Friday, September 1, 2023

Post # 12 The Doctrine of God - God's Attribute of Divine Omniscience (including a brief evaluation of so-called "middle knowledge")


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."


     In this series on "the Doctrine of God", we've observed God's existence, knowability, and attributes such as His independence, unchangeableness, and eternity. In today's post we continue by taking a look at His omniscience. Theologian Wayne Grudem offers this definition of God's omniscience,

"God fully knows himself and all things actual and possible in one simple and eternal act". (page 225, 2nd edition, Systematic Theology). 

Main Bible passages for Divine omniscience.

    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 (by nature) as the Father is God. 

    Not only do we see "God's self-knowledge" expressed in the Son's comprehension of the Father and the Father's comprehension of the Son, but we also note this same ability ascribed to the Holy Spirit (John 14:26; 1 Corinthians 2:10-11; Romans 8:26-27; Romans 11:34-35). These considerations remind us that each Person of the Trinity, sharing equally in the Divine essence, are each truly God, wholly and entirely. This Trinitarian knowledge shared and experienced by the persons of the Godhead constitutes what we are discussing here - God's self knowledge. 

As Wayne Grudem notes,

"Of course, only he who is infinite can fully know himself in detail." (page 225, Systematic Theology, 2nd edition).  

    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. 

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 "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 other than 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. This would apply to the phenomena of Bible prophecy, predicted and fulfilled.1

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

     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? Sometimes theologians and philosophers define God's omniscience as His knowledge of all true statements about reality (i.e. "propositions"). Hence, when I say "it is raining outside", whether I say that statement in English, Spanish, or any other language, the information content still holds regardless.2

    You see, all possibilities were present in God's Divine mind. His Divine decree, rooted in His will and sheer pleasure of being God, 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, His "free-knowledge", or most commonly referred to as "the knowledge from His decree". 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 (in God's mind, which He, the Father, and Spirit have as One God in being) 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 not only knew what "may-possibly-be" from the myriad versions of the history of the universe in His natural knowledge, He also knew what "could be, and thus did become" by His decretive choice. 

    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. Ought we include a category of 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 is the source of the second logical moment to bring about our version of history or, "all things that are". But now is there some type of "logical moment" that stands between God's knowledge of possibilities and the decree to bring about our actual history? Some Christian thinkers are convinced that the standard, theological account I outlined above doesn't go far enough. 

     This so-called "middle knowledge view" attempts to offer scriptures for its support (1 Samuel 13:13-14; Jeremiah 38:17-18; Matthew 11:21-23; 1 Corinthians 2:8, just to list several). According to 16th century thinker Luis De Molina (see endnote #3 below), 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.3 Such a view is often called "Molinism" in memory of the thinker who championed it.
        For five or so years I toyed around with this idea of middle knowledge or Molinism. It had at one time appealed to me, and on the surface seemed to make sense. However, there are problems. First, if God would use such "middle knowledge", then that would mean He is using something outside of Himself (free-will choices of what creatures would do in certain scenarios) to influence or "inform" what He decree to bring into existence. This would conflict with what we read of in Romans 11:35 "For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who became His counselor?" 

    Secondly, middle knowledge suffers from what is known as "the grounding objection". Essentially, if middle knowledge is true, where does God's get this middle knowledge? It cannot be from the free-will agents, since they would not had existed. At the same time, such middle knowledge can't be grounded in God either, since proponents advocate God taking into consideration what they would do in certain situations. Its as if such middle knowledge is pulled out of "somewhere", with that "somewhere" being akin to pulling a rabbit out of a hat, except there is no rabbit, nor hat. 

    Then finally, what about all the passages that middle-knowledge advocates set forth (as seen above)? If you will recall what I had said earlier about God's natural knowledge of all possibilities or "what could be", one could just as easily explain the passages as God knowing the possible outcome. Further, since what actually occurred (in this instance the crucifixion of our Lord for example), demonstrates the reality of God's decretive knowledge, thus eliminating the need for an extra category such as "middle knowledge". 

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" or Wayne Grudem's definition, 
"God fully knows himself and all things actual and possible in one simple and eternal act". We also consider how God knows Himself, has knowledge of all possibilities or natural knowledge, and knows exhaustive details of this universe and all that is in it due to His Divine decree. We briefly considered whether or not God included people's decisions in His plans, or what theologians call, "middle-knowledge", concluding that Biblically, theologically, and philosophically, the idea of middle knowledge is untenable (further details are in the endnotes below).  

     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! More next time!

1. 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". 

2. Suppose we tried to "trick God" and somehow were to last-minute cause it not to rain, rather than rain. For God, He knows for certain the weather conditions for tomorrow, next week, and ten years from now, including all possible scenarios where it rains or doesn't rain. Depsite our attempts to trick God, we would find that His knowledge of the future is still infallible, since He knew of the situation where it would not rain just as well as the scenario in which it would.  

3. 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. According to this view, God used His "middle knowledge" of what free-will creatures would do in certain circumstances to "whittle down" all the possibilities of "what could be" from His natural knowledge to a subset of feasible alternatives. Then, by including the decisions of His creatures, God then brought into existence our actual world. 

    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). 

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