What Does God Know and When Does He Know It?

In a recent Sunday School class, we had a discussion on the nature of divine omniscience. This is a topic that is easy to get lost in. It involves terms and concepts that most people do not understand, or care much about. Sometimes, however, wrestling with these ideas is important.

When theologians disagree on the topic, usually it is related to what is called divine foreknowledge (DF.) However, I think it is important to state at the outset that with the exception of one view of DF, it is agreed that to divide God’s knowledge into subcategories is artificial and does not reflect what we think actually happens. As an omniscient being, God has all his knowledge at once, and does not learn, or gain new knowledge over time. From the divine creation decree God has known all that is true. While the truth-value of tensed facts changes with time, and God knows this, it is not genuinely new knowledge. To speak of God’s knowledge of future events is to speak from a human perspective. It is a manner of speaking. As Shedd writes:

Divine knowledge is (a) intuitive as opposed to demonstrative or dis-cursive; it is not obtained by comparing one thing with another or deducing one truth from another; it is a direct vision; (b) simultaneous as opposed to successive; it is not received gradually into the mind and by parts; the perception is total and instantaneous; and (c) complete and certain as opposed to incomplete and uncertain. Divine knowledge excludes knowledge by the senses, gradual acquisition of knowledge, forgetting of knowledge, and recollection of knowledge.[1]

Moreover, Grudem defines omniscience, “God fully knows himself and all things actual and possible in one simple and eternal act.”[2]

There is a view, called “Open Theism” that denies that God knows what for us are future events and “counterfactuals of creaturely freedom.” (CCF) CCF are not universally agreed upon either, since not all theologians agree on the existence and nature of free will. One such proponent is Gregory Boyd. Boyd denies that future events are part of “all things actual” and therefore denial of God’s knowledge of such things does no violence to omniscience.[3] Boyd goes on to argue that events in the world include both those things that are “settled” and those that are not, whereas the classical theist holds that all things that happen are settled.[4]

Some of the relevant scriptures include Isaiah 46:9b-11,

For I am God, and there is no other;
I am God, and there is no one like Me,

 Declaring the end from the beginning,
And from ancient times things which have not been done,
Saying, ‘My purpose will be established,
And I will accomplish all My good pleasure’;
11 Calling a bird of prey from the east,
The man of My purpose from a far country.
Truly I have spoken; truly I will bring it to pass.
I have planned it, surely I will do it.

Psalm 139:3-4,

You scrutinize my path and my lying down,
And are intimately acquainted with all my ways.
Even before there is a word on my tongue,
Behold, O Lord, You know it all.

Psalm 139:15-16

My frame was not hidden from You,
When I was made in secret,
And skillfully wrought in the depths of the earth;
16 Your eyes have seen my unformed substance;
And in Your book were all written
The days that were ordained for me,
When as yet there was not one of them.

Moreover, with respect to CCF, we see in 1 Samuel 23:10-13,

Then David said, “O Lord God of Israel, Your servant has heard for certain that Saul is seeking to come to Keilah to destroy the city on my account. 11 Will the men of Keilah surrender me into his hand? Will Saul come down just as Your servant has heard? O Lord God of Israel, I pray, tell Your servant.” And the Lord said, “He will come down.” 12 Then David said, “Will the men of Keilah surrender me and my men into the hand of Saul?” And the Lord said, “They will surrender you.” 13 Then David and his men, about six hundred, arose and departed from Keilah, and they went wherever they could go. When it was told Saul that David had escaped from Keilah, he gave up the pursuit.

Note God told David what the men of Keilah would do if David stayed there, and so he did not. Does this mean God was mistaken?

Boyd argues from silence that the fact that God decrees some events does not mean all events are settled.[5] He goes on to cite verses where God expresses surprise, regret, disappointment, and the unexpected, such as Isaiah 5:2, Jeremiah 3:6-7, 1 Samuel 13:13, etc. Some passages describe God’s attributes, such as his omniscience (Isaiah 46, Psalm 139, etc). In other passages, through the prophets, God describes situations in human terms (Isaiah 5:2, Jeremiah 3:6-7, 1 Samuel 13:13, etc). Paul Helm argues that the latter need to be understood in light of the former, not vice versa.[6]

Pascal once observed that people arrive at their beliefs based on what they find attractive. Seeing God as one who is all-powerful, wise, and loving but not knowing the future completely makes him a little more understandable. It is not easy to wrap you mind around a God who knows everything that will happen. Some confuse this with fatalistic determinism. However, God knowing what some person will do does not cause that person to do it. Moreover, if God does not know the future, then when he answers prayer it seems more miraculous when he answers because he would have to intervene on a series of events already in motion. It would also mean that if God answers prayers, we can move him to action in real time to do what he might otherwise not have done. However, if God does know the future completely, he also knows every prayer I will pray and how he will answer.

To see how God would answer prayers he does not expect requires a convoluted view of God’s relationship to time that is ad hoc and unwarranted. An illustration comes to mind from one of my favorite accounts of answered prayer.[7] Helen Roseveare, a physician from Northern Ireland who has served as a medical missionary in Zaire, Africa, tells of her experience when a baby is born whose mother dies in childbirth and there is a need for a hot water bottle to replace the last one that broke. The next day, when she was about to pray with the children of the orphanage, she suggested praying for the needs of this child and her two-year-old sister. One child’s prayer was especially bold. “Please, God, send us a water bottle. It’ll be no good tomorrow, God the baby will be dead; so please send it this afternoon. And while you are about it, would you please send a dolly for the little girl so she’ll know you really love her?” That very afternoon, a package arrived with both the hot water bottle and the doll. The package was assembled by a Sunday School class Roseveare used to teach. They sent it five months earlier. I think God’s foreknowledge of the needs and the prayers is far more plausible than the idea that he created these items ex nihilo on its way, or that it was a coincidence.

Finally, it seems to me that Anselm was on to something when he developed the idea that God is the greatest conceivable being, or a maximally great being. As such, if we read passages of Scripture that describe his attributes, and some passages suggest a greater degree of an attribute than others, it is best to assume the greater.

I believe open theists are wrestling with the text of Scripture are not seeking to diminish God’s glory. Boyd even argues that his view enhances it. I think he is mistaken. It seems obvious that a God who knows all things, including future contingencies and CCF is greater than one that does not.

[1] William G T. Shedd, Dogmatic Theology, 3rd ed. (Phillipsburg, N.J.: P & R Pub., ©2003), 288.

[2] Wayne A. Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity Press, ©1994), 190.

[3] Gregory Boyd in James Bielby and Paul R. Eddy, eds., Divine Foreknowledge: Four Views, Kindle Edition. (Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Academic, 2001), 13

[4] Ibid., 15

[5] Ibid., 17

[6] Ibid., 61

[7] J. P. Moreland, Kingdom Triangle: Recover the Christian Mind, Renovate the Soul, Restore the Spirit’s Power (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2007), 17-18.

Author: apologeticsminion

Daniel has an MA in Christian Apologetics from Biola University. He is married and has four grown children. Professionally, Daniel is a sign language interpreter.

4 thoughts on “What Does God Know and When Does He Know It?”

  1. I am being challenged in this teaching, which I am grateful.

    If God is the all knowing God, then nothing takes precedent over what He already knows, which is everything. Yes, we have freewill which I believe is obvious, or why would I make the choices I make. My choices serve me, the world, Satan or God. Wouldn’t God, the creative all knowing mind, already have a plan to protect me from myself and bring victory to His glory? That’s not to say I go and do whatever and God will clean up my mess. We do reap consequences, reaping what we sow. What I am saying, God is all knowing and He will have victory. As the creator, He knows His creation.

    This week I will not be able to attend, however, Lord willing I will return next week. God Bless. Diane

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Well that was well-written and stretched my brain.
    Helen Roseveare’s answered prayer was the most heartening story I’ve read recently. I’m going to follow the link after this.
    You did say that ‘God knowing what some person will do does not cause that person to do it.’ Would not God’s foreknowledge be determinative for that action taking place. Somehow man’s freewill gets spliced into God’s foreknowledge of things?
    In regards to Anselm and the ‘maximally greater’ I think the abeyance of power may be greater. To have, and not exercise, although He could, seems to me ‘maximally greater’, not because it makes God more understandable to me but because it just seems a greater concept of power. God has absolute power but his forbearance and benevolence tempers it. He tolerates sinners; he created us with free-will. Might not God do the same thing with his foreknowledge?
    Sorry, that I’m not very concise.
    Also making comments in the little thin blue box provided is hard. I have to keep scrolling up to check what I wrote.
    Anyways, keep posting!

    Like

    1. Boon,
      Thanks for your comments and questions.
      “Would not God’s foreknowledge be determinative for that action taking place. Somehow man’s freewill gets spliced into God’s foreknowledge of things?”
      The simplest answer is that if we were to choose a different action, God would know that instead. Here’s something to wrestle with. Even though God knows our choice before we make it, our making it causes him to know what we will do, by which I mean our choosing to do A causes God to know we will do A and not B. (I don’t mean we cause him to have knowledge, but that our choices inform what he knows about our choices.) If we were to choose B instead, he would know we were going to do B instead. His knowledge is not causing our choice.
      As for the question about God’s power compared to his knowledge, keep in mind power by definition just is the ability to do something. Knowledge, on the other hand, is something you either have or you do not. Also remember that for God to choose not to know something, he would have to know it first so he could make that choice. Since logic flows from God’s nature as a rational being, he could no more violate the laws of logic than he could sin. This is not a defect on his part. It is just another way of saying he cannot fail.
      I hope that helps. Feel free to post a follow up question any time.

      Liked by 1 person

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