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?