December 3, 2020

The Council

A modern day council!

This was a Paper written by Dr. Michael Czapkay Sudduth. I retrieved it from the wayback machine and have reproduced it here.

From: Oxford Tutorial Paper, February 16, 1994

In the present paper I want to consider whether, or to what extent, the theory of divine timelessness in the classical theist tradition resolves the apparent conflict between God’s omniscience and the future free actions of human agents. Simply put: Is divine foreknowledge compatible with human freedom, if it is assumed that God is a timeless being? After setting forth the prima facie incompatibility problem based on a libertarian view of freedom, I will briefly state how it has been argued that divine timelessness resolves it. I shall then proceed to present two arguments that show that ultimately this move is a failure. If a timeless God knows the future actions of human agents, their actions, I shall contend, cannot be indeterministically free.


A. The Incompatibility of Divine Foreknowledge and Human Freedom

The argument for the incompatibility of divine foreknowledge and human freedom which I want to consider may be summed up in the following propositions:

(P1) If God foreknows the future actions of men, then God’s knowledge of what the future actions of men will be is in the past.

(P2) Whatever is past is necessary.


(C1) God’s knowledge of future actions of men is necessary. [from (P1) and (P2)]

(P3) A human action is free only if it is not necessary.


(C2) If God foreknows the future actions of men, these actions cannot be free. [from (C1) and (P3)]

What this argument aims to show is that if (p) God knew yesterday that Pete would ask Michelle to marry him today, then necessarily (q) Pete will ask Michelle to marry him. And if it is necessary that (q), then it is not within Pete’s power to refrain from asking Michelle to marry him (where such a power or ability is taken as a requirement of acting freely). But this needs to be unpacked a bit. How is it that we can move from the proposition God knew yesterday that Pete would ask Michelle to marry him today to it being necessary that Pete perform the action in question?

As stipulated in (P1), if God is said to have foreknown something, then he knows something will be the case before it actually happens. God knew yesterday that Pete would ask Michelle to marry him today is a proposition which expresses just such a case of God’s past knowledge. (P2) introduces the important notion that whatever is past is, in some sense, necessary. A true proposition about the past is held to be necessary. But the necessity envisaged here is not logical necessity. William Ockham recognized that before a contingent action or event happens, it could not-happen. There is a certain openness about it. But after it happens, and is past, no agent can bring it about that it did not happen. It has its necessity per accidens. It is accidentally necessary. Such a proposition is one which it is not within anyone’s power to render false (and hence most relevant to human freedom). It is, we might say, a proposition that is contingently necessary.1 Now, the argument maintains that this accidental necessity is transferred from the antecedent (p) to the consequent (q) by way of an entailment closure principle:

(1) If p is accidentally necessary and p entails q, then q is accidentally necessary.

So, the whole argument would go as follows:

(2) Yesterday God knew that Pete would ask Michelle to mary him today.

Since (2) is about the past, it is accidentally necessary, so:

(3) It is accidentally necessary that yesterday God knew that Pete would ask Michelle to marry him today.

But (3) entails

(4) Pete will ask Michelle to marry him today.

But, from (1) and (3) it follows that:

(5) It is accidentally necessary that Pete will ask Michelle to marry him tomorrow.


(6) It is not within Pete’s power to refrain from asking Michelle to marry him today. [from (5)]

It in a nutshell:

(7) Nec.[If (God knew yesterday that Pete would ask Michelle to marry him today), then (Pete will ask Michelle to marry him today).]

(8) Nec.[God knew yesterday that Pete would ask Michelle to marry him today].

(9) Therefore, Nec.[Pete will ask Michelle to marry him today].

But, assuming a libertarian view of freedom:

(10) A person S freely does action A = Df. S in situation x at time t does some action A, but in situation x at t S could have refrained from doing A, or could have done some other action B,

it follows from (9) that Pete does not freely perform the action of asking Michelle to marry him. Hence, it would seem that God’s foreknowledge of any agent’s action is incompatible with such an action being freely performed. We can call the above argument the I- argument.

B. Divine Timelessness: A Classical Response to the I-Argument

One of the vulnerable points of the above argument is the whole notion that propositions expressing God’s past foreknowledge are accidentally necessary.2 In this paper, though, I want to consider another way in which theologians have sought to respond to the I-argument. The classical theist tradition (such as represented by Boethius, Anselm, and Aquinas) has often invoked the notion that God is a timeless being to resolve the problem of foreknowledge and freedom. By a timeless God, I shall understand that God has neither temporal extension or location, and that therefore there is no property x and time t, such that God has x at t. What follows from this is that God’s knowledge of future contingents is not, properly speaking, foreknowledge at all. If S has foreknowledge that p, then (i) there are times t1 and t2, (ii) an epistemic property [S knows that p, where p has a content reference of t2], and (iii) S has the epistemic property at t1. But a timeless being can fulfil none of these requirements. A timeless being simply cannot foreknow anything, since such a being is not situated in time.3 Boethius and Aquinas both explicitly argued that since God is timeless, His knowledge of future contingents would not be temporally prior to their occurrence. Rather, for a timeless being the whole of human history is present–eternally present. God sees all things (the temporally past, present, and future) in their present actuality from the vantage-point of a timeless or atemporal present.4

The notion of all things being (eternally) present to God is distinctly employed by Aquinas to show how God can infallibly know future free actions of human agents. A contingent thing, Aquinas tells us, may be considered in two ways. A contingent thing may be considered in seipso (in itself), “as already in the state of actuality.” A thing in seipso is regarded, not as future, but as present, and as such may be the object of certain knowledge. But a contingent thing may also be considered in sua causa (in its cause). A future contingent thing in sua causa is regarded as future, as yet to occur, as not determined in its cause. Whereas the contingent in itself cannot not-be, the contingent in its cause can be or not-be. Hence, only the former is the fit object of certain or infallible knowledge. So knowledge of future contingents can be certain for a knower to the extent that the knower knows them in their presentiality. An individual who presently sees that Socrates is seated may be said to know with certainty that Socrates is seated. But his certain knowledge in no way suggests that Socrates’ being seated is something that happens out of necessity. To be sure, it is necessary in only the most harmless sense. As just stated, future contingents can not-be, but what is present cannot not-be. Things in their presentiality are, in a sense, necessary. Aquinas borrows from Aristotle the principle: omne quod est, quando est, necesse est esse (that which is, when it is, must necessarily be). If a person says If a man is sitting, then necessarily he is sitting, he may be expressing the point that, while a man is sitting, it is not possible that he also be not-sitting. This is a necessity of consequence, a necessity de dicto, formally expressed: Nec.(p => q). But it doesn’t follow that the man’s sitting is itself something which happens out of necessity. It is not a case of necessity de re: (p => Nec.q). So, God’s knowledge of things in their presentiality suggests that what he knows is necessary in seipso (expressed, de dicto), not in sua causa (expressed, de re).

Aquinas states his position as follows:

God knows all contingent things not only as they are in their causes, but also as each one of them is actually in itself. And although contingent things become actual successively, nevertheless God knows contingent things not successively, as they are in their own being, as we do, but simultaneously. The reason is because His knowledge is measured by eternity, as is also His being; and eternity, being simultaneously whole, comprises all time, as was said above. Hence, all things that are in time are present to God from eternity, not only because He has the essences 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 divine sight in their presentiality; and yet they are future contingent things in relation to their own causes. (Summa theologiae Ia, 14, 13).5

Aquinas’s account, then, makes two important distinctions.

I. When it is argued that if God foreknows some action A, then A must be, this may be taken in two different senses:

(A) Nec. [If God foreknows that Pete will ask Michelle to marry him today, then Pete will ask Michelle to marry him today].6



(B) If God foreknows that Pete will ask Michelle to marry him today, then Nec. [Pete will ask Michelle to marry him today]. NECESSITY OF CONSEQUENT

While (A) is true, (B) is false. But the argument for the incompatibility of foreknowledge and freedom requires (B).

II. He challenges the argument by substituting present-necessary knowledge (Nec.*) for past-necessary knowledge (Nec.) on the basis of divine timelessness. He holds that, if God is timeless, then the argument in (7)-(9) is actually:

(11) Nec.[If (God knew yesterday that Pete would ask Michelle to marry him today), then (Pete will ask Michelle to marry him today).]

(12) Nec.*[God knew yesterday that Pete would ask Michelle to marry him today].

(13) Therefore, Nec.*[Pete will ask Michelle to marry him today].

But, (13) is compatible with:

(10) A person S freely does action A = Df. S in situation x at time t does some action A, but in situation x at t S could have refrained from doing A, or could have done some other action B,

The I-argument, of course, could not make this move precisely because of the presence of accidental necessity in premise (12). But, as reformulated according to Aquinas’s account, what God knows is necessary only as God knows the thing in its presentiality. The necessity pertaining to the antecedent and the consequent is quite harmless to human freedom.


But is this account plausible? Does divine timelessness actually achieve what Boethius and Aquinas tell us that it does? I have my doubts for two different reasons, one specific (and restricted to Aquinas’s employment of the argument) and the other general (and hence applicable to any employment of the argument.

A. Aquinas, God, and the Causal Question

We have been asked to think of God as seeing something as it happens (with a necessity of consequence or supposition) as when a person “sees” Socrates sitting down. As the man’s knowledge that Socrates is sitting down does not entail that Socrates is sitting down out of any absolute necessity (for the thing is seen in seipso not in sua causa), so God’s knowledge of some person S’s action X, does not entail that the action in question is causally determined. Since God is timeless, he can have a perspective such that he sees all the events of human history as they take place, but his so knowing them does not impose necessity upon them. God “sees, altogether eternally, each of the things that exist at any time whatever, just as the human eye sees Socrates sitting down–in itself, not in its cause” (In Aristotelis Perihermenias, XIV, 20). Interestingly, enough, this account of divine knowledge in relation to the temporality problem is significantly different from Aquinas’s discussion of God’s knowledge apart from the temporality issue. That account stresses one most important way in which God’s knowledge is the very opposite of ours: “the thing known is related to human knowledge in one way and to divine knowledge in another way; for human knowledge is caused by things known, but divine knowledge is the cause of things known” (ST Ia. IIae, q.2, a.3). Following Norman Kretzmann,7 we can call this the mirror-image theory. And the theory seems to be a corollary of Aquinas’s view of God as actus purus (pure act), in whom there is no potentiality at all.

Now, there is an evident consistency problem in Aquinas’s discussion of divine knowledge. The epistemic analogy employed in the context of the temporality problem depends on one crucial assumption. In the human case, when S sees Socrates seated, S’s present-knowledge that Socrates is seated can be viewed as imposing no necessity because we think of such a case of human knowledge as an instance where S is affected by some state of affairs existing (contingently or necessarily) independent of S. S has the knowledge in question because it is the case that Socrates is seated. Knowledge here involves a causal relation in which the knower is acted upon. And it only makes sense to speak of S’s seeing Socrates seated without this act of seeing causing or necessitating Socrates’ being seated if S (or S’s act of knowledge) is not involved in the causal processes leading up the man’s action. Yet Aquinas maintains elsewhere that Scientia Dei est causa rerum (the knowledge of God is the cause of things). True, this is qualified by insisting that it His knowledge joined to an act of the will, which is the cause of things. But this cannot extricate Thomas from his basic dilemma, for he also holds that God wills to bring about every contingent state of affairs. Hence, God’s knowledge must be viewed as asymmetrical to human knowledge in just the very sense in which it must be symmetrical if the analogy is to work. In the human situation knowledge is a case of the knower being acted upon, and hence entails potency in the knower. But knowledge for God can never be a case of something acting upon God, for God is actus purus and the First Cause. But if this is true, what use can an analogy be in resolving the tension between divine omniscience and human freedom, if both sides of the analogy involve and require passive potentiality in the epistemic subject? The talk of God “seeing” things as they happen just cannot be taken literally, for a seeing agent is acted upon in the act of perception. But, then, of what use is the analogy?

This point has been made by Norman Kretzmann:

Your agreement that God’s atemporal knowledge of your whereabouts tomorrow at this time does not necessitate your movements between now and then depends on your understanding his knowledge to be in all relevant respects like your observation of these words now, and on your assumption that one of those relevant aspects is that your observing these words in no way causes them to exist or to be where, when, or what they are. If God’s knowledge in all instances causes rather than is caused by its objects, then the analogy. . .is fundamentally misleading, and the Boethian account of God’s knowledge of temporal events is useless as the basis for a solution to the temporality problem that will be compatible with Aquinas’s system.8

Moreover, the problem at this juncture in Aquinas is actually accentuated when spelled out in more precise terms. We began by considering how divine timelessness actually was adduced to resolve the prima facie incompatibility between foreknowledge and freedom. If the foregoing criticism is sound, it follows that the very reason why God is timeless in Aquinas’s thought is the very reason why the analogy must breakdown. As stated above, the timelessness of God follows from the conception of God as actus purus, in whom there is no contingency or potentiality. To be in time, as Thomas sees it, is to undergo (substantial or accidental) change. Not only does God not undergo any change, but he is incapable of doing so because he lacks all potentiality, which is simply the capacity for being what one is not (substantially or accidentally). When the human subject knows that Socrates is seated (in such a way as to not influence Socrates’ being seated), the human subject is affected, and this being affected entails being in potency–which God as actus purus cannot be. So we have the following conflict.

(A) Divine foreknowledge and human freedom are compatible only if God is timeless.

(B) God is timelessness because he is pure act.

(C) Any being who is pure act lacks all potency.

(D) If the present-knowledge analogy works, then the divine being must be in potency.

So, it would seem that the very doctrine (divine timelessness) which Aquinas appeals to in order to resolve the problem of foreknowledge and human freedom is conceptually and logically bound up in a general doctrine of God which overrides any prima facie force or plausibility of the present-knowledge analogy, which Aquinas employs on the assumption that God is outside time.

At this point I should make an important distinction between two types of foreknowledge. There is a foreknowledge which has causal implications. Call this A-foreknowledge. If S A-foreknows that p, then S knows that p as a result of bringing it about (effectively willing, or ordaining) that p. This is I suggest is the kind of foreknowledge we have in Augustine, Boethius, Anselm, and Aquinas (and also in John Calvin). There is another kind of foreknowledge which does not entail this causal component. Call this O-foreknowledge. S O-foreknows that p only if S’s knowing that p did not result from S’s bringing it about that p is true.9 We can put the matter discussed in the preceding paragraphs as follows: The present-knowledge analogy used by Boethius and Aquinas requires O-foreknowledge if it is to succeed in showing that God’s knowledge of future contingents is compatible with human freedom, but–given what they claim about God as a timeless being–it is A-foreknowledge to which they in fact seem to be committed. Aquinas is emphatic: God is First Cause–the source, support, and end of all things. This I take to mean quite simply: all contingent beings and all contingent truths are dependent upon and determined by the will of God. If that is so, it seems that the problem of freedom rears its ugly head once again.10 It also suggests that the more basic question is the compatibility of divine causality and human freedom.

B. Literal Foreknowledge Revived

But suppose we drop Thomas’s notion of God as pure act, and simply speak of a timeless God’s O-foreknowledge (or O-knowledge)? Will this help us? I remain doubtful that it does.

We have already seen that the prominent classical approach to the problem of foreknowledge and freedom is to deny that God has any literal foreknowledge. A timeless being can know nothing before any time t since such a being is not situated in time. It follows, therefore, that a statement such as (I) I foreknow that A (where A refers to some temporally located action or event) could never be thought or uttered by a timeless being. It is necessarily false. But perhaps, as suggested by Paul Helm, foreknowledge can be construed from a third person (rather than first person) point of view, which would give us the statement (II) He foreknows that A, where “He” refers to a timeless being and (II) is thought or uttered by a temporal individual. A non-theist example of this would be the statement I am not speaking now. If uttered, such a statement is necessarily false, though it is not necessarily false for a person to utter He is not speaking now, where “he” refers to some other person. What (II) amounts to is simply

(14) Before t (where t is the present) the statement that a timeless knower T knows (timelessly) that A was true.11

So if someone had asked yesterday, or at any time before the present, whether a timeless knower knew A, the answer would have been affirmative. Under this construal divine foreknowledge is not a knower knowing some event yet future to the knower, but it is to know an event yet future to individuals in time. An omniscient timeless being, then, would know every event yet future to individuals in time. And as Paul Helm notes, we need not tangle ourselves in the traditional language of divine eternality, that all events being “eternally present” or “simultaneous”. All such language is time-infected and generates unnecessary difficulties for a defender of divine timelessness who employs it. A timeless knower simply timelessly knows what He knows.

Paul Helm summarizes the move outlined here as follows:

I suggest therefore that it makes sense to speak of a timeless knower’s foreknowledge of events where the notion of foreknowledge expresses a temporal knower’s belief or recognition that certain events were known timelessly before this time. . . .It is literally knowledge, and it is literally foreknowledge, but it is not foreknowledge for the timeless knower.

If it is proper to speak of God’s knowledge in this timeless way, then from the point in time of the temporal agent God knows beforehand, If he knows beforehand that p then it was true yesterday that God knows that p. But this knowledge is past, and hence unchangeable, and so necessary. What it entails, the action foreknown, is likewise necessary. Hence there cannot be free will, even if God’s foreknowledge of human actions is timeless.12

We can accordingly rewrite Aquinas’s argument so as to reintroduce foreknowledge, not as a description of a timeless knower’s knowledge but of a temporal agent’s recognition of a timeless knower’s knowledge.

(15) Yesterday it was true that God (timelessly) knew that .

(16) It is accidentally necessary that yesterday it was true that God (timelessly) knew that . [From (15)]

(17) If (16), then (18) it is accidentally necessary that Pete would ask Michelle to marry him today.

(19) If (18), then (20) Pete cannot refrain from asking Michelle to marry him today.

(21) If (20), then (22) Pete does not freely perform the action of asking Michelle to marry him.

This conclusion, is of course, vulnerable to the argument that propositions expressing God’s past knowledge are not accidentally necessary after all. Applied here, it might be argued that (15) does not express a truth solely about the past, but partly about the future. But even supposing that (15) is not accidentally necessary, the argument would seem to still go through. If God is a timeless being, then he cannot undergo any real change. Therefore, nothing can happen now or later, to alter God’s cognitive or epistemic states. So, if God timelessly knows that Pete will ask Michelle to marry him today, Pete is not in a position to not ask Michelle’s hand in marriage. If Pete could not ask Michelle to marry him, then Pete would have brought about a change in God. It seems that divine timelessness, rather than providing a way to reconcile foreknowledge and indeterministic freedom, actually accentuates the difficulty, perhaps even rendering such a reconciliation logically impossible.


In this paper I have investigated the plausibility of the Boethian-Aquinian contention that the timelessness of God provides a resolution to the apparent conflict between divine foreknowledge and human freedom. I have argued that this contention is highly dubious upon closer scrutiny. The argument from the present-knowledge analogy rests on premises that are clearly inconsistent with the classical conception of God as pure act (and upon which divine timelessness is based). God’s foreknowledge (or present-knowledge) is the cause of the things known by God, whereas the analogy requires foreknowledge without the component of divine causality. Secondly, I have argued, even if foreknowledge (or divine present-knowledge) can be construed without entailing that God’s knowledge is causal, the concept of foreknowledge can be reformulated as an expression of a temporal agent’s recognition of a timeless knower’s knowledge. In which case, the knowledge is past for the person in time, and if past then (accidentally) necessary. Once again, timelessness provides no solution to the central question of this paper. Is divine foreknowledge compatible with human (indeterministic) freedom, if it assumed that God is a timeless being? The answer seems to be “No”. In fact, as suggested toward the end of the paper, if God is timeless, then he is epistemically immutable–no one and no thing can bring about a change in his cognitive state(s). This suggests that if God is timeless, human beings cannot possess indeterministic freedom. This, of course, says nothing about the prospects for the compatibility of foreknowledge and non-libertarian concepts of freedom, but it does suggest that those who favour libertarian free will can gain human freedom only by dropping the doctrine of divine timelessness.


1Ockham, of course, rejects the notion that propositions which express God’s past knowledge are accidentally necessary on the grounds that they are actually partly about the future. Where “p” is some future contingent proposition, the complex proposition God knows that p is a proposition whose truth depends on the truth of a future proposition, namely “p” itself. Hence, God’s knowing yesterday that X would happen today is–despite its appearances–not a “hard fact” (a proposition the truth conditions of which lie wholly in the past) but a “soft fact” (a proposition the truth conditions of which lie partly at a time after the indexed-time of the proposition).

2Whether one thinks of divine eternity in temporalist or atemporalist terms may indeed affect how one approaches the I-argument. It is no coincidence that those who take God’s eternality as timelessness, challenge the premise of foreknowledge itself; while temporalists (e.g.,Ockham), if they believe that God knows future contingents, hold that it is literally foreknowledge, must find someway of wiping out the force of the notion of accidental necessity for propositions about God’s past knowledge. One may also avoid the problem at a more fundamental level by denying the libertarian conception of free will–a move which I will not be considering in this paper.

3Anselm: “We should also understand that like foreknowledge, predestination is not properly attributed to God. For their is no before or after in God, but all things are present to Him at once” (De Concordia Praescientiae et Predestinationis et Gratiae Dei cum Libero Arbitrio, q. 2, ch.2).

4As Aquinas writes: “the vision of the divine intellect from all eternity is directed to each of the things that take place in the course of time, in so far as it is present” (Aquinas, SCG, I.67.2). Similarly, Anselm says: “Now, God, who knows all truth and only truth, sees all things just as they are–whether they be free or necessary; and conversely, as he sees them so they are” (De Concordia…, q. 1, ch. 3). It is worth noting that Paul Helm (in Eternal God) claims that Anselm (and Augustine) does not appear to use divine eternity as Boethius and Aquinas do in order to resolve the foreknowledge/freedom problem. This is not entirely correct. Question 1, chapter 3 of Anselm’s De Concordia at least implies such an argument by employing both the notion of subsequent necessity and present-knowledge.

5In De Veritate Aquinas writes: “What God sees is future with respect to another thing that it succeeds in time; but to God’s sight, which is not in time, but outside it, it is not future, but present. . . .Just as our sight is infallible when we see contingents as they are present, and yet this does not take away from the fact that they come about contingently; so God infallibly sees all contingents, whether they are present to us, or past, or future, because to Him they are not future” (2.12, responsio).

6The consequent, I take it, simply follows from knowledge that p entailing that it is true that p. If S knows that Pete will ask Michelle to marry him today, it is true that Pete will ask Michelle to marry him today. Although in God’s case, the knowledge is infallible.

7See Kretzmann, “Goodness, Knowledge, and Indeterminacy in the Philosophy of Thomas Aquinas” in The Journal of Philosophy, No. 10 , Volume 80 Supplement (October, 1983).

8″Goodness, Knowledge, and Indeterminacy in the Philosophy of Aquinas,” in The Journal of Philosophy, p. 645.

9The distinction between these two types of foreknowledge is well-established in the literature, especially in the debates between Calvinism and Arminianism. For a recent discussion of it, see Paul Helm, Eternal God (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988), ch. 8.

10The same problem arises in Anselm: “Since God is believed to know or foreknow all things, does his knowledge derive from the things he knows or do the things derive their existence from His knowledge? If God derives His knowledge from things, it follows that they are prior to His knowledge and thus are not from Him, for they cannot come from God except through His knowledge” (ch. VII). Anselm argues that God’s knowledge is not dependent or conditioned upon things, quite the reverse. But if God’s knowledge is causal, then the real heart of the debate is not really one of reconciling God’s present knowledge of future contingents and freedom, but of showing that divine causality is compatible with human freedom.

11The move outlined in this section is developed by Paul Helm in his Eternal God, ch. 6, and noted also in Edward Wierenga, The Nature of God: An Inquiry into the Attributes of God (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1989).

12Eternal God, p. 101.

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