March 28

thoughts on omniscience (and determinism vs free will)

Determinism vs Free Will, Calvinism vs Arminianism – the classic debate has raged between Christians for generations. Though never completely sure one way or the other, I have generally fallen into the former camp throughout the decade or so I’ve seriously contemplated this issue.

Oftentimes one of the strongest arguments we rely on in the case for “determinism” is the idea that since God is omniscient, then He knows the future, and therefore things can’t happen in any other way. That is to say, God has a specific plan for each of us, planned down to the microsecond, and therefore, if we had any free will at all, we could choose to do something against God’s will, rendering him non-omniscient, non-omnipotent.

But does omniscience really imply knowledge of the future? Certainly we have seen God’s future prophecies fulfilled, but we know that since He is omnipotent He can assert his will at any time. Does His omnipotence preclude free will? I certainly can’t know for sure, but I will make the case that it does not.

Listening to a series by renowned theologian RC Sproul recently, I have picked up a thing or two about the field of Christianity known as apologetics. As Christians, we know that God is not just the source of, but is, all truth and rationality (“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge…” – Proverbs 1:7). Within our measurable universe, rationality is generally regarded as that which we can consistently and empirically hold to be true, or natural laws. The crux of the issue, then, is that in our universe, rationality does not dictate time travel forward. Therefore, just as God cannot create a rock so big He can’t lift it (because this is a contradiction, and contradictions are not rational, so even God cannot perform contradictions), perhaps God also does NOT know the future (as this too would be a contradiction). Note that this does not in any way “limit” God in His omnipotence or omniscience, as these features only apply in rational terms.

We know that the Bible is full of verses which people of both Calvinist and Arminian camps use to support their position, and which in their own right can be interpreted either way. So to help find an answer, let us transcend looking at individual verses and examine this issue in the context of the Bible as a whole and some of its tenets which we know to be true.

God created Lucifer. God did not create sin. Lucifer in his pride challenged God’s authority and lost. We know this to be the point at which sin and evil came into being. Sin and evil entered our world through Adam’s fall. Lucifer (or Satan) is the author of sin. God does not create evil or sin, but permits it under His own will (His “permissible” will). God’s perfect will does not include sin, because He does not create the sin. Therefore, we must conclude that God created both Lucifer and man with, at least to some extent, free will – not just from our perspective, but from His as well – because otherwise, He would have predetermined that Lucifer and man would sin, which means He would have had to create the sin, which we know He does not do.

The existence of sin, therefore, seems to imply to us that God allows free will. Keep in mind, no doubt God can assert His will in our lives at any time in His omnipotence, so you might call this position “limited free will” OR “limited determinism”. Whether we have free will or not, God still has a perfect will that He is working towards, in which the remaining prophecies will be fulfilled. I recently read a commentary by AW Tozer which gave a good metaphor for this: God is directing a cruise ship from one port to another, and we humans are free to move about that ship as we please, but in the end, we will all end up at that final destination.

Now, we must address those verses which mention those “elect” or “pre-destined”. I would assert that these are in the context to be called, NOT to be saved. That is to say, God may choose some of us to draw nearer to Himself than others – they are the “elect” – but He may not “force” them to choose Him.

In conclusion, I posit that there could be complete determinism via His foreknowledge and assertion of every single thing He will impose, BUT, His omniscience doesn’t necessitate determinism because omniscience doesn’t have to include foreknowledge if He allows free will, since that would be illogical. Happy trails wrapping your mind around all this! Please leave any comments below.

As a side note: as a programmer, I have always been fascinated by the concept of “true random” (those in the field will understand this fascination, because we know that true random in computing is impossible). We know, though, that we can create imperative programs where we define the functionality and predetermine all of the inputs to get an expected result. How much more, then, is God glorified in the allowance of free will as opposed to complete determinism? In my professional opinion, infinitely so :)

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Posted March 28, 2011 by calenfretts in category "Christianity", "religion


  1. By Nate on

    Careful, it’s a deep rabbit hole you’re venturing down ☺

    A line of thought to consider: what if it’s not God’s foreknowledge that leads to something like determinism, but rather his position as omniscient creator. You’re right that foreknowledge doesn’t get you anywhere. But when an omniscient creator creates, doesn’t he know everything the creation will do, based on “how” the creature is created and the environment it is placed in (which is also created)? In that way something like free will is similar to the rock so big God can’t lift it.

    Of course I’ve said “something like” since I don’t like labels like determinism and free will. I think both can be and are true depending on what people mean by them.

    You should really check out John Frame’s Doctrine of God. He gets into these issues in a way few are willing to discuss, especially author of evil stuff.

    Anyhow, just hoping to give you some things to think about.

  2. By frettsy on

    Nate, thanks for the great comment. I will check out Doctrine of God right now, actually.

    I try to always be careful to be clear that thoughts like this are merely ruminations on my behalf, not definitive statements. it is always certainly possible that there are bigger answers out there, or even that the answer cannot be known by us mere mortals (and it probably never will be to the full extent). your example seems like a good counter-argument; I’ll have to mull it over!

    also, just as a follow-up.. after a bit more research since writing this post, I’ve come to learn that the ideas of “limited free will” or “limited determinism” that I suggested in this post are similar to what’s known as “fatalism”.

  3. By Nate on

    Oh yeah, I’m with you on the ruminations. Many don’t, but I love talking about this stuff. A big key to my understanding has been realizing that though we have the ability to think about things from God’s perspective outside creation (an ability I think is linked to being made in the image of God), we don’t exist there and can’t apply those same rules to ourselves. I don’t mean that as a cop-out though, the opposite actually. Hopefully that’s not too vague, I don’t have time to write anymore!

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