Tag Archives: The Prescience Papers

Review: Some Reflections on Prescience

Rating: ★★

Full title: Some Reflections on Prescience: in which the Nature of the Divinity is Enquired Into

Author: John Jackson (1686-1763) was an English clergyman, as well as a prolific writer with an independent way of thinking. Many of his works were first published anonymously or under pen names. In joining in controversial topics, he followed the lead of the philosopher and clergyman Samuel Clarke (1675-1729). Both men were sometimes regarded as heterodox for their writings about the Trinity.

Overview:

Some Reflections on Prescience (1731) defends the view, previously expressed by Samuel Fancourt, that some future events are truly contingent, and therefore unknowable, even to God. Whereas the other contemporaneous works on this topic—by Samuel Fancourt, John Norman, and David Millar—usually appeal to Scriptural revelation as an authority, Jackson appeals only to reason.

Jackson begins:

By Prescience is generally understood God’s foreknowing not only every action of ever Man, but likewise every, the most minute thing, that happens in the Universe. Now this Definition of God’s Prescience seems to me to be absurd, and no-wise capable of Demonstration, as I shall endeavour to shew in the following Sheets. . . .

Unless every action that passes in the Universe be foreknowable in its own nature from all Eternity, It is not necessary that God shoudl foreknow it; that is, in other Words, that God may be infinitely perfect without foreknowing it. . . . Now the particular Actions, that pass in the Universe are not foreknowable from all Eternity in their own natures, because the Actors of them, and things acted upon, are not eternal themselves. (p. 1-3)

If I recall correctly, Samuel Clarke shared this view with John Jackson. There were, then, a decent minority of writers and thinkers who spoke of unbounded omniscience as incompatible with human liberty. Ironically, these writers would agree on this point with Calvinists who deny human liberty to maintain God’s essential omniscience.

Jackson’s argument may be summarized as follows:

  1. God’s omniscience requires that he know all that is true and foreknowable.
  2. Free moral agents are not eternal.
  3. Since free moral agents are not eternal, their decisions are likewise undetermined in their causes, while they are yet non-existent.
  4. Therefore, even an omniscient God does not know all of the future decisions of free moral agents.

The argument is fine, so far as it goes; but it is probably meaningless to those scholars who presuppose that there is a state “outside time” or an “eternal now” from which God may see all events past and future as one.

Surprisingly, Jackson spends almost the entire book debunking the possibility that a human soul is eternal. (“Eternal” as used here extends to both past and future, whereas “everlasting” extends only into the future.) It is certainly an interesting choice from today’s perspective—I do not often hear anyone contend that human souls existed before their first breath (Gen. 2:7). Souls have a beginning point; if time is linear and basic to reality, no one can foreknow what a free soul will decide.

The logic he uses seems sound enough. But beyond the introduction, the book is very abstract, and belabors a point that is hardly ever discussed today—the alleged “eternalness” of the human soul. This book won’t be very interesting to anyone except those few souls who are keenly interested in the debates around open theism.

Review: What Will Be Must Be

Rating: ★★★★

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.

Overview:

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:

  1. The Greatness of the Divine Love Vindicated (1727) [concerning his The Greatness of the Divine Love, A Sermon (1725), no longer extant]
  2. Appendix to the Greatness of Divine Love Vindicated (1729)
  3. The Divine Prescience of Free Contingent Events, Vindicated and Proved, Anonymous (1729)
  4. An Essay Concerning Liberty, Grace, and Prescience (1729)
  5. God’s Foreknowledge of Contingent Events Vindicated, John Norman (1729)
  6. Apology, or Letter to a Friend Setting Forth the Occasion, &c., of the Present Controversy, 2nd ed. (1730)
  7. A Letter in Vindication of God’s Prescience of Contingencies, Anthony Bliss (1730)
  8. What Will Be Must Be, or Future Contingencies No Contingencies (1730)
  9. All Future Free Actions : Future Contingencies, David Millar (1731)
  10. The Principles of the Reformed Churches, David Millar (1731)
  11. Greatness of the Divine Love Further Vindicated in Reply to Mr. Millar’s “Principles of the Reformed Churches” (1732)
  12. The Omniscience of God, Stated and Vindicated, David Millar (1732)
  13. Appendix to a Letter to the Rev. Mr. Norman (1732)
  14. Free Agency of Accountable Creatures (1733)

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.

Meat:

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.

Bones:

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.