Divine Knowledge and God’s Grace

In his book, A Great and Terrible Love, the writer Mark Galli notes that omniscience has fallen on hard times.[1]And this is for at least three reasons.

First, we don’t want that kind of knowledge. No one likes being around a know-it-all. They are annoying, arrogant, or just plain geeky. In fact, consider the case of Socrates.

Second, we don’t want God to have it either. So, it seems that we don’t want omniscience. And perhaps rightly so. But, what about God? Do we want God to be omniscient? If God is omniscient, then he knows everything—including my own ruined soul—and this causes many to huddle in fear at the thought.

Finally, many philosophers and theologians today deny that God has it. On the one hand, many theistic philosophers and theologians deny that God knows the future, and this historically has been part of what God knows. On the other hand, atheistic philosophers argue that the concept of omniscience is incoherent.

In this episode, we’ll consider whether it is possible and desirable to endorse the idea that God knows everything.

There are at least three reasons to believe in divine omniscience.[2]

First, Scripture teaches that God knowledge is vast and complete or exhaustive.

Second, and briefly, there are perfect being considerations coming from philosophy. The idea, in general, behind perfect being theology is that God is the greatest possible being. As the greatest possible being, God possesses all great-making properties (or more technically, all “compossible” great making properties that can hang coherently together). Arguably, having knowledge is a great making property and having maximal or complete or exhaustive knowledge is better than having limited knowledge. Thus, God has maximal knowledge. God knows everything.

Finally, we find support for divine omniscience from other theological doctrines.

What is the scope of divine omniscience in view when we say God knows “everything” and what is the nature of divine omniscience?   

God knows. God knows everything. But how should we understand “everything”? What is the object of God’s knowledge?  The object of God’s knowledge are “that-clauses” or propositions, understood as the meaningful content of declarative sentences. God’s knowledge is propositional. This lends itself to a straightforward account of divine omniscience:

            Divine Omniscience1 = God knows all true propositions.

We think this rather simple definition of divine omniscience captures the consensus view at the heart of many extant definitions.

Given, as noted above, that God’s nature includes omniscience, we add that God’s knowledge is perfect, infallible, occurrent, wide, and direct.

Can you say a bit more about what might be troubling about this definition of omniscience?

 I want to focus on a worry with respect to the scope of divine knowledge. The worry has to do with whether or not God knows the future.  Let me briefly state the problem.

Recall that God is infallible. He knows all truths and cannot believe a falsehood. Further, suppose that it is the case that when I’m 60 I will finally get around to reading Dante’s Divine Comedy (let us hope I can in fact do so). Let’s suppose I will. If God has exhaustive foreknowledge, he knows that I will read the Comedy when 60 years old. He knows that now, and infallibly so. Since he can’t be wrong, it is not clear that I can do other that read Dante at 60. It seems my fate is fixed, I must read Dante at 60, otherwise, God would not believe it. But then, it seems I’m not free after all. This is the problem of divine foreknowledge and human freedom.

How should we think about this problem? What are our options?

It seems we have two options. We can either deny that God has exhaustive foreknowledge of the future, including the future free acts of humans, effectively diffusing the dilemma or we can endorse the view that God does have both exhaustive foreknowledge of the future and that humans are genuinely free and seek another way out of this dilemma.

So, the first option is to limit the scope of divine knowledge to the past and present, but not the future. This is the view, popular recently amongst some theologians and philosophers called open theism. The idea is that the future is genuinely open and thus God, nor any being, can know the future.

I think there is biblical warrant that God has exhaustive foreknowledge of the future. I also think that there is biblical warrant for human freedom (and freedom of the libertarian variety such that we are not determined by God to act freely). But then, the question is how can one hold together divine foreknowledge and human freedom? Is there a model of divine omniscience that can hold these two things together? Let me briefly make two points.

First, we need to be careful to distinguish certainty from necessity.[8] Just because God knows with certainty that I will read (let’s say) Dante at 60, it doesn’t follow that I must, of necessity, ready Dante and 60. Rather, I have the power to refrain from reading Dante at 60 and if I were to refrain, then God would have known that beforehand instead (and infallibly so). Just because God knows that something will be the case, it doesn’t follow that God causes it to be the case, or that it must be the case. As the philosopher David Hunt puts it, “The future is epistemically settled in the divine mind: but it does not follow that the future is causally settled in any way that conflicts with human freedom.”[9]

Second, there is an attractive model of divine omniscience that can explain God’s knowledge of future free acts of humans. This model is called molinism. The basic idea is that God knows what we will in fact do in virtue of two things: first his knowledge of what we would do in various circumstances (this is called middle knowledge or knowledge of all possible free acts) and second, his divine decree to select, from all possible world, this world, in which I freely do (let’s say) read Dante at 60. So, on this view, God does in fact know the past, present, and future and he also knows the actual and the possible. Just what we wanted: a wide scope understanding of God’s knowledge and a view that endorses genuine (libertarian) freedom of the will.

So, it seems there is at least one model of divine omniscience that nicely holds together exhaustive divine foreknowledge and genuine (libertarian) human freedom. Of course, there are others too: if we go for compatibilism (the idea that being free is compatible with being determined) then it is also possible to hold together divine foreknowledge and human freedom.

How does the idea that God knows everything, including everything about the human heart, help us understand God’s gracious love?

God knows everything. And this means, of course, that God knows everything about me (and about you Courtney). But a moment’s reflection on this last point reveals a God of grace. I love how Mark Galli in his book A Great and Terrible Love describes how we learn of God’s grace over time as we realize God’s knowledge of our ruined and darkened heart. He writes:

Like exploring a dark cave with a small flashlight, we discover the contours of this grace only slowly. Once in a while, we come upon a huge cavern of mercy, where the stalactites and stalagmites of grace overwhelm us with their beauty. We realize that this grace has been dripping into our lives for years, creating something beautiful when we thought there was only darkness.[10]

He knows what I will do, including all the mistakes I will make over the rest of my life, yet he still accepts me as his own. What a gracious and merciful God!

Omniscience then is not so much a theological attribute or a philosophical problem as it is a revelation of God’s mercy. It will indeed inspire fear when we first start reflecting on it. Just ask the Psalmist. But the fear of the Lord is also the beginning of wisdom and grace.[11]

[1] Mark Galli, A Great and Terrible Love: A Spiritual Journey into the Attributes of God (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker 2009), 49.

[2] Edward Wierenga, “Omniscience,” in The Oxford Handbook of Philosophical Theology, eds. Thomas P. Flint & Michael C. Rea (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 129–130.

[8] John C. Peckham, Divine Attributes: Knowing the Covenantal God of Scripture (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2021), 127.

[9] David Hunt, “Simple-Foreknowledge Response [to Boyd]” in Divine Foreknowledge: Four Views, eds. James K. Beilby & Paul R. Eddy (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2001), 53; quoted in Peckham, Divine Attributes, 127 FN 67.

[10] Galli, A Great and Terrible Love, 53.

[11] Ibid.

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