Divine Omniscience

Yes our God does know all there is to know:

If God is God, then he must know all things. There can be nothing hidden from his knowledge and understanding. There are no limits to what God can know. He knows all actual things and all possible things. He has exhaustive knowledge of all things, past, present and future.

While I have written on this topic before, here I want to do three things: offer a few of the well-known passages on this; present a few quotes to more fully explain it; and look at some objections to the traditional understanding of God’s omniscience. As to some biblical passages, consider these:

1 Kings 8:39 …for you, you only, know the hearts of all the children of mankind.

Job 37:16 Do you know the balancings of the clouds,
    the wondrous works of him who is perfect in knowledge.

Psalm 139:1-6 O Lord, you have searched me and known me!
You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
    you discern my thoughts from afar.
You search out my path and my lying down
    and are acquainted with all my ways.
Even before a word is on my tongue,
    behold, O Lord, you know it altogether.
You hem me in, behind and before,
    and lay your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;
    it is high; I cannot attain it.

Psalm 147:5 Great is our Lord and mighty in power; his understanding has no limit.

Isaiah 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.

Isaiah 42:8-9 I am the Lord; that is my name;
    my glory I give to no other,
    nor my praise to carved idols.
Behold, the former things have come to pass,
    and new things I now declare;
before they spring forth
    I tell you of them.

Isaiah 46:9-11 I am God, and there is none like me,
declaring the end from the beginning
    and from ancient times things not yet done,
saying, ‘My counsel shall stand,
    and I will accomplish all my purpose,’
calling a bird of prey from the east,
    the man of my counsel from a far country.
I have spoken, and I will bring it to pass;
    I have purposed, and I will do it.

Romans 11:33-36 Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!
“For who has known the mind of the Lord,
    or who has been his counselor?”
“Or who has given a gift to him
    that he might be repaid?”
For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.

John 21:17 He said to him the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Peter was grieved because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” and he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep.

1 John 3:20b For God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything.

Fuller and more detailed explanations of this doctrine are of course found in all the good systematic theologies, as well as in various volumes on the divine attributes. Let me feature a few somewhat recent quotes here.

In his book The Sovereign God James Montgomery Boice says this:

The unique quality of God’s knowledge is its totality or perfection: his omniscience is the proper theological term. Omniscience involves not only God’s knowledge of us, but also his knowledge of nature, the past, present, and future. It involves everything that we can possibly imagine and much more besides. It is a knowledge that God has always had and will always have. There is no need for him to learn. In fact, if we are to take the scope of his knowledge at full value, it is necessary to say that God has never learned and cannot learn, for he already knows and has always known everything.

Michael Horton explains:

Our knowledge is partial, ectypal, composite, and learned, but God’s is complete, archetypal, simple, and innate…. God depends on the world no more for his knowledge than his being. Nor can his knowledge be any more circumscribed than his presence or duration. Even when we foreknow things hidden from others, our knowledge is finite and fallible. However, God’s foreknowledge is qualitatively distinct. For us, knowing certain things is accidental to our nature; our humanity is not threatened by our ignorance of many things. However, God’s simplicity entails that none of his attributes are added to his existence. It is impossible for God not to know everything comprehensively. Given his eternality, he knows the end from the beginning in one simultaneous act.

And Michael Bird puts it this way:

The absolute knowledge of God over all things, past and present, possible and actual, is called his omniscience. God has knowledge of all things…. The extent of God’s knowledge is boundless, and God uses his knowledge perfectly. God even foreknows things in advance, like the destiny of nations and the salvation of individuals (Isa. 44:7-8, 25-28; Rom. 8:29). God not only knows all things—past, present, and future—but God also knows all possibilities. That is God’s middle knowledge of all potentialities. When God promises not to remember the sins of his people (Isa. 43:25), it does not entail that God somehow wipes his own mental hard drive. The point is that God will not let his knowledge of such sins play a part in how he relates to people.

Objections to the orthodox understanding

Let me address several objections to the traditional Christian view that God knows all things, including the future. A minority of Christian thinkers and theologians have sought to argue this way, but it seems they have not properly or convincingly made their case. The first objection concerns various passages which SEEM to suggest that God’s knowledge is quite limited. Consider for example these texts:

Genesis 3:9 But the Lord God called to the man and said to him, “Where are you?”

Genesis 3:13 Then the Lord God said to the woman, “What is this that you have done?” The woman said, “The serpent deceived me, and I ate.”

Genesis 4:9 Then the Lord said to Cain, “Where is Abel your brother?”

But did God really not know these things? Surely this was just figurative language being used for the sake of those God was speaking to. As John Peckham says in his book on the divine attributes:

Do such passages portray God as lacking knowledge, as some suppose? If God knows everything, why would he ask questions? Notably, questions may be posed for many reasons other than to gain information. When I ask my students what the word “omniscience” means, I ask in order to teach. When I see cookie crumbs on my son’s mouth and ask whether he got into the cookies, I already know the answer. In depositions and trials, lawyers often ask questions to which they already know the answers to get a person’s testimony on record. God’s questions seem to function likewise.

Image of Divine Attributes: Knowing the Covenantal God of Scripture
Divine Attributes: Knowing the Covenantal God of Scripture by John C. Peckham (Author) Amazon logo

Or consider this well-known passage about Abraham’s offering of Isaac:

Genesis 22:12 “Do not lay a hand on the boy,” he said. “Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son.”

Is this verse suggesting that God’s knowledge is limited and that he learns new things? Again, it is clear that God is saying this for the benefit of Abraham, not himself. It was not a case of God finding out about his character, but of letting Abraham understand what he was really made of.

One more text can be mentioned:

Jeremiah 32:35 They built high places for Baal in the Valley of Ben Hinnom to sacrifice their sons and daughters to Molech, though I never commanded, nor did it enter my mind, that they should do such a detestable thing and so make Judah sin.

But again, this seems to be a figure of speech, referring to something God did not want to happen – not something that caught him by surprise. He fully knows the evil that is in the human heart, and he is impressing upon us how abhorrent our sins are – certainly the sin of child sacrifice. See more here: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2022/01/25/difficult-bible-passages-jeremiah-731/

God’s foreknowledge

The idea that God knows all future events is problematic for some. As I say, they are a clear minority, but they have been influential. Let me mention just two such groups. One is what are known as Free Will Theists, or Open Theists. In this area they try to argue that God can only know what is knowable, and future, freely-chosen events are not knowable. But these claims have been amply refuted by many. For a reading list on this, see here: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2006/12/13/everything-you-wanted-to-know-about-free-will-theism/

A related group teaches what is known as the Moral Government of God. This has been popular in some missionary training schools. Indeed, I sat under this teaching myself some years ago. They do not so much deny that God knows the future, but treat it differently. Roughly speaking they try to make their case this way:

For free will to exist, human action cannot be foreknown
-Anything foreknown must be caused
-Anything caused has no moral value

There are problems with both of these schools of thought. First of all, Scripture itself plainly teaches divine foreknowledge. In addition to passages like Isaiah 46:10-11 that I mentioned above, simply consider these passages:

Acts 2:23 “Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know—this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men.

Romans 8:29 For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.

1 Peter 1:1-2 Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, To those who are elect exiles of the Dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia, according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, in the sanctification of the Spirit, for obedience to Jesus Christ and for sprinkling with his blood:

As to the second position I offered above, I asked several of its proponents the following question:

You argue that anything that is foretold or predicted to happen is caused by God. You also claim that anything that is caused (that is, is not freely chosen) has no real moral worth or value – only freely chosen actions do. Yet we know that hundreds of Old Testament prophecies and predictions exist of future events, of which many dozens are quite explicit, detailed and fine-tuned predictions concerning the life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. So are you really suggesting that the most morally significant event in all of human history (the work of Christ at Calvary for us sinners) is really without any moral value because it was fully known about ahead of time and caused to happen?

Needless to say, none of these teachers ever did answer my question – at least in any satisfactory manner. These teachers are so concerned to defend God from charges of taking away our moral choices that they go way too far, and end up denying the God of Scripture. Their intentions may be praiseworthy, but when they end up jettisoning large portions of Scripture to fit things into their theology, they really are not helping that much.

So I am quite content to affirm what Scripture affirms, even if to our finite minds some paradoxes or seeming contradictions will result. In particular, I will fully affirm what the Bible teaches on these three mega-topics:

-God is fully sovereign and in control
-Man is fully responsible for his choices
-God is fully knowledgeable of all things, including future events

These are mysterious and mind-boggling biblical truths and it seems hard for us to fully reconcile them to one another. But Scripture certainly teaches each one, and God expects us to trust him, and not have everything fully figured out in this life.

And yes, some of this has to do with how we understand an eternal God and his dealings with time-bound humans. I discussed this briefly yesterday: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2022/09/26/trusting-an-eternal-god-in-the-here-and-now/

For more on the topic of divine omniscience, see a companion piece I did on this not all that long ago: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2022/01/05/what-does-god-know/

A whole lot more needs to be said on this issue. We are talking about the Living God and his perfections, so how could we not fill entire libraries discussing who he is and what he is like? But to sum things up, we worship and serve a God who knows all things, and to whom nothing is hidden. That is good news indeed.

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2 Replies to “Divine Omniscience”

  1. One way I look at this is that God knows the outcome and consequences of every possible choice we can make at any given moment. (I think this would have allowed Him to place the prophecies in the moments that He did since He could see the connections that led to them being fulfilled). He also knows what choice we will make and what one He would rather us make because of what was “behind door number 2” as it were. He asks us to trust Him because He knows what the choice He wants us to make but He is not going to breach the Prime Directive and tell us what will happen if we open door 3 instead of door 1 or will He? God is patient and kind. So He will move us onto the next lesson or have us repeat a year. If we get locked in a room with no light, are we going to heed the first voice that says follow me?
    On another note, I have heard more than once from different speakers that they weren’t the first choice for the ministry that they were called to.
    On the one hand I like to see Him eagerly waiting in anticipation for us to make the right decision – wanting to rejoice over it. On the other it wouldn’t be very satisfying to set up a plan knowing it won’t be fulfilled. Bit like spoilers from the back of the cinema on the first showing.
    Did Jesus already know carpentry or did He have to learn it? I think the latter.
    Does each person of the Trinity experience these attributes (omniscience etc) in the same manner or each one a little differently? Perhaps differently.

  2. The best I can describe it is he knows what we will do or choose BUT doesn’t force us to do or choose it. The closest I can come to on the human side is if you REALLY know a person you may know exactly what they’ll do in given circumstances but you don’t force them. For instance if I have played rock, paper, scissors 1,000 times against someone and EVERY time they throw rock I know that when we play again that’s what they’ll do again. So I just throw paper and win. Now I didn’t force him to throw rock but knowing him as I did I knew what he would do. It isn’t a perfect analogy but since I’m comparing a situation with a human knowing something and God knowing something there is no perfect analogy!

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