Encyclopedia of Renaissance Philosophy

Living Edition
| Editors: Marco Sgarbi

Foreknowledge in Renaissance Philosophy: Divine

  • Antonio GeraceEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-02848-4_1007-1


This entry deals with the notion of God’s foreknowledge. First, Augustine’s position is delineated, after which follows that of Boethius, in order to introduce the theological and philosophical topics which characterized the later discussion on divine foreknowledge. Then, the focus will turn to Aquinas’ view. Augustine, Boethius, and Aquinas furnish the arguments necessary to comprehend the discussion of the early modern era, characterized by both the Catholic–Protestant debate and the inner-Catholic debate between Molinist and Augustinian-minded theologians. Therefore, attention will be paid to Calvin, while the last section will focus on Molina, who followed (and improved) Aquinas’ terminology in order to better rebut Reform-minded theologians, although his theses were harshly criticized by anti-Pelagian Catholics.


By means of his foreknowledge, God knows all future contingents. Such knowledge is fore, since God knows the future events before the creation of the world. The problem is therefore the relation between God’s foreknowledge and the possibility of human free will. In brief, if God knows all future events, and therefore each person’s acts, how could men be free? For instance, in his Predestination of the Saints, Augustine (Thagast, 354 – Hippo, 430) affirms simply that God foreknows what he will create, but he also foreknows those things that do not depend on his will, such as sins: he of course foreknows them, given his omniscience, but he could not predestine them otherwise this would have the absurd consequence that God is the cause of men’s sins. Augustine therefore affirms on the one hand that God’s foreknowledge is necessary, namely that what God foreknows will happen in any case, but such necessity in no way determines or influences men’s acts. More specifically, according to Augustine it is not technically correct to speak about “God’s foreknowledge,” as Augustine explains to Simplician, since the temporal difference between past, present, and future does not pertain to God. Everything is present to him in his timeless condition. Therefore, God has knowledge (scientia) of what is considered future by men Augustine 1970: II.2.

Severinus Boethius

In his Consolation of philosophy, Severinus Boethius (Rome c. 475 – Pavia, 525) also considered eternity to belong to God’s condition; therefore, he thought of God’s knowledge as able to grasp all events which occur in time in the never-failing instant which characterizes the a-temporal dimension of eternity (Craig 1988: 96). The problem was again the correlation between God’s knowledge and human free will, since God’s eternal view on his creation may be thought to determine men’s acts. Boethius’ solution was the distinction between two kinds of necessity: simple necessity, according to which necessity is due to the essential attributes of a being, as for instance, the necessity that men are mortal, since it is in man’s nature to be mortal. Opposed to this is conditional necessity, according to which something is necessary only when it happens, as for instance, the necessity that I write in the moment in which I’m effectively writing. Boethius applies this difference between simple and conditional necessity to God’s knowledge, in its timeless present: “His knowledge imposes no absolute necessity on the things He knows, but only a conditional necessity: if He knows them, then they must exist – but there is no necessity that He knows them. Therefore, events which for us lie in the future are known by God as present and as occurring contingently, insofar as they are product of our free decision” (Craig 1988: 98).

Thomas Aquinas

Thomas Aquinas (1225 Roccasecca – 1274 Fossanova) dealt with the problem of God’s knowledge by distinguishing between two sets: (1) The knowledge of vision, by means of which God knows those things that occurred, or occur or will occur, so that they not only were, are, or will be in potency but they have also been, are, or will be actualized. (2) The “knowledge of simple intelligence,” by means of which God knows those potencies that do not exists in any time (Aquinas 2000: d, 39, q. 1 art. 2). Of course, Aquinas also thought God’s eternity as a timeless dimension. Therefore God, by means of his knowledge of vision, knows the entire succession of events which occur in time. According to Aquinas, God’s knowledge is necessary and infallible, but it does not determine human acts, since the knowledge of vision which God has in his timeless eternity is not prior to the events that occur in time. Rather, God’s act of knowledge and the event in time happen simultaneously. In particular, in Summa contra Gentiles, he maintains that any part of time, past, present, and future, is in God’s intellect “somehow present.” In the De veritate, he clarifies that what men know as past, present, and future in time, God knows timelessly; what men consider as future, in God’s vision is present, since God is “extra” time. Furthermore, Aquinas thought a “knowledge of approval,” by means of which God chooses which potency will be actualized (Craig 1988: 124), between the knowledge of all possibilities by means of his simple intelligence and the knowledge of the actual things by means of knowledge of vision. That voluntary act of the knowledge of approval necessarily determines which potency will be actualized. However, the events are consequently and not (onto-)logically necessitated: the necessity of a particular event is not given by its essence, but by the cause–effect relation. In Aquinas’ view, this explanation is sufficient to save human free will.

John Calvin

Among Reform-minded theologians, John Calvin (1509 Noyon – 1564 Geneve) was perhaps the one who focused most upon the concept of foreknowledge. At least, he developed the concept of predestination, strictly related to foreknowledge. In particular, Calvin, in his Institutes of the Christian Religion, maintains that “when we attribute foreknowledge to God, we mean that all things have always been and eternally remain under his observation, so that nothing is either future or past to his knowledge: he sees and regards them in the truth, as though they were before his face. We say that this foreknowledge extends throughout the circuit of the world and over all his creatures. We call predestination the eternal decree of God by which he decided what he would do with each man. For he does not create them all in like condition, but ordains some to eternal life, the others to eternal damnation” (Calvin 1962: III.21.5). Concerning the terminology used, Calvin’s definition of foreknowledge does not diverge from that of Augustine. The Reformed theologian reflects Augustine’s theory, as presented in the Predestination of the saints, in which the Church father explicitly affirms that God foreknows his creation and predestined before creation those people who will receive grace by means of vocation, choosing them on the basis of his own purposes, not for their merits Augustine 1962: 570.

Luis de Molina

In the sixteenth century, the problem of God’s foreknowledge was further analyzed by the Spanish Jesuit Luis de Molina (Cuenca, 1535 – Madrid 1600), who developed a new model of God’s knowledge, close to that of John Scotus, although using a terminology similar to that of Thomas Aquinas’. Molina’s great innovation lies in his description of God’s pre-volitional “middle knowledge,” which replaces Aquinas volitional “knowledge of approval.” In his De liberi arbitrii cum gratiae donis, divina praescientia, praedestinatione et reprobatione Concordia (On the Concord of Free Will with Grace’s Gifts, Divine Foreknowledge, Predestination and Reprobation), the Spanish Jesuit affirmed that God, anterior to creation, has three different orders of knowledge, differentiated logically, rather than chronologically. Anterior to any voluntary act, God has “natural knowledge,” by means of which He knows any potency; “middle knowledge,” by means of which He knows only those potencies that would be actualized; and finally “free knowledge,” by means of which He knows those potencies that will be actualized after the intervention of his will. In this scheme, human free will is conserved thanks to “middle knowledge,” since by means of it God has certain foreknowledge of those events that would occur in the future, even though their existence is not necessary. Indeed, middle knowledge is pre-volitional, since it intervenes prior to any act of God’s will, in the sense that He knows a particular event even though He has not (yet) decided whether He will create it or not or, more accurately, whether He will actualize it (Molina 1988). Concerning human acts, God knows “what each created free agent would do in any situation in which that agent might be placed” (Gaskin 1993: 412–413). However, the agent maintains the logical possibility of acting differently from what God has foreknown, because God has not yet created that particular order of things. Molina could develop this threefold conception of God’s knowledge because he considered eternity, not in the way that Augustine and Boethius had, namely as a timeless presence, but Molina, conceived eternity not as containing the future if considered as the entire extension of the time. Any event exists only when it occurs in time; therefore, a contingent event retains the possibility of not being in the future although God could have foreseen it in his eternal dimension.



Primary Literature

  1. Aquinas, Thomas. 2000. Commento alle sentenze di Pietro Lombardo. Bologna: Edizioni Studio Domenicano.Google Scholar
  2. Augustine. 1962. De Praedestinatione Sanctorum. BA 24.Google Scholar
  3. Augustine. 1970. De diversis quaestionibus ad Simplicianum, ed. Mutzenbecher (CCSL 44). Turnhout: Brepols.Google Scholar
  4. Calvin, J. 1962. Institutes of the christian religion. Trans. H. Beveridge. London: James Clarke.Google Scholar
  5. Molina, L. de. 1988. On divine foreknowledge (part IV of the Concordia), ed. A. J. Freddoso. Ithaca: Cornell.Google Scholar

Secondary Literature

  1. Craig, W. 1988. Divine foreknowledge and future contingents from Aristotle to Suárez. Leiden: Brill.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Gaskin, R. 1993. Conditionals of Freedom and Middle Knowledge. The Philosophical Quarterly 43: 412–430.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Research Unit of History of Church and TheologyKU LeuvenLeuvenBelgium
  2. 2.Fondazione per le scienze religiose “Giovanni XXIII”BolognaItaly

Section editors and affiliations

  • Anna Laura Puliafito
    • 1
  1. 1.Universität BaselBaselSwitzerland