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Divine Nescience of Future Contingencies a Necessity

By L. D. McCabe, D.D., LL.D.

Chapter XVI.

Concluding Observations.

WITH candor, but in vain, I have written to distinguished men for their objections to the views I advocate; I can learn from no one a solitary objection that possesses the least weight. Indeed, the very few objections to my theory which have reached me from various classes and ranks, clerical and learned, are so forceless, that my great respect for their authors compels me to suppress their names. The many-sided, penetrating Whedon writes me: "I have never made any objections to your view. I do not think it involves any grave heresy in those who think they can best explain the theodicy without absolute prescience. The notice of your book, ‘The Foreknowledge of God,’ by G. H., in the Quarterly Review, I yielded to admit very reluctantly, because I could not indorse it. I am, indeed, amazed at the intensity with which some persons oppose the view you entertain."

Bishop R. S. Foster writes: "Your book on ‘The Foreknowledge of God,’ though bravely taking issue with the view commonly held by theologians, and common Christians as well, I consider a most important and valuable contribution to the literature of theological speculation. It is able in the best sense of the word. It treats a most obscure doctrine with manly strength, candor and judicial calmness. Its temper is Christian throughout. It has the rare merit of presenting an old subject in a substantially new light. Its reasoning is clear and strong. The cause of truth needs the view it so ably presents. All thinkers owe you a debt of admiration and of gratitude for the manner in which you have done your work. I do not believe that the subject has ever been so thoroughly put or can be improved. And you have not transcended the limits of legitimate criticism and prudent dissent."

Bishop E. O. Haven wrote: "I confess when I inquire what I mean by freedom and foreknowledge, I find it impossible to conceive that the actual knowledge of which of two or more possible choices a free agent will make, does rally belong to omniscience. I am glad that you and I can meditate on these themes without weakening our faith or diminishing our zeal. We have a right to think and to express our thoughts. Thus only can man do the work God requires of him. I thank you for your book. It is a credit to yourself, to the Church, and to the country. I hope the Lord will enable you to do much more work of a similar kind before you are called to the higher world."

John W. Andrews, Esq., of Columbus, Ohio, a gentleman who exerts as much influence in the General Conventions of the Protestant Episcopal Church as any layman in the nation, writes: "I agree with you fully in you proposition that what a free agent may choose to do cannot be a matter of prescience. We are forced to this conclusion by a logical necessity, which must be our guide aside from divine revelation."

Charlton T. Lewis writes: "Your book is the only one that fairly presents the problem it attempts. It is worthy of far closer and more earnest attention than it has yet received. It attacks and destroys the most prominent absurdity of the current hypothesis, and it prepares the way for a return to scriptural views of theology. The inattention of Methodist writers to your work indicates that they are far from awake to the real tendencies of contemporary thought toward scientific Atheism."

Some of the admirers of Dr. Dorner would still fain claim him as among the prescientists. True, there may be in the great and good man’s mind some little hesitation, but certainly not vacillation sufficient to destroy my belief in his latent conviction of the necessity of divine nescience of future contingencies. I find in his discussions no pronunciamiento in favor of prescience or "against my view." But in his final summing up he does say: "Since God eternally knows all that is possible, future free acts are not to be excluded in every case from the divine prescience. At any rate God comprehends them as what is possible, since only the possible can become real. He knows in all circumstances his own acts proportionally to the act of the creature, however it may fall out. But whether there is in God a prescience of what free acts will really come to pass or only a privity to those acts when realized, at any rate God does not become conscious of their actual being before they become present." Such statements may express a mind not wholly decided: but if it be true that he really believes in absolute prescience he must reject the manifest implications involved in his propositions, and repudiate the results of his own assumptions upon this subject. He may have been enthralled in his consideration of this question somewhat by his difficulty in explaining prophecy in the absence of prescience. This difficulty relative to prophecy I have satisfactorily explained in my work on the "Divine Foreknowledge." A serious mistake, too, of Rothe and Martensen perhaps confounded Dr. Dorner still more. Those great writers deny the prescience of contingencies, and yet affirm that "God’s plan will, nevertheless, reach its full realization." But really it may be questioned whether God’s perfect ideal was ever completely realized in any one of his free creatures. For human beings God has world-plans and plans for eternity, clear, definite and unspeakably interesting. The realization of any of his eternal plans for free beings can only depend upon their own freedom. If they fail to do their duty the divine plans relative to them must necessarily fail. God’s glorious plans for Satan and his angels were definite as the Gospel, but, mournful to relate, they never were realized. In like manner all God’s plans which depend upon the free choices of free beings may be utterly defeated. Relative to persistently disobedient agents God’s purposes never can be realized. Can the workings out of a divinely conceived plan be certain when the beings whom it embraces are all contingent in their choices? Dr. Dorner says: "In a definitive formation of a world-plan comprehensive of concrete personalities, God does condition himself by a regard to the use of creaturely freedom. God’s plan, so far as it relates to free action, does not originate exclusively in himself. In order to the formation of the concrete world-plan, such as it will actually become, such as it will be actually realized, the foreseen use of freedom in the concrete must be taken into the account as woof adopted into God’s conceptions."

He therefore pronounces "the question as to the prescience of future contingencies to be the most difficult of all dogmatic problems." He states, with great force, the many difficulties in the way of believing in absolute prescience; but how God’s plan could reach a perfect realization while he conditions himself by concrete creature personalities seemed to Dr. Dorner utterly inexplicable. But though omniscience cannot foresee whether John will obey or disobey, as that would involve contradiction, he does possess resources (and here-in is his amazing greatness) perfectly sufficient to counteract all the evil influences of John’s disobedience, and then to accomplish by other means and agencies all that he designed for john to accomplish in his moral universe. But his plan for John individually would be a complete failure should he disobey. And what is said of John may be affirmed of the human race individually considered. In such a procedure God might be able ultimately to fully realize his general world-plan in all its particulars. By this means the danger that this general plan might fail of realization, which danger freedom engenders and necessitates, might be wholly obviated. This aspect of the subject, I think, should have been presented by Rothe or Martensen. Had it been, it would have removed a great obstacle interfering with Dorner’s visions of the truth.

Dr. Dorner most satisfactorily exposes the fallacies in the argument of Schleiermacher in favor of the divine foreknowledge of future contingencies. But in his reply to Rothe and Martensen, who deny that God can know beforehand that free acts will become actual until they become so, he is mystified by sophisms far more reprehensible. The position of Rothe and Martensen is that the will to create free agents logically and necessarily includes the divine will to limit God’s knowledge and action from a love of freedom. "But this self-limitation of God," says Dr. Dorner, "is untenable. It is untenable because it implies that God’s self-limiting will would oppose this tendency. But that would lead to a dualism in God, and would be an admission of a diminution in God for the sake of the creation and preservation of the world." This statement is utterly inconsistent with innumerable declarations and teachings of Dr. Dorner. The affirmation that the position of Rothe and Martensen involves such implications needs only to be stated to necessitate its denial. How Dr. Dorner could make it, is utterly inexplicable. The affirmation amazes me more than any statements with which I have met in all literature. Every reader will unite with me in its prompt and fearless denial. And this is the only refutation he can give to the invulnerable proposition of Rothe and Martensen.

But Dr. Dorner presents that which he desiderates in order to the establishment of the doctrine of divine nescience of free acts. He says: "In order to establish the denial of prescience it would be necessary to show that divine knowledge does not claim to extend beforehand to free agents, possibly just as we might show that the divine thought does not claim to think illogically, or that the divine will is able logically to will the impossible. But this is not shown by Rothe or Martensen. It is also not proved that it would be unworthy of God to know beforehand the results of freedom." He desires the disbeliever in absolute prescience to show "that divine knowledge does not claim to extend beforehand to free agents." But where could such a claim" be found? There is no such claim to be found in divine revelation. There is not there a solitary line that even hints at a knowledge of future free choices of free beings acting under the power of contrary choice, or acting as free agents responsible for their actions. On the other hand, divine revelation every-where, in every utterance, assumes that God does not infallibly foreknow what will be the choices of free agents. And for this claim there certainly is no foundation in the universal religious consciousness. Its unfairness, unreasonableness, deleteriousness and utter inconceivability, painfully impress the meditations of the whole race. Dr. Dorner wishes the denier of prescience to show that "the divine foreknowledge does not claim to extend beforehand to free agents, just as we might show that the divine thought does not claim to think illogically." But I inquire, is it not illogical to think that a free cause can have a real effect before it has an actual existence? If a free act be foreknown it has a real effect before it has an actual existence. Is it not illogical to think that a pure future contingency can be a present infallible certainty? Is it not illogical to think that a proposition must be true which has never been revealed, which is destitute of proof, which is in itself entirely inscrutable to the human mind, which is prolific of absurdities, and which is without any considerations requiring its admission? "Freedom," says Dr. Dorner, "is the possibility of arbitrariness." Is it not illogical to claim infallible prevision and prognosis of a mere uncalculatable chance arbitrariness?

"Prescience," says Dr. Dorner, "makes God’s relation to the world a lifeless relation." But is it not illogical to think that he "in whom we live, move and have our being, and from whom cometh every good and perfect gift," sustains to this mundane system a relation that is devoid of life? Dr. Dorner asks that it be shown "that divine knowledge does not claim to extend beforehand to free agents, just as might be shown that the divine will does not claim to will the impossible." There is a genuine distinction between willing and knowing; one is an act and free, the other is a state and caused. But God cannot open and shut a door at the same instant, nor can he make wrong right, for these involve self-contradictions, and are, therefore, impossible. But for God to know an absolute non-entity involves a contradiction equally manifest, and is, therefore, equally impossible.

But the doctor wishes some one to show him "that it would be unworthy of God to know beforehand the results of freedom." He who has perused the previous pages has seen that such knowledge would be infinitely unworthy of a God of infinite benevolence. Such foreknowledge would cover him with disgrace, misrepresent his immaculate moral character, extract all meaning from his holy word, render impossible a respectable theology, and make his divine administration an irritating farce. Is it not unworthy of God to rob an accountable being of all the inspirations to meet his obligations which the actual uncertainty of his future is certain powerfully to arouse within him? Is it not wholly unworthy of God to hate and loathe a poor probationer for eternity before he ever thought of offending his divine majesty? But, reader, do not these hunted, unobvious, but weightless objections of Dr. Dorner, demonstrate the absolute necessity of divine nescience of future contingencies?

But the painful incertitude of the great and good man is distressingly manifest in his final conclusions upon the subject. (See vol. i, page 336.) He says: "Since God knows all that is possible, future free acts are not to be excluded in every case from divine prescience. At any rate, God comprehends them as possible. Whether there is supposed in God a prescience of what free acts will really come to pass, or whether there is supposed in God only a privity to free acts when they are actually realized, God is not conscious of their actual being before they become present." Necessity is in intellect.

In philosophy and theology the human mind instinctively seeks after the principle of unity in variety. And Protestantism is seeking earnestly, at this time, some principle in which all the great doctrines of our holy religion can find substantial unity. Alexander Balman Bruce, a broad-hearted Calvinian, in his "Chief End of Revelation," lays great stress on those aspects of divine truth concerning which doctrinal controversy among true believers is ended forever. He says: "I look forward hopefully to the certain coming of an era of grace in which such unity around the essential doctrines of our religion shall be much more manifest, and in which our revelation of grace shall wend its way amid the acclaim of all true believers, to universal triumph. In all probability the Church has many long ages before it, and one may, doubtless, dream of the glory that is to accrue to God therein as those ages roll on, and muse on the conditions under which that glory is to be advanced. Among these, in the judgment of many earnest men, reconstruction of the Church on a new and wide basis must take place. The Church is now weak, and among the causes of her weakness are doubt, division and dogmatism. To renew her youth, and make a fresh start in a career of victory, she needs certainly concord and a simplified creed." The "Presbyterian Review" for January, 1882, says: "The scheme of thought which most fully harmonizes the doctrines of grace in a coherent, logical scheme, possesses a priori claims to be considered in greatest accordance with divine revelation." The doctrine of the divinity of our Lord has been urged as the central article of Christianity. Some would fain put forth the judicial element as the rallying center. Dr. Thornwell suggests that "the doctrine of justification by faith may be the much-desired principle of unification." Dr. Vanzandt strongly objects to this, on the ground that the covenant of works and the covenant of grace "are antithetical, and in many important particulars are dissimilar." He insists that "the everlasting covenant determining all the events of time by the eternal and sovereign decree, is the central principle that implies all the truths of religion, of law or of grace." And yet, in deep sorrow, he complains that this very doctrine "has been allowed to fall into general neglect by its believers, and also that it has been treated with unutterable scorn by large numbers of those high in stations and great in attainments." He who supposes that the Christian Church of the future will unite in the supralapsarian decrees, certainly has not thought sufficiently on the progress of psychology and the brilliant revelations of ever-improving exegesis.

It must be admitted, without controversy, that the corner-stone of theology and of hermeneutics has never yet been found. Every fundamental assumption for these sciences which has been presented to thinkers has necessitated for them innumerable unthinkables in the process of their sub-doctrinal corner-stone for Christianity must exist somewhere, by which the whole building can be fitly framed and held together. The great thought which is here so confidently advocated, that of divine nescience of future contingencies, I am persuaded will ultimately be found to be the principle of unity which stands visibly, forcibly and lovingly related to all other truths of divine revelation. The incognoscibility of future contingencies is the central principle which illumes all Scripture with the morning stars of consistency, reasonableness and inspiration. It illumes, becalms and unifies all theological truths. It expels from theology all irritating dogmas and absurdities. It gives to the student of divine mysteries the animation of a seraph. It disenchants Christianity of not one of its resplendent glories. Theological propositions which are made in its ineffable light, beyond their mere statements, require little or no subsequent argumentation. They all fall upon the ear as the voice of God. They win unhesitating assent from all. Every inquirer is sent on his way higher up the mountain of divine thoughts, with a cheerful spirit and an elastic step, and finds the clouds ever parting for his enchanted feet. And when the theology and Scripture exegesis of Christendom have reached a fundamental unity, what mind less than the infinite can embrace its boundless benefits and blessings! The evils that have so long and so disgracefully de-energized our glorious Christianity and bewildered the devout with dismay, will then be arrested as with the grip and arm of a giant. Sectarianism, suspicion, detraction, depreciation, uncharity, interference with each other’s God-appointed mission and work, the diabolical miasma of caste in religion, the narrowness of socialism, the diversion and paralysis of Christian forces in moral reformations and in revival campaigns; all conspire to weaken the might, and delay the triumph of a holy evangelism, and to hinder the grand aims and realizations of the Gospel of the grace of God. By the operation of these baleful agencies immortal souls, to all human appearance, in uncounted millions, are endlessly ruined, and the glad day is deferred when "the knowledge of the Lord shall cover the earth, as the waters cover the mighty deep." Nescience cures all.

But what do I see when all Christendom agrees upon a corner-stone for the doctrines of Christianity which will necessitate no self-contradictions in our thinking, and no paralyses in our strivings to obey? I see a union of Christian effort in all the great world-reformations germane to the Church universal. I see a hearty co-operation of all Christians in the work of sound secular education, a work in every way inconceivable in its importance to the progress of humanity. I hear the voice of Christendom commanding the commerce of all marts, the amusements and literature of all educational centers. I hear it outlawing all customs corrupting to youth; branding with barbarism the nefarious traffic in intoxicants and narcotics; pronouncing the thunders of Mount Sinai in legislative halls, and along every judicial bench, around every electing precinct, and through every executive mansion; threatening all unfaithfulness to virtue, to truth, to principle and to unsullied patriotism with blasts more withering than those which swept from the earth the gathered host of Sennacherib. I see harmony reigning throughout all the branches of the true Church of Christ; each provoking all others to good works; all concentrating efforts in unselfish zeal wherever God is pouring out his Holy Spirit of awakening; uniting in sparse settlements and small villages those of different religious predilections into a single strong Church with a commanding minister at its head; co-operating in missionary operations in heathen climes, impressing profoundly the heathen world that Christianity has but one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one soul and one devout object – the present and eternal salvation of the human family. I see the watchmen seeing eye to eye. I see "the departure of the envy of Ephraim," "the cutting off of the adversaries of Judah." I see "the stick of Joseph and the stick of Judah becoming one in the hands of our God." I see "the children of Judah and the children of Israel gathering together and appointing unto themselves a single head." I see "Judah no longer vexing Ephraim, and Ephraim no longer envying Judah." I see Jesus "setting up an ensign for the nations, assembling the outcasts of Israel, gathering the dispersed of Judah from the four corners of the earth, drawing the Gentiles to his standards, and to the brightness of his rising." I see him taking "the heathen for his inheritance and the uttermost parts of the earth for his possession." And with profoundest awe I behold him satisfied in seeing the travail of his soul, the promises being fulfilled, that "his rest shall be glorious." And I hear the angels, as the voice of many waters, singing, "Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia, the Lord God omnipotent reigneth."

Bishop A. Lee, diocesan Bishop of the State of Delaware, draws the following beautiful picture of the future Church of Jesus Christ:

"A bright vision has oft risen before my mind of a Church pure and primitive, combining the early organization, zeal and love, with the freshness, energy and progressiveness of the times; gathering from past ages experience, wisdom and liturgic treasures, while discarding utterly all corrupt additions and cleaning the temple from all profane intrusions; conservative without being narrow and bigoted; liberal without being lax; a true interpreter of holy writ, and yet referring all men, not to her own interpretation, but to the living oracles; rebuking with power worldliness and wickedness; sympathizing with all that is good and heaven-born; a rallying-point for all who are weary of sectarian strife; a candlestick of the Lord, whose radiance should illumine our cities and forests, our mountains and plains. Is such an ideal never to be realized? Is it but a dream and cloud picture?

Brothers, let us forget non-essentials, and pray devoutly for the realization of the Bishop’s evangelical vision of the future city of God.

But as yet we know hardly the edges or the fringes of the blessed Bible. That book is a fathomless ocean of truth; and God, its infinite author, is a deep, infinitely more profound. Not-withstanding all that worthy scientists have done to increase invaluable knowledge, how little is yet known of the substances, qualities, forces, uses and histories of the multifarious objects of this insignificant globe! How interminable the discoveries in the realms of nature, awaiting the curious and the anxious eye of the naturalist! And yet vastly more discoveries remain to be made by devout students in the holy Scriptures, and also in the mind, the heart, the character, the plans, the procedures and the enterprises of the forever-incomprehensible Jehovah. As they contemplate the divine nature and are made partakers thereof, and watch the developments of the divine throne, they must inevitably comprehend more and more of the deeper and sublimer mysteries of Him "in whom we all live and move and have our being."

How can it be possible for a human soul to be wise, calm, firm, discriminating, progressive, and always rejoicing among the beatitudes of which it is so susceptible, in the absence of devout and familiar contemplations of the infinite mind? And if it be thus profoundly engrossed in such loving and reverential meditations, how can it avoid making constant discoveries in those infinite heights and depths of thought, knowledge and sensibility which are forever to unfold to adoring minds, as they reverently stand before the august throne of the Eternal, or devoutly journey on and on through floods of light and fields of bliss in the contemplation of themes of unutterable magnificence and wonder, exclaiming, "O, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and the knowledge of God!"