What Does God Know?

The need for a coherent Christian theism has never been more obvious than it is today. In a Church where post-modernism has seen its share of successful advances, and Christian doctrine has, to a large degree been ignored or worse, swept aside in preference for a more pragmatic approach, it is clear that the time for a more cohesive understanding of Christian theism is upon us. Not since the very early and transitional phase of Christianity has the Church had more members who knew less about the system to which they claim to subscribe than it does today! One area where that glaring inconsistency emerges is in how Christians understand divine foreknowledge and its relationship to human responsibility. In order to understand the nature of how these two areas relate to one another, it is imperative to understand both. Three things will be examined: The Bible’s teaching on divine foreknowledge, the nature of human freedom, and how the two cohere with one another within the larger unifying context of Christian doctrine. Christian theism is one unified system of truth. If that system is to prove itself rational, it cannot include logical contradictions.

The Bible and Divine Foreknowledge

God’s knowledge is comprehensive, all encompassing, excluding nothing from its scope. Unlike human knowledge, God’s is not based on observation; it is undivided, simple, unchangeable, eternal. All things are eternally present to him.[1] God’s knowledge is simple, eternal, absolute, complete. This means that the state of God’s knowledge has never changed even though the state of temporality has changed. What God knows, God has always known and what God knows he has never not known. God’s knowledge cannot increase nor can it decrease. God does not gain information through observation. God’s knowledge exists in a state of perfect infinity. God’s knowledge is complete, perfect, and eternal. It is without limitations in both its scope and its perfection. Ps. 147:5 states “Great is our Lord, and abundant in power; his understanding is beyond measure.” The Hebrew expression is that God’s understanding “cannot be measured.” Psalm 147 strongly emphasizes God’s sovereign control over all the earth to include every set of circumstances that arise. Psalm 147:5 points up to Isa. 40:28, Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable. God’s knowledge, his comprehension and understanding are without limitations. God’s knowledge has no boundaries. Paul echoes this idea in the New Testament; Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and unfathomable His ways! (Rom. 11:33) Job affirmed the same thing about God’s limitations when he asked the questions, “Can you find out the deep things of God? Can you find out the limit of the Almighty?” (Job. 11:7)

God possesses perfect knowledge of the future: “Behold, the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare; before they spring forth I tell you of them.” (Isa. 42:9) God knows the beginning, the end, and everything in between; “declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done.” (Isa. 46:10) And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account. (Heb. 4:13) God knew all temporal events before time began: But we impart a secret and hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed before the ages for our glory. (1 Cor. 2:7) God decreed the wisdom that is found in and produced by the gospel before time began. The issue that will have to be grappled with is how can a timeless being act in a way that is before time. Does God’s existing eternally, outside of the bounds of time mean that there is no order in God’s eternal activities? It would seem to me that God decreed to create and then God actually created. Nevertheless, the main issue here concerns God’s knowledge. Since God’s knowledge is essential to God himself, it necessarily follows that his knowledge is infinite in scope and perfection. God does not take in information resulting in an increase in his knowledge. God’s knowledge both of himself and of the universe is so decisively and clearly taught in Scripture that it has at all times been recognized within the Christian church.[2]

Psalm 139:16 says, “Your eyes saw my unformed substance; in your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there was none of them.” John Frame points out that even if the psalmist only intends to say that God knows our days on the earth before we are even born, this is still a profound statement of God’s knowledge because such knowledge entails knowledge regarding free decisions made by every human being from the day they are born until the day they die.[3] There are a great many free decisions that go into how long a human being lives on this earth. And those decisions do not only belong to the person in question, but to numerous other individuals as well. The web of connections that this requires is vast and since it applies to every individual who has ever existed, the statement is beyond anything we can actually comprehend.

The question arises then, if God knows all things exhaustively, to include every future decision of every human being, how can human decisions be free? This question has caused a great many men to fall into heresy. Cicero could not harmonize omniscience with human free will and therefore he denied the former. Marcion the heretic denied omniscience. The Socinians believed that God could not know future contingent events with absolute certainty. The Socinians were a group of antitrinitarian heretics. The fact that this issue can lead to heretical views of the divine character should be enough to ensure due care in any investigation or study of this subject.

If one surveys theological literature on the subject of God’s knowledge, historically they will find that theologians distinguish between God’s natural knowledge and his free knowledge. God’s natural knowledge is knowledge of things merely possible and is therefore called indefinite because nothing on either hand is determined concerning them by God.[4] God’s natural knowledge is knowledge of all possible events. It is called natural because it is natural to God’s existence. The second type of knowledge is God’s free knowledge. God’s free knowledge deals with future things and follows God’s free action to create. God’s free knowledge is his knowledge that is associated with his will or decree to create, or actualize this world and all that is in it. Basically, God’s knowledge being both natural and concerning all possible worlds which includes every possible event in every possible world, and God’s knowledge being free entails that God’s knowledge is all-encompassing. There is nothing that God does not know always.

One popular view of God’s free knowledge was brought forward by the philosopher Boethius and it remains popular to this day. God sees the beginning from the end the way that a man in a blimp or tall building would see the beginning of a parade and the end of it all at once. The problem with this view is that it does not comport with God’s free knowledge which is determinative. The Bible depicts God’s knowing as synonymous with God’s willing. Not only does God know the end from the beginning, he knows it precisely because he declares it. (Isa. 46:10) The counsel of the Lord will stand forever. (Ps. 33:11) Many are the plans of the mind of man, but it is the purpose of the Lord that will stand. (Prov. 19:21) The idea that God is a passive observe of the parade from the top of the tallest building is quite wide of the mark where descriptions of divine knowledge are concerned.

Reason also proves the doctrine of omniscience. First, it does this by way of negation: ignorance is a defect and imperfection, but God is most perfect; therefore, all ignorance is to be removed from him.[5] This can also be seen by way of causality. There can be no sure attainment of the ultimate goal unless the one who brings about the end knows it fully – or, stated in a more logical form, the final goal, although temporally subsequent to the means used to attain it, is necessarily logically prior. What this means is that if God decreed to create, and surely he did, then God had an ultimate purpose for that act. This is clearly taught throughout Scripture. And since God created with an ultimate end in mind, it logically follows that God had this purpose and all that it entails prior to his creative act. Furthermore, since creation was to serve this purpose and since nothing could thwart this purpose, and since all things are connected to this purpose, it must be the case that God determinatively knew all the particulars necessary to accomplish this purpose. Moreover, all things in creation are being worked by God according to God’s precise plan and there is nothing in creation that is not working in perfect accord with God’s plan. (Eph. 1:11) God’s purpose for creation is eternal. (Eph. 3:11) There was no state in which God did not purpose to reveal and redeem men to himself through Christ.

Since all things exist in the mind of God, then subsequently in themselves, it necessarily follows that God has perfect knowledge of all things. God knows himself perfectly. God’s self-knowledge determines the nature and character of God’s knowledge of all things outside himself perfectly.[6] What are the implications of this understanding of God’s knowledge? This implies that God’s eternal knowledge of all persons and things makes it impossible for God to not know what each person will do in each and every possible scenario (God’s natural knowledge) and in each and every actual scenario (God’s free knowledge) over the course of that person’s life.

Given that God is infinite and knows himself, his knowledge must also be infinite; so too, given that all things exist because of his will, by simply knowing what he wills, God must know all things.[7] In other words, all things exist and take place because of God’s will. God possesses perfect knowledge of all that he wills. Therefore, God knows all things because God knows his own will. It can be stated in the form of a logical syllogism:

God possesses perfect knowledge of all that he wills. God’s will is the cause of all that exists and occurs. Therefore, God has perfect knowledge of all things that exist and occur. If this argument is to be rejected, it is usually the second premise that comes under criticism. No rational believer would ever be so absurd as to argue against the proposition that God knows his own will perfectly. But there are those who do not believe that all things that happen, happen by divine fiat. The reason for this is usually due to a misunderstanding regarding the freedom of the will and it’s harmony with divine justice. Paul tells us that God is working all things according to the counsel of his will. (Eph. 1:11) God’s will in such a context is an expression of God’s eternal plan, what some call God’s eternal decree. The same idea is conveyed in Romans 9:11 which tells us that God chose Jacob over Esau before they were born so that his purpose according to his election might stand. God’s will involves accepting Jacob and rejecting Esau before either man was even born. The reason for God’s choice is known only to God. God’s glory is the ultimate singular purpose for God’s acting. All things are for God’s glory, including God’s election of Jacob based purely on God’s will and his rejection of Esau prior to his birth based purely on God’s will. This is the clear teaching of Paul in Romans 9.

The free knowledge of God, as Scientia pratica, is causal in nature. God’s free knowledge, being grounded in God’s will, raises the problem of human freedom. This so-called problem has its roots in Aristotelian philosophy and its denial that God (the unmoved mover) possesses knowledge of particulars. From this philosophy, the Palagians and Socinians argued for the independence of the human will, claiming that God does not know individuals who will believe, but merely decrees to save in a general way any who will believe and repent. However, Scripture clearly indicates that God knows all universals as well as particulars. For God to know only universals and not particulars is an unacceptable imperfection in God that is incongruent with basic Christian belief.

If God wills to reject Esau, for example, and he further wills that Isaac would bless Jacob instead of Esau, is Isaac free to bless Esau instead? Can Isaac freely choose to do that which is contrary to the eternal plan of God? Paul and Daniel answer this question quite clearly. Paul says that God has mercy on whom he wills and whom he wills he hardens. Pharaoh is the example Paul uses to prove his point. Paul anticipated the objection: why does God find fault with men like Pharaoh if they only do what God had willed them to do? For no one can resist God’s will! (Rom 9:16-20) Dan. 4:32-35 tells us that not even a king can resist the will of God and that God does according to his will among the hosts of heaven and the inhabitants of the earth. No one can stay his hand! Clearly then, no one can resist God’s will! And since God wills everything that happens either directly or through secondary causes, nothing happens outside of, or contrary to God’s will. And since God knows himself perfectly, he knows his will perfectly. And since God knows his own will perfectly, God knows every detail of every past, present, and future event in the history of human existence. God knows these things because God wills them.

[1] Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, ©2003- 2008), 179.

 

[2] Ibid., 192.

[3]John M. Frame, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Christian Belief (Phillipsburg, New Jersey: P & R Publishing, 2013), 316.

 

[4] François Turrettini, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, trans. George Musgrave Giger (Phillipsburg, N.J.: P & R Pub., ©1992-©19), 213.

 

[5] Richard A. Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics: The Rise and Development of Reformed Orthodoxy, Ca. 1520 to Ca. 1725, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academics, ©2003), 395.

 

[6]Ibid., 400

[7]Ibid., 398

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