The Omniscience of God
"Great is our Lord and mighty in power;
his understanding has no limit" (Ps. 147:5)
There is a growing trend among evangelicals to significantly redefine the content of divine omniscience by eliminating divine foreknowledge. This attempt to reshape the historical orthodox view of God must be addressed. Before doing so, we must first examine the biblical evidence for the nature and extent of God’s knowledge.
A. God's Knowledge and Ours
It will help to begin by noting how God's knowledge differs from ours.
1. God's knowledge is intuitive, not discursive - Our knowledge is discursive in that it comes by way of observation, reasoning, comparison, induction, deduction, and so on. In other words, we learn. But God's knowledge is intuitive, by which is meant that it is innate and immediate. God does not learn: He simply knows. He neither discovers nor forgets. [This is one element of divine omniscience that is challenged by open theists.]
2. God's knowledge is simultaneous, not successive - He sees things at once and in their totality, whereas we know only as the objects of knowledge are brought before us, one bit after another. With God the act of perception is complete and instantaneous. God thinks about all things at once.
"If he [God] should wish to tell us the number of grains of sand on the seashore or the number of stars in the sky, he would not have to count them all quickly like some kind of giant computer, nor would he have to call the number to mind because it was something he had not thought about for a time. Rather, he knows all things at once. All of these facts and all other things that he knows are always fully present in his consciousness" (Grudem, 191).
3. God's knowledge is independent, not dependent - He does not receive his knowledge from anyone or anything external to himself:
“Who has directed the Spirit of the Lord, or as His counselor has informed Him? With whom did He consult and who gave Him understanding? And who taught Him in the path of justice and taught Him knowledge and informed Him of the way of understanding?” (Isa. 40:13-14).
4. God's knowledge is infallible, not subject to error - As Ronald Nash has said, "Divine omniscience means that God holds no false beliefs. Not only are all of God's beliefs true, the range of his knowledge is total; He knows all true propositions" (51). God is always correct in what he knows.
5. God's knowledge is infinite, not partial - "Known unto God are all his works from the beginning of the world" (Acts 15:18). God's knows exhaustively all his own deeds and plans. He also knows us thoroughly and exhaustively. No secret of the human heart, no thought of the mind or feeling of the soul escapes his gaze. Carl Henry points out: "Psychologists and psychoanalysts speak of deep areas of subconscious experience of which human beings are hardly aware. But God knows all men thoroughgoingly, psychologists and psychoanalysts and theologians included" (V:268).
Consider David’s description of God’s knowledge as found in Psalm 139:1-4.
"O Lord, Thou hast searched me and known me. Thou dost know when I sit down and when I rise up; Thou dost understand my thought from afar. Thou dost scrutinize my path and my lying down, and art intimately acquainted with all my ways. Even before there is a word on my tongue, behold, O Lord, Thou dost know it all" (Ps. 139:1-4).
· "Searching" is an anthropomorphic image, for "God knows all things naturally and as a matter of course, and not by any effort on his part. Searching ordinarily implies a measure of ignorance which is removed by observation; of course this is not the case with the Lord; but the meaning of the Psalmist is, that the Lord knows us thoroughly as if he had examined us minutely, and had pried into the most secret corners of our being" (Spurgeon, 258).
· David's choice of words is designed to encompass the totality of his life's activities. God's knowledge extends to every posture, gesture, exercise, pursuit, state, and condition possible. "When I am active and when I am passive and everything in between . . . Thou knowest it all! My most common and casual acts, my most needful and trivial moments . . . none escape Thine eye!" David employs a figure of speech called merism, in which polar opposites are used to indicate the totality of all generically related acts, events, localities, and so on.
· Every emotion, feeling, idea, thought, conception, resolve, aim, doubt, motive, perplexity, and anxious moment lies before You like an open book. And you all this "from afar"! The distance between heaven and earth by which men vainly imagine God's knowledge to be circumscribed (limited, bounded) offers no obstacle.
· "Though my thought be invisible to the sight, though as yet I be not myself cognizant of the shape it is assuming, yet thou hast it under thy consideration, and thou perceivest its nature, its source, its drift, its result. Never dost thou misjudge or wrongly interpret me; my inmost thought is perfectly understood by thine impartial mind. Though thou shouldest give but a glance at my heart, and see me as one sees a passing meteor moving afar, yet thou wouldst by that glimpse sum up all the meanings of my soul, so transparent is everything to thy piercing glance" (Spurgeon, 259).
· "All my ways" = every step, every move, every journey, all are under His gaze. What possible hope of concealment is there when God knows what we will say before we do?
· Note especially the implications of v. 4 for divine foreknowledge: before we utter a word, God knows it all (thoroughly, completely, accurately).
Other relevant texts include:
"Nothing in all creation is hidden from God's sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account" (Heb. 4:13).
"'And you, my son Solomon, acknowledge the God of your father, and serve him with wholehearted devotion and with a willing mind, for the Lord searches every heart and understands every motive behind the thoughts'" (1 Chron. 28:9a).
"The eyes of the Lord are everywhere, keeping watch on the wicked and the good" (Prov. 15:3).
"The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it? 'I the Lord search the heart and examine the mind, to reward a man according to his conduct, according to what his deeds deserve'" (Jer. 17:9-10; cf. also Jer. 16:17; 1 Kings 8:39).
"You know my folly, O God; my guilt is not hidden from you" (Ps. 69:5).
"Your Father knows what you need before you ask him" (Mt. 6:8).
“ . . . for God is greater than our heart, and knows all things” (1 John 3:20).
“Sheol and Abaddon lie open before the Lord, how much more the hearts of men!” (Prov. 15:11).
“Yet Thou, O Lord, knowest all their deadly designs against me; do not forgive their iniquity or blot out their sin from Thy sight” (Jer. 18:23).
“Yet, O Lord of hosts, Thou who dost test the righteous, who seest the mind [lit., kidneys] and the heart . . .” (Jer. 20:12).
“And they prayed, and said, ‘Thou, Lord, who knowest the hearts of all men, show which one of these two Thou hast chosen” (Acts 1:24).
“Then the Spirit of the Lord fell upon me, and He said to me, ‘Say, thus says the Lord, so you think, house of Israel, for I know your thoughts’” (Ezek. 11:5).
“Why do you say, O Jacob, and assert, O Israel, ‘My way is hidden from the Lord, and the justice due me escapes the notice of my God’? Do you not know? Have you not heard? The everlasting God, the Lord, the Creator of the ends of the earth does not become weary or tired. His understanding is inscrutable” (Isa. 40:27-28).
As for God's knowledge of the inner man, see also John 2:25; 21:17; Jer. 11:20; 32:19; Luke 16:15; Rom. 8:27; Ps. 94:9-11; 1 Cor. 3:20; 1 Thess. 2:4; Rev. 2:23; 1 Sam. 16:7; Isa. 66:18; Deut. 31:21; Mt. 9:4; Acts 15:8.
As for God's knowledge of all our activities and ways, see also Job 23:10; 24:23; 31:4; Ps. 1:6; 33:13-15; 37:18; 119:168; Isa. 29:15; 1 Sam. 2:3; Mt. 10:30.
B. Does God Know Everything?
Some argue there are things God does not, indeed cannot, know. Since God does not have a physical body (at least prior to the incarnation), it would seem he cannot know anything that is known through the use of the five senses. He cannot know what it is to feel hot or cold. He cannot smell a rose or hear a symphony or taste food, at least not in the way those who do so through physical sense organs do. Feinberg thus defines omniscience:
“Divine omniscience is ability to know everything that a being with God’s attributes can know. Since his attributes are all perfections, they do not likely preclude his knowing something he should know as the maximally-great being” (No One Like Him, 325).
Do you agree?
C. Divine Foreknowledge
Four views of divine foreknowledge:
1. Open Theism – God knows both the past and present in exhaustive detail but knows the future only to the degree that the future is logically knowable. God can foreknow what he, God, intends to do independent of human involvement. But God cannot know what we, humans, will do until we do it. God knows the range of possibilities and potentialities but not actualities, insofar as the latter do not exist as objects of knowledge until such time as free moral agents bring them into being. Hence the future is truly “open” for both God and humans.
2. Simple Foreknowledge – Those who advocate this view contend that God “simply” knows what is going to come to pass. The future is not “open” from God’s perspective, but neither is God’s foreknowledge based on his foreordination. God “simply” foreknows what free agents will do.
3. Middle Knowledge – Advocates of this view argue that God foreknows not only what will come to pass but also what would have come to pass under any and all circumstances in any and all possible worlds. God chose to create this world because he foresaw that what would come to pass in it, as compared with all other possible worlds, best served his objective of glorifying himself while preserving the freedom of his creatures. This view is based on the belief that God has eternal knowledge of how free moral agents would act in all possible circumstances in all possible worlds.
4. Calvinist View – God foreknows everything that will come to pass in the future because he has foreordained everything that comes to pass. Humans are free moral agents insofar as they act voluntarily according to their desires. But all such desires and subsequent volitional activity fall within the sovereign and pre-temporal (or eternal) purpose of God.
D. Practical Implications
Consider how the doctrine of divine omniscience ought to affect our worship and adoration of God:
“Consider how great it is to know the thoughts and intentions, and works of one man from the beginning to the end of his life; to foreknow all these before the being of this man, when he was lodged afar off in the loins of his ancestors, yea, of Adam. How much greater is it to foreknow and know the thoughts and works of three or four men, of a whole village or neighbourhood! It is greater still to know the imaginations and actions of such a multitude of men as are contained in London, Paris, or Constantinople; how much greater still to know the intentions and practices, the clandestine contrivances of so many millions, that have, do, or shall swarm in all quarters of the world, every person of them having millions of thoughts, desires, designs, affections, and actions! Let this attribute, then, make the blessed God honourable in our eyes and adorable in all our affections. . . . Adore God for this wonderful perfection!” (Stephen Charnock, The Existence and Attributes of God, pp. 239-40).
A proper understanding of this divine attribute ought also to have a profound impact on our humility. Charnock explains:
“There is nothing man is more apt to be proud of than his knowledge; it is a perfection he glories in; but if our own knowledge of the little outside and barks of things puffs us up, the consideration of the infiniteness of God’s knowledge should abate the tumor. As our beings are nothing in regard to the infiniteness of his essence, so our knowledge is nothing in regard of the vastness of his understanding. We have a spark of being, but nothing to the heat of the sun; we have a drop of knowledge, but nothing to the divine ocean. What a vain thing is it for a shallow brook to boast of its streams, before a sea whose depths are unfathomable! As it is a vanity to brag of our strength when we remember the power of God, and of our prudence when we glance upon the wisdom of God, so it is no less a vanity to boast of our knowledge when we think of the understanding and knowledge of God” (240).
What is our response when we think of God’s knowledge of the secrets of our hearts? What impact does this have on holiness?
“Can a man’s conscience easily and delightfully swallow that which he is sensible falls under the cognizance of God, when it is hateful to the eye of his holiness, and renders the actor odious to him? . . . Tempations have no encouragement to come near him that is constantly armed with the thoughts that his sin is booked in God’s omniscience” (258).
What is even more glorious is that this doctrine which makes us fearful of sin is also the foundation of comfort and assurance. If God is omniscient, then he knows the worst about us, but loves us notwithstanding! The apostle John writes: “This then is how we know that we belong to the truth, and how we set our hearts at rest in his presence whenever our hearts condemn us. For God is greater than our hearts and he knows everything” (1 John 3:19-20).
Finally, our trust and hope shall not disappoint, for they are in him who knows all things. Charnock again explains:
“This perfection of God fits him to be a special object of trust. If he were forgetful, what comfort could we have in any promise? How could we depend upon him if he were ignorant of our state? His compassions to pity us, his readiness to relieve us, his power to protect and assist us, would be insignificant, without his omniscience to inform his goodness and direct the arm of his power. . . . You may depend upon his mercy that hath promised, and upon his truth to perform, upon his sufficiency to supply you and his goodness to relieve you, and his righteousness to reward you, because he hath an infinite understanding to know you and your wants, you and your services” (249).