Chapter XIX:FOREKNOWLEDGE ANNIHILATES THE DISTINCTION BETWEEN CERTAINTY AND CONTINGENCY
The Foreknowledge of God - L. D. McCabe
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THE adjective contingent means possible, but not certain, to occur; dependent on that which is unknown or undetermined; or dependent on something that may or may not occur. The substantive contingent denotes that which is unforeseen, or undetermined; an event that is possible, but not certain, to occur. Contingency is the possibility of coming to pass; an event that may occur, a possibility, a casualty; or the quality of being casual, of happening without being foreseen or determined. Now, no one of these definitions includes or implies a contemplated event, as being either free or necessitated in its nature; but all of them refer to the contingent quality of that event, as happening without being foreknown. The one simple idea expressed by these terms is that of a future uncertainty. What justification, therefore, can writers present for the contempt they express for those who conceive and assume that contingency involves and necessitates uncertainty? "Those who question foreknowledge identify," says one, "conceptions that are not identical, and conceive of contingency as the same as uncertainty."
Richard Watson says, "If contingency meant uncertainty, then the dispute would be at an end." This illustrates how the advocates of foreknowledge are compelled to unsettle the accepted significations of the terms involved in this controversy. A certain event will inevitably come to pass, a necessary event must come to pass, but a contingent event may or may not come to pass.
Contingency is an equal possibility of being and of not being.
To blind fate the heathen would ascribe all necessary events. Christian philosophy rejecting unconditional fatality, ascribes necessary events to an intelligent Creator. And here we must bear in mind that there are many necessary laws which are independent of the will of Godsuch, for example, as that only three dimensions are possible in space. Though these necessary laws can effect nothing of themselves, they can not be annihilated, nor can any thing be created contrary to them. These necessary laws aid as well as limit God in his works. They come in as necessary conditions when an intelligent being attempts to produce any thing. But the existence of matter and its laws depend entirely on the will of the Creator. So then he is the author of all events that are necessarythat is, all events that are preceded by necessary or coercive antecedents.
If an event be a necessary one, it is certain in itself, and certain in the mind of God. If foreknowledge foresees an event as certain, then that event is not contingent, but certain in itself, and certain also in the mind of God. If foreknowledge foresees that a certain human being is to be among the lost, that fact is as certain in itself, and as certain in the mind of God, as that the earth is now moving in its orbit.
God is no more certain of that person's existence than he is of his endless destiny if foreknowledge be true. And then, in the mind of God, every thing is as certain as if every thing were necessary and nothing contingent.
If there can be no such thing as subjective contingency there can be no such thing as objective contingency. For every reality must correspond with God's foreknowledge of it. A man's acts must be as God foreknows them, or he could not thus foreknow them. "To be or not to be," then, can not be predicated of any future event if foreknowledge be true. All is bound up in the indissoluble bonds of certainty. A thing dependent on the decisions of the human will is just as much a certainty as a thing dependent on the decisions of the divine will, if foreknowledge be absolute. And the moment there is no contingency in the mind of God in reference to any event, that moment there can be no contingency in the coming to pass of that event. That which may be or may not be, is the sole idea of contingency. But if an event is now certain in the mind of God, it is not possible that it shall not occur. If in his mind it is certain, it will inevitably come to pass.
But if you reply, that "the act of a human free agent was contingent in its nature and might have been otherwise," our answer is, "Yes; and all God's acts also might have been otherwise." The act of God in making the planet Mercury was contingent in its nature. Ages before he created that planet, whether or not he would hang a little orb between the sun and Venus was a contingency. No necessity whatever controlled him in its creation. Its future existence, up to the moment of its creation, was a contingency. Up to that moment it might be or it might not be. But as soon as the planet was made its existence was a certainty, and not a moment longer was it a contingency. As to this particular the only difference between man's act and the act of God is, that man is the author of one and God is the author of the other. Either act in its nature is contingent. So soon as God created the planet he began to predicate of it certain properties and possibilities, and to put it under the control of his necessary laws and all its future movements and perturbations became absolute certainties. And if foreknowledge be true, all your future choices, acts, moral character, and eternal destiny are now certainties, just as absolute as are all the movements of the planet Venus.
President Edwards affirms that a foreknown event must necessarily come to pass. He uses the assertion as an argument for his doctrine of necessity or of constraint. In this argument he does not, however, refer to the nature of the foreknown eventthat is, to whether it be free or necessitated. Had he assumed that the said event was a necessitated event, or that in the foreknowledge of it there was any causal necessity to produce it, he would have been guilty of the fallacy of begging the question. He affirms that between a future event and the present foreknowledge of it there exists a logical necessity, and then he uses this assertion to sustain his general doctrine of necessity.
Dr. Whedon, in his work on the Will (Part II, chapter iii), seems to have a mistaken view of President Edwards on this point, for he endeavors to escape the difficulty in which Edwards entangles him by affirming that there is no necessary connection between the future act and its present foreknowledge, because, forsooth, the free agent might have chosen differently. But this "might have chosen differently" is not the point at issue. The question is, the act, the actual choice being that which it is, can that choice be different from the present foreknowledge of it? Any one of a dozen choices might have been put forth by the free agent, but if from all eternity the tenth choice was the foreknown choice, is there not a logical necessity that the tenth choice should come to passthat one and no other of the twelve? Edwards does not affirm that there is a necessary, connection between present foreknowledge and some other future choice, but that there exists a necessary connection between present foreknowledge and that identical volition which it is now foreseen will come to pass. The whole of Dr. Whedon's argument, therefore, in this third chapter, seems to be irrelevant. Indeed, he concedes all that Edwards claims in this argument, for he says that "it is requisite that the future act agree with the resent foreknowledge of it." But the word requisite means "required by the nature of things or by circumstances; so needful that it can not be dispensed with necessary." There is, therefore, a logical necessity that a foreknown event, however free it may be in its nature, should come to pass. Where, then, is the distinction between certainty and contingency? There is none, there can be none, if the theory of universal, foreknowledge be true. In that case, though any future act be free in its nature, yet as to the fact of the coming to pass of that act there can be no uncertainty in the divine mind, and none in fact. We must, then, banish all contingencies from theological discussions, for it would not be possible for God to predicate of any future event that it may or may not come to pass.
Richard Watson pronounces with much confidence that the argument that "certain prescience destroys contingencies" is a mere sophism, and that "the conclusion is connected with the premise by a confused use of terms." "The great fallacy in this argument lies," he says, "in supposing that contingency and certainty are the opposites of each other. If the term contingent 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. The question is not about the certainty of moral actionsthat is, whether they will or will not happenbut about the nature of them, whether they be free or constrained. The opponents of foreknowledge care not about the certainty of actions, whether they will take place or not, but they object to certain prescience of moral actions, because they think such prescience renders these actions necessary.
And this is the best reply that one of the ablest of our theologians can give in answer to the argument that certain prescience destroys contingency. He charges "confusion in the use of terms"; but in his refutation, he himself is full of the same kind of confusion. His argument is not only a sophism, but it is one of the least reputable. It is a plain case of irrelevant conclusion. For, when we affirm that certain prescience destroys contingency, we are not then looking at the nature of the future act, whether it be a free or whether it be a necessitated act. A certain event is an event that shall come to pass. That event may be in its nature either free or necessary. It may be the act of the Creator or the act of some one of his creatures. In this place, and in proving the proposition that prescience annihilates the distinction between certainty and contingency, we refer not to the nature of the future act nor inquire by whom it shall be performed, whether God, angel, man, or demon. We are simply looking at it as a certainty. If foreknowledge be true, every future event is now certain in the divine mind, and if certain in the divine mind it must be certain in itself For perfect knowledge of a thing must correspond to the nature of that thing; and the thing must correspond to the perfect knowledge of it. If I have a perfect knowledge of a reality, there must be a perfect correspondence between the reality and my knowledge of it.
A contingent event is defined by all authorities to be one that may or may not come to pass. Now, if God foreknows that such an event will be, how can that event ever be different from his present knowledge of it? Even granting for the present, that the foreknowledge of it does not in the least influence the nature, or the being of the thing itself, the reality of the fact must correspond to the present perfect knowledge of it. And in this perfect correspondence between the reality and the knowledge of it there can be now no possible contingencyno "may or may not be." The future act is now a certainty, though the certainty of the act should in no way flow or follow from its foreknowledge. The question is not (as Mr. Watson affirms) as to the nature of the act, whether it be a free or necessitated act: but the question is, "Can a reality be different from a perfect knowledge of that reality?" A contingency is a thing that may or may not be. But can there be any may or may not be "between a perfect knowledge of a thing and that thing itself. God can not know any thing contrary to the fact; and a fact, when once a matter of certain knowledge, is unchangeable by any power, human or divine. If the treachery of Judas was foreknown it was certain; and if it was certain it could at no period be uncertain as to its coming to pass. Thus we see that one of the ablest of thinkers can not rescue contingency from destruction, if certain prescience be maintained. And here we must be careful to distinguish between contingency as to the nature of an event and contingency as to its coming to pass. An event that is necessary in its nature may be contingent as to its happening. If I take forty grains of morphine, my death will ensue necessarily.
But there is a contingency as to the happening of my death as the result of taking morphine, because there is a contingency as to my taking the morphine; that is, my taking the morphine is an event that may or may not be. But as soon as my death, as the necessary result of my taking the morphine, is foreknown by omniscience, there is no longer any contingency as to the happening of the latter event, nor as to my death coming to pass. An event, therefore, that is necessary in its nature may be contingent as to its happening. Moreover, an event that is contingent in its nature is contingent also as to its happening. A choice of my will is an event that is either free or necessary in its nature. We readily admit that the event is free in its nature; but the question is as to the happening of the event. We have no question as to the contingent nature of the event should it ever occur.
If God foresees that a will forge a check tomorrow, while there will be a freedom in the nature of the act when it occurs, there is now no-contingency as to its happening. If that choice of A be now foreknown, there is no contingency in the mind of God as to its happening. Its happening is a certainty to him. Even if the oft-repeated affirmation that foreknowledge can have no influence over the exercise of our freedom were true, it has not the slightest pertinence as to the question now before us. Even supposing that that knowledge has no influence over, nor any connection with, the freedom of the creature, with the free nature of his actions, it has all influence over, and a perfect connection with, the contingency of the happening of those actions, if they are foreknown. If God foreknows our choices, there is now no contingency as to their happening. The event will be free in its nature, but there can be now no contingency as to its coming to pass.
But if God deal with us on the principle of contingency, then our future choices ought to be free in their nature and contingent as to their happening. If our choices ought to be contingent to us, they ought to be contingent with God. If they are contingent to one of the parties of this most solemn compact, on which the destinies of eternity are suspended, then they ought to be contingent as to the other. It is not consistent to affirm that God singles man out of all the works of his creation, and deals with him, not on the low principle of necessity, but on the high principle of contingency, that all his choices, whenever they are made, shall be contingent in their nature, and yet in the same breath to say that God foresees with absolute certainty what those choices will be, and that there can be no contingency in his mind as to their happening or coming to pass, though endless misery and degradation result therefrom. To affirm that our repentance and prayer and faith and character can not modify our future would seem to make God inconsistent and indefensible in his dealings with us. It exposes him to the profane charge of trifling with immortal souls. Such a course could not fail to obstruct, to render less efficient, all our moral efforts to assert our self-hood, and to determine for ourselves what our endless destiny shall be.
But here we most gratefully quote from Isaiah, "Therefore will the Lord wait, that he may be gracious unto you." This text inspires me with confidence that my eternal destiny is now pendent upon the strength of my will and the endurance of my faith. The full and required idea of contingency is that the future choices of free beings shall be contingent or free in their nature, and contingent also as to their happening. For, evidently, fair and candid dealing demands that, if God proposes to deal with us on the principle of contingency, our future choices ought to be as truly contingent in his mind as they are contingent in ours. If in their nature they are contingent to us, they ought to be with him contingent as to their happening or coming to pass. Contingency ought to have a Godward side as well as a manward side. Such twofold view of contingency is indispensable to the perfection of God's government over free agents.
When, therefore, God proclaims that his administration is based on the great principle of contingency, we have no right so to define and limit contingency as to take from it one of its essential elements, leaving it incomplete, and thereby bringing confusion into all theology, doubt and inefficiency into practical Christianity, inconsistency into the divine dealings, and unfairness into God's administration over accountable creatures.
Now, for God to know a future thing to be contingent and certain at the same time involves the same absurdity as for him to know a thing to be both black and white at the same moment. This is one of the many cases in which the advocates of universal prescience have unduly assumed what seemed to be to them necessary, and have thereby plunged themselves into many contradictions and pernicious errors. It would be absurd to say, as all will agree, that God can make a triangle with two lines, or vertical angles to be unequal, or a free being who could not sin, or that he could save a sinner from his sins who is not willing thus to be saved. But is it not equally absurd to say that an event which now stands absolutely fixed in God's foreknowledge, fixed as to time and place, may not come to pass? If God is determined that a future event shall be a certain event, there can be no contingency about it. And if he has determined that a future event may or may not be, then there can be no certainty about it. If there could be any certainty about an event that may or may not be, then God could make something to be and not to be at the same time. Then he could at once make an event contingent and not contingent, which is contradictory. It is manifestly an absurdity to say that God can foreknow with certainty that which may or may not be, that which is now avoidable, and which may never occur. How God can foreknow an event that is free and contingent, all the great thinkers agree in pronouncing a profound mystery. But if the doctrine in question involved only mystery, the writer would accept it. Mysteries are the silent prophecies of the soul's everlasting enlargement in comprehension, worthiness, and happiness. But while he has the largest faith and most open heart for the deepest mysteries, he can not rest satisfied with manifest contradictions. [Dr. Mahan gives, in substance, the following definitions and illustrations of the terms absurdity and mystery: An absurdity is the quality of being inconsistent with obvious truth and reason. It is that which is contrary to the dictates of common sense. An absurd proposition is one which contradicts primary truths or necessary intuitions. It is one that is intuitively or demonstrably false, such as that an event is both certain and avoidable. If one comprehends a given subject and predicate, in all their elements and relations, and his intelligence perceives that they can not agree, then the affirmation that they do agree must be pronounced an absurdity. A mystery is something that lies beyond human comprehension until it is explained. It is a fact that has unquestionably been revealed, while the reasons for it are all withheld. If one knows some of the elements and relations of a given subject and predicate, and of others he is entirely uninformed, and if, in view of the elements and relations which he does perceive, this subject and predicate are pronounced to disagree, and in view of the elements which he does not know, they are pronounced to agree, or vice versa, then the grounds of this agreement or disagreement would be a mystery. ]
Faith can easily embrace mysteries, but the intellect is impatient and resentful over absurdities. Mystery is often full of comfort, support, and rest; but an absurdity tortures the mind, overwhelms the reason, and oppresses the heart. If the reader will discriminate the distinction between mystery and absurdity, he will gladly unite with Cicero in declaring that God himself can not foreknow absolutely those things which are to happen alone through chance and fortune."
"It is said," Mr. Watson also tells us, "that if the result of an absolute contingency be certainly foreknown, then it can have no other result it can not happen otherwise." "This," he adds, "is not the true inference. The true inference would be, It will not happen otherwise. The objection, observe, is, that it is not possible that the action should otherwise happen." His sole reply to the objection is, that it might have happened in many different ways, or not happened at all. But the question is not whether it might have happened otherwise, but the question is, Can it fail to happen as it is now foreknown? It is true that it might have happened otherwise, for the cause that produced it was ade- quate to the production of something else or of no production. But it is not true that the said action can, in the nature of things, fail to happen, as it has been from all eternity foreknown. If the foreknowledge can not be uncertain, then the said action can not be uncertain. If the foreknowledge is fixed the action is fixed and inevitable.
Boswell said to Dr. Johnson, "It is certain that you are either to go home tonight or not; but that does not prevent your freedom, because the liberty of choice between the two is compatible with that certainty. But if one of these events be certain now, if it be certain that you are to go home tonight, then you must go home." "There is no possible way of showing," says Dr. M'Cosh, "how a man's deeds can be certain beforehand, while yet he may do as he pleases." How completely universal prescience annihilates the boasted distinction between certainty and contingency needs no further proof nor iteration. It involves, so far as appears to human reason, the divine administration in unfairness. It eliminates the great principle of contingency out of the moral government of God, and leaves us forever incapable of constructing a consistent theology. God's moral government is possible only on the ground of moral contingency. And while the accountability of moral created beings is the great fact in that government, no such accountability is possible without contingency.
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