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Chapter IX


The Foreknowledge of God - L. D. McCabe

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AS in prophecy, one of the indispensable evidences of divine revelation, many particulars must be stated to which the actual history, when it has transpired, can be referred with undoubted certainty, it is necessary that many incidents involving the action of intelligent beings should be embraced within its scope and plan. To fulfill these prophetic specifications God has at least three worlds of intelligent creatures from which to select instruments. But this work of prophecy, so very extraordinary in its nature, must have involved some method of procedure different from that which usually obtains in his government of free agents in the kingdom of free grace. And, therefore, no general conclusions can be drawn from the correspondence between these prophecies and their minute fulfillment, concerning the divine foresight of the ordinary conduct and future choices of free agents while acting under the law of liberty.

But while we maintain that it is impossible for Omniscience to foresee with definite and absolute certainty the choices of free agents when they act under the law of liberty, we nevertheless believe that God can in multitudes of cases, perhaps in most, judge very accurately as to what is most likely to take place, in given contemplated circumstances.

The more any being knows of the mind and nature of a man, and the particular temptations to which he may be exposed, the more safely can he calculate as to the choices he will be likely to make. Even among men, he who best comprehends human nature can best judge, as a general rule, what men will do under given circumstances. His judgments will be correct oftener than will those of less sagacious persons. So true is this that it is a rule universally acted upon that men are likely to act in accordance with their nature, their habits, their surroundings, and the appeals, made upon their sensuous natures from without. And yet this general rule can not be infallibly relied upon. For so very frequently, indeed, among men, is this rule untrustworthy and productive of serious mistakes that it can hardly be styled a rule at all. It is only a basis for presumptive judgments as to human conduct; for the decision which has been uniform for ninety-nine times, at the hundreth may change its character. When Satan was created with his superb endowments, and placed on his probation, every finite mind beholding him would have inferred that such were his nature, his character, his endowments, his interests, and his apparent destiny, that it would be exceedingly improbable, and almost morally impossible, that he would yield to temptation and sin. And yet he did sin willfully and awfully-so ruinously that he never yet has found or sought a place of repentance or of forgiveness.

This significant fact demonstrates that preponderance of presumptions as to the future choices of free agents, in any specified case, can never be relied upon without some danger of deception and mistake. Jude speaks of angels who kept not their first estate. Now had any contemporary beings been interrogated as to the probability of the fall of these angels, they would have replied, that, judging from their holy nature, habits, and surroundings, and from the fact that there could be no objective motives, no motives in the nature of the case, why they should disobey the great moral law of the universe, we are compelled to think that they never will forfeit their bright habitations by sinning against God. But notwithstanding all this, those angels did sin, and did forfeit their first estate. They surrendered their holiness, disregarded the motives to obedience, the superlatively grand reasons for maintaining their moral purity, and voluntarily revolted against the government and administration of God. These facts prove that while something may be estimated as to the future choices of free beings from their nature, habits, history, and surroundings, absolute certainty as to those choices can never be predicated. "Our calculation of future choices," says President Tappan, "can never be attended with absolute certainty, because the will, being contingent, has the power of disappointing calculations which are made upon the longest observed uniformity." And this is what we see repeated again and again in human society. How often have men of the fairest record and the highest rectitude astonished the world with volitions and conduct wholly at variance with their established habits, nature, and character, and their scrutinized history for many years. Character is made by the will and not the will by the character. If the will is contingent so must the character be contingent. During probation the will is always independent and never perfectly formed; for a wrong choice may arise at any moment of probation. Therefore, no probationer can ever be so firmly settled in goodness that his morality is forever sure.

The noblest and the best have done wrong and still may do wrong. True, habit tends to stability of character. The oftener the will chooses the right the easier and the more likely it is so to choose, but habits do not control the determinations of the will. However much trust we may have in a man it can never rise to indubitable assurance. Hence the rule of inferring what men will do from their nature, habits, motives, surroundings, and temptations, ought never to be trusted, where vital interests are involved or life-long and comprehensive calamities may be a possible result. It is only in matters of comparatively small import that men ought to be confided in fully, since no one knows what may be in the heart of another, and no man knows what his own will will choose to do. Within that limited range, however, trust, founded on one's nature and habits, is essential to the perfection of social intercourse and the conduct of business affairs. For though even within that range we are very often deceived, after our most careful examination of the motives for doing right that would likely influence the conduct of men, yet only comparatively small injuries can result from trust and confidence where so little is hazarded; while the advantages resulting from confidence, generous friendship, fellowship, and successful commerce are very decided. And all these benefits grow out of our prevalent custom of inferring what a man's future actions will be from the data furnished by his nature, habits, surroundings, and temptations, and of then governing ourselves in accordance with that inference.

And this is proof that it was the design of God we should apply this rule, of conjecturing what the future choices of our fellowmen will be, only in matters of comparatively small import. Therefore, when serious damages may come to ourselves, or to those dependent upon us, from inferring from premises so variant and so little known the future choices of free men, this rule should never, but from necessity, be implicitly depended upon. The rule for success in business is a careful and comprehensive survey in general and in particular of the probabilities involved in each case.

It is quite safe, as a general rule, to predict that any sinner, who has repeatedly and for a long period broken solemn vows of amendment, will never, in future, do any thing better than to break his vows. And yet we do not know that he will not. For if we did we should cease our efforts for his salvation. Neither God, angels, nor men cease effort to rescue the lost, while there remains one presumption of success to thousands of presumptions of utter failure. The probability that men are more likely than not to determine and to act in accordance with their natures and surroundings is reason sufficient for the most strenuous presentation of motives and appeals. The facts of celestial history above cited show the impossibility of the most richly endowed of created intelligences foreseeing with certainty the acts of free agents which involve moral character and are performed during the period of their probation. And as finite intelligences are created in the image and likeness of the infinite intelligence, and as the future acts of a free will can never be certainly foreknown by finite minds, is it not reasonable to infer that such knowledge lies outside the categories of all certain knowledge?

God could, we can see, estimate approximately what are likely to be the choices of free agents in the early future. And this estimate of probabilities may be so nearly indubitable in many cases, as to resemble prescience itself. It might, perhaps, be termed a modified foreknowledgea foreknowledge, however, that could be relied upon only to a very limited extent by the divine administration in the kingdom of free grace or freedom; a foreknowledge, too, that is widely different from absolute certainty. This estimate of probabilities on the part of God, though clothed with the highest degree of probability, would still be liable to modifications. And so far is the doctrine of probabilities this side certainty that an authority no less than Professor Goldwin Smith denies to free actions the susceptibility of any calculation of probabilities at all. He denies this upon the ground that no certain antecedent to the will can ever be determined upon. "The science of history," he theref ore boldly declares, "is laid in the mere quicksands of free will."

But however true it may be that the will may or may not determine in view of any recognized or conceived motives, and however much its choices might disappoint the most sagacious calculations of probabilities, based on the ordinary influence of such motives, still there does remain the important doctrine of probability, which, as we have before indicated, proves oftener trustworthy than deceptive, and, as we have learned from observation, is indispensable to the regulation and harmonious working of human society. The number of chances, the number of presumptions in favor of any future event is therefore ground of probability, but not of certainty of its coming to pass. I can judge with great probability how a man will act in any case; still it would be folly to deny that he may resist all the motives I may conceive as acting upon him, and disappoint all my expectations and defeat all the plans I had made dependent on his decisions.

As future free choices are self-originated, Goldwin Smith no doubt perceived that the foreknowledge of them involved self-contradiction. But he failed to see that the basis of the law of probabilities, as to future free choices, was not to be sought for in the causative action of the will, but in the habits, temperament, dispositions, and temptations of the free agent. These circumstances do not act supernaturally upon the will to constrain it, but they act naturally along the lines of cause and effect. Their influence may therefore be so approximately calculated as to enable one who knows them to form a judgment as to the result; but this judgment or opinion never rises to absolute certainty while the freedom of the choosing agent remains.

Some writers have represented the human will under the figure of a balance, the scales of which rise or fall as different sized weights are thrown upon them. They therefore locate the incipiency of human actions in the objective, in the appeals to the reason and the sensibilities; that is, in the action of the law of cause and effect. "God foresaw," says Charnock, "that Adam would fall freely; for be saw the whole circle of means and causes whereby such and such actions should be produced. He saw all the causes leading to such events in their order, and how the will would comply. He knew just as well as an artificer knows the motions of his watch, and, how far the spring will let down the cord in an hour." But those who hold firmly to the freedom of the will do not regard those reasons and motives which are presented to man as occasions of his actions or of his refusal to act, as regulating or operating the will as a machine is regulated or worked, but as considerations, in view of which the mind itself considers, decides, determines, and acts, and all of which it may stubbornly resist. But whenever they defend absolute divine foreknowledge, they generally slide from the side of freedom to that of fatalism. For example, Mr. Watson teaches that "the divine prescience can dart through all the workings of the human mind, all its comparisons of things in the judgment, all the influences of the motives on the affections, and the hesitancies and haltings of the will to its final choice." But it is only when writers of the latter class deny foreknowledge that they can be severely logical. The first fatal assumption that underlies this statement of Mr. Watson is that there is no difference in the nature of the action of a mechanical force, or if a constrained force, and the action of a self-moving, self-originating free will. But the action of the law of cause and effect is inexorably shut up to the producing of a single result; and the action of a will under the constraint of a superior power can produce nothing but the identical result purposed by the constrainer. Whereas, the free will can of itself choose to produce either one of two distinct results, or one of many results, or no result at all. The distinction between the action of a will and the action of cause and effect is profound, fundamental, and evident. The second undue assumption in Watson's statement is that, in the determination of the free will, influences ab extra seize hold of the will, and drag it on as a captive after them; whereas it is the will itself, from the citadel of its power, that sends forth. from within its sovereign resolves and mandates. He overlooks the grand fact that an action that can originate moral character, rewardability, and punishability, must necessarily be a process essentially and fundamentally different from the action of a mechanical force, or the law of over-powering constraint. While, therefore, there is, as is learned from observation, some considerable basis for the doctrine of the calculation of probabilities as to the future choices of a free being, so utterly inexplicable is the action of a free will acting under the law of liberty, so utterly unlike is it to any other process revealed by consciousness, that there is no ground or basis whatever for absolute certainty, even in the mind of the Infinite.

The next reason, and about the only one, urged by Mr. Watson in favor of foreknowledge, is that contingent actions for which men have been held accountable have been foretold. But this objection is easily overcome by the ease and frequency with which God puts human wills under the law of cause and effect, in order to accomplish his many purposes, whether those purposes have in view the correction of his erring but struggling people, the punishment of incorrigible sinners, or the warning and instruction of witnessing nations.

An application of some one of the various principles, advocated and involved in the theory here suggested, furnishes an easy explanation of what is said in the Bible in reference to Joseph, Josiah, Jotham, Micaiah; also of all the predictions against the house of Eli, concerning the family troubles of King David, and the destruction of Jerusalem by the king of Babylon, and by the Romans.

"The Bible contains," says Mr. Watson, "the rise and fall of several kingdoms." Daniel prophesies of the rise, progress, various fortunes, and final fall of the kingdoms of antiquity. "These," he says, "were carried through the various stages of advance and decline by the virtues and vices of men." Now all this could have been conceived, planned, determined, and finally carried out, without foreknowing a single future choice of a free spirit, while acting under the law of liberty. For example, God determined in his providence that he would disregard, in the case of Esau and Jacob, the prevalent custom of requiring the younger to serve the elder, or of making the younger less prominent and authoritative than the elder. This purpose of making the elder serve the younger he would have carried out according to his forefixed plan, even if Rebekah had been impartial and equally loving to both of her sons. But as a matter of fact he did bring about his determined plan through the selfish and unjustifiable conduct of a designing and an unscrupulous woman. He did this either through or in spite of the reprehensible conduct of the mother. And his procedure in one instance may be his procedure in millions of instances. This simple explanation throws light upon a numerous class of events recorded in Scripture history.

Could any one command adequate resources he could lay all his plans even to the minutia for building a thousand miles of railway within the next decade of years through different sections of our country. He would be able to know that he could bring the wills of laborers under the powerful law of cause and effect, sufficiently to accomplish all his enterprises without foreknowing any of those choices which would involve moral character or entail endless destiny. And should any of his workmen act wickedly he would be able, with his vast resources, so to overrule their crimes as to further his interests in a marked manner, and to work out his settled purposes.

It is the mark of genius and true greatness so to overrule adverse circumstances as to cause them to contribute to the accomplishment of specific designs. To do this was the great ambition of Napoleon 1. This will illustrate how easy it is for the omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent One to accomplish all his providential Plans without foreknowing the future choices of free spirits, while acting under the law of liberty. The midnight revel of the Babylonian monarch (to which Mr. Watson refers) may have been actually foreknown, because from various causes and national crimes, that monarch's will may have been so placed under the law of cause and effect, that he was led "captive by the devil at his will." For this discipline and judgment so deeply affecting the monarch, those dependent upon him, the city itself, and the world, God may have had reasons, many of which it would not have been possible for us to divine. Mr. Watson claims that "the conduct of the Jews in provoking the war that resulted in the predicted destruction of Jerusalem was contingent in its nature." But he has no right to assume this, as the Jews may have sinned away their day of grace in rejecting the Son of God, and been given up "to work out their own damnation with greediness," as a part of their merited punishment for their heaven-daring crimesthus furnishing an impressive spectacle for the warning of observing nations. And the Roman Senate, generals, and soldiers may all have been chosen providential instruments signally to punish a nation for its marked displays of wickedness. Such a procedure would only be a counterpart of those doings by which God has unquestionably, very often punished wicked nations and communities, and taught important lessons to a heedless and sin-loving world.

Mr. Watson says, that the fifty-third chapter of Isaiah predicts that the Messiah should be taken away by a violent death, inflicted by wicked men, in defiance of all the principles of justice. But there is no satisfactory evidence of the truth of this statement. The chapter is susceptible of an interpretation that will exclude the necessity for any violent participation by wicked men in the great work of human redemption. We read in this chapter that the Lord hath put him to grief; it pleased the Lord to bruise him; the Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all; he was stricken for the transgressions of the people; he was bruised for our iniquities; he is brought as a lamb to the slaughter, as a lamb to the sacrifice; when God shall make his soul an offering for sin, he shall see of the travail of his soul and be satisfied. Now, for the accomplishment of all that is contemplated here, surely the conspiracies and treacheries of wicked men are by no means indispensable. And then there is something so incongruous between a crucifixion on a heathen cross and the solemn offering up by the Father upon some consecrated altar of the lamb slain from the foundation of the world. But even admitting that God foresaw that Christ should die a violent death, by the hands of wicked men, even that would be conceivable without necessitating the admission of absolute prescience. God's knowledge of the repugnancy of the human heart to moral truth especially such truths as his son would astonish and humble the world withwas so perfect, that he could accurately prophesy that men would be enraged at his son and put him to death. Every spiritual truth warring with man's depravity, and every truly spiritual man, meets with hellish hostility on earth. Unreasoning men are wedded to the customary and the established, and hate those who disturb them in their quietudes.

In the realms of theology there would be multiplied discoveries of precious truth, truth needed for the development of the ages, if students of the Bible did not shrink from persecution and martyrdom for the utterance of newly discovered principles and for the showing of newly unearthed diamonds of truth. It is and ever will be true that the children of the bondwoman, will persecute him that is born after the spirit. God, therefore, could safely prophesy that men would be enraged and filled with murder, under the teachings of the immaculate morality of his son. The Jews were wedded to their institutions, their ceremonial observances, their form of government, the offices and perquisites of which afforded positions of influence and ease to large classes of men-elders, scribes, priests, and others. These institutions were all divinely appointed, and the Jews believed that their forms of worship should remain unmodified; and if to these considerations we add the record of their past history to which Christ alludes, when he says (Luke xi, 50, 51), that "the blood of all the prophets, which was shed from the foundation of the world, may be required of this generation; from the blood of Abel unto the blood of Zacharias, which perished between the altar and the temple," it would be morally certaineven to a finite intelligence acquainted with the facts, and knowing that the mission of the Son of God was to preach new doctrines subversive of old forms, to denounce corruption, to make war on established customs and beliefs, and to put an end to the Jewish nation foreverthat the fury of the Jews would be roused against him, and that they would lay violent hands upon him and put him to death.

It might, therefore, be certain to the infinite mind that Christ would die a violent death at the hands of wicked men, without involving such absolute prescience on his part as is commonly included in the doctrine of divine foreknowledge. All this would be possible without foreknowing or foreappointing any of the specific agents in the tragedy. This leaves the particular agents of such crucifixion all free and untrammeled by the foreknowledge of their free choices and actions in the drama of all dramas. It was, therefore, neither foreordained nor foreknown that Judas would betray his master, nor that Christ knew at the time he selected him that he would betray him, and that he deliberately picked him out for that especial purpose and service. And, we believe, no theory of the atonement can be tenable that involves the doctrine that it was foreknown that Judas would betray Christ.

But all that is claimed in this discussion is the absence of absolute certainty in the mind of God, as to what will be the future choicesthose choices upon which eternal salvation or ruin dependsof free beings, beings acting under the law of freedom. Admit that proposition, and unnumbered intellectual reliefs rush at once to our rescue. But convince us of absolute divine foreknowledge, and you at once envelop us with that darkness which has beclouded and overwhelmed all students of these mysteries since time commenced. It is difficult, we know, because of long-continued instruction, to surrender a belief in absolute divine foreknowledge. But how much greater is the difficulty of embracing the numerous contradictions and absurdities, which the admission of absolute prescience confessedly necessitates. Reason, experience, and revelation, all unite in powerfully convincing us that the consequence of persistent, incorrigible sinfulness is endless separation from God, in a state of conscious existence. And surely it is far preferable to believe that the future choices of free beings are unknowable things, and that their foreknowledge involves a contradiction in thought, rather than to believe that God made an individual spirit who, at the time of his creation, he foreknew would be sinful, degraded, and, by consequence, inconceivably miserable forever.

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