June 4, 2014 Broadcast

The Omniscience of God

A Message by Steven Lawson

When reflecting on the limited capacity of the human mind, it is difficult to fathom a being who knows everything perfectly. There are some today who would limit God’s knowledge, arguing that it interferes with the free choices of individuals, but this runs counter to the clear and consistent teaching of Scripture. In this message, Dr. Lawson considers what it means to affirm that God is omniscient and why this aspect of His character is essential to our understanding of who He is.

From the series: The Attributes of God

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Further Study On This Topic

  1. article

    The Potter's Freedom

  2. blog-post

    Does God Change His Mind?

  3. article

    All Truth Is God’s Truth

The Potter's Freedom

E. Calvin Beisner

Of all the challenges to the Christian faith, the most powerful has been the “problem of evil” — the alleged inconsistency of believing in the God of Scripture while recognizing the occurrence of evil. Why would a good God permit gratuitous suffering? Why cannot an omnipotent God prevent all evil? Why wouldn’t an omniscient God have foreseen evil choices and so ordered history as to preclude them? Surely if God were omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent, evil would never occur. But evil does occur. Therefore God must not be omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent. He might be one or two, but not all three. Perhaps God is all powerful but either doesn’t know how to prevent or ghoulishly delights in evil — or both. Perhaps God knows what it would take to prevent evil, but either hasn’t got it (lacks the power) or doesn’t care (isn’t good) — or both. Or perhaps God really wishes He could have created a world without evil, but either didn’t know how or lacked the power — or both.

In any case, the all-powerful, all-knowing, all-good God cannot coexist with evil. But evil obviously occurs. Therefore, that God is a figment of our imagination.

The most common answer through the centuries has been the free-will defense. Its essential argument is that God is indeed all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-good; that there are certain things that even such a Being cannot do; and that one of those things is to create a morally good world in which no evil occurs.

Proponents of the free-will defense, like C.S. Lewis in The Problem of Pain and Alvin Plantinga in God, Freedom, and Evil (two of the better presentations of the free-will defense), argue that it would be impossible for God to create a morally good world in which no one would ever sin. According to this argument, it is better to have moral capacity than to lack it. But moral capacity entails the equal capacity to choose right or wrong in any given circumstance — a view called “libertarian free will.” There can be no prior condition that ensures either choice. According to this view, it is better for God to create a world with moral than with only amoral beings; but moral beings by definition are capable of sin. Consequently, if God were to create a world at all, He could not possibly create one with moral inhabitants who could never do evil.

I used this solution in the first edition of my book Answers for Atheists. But then I noticed that if the free-will defense was right in its definition of a moral being as one that could as readily choose evil as good at any given moment, four things followed that the Bible denied. First, either God was not a moral being or God could as readily choose evil as good. Second, Christ must have been able to sin. Third, the biblical doctrines of original (Rom. 5:12 ff.), inevitable (Ps. 51:5), and universal sin (Rom. 3:20) must be false. Fourth, the biblical doctrine that the saints in heaven cannot sin (Heb. 12:23) must be false. Something other than libertarian free will, then, must be the real reason why a being is moral instead of amoral.

As the late Gordon Clark put it in his book God and Evil: “Free will is not the basis of responsibility…the basis of responsibility is knowledge” of right and wrong. As Paul wrote, “The wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth.… For although they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks” (emphasis mine, Rom. 1:18, 21). Similarly, Jesus said that the “slave who knew his master’s will and did not get ready to act in accord with his will, will receive many lashes” (Luke 12:47 NASB).

Martin Luther, in The Bondage of the Will, and John Calvin, in the Institutes of the Christian Religion (2.2.1–7), along with other great Reformed thinkers distinguished between freedom and free will. The Westminster Confession of Faith affirmed that God “endued the will of man with that natural liberty, that it is neither forced, nor, by any absolute necessity of nature, determined to good, or evil” (9.1). In that day this language affirmed not libertarian free will but that the human will is not subject to physical coercion. But the Confession simultaneously taught that “God from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass: yet so, as thereby neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures; nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established” (3.1).

God being spirit (John 4:24), the authors of the Confession recognized that the will’s freedom from physical causality did not entail its freedom from His (spiritual) causality. They held that God not only foreknew but even foreordained human acts that, though free (by natural liberty) and sinful (because contrary to God’s law), were nonetheless, because of the infallibility of God’s plan and foreknowledge, absolutely certain to occur. To demonstrate this they cited many biblical texts, such as Acts 4:27–28 (“For truly in this city there were gathered together against Your holy servant Jesus, whom You anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever Your hand and Your plan had predestined to take place.”) and 2:22–23 (“Jesus the Nazarene…delivered over by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God, you nailed to a cross by the hands of godless men.” [NASB]).

If an act could be both sinful and inevitable, there must, they reasoned, be no contradiction between moral responsibility and inevitability/predestination/foreordination. This insight implies the historic, Reformed answer to the problem of evil: that the all-powerful, all-knowing, all-good God planned for evil to occur, and He uses it for His own good purposes.

Stated in its most powerful way, the logical problem of evil is this: A God that would create a world containing evil is not the omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent God of the Bible; but the God that created this world (if anyone did) is a God that created a world containing evil; therefore, the God that created this world is not the God of the Bible. The first point of this argument sums up a longer argument: Christians believe that (1) the God who created this world is the God of the Bible, and (2) the God who created this world is a God who would create a world containing evil. But, say the anti-theists, Christians should also believe that (3) the God of the Bible is not a God who would create a world containing evil, and therefore, (4) the God who created this world is not the God of the Bible. But (4), though implied by (2) and (3) together, contradicts (1). Therefore the Christian must believe either (4) or (1) but cannot believe both. The anti-theist has posed a powerful dilemma: If you believe that the God of the Bible created this world and that the God who created this world is a God that would create a world containing evil, you must deny (4); and if you believe the God who created this world is a God that would create a world containing evil and that the God of the Bible is not a God that would create a world containing evil, you must affirm (4). But (2) and (3) together are true; therefore (4) is true, so (1) must be false, so the Christian must deny (1) and (2) together and believe (2) and (3) together.

Pantheists and Gnostics answer that evil is an illusion; Open Theists answer that God is not all-powerful and all-knowing, even though He is all-good. Neither of those options is compatible with historic Christian faith. Adherents of the free-will defense, mostly Arminians, answer that creating a moral world without evil is impossible, which, as we have seen, is also mistaken. The Reformed answer of Luther, Calvin, the Westminster Divines, and others, answers that while God could have created only moral creatures that would never sin, He instead created a moral world with creatures whose evil He foreordained for His own good purposes — to display His justice in punishing some (Prov. 16:4) and His grace in redeeming and pardoning others (Eph. 1:5–6; 2:7).

If someone objects that this means that God justifies His means by His ends, the Reformed reply that while an end-justifies-the-means ethic is fallacious for finite men (who can neither control nor know all the results of their choices), it is perfectly fitting for the infinite God (who both controls and knows all the results of His choices). And, after all, God being supreme need not justify His choices to anyone: “So then He has mercy on whom He desires, and He hardens whom He desires. You will say to me then, ‘Why does He still find fault? For who resists His will?’ On the contrary, who are you, O man, who answers back to God? The thing molded will not say to the molder, ‘Why did you make me like this,’ will it? Or does not the potter have a right over the clay, to make from the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for common use?” (Rom. 9:15–21 NASB).

In short, anti-theists use the problem of evil to argue that Christianity is inherently self-contradictory because while Christianity explicitly affirms the God of the Bible, it implicitly denies Him by affirming both that He would not create a world containing evil and that the God who created this world did create a world containing evil. The Reformed answer is that the God of the Bible would and did create a world containing evil, and therefore the Christian position does not self-contradict.

Does God Change His Mind?

R.C. Sproul

To "change one's mind," in the New Testament means to repent. When the Bible speaks of my repenting or your repenting, it means that we are called to change our minds or our dispositions with respect to sin—that we are to turn away from evil. Repent is loaded with these kinds of connotations, and when we talk about God's repenting, it somehow suggests that God has to turn away from doing something wicked. But that's not what is always meant when the Bible uses this word.

Using a word like repentance with respect to God raises some problems for us. When the Bible describes God for us, it uses human terms, because the only language God has by which to speak to us about himself is our human language. The theological term for this is anthropomorphic language, which is the use of human forms and structures to describe God. When the Bible talks about God's feet or the right arm of the Lord, we immediately see that as just a human way of speaking about God. But when we use more abstract terms like repent, then we get all befuddled about it.

What About Moses in Numbers 14?

There's one sense in which it seems God is changing his mind, and there's another sense in which the Bible says God never changes his mind because God is omniscient. He knows all things from the beginning, and he is immutable. He is unchanging. There's no shadow of turning within him. For example, He knows what Moses is going to say to him in Numbers 14 before Moses even opens his mouth to plead for the people. Then after Moses has actually said it, does God suddenly changes his mind? He doesn't have any more information than he had a moment before. Nothing has changed as far as God's knowledge or his appraisal of the situation.

What in Moses' words and actions would possibly have provoked God to change his mind? I think that what we have here is the mystery of providence whereby God ordains not only the ends of things that come to pass but also the means. God sets forth principles in the Bible where he gives threats of judgment to motivate his people to repentance. Sometimes he spells out specifically, "But if you repent, I will not carry out the threat." He doesn't always add that qualifier, but it's there. I think this is one of those instances. It was tacitly understood that God threatens judgment upon these people, but if somebody pleads for them in a priestly way, he will give grace rather than justice. I think that's at the heart of that mystery.

Is God confused, stumbling through all the different options—Should I do this? Should I not do that? And does he decide upon one course of action and then think, Well, maybe that's not such a good idea after all, and change his mind? Obviously God is omniscient; God is all wise. God is eternal in his perspective and in his full knowledge of everything. So we don't change God's mind. But prayer changes things. It changes us. And there are times in which God waits for us to ask for things because his plan is that we work with him in the glorious process of bringing his will to pass here on earth.

All Truth Is God’s Truth

R.C. Sproul

Few books I have read have made a lasting impression on my mind and thought. One of them I read over fifty years ago. The title of the book was The Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Science, and it made a lasting impression upon me because it clearly set forth the importance of understanding that all scientific theories presuppose certain philosophical premises. The philosophical premises that are the underpinning of scientific inquiry are often taken for granted and never given even a cursory exploration. But in a time when fierce debate rages between science and theology, it is important that we step back and ask questions about the pre-scientific theoretical foundations for the whole enterprise of knowledge.

The word science means “knowledge.” We tend to have a restricted view of the word as if knowledge only applies to the realm of empirical investigation. Besides material knowledge, we also have to take into account formal truth. In this regard we must consider mathematics as a genuine science, because math in its formal dimension yields real knowledge. In fact, if we look at the history of scientific progress, we see that the engine that has driven new breakthroughs and brought to bear new paradigms has more often than not been the engine of formal mathematics. But it is astonishing to see how frequently people engaged in material scientific research glibly pass over the philosophical presuppositions of their own work.

In Carl Sagan’s famous book entitled Cosmos, based on his television series of the same title, he makes the following statement: “Cosmos is a Greek word for the order of the universe. It is, in a way, the opposite of chaos. It implies the deep interconnectedness of all things.” In this seemingly harmless definition of the entire structure of Sagan’s work, he assumes that the universe under investigation by science is a cosmos rather than a chaos. He speaks of cosmos “implying a deep interconnectedness of all things.” This is the grand presupposition of scientific inquiry, namely, that the universe we are seeking to know is coherent. There is an implied deep and profound interconnectedness of all things. The alternative to cosmos, as Sagan has indicated, is chaos. If the universe is at root chaotic, then the whole scientific enterprise collapses. If the universe is chaotic and disconnected, then no knowledge is possible at all. Even discreet bits of atomic data cannot be understood within the framework of utter chaos, so the presupposition of a coherent, rational order of all things is the screaming presupposition of scientists.

This idea of an assumed coherency has its roots in ancient philosophical inquiry. Ancient Greeks, for example, sought ultimate reality. They sought a foundational principle for unity that would make sense out of diversity. This ultimate unity is what the science of theology provides. The science of theology provides the necessary presupposition for modern science. This is precisely the point that led prominent philosopher Antony Flew to his conversion from atheism to deism — namely, the essential necessity of a coherent foundation to reality to make any knowledge possible. This ultimate coherency cannot be provided by the contingency of this world. It requires a transcendent order.

In the Middle Ages, a crisis ensued in the realm of philosophy with the revival of what Muslim thinkers called “integral Aristotelianism.” In their attempt to achieve a synthesis between Aristotelian philosophy and Muslim theology, these thinkers produced a concept called the “double-truth theory.” The double-truth theory argued that what was true in religion could be false in science, and what was true in science could at the same time be false in religion. To translate that into contemporary categories, it would go something like this: As a Christian, one could believe that the universe came into being through the purposive act of a divine Creator while at the same time believing that the universe emerged gratuitously as a cosmic accident. These two truths examined by logic would appear to be contradictory. Nevertheless, the double-truth theory would say that truth is contradictory, and one could hold these contradictory ideas at the same time. This kind of intellectual schizophrenia rules the day in our own time where people think that God had nothing to do with the formation of the cosmos from Monday to Saturday only to become creationists on Sunday, failing to see that the two concepts are utterly irreconcilable.

At this point, the question is raised, “Well, does logic really count in our attempt to understand reality?” Again, if we’re going to assume coherency and cosmos, logic has to count not just for something but for everything. Thomas Aquinas responded to the Aristotelianism of the medieval Muslim philosophers by replacing double truths with the concept of mixed articles, distinguishing nature and grace (not dividing them, as many of his critics allege). Aquinas said that there are certain truths that can be known through special revelation that are not discerned from investigation of the natural world, while at the same time there are certain truths learned from the study of nature that are not found, for example, in the Bible. One does not find the circulatory system of the human body clearly set forth in Scripture. What Aquinas was saying was that there are certain truths that are mixed articles, truths that can be known either from the Bible or by a study of nature. Among those mixed articles, he included the knowledge of the existence of a Creator.

The fundamental point, of course, that Aquinas was arguing, in agreement with his famous predecessor, Augustine, was that all truth is God’s truth, and that all truth meets at the top. If science contradicts religion, or if religion contradicts science, at least one of them must be wrong. There have been times in history where the scientific community has corrected not the Bible but poor interpretations of the Bible, as we saw in the Galileo scandal. On the other hand, biblical revelation can act as intellectual brakes upon scientific theories that are groundless. In any case, if knowledge is possible, what Sagan assumed must continue to be assumed — namely, that for truth to be known, for science to be possible, there must be a coherent reality that we are seeking to know.

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