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What is Next to election?

The Bible indicates that God has the kind of supreme authority to will and to act according to his good purposes, even to the extent that everything is under his ultimate control. It also indicates that human beings have the freedom to do what they please, and will be held morally responsible for their actions. These two doctrines; divine sovereignty and human freedom seem to be at odds with each other. The following is an explanation of a theory that I find plausibly true that shows how they can be put in the same box together without squeezing the other out of shape. The theory is called Molinism or the doctrine of Middle-knowledge.

Nicholas Cage and Jessica Biel in the movie “Next” The only way to get the girl he wants is to voluntarily undergo suffering – remind you of anyone?

Next is a film directed by Lee Tamahori and based very loosely on the novel “The Golden Man” by Philip K. Dick. It features a lead protagonist Chris Johnson, played by Nicholas Cage, who has precognition of future events. His unusual clairvoyance ability is the centrepiece that provides the narrative with the majority of its action and drama. But his gift is limited in two respects; he only sees events that pertain to his own life (meaning he has to be involved somehow, even if just observing the events on a television) and his pre-cognition only extends up to two minutes. There is one exception. He has dreamed of a beautiful woman, played by Jessica Biel, who walks into a specific diner and a specific time of the day, though he doesn’t know what day. Everyday he goes there with the hope it will be day will be the day he finally get the opportunity to meet her. That is all the set-up you need before watching the following scene.

You will have observed that whenever Johnson sees a future event, by virtue of his looking at it, he is able to, in conjunction with a decision of his free will, either avoid the event by playing out an alternative or accept the consequences of his inaction. This is more than simple foreknowledge. It is knowledge of future tensed counterfactual proposition in the subjunctive mood. A counterfactual is an “if…, then…“statement where the if part of the statement is contrary to the fact. For instance, imagine the people chasing Chris arrive at the diner after they have left and find out that Liz, who had come in her car, left with someone with her. They don’t know who it was, as his face was not caught on the security camera. They would deduce, if Chris did not leave with Liz, then someone else did. This proposition is self-evidently true. But by adding the subjunctive mood, we have something else entirely. If Chris had not left with Liz, then someone else would have. This is not obvious at all.

Chris’s limited, but infallible foreknowledge of counterfactuals in the subjunctive mood provides forewarning. He is thus able to beat the house at blackjack, precisely time his get away through the casino and then manoeuvre at high-speed through heavy traffic. He later avoids being shot by an assassin’s precision rifle, while making his get-away through the various falling objects of an avalanche he arranged. A fascinating scene is when he has to make his way through an industrial warehouse filled with snipers. At each moment he knows, if I were to go forward, I would be shot, and if I were to go back, I would survive ’til the next corner. The multiple decisions he makes are pictured like duplicates splitting off down each path and running through the building to meet or escape their deadly fate.

How does this relate to the doctrine of election?

The doctrine of election is where we ask who is ultimately responsible for salvation. Which logically comes first, God’s action or man’s reaction? Whose choice was it really? When I surveyed the biblical date for this question, the answer that emerged was both, but in a way that neither divine sovereignty or human freedom and responsibility was compromised.

To continue weaving the analogy, Liz Cooper, played by Jessica Biel, will be in the role of the elect, she who will be saved.

She is, from beginning to end the object of Chris’s desire. It begins for them both with her entrance into the diner, an appearance long anticipated by Chris Johnson. She finds a seat and waits for a menu acutely aware of his attention. We are then privy to a few of the approaches that Johnson tries to introduce himself with, all of which are rebuffed. He ends rejected; alone at the bar but for his martini. Circumstances change however, when a former boyfriend of hers walks in and unsuccessfully tries to win back her affection. His presence is met with hostility, and his insistence provides Chris Johnson with an opportunity to intervene and acquire his desired introduction. The clever attempt to play the hero he foresees is ultimately unsuccessful, and with the benefits given by his extraordinary foreknowledge, understands that the only possible way to achieve the positive result he seeks is to allow the ex-boyfriend to punch him in the mouth. He then chooses to allow the blow to produce the desired effect – his hard-won, sought-after introduction. He tells her he believes her luck will change. By manipulating the circumstances he eventually leaves with her on a road trip, which she later find out was also one of his intentions.

The points of correspondence to Christian theology should be evident, but these can be explored by others. The profitable parallel our discussion here however is what this scene can contribute to our understanding of the relationship between God’s sovereignty and human freedom.

Later, in the “revealing scene,” when Chris Johnson reveals to her his ability to foresee future events, her immediate response is a mixture of revulsion and horror as she mistakenly deduces that he has been manipulating her: somehow depriving her of free will. In a sense Liz saw in Johnson the God of Calvin. Calvin, inline with Augustine, believed that God’s foreknowledge was immutable and therefore causally determinative. God’s decree to elect some to salvation and others to damnation was logically prior to the decree to create and permit the fall, thus the efficient cause of the election of individuals to salvation was arbitrary and unilaterally an act of the divine will.

In reality, the ‘diner scene’ is more consistent with the freedom permitting theology of Arminianism. She later comes to see that her freedom was in no way curtailed by Chris’s sovereign choice to first meet her and later drive away with her. The whole way through, she made her own decisions in response to the circumstances that surrounded her. Those choices were genuinely hers and hers alone. She was free in the libertarian sense. Her interior decision-making process was free from outside manipulation, for the chain of causes that led to her choice terminated inside her and had nothing to do with Johnson and his manipulation of the outward circumstances.

Likewise, Johnson did not have to be at the diner, intervene, or actualise those circumstances he preferred in which Liz would choose, just as God did not have to create, intervene and actualise the circumstances where we would choose. But divine freedom is not the only point of contact. Just as Chris can choose to actualise (within his own limits) the circumstances in which Liz Cooper freely acts, so too can Chirst choose whether or not to actualise the sets of circumstances in which each creature freely acts.

The scene shows how a concursus of the two understandings is possible: where people remain genuinely free actors, and God remains sovereign and all his purposes are accomplished. God’s knowledge of future contingent events is not limited like Chris’s knowledge, but extends from the beginning to eternity, and comprehends all possible states of affairs. This helps us comprehend divine providence in the calling of the elect.

Just as Johnson is able to, within his limits, choose how any situation develops prior to its inception and work out how his involvement will accomplish his ends, God is also able to create the world with the optimal balance of his intervention and hiddenness that allows the maximal amount of people to freely choose him. By knowing logically prior to the creative decree what any person would freely do given certain circumstances, he chooses to create those circumstances in which all he can persuade people to follow him. In that way, God chooses the world in which we are saved, and we choose if we are saved in the world God chose.


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