Is God’s knowledge limited?
At the outset, let me relieve any fears you might have regarding my title. Indeed, it might seem like a rather foolish question to be asking. Most Christians would say this is a no-brainer: God knows everything. And for the record, I happen to agree.
However, I just did a quick look at my site and I see that I have not yet done an entire article on the omniscience of God, so that will have to come – hopefully soonish. But the issue of God’s omniscience is clearly affirmed throughout Scripture. Just a few verses on this can be mentioned here:
Job 37:16 Do you know how the clouds hang poised, those wonders of him who is perfect in knowledge?
Psalm 147:5 Great is our Lord and mighty in power; his understanding has no limit.
Isaiah 46:10 I make known the end from the beginning, from ancient times, what is still to come.
Romans 11:33 Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God!
1 John 3:20 For God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything.
So it seems like this is a cut and dried case. Yet some folks might stumble when they come upon a verse like the one I just read again in my morning reading. Genesis 18:20-21 says this: “Then the Lord said, ‘Because the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is great and their sin is very grave, I will go down to see whether they have done altogether according to the outcry that has come to me. And if not, I will know.”
What, God does not know everything? I will discuss this passage soon enough, but when I read it, I immediately thought of some Christians who do in fact believe that God does not know all things. They believe he does NOT know everything, and they will point to a passage like this as a proof-text of their position.
I have had debates with such folks over the years. One response that I share with them I just posted on the social media. I said this: “Bill’s tip of the day: When you have dozens of rather clear biblical passages on a particular matter, but find one or two rather obscure passages that seem to say otherwise, it is usually best to run with the former. Interpret somewhat obscure texts in light of the rest of Scripture.”
I then linked to one of my pieces on basic biblical interpretation: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2019/07/14/general-principles-of-biblical-interpretation/
So that should be our first port of call when reading Scripture. When we come across a difficult or an obscure or a seemingly contradictory text, we must assess it in light of the rest of Scripture. A key hermeneutical rule that we must always adhere to is ‘Scripture interprets Scripture’.
In this case, if we have a lot of texts that seem to affirm divine omniscience, then a passage like this needs to be understood in the light of them and the rest of the Bible. We cannot just latch onto one such text and claim God does not know everything.
Let me now do two further things: discuss this text in a bit more detail, and then briefly mention some of those who do claim God is not omniscient – or have a qualified view of what omniscience means. As to Gen. 18:20-21, a few things can be mentioned. One, as always, context is crucial. If we read the preceding verses (16-19) we find this:
Then the men set out from there, and they looked down toward Sodom. And Abraham went with them to set them on their way. The Lord said, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do, seeing that Abraham shall surely become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him? For I have chosen him, that he may command his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice, so that the Lord may bring to Abraham what he has promised him.”
God already knew full well what was happening, and he had already decided that judgement was coming. This was part of his plan from all eternity to make of Abraham a great nation. As to God ‘going down to see’ what was happening, this is simply a literary device, but one that makes an important point.
God is a perfectly just God. He does not do things on a whim, or capriciously, or without full knowledge. So when he judges a people, he knows all about what is happening, and his judgment is fair and proper. So here he is reassuring Abraham that the matter indeed is fully investigated, and God’s judgement is in accord with his thorough understanding of the entire situation.
As Tremper Longman comments: “The anthropomorphic description of God as needing to actually go to the city to determine the extent of their wickedness serves the purpose of communicating that he is utterly just in his judgments since the Bible elsewhere teaches that God is omniscient (Pss 139:1-6; 147:5).”
Or as Andrew Steinmann puts it in his recent commentary on Genesis: “It should be borne in mind that at this point God is assuming the role of judge for the purposes of revealing his actions to Abraham. In this anthropomorphic role of judge he would assemble the evidence in order to render a verdict.”
So all this is being done not for God’s benefit, but for Abraham’s. With such an amazing call on his life (which we first read about in Genesis 12), God wants to reassure Abraham that everything is going according to plan and everything he does is good and just – including wiping out the evil five cities on the plain.
‘But Bill, you say some do not adhere to divine omniscience!’ Yes, there have been a few minority views over the years that have pushed this view. One of the more recent and more popular versions of this is called open theism or freewill theism.
They strongly assert that God does NOT know all things – certainly not the future at least. They claim God can only know what is knowable, and since the future has not happened yet, God cannot know it. This is not the place to go into all this, but a few things can be briefly said.
A big part of this discussion turns on how we understand God and his relationship to time. Is God in time like we are, experiencing a succession of moments? Is God outside of time? Is God in an eternal now? And what about things like Molinism and “Middle Knowledge”? This is all stuff that those familiar with hardcore theology and the philosophy of religion would know has been discussed and debated in quite some detail over the centuries.
Traditional Christian teaching says that God created both time and space, and he is confined or limited to neither. He is outside of time and space, but interacts with us in it. Orthodox Christian doctrine also affirms that God indeed does know the future. But again, this will have to be more fully elaborated upon in another article or two.
Two things can be done here however. For those who really do like to stimulate their theological and philosophical taste buds, the thorny issue of God and time has been teased out in a number of key books. Here are some of the better ones that I can recommend:
Beilby, James, ed., Divine Foreknowledge: Four Views. IVP, 2001.
Craig, William Lane, Time and Eternity. Crossway Books, 2001.
Cullman, Oscar, Christ and Time. SCM, 1962.
Deweese, Garrett, God and the Nature of Time. Ashgate Publishing, 2004.
Ganssle, Gregory, ed., God and Time: Essays on the Divine Nature. Oxford University Press, 2002.
Ganssle, Gregory, ed., God and Time: Four Views. IVP, 2001.
Hasker, William, God, Time and Knowledge. Cornell University Press, 1989.
Helm, Paul, Eternal God. Clarendon Press, 1988.
Padgett, Alan, God, Eternity and the Nature of Time. Palgrave Macmillan: 1992.
Pike, Nelson, God and Timelessness. Schocken Books, 1970.
Tapp, Christian and Edmund Runggaldier, eds., God, Eternity, and Time. Ashgate, 2011.
As to freewill theism, I have already done at least an introductory piece on this, looking at the main volumes out there – both pro and con. That can be found here: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2006/12/13/everything-you-wanted-to-know-about-free-will-theism/
Finally, for more on the matter of divine foreknowledge, and how the classical theist position differs from the freewill theist position, see this book review: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2006/12/12/a-review-of-how-much-does-god-foreknow-by-steven-roy/
Obviously a whole lot more can be said on these matters. But my main concerns here were to quickly look at one potentially difficult passage, and also to bring in a few general reminders about how we should interpret Scripture, especially in light of such difficult texts.