“His Glance Is Carried from Eternity”: Aquinas on Divine Foreknowledge

The open theism debates may have cooled down a while back, but inquiring about divine foreknowledge still leads us into some weighty issues in the field of theology proper, issues of the perennially significant sort when it comes to the church’s understanding of God and his relationship to the world and its human inhabitants.  In light of this, I thought it might be worth unpacking and discussing Aquinas’ article in the Summa which asks “whether the knowledge of God is of future contingent things” (Ia.14.13).

Under this article there are three potential objections against the claim that God’s  knowledge  includes future contingent things.  Objection one judges that, since 1) the  knowledge of God is  the cause of all things known (see Ia.14.8) and 2) the knowledge of  God is necessary with  respect to things known, the necessary cause (God’s knowledge) must yield a necessary  effect (the thing known), rendering future things not contingent but necessary.  Objection two  declares this proposition to be true: “If God knew that this thing will be, it will be.”  However,  the antecedent here is eternal and signified as past  and, therefore, necessary, meaning that its  consequent (the being of a thing known) also is necessary.  Objection three reasons from the  dynamics of human knowledge to the  dynamics of divine knowledge: “even what we  ourselves  know must necessarily be…and, of course, the knowledge of God is much more  certain than  ours.”  In short, if something is known, it must necessarily be.  The conclusion,  then, is that  God knows no future contingent thing.  This has the feel of an analytic statement:  divine  knowledge by definition cannot have as its object any future contingent thing.  It’s  interesting  to note that the objections seem generally to affirm God’s knowledge of future things but  question their contingency, whereas the open theists seem generally to affirm the  contingency  of future things but question God’s knowledge of these.

What has Aquinas to say in response?  He contradicts the objections by quoting Psalm 32:15 as testimony to God’s knowledge of all the works of human beings.  But, inasmuch as our works are subject to the freedom of our will, they are contingent.  Thus, with the help of a fairly modest inference, Aquinas is able to draw from Old Testament Scripture to maintain that God does indeed have knowledge of future contingent things.  From here Aquinas answers that God’s knowledge includes things actual and possible and, since some of these are future and contingent to us, God enjoys knowledge of future contingent things.

To marshal the evidence, Aquinas parses the concept of contingency, distinguishing between a contingent thing considered in itself and a contingent thing considered as it is in its cause and then specifying how God’s knowledge of the contingent differs from ours.  In itself, a contingent thing is in act in the present and “can be infallibly the object of certain knowledge.”  As it is in its cause, a contingent thing is future and is the object of “merely a conjectural knowledge.”  So it is in the domain of human knowledge.  Divine knowledge, by contrast, grasps all contingent things in themselves as well as in their causes.  Indeed, God grasps contingent things not as they are actualized successively but simultaneously, as they are perceived sub specie aeternitatis.  Underlying this is the fact of God’s eternity comprehending all time.  Aquinas is worth quoting at length here:

Hence all things are present to God from eternity, not only because He has the types of things present within Him, as some say; but because His glance is carried from eternity over all things as they are in their presentiality.  Hence it is manifest that contingent things are infallibly known by God, inasmuch as they are subject to the divine sight in their presentiality; yet they are future contingent things in relation to their own causes.

I think Aquinas makes an important point here.  Instead of asking whether in general certain knowledge of a thing threatens the integrity of its contingency, why not confess the uniqueness of God’s knowledge and ask if he, being eternal and comprehending all time, might know all things infallibly such that his knowledge doesn’t run counter to the contingency of certain creaturely happenings.

According to his custom, after providing his answer, Aquinas endeavors to meet each of the objections recognized on the front end of the article.  In response to the first objection, he posits that a necessary cause (in this case, God’s knowledge) can have a contingent effect as long as the necessary cause is not the proximate cause of the contingent effect.  God, working by way of proximate causes, enables a contingent thing to come to pass as such.  In response to the second objection, which employed the conditional statement, Aquinas maintains that the necessity of the consequent should be understood only as the consequent is within God’s knowledge and not in itself.  In response to the third objection, Aquinas trades on the Creator-creation distinction.  Our knowledge requires that its objects be actualized in time and in this way necessary in themselves, for we cannot know future contingent things as such.  However, God in his eternity abides above time and does not acquire knowledge by the succession of acts in time.  Contingent things known by God may be certain to the divine intellect and necessary as they fall under the rubric of God’s knowledge but “not absolutely as considered in their own causes.”

This article is worthy of more exposition, but I’ll stop here.  What do you think of Aquinas’ work as a resource for giving an account of how God knows future contingent things?  Can he help us uphold the reality of divine foreknowledge while clarifying that it isn’t coercive?  Thoughts?


17 thoughts on ““His Glance Is Carried from Eternity”: Aquinas on Divine Foreknowledge

  1. Brettongarcia – You would need to view Psalm 33:15 to see the text Aquinas has in mind. In addition, you might consider a more modest tack as opposed to using the language of “utter refutation.” I think you’ll find that others are more receptive to your comments when you adopt this kind of posture. -Steve

  2. I haven’t thought about this for many years; I gave this line up for more fruitful avenues. But … since you’ve posed it in such an interesting and thorough way? I might muddle around in this for a while. Though most scholars seem to still feel these are problems that are not resolvable, to date.

    This is course, the classic problem of free will vs. determinism. And the notion that we are responsible for our own actions. As it finds its expression in Theology: 1) if God made us, determined our nature, then isn’t HE responsible if we make a wrong decision? You might say GOd made us with free will. But among the many problems with THAT…. why give us free will, if it allows us to sin? And doesn’t that again make God responsible for our sins? Since he gave us the free will that allows us to sin?

    Next, the problem closer at hand: 2) how is it that we are really free? How can we be said to really have a choice, the ability to make our own fate, make our own choices… if God already knows how things will end? So that really, our end is already pre-determined.

    To defend Christianity, agianst teh first charge that “God made us in such a way to sin; he therefore is responsible”, some want to suggest that somehow, there is freedom. Here you seem to want to say that there are some free – or here, “contingent” – things in the universe. Beyond God’s control. But that doesn’t seem to work; because there doesn’t seem to be ANYTHING beyond God’s control, or knowledge.

    Indeed, nothing could be really “free” – or here “contingent” – for God; since he knew how it will end, right from the beginning; its end is therefore determined.

    God made us. And he always knows how things will end for us. Therefore, our fate is set. And we don’t really have any real freedom. Our “choices” are not really choices. (And for that matter if God knows in advance that we will make a wrong decision – then why doesn’t he intervene? And stop all wrong decisions? And why didn’t he make us better?)

    The idea of man having”freedom”, contingent choices, is incompatible with the idea of a a God who made “all things.” But next, even if you establish the possiblity of freedom, then you need to ask this: Does God give us the chance to err, because he want us to come to him from free will? But it appears that there is no real free will here. Everything is determined in advance. And even if there was free will, then God lets millions make the wrong decision, and suffer and die and go to hell … so some can come to him, freely, out of love?

    To escape these problems, of Determinism (and an all-powerful, determining God?), theologians are evidently trying to defend free will, and “contingent” choices. Quoting apostles (Paul?) suggesting we have free will. But these attempts fly in the face of the vision of an all-powerful, all-determining God. And in the end, “free will” doesn’t do much, if God made us have it.

    Many would say there is just another contradiction here, in the Bible.

    There are indeed many, many problems with a) the vision of God as all loving, all powerful, and all knowing, who made us the way we are; but who b) nevertheless is said to give us free will, freedom and contingencies, and c) yet still hold us responsible for “our” actions.

    There are many apparent conflicts between different views of god from the Bible. And indeed these problems exist in BOTH Greek and (to a lesser extent, but still to a significant degree) Hebrew models; so that an Open Deism that tries to suggest the real, Hebrew God is simply less powerful, doesn’t quite seem to fix this. And is open to other objections too.

    But after that intro to some classic problems here, let’s get back to the main point: if something SEEMS to be contingent or uncertain to us, but its outcome is known in advance to God (since he, in both the Hebrew and the Greek model, “knows all things”), then really, it is for-ordained, and determined. It is not “contingent” or free

    And at last, as regards possibly all three of your three objections to this? All seem to suggest that somehow a bit of freedom exists somewhere; perhaps in the difference between “ultimate” vs. “proximate” causes, or some variation on this theme. But remember, that God knows all things; he also made “ALL” things. So that if things go wrong, it is because he made them so they could go wrong. (The pot to be sure, blaming the pot). What proximate things were not determined by an ultimate God?

    God is not merely an ultimate but also “proximate” cause, overlooks the fact that God made “all things” …including proximate causes.

    There would seem to be nothing in the universe or in man’s nature that is not determined by God; not even “proximate” causes. And therefore, the (Biblical?) notion of an all-powerful God, all-knowing God, nevertheless giving us “freedom,” and holding us responsible for own own decisions, does not work.

    These are remarks off the top of my head to be sure. About an endless muddle. In the end, I worried about these things as a teenager. But eventually went looking for a more fruitful avenues of investigation.

    This puzzle has appeared hopelessly stalled, since before the days of St. Paul. To most scholars today, it simply looks as if the Bible itself is contradictory and inconsistent on this.

    It’s fun to kick around classic questions, though. And useful, if you want to suggest many unresolved contradictions, in things we call holy.

  3. SUM?: If things seem contingent to us, but are known in advance to God, then they are not really contingent or free; they are for-ordained. They are determined, before we were ever born.

    If that doesn’t seem fair? Then?

  4. To be sure, I forgot to leave out the emoticon in my own “utter refutation.” : ) I make typos myself. “For we all make many mistakes.”

    But if God is in Ps. 33.15 “forming our hearts” then after all, he is determining my nature. So why blame me? : )

  5. I think I would definitely answer Steve’s last question in the post in the affirmative. I was surprised by Thomas’ prescience of the different “dimensionalities” within which God’s knowledge operates from those within which constrained humans operate, and I believe that is the chief (metaphysical) quandary wherein many open theists struggle.

    As a result, I think, these folks become reductionistic in their attempts to understand God’s future contingent knowledge in largely anthropomorphic terms. I humbly submit that Brettongarcia falls prey to this same kind of reductionism in positing a false “incompatibility” of God’s future contingent knowledge with human free will. I find Thomas’ article “freeing” in this regard and would personally enjoy seeing further exploration, Steve.

    Another question for further discussion might be how the classical Calvinist doctrine of irresistible grace might or might not relate to God’s future contingent knowledge in Aquinas’ view.

  6. 1) Granted: if God knows things sub species eternis, and knows “contingent” things from the beginning, then in effect, nothing is really “contingent” to God, the way it seems to us. I might even concede this.

    My point here is that 2) however, among other arguments, this very argument does not redeem contingency, but utterly defeats it. Since now, in the eyes of God himself, there is no such thing as contingency.

    And there being no such thing as contingency, then God’s determining nature does not work, as Duby/Aquinas concludes, with or through contingency. But rather the argument actuallydemon strates that contingency is a human illusion – or finally, that contingency is really something that does not exist.

    Still leaving us – as critics note – with a view of an all-determining God, after all; in which there is no real contingency … and no real freedom.

  7. …which only proves my point about the reductionistic logic of some open theists: Brett collapses the metaphysical realms within which divine and human agency operate, respectively, and so denies contingency as “human illusion” and leaves us with a deterministic, loveless god—the antithesis of the biblical account of God’s character in both Testaments. Nor, consequently, does his system leave any place for human virtue, repentance, love, forgiveness, reconciliation, or fellowship with the Trinity—all biblical concepts through-and-through.

  8. Hey Jim,

    Thanks for your response here. I have thought about working to correlate some of Aquinas’ insights with Calvin’s view of divine providence, but I haven’t thought about this in relation to the concept of irresistible grace in particular. Crossway just recently published a highly accessible translation of Calvin’s The Secret Providence of God and I think that it would definitely be worthwhile, at least for my own theological exploration, to spend some more time in dialogue with both Aquinas and Calvin as resources on the subject of divine sovereignty and human freedom.


    You’re working with too crude a distinction here. For Aquinas, it’s not the case that contingent things simply have no contingency with respect to God but do have contingency with respect to us. With only the former in view (the question of contingency with respect to God), there is a distinction between a thing as God considers it in his own knowledge and as God considers it in itself, under which perspective the thing is indeed contingent in God’s sight.

  9. Duby/Aquinas asserts that there IS contingency, not just for human persons, but in God himself. But where?

    Perhaps, Duby’s Aquinas seems to hint next, contingency exists somehow. IN say, this: the distinction between God in the past, seeing future things as potential; versus the moment when things God saw in the past, are realized finally real physical events, in actuality (or something)?

    So for example: God might have known in his mind, in our Dec. 22, 1425, that on Jan. 21, 2010, Bill Harris was going to hit a home run. And some migth claim, this all existed merely as a past thought, an expectation by God; it was only a half reality, even a contingency; that was not realize, until it actually happened, in physical reality, Jan 21, 2010.

    But if that is what Duby/Aquinas meant? Then we will argue here, that last idea does not work. There is in fact, no contingency ANYWHERE, within a God seen as all powerful and all knowing/ sub species aeternis.

    First, of course, 1) it is right we first consider not the human perspective, but God himself. We should attempt understanding the view not of fallible men, but of God himself, insofar as that is possible. And try to find an allowance for contingency, the unexpected, freedom, there: in God himself.

    And to some extent, surprisingly, Duby/Aquinas suggests 2) we can move on to see SOME of God’s own view. God’s view, it is said, must be sub species aeternis; God sees everything not from the point of view of time, or past progressing to future, but seen “from aeternity”; from a timeless point of view. In which present and past are illusory, or simultaneous. God from the very start, in our “past,” already knew the future.

    But here’s the problem: if God already long ago, knew what was going to happen, if indeed he even long ago determined everything that was going to happen, how is it that anything can be unexpected or “contingent” to him? Or, indeed, since everything was planned by God long ago, how can anything today be really free in reality?

    Indeed, it is precisely in the perspective of Sub Species Aeternis, that nothing is every really unknown, or up for grabs, or free. Even long ago in the “past,” still God always knews in advance what was going to happen. So that nothing is really contingent, or a surprise, for God himself. Long ago, from the beginning, God’s Plan for the “future” was known and set; so that nothing can be a surprise, or a contingency, for God.

    But to be sure, 3) NEXT Duby’s Aquinas argues, in his latest objection, that this is not true; that somehow there IS some kind of contingency, deviation from the plan, even within “God’s” view, sub species. But where and how? Here things get vague. But roughly: God lived and thought in the past, and for him things WERE future, and contingent? They were mere ideas in his mind; not physical realities.

    But still, we object here, there is really no “past” for God, or “future” either. All time exists simultaneously for God. SO in the “past,” God will have known the future. So that still, there is no contingency or surprise for God; not here.

    Duby seemed to suggest, in his latest note, that from the perspective of God in the past, things APPEAR contingent or future; as opposed to the later moment when the vision fo them appearing, actually HAPPEN. When they are obviously, no LONGER contingent. (Since they are now actual & decided facts). So for example: God might have an idea in his head of Bill Jones hitting a homerun, tomorrow; but it is only an idea, until tomorrow, when Jones actually hits the ball, and it becomes an event in physical reality. But so what? Still, God knew it was going to happen before it happened; there was no surprise for God here. Nothing unknown. Nothing contingent. The plan, the script that was already known, was merely being played out; with no surprises, for God.

    One might next suggest that something that existed only as an idea in the mind of God, was not quite real. And so God experiences at least some sort of transition from a past expectation, to a future reality; and some kind of uncertainty there? But remember, though at some point the plan of God for the future was “merely” a plan or idea in the mind of God, and only later became a physical reality, still, God knew it was coming. It was not unanticipated; or even free. It was determined long ago.

    Or for that matter, note that the material future existed at least, as an idea in the mind of God. While surely, an idea in the mind of God must still be quite real?

    So that here, still, there was no really significant moment of transition for God himself; not in the move from any kind of vague past, or early mental idea, to a material future. No contingency here, either. The transition from a “past” idea of God, to a future actual material act, does not involve any really unexpected moments; no contingency. First, the plans of God, the ideas in the mind of God, are themselves real enough. Next, the plans of an all-powerful God always come true. So there is no room for surprise – or contingency – here either.

    So where again, Duby Aquinas, does God experience or allow, contingency? Many things APPEAR, from a conventional human perspective, to be contingent, unplanned, unexpected; to human beings. But not to God.

    Contingency? Not here either. And since God is ultimate reality, and God is everywhere and in “all things,” then therefore, there is in the all-powerful model of God, no room anywhere in the reality in which we live, on earth, for any REAL chance or freedom.

    We might like to wistfully think or hope, that somehow God understands or has, the human sensation of not knowing the future. That God is experiencing freedom, surprise, contingency. And indeed, he might undestand that. But does he every himself really EXPERIENCE that human situation fully himself? Or does real freedom actually exist, if God is all powerful?

    Actually, if God is all powerful, there is never a moment God does not know the future; or when an unexpected event occurs for him. So that there is no contingency for God himself. Nor is there any real freedom in the universe, if God is all-powerful: we are all only following a script, a plan, set long ago, “from the beginning.” They moments when we THINK we are freely acting out of choice, are illusory; all was set in strone. Long ago, God knew and planned, what our “free” choice would be.

    These are the logical implications, if God is all powerful and all knowing. We might hope, wistfully, that God allows a very real freedom – as indeed, JR, other parts of the Bible suggest. But the point here is that if we accept the common vision of God, as all-powerful and all knowing, sub species aeternis, that model does not seem compatible with freedom at all.

    Finally to be sure, parts of the Bible seem to promise freedom. So what should we now say? Scholars say that simply means that there is simply a contradiction between the (biblical?) ideas of a) God as all powerful, versus b) the model of him, that allows human beings to have free will.

    So what should we do? Most scholars feel today that we must either reject the a) parts of the Bible that present God as all-powerful; or we must reject the b) other parts, that seem to promise freedom. Since these two models of God are mutually irreconcilable.

    EITHER God is all-powerful, and knows and determines all things in advance; OR he allows freedom. Logically, many think today, he cannot do both. These two different ideas of God, both found in the Bible itself, cannot be reconciled with each other.

    To be sure, if we could find some way God could be all-powerful, and yet allow freedom, “contingency,” that might fix this. But so far, no one has managed to find out how that could be possible.

  10. Dear Steve and others,

    First, thanks for a really nice post on a great topic.

    Second, I think (I could be way off here–I’ve only skimmed the comments) Brett may be committed to something like the following (this could be put much more accurately, but that would require a bit more jargon):

    (GWK) God’s Way of Knowing (or God’s Way of _____ing): If God knows p (or whatever) in way W, then p is W.

    For example, Brett says: “God sees everything not from the point of view of time, or past progressing to future, but seen “from aeternity”; from a timeless point of view. In which present and past are illusory, or simultaneous.”

    That is, Since God knows us timeless, we must be timeless–i.e. past and present are illusory; everything is timeless. But GWK is a false principle. For example, God knows us non-spatially, so we are non-spatial. Or God knows us in a sinless way (God’s way of knowing is sinless) so we must be sinless. Or…. You get the idea. Now Brett may have reasons to think that in the timeless case things are different. But, so far as I can tell, the principle is false and the stuff about God’s timelessly knowing stuff does not imply that that stuff is timeless. More argument/reasons need to be given to get us to that conclusion.

  11. Hi David,

    Thanks for your response. I think you’re tracking with one of the key distinctions: the way in which God knows something is not to be confused with the ontology of the thing in itself.

  12. But surely, between the 1) human and 2) God’s Way of Knowing, we should prefer God’s way? Since it is more true? Rather than the human way, which is full of sin and delusion?

    Remember, “God’s way” is normally at least a metaphor for the absolute Truth; as opposed to human illusion and delusion and provinciality.

    So if men see things spatially, for example, but we could to some small degree (with help) transcend our normal human limits or prejudices, and somehow see part of God’s Way, that somehow say dissolves spatiality (as we might in some theology, and post-Einsteinian physics), then shouldn’t we prefer God’s Way?

    Or, even if we want to follow Man rather than God, shouldn’t we prefer the most profound of man’s thoughts (say Einsteinian thoughts), to normal cliches and human prejudices?

    Do we really want to say that between the ways (and thought patterns) of Man and the ways of God or the larger, Ultimate Truth, we should prefer the ways of Man?

    And of course, God’s vision of any given thing sees it better, even in its ontology, than we do.

    While by the way, to see just the “thing itself” (Kant’s “ding an such?” SP?), would be to fail not only to see it as a part of God’s plan, but also to fail to see it as part of the larger natural system.

    Specifically, in fact, conventional theology suggests that our normal perspective of time IS flawed; and that our temporal “deaths” are illusions for example; there being some sort of afterlife in God’s realm; in… eternity. So that the Bible itself urges us to see things Sub Species Eternis.

  13. David A:

    Ultimately, I think you’ve got something.

    For purposes of the present argument, I’ve been foregrounding/over-emphasizing the implacable and divine/eternal side of God. And for that matter, the divine side in men. But eventually, recognizing our own human side – living at least in part, in conventional Time, etc. – is extremely important. For that matter, seeing SOME of the human, and conventional time and space to some extent, even in God too, is essential.

    Acknowledging SOME importance of conventional space and time to some extent, even in God’s nature too – IS probably the answer. In response to Aquinas, and the problem of Determinism vs. Free Will? A similar movement – in this case, humanizing God, say; seeing him as more human, less determining – helps a lot. Seeing the human side of God has been a major theme of this blog in fact.

    The fact is, an absolutely, implacably perfect and all-determining God, is inconsistent with contingency. And it is inconsistent with the degree freedom that other parts of the Bible – and our everyday life as humans – demands.

    We need a God that at least understands a human perspective. Some Christians assert that when God became man, became “flesh” in Jesus, we began to see that. Though even still MORE emphasis on the human side of God, now seems advisable.

    Your own logical outline of how we might be allowed to be human, existing at least in PART, in conventional time – and of God understanding/comprehending human qualities? – seems very useful to our larger project.

  14. If I know that p, where p is a future tense statement about what you will do, for example pass the butter, it does not seem to follow that you don’t pass the butter of your own free will. Why should it be thought to follow that you cannot be free when God knows what you will do?

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