How (or Why) Does God Know the Future?

Arminians and even some Calvinists (along with those who claim to be neither) may struggle with the concept of God’s “meticulous sovereignty” (also sometimes referred to as “exhaustive sovereignty”). The Reformed confessions state that “God from all eternity did by the most wise and holy counsel of his own will, freely and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass.” Despite the evidence from verses such as Ephesians 1:11 and Matthew 10:29 indicating this to be the case, many people resist this idea. However, all orthodox Christians agree that God is both omniscient and omnipotent.

I have found James P. Boyce to be a helpful guide in explaining why God’s omniscience and omnipotence necessitate his exhaustive sovereignty over all events. In particular, one paragraph from Chapter XIII, Section IV of his Abstract of Systematic Theology. I have quoted that paragraph below, breaking up some of the sentences and attempting to restate them in my own words, because Boyce’s writing from the 1880’s can be a little bit hard to follow for some of us “modern” folks. Hopefully my words are a faithful representation of what Boyce said in his own words.

But whence is God’s knowledge of the futurity of any events, except from the knowledge of his purpose, to cause or permit them to come to pass? 

Having established (in Chapter 9) that God “knows all the past, present, and future of all things,” Boyce now seeks to address the question of how God knows the future.  The answer, he says, is that God’s knowledge of future events can only come from His knowledge of His own purpose in causing or allowing the events.  

The knowledge of the futurity of any event, over which any one has absolute control, is the result of his purpose, not its cause. And, as God has such absolute control over all things, his knowledge that they will be, must proceed from his purpose that they shall be. 

If a person has absolute control over a future event (as God does), then that event will only take place if He allows (or causes) it to take place.  In other words, a future event only becomes certain when the one with absolute control over the event chooses to cause or permit the event to occur.  If the event is under His absolute control (and it is), then the event will not occur without His purpose in causing or permitting it.  In other words, the purpose must precede the knowledge.  God does not first have knowledge of a future event and then incorporate it into his purpose.  The purpose comes first, and the knowledge flows out of the purpose.

It cannot be from mere perception of their nature, for he gives that nature, and in determining to give it, determines what it shall be, and thus determines the effects which that nature will cause. 

Nor is it from mere knowledge of the mutual relations which will be sustained by outward events or beings, for it is he that establishes these relations for the accomplishment of his own purposes. 

Having established the source of God’s knowledge of future events, Boyce addresses two alternative explanations for the source of God’s omniscience.  The first is that God knows what will happen in the future because of his intimate knowledge of the actors who will bring the events to pass.  In other words, God knows what Joe Smith will do because He has perfect knowledge of Joe Smith’s nature, and knows what Joe Smith will freely choose to do in any and every circumstance.  Similarly, God knows the nature of wind and water, and sun and moon, and all of creation, and so He has knowledge of all future events due to this knowledge of the nature that produces these events.

The second alternative, similar to the first, is that God’s knowledge of future events is derived from his knowledge of the relationships between the actors and events that occur throughout history. In other words, God perceives the “chain reaction” set into motion by His creative act (and other acts where He directly intervenes in history), and thereby knows what other events will occur as a result.

However, in both cases, the nature of every created being and the relations between beings and events were given by God, so these alternative explanations do nothing to explain God’s knowledge of future events outside of His purposes.

To say that this nature and these relations are from God, and are not from his purpose, is in the highest degree fatalistic, for it would involve that they originate in some necessity of the nature of God, because of which he must give them existence without so willing, and even against his will. 

If one were to object, saying that the nature and relations that God created and established do not arise from His purpose, then the alternative would be that the nature and relations that came from God “had to be,” due to some essential aspect of God’s nature.  Thus, in an attempt to avoid ascribing God’s knowledge of future events to His eternal purpose (in a vain attempt to preserve libertarian “free will”), one has devised an even more fatalistic framework wherein God himself is bound out of necessity to create a world that leads to a known future.

In this way alone could God be said to know, and yet not to purpose them. His knowledge would arise from knowledge of his nature, and of what that nature compels him to do, and not from knowledge of his purpose and of his will involved in that purpose. This, and this alone, would make equally certain and known what will come to pass, without basing that knowledge upon his purpose; 

Boyce perceives no other option that would preserve God’s knowledge of all future events without having purposed for those events to occur.  The only alternative is to claim that the certainty of all future events arises from an essential aspect of God’s nature, and thus it is God’s knowledge of Himself that is the source of His knowledge of all future events.

but it would not only be destructive of his free agency and will, but, from the nature of necessity, would make the outward events eternal and prevent the existence of time, and the relation to it of all things whatsoever.

As was noted previously, by linking God’s knowledge of future events to an essential aspect of His nature (rather than His purpose), free agency and free will are destroyed; however, this also gives rise to yet another problem.  If the certainty of an event depends on a necessary aspect of God’s nature, then the event cannot be a future event.  If the event arises from an essential aspect of God’s nature, then the event must always exist; it can never “not be,” since it arises as a necessity out of His nature.  Therefore, all events are eternal and the passage of time cannot exist.

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