Is the future completely mapped out already? Is our destiny fixed, or can it be changed? Do we have freewill? These questions really boil down to a single theological point: how much does God know about the future?
5 Views on God’s Foreknowledge
This article is a brief rundown of Roger’s Forster’s synopsis of the five main views on God’s knowledge of the future. These can be summed up in a handy acronym: ‘C.A.R.O.P.’, spelling out the five views moving from one extreme of the spectrum to the other.
I’m going to refer to a number of historic (and more recent) theological schools/systems of thought without explaining or defining them fully, so sorry if you’re wondering what Calvinism or Arminianism is, but it’ll have to wait for another time — I’m going to try and stick strictly to the point here so that you can get the gist of the different views. As usual, it’s hard to do anything justice in the space of a blog article, so much as I’ll try to avoid it, please forgive any caricatures.
These views move from the most ‘closed’ view of the future at one end of the spectrum, to the most ‘open’ view of the future at the other. Hopefully what that means will become clear…
‘C’ is for ‘Calvinism’
In Calvin’s system of thought, God knows every detail of what will happen in the future and always has done. Everything that happens is part of His original plan, and God knew and planned every detail of the future, including every single human choice. This usually goes along with an understanding that God is ‘outside of time’, so doesn’t experience past, present and future as such, but experiences all moments and all time simultaneously. Nothing happens that is not ultimately God’s will.
‘A’ is for ‘Arminian’
In a classical ‘Arminian’ system of thought, God knows every detail of what will happen in the future (including all human choices), but these human choices are all nonetheless ‘free’. Arminianism emphasises human free will and responsibility, but still asserts that God knows every choice that we will make ahead of time. People may choose and do things that were not God’s ideal will, but He always knew that they would do them.
‘R’ is for ‘Relational’ Theology
‘Relational Theology’ is a term that has been coined and expressed by a number of scholars (such as Roger Olson and Thomas Jay Oord), but I’m really only putting it forward here as defined and nuanced by Roger Forster (this may seem unfair to the generalisations of the other views, but I promise I’ll try not to give it much more space. It does, however, need a little more explaining, as it is less familiar to most people).
Relational theology asserts that at least some of the future is genuinely open to possibility, and God does not necessarily know what the outcome of every single human choice will be. God may influence our decisions, and other humans, circumstances and spirit powers may influence our decisions, but somewhere deep down there is a fundamental core of moral choice as to how we act and react within situations that is not pre-determined or controlled by God or other causes. However much or however little God (and others) may influence us, He will never override this fundamental moral free choice.
God can still predict the future, but not all of it, as He deliberately chooses to leave some of it open to possibility. He knows every possible outcome, and can still ordain the future if He so pleases (God knows and can predict with certainty anything that He will make happen), but He has deliberately set the universe up in a way that makes genuine freedom and relationship possible. This also flows from His own nature, which is eternal relationship: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
In this view, God experiences time differently to us, and may be greater than our concepts of the measurement of time, but sequence of past, present and future is a reality to God, because it is essential to relationship which is essential to God’s own being.
In this view, plenty of things happen in the universe that are not God’s will, that are against His will, and that He never intended or wanted to happen.
‘O’ is for ‘Open’ Theology
Open Theology (popularly espoused by Greg Boyd amongst others), works from the same fundamental basis of seeing the future as partially ‘open’ to possibilities from God’s point of view. God knows every single possibility, but He has given humans (and angels) the freedom to choose between possibilities, not necessarily knowing what they will choose. Multiplied by the number of individual human wills that exist in the world, this makes for a lot of possibilities(!), and God reacts and works with these outcomes to ultimately get His will done.
Open theism may draw the lines in slightly different places to relational theology–for instance, it may struggle with highly specific and accurate long distance prophecies such as the book of Daniel, which would seem to require a great deal of involvement, influence and predictive power on God’s part.
In this view — as with relational theology — plenty of things happen that are very much against God’s will.
‘P’ is for ‘Process’ Theology
Process Theology takes openness to another level, and at its extreme sees the future as almost entirely open and largely unknown to God. it is almost as though God is improvising and discovering as He goes along, and His plan is being shaped by the actions of others and His interaction with them. It is worth noting that this is not the case for relational or open theology, both of which see God as having a definite goal and plan which He will ultimately bring to completion, whoever or whatever opposes Him.
It will be obvious from the above summaries where my opinion lies, and every single one of these positions really requires a great deal more explaining and will doubtless spark debate. However, I hope that by sketching out these views it is clear to see that there is a spectrum when it comes to openness, foreknowledge and God’s relationship to the future, and also that Relational theology, Open theism and Process theology cannot be lumped together, but are distinct.
I have also often been surprised to find that many self-confessed Calvinists actually espouse a view of foreknowledge that is classically Arminian!
To read more about God’s foreknowledge in much greater depth see God’s Strategy in Human History: Volume 1 – God’s Path to Victory and Volume 2 – Reconsidering Key Biblical Ideas, by Roger Forster and Paul Marston available in the shop.