A Research Guide by Alan Rhoda, Ph.D.

Theological controversies over fatalism have generally centered on two traditional doctrines of Judeo-Christian and Islamic monotheism: (1) divine foreknowledge, i.e., that the future is exhaustively and infallibly settled in God's mind, and (2) specific providence, i.e., that everything that happens in creation has been specifically decreed or ordained by God. Both doctrines raise fatalistic worries: How can God infallibly foreknow that there will, say, be a sea battle tomorrow unless it's occurrence is now unpreventable? If it could still be prevented, then it seems that God's foreknowledge could turn out to have been mistaken, which by hypothesis is impossible. Likewise, if God ordains that a sea battle occur tomorrow, then it seems that it cannot fail to occur, and so cannot be a future contingent.

Despite the seemingly fatalistic implications of these doctrines, many monotheists remain deeply committed to future contingency in general and to creaturely freedom in particular. And so, from the early Middle Ages on, nearly every theologian of note grapples extensively with these issues. The dominant view has been to argue for theological compatibilism, the view that divine foreknowledge and/or specific divine providence are compatible with future contingency and creaturely freedom. The minority view has been to argue for theological incompatibilism, and then to either deny future contingency in favor of theological determinism, or to affirm future contingency and instead deny specific divine providence and exhaustive divine foreknowledge.

As there is a huge literature on these topics, I have had to be very selective. The sources I have chosen are organized into three categories:

  1. General overviews – Works that survey theological arguments for fatalism
  2. Pre-20th century sources – Primary and secondary sources prior to the 20th century
  3. Contemporary sources – Recent developments from the 20th century to the present

The first category is self-explanatory. For the second, I have decided to focus on four of the most influential contributors on these topics from the early-to-late Middle Ages (Augustine, Boethius, Ockham, and Molina), an important medieval Jewish thinker (Gersonides) who offers an significantly contrasting perspective, and a highly influential early modern proponent of theological determinism (Edwards). The third category contains what I believe to be a fairly representative sample of the best contemporary work in this area.

I. General Overviews (to top)

This section contains sources that aim primarily to survey the topic of theological fatalism. There are good places to start for those new to this area of research.

Gives a clear presentation of the foreknowledge problem and surveys all of the major responses. Hasker argues that no version of theological compatibilism is successful is circumventing the problem.

Surveys discussions of the foreknowledge problem from Aristotle to the 16th century. Whereas most surveys focus solely on thinkers in the Christian tradition, this article surveys Jewish and Islamic contributions as well.

Contains a clear presentation of the foreknowledge problem and discusses all the major attempts to respond to it. Zagzebski is more optimistic than Hasker (2001) that some type of compatibilist response can succeed.

II. Pre-20th Century Sources (to top)

Nearly every medieval thinker had something to say about the compatibility of divine foreknowledge and/or divine providence with creaturely future contingency. (After all, nearly all of them were theologians, giving them a large vested interest in the problem.) I have chosen to focus on five medieval thinkers: Augustine (354–430), Boethius (c. 475–524), Gersonides (1288–1344), William of Ockham (c. 1288–c. 1348), and Luis de Molina (1535–1600); and on one early modern thinker: Jonathan Edwards (1703–1758). All were influential, and each made distinctive contributions to the debate.

  1. Primary Sources (to top)

All of the primary sources listed here, with the exception of Edwards (1957), are translations. I have provided the best translations I could find.

Augustine's On the free choice of the will (In Latin, De libero arbitrii) is a classic on this topic. The key passage is Book III, 2–4. He there argues that foreknowledge no more implies fatalism that present knowledge does. This edition helpfully includes relevant excerpts from several of Augustine's writings, including The confessions. It includes name, subject, and loci indices and a guide for further reading.

Boethius' The consolation of philosophy is another classic. It was very influential on later Western thinkers. In Book V he attempts to solve the foreknowledge problem by arguing that God does not have foreknowledge but rather timeless knowledge of future contingents. The Loeb Classical Library volume has the Latin text and English translation on facing pages.

Jonathan Edwards was one of the ablest and most influential defenders of theological determinism, a position that rejects future contingency. Edwards argues that human freedom and moral responsibility are compatible with a thoroughgoing determinism. This edition is volume 1 of the standard collection of his works.

Like Edwards, Gersonides maintains that divine foreknowledge is incompatible with future contingency, but he draws an opposite conclusion. In Book III of The wars of the Lord he argues that because there are future contingents God does not have infallible foreknowledge, that is, the future is not exhaustively and infallibly settled in God's mind. This is volume 2 of a three volume set. It includes an analytical index that gives a summary outline of all six books of The wars of the Lord.

Luis de Molina was a highly influential 15th century Jesuit scholar. With his original conception of "middle knowledge" (scientia media) he develops in this text an ingenious scheme for reconciling both infallible foreknowledge and specific divine providence with creaturely future contingency. (Whether the scheme actually works or not is a further and hotly contested question.) Freddoso's translation is very clear and his 80-page introduction is highly illuminating.

A translation of Ockham's key texts on the foreknowledge problem by one of the world's leading Ockham scholars (Adams) and one of the ablest translators of medieval philosophical texts (Kretzmann). Ockham's main contribution was to posit a distinction between 'hard facts' and 'soft facts'. He rejected the Boethian solution and argued instead that God's foreknowledge of future contingents consisted of soft facts, which are not unpreventable.

  1. Secondary Sources (to top)

Most of these secondary sources comment on one or more of the primary sources above. Some of them (esp., Craig, 1988; Marmura, 1985; Normore, 1982; and Rogers, 2008) introduce other important thinkers as well.

Contains a detailed analysis of Aristotle's discussion of fatalism and thorough analyses of the contributions of Augustine, Boethius, Aquinas, Duns Scotus, Ockham, Molina, and Suarez.

The most highly regarded exposition and defense Molina's theory of "middle knowledge."

Discusses the contributions of two important medieval Islamic thinkers, Alfarabi and Avicenna, with respect to the foreknowledge problem.

Brief but clear discussions of a host of mid- and late medieval thinks on the foreknowledge problem. Covers Anselm, Abelard, Peter Lombard, Robert Grosseteste, Aquinas, Duns Scotus, Peter Aureoli, William Ockham, Robert Holkot, Thomas Bradwardine, and Peter of Ailly.

A thorough treatment of Anselm's contributions to the foreknowledge problem. After Augustine and Aquinas, Anselm is one of the most important medieval thinkers.

The work of Levi ben Gershom (aka Gersonides) is not very well known outside of Jewish circles. Rudavsky summarizes Gersonides life and thought and later reactions to his work. Includes an extensive bibliography.

III. Contemporary Sources (to top)

This section focuses on contributions from the 20th-century and later which are not primarily commentaries on previous work, but which instead have made significant original contributions to our understanding of the foreknowledge and/or specific providence problems.

Aims to be a comprehensive analysis and refutation of all forms of logical and theological fatalism. Defends the Molinist position.

A collection of papers (with a very good introduction by Fischer) discussing Ockhamist responses to the foreknowledge problem. Includes many seminal papers, including Pike (1965).

The most sophisticated modern defense of the incompatibilist position. Hasker insightfully critiques the proposals of Augustine, Boethius, Ockham, and Molina.

A dense, but brilliant essay that applies the machinery of tense logic to the foreknowledge problem. Usefully distinguishes between "Ockhamist" (compatibilist) and "Peircean" (incompatibilist) responses to the problem.

A hugely influential article that has become the quintessential statement of the foreknowledge problem. A must read for anyone seriously interested in this topic. Fairly accessible.

The manifesto for a modern movement that has come to be known as "open theism." Like Gersonides, open theists affirm future contingency but argue that specific providence and divine foreknowledge (i.e., the future's being exhaustively and infallibly settled in God's mind) are incompatible with future contingency. This book develops and defends the open theist model of God. Very accessible.

Contains a rigorous analysis of the foreknowledge problem along with critical discussions of proposed solutions by Boethius, Ockham, and Molina. Zagzebski offers some original compatibilist solutions of her own. (to top)