Providence and Freedom: A Compatiblist Account. Part 2 – Semi-Compatiblism and Divine Sovereignty

2.1 Theological Terms

By meticulous providence it is meant that God’s control over creation is expansive and detailed. Commensurate with traditional Calvinistic thinking, every event, choice, and free action is predetermined by God. The divine decree is not an agent; it has no causal powers nor is it active in any way. The decree is God’s plan for the world which may be conceived of as a blueprint or script for the destiny of creation. God’s providence is his activity in creation directed toward bringing his decree to pass. For something to be predestined is for something to be decreed. Hence, God’s decree is meticulous. He not only decrees a world but also the human choices and actions that make up that world. It is not by virtue of decreeing the actual world that he decrees the network of human choices that make up that world. Instead, contra Molinism, God decrees particular events consisting of networks of free human choices and through his providential activity ensures that the events he has decreed come about without (in most cases) violating human freedom in the semi-compatibilist sense defined above.


2.2 Divine Knowledge and the Decree

Like the Molinist, I affirm that God has middle knowledge. However, unlike the Molinist, I locate this knowledge logically posterior to what I shall call a possible decree. (I do not view possible worlds as free standing concepts independent of God’s (at least possible) creative activity.) Traditionally, it has been held that God’s omniscience consists in only two types of knowledge: natural knowledge and free knowledge.[1] God’s natural knowledge is his knowledge of necessary truths. According to this knowledge God knows which worlds are possible. He has this knowledge, on my view, in virtue of which worlds he knows he could decree. God’s knowledge of these worlds, you might say, is based on a possible decree. This is because it doesn’t seem to me at all clear how God could know of a world without knowing of his creative activity of and in that world prior to his conception of it. God’s creative activity, it seems to me, must be the ontological and logical basis of all possible worlds. Hence, so also must be his decree to create. This flows not only directly from my view of God as meticulously provident but also from my view of Him as creator. So, logically prior to his instantiation of the actual world God has natural knowledge based on a myriad of possible worlds he could decree to be actual (i.e. instantiate) (this is his possible decree). God’s free knowledge, in contrast, is logically posterior to the actual decree and consists in God’s knowledge of the actual world. Divine middle knowledge,[2] then, stands logically between God’s natural and free knowledge. Specifically, God knows what every compatibilistically free agent would do if they were placed in a particular set of circumstances. To put it a bit more technically, God knows the truth-value of all counterfactual propositions: conditionals of the form ‘if it were the case that r, x would choose y; if it were the case that z, x would choose q’ where z and r stand for circumstantial conditionals. I am convinced that such counterfactuals exist and as a corollary of divine omniscience, it seems correct to say that God knows them. Furthermore, I contend that counterfactual knowledge would be immensely useful in God’s planning of the actual world. Terrance Tiessen comments on how exactly this might go:


God has middle knowledge, understood as his knowledge of all future counterfactuals. He is able to know this because his moral creatures are voluntary but not indeterministically free. Therefore, at the logical moment in eternity when God determined all that would come to be in created time, thereby establishing his eternal purpose or decree, he did so by a process in which he discerned what each of his creatures would do in a particular situation and then decided what influences he would bring to bear to change the situation so that the outcome, as decided freely by the creatures involved, would move things along in the direction of his purpose. I have pointed that in many instances God chose not to insert his influence in a forceful way and that he chose never to do so in a coercive way. He was still able to bring all of those creaturely decisions and their effects together in a history that culminates with his triumph over evil, and that demonstrates to all the greatness of his wisdom and grace. Every incident along the way has meaning in the light of the whole, and he is never out of control, even when he wills to allow creatures to be disobedient, sustaining their lives even as they reject his right to their worship and love and obedience.[3]

I essentially endorse this proposal by Tiessen.[4] Nevertheless, I will have substantially more to say about the role of divine middle knowledge in God’s providential activity later. Until then, this will work as a thumbnail sketch for how I perceive the relationship of divine knowledge—particularly, counterfactual knowledge—to the decree.


2.3 Providence and Human Freedom

It seems to me that the theologian who is concerned with maintaining both the moral responsibility of man and a meticulous view of divine providence will need to adopt some form of compatibilism. Tiessen touched briefly on the relationship of providence and freedom in his remarks so I will build off of his account. He says that God decreed the actual world “by a process in which he discerned what each of his creatures would do in a particular situation and then decided what influences he would bring to bear to change the situation so that the outcome, as decided freely by the creatures involved, would move things along in the direction of his purpose.” Tiessen seems to view situations as antecedent conditions which God uses to move compatibilistically free agents to act in accord with his predetermined purpose. Accordingly, these events are both free and predetermined. The agents are free and morally responsible because their actions are in accord with their own reasons and desires in response to the relevant situations. They are determined because they are an unfolding of God’s decree by means of God’s direct providential activity through the antecedent conditions that contribute to the bringing about of the action. I agree with this account. However, what Tiessen does not make clear is the relation of providential activity to the activity of the agent. The double agency relation, on Tiessen’s account, is fairly vague. One thing which I think should be carefully avoided is conceiving of God’s use of antecedent conditions as input-output mechanistic relations in which, say, external circumstances are brought to bear on an agent as an input devise for the output of agent-activity. This seems to me far too mechanical. It seems almost as if circumstances are exercising some kind of direct control over the agent.[5] The relationship of the activity of the agent to the determined antecedent conditions, therefore, should be thought of in terms of agent-circumstance interaction. The agent interacts and responds to situations which converge into new situations which re-exert their influence upon the agent so that agent interacts with antecedent conditions so as to shape the very conditions that bring about her action. Daniel Dennett explores a similar connection regarding antecedent conditions (like the past). He says:


Contrary to a familiar vision…determinism does not in itself ‘erode control’….Moreover, The past does not control us. It no more controls us than the people at NASA can control the space ships that have wandered out of reach in space. It is not that there are no causal links between the Earth and those craft [sic.]. There are; reflected sunlight from Earth still reaches them, for instance. But causal links are not enough for control. There must also be feedback to inform the controller. There are no feedback signals from the present to the past for the past to exploit.[6]

That antecedent conditions exert influence on our activity does not mean that they control us. Rather, it is the interaction of the activity which issues from an agent’s own reasons-responsive mechanism (to use Fischer’s terminology) with the antecedent conditions that God sets in place which brings about the God-intended effect. So in an extremely strong sense, our actions are our own. We act in complete accord with our desires in response to the circumstances that are presented to them. In short, we possess guidance control. God’s determination of the antecedent conditions, the way in which we interact with them, and our responsibility for the resultant actions are, therefore, not incompatible. The next chapter will take on the burden of establishing this claim.

[1] cf. Muller, PRRD, 3:411ff.; natural knowledge= scientia simplcisi or scientia necessaria, free knowledge= scientia voluntaria or scientia libera.

[2] scientia media.

[3] Terrance Tiessen, Providence and Prayer: How Does God Work in the World? (Downers Grove, Intervarsity Press, 2000), 319.

[4] For a similar proposal see John Feinberg, No One Like Him: The Doctrine of God, 626-774; for a critique of these proposals see John D. Laing, “The Compatibility of Calvinism and Middle Knowledge,” JETS 47/3 (2004):455-68; for a critique of Lang’s critique, see my forth coming paper “Calvinism, Compatibilism, and Counterfactuals: A Response to John Lang.”

[5] I in no way think that Tiessen endorses this kind of view.

[6] Dennett, Elbow Room, 72.


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