Saturday, November 30, 2019

How much does God know?

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Isaiah 41:21-23 “Present your case,” the Lord says. “Bring forward your strong arguments,” The King of Jacob says. 22 Let them bring forth and declare to us what is going to take place; As for the former events, declare what they were, That we may consider them and know their outcome. Or announce to us what is coming;
23 Declare the things that are going to come afterward, That we may know that you are gods; Indeed, do good or evil, that we may anxiously look about us and fear together. 24 Behold, you are of no account, And your work amounts to nothing; He who chooses you is an abomination."


     God's Divine omniscience refers to His ability to know any and all true facts about everything. This is staggering to think about. The above opening text from Isaiah 41 has God issuing a challenge to "wanna-be" gods or idols that, in reality, are not deities at all. God alone is omniscient. The 19th century theologians Charles Hodge writes in Volume 1 of his "Systematic Theology":  

"We pray to a God who, we believe, knows our state and wants, who hears what we say, and who is able to meet our necessities".

Hodge lists the following scriptures which elevate to our attention God's omniscience: Psalm 104:9; 139:1,2,12; 147:5; Proverbs. 15:3,11; Ezekiel 11:5; Matthew 10:30; Acts 15:8; Hebrews 4:13. This is the God of sacred scripture! Psalm 147:5 states most plainly: 

"Great is our Lord and abundant in strength; His understanding is infinite."

      So how much does God know? How is it that God knows what He knows? We can attempt to approach an answer by considering typical ways that theologians describe Divine omniscience as revealed in the Bible.

1. God's self-knowledge.

     Jesus makes the following statement in Matthew 11:27 - 

"All things have been handed over to Me by My Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father; nor does anyone know the Father except the Son, and anyone to whom the Son wills to reveal Him."

     Let Jesus' words sink in for just a moment. God, by nature and definition, is infinite (Psalm 90:1-2). The Person of the Father, by nature, is God. We understand from Moses in Deuteronomy 32:8 that the Father knows all things, including the future of the nations. The Son comprehends the Father, which tells us that the Son is as much God as the Father is God, since no other creature - angel or man - can comprehend all that God is (see Isaiah 6:2-3; 1 Timothy 6:16). This self-knowledge of God is expressed by the Father and the Son in their full comprehension of one another. The Spirit too expresses this same sort of unending omniscience, comprehending the Son (John 14:26) and the Father (Romans 8:26; 11:33-35). 

2. God's knowledge of all things that "could be", or "natural knowledge".

       God's comprehension of Himself is a knowledge that takes into view the boundless vistas of "what He is" and "how He is" as God. In our definition of omniscience offered earlier, God's knowledge of, "any and all true facts about everything", begins with Himself. However, what about all those things outside of Himself? How much does God know about those things which He could make or did make. In the mind of God, all things are known directly and all-at -once. Furthermore, God's knowledge includes all things that could possibly be. Put another way, in God's mind, He knew all possible versions of history that "could-had-been" had He decided to bring anyone of them into reality. 

      This aspect of God's knowledge, whereby He knows all things that "could-be", is what we call His "natural knowledge". The reason for this is that all possible outcomes of every event, time and person, are as much known by Him as those same things that did come about in this version of time known as creation. 

      We know God knows what is "possible-to-know" by the sheer amount of predictive prophecy in the Bible. According to J. Barton Payne's, "Encyclopedia of Biblical Prophecy - The complete guide to scriptural predictions and their fulfillment", we find a total of 395 predicted fulfilled prophecies about 12 different nations and various events and 127 fulfilled prophecies centering about the life of Christ. H.A. Ironside aptly refers to predictive prophecy as a form of, "prehistory", meaning that, in the mind of God, the predicted event is already a "done-deal". For God to know with certainty the potential outcomes of future events gives us but the tip of the iceberg to what all lies in His natural knowledge of "things-that-could-be". 

3. God's knowledge of "all-things-that-are" or actual knowledge.

     God's omniscience includes knowledge of Himself and all those things that "could-had-been". But now, what can we note of God's knowledge of our actual world? As all possibilities were present in God's Divine mind, He decreed out of those innumerable possibilities that one version of history which He would bring about in His creation of time and space (see Romans 11:36; Ephesians 1:11). We refer to God's omniscience of our actual world as His, "actual" knowledge or sometimes by the designation, "free-knowledge". Theologian William G.T. Shedd summarizes God's actual knowledge:

"The divine decree is formed in eternity, but executed in time. There are sequences in the execution, but not in the formation of God’s eternal purpose."

     Shedd gives an example of how God's decree to bring about all He knew "could-be" to "what came to be" by Christ Himself:

"There were thirty-three years between the actual incarnation and the actual crucifixion, but not between the decree that the Logos should be incarnate and the decree that he should be crucified. In the divine decree, Christ was simultaneously because eternally incarnate and crucified: “The Lamb was slain from the foundation of the world” (Rev. 14:8). Hence divine decrees, in reference to God, are one single act only." 

       What always blows my mind is to realize that in one act, God knew what "could be", and thus decreed the one possibility out of those many to be our world. In sum, God does not decree our world because He looked ahead to a so-called "tunnel of time" independent of Himself, but instead, knows all about our world by what He decreed from the vastness of His omniscience. You and I require many successive thoughts in our planning. Truly, God's omniscience is staggering. He thinks it all in "one shot". Let me briefly mention one more category sometimes mentioned by theologians when it comes to answering the question: "how much does God know?"

4. God's knowledge of "what we would do if in different circumstances" or "middle knowledge".

       If we consider God's "natural knowledge" of all things that "could-be" as a first logical moment in God's mind, then His decree precedes the second logical moment to bring about our version of history or, "all things that are". Some Christian thinkers are convinced that the standard, theological account I outlined above doesn't go far enough. 

     In the 16th century, a brilliant man by the name of Luis de Molina proposed that there is a "middle logical moment" or type of knowledge in God's mind between His "natural" and "actual knowledge". According to Molina, whenever God chose to create the world, He took seriously the free-will decisions of His creatures. He foresaw what they "would do" if in a potential set of circumstances. Surprisingly, there are a number of scriptures that seem to support this alleged notion of "middle-knowledge" (1 Samuel 13:13-14; Jeremiah 38:17-18; Matthew 11:21-23; 1 Corinthians 2:8, just to list several). According to Molina, as God was decreeing to create, He included what his creatures "would do", and, by considering the purpose He so designed to take place, God brought about our version of history.

       So for example, in 1 Corinthians 2:8, Paul notes that if the Romans and Jews had comprehended that Jesus was really "God in the flesh", then they would not had crucified Him. For those influenced by Molina's view, this represents an example of an alternative version of history that could had come about if the perpetrators of Christ's crucifixion would had known differently, and thus evidence for God's middle knowledge. Although such a version of history was "possible" in God's omniscience, yet, it was not "feasible", since God rather chose to bring about our version of history with the cross (see Acts 2:22-23; 4:27-28). 

        I won't say much more on this point, since I find it mostly convincing yet, also see why some would find it more speculative than anything. To summarize, we can portray the above four headings of God's omniscience as follows:

natural knowledge-(middle knowledge?)-decree---actual knowledge of our world

Closing thoughts

      In today's post we considered the question: how much does God know? We explored the Biblical teaching on the subject of Divine omniscience. We defined omniscience as, "knowing any and all true facts about everything". We noted that God first comprehends all things about Himself as scripture teaches from the activities between the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We then noted how God's Divine omniscience includes His natural knowledge, that is, knowledge of all things that "could possibly be". We then discovered that out of all the innumerable possibilities in God's mind, God decreed to bring about our world, thus demonstrating His "actual knowledge" of our world, which includes exhaustive, direct knowledge of all times, places, and people. Lastly, we considered whether or not God included people's decisions in His plans, or what theologians call, "middle-knowledge". 

     To borrow and paraphrase an illustration from the 5th century Christian thinker, Augustine, I feel like  a little boy who thinks He has grasped the ocean by dipping a cup into it and exclaiming to his parents:
"I've scooped up the ocean". This little post has submerged itself into the vastness of God's omniscience. This is but a small cup, which I hope, causes us to be in awe of our amazing God!

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