Sun Shining BrightlyThat God is omniscient (All-Knowing) has been the position of the church since the beginning.  Open Theism is a “new doctrine” that asserts that God cannot know what has not yet occurred, so he waits to see what will happen and changes His plans accordingly.   Everything is contingent upon the will of man, the works of the devil, and the falling out of nature (what we might call luck or chance).   This view is held by a few well-known professing Christian leaders: Winkie Pratney, Clark Pinnock, C Peter Wagner, and Kenneth Archer.

In this, the third in a series of comments upon John Owen’s “A Display of Arminianism,” I demonstrate that Owen was aware this false doctrine would be the natural outgrowth of the denial of God’s sovereign grace in election.  He wrote in 1642:

THE prescience or foreknowledge of God hath not hitherto, in express terms, been denied by the Arminians, but only questioned and overthrown by consequence, inasmuch as they deny the certainty and unchangeableness of his decrees, on which it is founded.

The logic is fairly straightforward.

When “free will” advocates address the issue of election and foreordination (predestination), they often resort to a view of God’s foreknowledge that goes something like this:  God has given man a free will. However, each man’s choices in the future are seen by God, who is omniscient. Based upon this foreknowledge, God then elects to save those he knows will believe.  God predestines the consequences of certain choices, but not whether those choices are made.  He predestinates that those who will believe will be saved, but not that they will believe.

This position is untenable because it places its holder on the horns of a dilemma.

On one hand, if God really does know what each man is going to do with Christ in the future, and his knowledge is perfect, complete and certain, it denies the possibility that man has a free will.  The future is set in stone, it cannot be altered. How can you be free, if what you are going to do is already, infallibly known by God?

On the other hand, the notion that God has ordained what each man will do is repugnant to advocates of free will.   The conundrum is often resolved by accepting a heresy known as “Open Theism”.   God does not decide the future; he also does not know the future, because it does not exist.

Owen suggested that God has two “kinds” of knowledge.  The first he calls “intuitive” and is the sum of all things possible that could happen.   God can speak to man in terms of cause and effect, because He knows all possible effects of actions that could occur.   From man’s perspective then, events are contingent.  Since we do not know the future, God is absolutely truthful when he says, if you do “A”, then “B” will happen.  But if you do “C”, then “D” will happen.   Arminians insist that God’s decrees remove all contingency as it pertains to man.  They do not recognize that God not only knows what could happen, but he knows what will happen because He ordains all things.  These are the decrees of God.  They are infallible and unchangeable.

The missing element in this is the recognition that God orders the future, but usually does so by means.  As the Westminster Confession of Faith summarizes, “God, in his ordinary providence, maketh use of means, yet is free to work without, above, and against them, at his pleasure”.    The Bible calls the latter works miracles, signs, and wonders.

The means God uses vary greatly, but their use should not tempt us to remove them from the realm of God’s plan and Providence.   The laws of nature; the choices of men (both wicked and righteous), angels, and Satan; or even what appear to be accidents are all according to the plan of God.  Owens explains:

God hath prepared divers and several kinds of causes, diversely operative in producing their effects, some whereof are said to work necessarily, the institution of their nature being to do as they do, and not otherwise; so the sun giveth light, and the fire heat. And yet, in some regard, their effects and products may be said to be contingent and free, inasmuch as the concurrence of God, the first cause, is required to their operation, who doth all things most freely, according to the counsel of his will. Thus the sun stood still in the time of Joshua, and the fire burned not the three children; but ordinarily such agents working “necessitate naturae,” their effects are said to be necessary. Secondly, To some things God hath fitted free and contingent causes, which either apply themselves to operation in particular, according to election, choosing to do this thing rather than that; as angels and men, in their free and deliberate actions, which they so perform as that they could have not done them; — or else they produce effects merely by accident, and the operation of such things we say to be casual; as if a hatchet, falling out of the hand of a man cutting down a tree, should kill another whom he never saw. Now, nothing in either of these ways comes to pass but God hath determined it, both for the matter and manner, even so as is agreeable to their causes, — some necessarily, some freely, some casually or contingently, yet also, as having a certain futurition from his decree, he infallibly foreseeth that they shall so come to pass.

Owen then demonstrates that the Arminian view that God’s decrees are mutable requires that His knowledge be limited (to what Socinus called “conjectural foreknowledge”).  Did God want to save Judas?  The Arminian, unless he is to reject God’s foreknowledge altogether must come up with a scheme that essentially has God seeing things before they happen, but not eternally.  For if he saw Judas reject Christ from eternity, in what way could it ever be said that God wanted Judas to be saved? In spite of God’s eternal knowledge, could not Judas have changed his mind at the last minute and be saved?   And why did God make Judas in the first place, if he knew that he would be lost?  Because of their insistence that God does not ordain the future, these questions cannot be reconciled with God’s foreknowledge.   The Arminian must look for help elsewhere.   And where he looks is to limit God’s knowledge.  Owen knew it.   Pratney and the others believe and teach it now.

Owen proceeds to explain that the Arminian cannot truly believe that God desires or wants all to be saved and maintain his perfect knowledge.  In what way could it be said that God hopes, wants, desires, or expects something that he knows he will not get?  At this moment does God want Judas to be saved?  If the answer is that it is too late, then from God’s perspective, it was always too late.  It is one thing for a god to not know if his desires will be accomplished.  It is entirely another to have known from eternity what would happen, and still plead with people to believe that he knows will not believe.  Of what use were any of the promises or threatenings if God knew already how they would respond?

The result of this exercise is to admit that Arminianism contains all the things complained of in the Calvinist (God is insincere, God creates men to perish, men never had a chance), but with neither a defense of these views of God nor the ability to resist adding slanderously to them (God doesn’t know everything, etc.).

A vinculum exists between the view that God does not infallibly save men because it would be a violation of men’s “free will” and the denial that God can know anything that depends on the will of man.  So it is fair to say that God could not plan that Jesus would be crucified, since it would be contingent upon the will of man.   Very little prophecy would have any meaning if God could not be assured that His will would be done.

It must not be thought that Owen only made arguments against the Arminians.  He made positive arguments from Scripture, citing Acts 15:18, for example:

“Known unto God are all his works from the beginning of the world”

He then gives examples of Scripture where God predicted (ordained) actions that required perfect knowledge of what decisions men would make of their own free will.

“Behold,” saith Nathan to David, in the name of God, “I will take thy wives before thine eyes, and give them unto thy neighbor, and he shall lie with thy wives in the sight of this sun; for thou didst it secretly, but I will do this thing before all Israel,” (2 Samuel 12:11,12).

Herod, Judas, Pilate, and those who put Christ to death “were gathered together, for to do whatsoever thy hand and thy counsel determined before to be done” {Acts 4:27b, 28).

Owen adds this thought, “if these actions, notwithstanding these two hindrances, — first, that they were contingent, wrought by free agents, working according to election and choice; secondly, that they were sinful and wicked in the agents, — had yet their dependence on his purpose and determinate counsel, surely he hath an interest of operation in the acts of every creature” (emphasis mine).


It is important to reiterate here that the Christian does not deny that men act according to their wills, only that these actions are ordained of God.   God’s sovereignty over these things is not a meaningless doctrinal assertion.  First, God’s works abound to His glory, for the Scriptures call us to praise him for His great knowledge (Psalm 139:16,17).  Second, they are a great comfort for the believer.  Owen concludes chapter three with this observation:

Amidst all our afflictions and temptations, under whose pressure we should else faint and despair, it is no small comfort to be assured that we do nor can suffer nothing but what his hand and counsel guides unto us, what is open and naked before his eyes, and whose end and issue he knoweth long before; which is a strong motive to patience, a sure anchor of hope, a firm ground of consolation.


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