Thinking about the omniscience of God

Omniscience is a deduction made by philosophers and theologians based on biblical evidence, which implies that God is aware and alert to all that is going on in his creation
Evidence such as King David’s plot against Uriah, Bathsheba’s husband so that he, David, could marry her. – 2 Samuel 11.
Psalm 139 – where God shows and awareness of the babe in the womb.

Linguistically the Bible shows little recognition of a difference between the English terms “eternal” and “everlasting “but our understanding of them will prove crucial in clarifying our ideas about omniscience.

If God is eternal – he has unlimited knowledge of time, past present and future

If God is everlasting – his knowledge is limited to what it is logically possible for God to know. This knowledge may indeed change over time.

What is meant by knowledge?

1. If God is eternal then God’s knowledge is not the same as human knowledge. If God is outside time then his knowledge cannot be empirical physical knowledge like ours because God does not learn knowledge through the senses.

2. If God is simple he does not gain new knowledge. He just has knowledge. This is a difficult idea for humans to grasp. Indeed would we recognise it as knowledge?

3. Augustine believed God had knowledge and as such is it not a physical property. There is quite a lot of Aristotle in Aquinas’ thinking here. He talks about God having self-knowledge, which as God is immaterial is not physical knowledge. There are memories here of the unmoved mover!

4. On the other hand it God is everlasting then God, who is within time can gain new knowledge. God knows what it is logically possible for him to know

All of this depends on a general agreement that knowledge is immaterial. If it is other than this then the whole concept becomes more difficult.

How might God know about the future?

The whole idea that somehow God might know what we are about to do seems quite intimidating. I may plan my day with some care, but then on a whim may decide to go and do something entirely out of character. If God indeed God knows the future, one would have to admit that even my outrageous action would be part of his knowledge about me!

1. If God is eternal he would have complete knowledge of everyone’s actions all the time.
a) Boethius believed that God sees all history simultaneously and therefore knows our future actions. Anthony Kenny feels that this concept is beyond belief.
b) On this view John Locke pointed out that if we think we have free will and the ability to do other, our actions cannot contingent but necessary.
c) Thomas Aquinas says that God takes in all history as a whole. He puts forward the idea of a person sitting on the top of a mountain, able to overlook a journey being made from town A to town B by someone else. For the person making the journey there is a past, present and future, but the spectator on top of the mountain sees the entire picture simultaneously.
The implication of this is that according to Aquinas there is a causal link between past, present and future. Aquinas envisages a sort of soft determinism with freedom.

2. If God is everlasting then time passes.
God learns about the future as it unfolds. The past is closed and the future is open and not necessary
Luis of Molina says God’s omniscience includes all possibilities for the future.
L. Anscombe believes that God has no knowledge of the furute.
This view is all very well but it is hard to reconcile it with the way in which Christians have traditionally thought about God – an all-powerful, all knowing and unchangeable God.

Impact on people of omniscience of God
If we want to maintain we are free we must bear responsibility for our own actions.
If hard determinism is true – we may be causally responsible for our actions but not morally responsible
If we maintain we are free to make choices it is difficult to see how there can be an omniscient God.

The doctrine of omniscience creates problems
1. Does God know what we are going to do before we do it?
2. Theodicies such as Augustine’s and the Irenaean theodicy rely on human free will. If God is both omnipotent and omniscient this means that the problem of evil again raises its head.
3. If God is omnipotent and omniscient God must be responsible for what happens. This raises questions about human responsibility. The alternative is to accept that either omnipotence or omniscience is compromised.

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