, if He should so desire.

A more difficult problem is with what I call type (1) middle knowledge, the knowledge of what persons who were never created would have done had they been created. This kind of middle knowledge is probably not needed for divine sovereignty, so perhaps there is no theological problem in denying it.

Yes, it's hard to find any "practical application" for this stuff, isn't it? At least from our severely limited point of view.

Here is a major part of the problem. There are presumably many, many (infinitely many?) possible people whom God has never created. Consider such a person. What determines God's knowledge of what this person would have done? (A) Is it something inherent in God's idea of this person? (B) Is it something inherent in God? (C) Or is it perhaps something contingent outside this hypothetical person?

All of the above?

In case (A), it seems (though maybe not necessarily, and if not, then this solves the whole problem) that by willing to actualize this person God would be actualizing a person who is logically necessitated (by the idea of him that God actualizes) to do what he will, contra free will. (One solution would be to say that these are persons who never will be actualized, and thus truths about them are qualitatively different from truths about persons who would be actualized; that's a possibility that does not seem contradictory.)

Yes, I suppose I would take the course you have proposed, for lack of anything better!

In case (B), again free will contradicted.

I don't think so, because God's foreknowledge and our free will are not unalterably opposed to each other. Our free wills "work" within the bounds which God creates for them, much like characters in a novel. In other words, a hypothetical free will is not qualitatively different from an actual one (like ours).

Same for case (C).

Again, not if one accepts the paradoxical notion of a limited free will operating within the transcendent boundaries of the Divine Supreme Will, and also necessarily subject to the contingencies of the actions of other free agents and the course of nature.

Another solution is to suppose that these hypothetical persons do exist, but in some diminished sense. This seems unattractive.

Well, they don't exist from our perspective, but just by virtue of the fact that they are hypotheticals in the "mind of God" makes them quite real indeed in some mysterious way.

. . . is there such a thing as the conditionally future? Does the very notion mean anything? I agree that God knows all actual truths and all possible truths, but can we even predicate truth and falsehood about futuribles?

I'm still having a difficult time differentiating between "possible truth" and "conditionally future." To me they seem logically and essentially the same, so until they are distinguished to my satisfaction, I will treat them as identical propositions. As for truth or falsehood, I think it is meaningless to for us to apply that judgment to non-existent hypotheticals, but from God's "vantage point" perhaps even these logical limitations vanish or are transformed.

{Ott}: ". . . Holy Writ teaches that God knows all things and hence also the merely possible [cites Est 14:14, 1 Cor 2:10, S. Th. I, 14,9] . . . "GOD ALSO KNOWS THE CONDITIONED FUTURE FREE ACTIONS WITH INFALLIBLE CERTAINTY ('Scientia futuribilium'). (SENT. COMMUNIS.)

What is "sent. communis."? The common view of Catholic theologians? Is this binding on faith? If so, I will believe it. If not, I am not sure if I will.

Ott defines sententia communis as "doctrine, which in itself belongs to the field of the free opinions, but which is accepted by theologians generally." (p.10) I don't think this teaching could be binding, given that both Thomism and Molinism are acceptable and variant solutions to the "problem" of predestination and free will.

{Ott}: "That God possesses the certain knowledge of conditioned future free actions (futuribilia) may be positively proved from Scripture. Mt 11:21: 'Woe to thee, Corozain! Woe to thee, Bethsaida! For if in Tyre and Sidon had been wrought the miracles that have been wrought in you, they had long ago done penance in sackcloth and ashes.'"

I forgot this text. But I am not completely sure that this judgment requires middle knowledge proper. After all, God could in His omniscience examine the reasoning that the inhabitants of Tyre and Sidon went through when they chose not to repent, and maybe a part of their reasoning was an implicit, "Ah, if only a good God would work for us a miracle, then we would repent, but since He didn't, we won't."

Well, I think that's stretching it a bit! Not as plausible as middle knowledge, in my opinion.

Cf. 1 Sam 23:1-13;

Here, if the people chose not to do what the prophecy said they would have done in the hypothetical case, presumably God could have forced them to do it, no?

He can always do whatever He wants to do, but I think, by and large, these instances are cases of foreknowledge and not predetermination. God knows the future whether or not He directly, absolutely, and singlehandedly causes it, or if we help to bring it about by our free choices. Many people (not referring to you) seem to casually assume that foreknowledge and predetermination are identical, but they are not. I think they need to ponder more about what it means for God to be outside of time, and also on the nature of secondary, subordinate causation. Too many unnecessary dichotomies (or linkages) are created.

Wis 4:11.

The text does not in the NAB say that the man would certainly have sinned had God not snatched him away. It seems that a reasonable interpretation is that he would have been sorely tempted and would likely have sinned.

Yes, I agree that is an equally plausible reading.

{Ott}: "Speculatively, the Divine foreknowing of conditioned future things is based > on the infinite perfection of the Divine knowing . . .

By itself this does not prove things, because the perfect divine knowing only knows those things which make sense. . . . So there is still the question whether "If X, then Y will freely do Z" is a meaningful sentence. If so, then God knows it. If not, then God simply knows that it is meaningless.

Well, I agree with Ott here, and I don't believe it has been demonstrated that knowledge of such conditional things is meaningless, any more than knowledge of the possible is.

The case you paint shows me that more likely than not, God having middle knowledge is a part of our faith. But not having any authoritative reason to believe it, and finding the doctrine difficult, I am not sure if I should believe it.

Well, it is clear that you have every right as a Catholic to adopt an alternative scenario which you find more plausible. And no one is to look down upon you for doing so.

. . . I incline towards middle knowledge because it does seem as if Catholic devotion may well assume it. But I am not completely sure if it does.

I commend you for grappling with the issue and for making a conscientious, thoughtful decision.

Hmm. You build an impressive case. I just don't know for sure if the opinion really is a part of the faith, something that we are required to believe.

Not required, but apparently it is the consensus, majority view.

I worry that the Patristic view (and I do not know if it was unanimous---if it really was unanimous, I will accept it) . . .

I don't know. Ott appears to think that it was.

. . . may have been based on the simple syllogism: For every proposition P, God knows if it is true or false. [major] Sentences of the form "If X happens, then Y will freely do Z" are propositions. [minor] Therefore, God knows for every sentence of the form "If X happens, then Y will freeely do Z" if the sentence is true.

Again, I don't know, but I would accept the above syllogism. The minor premise is true, I think, because God's knowledge of these potentialities is infinite and infallible. Thus, such things are indeed propositions in the mind of God. And Scripture, especially in its conditional prophetical scenarios, appears to me to concur with this opinion.

If this was the reasoning that the Fathers were engaging in, then I agree with the major premiss, and it seems that it is the major premiss which is the theologically heavy one, but my whole difficulty is whether the minor premiss is true.

Perhaps I have persuaded you?

Like I said, on the basis of your case I incline towards middle knowledge.

Well, this has been some of the most enjoyable, thought-provoking philosophical theology I have engaged in for a long, long time. It's much more fun to do it in a true, open-minded spirit of inquiry, rather than accompanied by the animosity and bigotry I was subjected to in my last, similar debate with a Calvinist, on supralapsarianism and the consequences of Calvinism vis-a-vis God's character attributes (not that all Calvinists are that way!).

No comments: