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Bible Dictionaries

Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary

Prescience

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or foreknowledge, an attribute of God. ( See OMNISCIENCE. ) On this subject three leading theories have been resorted to, in order to evade the difficulties which are supposed to be involved in the opinion commonly received. The Chevalier Ramsay, among his other speculations, holds it a matter of choice in God, to think of finite ideas; and similar opinions, though variously worded, have been occasionally adopted. In substance these opinions are, that though the knowledge of God be infinite as his power is infinite, there is no more reason to conclude, that his knowledge should be always exerted to the full extent of its capacity, than that his power should be employed to the extent of his omnipotence; and that if we suppose him to choose not to know some contingencies, the infiniteness of his knowledge is not thereby impugned. To this it may be answered, that the infinite power of God is in Scripture represented, as in the nature of things it must be, as an infinite capacity, and not as infinite in act; but that the knowledge of God is on the contrary never represented there to us as a capacity to acquire knowledge, but as actually comprehending all things that are, and all things that can be.

2. That the notion of God's choosing to know some things, and not to know others, supposes a reason why he refuses to know any class of things or events; which reason, it would seem, can only arise out of their nature and circumstances, and therefore supposes at least a partial knowledge of them, from which the reason for his not choosing to know them arises. The doctrine is therefore somewhat contradictory. But,

3. It is fatal to this opinion that it does not at all meet the difficulty arising out of the question of the consistency of divine prescience, and the free actions of men; since some contingent actions, for which men have been made accountable, we are sure, have been foreknown by God, because by his Spirit in the prophets they were foretold; and if the freedom of man can in those cases be reconciled to the prescience of God, there is no greater difficulty in any other case which can possibly occur.

A second theory is, that the foreknowledge of contingent events, being in its own nature impossible, because it implies a contradiction, it does no dishonour to the divine Being to affirm, that of such events he has, and can have, no prescience whatever, and thus the prescience of God, as to moral actions, being wholly denied, the difficulty in question is got rid of. To this the same answer must be given as to the former. It does not meet the case, so long as the Scriptures are allowed to contain prophecies of rewardable and punishable actions. The great fallacy in the argument, that the certain prescience of a moral action destroys its contingent nature, lies in supposing that contingency and certainty are the opposites of each other. It is, perhaps, unfortunate, that a word which is of figurative etymology, and which consequently can only have an ideal application to such subjects, should have grown into common use in this discussion, because it is more liable, on that account, to present itself to different minds under different shades of meaning. If, however, the term contingent in this controversy has any definite meaning at all, as applied to the moral actions of men, it must mean their freedom, and stands opposed, not to certainty, but to necessity. A free action is a voluntary one; and an action which results from the choice of the agent, is distinguished from a necessary one in this, that it might not have been or have been otherwise, according to the self- determining power of the agent. It is with reference to this specific quality of a free action, that the term contingency is used; it might have been otherwise, in other words, it was not necessitated. Contingency in moral actions is, therefore, their freedom, and is opposed, not to certainty, but to constraint. The very nature of this controversy fixes this as the precise meaning of the term. The question is not, in point of fact, about the certainty of moral actions, that is, whether they will happen or not; but about the nature of them, whether free or constrained, whether they must happen or not. Those who advocate this theory care not about the certainty of actions, simply considered, that is, whether they will take place or not; the reason why they object to a certain prescience of moral actions, is this,—they conclude, that such a prescience renders them necessary. It is the quality of the action for which they contend, not whether it will happen or not. If contingency meant uncertainty, the sense in which such theorists take it, the dispute would be at an end. But though an uncertain action cannot be foreseen as certain, a free, unnecessitated action may; for there is nothing in the knowledge of the action, in the least, to affect its nature. Simple knowledge is, in no sense, a cause of action, nor can it be conceived to be causal, unconnected with exerted power: for mere knowledge, therefore, an action remains free or necessitated as the case may be. A necessitated action is not made a voluntary one by its being foreknown; a free action is not made a necessary one. Free actions foreknown will not, therefore, cease to be contingent. But how stands the case as to their certainty? Precisely on the same ground. The certainty of a necessary action foreknown, does not result from the knowledge of the action, but from the operation of the necessitating cause; and, in like manner, the certainty of a free action does not result from the knowledge of it, which is no cause at all, but from the voluntary cause, that is, the determination of the will. It alters not the case in the least, to say that the voluntary action might have been otherwise. Had it been otherwise, the knowledge of it would have been otherwise; but as the will which gives birth to the action, is not dependent upon the previous knowledge of God, but the knowledge of the action upon foresight of the choice of the will, neither the will nor the act is controlled by the knowledge; and the action, though foreseen, is still free or contingent. The foreknowledge of God has then no influence upon either the freedom or the certainty of actions, for this plain reason, that it is knowledge, and not influence; and actions may be certainly foreknown, without their being rendered necessary by that foreknowledge. But here it is said, "If the result of an absolute contingency be certainly foreknown, it can have no other result, it cannot happen otherwise." This is not the true inference. It will not happen otherwise; but it may be asked, Why can it not happen otherwise? Can is an expression of potentiality, it denotes power or possibility. The objection is, that it is not possible that the action should otherwise happen. But why not? What deprives it of that power? If a necessary action were in question, it could not otherwise happen than as the necessitating cause shall compel; but then that would arise from the necessitating cause solely, and not from the prescience of the action which is not causal. But if the action be free, and it enter into the very nature of a voluntary action to be unconstrained, then it might have happened in a thousand other ways, or not have happened at all; the foreknowledge of it no more affects its nature in this case than in the other. All its potentiality, so to speak, still remains, independent of foreknowledge, which neither adds to its power of happening otherwise, nor diminishes it. But then we are told, that "the prescience of it, in that case, must be uncertain." Not unless any person can prove, that the divine prescience is unable to dart through all the workings of the human mind, all its comparison of things in the judgment, all the influences of motives on the affections, all the hesitances and haltings of the will, to its final choice. "Such knowledge is too wonderful for us," but it is the knowledge of Him "who understandeth the thoughts of man afar off." "But if a contingency will have a given result, to that result it must be determined." Not in the least. We have seen that it cannot be determined to a given result by mere precognition; for we have evidence in our own minds that mere knowledge is not causal to the actions of another. It is determined to its result by the will of the agent; but even in that case, it cannot be said, that it must be determined to that result, because it is of the nature of freedom to be unconstrained: so that here we have an instance in the case of a free agent that he will act in some particular manner; but it by no means follows from what will be, whether foreseen or not, that it must be.

The third theory amounts, in brief, to this, that the foreknowledge of God must be supposed to differ so much from any thing of the kind which we perceive in ourselves, and from any ideas which we can possibly form of that property of the divine nature, that no argument respecting it can be grounded upon our imperfect notions; and that all controversy on subjects connected with it, is idle and fruitless. But though foreknowledge in God should be admitted to be something of a "very different nature" to the same quality in man, yet as it is represented as something equivalent to foreknowledge, whatever that something may be, since in consequence of it, prophecies have actually been uttered and fulfilled, and of such a kind, too, as relate to actions for which men have in fact been held accountable; all the original difficulty of reconciling contingent events to this something, of which human foreknowledge is a "kind of shadow," as "a map of China is to China itself," remains in full force. The difficulty is shifted, but not removed. It may, therefore, be certainly concluded, if at least the Holy Scriptures are to be our guide, that the omniscience of God comprehends his certain prescience of all events however contingent; and if any thing more were necessary to strengthen the argument above given, it might be drawn from the irrational, and, above all, the unscriptural consequences, which would follow from the denial of this doctrine. These are forcibly stated by President Edwards:—"It would follow from this notion, (namely, that the Almighty doth not foreknow what will be the result of future contingencies,) that as God is liable to be continually repenting what he has done; so he must be exposed to be constantly changing his mind and intentions as to his future conduct; altering his measures, relinquishing his old designs, and forming new schemes and projections. For his purposes, even as to the main parts of the scheme, namely, such as belong to the state of his moral kingdom, must be always liable to be broken, through want of foresight; and he must be continually putting his system to rights, as it gets out of order, through the contingence of the actions of moral agents: he must be a Being who, instead of being absolutely immutable, must necessarily be the subject of infinitely the most numerous acts of repentance, and changes of intention, of any being whatsoever; for this plain reason, that his vastly extensive charge comprehends an infinitely greater number of those things which are to him contingent and uncertain. In such a situation he must have little else to do, but to mend broken links as well as he can, and be rectifying his disjointed frame and disordered movements, in the best manner the case will allow. The supreme Lord of all things must needs be under great and miserable disadvantages, in governing the world which he has made, and has the care of, through his being utterly unable to find out things of chief importance, which hereafter shall befall his system; which, if he did but know, he might make seasonable provision for. In many cases, there may be very great necessity that he should make provisions, in the manner of his ordering and disposing things, for some great events which are to happen, of vast and extensive influence, and endless consequence to the universe; which he may see afterward, when it is too late, and may wish in vain that he had known beforehand, that he might have ordered his affairs accordingly. And it is in the power of man, on these principles, by his devices, purposes, and actions, thus to disappoint God, break his measures, make him continually to change his mind, subject him to vexation, and bring him into confusion."

Socinus and his early followers would not allow that God possesses any knowledge of future contingencies. The schoolmen, in reference to this species of knowledge in God, invented that called scientia media, and which they "define as that by which God knows sub conditione, what men or angels will do according to the liberty which they have, when they are placed in these or those circumstances, or in this or in that order of things." When Gomarus, the opponent of Arminius, found that his opinion concerning the object of reprobation was clogged with this absurdity—that it made God to be the author of Adam's sin, he very astutely took refuge in this conditionate foreknowledge, and, in his corrected theses on predestination, published after the death of Arminius, he describes it as "that by which God, through the infinite light of his own knowledge, foreknows some future things, not absolutely, but as placed under a certain condition." Walaeus, the celebrated antagonist of Episcopius, had recourse to the same expedient. This distinction has been adopted by very few of those who espouse the doctrines of general redemption; and who believe that every event, how contingent soever to the creature, is, with respect to God, certainly foreknown. An old English divine thinks, that, "in the sacred Scriptures certain not obscure vestiges are apparent of this kind of knowledge, of things that will happen thus or otherwise, on the supposition of the occurrence of this or that circumstance. Omitting the well known example of David in Keilah, 1 Samuel 22:12 , and of Chorazin and Bethsaida, Matthew 11:21 ; Luke 10:13 , consult, among other sayings of the same description, the answer of our Saviour to the chief priests and scribes, who had asked, ‘Art thou the Christ? Tell us.' And he said unto them, ‘If I tell you, ye will not believe.' In the subsequent verse he adds, ‘If I also ask you, ye will not answer me, nor let me go,' Luke 22:67-68 . You have here three events specified, which yet will not occur even on the supposition of Christ our Lord himself." This kind of knowledge might very well be included in that of scientia visionis, because the latter ought to include, not what God will do and what his creatures will do under his appointment, but what they will do by his permission as free agents, and what he will do, as a consequence of this, in his character of Governor and Lord. But since the predestinarians had confounded scientia visionis with a predestinating decree, the scientia media well expressed what they had left quite unaccounted for, and which they had assumed did not really exist,—the actions of creatures endowed with free will, and the acts of Deity which from eternity were consequent upon them. If such actions do not take place, then men are not free; and if the rectoral acts of God are not consequent upon the actions of the creature in the order of the divine intention, and the conduct of the creature is consequent upon the foreordained rectoral acts of God, then we reach a necessitating eternal decree, which in fact, the predestinarian contends for; but it unfortunately brings after it consequences which no subtleties have ever been able to shake off,—that the only actor in the universe is God himself; and that the only distinction among events is, that one class is brought to pass by God directly, and the other indirectly, not by the agency, but by the mere instrumentality, of his creatures.


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Bibliography Information
Watson, Richard. Entry for 'Prescience'. Richard Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/wtd/p/prescience.html. 1831-2.

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