By Pastor Glenn Pease
There is nothing so absolute that you cannot conceive of an exception. Light is the absolute of science, but if you make light pass through water it goes at a slower speed than 186,000 miles per second. There is nothing in theology more absolute than the omniscience of God. It is perfect and eternal knowledge of all that is, was, and will be, and of the possible as well as the actual. It would seem impossible to squeeze anything past that definition, for it covers all that reality can be conceived to be. It covers all that can even be dreamed or imagined.
Dr. Augustus Strong, the great theologian, points out, however, that there are exceptions to God's all-knowing. God cannot know that which is not an object of knowledge. In other words, if you ask what is 2 plus shoe leather? God cannot know the answer for there is no answer. You can make up endless numbers of nonsense questions for which there is not answer, and not even God can know an answer. What is the next number after the highest conceivable number? This is impossible to have an answer, for there is no highest number. Numbers are infinite, and so there can be no number after the highest, for you can never get to the highest. Even an infinite mind can only know what is possible to be known. It is not a limitation on God's omniscience that He cannot know what is not knowable. He knows all that can be known, and that is absolute.
This leads to the question, can God ever put self-limitations on his Omniscience? Does he have to know everything, or can he choose to not know something? Those who say God cannot not know something, say that if God chose to not know something, he would be knowing what he chose not to know, and so would be knowing it. This view forces God to have no choice but to know everything. We have the freedom to not know something that we could know, but God does not have this freedom. This view makes God a prisoner of his own attributes. The Bible does not give us this kind of picture of God.
In the Incarnation Jesus did not grasp at equality with the Father, but he emptied himself of that equality and became limited as a man. It is inconceivable that as a baby in the manger that Jesus knew all that could be known. The Bible tells us that he grew in wisdom. God does not grow in wisdom, for he is already all-wise. But Jesus gave up his omniscience when he took on his manhood. He grew and became more knowledgeable than other men, but he still had his limitations. He even said that only the Father knew some things, and he could not know in his limited state when he would come again. He said in Matt.24:36, "No one knows abut that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father." The point is, God chose to limit his omniscience in Christ.
I remember talking to a Christian leader about this text where Jesus said he did not know the time of his second coming. He insisted that Jesus had to know, and that it was impossible for him not to know, for he was one with the Father. He refused to believe what Jesus said because it did not fit his theology. J. F. Parker said, "It needs to be said with the greatest possible emphasis that those who hold themselves free to think of God as they like are breaking the second commandment." When we exalt our own concepts of God above the God of biblical revelation, we are guilty of idolatry. We are worshiping a God we have created, and not the God who created us, and revealed himself to us.
Is the God of the Bible less free than we are? I can have the ability to know something about others, but then choose not to use that power to know. I could open my sons mail, read it, and then reseal it, and he would never know. I could go and get credit information on people, or I could get information on their giving to the church that they may not want me to have. The point is, I do not do what I could do because I choose not to know what I could know. If God cannot do this, then he is all knowing by necessity and not by choice. He is not as free as I am.
What we need to see is that the Bible shows us a God who has control of his omniscience, and is not controlled by it. God can select which aspect of his knowledge will be in his consciousness, and which will not be. This is necessary for God to relate to reality as it is. For example, God loved David and was gracious to him. He blessed David abundantly, and he was a man after God's own heart. God related to David as he was in the present, and not as he was going to be in the future. If God had it in his consciousness that David was going to fall into sin and be guilty of murder even, how could he relate to him in a loving way?
God has to limit his awareness of the future in order to be relevant to the present. He waited until David fell before he became angry with him and sent judgment on him. God cannot be loving and angry, pleased and displeased, at the same time. So he has to limit his knowledge, and deal only with the present circumstances. How else can he say he is pleased with David, if he is also angry with him for his sin? God is not being a hypocrite by being pleased with David, for he is not conscious of his future sin until the time comes. He has the power to know, but he can choose not to know. He is in control of what he knows, and is not at the mercy of his omniscience. If he has to know then he cannot be honest about how he feels in the present, for he is already angry about the future, and so God's all knowing would be a pain, for he could never be honest about what is because of what he knows will be.
The omniscience of God does not require that he can never have the joy of surprise and the adventure of discovery. Since he is in control of his omniscience, he does not have to spoil every surprise by already knowing everything. If God has to know, and does not have a choice, then he is deprived of one of the great pleasures that we have. But the Bible does not hesitate to portray God as learning. He has to go and find out for himself if the facts are what is being said. In Gen. 18:20-21 we read God saying, "The outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is so great and their sin so grievous that I will go down and see if what they have done is as bad as the outcry that has reached me. If not, I will know." In Gen. 9:16 God says, "Whenever the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and all living creatures of every kind on the earth." God is shown here as remembering, as if something he knew could be put in the back of his mind, and be called into remembrance by the rainbow."
One of the greatest comforts in knowing God can choose what to know, or not to know is the whole issue of our sins. In Isa. 43:25 God says, "I, even I, am he who blots out your transgressions, for my own sake, and remember our sins no more." God is not forced by his omniscience to keep all the sins of the past in his consciousness. He can limit his knowing and remove what he chooses from the store of his omniscience. He has a delete on the computer of his infinite mind, and he can use it, and he can forget what he once knew by choice. There are many verses that make it clear that God is in control, and he can limit his all knowing whenever he chooses. Some will say this is only anthropomorphic language, and they are right, but it is inspired by God. In other words, he does not mind us thinking of him as learning, being surprised, remembering, and forgetting. He wants us to see him as one who is not a slave to his attributes. He is self-limited in order to relate to the limitations of us and to the limitations of time.
This is just like the limits on God's omnipotence. God can do anything we say, but the fact is, he is limited by choice. He could have sent His Son into the world at the time of Sodom's great evil culture, and they could have responded to the Gospel, and all would have been a different history. He could have sent His Son in the 20th century, and all would be different that what it has been. God could have done many things different, but when he made a choice to do what he did, he cannot also do other things. In other words, God also makes choices, and when they are made, he cannot not have made those choices. He cannot have sent the Son other times when he chose to send him when he did.
God has the power to make all grass red, but he chose to make it green. Having the power to do things does not mean he has to do them. And having the capacity to know something does not mean he has to know it. God is the one who is in control of his attributes, and he is free to use them according to his wisdom and will. He is not bound by them, and a slave to them. The freedom of God is over all of his attributes.
It is the omniscience of God that makes it possible for him to take the risks involved in giving man the same freedom that he has. We have many limitations, but we are free to make many choices that are good or evil. God can allow this because he knows the end from the beginning. He is like a master chess player who has memorized every conceivable move that can be made. He can let his opponent make any move and always be in control knowing he will win, for he knows every possible combination. This helps us see how God can be sovereign and still let man be free. Man can make any choice he pleases, but nothing is a surprise to God, for no choice can lead to an outcome that God cannot handle.
God knew before he created Adam that he would fall. He made provision for it and so before the foundation of the world Christ was crucified in God's plan. God knew the cost before he made a free willed being like man. But he took the risk because he also knew that many out of every tribe tongue and nation would receive the provision he made in giving his Son to die for their sins. He knew their would be an eternal family of the redeemed because of his plan. It was worth the cost to him. All of the evil and tragedy of life will be worth it when we are enjoying pleasures for evermore at his right hand. How marvelous heaven must be for God to know all that would be, and yet still let history happen.
It is God's omniscience that enables him to maintain his sovereignty and control no matter how wicked and foolish man may become. Nothing that man can do can thwart the ultimate plan of God. He can quench the Spirit and not cooperated and suffer judgment, but man can never stop the onward movement of God's purpose. We see man has this same mind to a large degree. Take a football game for example. They know someone is likely to get hurt and taken out of the game. So they have people there who can work on it and try to repair the damage. They have an ambulance for emergencies. They have back up players to take over. The point is, no matter what happens the game will go on, for they have foreseen all the possible ways the game could be stopped, and they have made provision so it will not be stopped. God's knowledge is such that his plan will never be stopped by anything that can happen.
God's knowing something ahead of time has led many to think that his knowing it is the cause of it, but this is not so. I can see a man jogging and looking up at a hot air balloon going overhead just as he is about to run over an open man hole cover. I can see it is going to be an accident, but my knowing it is going to happen is not the cause of it. God knowing it is going to happen is also not the cause. It is the carelessness of the runner that is the cause in this case, and those responsible for the open cover. God is not the cause of what he knows. He is only the cause of those things that he wills, and most of the negative things of life like accidents and sins are not any part of what he wills. He knows who is going to commit murder tonight and who is going to rob a convenience store, but in no way is his knowing this the cause of it.
The point of all this study of God's omniscience is to make it clear that God is not a vast computer, but he is a Person. He is a Person who loves us and relates to us. He has feelings, and he loves to interact with us. He accepts us as we are, and deals with us in the present state of our understanding and growth. He is realistic, and he does not let all that can be known spoil the pleasures of surprise and learning. He is free to chose and is never bound by his attributes. That is the key to understanding all of the attributes of God. He is not his attributes, but he is a Person who chooses how his attributes will function, and anytime he chooses he can limit them to fulfill his plan and his will.