Is God All This and All That? (Part 1: Omniscience)

God cannot be good, or He cannot be real. This is basically the thrust of the argument which uses the problem of evil against God, at least as He is traditionally understood. The Greek philosopher Epicurus put it this way:

Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent.
Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent.
Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil?
Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?

This dilemma, called in the above form the Epicurean Paradox or more generally just the problem of evil, has always been a difficult problem for Christians. Yes, there have always been answers, but not all of the proposed answers have been good, clear, and coherent. The most popular answer has usually involved free will, but even that idea has been fraught with questions and philosophical challenges (e.g. “Can free will truly exist alongside divine sovereignty, omnipotence, and omniscience?”). Another popular answer, though almost exclusively in Calvinist circles, is that evil was essentially imagined and decreed by God so that He could use it to glorify Himself.

Because of these difficulties, some people have attempted reevaluate Biblical teachings on God to see if we are getting something wrong in the start. This has led some people to startling conclusions.

What if God isn’t actually omniscience (all-knowing)?

What if God isn’t actually omnipotent (all-powerful)?

At first glance, both of these objections sound absurd. Yet there are people who charge that omniscience and omnipotence, at least as traditionally understood, are philosophical traditions imposed on the Bible from the outside, and not actually Biblical teachings themselves.

For those of us who seek to be true Biblicists, sola Scriptura Protestants, we should feel compelled to examine all such claims that our traditions are misleading us from Scripture. We must take them seriously and find out if they are true. Could we be wrong, misled by worldly philosophy?

If we are wrong, there are obvious implications for the problem of evil. If God is not truly all-knowing, and in this case usually people mean He doesn’t fully know the future, then the devastation of sin on the world may have been essentially a surprise to God. Maybe He didn’t mean for the world to turn out so bad, but He took a risk for the sake of love.

For some people, though, even this isn’t enough. Maybe God didn’t see it coming, but surely if He was omnipotent and good, He would have immediately responded to evil by wiping it out. He could have destroyed Satan, or found a way to give people free will without giving them the ability to do evil, just like He gives us free will without the ability to turn into sausage. So if God was not fully omnipotent, at least in the traditional sense, then it might make sense that God did not immediately stop evil in the beginning.

With such a solution to the problem of evil at hand, and with an accusation that full omniscience and omnipotence are unbiblical, it is worth a search to see what Scripture actually says. I’ll tackle the two questions, omniscience and omnipotence, separately.

Does God know everything? More specifically, does God know all about the future, or does He perhaps not know what free humans will choose to do every time? The Biblical evidence is interesting. There are some statements in Scripture which seem to indicate that God doesn’t know absolutely everything. God responded to man’s wickedness before the Flood with regret as though it were a surprise (Gen. 6:5-6), asked Abraham where Sarah was (Gen. 18:9), seemed to need to investigate Sodom and Gomorrah before He judged them (Gen. 18:20-21), apparently found out Abraham’s faith at Mt. Moriah (Gen. 22:12), searched out the hearts of the Israelites for 40 years in the desert (Deut. 8:2), only said “perhaps” about Israel’s repentance from Jeremiah’s preaching (Jer. 26:3), and in many other places acted as though He did not know what was coming. Many people have argued that these narratives provide a portrait of a God who does not know all the future, or even necessarily the whole of the present.

On the one hand, there are statements to the effect that God knows everything. Examples include 1 John 3:20, Psalm 139, Hebrews 4:13, John 21:17, etc. One might argue, though, that in context none of these have anything to do with the important question about the future. It still might make sense to say God knows “everything” but speak loosely and only really mean the present, or perhaps be using hyperbole. Some people even argue that God knows absolutely everything, but that the future is literally nothing until it happens. God knows everything, but the future isn’t part of everything. So does the Bible offer any specific reasons to believe that God knows the future?

There is, to the best of my knowledge, no verse that specifically says that God knows the future exhaustively, but there is evidence that He must know at least some or most of it. A classic example is Isaiah 42:9, in which God declares that He speaks of events yet to come. In fact, in Isaiah God’s knowledge of major coming events is repeatedly brought forth as evidence that He, not the idols Israel and the Gentiles loved to worship, is the true God (Isa. 41:22-23, 44:7-8, 46:9-10). While one might respond that this knowledge seems to be limited to what God is planning to do Himself (e.g. 46:10), such a limitation is hardly compatible with the way this knowledge is used against the idols. Any false god could know what it plans to do, and there is nothing uniquely impressive about Yahweh knowing His own plans.

More evidence that God must know the future at least pretty fully is found in the prophecies of Daniel. Daniel prophesied the rise and fall of many empires in God’s power, and yet these prophecies cover a wide range of types of knowledge. They include God’s own plans, the actions of individual kings and leaders, and the larger movements of history and empire. Sense can hardly be made of the prophecies of Daniel unless God knows every, or nearly every, kind of future action, including the free choices of people.

That said, is there any Biblical “smoking gun” statement proving unambiguously that God knows absolutely everything about the future? No. So it is certainly possible to interpret the Biblical evidence in a way which leaves the future at least partially uncertain to God. Nonetheless, it seems far more likely, given the totality of the Biblical testimony, to say that God does indeed know the future to the same extent that He knows the present and the past. More problems are solved by acknowledging this than by denying it, or at least it seems so to me. This is further supported by the unanimous testimony of the entire Church throughout history up until very recently (for most of Church history no other understanding has existed at all), and by reflections on space, time, creation, and physics, though this latter line of evidence is beyond the scope of this post. If everything must be established by two or three witnesses, then the full omniscience of God seems well grounded.

Of course, I should not skim over the many Biblical texts brought against this view earlier. What of all of these references, mostly in Genesis, which make God sound as though He needed to find things out which He did not know? My answer on this must remain somewhat traditional, not out of any necessary loyalty to tradition but because it seems the most sensible explanation to me out of all the possibilities. I believe John Calvin got it mostly right with his strong notion of accommodation. To Calvin, we see in the Scriptures, and especially in the early Old Testament, God reaching down to speak to us in a way that we can understand, even if this is very limited and even perhaps not always fully accurate in translation. He likened God’s condescension in speaking to us to a parent babbling to their infant child.

I would, in fact, take this line even further. I believe that what we see in the early Old Testament is God revealing Himself first in a way which would simultaneously be understandable and subversive to the original audience, an ancient people steeped in primitive polytheism. They came from a religious culture where the gods were almost exclusively viewed in a very limited and human-like way. They had no other concept of what a deity might be like. So God showed Himself primarily in such terms, as though He were one of their tribal deities, but throughout this revelation also planted the seeds of fuller knowledge, so that the knowledge of God by condescending analogy and the knowledge of God as He truly is wrestled in tension until the fullness of revelation in Jesus.

On an additional note to this, I would suggest that in interacting with man God can do so most freely and easily when He interacts with us on our level, like a character in time rather than simply as the God above time. Just try to imagine the weirdness of interacting with someone from a strictly transcendent, timeless posture. For our comprehension alone, it was necessary for God to speak like one of us.

So, with a decent case for God’s comprehensive foreknowledge established with at least some strength, we will need to move on to look at God’s omnipotence, His all-power. After all, perhaps God knew what was coming, and knew that in the long run He could work all things out, but in the meantime did not have the ability to prevent all evil. Yet I have run wildly long so far, thus I will have to save the next part for another post.

Is God All This and All That? (Part 1: Omniscience)

Augustine on Open Theism

Ever heard of open theism? If you haven’t, open theism is an umbrella term for a variety of doctrines of God which hold this in common: God does not have total foreknowledge of all future events. For most of my readers, I’m sure this an unfamiliar and very bizarre sounding position, but unfortunately open theism does have growing supports in groups which otherwise appear to be Evangelical. Major supporters include Clark Pinnock, Gregory Boyd, and John Sanders.

Here, I have no interest in providing my own arguments against open theism. There are plenty of those to go around already. Nor will I spend time explaining why open theism’s error is actually less Biblically obvious than many people assume. That can also be saved for later.

What I actually am interested in doing here is quoting Saint Augustine on this matter. I’ve recently begun reading (well, listening to) The City of God, and in the course of this work Augustine comes to refute the error of Cicero, a pagan philosopher who denied God’s foreknowledge to preserve human free will. Since this is almost exactly the project of modern open theists, I thought it would be worth sharing Augustine’s response. So without further ado, here’s the argument:

And this [refuting the Stoic concepts of prophecy, fate, and divination] he attempts to accomplish by denying that there is any knowledge of future things, and maintains with all his might that there is no such knowledge either in God or man, and that there is no prediction of events. Thus he both denies the foreknowledge of God, and attempts by vain arguments, and by opposing to himself certain oracles very easy to be refuted, to overthrow all prophecy, even such as is clearer than the light (though even these oracles are not refuted by him).

I should break for a moment to mention that, unlike Cicero, open theists do not rule out all prophecy. Some believe God can predict events with great precision like intelligent people but better, and others simply argue that, when God wishes, He can ensure that His will for the future is carried out, though at the expense of human accountability.

But, in refuting these conjectures of the mathematicians, his argument is triumphant, because truly these are such as destroy and refute themselves. Nevertheless, they are far more tolerable who assert the fatal influence of the stars than they who deny the foreknowledge of future events. For, to confess that God exists, and at the same time to deny that He has foreknowledge of future things, is the most manifest folly. This Cicero himself saw, and therefore to assert the doctrine embodied in the words of Scripture, “The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God.” That, however, he did not do in his own person, for he saw how odious and offensive such an opinion would be; and therefore, in his book on the nature of the gods, he makes Cotta dispute concerning this against the Stoics, and preferred to give his own opinion in favor of Lucilius Balbus, to whom he assigned the defence of the Stoical position, rather than in favor of Cotta, who maintained that no divinity exists. However, in his book on divination, he in his own person most openly opposes the doctrine of the prescience of future things. But all this he seems to do in order that he may not grant the doctrine of fate, and by so doing destroy free will. For he thinks that, the knowledge of future things being once conceded, fate follows as so necessary a consequence that it cannot be denied.

But, let these perplexing debatings and disputations of the philosophers go on as they may, we, in order that we may confess the most high and true God Himself, do confess His will, supreme power, and prescience. Neither let us be afraid lest, after all, we do not do by will that which we do by will, because He, whose foreknowledge is infallible, foreknew that we would do it. It was this which Cicero was afraid of, and therefore opposed foreknowledge. The Stoics also maintained that all things do not come to pass by necessity, although they contended that all things happen according to destiny. What is it, then, that Cicero feared in the prescience of future things? Doubtless it was this,—that if all future things have been foreknown, they will happen in the order in which they have been foreknown; and if they come to pass in this order, there is a certain order of things foreknown by God; and if a certain order of things, then a certain order of causes, for nothing can happen which is not preceded by some efficient cause. But if there is a certain order of causes according to which everything happens which does happen, then by fate, says he, all things happen which do happen. But if this be so, then is there nothing in our own power, and there is no such thing as freedom of will; and if we grant that, says he, the whole economy of human life is subverted. In vain are laws enacted. In vain are reproaches, praises, chidings, exhortations had recourse to; and there is no justice whatever in the appointment of rewards for the good, and punishments for the wicked. And that consequences so disgraceful, and absurd, and pernicious to humanity may not follow, Cicero chooses to reject the foreknowledge of future things, and shuts up the religious mind to this alternative, to make choice between two things, either that something is in our own power, or that there is foreknowledge,—both of which cannot be true; but if the one is affirmed, the other is thereby denied. He therefore, like a truly great and wise man, and one who consulted very much and very skillfully for the good of humanity, of those two chose the freedom of the will, to confirm which he denied the foreknowledge of future things; and thus, wishing to make men free he makes them sacrilegious.

But the religious mind chooses both, confesses both, and maintains both by the faith of piety. But how so? says Cicero; for the knowledge of future things being granted, there follows a chain of consequences which ends in this, that there can be nothing depending on our own free wills. And further, if there is anything depending on our wills, we must go backwards by the same steps of reasoning till we arrive at the conclusion that there is no foreknowledge of future things. For we go backwards through all the steps in the following order:—If there is free will, all things do not happen according to fate; if all things do not happen according to fate, there is not a certain order of causes; and if there is not a certain order of causes, neither is there a certain order of things foreknown by God,—for things cannot come to pass except they are preceded by efficient causes,—but, if there is no fixed and certain order of causes foreknown by God, all things cannot be said to happen according as He foreknew that they would happen. And further, if it is not true that all things happen just as they have been foreknown by Him, there is not, says he, in God any foreknowledge of future events.

I’ll point out here that Cicero’s argument, as presented by Augustine, is almost identical to that of open theists on a popular level, but also of many atheists. And must of its core actually parallels the standard arguments in favor of free will over a Calvinist-style determinism.

Now, against the sacrilegious and impious darings of reason, we assert both that God knows all things before they come to pass, and that we do by our free will whatsoever we know and feel to be done by us only because we will it. But that all things come to pass by fate, we do not say; nay we affirm that nothing comes to pass by fate; for we demonstrate that the name of fate, as it is wont to be used by those who speak of fate, meaning thereby the position of the stars at the time of each one’s conception or birth, is an unmeaning word, for astrology itself is a delusion. But an order of causes in which the highest efficiency is attributed to the will of God, we neither deny nor do we designate it by the name of fate, unless, perhaps, we may understand fate to mean that which is spoken, deriving it from fari, to speak; for we cannot deny that it is written in the sacred Scriptures, “God hath spoken once; these two things have I heard, that power belongeth unto God. Also unto Thee, O God, belongeth mercy: for Thou wilt render unto every man according to his works.” Now the expression, “Once hath He spoken,” is to be understood as meaning “immovably,” that is, unchangeably hath He spoken, inasmuch as He knows unchangeably all things which shall be, and all things which He will do. We might, then, use the word fate in the sense it bears when derived from fari, to speak, had it not already come to be understood in another sense, into which I am unwilling that the hearts of men should unconsciously slide. But it does not follow that, though there is for God a certain order of all causes, there must therefore be nothing depending on the free exercise of our own wills, for our wills themselves are included in that order of causes which is certain to God, and is embraced by His foreknowledge, for human wills are also causes of human actions; and He who foreknew all the causes of things would certainly among those causes not have been ignorant of our wills. For even that very concession which Cicero himself makes is enough to refute him in this argument. For what does it help him to say that nothing takes place without a cause, but that every cause is not fatal, there being a fortuitous cause, a natural cause, and a voluntary cause? It is sufficient that he confesses that whatever happens must be preceded by a cause.

So how does Augustine respond? He simply includes the freedom of the will as part of a causal chain to be foreknown by God. This doesn’t collapse all human choice into “fatal” determinism, but simply means that God can by His omniscience see through the entire course of human intentions and decisions as part of the cause-and-effect relationship which Cicero has already acknowledged exists even in a world with free will. Continuing:

For we say that those causes which are called fortuitous are not a mere name for the absence of causes, but are only latent, and we attribute them either to the will of the true God, or to that of spirits of some kind or other. And as to natural causes, we by no means separate them from the will of Him who is the author and framer of all nature. But now as to voluntary causes. They are referable either to God, or to angels, or to men, or to animals of whatever description, if indeed those instinctive movements of animals devoid of reason, by which, in accordance with their own nature, they seek or shun various things, are to be called wills. And when I speak of the wills of angels, I mean either the wills of good angels, whom we call the angels of God, or of the wicked angels, whom we call the angels of the devil, or demons. Also by the wills of men I mean the wills either of the good or of the wicked. And from this we conclude that there are no efficient causes of all things which come to pass unless voluntary causes, that is, such as belong to that nature which is the spirit of life. For the air or wind is called spirit, but, inasmuch as it is a body, it is not the spirit of life. The spirit of life, therefore, which quickens all things, and is the creator of every body, and of every created spirit, is God Himself, the uncreated spirit. In His supreme will resides the power which acts on the wills of all created spirits, helping the good, judging the evil, controlling all, granting power to some, not granting it to others. For, as He is the creator of all natures, so also is He the bestower of all powers, not of all wills; for wicked wills are not from Him, being contrary to nature, which is from Him. As to bodies, they are more subject to wills: some to our wills, by which I mean the wills of all living mortal creatures, but more to the wills of men than of beasts. But all of them are most of all subject to the will of God, to whom all wills also are subject, since they have no power except what He has bestowed upon them. The cause of things, therefore, which makes but is not made, is God; but all other causes both make and are made. Such are all created spirits, and especially the rational. Material causes, therefore, which may rather be said to be made than to make, are not to be reckoned among efficient causes, because they can only do what the wills of spirits do by them. How, then, does an order of causes which is certain to the foreknowledge of God necessitate that there should be nothing which is dependent on our wills, when our wills themselves have a very important place in the order of causes? Cicero, then, contends with those who call this order of causes fatal, or rather designate this order itself by the name of fate; to which we have an abhorrence, especially on account of the word, which men have become accustomed to understand as meaning what is not true. But, whereas he denies that the order of all causes is most certain, and perfectly clear to the prescience of God, we detest his opinion more than the Stoics do. For he either denies that God exists,—which, indeed, in an assumed personage, he has labored to do, in his book De Natura Deorum,—or if he confesses that He exists, but denies that He is prescient of future things, what is that but just “the fool saying in his heart there is no God?” For one who is not prescient of all future things is not God. Wherefore our wills also have just so much power as God willed and foreknew that they should have; and therefore whatever power they have, they have it within most certain limits; and whatever they are to do, they are most assuredly to do, for He whose foreknowledge is infallible foreknew that they would have the power to do it, and would do it. Wherefore, if I should choose to apply the name of fate to anything at all, I should rather say that fate belongs to the weaker of two parties, will to the stronger, who has the other in his power, than that the freedom of our will is excluded by that order of causes, which, by an unusual application of the word peculiar to themselves, the Stoics call Fate.

You’ll notice here that Augustine affirms God as the original Cause, Creator, and Sustainer of all things, even the human will, and even the wicked human will. Yet His creative power which gives the will existence and ability does not determine the characteristic shape or choices that will takes on. Instead, he explicitly states that “wicked wills are not from Him.”

In the following chapter, Augustine also goes on to ask whether necessity affects the freedom of the will. There he makes some interesting points about God’s freedom, but to finish up this post I want to quote one more short bit very relevant to this post.

It is not the case, therefore, that because God foreknew what would be in the power of our wills, there is for that reason nothing in the power of our wills. For he who foreknew this did not foreknow nothing. Moreover, if He who foreknew what would be in the power of our wills did not foreknow nothing, but something, assuredly, even though He did foreknow, there is something in the power of our wills. Therefore we are by no means compelled, either, retaining the prescience of God, to take away the freedom of the will, or, retaining the freedom of the will, to deny that He is prescient of future things, which is impious. But we embrace both. We faithfully and sincerely confess both. The former, that we may believe well; the latter, that we may live well. For he lives ill who does not believe well concerning God. Wherefore, be it far from us, in order to maintain our freedom, to deny the prescience of Him by whose help we are or shall be free.

St. Augustine, The City of God, chapters 9-10

Augustine on Open Theism