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.


I have found Paul Helm

My Photo

Paul Helm is blogging now at Helm’s Deep. I have often thought where he has gone since he is no longer a full time faculty member at Regent. Perhaps back to England? No, he will be in the U.S! He will be joining SBTS and RTS in January, 07 according to his blog.

(HT: Ref21)

Reformation Day


Today is Reformation Day. The day that Martin Luther nailed the 95 theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. It has given birth to Protestantism (btw, do you know what you are protesting about?).

Some questions I have,

What if the Reformation did not take place? What would we call people who believe in the doctrines of grace? What about the Arminians? Would there be Lutheran churches?

Anyway, Challies has invited posting on the subject at his Reformation symposium

Ligonier Ministries is offering Max McLean’s recording of Martin Luther’s Here I Stand; Thabiti Anyabwile; Luke Wood; Rebecca Writes; Travis; This Fire and the Rose; Jason Furtak; Heather; Ed Goode; Pastor David Hansen; Chris Hamer-Hodges; I See Daylight; Paul Huxley; Peter Bogert; Mark Horne; Doctrine Matters; Carla Rolfe; Andrew Hong; Justified Sinner; Spiritual Kung Fu; Steve Weaver; John Dekker; Eternal Weight of Glory; Colossians Three Sixteen; Vine and Fig; Such Small Hands; Fish and Cans; Paul Shirley; William Dicks; Darryl Dash; John Samson; C.R. Biggs; John Divito; Josh Rives; Kim from Hiraeth; Steve Adkins; Cap Stewart; Godsong Music; J.D. Wetterling; titus2talk; The Blue Fish Project; Joel Tuininga; The Schooley Files; The Legacy of the Reformation; Voice of the Sheep; Stepping Heavenward; White Horse Inn; Eternally Significant; Phillip Way; Aspiring Theologian; Candy in Sierra; New Lumps; A Woman Who Fears The Lord; Sweet Tea & Theology; The Bible Archive; Under Sovereign Grace.

Divine Soveriegnty and the Problem of Evil: A Compatibilist Approach

Many suggest that the problem of evil provides a singificant obstacle to a robust understanding of divine sovereignty. I disagree. Here are my thoughts:


Thomas Tracy suggests that the “incompatibilist is concerned that theological determinism both (a) denies certain great goods in human moral life and relation to God and (b) makes God the cause of sin.”[1] Now in regards to (a), I think that compatibilism (see previous post) provides an intuitively plausible, scripturally consistent account of how agents may be held morally responsible for actions which God nevertheless determined. Furthermore, it seems that it has also been established that the text excludes libertarian accounts of freedom without exempting Joseph’s brothers from a general responsibility for their transgressions. However, a canonical/conceptual argument may be marshaled against compatibilism which runs as follows. If God ordains all things, including evil, then it follows that he is in some way implicated in the evil he ordains. They could argue that the functionality of the compatibilist concept breaks down when we try to apply it to a good God in whom there is no darkness. This is libertarian worry (b) according to Tracy. If we can deal compellingly with this final libertarian anxiety we will have offered a comprehensive theological, philosophical, and scriptural motivation for compatibilism.


Although the problem of evil objection might have some initial appeal, upon careful scrutiny it clearly breaks down. I will start with an analysis of individual actions and then work back to the origin and creation of evil. We can use the Joseph Story as a case study for individual actions (Genesis 50, esp. 50:20). First, recall that the acts of Joseph’s brothers were both intended by God and secured by his providential activity. The text is not clear, however, as to how God’s providential activity was effective in the event. I propose that God provided the circumstantial environment for the free decision to be made. In his middle knowledge (his knoweldge of what agents would do in particular circumstances), he knew exactly how Joseph’s brothers would act in that situation and chose to actualize it knowing that it would ultimately result in the fulfillment of his eternal decree. Now it seems fairly obvious that for God’s action here to be considered evil, it would have to flow from an evil motive or intention. But this clearly is not the case. It was only Joseph’s brothers that possessed the evil intention. God meant the event for good. Merely providing the circumstantial environment in which God knew the evil choice would be made in no way seems to be saying the same thing as God acted in an evil way. Indeed, God had a good purpose for Joseph’s brothers acting as they and had in this way predestined it. But this is not to say that he purposed or instantiated their actual evil intentions. The text clearly distinguishes between the good intentions of God and the evil intentions of Joseph’s brothers. So while God determined an event which involved the free evil acts of his creatures; his purposes, motives, intentions, and actions in the event remained good and undefiled by the evil free decisions of his creatures in the event. This account can be generalized to fit a variety of circumstances.


Well what about the origin and present existence of evil in the world? I will start by giving an account of the existence of evil presently in the world and then move on to give an explanation of the origin of evil. Regarding the problem of present evil, we first need to construct a simple working definition of omnipotence. Commensurate with traditional Christian Theism, I define omnipotence not as God’s ability to do anything; but rather, as his ability to do only what is logically possible and what is consistent with his nature. He can’t make a square circle or a rock too big to lift, for example. The reason he can’t make such things is because these semantic items have no corresponding states of affairs. As Freddoso and Flint point out, omnipotence should not be conceived of as raw power but as the ability to actualize states of affairs.[2] Given that God has the essential property of being maximally powerful, there is no state of affairs, the actualization of which exceeds his power. In the same way in which there is no such state of affairs as a square circle, there is no such state of affairs as a rock too heavy for God to lift. The idea is simply unintelligible. Having defined omnipotence, we are ready to move to the second stage of my argument. The first part of this second stage of my argument follows fairly closely some ideas advocated by John Feinberg.[3] Here, I argue that God had to choose between creating one of two good things: the removal of evil and the creation of a certain type of human beings. These two are mutually contradictory. And since God can’t actualize contradictory states of affairs (i.e. he can’t do what is logically impossible), he can’t be required to bring about both of the good things. The first good God could have chosen is to create our world with no evil. Now, this may be a good world if the only purpose God had for the world was a world with no evil. But if God wanted to create a world inhabited by certain kind of human being, a world free from moral evil does not seem to be possible. Before I explore exactly what this world might look like, I should mention that Feinberg seems to think that free will defenses (of any type) are not open to the compatibilist. I disagree. Consequently, the world I construct is similar to Feinberg’s in one way but drastically different in another. The similarity lies in the idea that if God wanted to create a world with a certain kind of humans, he could not create a world with no moral evil. But whereas Feinberg wants to emphasize that God may have wanted to make a world of a non-glorified humans, I will insist that God’s plan may have been to make a world of compatibilistically free agents. I do borrow significant elements from Feinberg’s non-glorified human defense in the content of my own defense but as a method, my approach follows more closely to Plantinga’s [4] than it does to Feinberg’s.


So if God wanted to create, for example, creatures that had a compatibilistically free will, who could act in accord with their desires—wherever they may lead—then it seems that he could not remove evil since to remove evil, he would have to remove all objects of desire that could possibly lead to evil. The first thing this would probably mean is that humans could not have bodies since we know that other people’s bodies can be an object of desire in an evil way. This would leave us with a world of disembodied minds only. But if people (if you can even call them that at this stage) could desire other people’s minds in an evil way then there could only be one mind. But if this mind, it seems, could desire its own mind or God’s mind in an evil way (as Lucifer did) then it does not seem that even this disembodied mind could exist. It seems further that the world would have to be one without beauty since this also can be desired in an evil way. Perhaps even no matter at all could exist since it would be possible that it become an object of evil desire. But I don’t think this was the purpose God had for the world; that is, a world with no bodies, beauty, or matter. Rather, it seems that what he had in mind was a world of what we call human beings; not super-humans or sub-humans but human beings—beings with bodily capacity; that is, natural or nonglorified bodies as the first phase of our existence (though we will receive glorified bodies one day). He also desired that we have freedom, emotions, intentions, and that we would have the ability to follow our desires where they lead. He intended that we be beings with social and relational capacities. As Feinberg points out,[5] he did not intend to create super-humans who have no further need of God’s assistance and so have no need to give him glory nor subhumans without, say, a freewill or bodily capacity. He intended to create human beings as we know them—with all of the goodness that that entails. How do I know that this is what God intended for humans, it is because this is what kind of humans and world God created.


Now in order for God to remove and/or prevent all moral evil, he would have had to do one of two things which both seem quite undesirable: First, he would have to contradict his intention to create human beings as we know them. As I have pointed out, he would have to make either super-humans or perhaps sub-humans without free will, bodily capacity, etc. But God’s intention was not to make these creatures but human beings as we know them. Or second, it seems that he would have had to create a world more evil than ours or one we simply would not want. Someone might reply that God could have created a different kind of being than he did so as to avoid moral evil—that is, a creature without, say, desires or intentions. Perhaps God could have done this and avoided evil but as Feinberg points out “It is hard to know what to call the resultant creature since it could neither move or think—even “robot” seems too “compli-mentary.””[6] Furthermore, a being without desires would not have free will nor would he be able to follow his desires where they led. Another response may be that while it would have been undesirable for God to make the sub-humans just described, he could have made moral super-humans who could always overcome their desires which go astray. But again, my contention is that human beings as we know them are a first-order good and are of significant value. Genesis 1:26-30 teaches mankind was made in the image of God and that he considered humanity good. That man bear this image was God’s intention for creation all along and so constitutes a value of such a high order that God was willing to actualize it even if it meant that evil would result.


So can God remove evil? Yes, I think so. But this would involve either that some creature other than human beings inhabit the world or altering life in a way that would compromise humanity in significant respects. So it seems that if God wants to remove evil from our world then he can. But he cannot both remove evil and accomplish other worthy goals for creation like creating humanity as we know it.


Finally, we address the origin of evil. Many critics of compatibilism have posed the following question: “If compatibilistic agents act on desires then how could a compatibilistically good agent (like Adam) make an evil choice?” This popular question confuses two issues: (1) the biblical view of the relationship between desires and sin and (2) the nature of the desire complex on compatibilistic model. First, in James 1:13-15 we are given a fairly detailed account of the relationship of desires to the act of sinning. This text makes three distinctions in the process of sin. It distinguishes between the temptation, the desire, and the act of sinning. The text makes very clear that sin has not taken place “until desire…has conceived” (NAU). Earlier in verse 14, the text makes plain that temptation occurs when desires are lured away. This implies that the desires which were enticed into temptation may have initially been good desires. It is not until these desires are corrupted by being led astray by temptations that they become sinful. So with Adam, for example, it would not have been the case the he started out with an evil desire and then chose to execute that desire by eating the fruit. Rather, his desires would have been good. But as I argued earlier, compatibilistic freedom means having the ability to follow your desires wherever they may lead. If God were to inhibit Adam from following his desire he would inhibit his freedom. Thus, while Adam’s initial desire may have been good, it was lead astray by temptation and ultimately corrupted. As Feinberg observes


Morally evil acts, then, ultimately begin with our desires. Desires alone are not evil, but when they are drawn away and enticed to the point of bringing us to choose to disobey God’s prescribed moral norms, we have sinned. Desires aren’t the only culprit, for will, reason, and emotion, for example, enter into the process. But James says that individual acts of sin ultimately stem from desires that go astray.[7]


This account is not only consistent with compatibilism but seems to function with it in a conceptually superior way than it would function with a libertarian account of agency. So far from the origin and existence of evil providing a problem for compatibilism, it actually ends up providing an argument from conceptual functionality for it.


[1] Tracy, “Divine Action, Created Causes, and Human Freedom,” 97.

[2] Flint and Freddoso, “Maximal Power,” 265-68.

[3] John S. Feinberg, The Many Faces of Evil: Theological Systems and the Problems of Evil, exap. and rev. ed. (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books, 2004), 165-202; cf. John S. Feinberg, “And the Atheist Shall Lie Down with the Calvinist: Atheism, Calvinism, and the Free Will Defense. TJ I NS (1980): 142-52.

[4] Alvin Plantinga, God, Freedom, and Evil (New York: Harper and Row, 1974); cf. his God and Other Minds (Ithaca: N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1967), 134-35.

[5] Feinberg, Many Faces of Evil, 183-90.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid., 170.

The humor from the “Cancelled Debate”

In light of what happened to the “cancelled” Baptists vs Calvinism debate. Some bloggers can be sarcastic and humorous at the same time.

The statements of Ergun Caner caused these pictures,


A: Yes, absolutely. For a small portion of these people, just daring to question the Bezian movement is heresy. They will blog and e-mail incessantly. I call it a “Calvinist Jihad,” because just like Muslims, they believe they are defending the honor of their view. They can discuss nothing else. I have even had a few call for my head! Dr. Falwell and I have laughed about it, because they are so insistent, and they miss the point completely. There are plenty of schools to which the neo-Calvinists can go, but Liberty will be a lighthouse for missions and evangelism to the “whosoever wills.” Period.

The difference is, Muslims know when to quit – for these guys, it is the only topic about which they can talk.



Pictures from Jim Bublitz.


James White – Alpha & Omega Ministries

******* 1st Correspondence Between James White and Ergun Caner
******* PDF Documented Latest Edition (35 pages): From June 21, 2006 to July 13, 2006.

02.22.06 Headed Home
02.23.06 The Intellectual Pit Bull of the Evangelical Church?
If You Dare Speak Up . . .
03.27.06 Baptists and Calvinism: A Debate at the New Thomas Road Baptist Church, Lynchburg, Virginia (initial announcement)
03.29.06 Tom Ascol on the Lynchburg Debate
04.12.06 Dr. Caner Preached on “Hyper Calvinism” at Thomas Road Baptist Church
04.13.06 Be Listening Today: Dr. Caner’s Sermon Examined
04.18.06 Today on the Dividing Line (Responding to Caner on Romans 9)
04.26.06 Of Debates and the Silent Treatment
05.01.06 Does Omnibenevolence Mean Unibenevolence?
05.15.06 Let the People of God Judge
05.16.06 Caner Correspondence File
06.06.06 Response to Dr. Caner on
06.08.06 Continued Response to Dr. Caner
06.09.06 Final Response to Dr. Caner on
06.13.06 Letter to Dr. O’Donnell and the Caners, 06/13/06
06.22.06 Wow, What a Day
06.22.06 Major Developments in the Lynchburg Debate Saga UPDATED
06.23.06 This Speaks for Itself
06.23.06 I’m at a Loss for Words
06.25.06 So, You Tell Me . . .
06.26.06 In the Interests of Consistency
06.27.06 By the Way . . .
06.28.06 Monday Morning Quarterbacks
06.29.06 Apology and Clarification
07.11.06 It Is Good to be Home / A Request
07.13.06 Taking a Fresh Look
07.13.06 The Caner Saga: Episode MCLXVII: Revenge of the Synergists
07.13.06 No Title
07.14.06 Friday Morning Odds and Ends
08.03.06 Baptist and Calvinism: An Open Debate
09.06.06 Odds and Ends
09.19.06 Less Than a Month to Go
10.06.06 A Prayer Request
10.06.06 Regarding the Lynchburg Situation
10.06.06 There Will Be No Debate in Lynchburg on October 16
10.08.06 Cancellation Official
10.09.06 After Many Weeks of Silence . . .
10.09.06 The Caner Spin
10.09.06 Shining a Little Light on Ergun Caner
10.10.06 Morning Developments
10.10.06 Today on the DL (White and Ascol discuss fallout)
10.12.06 Sad, Sad Day in Lynchburg (Updated)

Tom Ascol – Founders Ministries

Johnny Hunt to be nominated for President of the SBC
03.09.06 We Won a Wade!
03.28.06 The Debate (original announcement)
04.06.06 The Calvinist Virus
04.13.06 Why Dr. Caner thinks he is predestined never to be a Calvinist
05.15.06 Update on the Caner “debate”
06.06.06 Ergun Caner on “Predestined Not to Be a Hyper-Calvinist”
06.26.06 Update #2 on the Caner “Debate”
08.03.06 Baptists and Calvinism: An Open Debate (joint public statement)
09.19.06 The Upcoming Debate at Lynchburg (discussion over poster)
10.06.06 Debate? What Debate?
10.08.06 It’s Official: No Debate October 16
10.09.06 What really happened to the debate, pt. 1
10.10.06 What really happened to the debate, pt. 2
10.10.06 What really happened to the debate, pt. 3

Compilation by Timmy.

Debate Cancelled: Baptists & Calvinism

Too good to be true. More from James White.

Debate: Baptists & Calvinists

My hat off to James White for wanting to debate almost anyone even if they are from Mars. More from Liberty news. (HT: Tom Ascol)