Omniscience

OMNISCIENCE (ŏm-nĭsh'ĕns). The attribute by which God perfectly and eternally knows all things that can be known—past, present, and future. God knows how best to attain to his desired ends. God’s omniscience is clearly taught in Scripture (Ps.147.5; Prov.15.11; Isa.46.10).



On the basis of Scripture the omniscience of God may be argued from other attributes of His being. Because He is truth and has truth, and because His self-knowledge is complete, and that all things rest on Him, His knowledge of such things must be complete. In the same way, for example, one could argue His omniscience from His omnipresence. In His fullness He is everywhere always, and therefore His awareness is complete. Arguments also are brought forward from prophecy and the fulfillment of prophecy.

Although God’s nature is ineffable, one must still affirm certain things to be true about Him which cannot be grasped fully. His omniscience is at once immediate and eternal. He knows things immediately as they really are without sense experience or imagination, so that all things which men think about in the time sequence are known by Him as an “eternal now.” Without the observation of successive events and without steps of logical reasoning, all things—past, present, and future—are known to Him simultaneously. He grasps, in ways which we cannot define or explain, those necessary acts which follow in the logic of events, and, at the same time, He knows the outworkings of the free acts of His creatures. He not only foreknows how certain events will lead to other events in the total complexity of reality, but He directly knows how the complex motives of multitudes of men will work themselves out in multitudes of personal acts.

When the nature and extent of omniscience are stated in every way possible, there arise two difficult problems, neither of which allows a final answer within the limitations of human thinking. First, how God by His omniscience knows the future as He knows the present and the past; and second, whether the knowledge of the future in any way predetermines the acts of His free creatures.

With regard to the first question, how God can know the future as He knows the present and the past, there are no analogies in human experience to help. The only answer which the scholars have suggested comes under the useful expression of “one eternal now,” which means, in brief, that what the finite mind sees in sequence under the human form of time is seen by God immediately in its totality. God’s nature is not subject to the law of time. God is not involved in time sequence. Whatever logical succession there may be in God’s thoughts there is no chronological succession. It has been suggested that God sees the future as easily as man sees the past, that God looks through time as he looks through space. These analogies may be helpful but are in no way explanatory.

The philosophers get at the problem this way: there is a reality called “Succession.” Otherwise one would not know events to be “successive.” It is only when men observe a stream from above it or from the outside that people see its flow. That which connects and concludes succeeding events (if one is willing to accept “Succession” as a reality) must itself stand above the flow and stream of events. That man can in some measure understand that this could be true, and because man can in some measure observe the move of events in the past and present and grasp some picture of the future, is a transcendental quality in man which is a part of his image of God. People are faced with an order of being and categories of thought which contain the finite and human, but cannot be contained by the finite and human.

Something of the same problem arises in the second question of the relationship between God’s foreknowledge and the free acts of man. Since His foreknowledge is completely true in every detail, does such a foreknowledge necessitate what comes to pass in the free acts of men? Is prescience in God merely an observation or is it, because it is God’s prescience, deterministic? A quotation from Geerhardus Vos shows the narrow edge of the thinking required in facing this problem: “Since scripture includes in the objects of the Divine knowledge also the issue of the exercise of free will on the part of man, the problem arises how the contingent character of such decisions and the certainty of the Divine knowledge can coexist. It is true that the knowledge of God, and the purposing will of God are distinct, and not the former but the latter determines the certainty of the outcome....At the same time, precisely because omniscience presupposes certainty, it appears to exclude every conception of contingency in the free acts of man, such as would render the latter in their very essence undetermined. The knowledge of the issue must have a fixed point of certainty to terminate upon, if it is to be knowledge at all....The appeal of God’s eternity as bringing Him equally near to the future as to the present and enabling Him to see the future decisions of man’s free will as though they were present cannot remove this difficulty, for when once the observation and knowledge of God are made dependent on any temporal issue, the Divine eternity itself is thereby virtually denied. Nothing remains but to recognize that God’s eternal knowledge of the outcome of the free will choices of man implies that there enters into these choices, notwithstanding their free character, an element of predetermination, to which the knowledge of God can attach itself.”

Both questions which arise out of the acceptance of God’s omniscience have no final answer for man’s understanding. That God knows all things must be maintained; how He knows all things cannot be understood.

Bibliography

Finney, BS (Oct. 1877), 722; A. H. Strong, Systematic Theology (1947), 282; Bowne, Philosophy of Theism, 159; A. B. Davidson, Old Testament Theology, 180ff.; Royce, Conception of God, 40; Shedd, Dogmatic Theology, I, 344; G. Vos, ISBE, vol. 4, 2191, 2192.

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)

om-nish’-ens: The term does not occur in Scripture, either in its nominal or in its adjectival form.

1. Words and Usage:

In the nodetitle it is expressed in connection with such words as da’ath, binah, tebhunah, chokhmah; also "seeing" and "hearing," "the eye" and "the ear" occur as figures for the knowledge of God, as "arm," "hand," "finger" serve to express His power. In the New Testament are found ginoskein, gnosis, eidenai, sophia, in the same connections.

2. Tacit Assumption and Explicit Affirmation:


3. Extends to All Spheres:


4. Mode of the Divine Knowledge:


This, however, does not mean that God’s knowledge of things is identical with His creation of them, as has been suggested by Augustine and others. The act of creation, while necessarily connected with the knowledge of that which is to be actual, is not identical with such knowledge or with the purpose on which such knowledge rests, for in God, as well as in man, the intellect and the will are distinct faculties. In the last analysis, God’s knowledge of the world has its source in His self-knowledge. The world is a revelation of God. All that is actual or possible in it therefore is a reflection in created form of what exists uncreated in God, and thus the knowledge of the one becomes a reproduction of the knowledge of the other (Ac 17:27; Ro 1:20). The divine knowledge of the world also partakes of the quality of the divine self-knowledge in this respect, that it is never dormant. God does not depend for embracing the multitude and complexity of the existing world on such mental processes as abstraction and generalization.

The Bible nowhere represents Him as attaining to knowledge by reasoning, but everywhere as simply knowing. From what has been said about the immanent sources of the divine knowledge, it follows that the latter is not a posteriori derived from its objects, as all human knowledge based on experience is, but is exercised without receptivity or dependence. In knowing, as well as in all other activities of His nature, God is sovereign and self-sufficient. In cognizing the reality of all things He needs not wait upon the things, but draws His knowledge directly from the basis of reality as it lies in Himself. While the two are thus closely connected it is nevertheless of importance to distinguish between God’s knowledge of Himself and God’s knowledge of the world, and also between His knowledge of the actual and His knowledge of the possible. These distinctions mark off theistic conception of omniscience from the pantheistic idea regarding it. God is not bound up in His life with the world in such a sense as to have no scope of activity beyond it.

5. God’s Omniscience and Human Freewill:

Since Scripture includes in the objects of the divine knowledge also the issue of the exercise of freewill on the part of man, the problem arises, how the contingent character of such decisions and the certainty of the divine knowledge can coexist. It is true that the knowledge of God and the purposing will of God are distinct, and that not the former but the latter determines the certainty of the outcome. Consequently the divine omniscience in such cases adds or detracts nothing in regard to the certainty of the event. God’s omniscience does not produce but presupposes the certainty by which the problem is raised. At the same time, precisely because omniscience presupposes certainty, it appears to exclude every conception of contingency in the free acts of man, such as would render the latter in their very essence undetermined. The knowledge of the issue must have a fixed point of certainty to terminate upon, if it is to be knowledge at all. Those who make the essence of freedom absolute indeterminateness must, therefore, exempt this class of events from the scope of the divine omniscience. But this is contrary to all the testimony of Scripture, which distinctly makes God’s absolute knowledge extend to such acts (Ac 2:23). It has been attempted to construe a peculiar form of the divine knowledge, which would relate to this class of acts specifically, the so-called scientia media, to be distinguished from the scientia necessaria, which has for its object God Himself, and the scientia libera which terminates upon the certainties of the world outside of God, as determined by His freewill. This scientia media would then be based on God’s foresight of the outcome of the free choice of man. It would involve a knowledge of receptivity, a contribution to the sum total of what God knows derived from observation on His part of the world-process. That is to say, it would be knowledge a posteriori in essence, although not in point of time. It is, however, difficult to see how such a knowledge can be possible in God, when the outcome is psychologically undetermined and undeterminable. The knowledge could originate no sooner than the determination originates through the free decision of man. It would, therefore, necessarily become an a posteriori knowledge in time as well as in essence. The appeal to God’s eternity as bringing Him equally near to the future as to the present and enabling Him to see the future decisions of man’s free will as though they were present cannot remove this difficulty, for when once the observation and knowledge of God are made dependent on any temporal issue, the divine eternity itself is thereby virtually denied. Nothing remains but to recognize that God’s eternal knowledge of the outcome of the freewill choices of man implies that there enters into these choices, notwithstanding their free character, an element of predetermination, to which the knowledge of God can attach itself.

6. Religious Importance:

The divine omniscience is most important for the religious life. The very essence of religion as communion with God depends on His all-comprehensive cognizance of the life of man at every moment. Hence, it is characteristic of the irreligious to deny the omniscience of God (Ps 10:11,12; 94:7-9; Isa 29:15; Jer 23:23; Eze 8:12; 9:9). Especially along three lines this fundamental religious importance reveals itself:

(a) it lends support and comfort when the pious suffer from the misunderstanding and misrepresentation of men;

(b) it acts as a deterrent to those tempted by sin, especially secret sin, and becomes a judging principle to all hypocrisy and false security;

(c) it furnishes the source from which man’s desire for self-knowledge can obtain satisfaction (Ps 19:12; 51:6; 139:23,24).

LITERATURE.

Oehler, Theologie des A T (3), 876; Riehm, Alttestamentliche Theologie, 263; Dillmann, Handbuch der alttestamentlichen Theologie, 249; Davidson, Old Testament Theology, 180 if.