Author: Samuel Fancourt (1678–1768) was a Dissenting theologian in early eighteenth-century England. He is today well-known for two reasons: firstly, as a pioneer in creating the world’s first circulating library, a cause for which he practically bankrupted himself; and secondly, for being the earliest English theologian to write that some human actions are unknowable to an omniscient God.
What Will Be Must Be is one of a polemical series centering around the Arminian theology of Samuel Fancourt, lasting from 1725 to 1735. The letters and essays include responses to Fancourt and Fancourt’s rebuttals, mainly around the concept of “future contingencies,” and the concomitant concept of God’s foreknowledge (of them). I have called this series of writings “The Prescience Papers,” and the titles are worth skimming:
- The Greatness of the Divine Love Exemplified and Displayed (1725)
- The Greatness of the Divine Love Vindicated (1727)
- Appendix to the Greatness of Divine Love Vindicated (1729)
- The Divine Prescience of Free Contingent Events, Vindicated and Proved, Anonymous (1729)
- An Essay Concerning Liberty, Grace, and Prescience (1729)
- God’s Foreknowledge of Contingent Events Vindicated, John Norman (1729)
- A Letter in Vindication of God’s Prescience of Contingencies, Anthony Bliss (1730)
- Apology, or Letter to a Friend Setting Forth the Occasion, &c., of the Present Controversy, 2nd ed. (7/27/1730)
- What Will Be Must Be, or Future Contingencies No Contingencies (1730)
- All Future Free Actions : Future Contingencies, David Millar (1731)
- The Principles of the Reformed Churches, David Millar (1731)
- Greatness of the Divine Love Further Vindicated in Reply to Mr. Millar’s “Principles of the Reformed Churches” (1732)
- The Omniscience of God, Stated and Vindicated, David Millar (1732)
- Appendix to a Letter to the Rev. Mr. Norman (1732)
- Free Agency of Accountable Creatures (1733)
- The Certain Futurity of Future Actions No Contradiction; or, God’s Foreknowledge of All Events Not Inconsistent with Human Liberty (1733)
- The Prescience of God Well Agreeing with the Liberty of Created Agents, David Millar (1735)
Many other books on similar topics were circulating in Dissenting circles during the same time period, such as A Vindication of Human Liberty: In Two Parts, J. Greenup (1731).
In particular, What Will Be Must Be (1730) argues that there is no such thing as a “future” event (that is, an inevitably future event) that is also a “contingent” event. This was a key idea for his opponents, such as Bliss and Norman, who argued that future events were contingent for us but inevitable for God at one and the same time.
These old works are not so fascinating in themselves, or in their precise content, because it contains no argument that would be novel to anyone well read on open theism. But the very fact that this “open view” was defended in Dissenting English theology 300 years ago is mind-boggling to those who have heard repeatedly that the open view is an innovation of the 1980s.
The chief value of Fancourt’s writing is his return to the logical predecessor to open theism: the incompatibility of “absolute” foreknowledge with human freedom (or “the contingency of events”). Calvin also taught that contingency and foreknowledge were incompatible, but there it results in the denial of contingency and the affirmation of foreknowledge.
Fancourt’s relentlessly positive statement of God’s omniscience should be a lesson to modern open theists, who so clearly distance themselves from what they call “classical Theism.” Fancourt writes:
God’s foreknowledge is truly exhaustive: he knows past as past; present as present; certain future as certain future (because he has determined it in his providence); contingent future as contingent future (because he will allow men and angels to choose).
Again, in The Narrative (1747):
Why, it may be said—don’t you deny the prescience or foreknowledge of God? And this, however, is, we assure you, a prejudice to you here. I answer: if I deny God’s foreknowledge, it is more than I myself know. I never denied that God foreknows whatever will be.
Interestingly a chief axiom for Fancourt is that God did not plan the Fall of Man. Whatever glory he may get out of his atoning work, is not as great as his original plan, in which, Fancourt affirms, the Fall was neither foreplanned, nor a necessity.
Reading this book in a fascimile from the 1730 edition was a hassle because of the many strange printing conventions, and I recommend getting an updated edition.
It is also annoying that the entire correspondence is not available in any format, and I hope that someone makes them all available.
Note: This review was written on May 28, 2016 and published online in 2020.