Sunday, April 14, 2013

Practical Theology 5: God as All-Knowing

My series on theology that is practical continues...

1. Is Theology Practical?
2. Why Believe in God?

God as Creator
3. God as Other
4. God as All-Powerful

5. God as All-Knowing (omniscient)
The fact that God created the world out of nothing has massive implications in relation to God's knowledge. As human beings in the world, we can accidentally invent or discover things because we did not create the elements of the creation or the rules for how they interact with each other. As human beings, we can know about things in theory from a far but then gain experiential knowledge of them up close.

Suffice it to say, none of these scenarios apply to God, who created the elements and created the rules for how they interact.  He created feelings. He created the possibility of sin. He created these out of nothing, meaning that he could have created them completely differently. The law of gravity, the law of the conservation of matter and energy, God does not operate within these rules. He created them.

The implication is that God thoroughly knows everything about this universe, the way it works, and the way it feels. God knows what it feels like to sin because he created, out of nothing, the possibility of sinning. The fact that God created the universe out of nothing implies that he knows every possible eventuality in this universe and that there is no distinction for him between theoretical knowledge and experiential knowledge. God does not learn anything when he becomes human as Jesus nor when he dies on the cross.

Christians throughout the centuries have also believed that God not only knows every possible eventuality in the world but every actual event that will take place in history. Does God only know every possible universe or does he know the actual universe as it will unfold in history? Does this question even make sense or are there multiple universes playing themselves out right now with different eventualities?

A group of Christian thinkers called "open theists" have suggested that God has decided not to know the future so that he can experience it with us and so that we can have free will. They are following a line of thought we will discuss in the next section as well, a line of thought that believes that if God knows the actual future, then that future is determined for us, and we cannot have free will. Those who think this way thus fall into two camps--those who then conclude that God has already decided the future and knows it and those who believe God has not decided the future and thus doesn't know it.

We take the orthodox position of the centuries that God knows the actual future yet does not determine it.  It is probably important to point out, however, that the open theists have strong biblical evidence in their favor. That is to say, if you take the Old Testament literally, it often does not present God as knowing everything that is going to happen.

God does not seem to know where Adam is in the Garden of Eden (Gen. 3:9). God is sorry that he created humanity right before the Flood in Genesis 6:6--something that cannot be literally true if God knew ahead of time that humanity would do what it did. Indeed, emotions are responses to experiential moments, which God does not have if he knows the actual future from eternity past. In that sense, all the presentations of God's emotions in Scriptures, if taken literally, would preclude total omniscience.

While we thus are sympathetic to the desire of open theists to take this biblical imagery literally--after all, the biblical authors themselves probably understood it that way--it is probably better to take this biblical language as more figurative and anthropopathic. It is God speaking to us in terms we can understand. It reminds us of the fact that God is "other" and that even the Bible often does not give us a fully literal picture of him.

Indeed, this is probably another area where parts of the Old Testament do not have as full an understanding of God's knowledge as parts of the New Testament.  Psalm 139 only talks about how immense God's knowledge is. It does not say it extends to every single thing, including everything that will happen in the future.

Even further, it took later Christianity to fill out the picture of God's omniscience in philosophical terms. A comment like 1 John 3:20 that God knows all things was made in ordinary language, not the absolute language of philosophy.  When you consider the immensity of Scripture and then consider how few comments like 1 John 3:20 there are, you begin to realize how much we are reliant on the church of the centuries in addition to Scripture, even on as central a belief as God's omniscience.

There are serious practical implications to this realization. It gives us a more balanced understanding of Scripture, particularly of how figurative some of its statements are.  It gives us a sense of the flow of revelation and how the prophets of the Old Testament did not understand as much as the apostles of the New Testament. No verse of Scripture should be read and applied in isolation from consideration of all the others. It gives us a sense of how important the earliest centuries of Christianity were in refining what we believe as Christians. The failure to realize such things arguably is one of the most significant reasons for the immense disunity of Christian denominationalism today.

The practical implications of God's omniscience are immense.  God is not only powerful enough to help us in any situation, he knows exactly what to do.  Romans 8:26 tells us that when we pray, the Spirit intercedes for us because we do not have enough knowledge to be able to pray as we should. God's knowledge of all things actual is part of his sovereignty. God not only has the power to be in charge of the universe. He knows exactly what to do in the implementation of that power.  It implies that God's will will always be effective.

We are also reminded of how so many Christians--including Christian thinkers--do not realize the full implications of God creating the world out of nothing and God thus being "other."  We tend to assume without realizing it that God is part of the universe and that the way of this universe is a given. We ascribe aspects to God's "nature" that are really aspects of this universe.  In reality, we have no conception, no point of reference to realize how differently God could have created things in every way--and perhaps has in other universes.

6. God as Eternal
7. God the Spirit
8. Three in One
9. God as Love
10. God as Just

1 comment:

Martin LaBar said...

"God is not only powerful enough to help us in any situation, he knows exactly what to do."