A Study of God's Omniscience
What does God know? Does His foreknowledge of future contingent events mean that they MUST come to pass? If so, and if some contingent events seem to trouble even God, does He CHOOSE not to know them? Can God’s power limit His knowledge, etc.?
In this essay we will study several things about God’s nature, with particular reference to God's omniscience. We will examine: (1) Some general information about God's attributes, (2) What the Scriptures say that God knows, and what are the implications, (3) How do we explain those human characteristics which are often attributed to God in the Bible?, and (4) What is the truth about God's foreknowledge and human freedom?
Some General Information About God’s Attributes
Let us first discuss, in a general way a couple of God's natural attributes. Human beings are both finite and contingent. To be finite means to be limited. We are limited in our power; we are limited in our knowledge of what is, to us at least, the future; we are limited in our capacity to love, etc., etc. To be contingent means to be dependent. We are dependent on someone (or, something) else for our existence (both our origination in existence and our continuation in existence—our becoming and our being); we are dependent on other things for our knowledge; we are dependent on others for our political freedom, our individual freedom, etc.
Now God is both infinite and non-contingent. That is, God is NOT limited in any of His attributes. And, God is NOT dependent on anyone (or, anything) else for anything that He does, or Who He is! Specifically, with reference to His knowledge, God is NOT limited in His knowledge of what is, to us at least, the past, present, and future. God is NOT dependent on anyone (or, anything) else for His existence, for His awareness of and knowledge of ANY contingent actions and/or thoughts. God is neither limited in His capacity for love, mercy, justice, holiness, etc., nor is He dependent on anyone else for these character traits. He is loving and is therefore, the infinite and non-contingent standard of what is loving conduct and loving thoughts. He IS merciful, and is therefore, the infinite and non-contingent standard of what is merciful conduct and merciful intentions, etc. None of His attributes war against or annul any of His other attributes.
For example, God is self-existent (He is non-contingent, thus, NOT dependent on any outside person, cause, or entity for His existence)! He cannot will Himself to cease to exist! Someone may ask, “If He had a little more power, couldn't He cease to exist?” “If He only knew a little more, couldn't He figure out how to get the job done?” “If His will was a little more determinate, couldn't He just decide to do it?” “Can't He just change whenever He wishes to do so?” NO! He is self-existent! He is infinite in power! He is infinite in knowledge! He is infinite in His will! He is immutable!
To be all-powerful does not mean that God can do anything whatever. Things that are impossible to do cannot be done—not even by God! Things that contradict God's nature (that is, Who He is at all) cannot be done! These are not really limitations on God's power. He can do anything and everything that is possible to do, and in harmony with His own nature.
So, God cannot make square triangles. He cannot make a page so flat that it has only ONE side. He cannot make the universe both exist and not exist at one and the same time. He cannot make the proverbial rock so heavy that even He cannot lift it, etc. These things cannot be done BECAUSE they are not subject to power at all--not even infinite power!
They are impossible, and, as C. S. Lewis argued:
His Omnipotence means power to do all that is intrinsically possible, not to do the intrinsically impossible. You may attribute miracles to Him, but not nonsense. This is no limit to His power. If you choose to say “God can give a creature free will and at the same time withhold free will from it,” you have not succeeded in saying anything about God: meaningless combinations of words do not suddenly acquire meaning simply because we prefix to them the two other words “God can.” It remains true that all things are possible with God: the intrinsic impossibilities are not things but nonentities. It is no more possible for God than for the weakest of His creatures to carry out both of two mutually exclusive alternatives; not because His power meets an obstacle, but because nonsense remains nonsense even when we talk it about God. (28)
Things that are contradictory to God’s nature also cannot be done. He cannot lie (Titus 1:2; Hebrews 6:18), because He IS truth and, therefore, the complete opposite of anything false! He cannot deny Himself (2 Timothy 2:13), because He IS self-existent and to do so would be to say that which is false. God cannot be tempted with evil (James 1:13), because He IS good and therefore, the complete opposite of anything that is evil. God cannot change (James 1:17; Malachi 3:6) which refers to His immutability, or, His unchangeableness. He won’t be less good tomorrow than He is today. He won’t be less truthful tomorrow, or more truthful tomorrow than He is today. He won’t be more, or less, powerful tomorrow than He is today. He won’t be more, or less, knowledgeable tomorrow than He is today. God cannot and does not change. He IS God!
God is omnipotent, which means that He can do whatever is subject to power, and that He has no limits with reference to His power to do what is possible (Revelation 19:6; Job 42:2; 2 Chronicles 20:6; Job 12:14-16; Psalms 29:3-4; 33:9; 62:11; 66:3, 7; 145: 5, 8; Isaiah 40:23-26; 46:10; 50:2-3; etc.).
God is immutable, which means that He cannot change in any of His attributes (Psalms 119:89; 117:2; Ecclesiastes 7:13; Jeremiah 10:10; Numbers 23:19; Malachi 3:6; Titus 1:2; Hebrews 6:17-18; James 1:17; etc.).
God is omniscient, which means that He knows whatever is possible to know, and that He knows ALL of what is possible to know (1 Samuel 2:3; 1 Chronicles 28:9; Job 36:4-5; Acts 15:18; Isaiah 46:9-10; etc.). Omniscience means that “He comprehends all things-- past, present, and future, things actual and possible. God has universal and complete knowledge” (Lightner 96-97).
What Does Scripture Say About Omniscience?
1. Divine omniscience is knowledge without the discovery of facts previously unknown (Isaiah 40:13-14; Romans 11:34-36; Acts 15:18).
2. Divine omniscience is knowledge which is complete. Nothing ever surprises God!
3. Divine omniscience is knowledge which is all-inclusive. He knows every possible variation, all contingent elements of everything, and the relation things have to one another. God knows:
(a) what from eternity past will be in eternity future (Isaiah 46:9-10; Acts 15:18);
(b) everything in nature (Psalms 147:4; Matthew 10:29);
(c) all the ways of all men (Proverbs 5:21; Psalms 139:2-4; Amos 9:2-4);
(d) those who are His (2 Timothy 2:19);
(e) the believer’s sorrows (Exodus 3:7);
(f) the believer’s needs (Matthew 6:8, 32);
(g) the details of life (Matthew 10:30); and, in a special sense
(h) God knows Himself (1 Corinthians 2:9-13; 2 Timothy 2:12-13).
There are many other things that could be added to this list, but these are a fair sampling of those things known perfectly by our God! There are constant challenges relative to nescience in God, that is, the possibility that God could limit His knowledge, choose to forget, or not know certain particulars in one's life. One is that of T. W. Brents, in The Gospel Plan of Salvation, pages 74-87. Please bear in mind that one of the greatest challenges in the early days of the restoration movement was hard-core Calvinism. Brents sees the problem as resolving itself into one of unlimited vs. limited foreknowledge. He begins by expounding the Calvinistic position in which foreknowledge implies foreordination, and that therefore, there is no freedom to do otherwise for man. He says about Calvinism:
If God knew, ere time began, that Cain would kill his brother, then there was no possibility left to Cain to avoid the deed . . . . Ergo, as God foreknew every thing, He must have decreed every thing; and as He fore knew the destiny of every man, it follows that He decreed the destiny which man had no power to avert. (74)
Brents calls Calvin’s position the unlimited foreknowledge of God. His further comments make clear that he contends for a limited foreknowledge. The argument is as follows:
Major Premise: God's foreknowledge in all things implies God's fore ordination in all things and, therefore, no free will in man.
Minor Premise: But, man is free and, so, not foreordained in all things (i.e., there are some things not foreordained in the lives of men).
Conclusion: Therefore, God does not foreknow all things.
He argues as follows:
To be responsible man must be free. If God knew before He gave Adam the law in the garden that he would violate it when given, then he was not free; for he could not have falsified God’s foreknowledge if he would: hence to violate the law was a necessity. The great scheme of salvation conceived by Infinite Wisdom contemplated human responsibility based upon freedom of will, and God had power to avoid the foreknowledge of every thing incompatible with His attributes and the scheme of redemption devised by him. (77)
For all practical purposes Brents argues that, without denying God’s foreknowledge in some things, Calvin has made his case. So, the only possible way to respond to Calvinism, Brents holds, is to adopt the position he has taken. Three additional quotations will make this position clear. He says: “If there are some things which God cannot do, though omnipotent, may there not be some things which He DID not know, though omniscient?” (77). The answer to this question is NO! God cannot do what is NOT subject to power (in omnipotence). In other words, not even God can do what is impossible to do. And, God cannot know what is NOT subject to knowledge (in omniscience). In other words, not even God can know what is impossible to know. But, Brents continues, thinking that he has put a dent in the armor of his objectors: “Very well; then He did not know, before making man, just how wicked he would be, simply because such foreknowledge would have been incompatible with the free-agency and responsibility of man” (77).
There are two immediate responses to this. First, Brents must prove that such foreknowledge is “incompatible with the free-agency and responsibility of man.” Second, Brents has committed a fallacy in argumentation (a non-sequitur, to be more specific). It does not follow from some supposed limitation in man that God is affected at all. That is, there is NO logical connection between God’s ability to know and man’s free moral agency. Thinking that he has made his case, though, Brents completes his argument as follows, “God has the power to avoid the foreknowledge of every thing incompatible with His attributes and the scheme of salvation devised by Him. He who says God could not avoid knowing every thing, limits the power of Him who is omnipotent. God can limit the exercise of His own attributes, but it is dangerous for man to assume such power” (77).
What Is Implied By This Position?
Let me respond to Brents’ position (and those who hold similar views). First, Brents affirms that those of us who argue that God knows everything that is possible to know, somehow limit the power of God. In other words, His power is greater than His knowledge, since His power can limit His knowledge (per Brents). But, any limitation from a greater cause renders the things limited less than perfect, hence, not infinite. In short, such renders God finite in knowledge. Therefore, God cannot be conceived of as immutable (i.e., unchanging, Mal. 3:6; Titus 1:2; etc.), since His knowledge can be changed by His power. Brents says that "God can limit the exercise of His own attributes," which is clearly absurd! Since a non-contingent Being is self-existent, eternal and necessary, if Brents’ position holds, then God could limit the exercise of any (or all) of these characteristics such that the self-existent Being could cease to exist (by His own choice to “limit the exercise of His own attributes”), thus becoming temporal (rather than eternal), and could cease to be necessary, thus becoming contingent. In fact, given this doctrine, God could cease being holy (thus becoming demonic), cease being just (thus becoming murderous and corrupt), and cease being good (thus becoming evil). As a matter of fact, there is simply no stopping place if one takes the same position as Brents. All of this is implied in the position which maintains that God has the power to limit the exercise of His attributes, if He so desires. This means that God’s will overrides all other attributes, and any or all of God's attributes are subject to God’s choice. But this conclusion is false. Any doctrine that implies a false doctrine is itself false. Whatever Brents is discussing, this much is clear—He is NOT discussing the God of Judeo-Christian theism. To affirm that God is infinite in all His attributes is to affirm that God never changes, either for the better or for the worse. God is Who He is, and His choice does not change this. He cannot deny Himself (2 Timothy 2:13). The specific issue which 2 Timothy 2:13 addresses is God’s faithfulness. But, given Brents’ position, God could choose to cease being faithful, because He could choose to limit the exercise of that specific characteristic. Paul says that this is simply not the case.
Second, rather than making the scheme of redemption more understandable, Brents’ position renders it strictly impossible. This is so because God would have to blot out of His memory every single thing having anything whatever to do with His activity of creation. The earth was created for man (Isaiah 45:18). Christ was set forth as a sin offering for man long before either the universe or man was created, simply because God knew (from eternity) that, given freedom of choice (which men must have in order to be men), humans would (at some point) choose to abuse that freedom and sin (see Ephesians 1:4; Matthew 25:34; 1 Peter 1:18-20; 2 Timothy 1:9; 2:23; John 17:5, 24; Revelation 13:8; 17:8). Because of the need for a haven for those forgiven and sanctified, God also eternally purposed the church of the Christ (Ephesians 3:10-11). In order to choose to forget something, one must first know what He wills to forget. So, God had to choose to willingly blot from memory everything concerning the scheme of redemption, since it all had to do with man’s creation. But, how could one guarantee that He chose to remember all of this again? And, if He did (which I am at a loss to know how to prove, if Brents’ position is true), then why would He allow the created realm to continue, since such knowledge was once so painful that He had to blot it out of mind completely? In other words, either God does not remember any of this (and we are all doomed, since the Bible is pure myth) or He remembers all of it, and is faced with the same ugly truth which Brents insists would have caused Him not to create man at all. So, since God’s sustaining hand is required to keep all things in existence (Colossians 1:17; Hebrews 1:3; etc.), then why would He allow the creation to continue?
Third, the Bible plainly teaches that God’s understanding is infinite (Psalms 147:5) and that, therefore, He is able to “declare the end from the beginning” (Isaiah 46:10). Now, either the Bible is right in this matter (and Brents is wrong), or God’s understanding at some point became finite (since limited by a cause greater than itself, in which case Brents would be right) and the Bible is wrong. Be careful how you think about this issue, for all Bible prophecy is rooted in this concept. Any position which implies a false position, is itself false. The position of T. W. Brents is just such a position relative to the omniscience of God.
Attempts to Deal with a Supposed Incompatibility Between Divine Omniscience and Human Freedom
There are three basic views relative to Divine Omniscience and human freedom. Two have been briefly examined, and the third has been partially explicated as an initial response. At this point, however, let me make these viewpoints a little more explicit. First, there is the view of Calvinistic thinkers. Though there are interesting differences in how this is explained, the basic outline is the same. Calvinists conceive of God as completely sovereign over the created order. No event happens that God has not ordained. There are no surprises, no unforeseen risks for God. All things unfold according to the Divine plan. Supporters of this position are committed to the claim that no event happens that God does not ultimately cause. Consequently, salvation is purely a matter of Divine action. Humans play no active role whatever in their own salvation. Instead, through inner spiritual influence (generally called the “Direct Operation of the Holy Spirit”), God gives some humans the will, the faith and the repentance necessary to receive the benefits of Christ’s propitiatory sacrifice. Others receive no such inner spiritual prompting and, therefore, these persons are not saved. According to this viewpoint, the future is known fully by God because He has predetermined all that happens. So, God does not know the future by passively “observing” it; rather, He knows it by deciding, in advance, what the future will be and by making sure that it happens precisely as He planned it. If He foreknows an event, it simply MUST come to pass, because He also foreordains it.
Second, there is the view known as Arminian, named for James Arminius. Again, there are some interesting variations here, but the basic outline is the same as in the case of Calvinism. Arminians also affirm Divine sovereignty and insist that God is ultimately in control of all that happens. In at least some sense, nothing happens that God has not ordained. However, this view denies that foreknowledge implies forecausation. Though it is clear that some things are foreordained, or, directly caused by God, it does not follow that all things are caused in this way. Instead, God permissively wills or permissively ordains some events. Creatures cause some events. God simply foreknows (in a passive, observation-like way) what these creatures will do, and willingly permits them to perform the acts in question. As a result, men are fully free and therefore responsible for the actions that they freely perform. Thus, this model reverses the Calvinistic view of foreknowledge. Rather than affirming that God knows the future by determining it, Arminians argue that God “predetermines” the future by foreknowing it. This means that God permissively allows foreknown events to occur. Hence, salvation involves some human effort. Although salvation is by grace, it is appropriated by man’s free faith response to that grace. Obviously, my own view is fairly close to the Arminian position.
Third, there is the somewhat modern viewpoint known as “Open Theism,” sometimes called “freewill” theism, which actually is virtually the same as that which Brents advocated. Open theists hold that God is sovereign over the created order, just as do Calvinists and Arminians. However, God chooses to limit the exercise of His power so that creatures (especially humans) may exercise genuine freedom and responsibility. Like the Arminians and unlike the Calvinists, open theists believe that humans play a positive role in their salvation. The decision to follow Christ is, consequently, a human act. But, unlike both Arminianism and Calvinism, open theists deny that God fully knows the future. This is the only way that they think that human freedom can be saved. They argue that if God fully knows the future, then given specific events MUST occur. In other words, for such events to be free, they cannot be foreknown. According to open theists,God simply does not know future contingent events. In fact, to open theists, either the future is exhaustively known by God and freedom does not exist or freedom exists for man and God's knowledge is limited.
There are attempts to mark off some sort of “middle ground” between Calvinism and Arminianism by Reformed thinkers. Norman Geisler’s “moderate Calvinism” in his book Chosen But Free, is one such attempt. I will not comment on this further in this article. Another such attempt is the so-called “Middle Knowledge” view first advanced by the Spanish Jesuit philospher-theologian Luis de Molina (1535-1600). Sometimes called “Molinism,” Molina began by accepting three claims: (1) future contingent propositions have a truth value, (2) God knows all true propositions about the future, and (3) human beings are free in the sense of the liberty of indifference, that is, they are free either to do x or not to do x. The aim of this view is to preserve free will while maintaining the Christian doctrine of the efficacy of divine grace. Efficacious grace actually grew out of the doctrine of Original Sin, developed by Augustine. As it continued to be developed in Catholic Theology, it ultimately led to the doctrine of efficacious grace dispensed through the seven sacraments. To clarify this, I cite the “Decree for the Armenians” from the General Council of Florence (1439):
We here set out the true doctrine of the sacraments of the Church in a brief formula which will facilitate the instruction of the Armenians, both now and in the future. There are seven sacraments of the New Law, namely, baptism, confirmation, the Eucharist, penance, extreme unction, Order and matrimony; and they differ greatly from the sacraments of the Old Law. For these did not cause grace (my emphasis, D.S.) but were only a figure of the grace that was to be given through the passion of Christ; but our sacraments both contain grace and confer it on those who receive them worthily. (Neuner and Dupuis 349)
Due to the doctrine of “original sin,” it was held that all men have an evil will. And, grace is needed to overcome an evil will. Even faith itself is a gift of God, because no man could really have a free will until God's grace acts first. God’s grace is necessary, per Augustine, to overcome an evil will, and is “prevenient” (prior to) our free choices.
But it was because they had been chosen, that they chose Him; not because they chose Him that they were chosen. There could be no merit in men's choice of Christ, if it were not that God’s grace was prevenient in His choosing them. . . . Now if God is able . . . to operate in the hearts even of the wicked, in return for their deserts, --whose wickedness was not made by Him, but was either derived originally from Adam, or increased by their own will, --what is there to wonder at if, through the Holy Spirit, He works good in the hearts of the elect, who has wrought it that their hearts become good instead of evil? (38, 43)
For “how,” says he, “shall they call upon Him in whom they have not believed?” The spirit of grace, therefore, causes us to have faith, in order that through faith we may, on praying for it, obtain the ability to do what we are commanded. On this account the apostle himself constantly puts faith before the law; since we are not able to do what the law commands unless we obtain the strength to do it by the prayer of faith. (28, emp. added)
To completely discuss the relationship between grace and free will, a distinction was made (primarily by Thomas Aquinas) between efficacious grace and sufficient grace. Sufficient grace contains the idea of a withholding of consent on the part of free will. Efficacious grace, on the other hand, contains the idea that, by it and with it, the free will does precisely that which this grace desires should be done. The Pelagians disagreed with the idea of supernatural grace in the way just described, and the Reformers (primarily Calvin) did away with free will.
For Molina, although God has foreknowledge of what human beings will choose to do, neither that knowledge nor God's grace determine (or, cause) human will. This knowledge is made possible by God's “middle knowledge,” which is a knowledge between the knowledge God has of what existed, what exists, and will exist, and the knowledge God has of what has not existed, does not exist, and will not exist. Middle knowledge is God’s knowledge of conditional future contingent events, namely, of what persons would do under any possible set of circumstances. Thanks to this knowledge, God can arrange for certain human acts to occur by prearranging the circumstances surrounding the choice without determining the human will. Thus, God’s grace is concurrent with the act of the will and does not predetermine it, reducing the Thomistic distinction between sufficient grace and efficacious grace superfluous.
I disagree with the doctrine of original sin (or, total depravity in Calvinism) and, therefore, also disagree with the doctrines of prevenient grace (for Catholics) or irresistible grace (for Calvinists). The Bible teaches that men become sinners by transgressing God’s law (1 John 3:4) or falling short of His standards (1 John 5:17), which children who have no knowledge of good and evil (Deuteronomy 1:39; Isaiah 7:15-16) cannot possibly accomplish. I also deny the notion that Divine grace (through a direct operation of the Holy Spirit) causes faith and thereby effects salvation in that way. The Holy Spirit calls men to Christ through (by means of) the Scriptures that He authored (see Ephesians 3:3-5; 2 Peter 1:20-21; 2 Timothy 3:15-17; 1 Corinthians 2:10-13). This effectual calling of the sinner to Christ is clearly taught in numerous places (see Mark 16:15-16; Matthew 28:18-20; Luke 24:46-47; 2 Thessalonians 2:15; etc.). A passage commonly used by those who teach the direct calling of the Spirit is John 6:44, which reads: “No one can come to Me, unless the Father who sent Me draws him; and I will raise him up on the last day.” This sounds very much like the doctrine of efficacious grace, or, irresistible grace, until we read the very next verse: “It is written in the prophets, ‘And they shall all be taught of God.’ Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father, comes to Me” (v. 45). The drawing power is the Word which was, in fact, inspired of the Holy Spirit. In other words, the Spirit exercises His effectual drawing power through the Word that He authored. On the Day of Pentecost, the apostles spoke as the Spirit gave them utterance (Acts 2:4). These Spirit-inspired men communicated the truth of the gospel to their audience. Peter, who was the primary spokesman on this occasion, effectively convicted them of their sin by means of his preaching. Near the end of his discourse, he said: “Therefore let all the house of Israel know for certain that God has made Him both Lord and Christ—this Jesus whom you crucified.” Now when they heard this, they were pierced to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, ‘Brethren, what shall we do?’ And Peter said to them, ‘Repent, and let each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and your children, and for all who are far off, as many as the Lord our God shall call to Himself.’” (Acts 2:36-39)
The inspired preaching of Peter convicted these people of their sin, and in this way, God was drawing them to Himself. Then, once convicted, they exercised their freedom to accept or reject the gracious offer of forgiveness that God was extending to them. The record informs us that about 3,000 accepted that offer on this occasion, and they were added to the church by the Lord Himself (cf. Acts 2:41, 47). Since the Holy Spirit is prominently mentioned in Acts 2, this would have been an ideal place for God to explain the doctrine of efficacious grace. Instead, they were drawn by the preaching of the Word, exactly as Jesus had commissioned them to be doing (Mark 16:15-16).
Now, since these doctrines were contrived to deal with the supposed incompatibility between Divine Omniscience and human freedom, it is appropriate to discuss them here. In spite of the fact that Molinism is interesting as a potential way to deal with this problem, I reject it as an answer for at least the following reasons: First, since those who offer this solution generally accept the doctrines of either efficacious grace or irresistible grace (or, at least, the direct influence of the Holy Spirit upon the soul), and since I have rejected that as an acceptable solution, it should be obvious why I also reject Molinism. Thus, what Molinism attempts to save becomes a non-issue! Second, I find no biblical evidence for the distinctions necessary to embrace Molinism. A theistic philosopher simply cannot dismiss the Bible as relevant evidence in coming to his conclusions, and the Bible nowhere speaks of the three types of knowledge that God supposedly possesses (per Molina). Third, the Bible does clearly teach the timelessness (or, “eternality”) of God, and this provides a much more satisfying solution to the supposed problem of incompatibility between Divine Omniscience and human freedom (cf. Genesis 1:1f.; John 1:1-3; etc. cf. Robinson).
Now, if the Calvinistic view is correct, then the future must be exhaustively settled by God. By way of contrast, I hold that the future is exhaustively known by God, or, in other words, God knows what self-determined agents will freely do. The Scriptures teach that God’s knowledge both of actual future events (future to “time bound” beings) and possible future events is unlimited and therefore, exhaustive. As an example, consider David’s question, God’s answer, and David’s decision in the following:
Then David said, “O LORD God of Israel, Your servant has certainly heard that Saul seeks to come to Keilah to destroy the city for my sake. Will the men of Keilah deliver me into his hand? Will Saul come down, as Your servant has heard? O LORD God of Israel, I pray, tell Your servant.” And the LORD said, “He will come down.” Then David said, “Will the men of Keilah deliver me and my men into the hand of Saul?” And the LORD said, “They will deliver you.” So David and his men, about six hundred, arose and departed from Keilah and went wherever they could go. Then it was told Saul that David had escaped from Keilah; so he gave halted the expedition. (1 Samuel 23:10-13)
What the Lord said would occur if David stayed in Keilah never really did occur, because David chose to leave instead, thus, escaping from King Saul. David learned of the contingent possibilities and freely acted so as to bring only one of the two possible alternatives about. So, we have both God's knowledge of both possible and actual future events, coupled with David’s freedom to bring at least one such event about!
Consider also the Bible’s teaching on conditional prophecies. Please consider the clear conditional prophecy of Jeremiah:
At one moment I might speak concerning a nation or concerning a kingdom to uproot, to pull down, or to destroy it; if that nation against which I have spoken turns from its evil, I will relent concerning the calamity I planned to bring on it. Or at another moment I might speak concerning a nation or concerning a kingdom to build up or to plant it; if it does evil in My sight by not obeying My voice, then I will think better of the good with which I had promised to bless it. (Jeremiah 18:7-10)
In all of this, it is not God Who changes, since God is immutable (Malachi 3:6; Hebrews 6:16f.; etc.), but rather, it is man who changes. God’s changed response is due to man’s changed behavior (see Romans 11:22-23). A very clear biblical example of this is found in Jonah 3:1-10. Jonah’s preaching to Nineveh was simple, and consisted of just eight words: “Yet forty days and Nineveh shall be overthrown” (Jonah 3:4). Here is a prophecy uttered by a true prophet of God that never came to pass (see Deuteronomy 18:20-22). Why? Because this is a conditional prophecy that really has two possible answers, depending upon what choice those receiving the prophecy actually make. The people of Nineveh actually chose to repent. Now, all of this is in perfect harmony with God’s timeless Omniscience and human freedom.
Gerald Hughes offered the following relative to God’s knowledge:
God knows things as they are, irrespective of when they are. The world has only one actual history, one actual past, present and future, even though that history could, no doubt, have been different at any or every stage. It is that one actual history which is eternally accessible to God's knowledge. That is not to say that God knows everything simultaneously (which would imply that God is in time); nor is it to deny that he knows that things succeed one another in time. We often speak as though our past were fixed and our future open-ended. In a sense that is quite true, since we can no longer affect what is past, but we can affect what is still future. But there is also a sense in which it is misleading to tal in this way. For there are many past histories which we could have had but did not, and in just the same way many future histories which we could but will not have. Which of these possible histories we in fact have is, in part at least, dependent upon ourselves and our free choices. It is this one actual history which is timelessly known to God. . . . What about free choices which we might have made but never in fact make? I would say that God knows all of these as possibilities; but in my view it is a mistake to say that God knows what we would have (as distinct from might have) freely chosen had things been different; where freedom is concerned, I do not believe there are any truths of that kind to be known, by God or anyone else. (qtd. in Varghese 222-23)
Truth corresponds to reality, and possible or potential realities are not actual realities, any more than a potential infinite is an actual infinite. Of course, God knows all the contingent possibilities, but it is only the actual realities of human choices that constitute that which God knows is true of human history. Foreknowledge certainly entails and implies foreordination in some cases (as, for instance, in the sacrifice of the Christ—known before the foundation of the world, the eternal purpose of the church, etc.). But, this is a long way from affirming that foreknowledge implies foreordination in all cases, for it is clear that it does not. In the next section of this essay, we shall examine:
The Truth about Foreknowledge
With the foundation laid in what has been written thus far, it is now important to address the question of foreknowledge. I will do so in three ways: (1) I will discuss some important figures of speech, (2) I will make some general observations about what foreknowledge doesn't accomplish, and (3) I will specifically address some questions that bring the issue of foreknowledge to the clear light of day.
First, I would like to call your attention to some figures of speech used frequently in Scripture, but which must be properly understood in order to correctly understand God’s foreknowledge. The figure of speech called anthropopatheia is used to ascribe human passions, actions, or attributes to God, as an accommodation to the finite understanding of man. The figure is comprised of both anthromorphism (Milligan 21), which ascribes human characteristics to that which is not human, and anthropopathy (23), which ascribes human feelings to God. The Hebrews had a description for this figure of speech. They called it “the way of the sons of men.” The Greeks had another name for it. They called it syncatabasis, which means “a going down together with.” This means that God, by using this figure of speech to communicate, condescends to the ignorance and infirmity of men. The Latin term for this is condecensio, or, condescension (Bullinger 871). Let’s note some prominent examples:
1. A soul is attributed to God (Leviticus 26:2).
2. A face is mentioned to signify His presence (Psalms 31:20-21).
3. Eyes are used of God’s observation (Psalms 11:4).
4. Ears are attributed to Him (Isaiah 59:1-2).
5. Nostrils are attributed to God (Exodus 15:8).
6. A mouth, lips, and a tongue are attributed to God, in connection with His will, His word, His command, etc. (Num. 12:8; Matt. 4:4; Job 11:5; Isa. 30:27).
7. Bowels are attributed to God to denote His mercies and His pity (Isaiah 63:15; Luke 1:78).
8. Repentance is attributed to God (Genesis 6:6; 2 Samuel 24:16; 1 Samuel 15:11, 29).
9. Knowing --not an actual knowledge as such, but the acquiring of knowledge as though one were previously ignorant (see Genesis 22:12). Of course, God knew the situation already, but in wondrous condescension, He stooped to make Abraham understand (Bullinger 884).
10. Not knowing--the opposite of knowledge is attributed to God (see Genesis 3:9, which seems to imply ignorance on God's part. See also Genesis 4:9, “Where is Abel thy brother?”). Does anyone really believe that God did not know where Adam was located? Or, is it rather that God was seeking to force Adam to recognize his changed condition? Does anyone seriously think that God did not know where Abel was at the time that God asked the question?
Both of these are examples of erotesis (or, interrogation), which is the figure of speech used when a speaker or writer asks animated questions, but NOT for the purpose of obtaining information (Bullinger 943).
Second, I now wish to make some general observations about foreknowledge. I must affirm that God’s foreknowledge is indeed an accomodation to man who is an historical creature. We all have a past, a present, and a future. But actually, God knows all things presently, without any past, present, and future. In other words, for God, all things are in the “eternal NOW” Strong puts it best in the following:
Since it is free from all imperfections, God’s knowledge is immediate, as distinguished from the knowledge that comes through sense or imagination; simultaneous, as not acquired by successive observations, or built up by processes of reasoning; distinct, as free from all vagueness or confusion; true, as perfectly corresponding to the reality of things; eternal, as comprehended in one timeless act of the divine mind. (283)
If God has learned one thing in His dealings with man, He was not omniscient (allknowing) before He learned that one thing. And, by virtue of the fact that He has learned one thing, He has proven to be mutable and, therefore, changeable. To affirm this is to deny that God is immutable and omniscient, or, in other words, to deny God.
The Bible clearly teaches that man is a free moral agent (cf. Matthew 11:28-30; Joshua 24:15; Deuteronomy 30:15-20; etc.). Freedom means that my choices are not determined by prior causes (“causal necessity”), and that I am able to be a self-mover or self-determiner. Simply put, the freedom of which I speak means that the buck stops with the human agent, and there is no reason to look further for the cause of human decisions. As such, humans can be held responsible for what they do.
Furthermore, God’s foreknowledge of future actions does not by itself hinder human freedom, since knowledge does not actually cause anything. Take the following statement: “Dick Sztanyo is typing at the keyboard of his computer on 25 August 2006.” Because of my free choice to type today, a statement expressing the truth that I would type on 25 August 2006 was true a thousand (or, a million) years ago! However, the truth that such would occur, DID NOT cause it to occur. I, as a free agent, caused it to occur. If God foreknows that He will answer my prayer tomorrow, then is He determined (or, foreordained) to do it, simply because He knows His own actions (that are, in human terms, in my future)? Of course not. God’s foreknowledge of His actions does not cause Him to do them; He does what He does freely—NOT by necessity. (NOTE: If God does things by necessity, then something outside of or greater than God is causing Him to act). In the same way, God’s foreknowledge of my future free acts in no way determines (or, causes) those actions to occur. It is as a free agent that I—and I alone—act so as to be culpable and responsible for my actions.
Some other things that could be discussed are rather complex and are not strictly needed to make the case. But, I would distinguish between certainty and necessity--that is, between what will happen and what must happen. I would also argue that God, knowing what we would possibly do in all possible worlds He might have created, brought about a world that best utilizes human free choices to accomplish His purposes in history. Moreover, I would discuss God’s knowledge of contrary-to-fact (i.e., counterfactual) circumstances in the lives of numerous Bible characters. This shows that God did not rig events and human choices in the world that He created. One example will suffice which has already been mentioned. God tells David that if he remains at Keilah, then Saul will come after him. David flees, and what would have been true if he had stayed does not come to pass (1 Samuel 23:6-13).
Third, to follow upon the necessary groundwork just laid, I want to raise several questions about the foreknowledge of God and then answer those questions.
1. What is meant by the foreknowledge of God?
ANSWER: By the foreknowledge of God we mean His knowledge from eternity of all the events and developments in His moral universe (see Ephesians 1:4; Matthew 25:34; 2 Peter 1:20; Revelation. 13:8; 17:8; Acts 2:22; 2 Timothy 2:19; Ephesians 3:10-11).
2. What did God foreknow with reference to His moral creatures?
ANSWER: He foreknew that they would lapse into sin and would, consequently, stand in need of salvation (2 Peter 1:1-2, 20; Acts 2:23). We cannot conceive of omniscience without foreknowledge of such important matters as these. Neither can we conceive of God as being required to make experiments.
3. What is the connection between God's foreknowledge and His eternal purpose and plan?
ANSWER: His eternal purpose and plan were formed with the likelihood in prospect that man would lapse into sin and stand in need of salvation (see Romans 3:23-26; etc.). The plan of salvation was, therefore, no afterthought, introduced merely upon the event of human sinfulness. Instead, the sinfulness of the race was distinctly foreseen, and the atonement decided upon, and all the particular circumstances and conditions of the race devised from the very outset. Alexander Campbell said:
Evident then it is, that the whole remedial or gospel system was purposed, arranged and established upon the basis of the revealed distinctions of Father, Son and Holy Spirit; and by these, in reference to one another, before the foundation of the world; and that all the institutions and developments of religion in the different ages of the world were, in pursuance of that system, devised in eternity, and consummated some two thousand years ago. (18)
4. What is meant by foreordination?
ANSWER: Foreordination is the term used to describe all those exercises of the Divine will by which the circumstances and events in the unfolding of God’s eternal purpose and plan, were determined and decreed from eternity.
5. What is the Scripture doctrine of foreordination?
ANSWER: It is that the Divine plan of redemption for man was foreordained in all its particulars, and in light of God's foreknowledge that the race would lapse into sin and stand in need of salvation. This does not mean that certain individuals are foreordained to be saved, and that others are foreordained to be lost. This monstrous claim is derogatory to God. It means, rather, that a certain class (or, group) of persons is foreordained to be saved, and that another and opposite class (or, group) is foreordained to be lost.
Commenting on Romans 8:28-30, Moses Lard said:
All things worked together for good to those that are called according to God’s ancient purpose; and they are thus called by the gospel. Those who He foresaw in purpose would obey Him, He predetermined to be, when raised from the dead, of like form with that of His Son. Those whom He thus in purpose predetermined, He justified in purpose; and those whom he justified in purpose, He glorified in purpose. (279)
It is clear, therefore, that the apostle is contemplating in Romans 8:28-30, God’s eternal purpose. The class (or, group) for whom God purposes to work the benefits described (justification, glorification, etc.) is the class of “them that love God,” who, of course, manifest their love for Him by obedience to His will (1 John 5:3; John 14:15, 21, 23-24;
etc.) Briefly put, the elect, or those foreordained to be saved with an everlasting salvation, are those who respond to the overtures and calls of God as extended through the gospel, and who manifest their faith and love by submission to His will.
6. What class (or, group) of persons is foreordained to be saved?
ANSWER: The class consisting of all those who accept God's offer of salvation through Christ (Ephesians 1:3-5, 13-14; 2:8; 2 Thessalonians 2:13-14; etc.). God’s overtures and calls are extended to us through the gospel. All who hear and accept God's call extended to us through the gospel, are those who constitute the class of accountable human beings who are foreordained to be saved (provided, of course, that they remain loyal to Him--1 Corinthians 15:58; 1 John 1:7; etc.). So, they are known in Scripture as “the elect” (Revelation 22:17; 1 Peter 1:1-2; Matthew 25:34; etc.). Campbell stated:
The present elect of God are, then, those who are in Christ, and not those out of Him: for it was in Him that God has set His affection upon them, and chose them to eternal life before the world began. God is not, indeed, in this whole affair a respector of persons. It is at character, and not person, that God looks. He has predestinated all that are in Christ "to be holy and without blame before Him in love," and, at His coming, to be conformed to Him in all personal excellency and beauty and to share with Him the bliss of a glorious immortality. So that "we shall be like Him"--the firstborn, and we His junior brethren, bearing His image in our persons as exactly as we now bear the image of the earthly Adam, the father of us all. (34-35)
7. What class (or, group) of persons is foreordained to be lost?
ANSWER: The class consisting of all those who reject or neglect God's offer of salvation through Christ (John 3:18; Mark 16:16; Romans 2:8-11; Hebrews 2:3; 2 Thessalonians 1:7-9; etc.).
8. Why is this class (or, group) of persons foreordained to be lost?
ANSWER: They will be lost, not because of anything God has done or will do to cause them to be lost, but in consequence of their own disobedience, indifference, and rebellion (see James 1:13-15; John 5:40; 2 Peter 2:9; Romans 2:15-16; Matthew 7:18-20; Hebrews 10:29-31; etc.).
Paul Copan, facing the very issues we have been discussing, said: “I want to sketch, therefore, a biblical response to the charge of divine arbitrariness regarding those who are saved and those who are not. I will do so by arguing for a corporate rather than an individual understanding of God’s election to salvation” (85). God knows all that is capable of being known, and He knows it perfectly! To Job, it was revealed that God is “perfect in knowledge” (Job 36:4; 37:16). And, the Psalmist simply says, “His understanding is infinite” (Psalms 147:5)!
Brents, T. W. The Gospel Plan of Salvation. 16th ed. Nashville: Gospel Advocate, 1977.
Bullinger, E. W. Figures of Speech Used in the Bible. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003.
Campbell, Alexander. The Christian System. Bethany: Forrester and Campbell, 1839.
Copan, Paul. That’s Just Your Interpretation: Responding to Skeptics Who Challenge Your Faith. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2001.
Lard, Moses E. Commentary of Paul's Letter to the Romans. St. Louis: Christian, 1875.
Lewis, C. S. The Problem of Pain. 16th ed. New York: Macmillan, 1962.
Milligan, Robert. The Scheme of Redemption. Nashville: Gospel Advocate, 1977.
Neuner, J. and J. Dupuis. The Christian Faith in the Doctrinal Statements of the Catholic Church. Revised ed. Westminster: Christian Classic, 1975.
Robinson, Michael D. Eternity and Freedom: A Critical Analysis of Divine Timelessness as a Solution to the Foreknowledge/Free Will Debate. New York: University Press of America, Inc., 1995. Idem,
The Storms of Providence: Navigating the Waters of Calvinism, Arminianism, and Open Theism.
New York: University Press of American, Inc., 2003. These two books, the first of which is more
philosophical than the second, are among the best works on the subject that I have seen. I would recommend a study of them.
Strong, Augustus Hopkins. Systematic Theology. Rochester: E. R. Andrews, 1886.
Varghese, Roy Abraham. Great Thinkers on Great Questions. Oxford: Oneworld, 1998.
Dick Sztanyo studied Philosophy of Religion and Apologetics under Dr. Thomas B. Warren at Harding University Graduate School of Religion. He has done additional study at the International Academy of Philosophy and Andrews University as well as doctoral work in Philosophy at the University of Dallas.