Was Calcidius an Open Theist?

By | August 23, 2022

For Christian open theists it is an inconvenient fact of history that the view seems to have been a small minority report until fairly recently. This fact is the basis for one of the most commonly leveled objections against open theism, namely, that it is “too novel”. If open theism is true and supported by Scripture, then why haven’t there been more Christian open theists down through history? Isn’t the sheer rarity of it (until recently) an indicator of its probable falsity?

In response, some open theists have sought to show that there in fact were early Christian open theists. The name most often floated as a promising candidate is Calcidius, a 4th century translator of Plato’s Timaeus from Greek into Latin and possibly a close associate of a prominent bishop at the First Council of Nicea (325 AD). If this is correct, then open theists may be able to point to at least one Christian scholar who remained in good standing with the early Church despite affirming what is today known as open theism.

But is the attribution of open theism to Calcidius correct? The evidence for this comes from Calcidius’ Tractatus de fato (Treatise on fate). In 1970 J. den Boeft published an English translation and commentary on this work titled “Calcidius on Fate: His Doctrine and Sources”. This is the text I have consulted for this blog post. I will cite it as COF + page number (e.g., COF pp).

What it takes to be an open theist

Before I look at the relevant sections of Calcidius’ treatise on fate, let me state clearly what it takes to qualify as an open theist. As I see it, there are three criterion:

  1. One must be a theist, i.e., a monotheist.
  2. One must believe that some creatures at least sometimes act indeterministically. Typically this goes along with a libertarian or anti-deterministic view of creaturely free will.
  3. One must believe that the future is, in at least some respects, open-ended from God’s perspective. Typically, the open theist will say that the future is open-ended in respects that depend on creaturely free will, indeterministically construed.

In my assessment of whether Calcidius was an open theist I’m going to take for granted that he was a Christian monotheist—no one seems to dispute this—and focus on (B) and (C). If we can find a plausible basis in his treatise for ascribing (B) and (C) to Calcidius, then we can reasonably surmise that he may have been an open theist.

Support for thinking that Calcidius would have endorsed (B)

In section 151 (COF 28), Calcidius appears to advocate for a libertarian conception of human freedom:

[P]unishments or rewards originate according to the preceding merit. Now the preceding merit which can take one of two directions is caused by a motion of our mind and a judgment and an agreement and desire or avoidance, things put within our power, because these things as well as their contraries are for us to choose. So in this ordinance of things and according to a most ancient law some things are said to result from a preceding decision and are in our power; what comes after them, however, is the result, bound by necessity.

Here Calcidius appears to endorse the ideas that (a) moral responsibility or “merit” is grounded in a free choice (b) among contrary options. And the freedom of these choices, their being “in our power”, is contrasted with the “necessity” of their effects, viz. “what comes after them”.

We find further support for (B) in section 163 (COF 53):

So contingent things are not inflexibly arranged and determined from the beginning with the sole exception of the very fact, that they must be uncertain and depend upon a contingent course. Therefore it is completely fixed and decided from the beginning that the nature of man’s soul is such, that it now applies itself to virtue, now shows preference for evil …. But it is neither decided nor commanded, which particular person is to be good or bad, and therefore there are laws, instructions, … , praise, blame and similar things, because the choice to live rightly is in our power.

This seems to be saying that there are some contingent things, such as “the nature of man’s soul”. Moreover, it is “in our power” to exercise moral freedom and to choose between good or “virtue” and evil. These things are “not … determined”, though it is determined that there be such things, i.e., it is “decided from the beginning” that man shall be morally free.

Finally, in section 155 (COE 37) Calcidius defines what he means by “contingent” in contrast to what is “necessary”:

So everything possible is either contingent or necessary. Now the necessary is called by that name, because it is bound by necessity, and as most possible things cannot be prevented from taking place, some are prevented and averted by human measures …. [T]he necessary is the possible of which the contrary is impossible, e.g. all things that have come into being will perish and after having grown they will wane. … The definition of contingent things on the other hand is as follows: the contingent is the possible of which the contrary is also possible, e.g.: today after sunset it is going to rain. For this is possible, but its contrary ‘it will not rain’ is equally possible.

Again, Calcidius makes clear that not everything is necessary and some things are contingent. By “necessary” he means essentially now-unpreventable. That all things that have come into being will eventually perish, he takes to be necessary in that sense. But he doesn’t seem to think that how or when such things will perish is necessary. Regarding the occurrence of rain tomorrow, Calcidius seems to think that nature could be presently indeterministic, such that it is “equally possible” for there to be rain and for there not to be rain.

Would Calcidius have endorsed (C)?

The case for whether Calcidius was an open theist thus comes down to (C): Does he think that the future, particularly with respect to future contingencies, is open-ended from God’s perspective? The case that he would have endorsed (C) turns on two key passages. The first is his statement of a fatalistic argument from the Stoics in section 160. The second is his reply to that argument in section 162.

They [the Stoics] say: “So, if God knows all things from the beginning, before they happen, and not only the phenomena of heaven, which are bound by a fortunate necessity of unbroken blessedness as by a kind of fate, but also those thoughts and desires of ours; if he also knows that, which is contingent by nature, and controls past, present and future and that from the beginning, and if God cannot be mistaken, the conclusion must be that all things are arranged and determined from the beginning, things said to be within our power as well as fortuitous and chance events.” (COE 47)

Now, it’s not exactly clear what the Stoic argument summarized by Calcidius is supposed to be. It’s clear that the conclusion is that “all things are arranged and determined from the beginning” and that this is supposed to follow from God’s having exhaustive foreknowledge (“God knows all things … before they happen”), from God’s controlling “past, present and future”, and from God’s infallibility (“God cannot be mistaken”). But it’s not clear how to fit all this together.

In the first place, it is not clear how things that are “contingent by nature” can also be “determined from the beginning”. Since we’ve already seen that he is committed to there being things like the human soul that are contingent by nature, I think the reference to contingency here is probably less a reflection of Stoic beliefs than of Calcidius’ own editorializing. In other words, by speaking of things as “contingent by nature” Calcidius is signaling his disagreement with the deterministic conclusion of the argument in the course of stating it.

In the second place, it’s not clear what the part about divine control has to do with the argument. If universal determinism follows from God’s exhaustive foreknowledge and God’s inability to be mistaken, then why do we need to bring up the issue of control at all? If this control has to be construed deterministically, then we seem to be smuggling the conclusion into the premises. The argument would then beg the question. An alternative would be to suppose that Calcidius has a kind of proto-Molinism in mind: It’s not that God’s control (on the Stoic account) is ipso facto deterministic, but rather, that for God to be able exhaustively and infallibly to foreknow and micro-manage (i.e., control) all of history, it would have to be exhaustively determined. In other words, we’re reasoning from meticulous control and infallible foreknowledge to exhaustive determinism. I think that’s a plausible way to take the argument. Here’s how I’d break it down:

  1. God specifically controls all events, including things that we might have supposed to be “contingent by nature”. (assumption: meticulous providence)
  2. So, God infallibly foreknows the course of all future events. (from 1)
  3. But God couldn’t infallibly foreknow the course of all future events if some of those events were genuinely contingent. (assumption)
  4. So, no events are genuinely contingent, but “all things are arranged and determined from the beginning”. (from 2 and 3)

I think this is a plausible argument. (1) is something that many Christian theists have believed. Even many who explicitly reject exhaustive determinism would endorse it, though open theists wouldn’t. (2) would seem to follow from (1). If God does specifically control all events, then surely He knows exactly how it’s all going to go? (3) is another assumption that seems plausible on its face. If the future were genuinely contingent (e.g., both rain tomorrow and no rain tomorrow are “equally possible”), then it’s not hard to imagine things going a different direction than God anticipates. And if that’s intolerable because “God cannot be mistaken”, then arguably we have to deny genuine contingency. (4) follows from (2) and (3).

If this is a reasonably accurate reconstruction, then to qualify Calcidius as an open theist, we would need to find evidence that he rejects premise (2), and therefore implicitly (1) as well. Evidence that he rejects (3) would indicate that Calcidius is a sort of proto-Ockhamist, not an open theist.

Calcidius’ reply to the Stoic argument

Alright, so how does Calcidius reply to the Stoic argument for exhaustive determinism? Here’s the complete response from section 162 (COF 52):

What are we to answer against these doctrines laid down so contentiously and with even greater violence than fate itself possesses? Our answer is: That it is true that God knows all things, but that He knows everything according to its own nature: that which is subject to necessity as submissive to necessity, the contingent, however, as provided with such a nature that deliberation opens a way for it. For God does not know the nature of what is contingent in such a way as that which is certain and bound by necessity (for in that case He will be deceived and fail to know), but in such a way that he really knows the contingent according to its nature. So what do we say? That God knows all things and His knowledge is of all time, and further that the things He knows are partly divine and immortal, partly perishable and temporal; that the substance of immortal things is immutable and immovable, that of mortal things changeable and contingent, and that now it has this condition, now another, because of its inconstant nature. Thus also God’s knowledge of divine things, which have a sure happiness protected by continuous necessity, is sure and necessary, both because of the certain grasp of the knowledge itself and on account of the substance of the things He knows; on the other hand His knowledge of uncertain things is indeed necessary, viz., His knowledge that these things are uncertain and their course contingent—for they cannot be different from their nature—, yet they are themselves possible in both directions rather than subject to necessity.

Having looked at the passage closely, I think one can make the following observations:

  • Calcidius doesn’t explicitly either endorse or deny premise (2), nor does he explicitly either endorse or deny premise (3).
  • Everything he does say here, however, is consistent with open theism. Notice that he says that God “knows” all things, not “foreknows”. So he could be talking about present knowledge: God knows everything the way it now is, necessary things as necessary and contingent things as contingent. This seems more likely than reading “knows” as referring to eternal knowledge because God is said to know contingent things as contingent (i.e., as “possible in both directions”). If God’s knowing was understood to be from the viewpoint of a timeless eternity, then He would know all contingencies as determinately resolved in one particular direction or another, not in both directions. To my mind, this suggests that Calcidius might actually deny premise (2), but again he doesn’t explicitly say so, and thus interpretive uncertainties remain.
  • That God knows contingent things as contingent stands in stark contrast to the later position of Boethius (480–524 AD) who, in De consolatione philosophiae (On the Consolation of Philosophy) V.6.1 says just the opposite (“everything which is known is known not according to its own nature but according to the nature of the one comprehending it”). The Boethian line goes back to Iamblichus (ca. 242–ca. 325), followed by Proclus (412–485) and Ammonius (ca. 435/445–517/526). For Boethius, as later for Aquinas (ST 1a.14.1) and others in the classical theistic tradition, things are known by God according to His nature, not according to the nature of the things known. So God (somehow) knows contingent things in a necessary way, temporal things in a timeless way, etc. Calcidius rejects this on the grounds that it falsifies God’s knowledge (“for in that case He will be deceived and fail to know”).
  • There are two phrases in this passage that may seem to count against open theism: (a) where Calcidius says that “God knows all things and His knowledge is of all time” and (b) where he says that God’s “knowledge of uncertain things is indeed necessary”. I don’t think either of these is very telling. Regarding (b), Calcidius explains that he’s talking about God’s knowledge that “these things are uncertain and their course contingent”. In other words, what’s necessary is that God, being omniscient, knows what’s contingent and what’s not contingent. Regarding (a), there’s no reason why an open theist can’t say with Calcidius that “God knows all things and His knowledge is of all time”. Any open theist who has an unqualified view of God’s omniscience will affirm that God knows past, present, and future perfectly—it’s just that “the future” that God perfectly knows is, in some respects, genuinely open-ended.

From what we’ve seen so far, I would say that the identification of Calcidius as an early open theist is certainly plausible, but not quite certain. It seems more likely that he was a proto-open theist than that he was a proto-Ockhamist, or anything like that, because His response to the Stoic argument doesn’t address premise (3) at all, not even implicitly, but it does arguably implicitly deny premise (2). The anti-Boethian claim that God knows the contingent as contingent, i.e., as “possible in both directions”, rather than as though everything were eternally present and thus as though all contingencies were already resolved, suggests that Calcidius affirmed a dynamic view of God’s omniscience.

Calcidius on divination

So far we’ve looked at Calcidius’ views on human freedom and his response to a Stoic argument for theistic determinism based on foreknowledge. But later on in his treatise Calcidius gives a further response to the Stoic contention that the widespread ancient practice of divination demonstrates divine foreknowledge. His response to this line of argument in sections 169–171 is very interesting:

[D]ivination of things subject to necessity and also of things which are contingent, but which have already come to their desired end, is true … if it is to be called divination at all—for once something has happened, it cannot be undone—, but divination of contingent things, the outcome of which is still a matter of doubt … is contingent and oblique, as e.g. Apollo’s oracle: “By crossing the Halys Croesus will destroy a very great kingdom.” For in that case there were … three contingencies, viz., the first, whether the kingdom of Cyrus and the Persians was to perish, the second, whether rather the kingdom of Croesus himself and the Lydians was to perish, and the third, whether war could on reasonable terms be avoided. … [B]ut because the desire of both opposed a laying down of arms, … there was to be no peace between them; so either of the two remaining possibilities was still open, and the doubtful point was, whose kingdom was doomed to extinction; and therefore a dubious prophecy and an oracle of doubtful meaning was issued, in order that whatever happened would seem to be predicted by Apollo. (COF 67–68)

Calcidius’ first point here is that in cases where divinations concern matters that are either necessitated or that have already occurred, the divinations can be “true” but such predictions aren’t all that impressive (“if it is to be called divination at all”) because we’re not dealing with future contingencies, something “the outcome of which is still a matter of doubt”. Second, where divinations do concern future contingencies, they are often ambiguous so that “whatever happened would seem to [have] been predicted”. Calcidius gives the example of a famous Apollonian oracle that the king of Lydia (Croesus) took as a reason to go to war with Persian, but the Lydians lost and their kingdom disappeared. Calcidius continues:

There are other predictions resembling a multitude of advices, because, as it is within our power to choose one of two uncertain things, gracious divinity, lest out of ignorance a faulty choice is made, advises men, what is to be chosen. … To the Hebrews … an advice was given by God together with a prediction of the future in the following manner: “If you will obey my commandments, all the goods of the earth will be in your power. … If you defy my will, the divine voice has preceded to describe the series of imminent punishments”, because that which lay in man’s power, viz., either to obey or to defy the commands of heaven, was uncertain. But if their choice would be preceded by an inevitable decree and defiance be necessary, the prediction would be redundant, as would also be the promises and threats. (COF 68)

Calcidius’ third point is that aside from being ambiguous, divinations may simply be intended as divine advice. In other words, the goal isn’t to predict the future but rather to encourage a certain kind of response. He cites as an example God’s Biblical admonition to the Jews to keep the commandments because they would be blessed IF they did so and punished IF they did not. Calcidius’ final point is that this sort of admonition or warning would make no sense if the outcome were already certain and decreed by God.

A few sections later (185–186), Calcidius returns to the Stoic argument from divination and gives a different, yet complementary, response:

“But”, they (= the Stoics) say, “the prediction of future events testifies that all things have been arranged and regulated long before; now this arrangement and regulation is called fate”. On the contrary, this very prediction in every respect denies the dominance of fatal necessity, because prediction is the rational appraisal of a future condition and this appraisal does not prevail in things which are certain and bound by necessity, but in things which are uncertain and doubtful. For who would consult a prophet about a new-born baby, whether it is to be moral or immortal? But usually rather that is asked, which is doubtful, e.g. the length of the periods of life allotted to him and whether he is to be rich or poor and whether he is to hold a lofty or a low and humble post. All these things are concluded through observation and science and also by skilful [sic] ingenuity. (COF 112–113)

Calcidius’ makes two points here: First, no one seeks divination concerning matters that they believe to be fated (e.g., whether a newborn is mortal or immortal), but only concerning matters that they believe to be contingent (i.e., “uncertain and doubtful”). Second, predictive divinations are arrived at “through observation and science”, “ingenuity”, “skilful [sic] reasoning”, and “practice and experience” (COF 113)—in other words, by reasonable extrapolation from present conditions and natural regularities. In short, divination is not magical crystal-ball gazing, but simply using careful observation and human ingenuity to make reasonable projections about matters that we nevertheless hold to be contingent.

In sum, in response to the Stoic argument for exhaustive foreknowledge based on divination (i.e., fulfilled predictive prophecy), Calcidius argues in a manner very similar to contemporary open theists. If the prophesized events are necessary (or already past), then of course God can predict them. But if they concern future contingents, then we should understand divination in some alternative way, perhaps as a deliberately ambiguous hedging of bets, or as a means by which God advises and encourages certain creaturely actions without rendering “certain” what “lay in man’s power”, or as a reasonable extrapolation based on past and present experience. These kinds of responses are exactly parallel to what open theists today say about conditional prophecies, typological fulfillments, extrapolative prophecies, and the like.

The future as partly open and partly settled

Toward the very end of his treatise, Calcidius makes one further point that fits well with open theism. The future, he maintains, is partly open and and partly settled:

For it is true that some things happen by fate, just as the truth has also been shown of the fact that other things are in our power. Therefore those who say that everything happens by fate, are rightly censured by those who prove that there is something within our power; finally those who put everything in our power, without leaving anything to fate, are revealed to be mistaken; for who would not know that there is something belonging to fate and outside our competence? So only that is true reason, fixed and stable opinion, which teaches that some things happen by fate, other[s] originate from human will and authority. (COF 125)

Further research: The Porphyrian connection

Based on what I’ve seen, think it’s significantly more likely than not that Calcidius was a proto-open theist. One area of further research suggested by den Boeft concerns the relation of Calcidius to the neoplatonist scholar Porphyry (234?–305?). According to den Boeft, Calcidius’s reply to the Stoic foreknowledge argument is closely anticipated by Porphyry:

Our conclusion can therefore be that both Calcidius and Porphyry put forward similar views about God’s knowledge of transient and contingent things. (COF 56)

Our final conclusion is, that in his tractatus de fato Calcidius has adapted a treatise of Porphyry on fate. (COF 136)

Unfortunately, den Boeft doesn’t provide any direct insight into Porphyry’s views on these matters, so I can’t judge the accuracy of the Calcidius–Porphyry connection. But den Boeft does note that Proclus (421–485), who (as already mentioned) stands in the same tradition as Boethius regarding the conformity of knowledge to the mode of the knower, was “shocked” by what Porphyry had to say (COF 56). This suggests that Porphyry, like Calcidius, rejected that Boethian assumption and that the “shocking” open futurist implications of the idea that God knows contingencies as contingencies was not lost on Proclus.

4 thoughts on “Was Calcidius an Open Theist?

  1. Pingback: Open Theism and the Challenge of Church Tradition – Open Future

  2. Greg Boyd

    Great essay Alan. I read Calcifies years ago and interpreted him to be an open theist (with a few unusual twists). But you addressed some important passages that I now see could possibly interpreted in a non-open theist fashion. It was enlightening. Thanks!

  3. Pingback: How Not to Hunt Open Theism – Open Future

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