Norris Clarke’s Explanation of God’s Way of Knowing

Clarke was a Thomist. As such he was committed to the idea of God as pure actuality and timeless. Yet, as most Catholics do (which separates them from Calvinists) Clarke also believed in true libertarian freedom. But then how can God know free choices, since they would seem to “actualize” God’s own knowledge? (The absolute determinist option – that God knows by determining – is not open to Clarke.)

In previous posts I’ve laid out many of the problems in various models of a timeless God’s way of knowing free willed acts. They all break down insofar as God becomes an eternally passive receiver of information, to which he must “react.” But “reaction” (and reception) is something a timeless, changeless God cannot do. Thus, while certain models may explain how God eternally knows free acts (by eternally passively receiving knowledge of them), these models make God unable to actually respond to or act on what he knows. For that creates sequence in God’s acts, which consequently makes him temporal.

Now, Norris Clarke had an interesting take on this problem. He supposed that God knows free choices, not by unilaterally determining them, nor by passively receiving knowledge of them, but by synergistically and actively doing them with the creature itself. As he says, “God knows not by being acted upon, but through his own action in us.” (A Philosophical Approach to God.)

Now this approach deserves some attention. Can it solve the problems that the traditional divine reception model creates (where God is passively receiving knowledge, e.g. on a watchtower)? For one, if Clarke is correct here, it would follow that God’s creative act – his granting of free will – would be radically different from what is normally supposed in the classic literature. God’s bringing into being free beings would be the same thing as, or logically connected to, the opening up of himself to various determinate actions in and through these beings themselves. Thus God’s act of creating would simultaneously also be a divine self-limitation or vulnerability, insofar as God really allows his creative powers to flow through channels which may or may not be pleasing to him. This would not make God “dependent on” creatures to actualize his own nature against his will on creatures. But it would entail that God has so chosen in accordance with his will to be able to be actualized in his nature by free creatures. (There is a world of difference here.) If this makes God’s will dependent on creatures for the fulfillment of a desire it is only because he has so freely chosen to allow his desire to be dependent on something outside himself. And so again we come to a divine emptying, a divine humility, inherent in the very act of creating and relating to the world.

But perhaps this isn’t so radical a view after all. For have not theists for thousands of years believed at least in some rudimentary form that God in granting free will has also limited his own omnipotence and power in the world?

What is perhaps more interesting – at least to me – is whether or not Clarke’s view can save us from the Causal Loop objection. (You can see that objection fully laid out here: In short, the objection shows that if God receives a particular free willed act at time 1 into his knowledge by passively receiving it, then he cannot use that knowledge to interact with the creation, for that would imply a) God being temporal; and b) a causal loop, since each moment of time would already be present to a timeless God.

But if Clarke is right, then God is not passively receiving moments of time or free willed act, either one by one, or in a single divine moment of reception. Rather, God is in a single timeless act atively acting in and through free beings. This may be unimaginable – i.e. it may posit a mode of causation that we cannot form adequate mental pictures of – but does it involve a contradiction? It’s hard to see that it does. For, from God’s point of view, his one act of creation is single. Ergo, each separate thing in creation is, from this creative perspective, inseparably connected. We can get a grasp of this even a little bit by thinking about how each bit of matter must, if we could but follow out the connection of all physical objects, be affected by every other bit of matter. The idea that one star on this side of the universe is impacted by one star on another side is really only a magnified example of the fact that my skin is somewhat impacted by the space heater that is humming a few feet away from me. For each occasion in the universe has a definite affect on something else, and that, on something else, and so on, throughout the entire cosmos. In fact the word “universe” itself attests to this: for it is that thing which contains everything else and thus unites all separate and finite realities into a single causally connected plane.

Now, could something like this be the case with God and his knowledge of free events? If God is actively working at every moment of time, then every moment of time is connected in a particular way to every other. There would of course be a “forward” connection, as time moves from left to right. But there would also be a “backward” one, insofar as the providential God brings meaning to future events based on past actions.

Does this notion of God, timelessly “acting through” every free act throughout all time, avoid the Causal Loop objection? To say yes, one would have to show that no “single” free act in time is the “result” of God’s doing such and such at another point in time. For once you have the temporal stuff determining God you make God temporal.

But my head hurts too much right now to try to parse this out if God is in fact by his own free choice timelessly working in and through all active free causes in time. Maybe better minds can come along behind me and do that.


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