The Doctrine of God (part 7)

June 24, 2007     Time: 00:41:14

We have been doing a survey of the attributes of God, and have just begun to talk about God’s attribute of omniscience. We saw last time by looking at the scriptural data that God knows everything that happens, God knows the secret thoughts of every individual’s mind, God knows the future, and God cannot learn anything, indeed his understanding is infinite.

Then we began to construct a systematic summary of what it means to say that God is omniscient. We saw that typically omniscience is defined in terms of God’s knowledge of all truth – that God knows only and every true proposition and does not believe any false proposition. Therefore, God knows only and all truth. He has all propositional knowledge.

But we saw that even God’s propositional knowledge doesn’t exhaust the excellence of God’s intellectual attributes. We saw that in addition to propositional knowledge there is also a kind of self-knowledge that is non-propositional in character and that can only be accessed by each individual person himself. God has not only all propositional knowledge but he also has appropriate self-knowledge, appropriate non-propositional knowledge, as well. He knows “I am the creator of the universe,” “I have sent my Son Jesus to die on the cross for the sins of humanity,” and so forth. Finally, we saw that even having all propositional and appropriate non-propositional knowledge doesn’t exhaust God’s cognitive excellence. God has his knowledge innately. He doesn’t learn or acquire his knowledge from anybody else. Rather, God simply has as an essential attribute the property of knowing only and all truth. So God’s cognitive greatness exceeds even omniscience which is truly to me a breathtaking and startling affirmation.


Question: [inaudible]

Answer: Right. Now, I would qualify that in this sense. That doesn’t mean that God’s knowledge is changeless necessarily because if there are changing facts – for example, what time it is now, like it is now ten-to-twelve – well, God would know what time it is now if God is in time. So in that sense his knowledge could be changing but what I meant is that he doesn’t acquire his knowledge from anybody else. The minute there is something that is true, God knows it. He doesn’t learn it or acquire it from some other source.

Question: [inaudible]

Answer: Only in the sense, as I say, that if you think that God is in time that he would know, “It is now nine-to-twelve, it is now eight-minutes-to-twelve, it is now seven-minutes-to-twelve.” Then he would know “it was nine-minutes-to-twelve, it was eight-minutes-to-twelve, it was seven-minutes-to-twelve” as time goes by. So in that sense his knowledge could be changing, but it wouldn’t be as though there was something of which he was ignorant. Let’s put it this way. There would not be any truth of which God is ignorant at any time. That is what we could say.

Question: [inaudible]

Answer: Right. There are no surprises, and there are no truths of which God is ignorant.

Question: [inaudible]

Answer: There are several places in the Scripture where you have these stories that are told where it appears that God acquires new knowledge that he did not know or that he changes his mind.[1] For example, the story of Abraham and Isaac – when Abraham is ready to sacrifice Isaac, God stops him and says, “Now I know that your heart is truly devoted to me.” Or God tells Jonah to go to Nineveh and say yet in forty days Nineveh will be destroyed. But then the people repent and so God doesn’t destroy Nineveh. Or another example would be God’s prophesy to Hezekiah where he says in fifteen days you will die. Hezekiah prays and asks God to extend his life. So God repents of what he was going to do to Hezekiah and extends his life and he doesn’t die in fifteen days. I think what we encounter here is a sort of fundamental principle of biblical interpretation, and that is what we could call the didactic portions of Scripture (that is to say the teaching or the doctrinal portions of Scripture) control what we can call the anecdotal portions of Scripture. You primarily do your doctrine based upon what is explicit teaching of Scripture. We’ve seen that Scripture teaches that God has foreknowledge of the future. It even has a whole vocabulary in the New Testament for foreknowledge – prognosis. There is a whole series of these words with this prefix pro: prognosis – foreknowledge, proorizo – foreordained, proorao – foresee, proereo – foretell. So the didactic or the teaching portions of Scripture are very clear that God has foreknowledge.

So when you come to these anecdotal stories where God says to Abraham, “Now I know Abraham that you are faithful to me” or he says to Hezekiah, “Alright I will extend your life longer even though I said you would die in fifteen days,” you have to interpret these anecdotal portions in light of the didactic portions rather than the didactic portions in light of the anecdotal ones. I think what this means is these anecdotal passages where it appears God doesn’t foreknow the future are stories told from the human point of view.

It is very interesting that the Bible is not a book of theology, especially not philosophical theology. It is a book of stories. It tells stories about people’s relations with God – his actions and interactions with them. It is the story of the people of Israel and then of Jesus in the New Testament. These stories are told from the human perspective. So they have all of the color and vividness of a human storyteller. So I think the storyteller will tell it in such a way from the human point of view that God says to Abraham, “Yes, now I know that you are faithful to me.” Well, I think God knew that all along but he was testing Abraham to show Abraham’s true medal so to speak. I think God knew that Hezekiah would pray and so God would extend his life, but he tells Hezekiah “Yet fifteen days you are going to die” so Hezekiah will, say, pray and seek the Lord’s face. So I think that these anecdotal portions need to be understood in light of the didactic portions as simply stories that are told from a human point of view.

This is also born out by other passages where you have very anthropomorphic descriptions of God, that is to say, God is described in human terms. For example we saw cases where it speaks about the face of the Lord or the arm of the Lord was with them or God’s hand was upon them. Those aren’t literal. Those are metaphorical. So you have to not let these anecdotal stories control clear teaching of doctrine. That would be how I would handle those kinds of passages.

Question: [inaudible]

Answer: I think you are correct in what you said. The question was, “Does God know about all lies as well?” When I say that God knows all truth, what I mean is that God believes every truth. Clearly he doesn’t believe lies. He doesn’t believe falsehoods. But he knows about them. For example, take some falsehood – “Bill Craig is a female.”[2] It is true that that statement is false. Well, God knows that truth. God knows the truth that this is a false statement. See what I mean? So in that sense, yes, God knows all lies, he knows all falsehoods, in the sense that he knows that they are false and that it is true that they are false. So in knowing all truth he would be aware of everything that is false, but he doesn’t believe the falsehoods as he believes the truths.

Question: [inaudible]

Answer: Right. He would know the truth of the consequences of lies. He would know that because of this lie these consequences will ensue because it is true that those consequences will ensue.

Question: [inaudible]

Answer: We are going to talk about this later – what I am going to call God’s hypothetical knowledge. In other words, what I think you are saying is this: God know that if Abraham were to be tested in this way he would sacrifice Isaac. But by actually putting Abraham through the process God can say, “Now I know that you actually do this thing.” In a sense, he is actualizing the situation which he knew would come about. Is that what you are saying?

Question: I am saying it is for Abraham’s benefit, not his own.

Answer: Yes, I think that is true. It is testing Abraham and showing Abraham’s true faith. But I think all along God knew what Abraham would do in response to that test.

Let me go ahead to talk about two problems that are related to divine omniscience. I wanted to recommend some resources to you if you are interested in these topics. The first one is this book The Only Wise God which is on the compatibility of divine foreknowledge and human freedom, then this little booklet that I did with RZIM called What Does God Know? which is on the same topic. If you are interested in seeing a debate on this whole issue of God’s foreknowledge of humans’ free acts, here is a book published by InterVarsity Press called Divine Foreknowledge: Four Views which has four different positions laid out on God’s knowledge of future free acts of human beings. So those three are available if you are interested.

The first issue we want to talk about is the compatibility of divine foreknowledge and human freedom. If God knows everything in advance that will happen – if God knows every choice that you will ever make – then isn't everything fated to occur? For example, if God knows in advance that Peter will deny Christ three times before the cock crows then isn't it necessary that Peter denies Christ three times before the cock crows. Given that God's knowledge is infallible – that God is never wrong – that prophesy cannot be mistaken. It is true. Given that Jesus has said, “You will deny me three times” isn't it necessary that Peter denies Christ three times? How could he do anything else? And if he does it necessarily then how does Peter do it freely? Isn't it incompatible with Peter's freedom? So doesn't God's foreknowledge of the future annihilate human freedom?

In response to this problem, some Christians would agree with this. They would say that by virtue of foreknowing future acts of people, God in effect foreordains them. So on this view (which was held by people like Jonathan Edwards, for example) foreknowledge equals foreordination.[3] Simply by knowing that something will happen, that thing is foreordained to happen and therefore human freedom is effectively removed. On this basis, even the fall of man into sin was foreordained by God. It was necessary and predestined.

This view however not only removes human freedom but it also rests very uncomfortably with the idea that God is the author of sin. God is not the author of evil, yet on this view it would seem that by foreknowing Adam's fall into sin that God in effect foreordained it. Really, sin is the result of not Adam's choice but God's choice, which I think ought to make all of us somewhat uncomfortable with this view.

Rather, I think a better response to this problem is to deny this equivalence. To say that foreknowledge does not equal foreordination. I think it is better to say that God knows in advance what choices people will freely make and that the free decisions of human beings determine what foreknowledge God has of them rather than the reverse. The foreknowledge doesn't determine the free decisions. Rather, the free decisions in effect determine the foreknowledge.

Here we can distinguish between what we might call chronological priority and logical priority. Chronological priority would mean that one thing comes earlier in time than something else. God's knowledge is chronologically prior to the event that he foreknows. But logically speaking the event is prior to God's foreknowledge. So God's foreknowledge is chronologically prior to the event but the event is logically prior to the foreknowledge. In other words, the event doesn't happen because God foreknows it; God foreknows it because it will happen. You see, the event is logically prior to the foreknowledge. He foreknows it because it will happen even though the knowledge is chronologically prior to the event that God foreknows.

So foreknowledge on this view would be sort of like foreshadowing of something. When you see the shadow of someone coming around the corner – you see their shadow on the ground before you see the person – you know that person is about to come around the corner. But the shadow doesn't determine the person, right? It is the person who throws the shadow, who determines the shadow. Foreknowledge is sort of like the shadow – the foreshadow – of future events as it were. By seeing this foreshadowing you know the events that will happen, but the shadow doesn't determine what the reality is. It is the reality that determines the shadow. So if you think of God's foreknowledge as sort of the foreshadowing of things to come, I think you can see that just because God knows something will happen doesn't mean that therefore that foreknowledge in any way prejudices or removes the freedom of that event that will happen. In fact, if the events were to happen differently then God's foreknowledge would have been different.

One way to think about this (again to try to give you an illustration) is that God's foreknowledge is like an infallible barometer of the weather. Whatever the barometer says, because it is infallible, you know what the weather will be like. But the barometer doesn't determine the weather, right? The weather determines the barometer. God's foreknowledge is like an infallible barometer of the future. It lets you know what the future is going to be but it doesn't in any way constrain the future. The future can happen however free agents want it to happen, but you just can't escape this infallible barometer – God's foreknowledge – tracking which ever direction the future will take.

So those who think that God's foreknowledge serves to remove human freedom, I think, are simply quite mistaken. They posit a constraint upon human choices which is really quite unintelligible. Let me just give you an illustration. [Dr. Craig draws a diagram on the board] Suppose we have a time line and let's mark some event E on the time line for the sake of argument. Let's suppose God is back in time, and by his knowledge he foreknows that E will happen.[4] Will we let this dotted line represent God's knowledge. God knows that E will happen. Well, let's suppose that E is a totally uncaused event; maybe it is the decay of a radioactive isotope or something on the subatomic level. It is an uncaused event; it is not causally determined. How does God's merely knowing about E in any way constrain E's happening? How can God, simply knowing that E will occur, make E occur as it was? If you were to have erased the line and say God doesn't have foreknowledge of the future, how has anything changed? How would E be affected if you erased God's foreknowledge of it? It seems E would just occur quite the same. It wouldn't effect anything. So the presence of God's foreknowledge simply doesn't prejudice anything about whether E will occur or not.

So it seems to me that those who think that foreknowledge is incompatible with freedom are simply quite mistaken about it. What we simply need to understand with respect to something foreknown by God, say E, is this: if E were not to occur then God would not have foreknown E. As long as that statement is true and E can occur or not occur then God's foreknowledge simply doesn't prejudice anything with respect to E's occurrence.


Question: [inaudible]

Answer: Right. It would mean that God permitted it to occur but he didn’t foreordain it and that it was the result of Adam’s own free choice. Adam had the ability to sin or not to sin. It was entirely within Adam’s freedom to sin or not sin. So the Fall isn’t necessary on this view. On the other view, the Fall was necessary. But on this view the Fall is not necessary, but God would just know which ever way Adam would choose and permitted it. That gets into a different question about why would God permit sin but it doesn’t make God the author of sin and it doesn’t remove human freedom, which is what we are talking about right now.

Question: Is this middle knowledge?

Answer: No, it is not. This is just foreknowledge of the future, and whether or not God’s foreknowing what will happen somehow robs us of freedom. That is the question we are dealing with here.

Question: [inaudible]

Answer: I think it is. Jonathan Edwards, the great American theologian, believed that foreknowledge implied foreordination, but hardly anybody else did. Augustine didn’t think so; Aquinas didn’t think so, Boethius didn’t think so. Even Luther, who has a very strong view of God’s sovereignty, thought that the reason we are not free isn’t because of God’s foreknowledge but because of his providence – that God makes everything happen. Same with Calvin. The Protestant Reformers believed that everything happened under God’s sovereign control. But it wasn’t just because he knew what would happen that everything happened necessarily. For Luther and Calvin, it is because God providentially orders and ordains everything to happen that it happens necessarily. But there is scarcely anybody, I think, who thinks that just by knowing about the future the future is somehow fated to occur. Edwards would be one of the rare exceptions, I think.

Question: [inaudible]

Answer: Right. I don’t mean to imply that someone like a Jonathan Edwards would say, therefore, human beings are not free. What he would do is redefine freedom to make it compatible with being determined.[5] But I am using freedom here in a sense that is incompatible with being determined. We are not quibbling over the semantics of freedom. We just want to ask, “Is everything determined because God knows about it in advance?”

Question: [inaudible]

Answer: All right. Notice that all I have said here is that foreknowledge is not synonymous with foreordination. But that doesn’t mean that foreordination doesn’t exist. It could be that Calvin and Luther are right, that everything is foreordained and therefore everything happens necessarily. All I am arguing is this very limited and modest conclusion: foreordination doesn’t follow from or isn’t synonymous with foreknowledge. Now, we will have to talk about foreordination later on. Does God, in fact, predestine or foreordain everything to happen? That is a different and independent question. You are quite right that the Scripture does have a very strong sense of God’s sovereignty and foreordination. But what I am arguing against is just this limited question that arises in the context of God’s omniscience that some people think that if God is omniscient, if he knows the future, then everything is deterministic. The bottom line of this is that that conclusion is so unpalatable that there is a whole new school of theology arising within evangelicalism called “open theism” which on this basis denies God’s foreknowledge of the future. Open theists like Gregory Boyd or William Hasker or John Sanders says that because foreknowledge would imply foreordination and therefore deny human freedom God must not have foreknowledge. So this whole new movement in evangelical theology has arisen denying God’s foreknowledge of the future and therefore denying God’s omniscience. I think that is a very serious theological mistake because omniscience is one of the perfections of God. Therefore if God isn’t omniscient it means he is imperfect. He is ignorant of truth. There are an infinite number of truths that God doesn’t know.

Question: [inaudible]

Answer: I think what you could say is that everything that is deterministic causally could be inferred by God on the basis of present causes. He knows that E1 causes E2 and E2 causes E3 and then E3 would cause E4. So if everything is causally determined then on the basis of his knowledge of the present God could infer the future. You will remember Pierre-Simon Laplace’s statement in response to Napoleon who said “Where is God in your physics?” Laplace said, “Sire, I have no need of that hypothesis.” Because Laplace claimed that given knowledge of the present and all of Newton’s Laws he could predict everything that would happen and everything that had happened in the universe. So a deterministic universe you could know simply by knowing the present and knowing all the causal effects. But we are talking here about events that are not determined, that are free choices, or if there is indeterminacy on a quantum level, something like that.

Question: [inaudible]

Answer: I would have to look at that passage again more closely. In any case, we will talk about God’s permissive will versus his directive will. It could well be that a passage like the sparrow falling to the ground without your Father’s will would speak of God’s permission – that he allows this to happen – rather than he makes the sparrow fall to the ground. That gets into foreordination that we will look at again later.[6]

Question: [inaudible]

Answer: No. I denied that. The question is, “Did I say that Adam’s free will made the Fall necessary?” No, I was denying that. Because of Adam’s free will, the Fall is not necessary. Whereas on the view that if God knows about it in advance then it is necessary that would make the Fall necessary because God would know about it in advance and therefore the Fall would be necessary. But on this view it isn’t.

This has real interesting implications, some of which are discussed in the book The Only Wise God. It means that I have the ability to act in such a way that if I were to act in that way the past would have been different. Say God knows that I will lift this paper up in the next second. By refraining from lifting it up I could act in such a way that God’s knowledge in the past was different than it was. It has the same sort of implications that time travel would have. The time traveler has the ability to act in such a way that if he were to act in such a way the past would have been different than what it really is. That is the same with foreknowledge and free choices. It is an interesting conundrum but I think it is quite reasonable given that God is omniscient.

Question: [inaudible]

Answer: I don’t think that that is too intimately connected here. Dispensational theology does believe that God deals with human persons in different ways in different eras. But I don’ t think it has anything to do with this notion that I have the ability to act in such a way now that if I were to act in that way then the past would have been different. I don’t think that that is what it is affirming. That is really quite a different subject, I think, this idea of dispensationalism. So let’s just leave that one aside.

Question: [inaudible]

Answer: It is true that the past is constant in the sense that the past cannot be changed. But in the same sense, the future cannot be changed. The question is whether or not you can determine freely what the future will be, or whether or not you can determine what the past has been. I would say that if God has foreknowledge then you can do things, say, at E4 that will, because of God’s foreknowledge, bring about things here in the past at E1. For example, suppose God knows that if Pilate were the governor of Judea and Jesus were delivered up to Pilate that Pilate would send him to the cross. Well, because God knows that he ordains back here that Pilate will be born at a certain time and place in history and will rise to power and become the procurator in Judea, and so forth. Pilate has the ability here not to send Jesus to the cross. He could say, “No, I’m going to let him go free. I am going to send Barabbas to the cross instead.” Maybe if Pilate were to act in that way, God would not have had him be born at this time and place and become procurator. Maybe he would have had somebody else. So Pilate has the ability to act in such a way that, depending on how he would act, the past would have been different perhaps because of God’s foreknowledge, which is really strange! It is really strange. But I think that it makes sense once you have a God who has foreknowledge of the future. But what it doesn’t do is it doesn’t remove human freedom. Pilate here has the freedom to send Christ to the cross or to let Jesus go. It is up to Pilate. But he just can’t escape this infallible barometer back there knowing which way he would choose.

Let me go ahead and introduce the next problem then.[7] This is the problem of what I call God’s hypothetical knowledge. A lot of times people will ask the question, “Why did God create the world if he knew it would be such a mess?” Why did he do it if he knew it was going to come out like this? What this question raises is a very important distinction between foreknowledge and hypothetical knowledge. Foreknowledge is knowledge of what will happen in the future. What I am calling hypothetical knowledge is his knowledge of what would happen if something else were the case. So foreknowledge is what will happen, but hypothetical knowledge is his knowledge of what would happen if something else were the case.

These are quite distinct. Foreknowledge would give God knowledge of everything that will actually happen in the future, but hypothetical knowledge would be knowledge of what would happen if something were to occur. For example, does God know what would have happened if Barry Goldwater had been elected president in 1964? Does he know what would happen if Hillary Clinton were elected president in 2008? Does he know what would happen if George Bush were elected president in 2004? These are questions not about foreknowledge but about what would happen – hypothetical knowledge of what would happen – if something else were the case.

These are quite different because in the case of foreknowledge, if God knows that something is future then by definition it will happen. If it is a future event then it will happen. So it wouldn’t make any sense to say, “If God knows that this is in the future – if God knows this will happen – then why doesn’t he intervene to stop it?” See, it wouldn’t make any sense because if he intervened to stop it it wouldn’t be in the future, it wouldn’t be what will happen. So given that he knows it will happen, it doesn’t make any sense to ask why doesn’t he intervene to stop it.

The issue here is really hypothetical knowledge. If God knew this would happen under such and such circumstances then why didn’t he intervene to stop it? Do you see? The issue is not foreknowledge, it is hypothetical knowledge. If he knows something will happen then that already implies he doesn’t intervene to stop it otherwise it wouldn’t be the future. It is really hypothetical knowledge – he knows it would happen so why doesn’t he intervene to stop it?

I think one of the greatest illustrations of this is in Charles Dickens’ wonderful story The Christmas Carol. When Scrooge is confronted with the Spirit of Christmas-Yet-To-Come, the Spirit shows Scrooge all of these horrible things – Tiny Tim’s death, Scrooge’s own grave – and Scrooge is so shaken by these visions, these shadows, he falls at the Spirit’s feet and he says, “Tell me Spirit, are these shadows of things that will be, or are these shadows of things that might be only?” Now, what the Spirit was showing Scrooge was not shadows of things that will be. We know from the end of the story that Tiny Tim does not die, that Scrooge repents. So the Spirit was not showing Scrooge shadows or visions of things that will be. He wasn’t showing him the future. That is clear. But neither was he showing Scrooge merely things that might happen. He wasn’t showing Scrooge just possibilities. Anything is possible. Scrooge might have opened a flower shop in Coven Garden. That is possible. What the Spirit was showing Scrooge was hypothetical knowledge of what would happen if Scrooge were not to repent. That is what he was giving him. He wasn’t giving him foreknowledge of the future; rather, the Spirit was imparting this hypothetical knowledge of what would happen if Scrooge were not to repent.

The question we want to ask ourselves is: does God have this kind of hypothetical knowledge? Did God have hypothetical knowledge that if he were to create Adam and Eve and this sort of universe that it would turn out this way so that God could be held responsible and we could say that if God knew it was going to be this bad why did he create the world this way? Does God have hypothetical knowledge of how things would turn out if such and such were the case. That is the question that we want to raise, and that is the question we will address next time.[8]



[1] 5:03

[2] 10:05

[3] 14:57

[4] 20:02

[5] 25:00

[6] 30:00

[7] 35:03

[8] Total Running Time: 41:37 (Copyright © 2007 William Lane Craig)