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Edwards on Foreknowledge - Part II

A continuation of Part One . . .

Permit me to personalize this example. Instead of Josiah in the 7th century b.c., let’s consider the hypothetical but analogous prediction by God in, say, 1890, that on February 6th, 1951, a boy named Sam would be born who would write an article on Jonathan Edwards to be published in a collection of essays. According to open theism, prior to it occurring, God did not (indeed, could not) know whether Charles and Doris Storms would desire to have more than one child. In fact, for some time, Charles desired only one, the daughter who was born on May 13th, 1947. Given God’s intimate knowledge of Charles’ personality, career goals, and desires at that time, his best conjecture would have been that the daughter whom they named Betty Jane would never have a little brother named Sam. And prior to it occurring, God did not (indeed, could not) know that Charles Storms and Doris Edwards would fall in love with each other rather than with any of the several individuals whom they knew, occasionally dated, and for whom they each had strong affections. Indeed, prior to it occurring, God had no idea whether Charles and Doris would ever meet, for prior to it occurring, God did not (indeed, could not) know that Charles Storms would, quite literally at the last minute, choose to attend the University of Oklahoma where he was to meet his future bride (and apart from which there is no reason to believe he would ever have met her). And prior to it occurring, God did not (indeed, could not) know that Charles would recover from a near fatal infection or that the parents of Doris Edwards would have separated due to her father’s chronic alcoholism, leading to the family’s move from Arkansas to Oklahoma, as a result of which Doris was able to attend the University of Oklahoma where she met and fell in love with Charles, none of which, as noted, could God possibly have known prior to its occurrence, if open theism be correct.

And before it occurred, it was impossible for God to know that Charles Storms’ father would meet and fall in love with Arabella Warren, or that they in turn would choose to have more than the one daughter born to them, nor was it possible for God to know that Ralph Edwards would meet and fall in love with Minnie Burton, all of which volitional events were necessary if the person named Sam Storms whom God predicted would be born on February 6th, 1951, would in fact be born. And these are but a paltry few of the tens of thousands of human volitions that had to occur within the span of but two generations of the ancestors of Sam Storms for him to be born and be given the name of his grandfather, none of which God could know, if open theism is correct, yet all of which were essential components of that complex web of events that had to occur if the aforesaid “Sam” was to be born in accordance with divine prediction. If at any point in this nexus of cause and effect any one event or choice or human happenstance among literally thousands had occurred differently than it in fact occurred, the aforesaid prophesied person known as Sam Storms would never have been born and would not have fulfilled the divine word concerning his contribution to this book. All of which is to say that the divine prediction of the birth of Sam Storms and his subsequent behavior (or, Josiah and his, as the case may be) was possible only on the assumption that the author of that prediction infallibly foreknew countless millions of human volitions of which the ultimate fulfillment of Sam’s birth and behavior was a consequence. Had any one of those countless millions of human volitions been otherwise than it was, there would have been no “Sam” in fulfillment of the divine word and you would be reading another author on a different topic.

Edwards cites several examples of the moral conduct of nations and peoples and individuals foretold by God, together with those events consequent to and dependent upon them. Chief among these was the prophecy of Jerusalem’s destruction and the Babylonian captivity. He points out that Jerusalem’s destruction “was foretold in Hezekiah’s time, and was abundantly insisted on in the book of the prophet Isaiah, who wrote nothing after Hezekiah’s days. It was foretold in Josiah’s time, in the beginning of a great reformation (II Kgs. 22),”[1] all of which, says Edwards, point to the absolute and unalterable nature of the prediction. “And yet this event was connected with, and dependent on two things in men’s moral conduct: first, the injurious rapine and violence of the king of Babylon and his people, as the efficient cause; which God often speaks of as what he highly resented, and would severely punish; and secondly, the final obstinacy of the Jews. That great event is often spoken of as suspended on this (Jer. 4:1; 5:1; 7:1-7; 11:1-6; 17:24 to the end; 25:1-7; 26:1-8,13; and 38:17,18). Therefore this destruction and captivity could not be foreknown, unless such a moral conduct of the Chaldeans and Jews had been foreknown. And then it was foretold, that the people ‘should be finally obstinate,’ to the destruction and utter desolation of the city and land (Is. 6:9-11; Jer. 1:18,19; 7:27-29; Ezek. 3:7 and 24:13,14).”[2]

Open theists cannot easily dismiss these prophetic predictions as conditional or mere forecasts of the future given the fact that they are presented by Isaiah as proof why Yahweh alone is God. What demonstrates God to be God is precisely the specificity and certainty with which he predicts the future moral decisions of men and women. God proves his Deity, that he and he alone is God, by appealing to his exhaustive foreknowledge of the future and his ability to predict to the smallest of details everything that is coming to pass. He calls on all so-called “gods” and idols to do the same. In the final analysis, if God does not have knowledge of the future, he is no better than the stone and wood idols before which misguided men and women bow down in futile allegiance.Let’s take Edwards’ suggestion and consider in more detail the contribution to our debate of but a few texts in Isaiah 41-48.[3]

We begin with Isaiah 43:8-13[4] and the destruction of Babylon, an event that encompassed tens of thousands, perhaps millions (who can calculate?) of human decisions and actions and countless consequences to each. In order for the captives to be released by Cyrus, there first had to have been a mother and father who decided to give birth to a child whose life would in turn be filled with thousands of decisions that would culminate in his being at the right place, at the right time (all of which must itself be brought to pass by thousands of decisions and actions of perhaps thousands of other people). Furthermore, for the Jews to be released from captivity they first have to be taken captive. For this to occur the Babylonians had to have decided to invade Jerusalem. Countless military decisions and maneuvers are involved on both sides of the battle lines. For God to foreknow and predict the fall of Babylon and the release of the people through Cyrus he must foreknow hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of other events and choices on which the “fall” and “release” depend. As we noted earlier no event occurs in a vacuum or stands in isolation from other events. Any single event in history is itself both the product of and the precursor to a complex web of countless millions of other events. How could one know infallibly the certainty of any one event apart from infallible knowledge of every preceding event that in its own way contributed to that one event coming to pass and apart from which that one event would not have come to pass?

Secondly, in Isaiah 44:6-8[5] we see that the fundamental proof of God’s uniqueness, what sets him apart from all “gods” and “idols” is his ability to predict what seems impossible, to declare that it will be, and then bring it to pass. Verse 7 is explicit: “If you claim to be like Me,” says the Lord, “proclaim and declare the future like I do!” Note well the object of God’s knowledge: the things that are coming and the events that are going to take place, all of which encompasses the lives, decisions, thoughts, reactions, feelings, and destinies of men and women and children, and not simply the actions that God himself, in isolation from others, intends to accomplish.

Finally, we are told in Isaiah 44:24-28[6] that God foreknows and foretells that Jerusalem will be “inhabited” once again. But for this to happen, people have to make decisions: they must deliberate, they must weigh competing evidence, they must wrestle in their souls and among their families with a variety of options and the countless consequences that come with each, and they must choose to live there. All these voluntary, free choices on the part of the people are entailed in the repopulation of the city. Apart from these voluntary, free choices of the people there will not be a repopulating of the city. Yet God knows the city will be inhabited yet again. Therefore, God foreknows the voluntary, free choices made by the people and knows them in such a way that they remain both voluntary and free, on the one hand, and absolutely certain to occur, on the other!

Open theists contend that God cannot foreknow the free choices or feelings or actions of morally responsible individuals. If such events are foreknown, they are certain to occur. And if they are certain to occur, they are not truly free. Isaiah begs to differ! He has made it repeatedly clear that God does infallibly foreknow and predict the future choices of people and that such knowledge in no way eliminates or diminishes the voluntary nature of their choices or the moral accountability which such choices demand (hence, the doctrine of compatibilism).

Edwards also points out that unless the volitions of moral agents are foreseen, all prophecies relating to the events and decisions and consequences of the great apostasy that he believed would immediately precede the second advent, all of which are of a moral nature, “are uttered without knowing the things foretold.”[7]

“The predictions relating to this great apostasy are all of a moral nature, relating to men’s virtues and vices, and their exercises, fruits and consequences, and events depending on them; and are very particular; and most of them often repeated, with many precise characteristics, descriptions, and limitations of qualities, conduct, influence, effects, extent, duration, periods, circumstances, final issue, etc. which it would be very long to mention particularly. And to suppose, all these are predicted by God without any certain knowledge of the future moral behavior of free agents, would be to the utmost degree absurd.”[8]

Biblical prophecies are almost all “either predictions of the actings and behaviors of moral agents, or of events depending on them, or some way connected with them.”[9] In addition,

“almost all events belonging to the future state of the world of mankind, the changes and revolutions which come to pass in empires, kingdoms, and nations, and all societies, depend innumerable ways on the acts of men’s wills; yea, on an innumerable multitude of millions of millions of volitions of mankind. Such is the state and course of things in the world of mankind, that one single event, which appears in itself exceeding inconsiderable, may in the progress and series of things, occasion a succession of the greatest and most important and extensive events; causing the state of mankind to be vastly different from what it would otherwise have been, for all succeeding generations.”[10]

            The one text that illustrates this point and may prove to be the theological Achilles’ heel of open theism is Daniel 11.[11] Edwards’ comments on the latter are especially worthy of note:

“Their corruption, violence, robbery, treachery, and lies. And particularly, how much is foretold of the horrid wickedness of Antiochus Epiphanes, called there a ‘vile person,’ instead of ‘Epiphanes,’ or illustrious. In that chapter, and also in 8:9-14,23, to the end, are foretold his flattery, deceit and lies, his having ‘his heart set to do mischief,’ and set ‘against the holy Covenant,’ his ‘destroying and treading under foot the holy people,’ in a marvelous manner, his ‘having indignation against the holy Covenant, setting his heart against it,’ and ‘conspiring against it,’ his ‘polluting the sanctuary of strength, treading it under foot, taking away the daily sacrifice, and placing the abomination that maketh desolate’; his great pride, ‘magnifying himself against God,’ and ‘uttering marvelous blasphemies against Him,’ till God in ‘indignation should destroy him.’ Withal the moral conduct of the Jews, on occasion of his persecution, is predicted. ‘Tis foretold, that ‘he should corrupt many by flatteries’ (11:32-34). But that others should behave with a glorious constancy and fortitude, in opposition to him (ver. 32). And that some good men should fall, and repent (v. 35).”[12]

Most agree that chapter 11 begins with a reference to the Persian kings who followed Cyrus, extends through Alexander the Great and his successors, and then provides a detailed summary of the on-going conflict between the Seleucid and Ptolemaic dynasties (the primary powers of the Greek empire), with special emphasis on Antiochus IV Epiphanes. Let’s consider the implications of open theism on the interpretation of this passage.

If God does not have EDF, how could he have predicted in Daniel 11: 2 that “three more kings (Cambyses [530-522 b.c.], Smerdis [pseudo-Smerdis or Gaumata; 522 b.c.] and Darius I Hystaspes [522-486 b.c.]) are going to arise in Persia”? A prediction of this sort would require foreknowledge of countless thousands of human volitions necessary for three such men to be in precisely those circumstances at precisely the appropriate time to make their ascent to power possible, to say nothing of the countless thousands of other events and decisions that would serve to create the necessary historical and political framework. If God does not have EDF, how could he have predicted in Daniel 11:2 that Xerxes I (486 b.c.), a “fourth”, would “gain far more riches than all of them” and would “arouse the whole empire against the realm of Greece”? If God does not have EDF, how could he have predicted in Daniel 11:3 that Alexander the Great (336-323 b.c.) would come to power, “rule with great authority and do as he pleases”? And how could he have predicted in Daniel 11:4 that when his kingdom broke up it would be “parceled out” to people other than his own sons who, as it turned out, were both murdered (Alexander IV and Herakles)?

If God does not have EDF how could he have predicted in Daniel 11:5-20 the multitude of intricate details, human emotions, volitional resolve, strategic decisions, etc. that were to transpire in the ongoing conflict between the Ptolemaic (Egyptian) or “southern king” and the Seleucid (Syrian) or “northern king”, all of which occurred between the death of Alexander in 323 b.c. and the emergence of Antiochus Epiphanes in 175 b.c.' Apart from EDF, how could God have known and prophesied that the southern king would “grow strong” (Dan. 11:5) rather than “weak”? And apart from EDF, how could God have known and prophesied that “one of his princes” (Seleucus I Nicator [312/11-280 b.c.]) would “gain ascendancy over him and obtain dominion”? And apart from EDF, how could God have known and prophesied in Daniel 11:6 that Ptolemy II (285-246 b.c.) would make a treaty of peace in 250 b.c. with the Seleucid ruler, Antiochus II Theos (grandson of Seleucus; 261-246 b.c.)? And how could God have known and prophesied that Berenice, “the daughter of the king of the south” (Dan. 11:6) would “come to the king of the North to carry out a peaceful arrangement” only then to lose her power (indeed, she was murdered, along with Antiochus, by the latter’s powerful ex-wife, Laodice)? And apart from EDF, how could God have known and prophesied that one of her descendants (Ptolemy III Euergetes [246-221 b.c.]) would decide to attack the king of the north in retaliation for the murder of his sister?

And how could God know that Ptolemy III would choose to refrain from attacking the king of the north for two years? And apart from EDF, how could God know and prophesy that the king of the north would have two sons (Seleucus III Ceraunus [226-223 b.c.] and Antiochus III the “Great” [223-187 b.c.]) and would decide to “mobilize and assemble a multitude of great forces” against the king of the south (Daniel 11:10)? And apart from EDF, how could God know and prophesy that Ptolemy IV Philopator (221-203 b.c.), the king of the south, would be “enraged and go forth and fight with the king of the north” rather than capitulate in cowardice or pursue peaceful negotiations or any number of other reactions (Daniel 11:11)? And how could God predict that the armies of the king of the north would be defeated (Dan. 11:11; Ptolemy’s victory occurred in 217 b.c. at Raphia, near Palestine)? And apart from EDF, how could know and prophesy that Ptolemy’s heart would “be lifted up” (Dan. 11:12) in arrogance and pride rather than humbled with gratitude or some other understandable response given the circumstances of the day? And how could God know that Antiochus III, Philip V of Macedon and other insurrectionists in Egypt would “rise up against the king of the South”? Envision for a moment the multitude of decisions and military deliberations and alternative courses of action available to such leaders, any one of which could have derailed the eventual choice that they should attack, none of which, according to open theism God could have known, yet apart from which the ultimate decision, which God did foreknow, could not have happened.

Daniel continues to prophesy of Antiochus and his decision to “set his face to come with the power” of his kingdom, yet with a “proposal of peace” (Dan. 11:17), as well as the decision of his daughter (Cleopatra) to give her loyalty to her husband Ptolemy rather than her father (11:17), as well as the latter’s decision to attempt the capture of several Mediterranean islands (Dan. 11:18-19), as well as Antiochus’s ultimate demise (he was murdered by an angry mob in 187 b.c.). If that were not enough, additional predictions are made of his son, the infamous Antiochus Epiphanes. But apart from EDF, how could God know and prophesy that this man would be “despicable” (Dan. 11:21) rather than kind and that he would “seize the kingdom by intrigue”? After all, Demetrius I, young son of Seleucus IV, was next in line to receive the crown. On what possible grounds could even the consummate divine “social scientist” know that the man who, given the available data, should have been crowned would in fact be outmaneuvered by another? And apart from EDF, how could God know and prophesy the strategic “alliance” or the “deception” or the decision to distribute plunder or the “schemes” he was to devise, all of which are described in Dan. 11:23-24? Explicit declarations of yet future “courage” rather than cowardice or hesitancy (Dan. 11:25), carefully devised counter “schemes” (Dan. 11:25), the mutual intent of “evil” in the heart of the kings (Dan. 11:27), their resolve to lie one to another rather than speak the truth (Dan. 11:27), and the choice of Antiochus in his “heart” to set himself “against the holy covenant” (Dan. 11:28), are inexplicable apart from EDF. And apart from EDF, how could God know and prophesy of Antiochus being “disheartened” (Dan. 11:30) and “enraged,” yet showing favor to the unfaithful in Israel (Dan. 11:30)?

Every human decision, every volitional resolve, every state of the hearts of those described in this period of history, every counter-decision, retaliatory strike and choice that the former evoked, are described one-hundred, two-hundred, three-hundred years in advance. Each of these human volitions was part of an indescribably complex nexus or interrelated web of cause and effect that entailed yet millions of other decisions, no less a part of yet more millions of decisions, all of which are portrayed as morally relevant, deserving of either praise or blame, the very thing which open theists insist is not possible, being incompatible one with the other. It would appear that only three options are available to the open theist: either acknowledge that the foundational incompatibilist assumption on which their view rests is unbiblical, or silently ignore Daniel 11 altogether and pray that no one notices, or, what I suspect is likely to occur, eliminate Daniel 11 from the debate by conveniently interpreting this portion of the book as history rather than prophecy (vaticinium ex eventu).

The mere existence of the many rulers, emperors, kings, and military commanders described in Daniel 11 and elsewhere, notes Edwards,

“undoubtedly depended on many millions of acts of the will, which followed, and were occasioned one by another, in their parents. And perhaps most of these volitions depended on millions of volitions of hundreds and thousands of others, their contemporaries of the same generation; and most of these on millions of millions of volitions of others in preceding generations. As we go back, still the number of volitions, which were some way the occasion of the event, multiply as the branches of a river, till they come at last, as it were, to an infinite number. . . . [The mere conception in the womb of such persons] must depend on things infinitely minute, relating to the time and circumstances of the act of the parents, the state of their bodies, etc. which must depend on innumerable foregoing circumstances and occurrences; which must depend, infinite ways, on foregoing acts of their wills; which are occasioned by innumerable things that happen in the course of their lives, in which their own, and their neighbor’s behavior, must have a hand, an infinite number of ways. And as the volitions of others must be so many ways concerned in the conception and birth of such men; so, no less, in their preservation, and circumstances of life, their particular determinations and actions, on which the great revolutions they were the occasions of, depended.”[13]

Edwards is led to conclude that “these hints may be sufficient for every discerning considerate person, to convince him, that the whole state of the world of mankind, in all ages, and the very being of every person who has ever lived in it, in every age, since the times of the ancient prophets, has depended on more volitions, or acts of the wills of men, than there are sands on the seashore.”[14]


            It should come as no surprise to those who have read extensively in Edwards and have come to appreciate the magnitude of his mind that he anticipated and, I believe, effectively answered so many of the arguments that contemporary open theists are now proposing. Given the evidence and arguments proffered by Edwards and others, one is left wondering what it would take to persuade open theists of the error of their position. What would count as sufficient evidence against their view? Or has open theism assumed a posture that is philosophically unfalsifiable? I echo Edwards’ incredulity at the denial of EDF. But I strongly suspect that notwithstanding his own substantive response, as well as that of many today, open theism will not soon disappear. Of course, that is not something I can foreknow infallibly. But I’m confident and thankful that God can.

[1] FW, 242.

[2] Ibid., 242-43.

[3] For a more extensive interaction with Isaiah 40-48, see the excellent treatment in Bruce Ware, God’s Lesser Glory: The Diminished God of Open Theism (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2000), 100-119.

[4] 43:8 Bring out the people who are blind, even though they have eyes, and the deaf, even though they have ears. 43:9 All the nations have gathered together in order that the peoples may be assembled. Who among them can declare this and proclaim to us the former things? Let them present their witnesses that they may be justified, or let them hear and say, ‘It is true.’ 43:10 ‘You are My witnesses,’ declares the LORD, ‘and My servant whom I have chosen, in order that you may know and believe Me, and understand that I am He. Before Me there was no God formed, and there will be none after Me. 43:11 I, even I, am the LORD; and there is no savior besides Me. 43:12 It is I who have declared and saved and proclaimed, and there was no strange [god] among you; so you are My witnesses,’ declares the LORD, ‘and I am God. 43:13 Even from eternity I am He; and there is none who can deliver out of My hand; I act and who can reverse it?’” John Oswalt offers this observation on v. 9: “Each of the nations and peoples has its god, but Who among them (the gods) can declare (foretell) a future like this? The indefiniteness of this has given rise to a number of interpretations. The most common one is that it refers to the destruction of Babylon and the release of the captives by Cyrus (41:2-4,25-26). While this view seems likely, we should also ask why the author chose the ambiguous demonstrative. Perhaps he had in mind the entire situation of sin and exile and return and reestablishment. In that case, we would do a disservice to the text to limit it too narrowly” (The Book of Isaiah, Chapters 40-66, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998], 145).

[5] 44:6 Thus says the LORD, the King of Israel and his Redeemer, the LORD of hosts: ‘I am the first and I am the last, and there is no God besides Me. 44:7 And who is like Me? Let him proclaim and declare it; yes, let him recount it to Me in order, from the time that I established the ancient nation. And let them declare to them the things that are coming and the events that are going to take place. 44:8 Do not tremble and do not be afraid; have I not long since announced it to you and declared it? And you are My witnesses. Is there any God besides Me, or is there any [other] Rock? I know of none.’"

[6] 44:24 Thus says the LORD, your Redeemer, and the one who formed you from the womb, ‘I, the LORD, am the maker of all things, stretching out the heavens by Myself, and spreading out the earth all alone. 44:25 Causing the omens of boasters to fail, making fools out of diviners, causing wise men to draw back, and turning their knowledge into foolishness. 44:26 Confirming the word of His servant, and performing the purpose of His messengers. [It is I] who says of Jerusalem, “She shall be inhabited!” And of the cities of Judah, “They shall be built.” And I will raise up her ruins [again.] 44:27 ‘[It is I] who says to the depth of the sea, “Be dried up!” And I will make your rivers dry. 44:28 ‘[It is I] who says of Cyrus, “[He is] My shepherd! And he will perform all My desire.” And he declares of Jerusalem, “She will be built,” and of the temple, “Your foundation will be laid.”’”

[7] FW, 245.

[8] Ibid., 245-46.

[9] Ibid., 248.

[10] Ibid.

[11] I’ve looked closely at the works by Sanders, Boyd (including his recent Satan and the Problem of Evil), Pinnock (including his recent Most Moved Mover: A Theology of God’s Openness [Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2001]), as well as most of the periodical literature, and have failed to detect a single substantive response to the implications of Daniel 11 for open theism.

[12] FW, 241.

[13] Ibid., 249.

[14] Ibid., 250.