How Much Does God Know?

A brief inquiry into the open view of God

I commented recently on the problems with open theism, and in response, someone recommended Greg Boyd’s God of the Possible as a good summary of the view. Having read the book, I want to interact with some of what Boyd says to explain that the future is partly settled, and partly open. First, I commend Boyd on dealing with the text of Scripture, rather than philosophical or confessional presuppositions. It is too often the case that people reject something because it clashes with what they’ve been told, with a received tradition, rather than with Scripture. Boyd attempts to honestly deal with the texts and to make sense of them.

I should also state that my understanding of God’s knowledge is not fatalistic or deterministic. (But I’m less concerned to align with the labels as they exist.) Boyd notes the implications of the extent of God’s control over every detail of life and history, and that few people actually live this way, despite what they say. If one says that God controls everything—every detail of every life that ever has been, ever will be, and that these details are eternally fixed and unalterable, then much of what we read in Scripture does not make sense. Why pray if nothing is changeable? What do we make of any exhortation or encouragement in Scripture to change, to repent, to believe? Some would say everything you do has been in God’s plan for you from eternity past, from the clothes you’ll wear next Tuesday, to what words you say on Friday, to who you’ll marry. It is all eternally fixed and no deviation from this predetermined path is possible. If that sort of determinism is the position of classical theology, then I, too, reject that as inconsistent with Scripture. I’ve had conversations with some who present a deterministic view of God’s foreknowledge and foreordination in these stark terms, and if one expresses doubt about that view, “you don’t believe in sovereignty.” I’m not leveling such an accusation against Boyd, nor calling him a heretic, because I think that’s too simplistic and, frankly, lazy.

But Boyd often conflates God’s foreordination with God’s foreknowledge, a conclusion that I don’t think is warranted. In other words, God’s knowledge of what will happen seems, in the open view, the same as God’s decision that it will happen, and the human paradox that God can know what man will choose, and yet not force that choice seems not to be a possibility in Boyd’s treatment of the material.

Boyd’s work is non-technical, and intentionally targets a popular audience. There is no problem with this approach whatsoever, but one can still bring in relevant material and arguments in a non-technical way. One piece of this evidence is “middle knowledge,” sometimes called Molinism for its first attributed proponent, Luis de Molina. Indeed, Boyd mentions middle knowledge, but only in a footnote in the final chapter. Middle knowledge is a complex topic in itself, and devoting considerable space to examining it here would, I think, take me off track. But this much is clear: middle knowledge brings a compelling perspective to the question of God’s foreknowledge and foreordination because it posits that God knows all possible avenues, while not affirming that God has foreordained the one that came to pass.

If, however, there isn’t Scripture to support middle knowledge, then we are back to the same philosophical presuppositions that mark much of the determinist position. One verse cited is Matthew 11:23:

“And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? You will be brought down to Hades. For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day.”

Here, Jesus speaks about something that would have happened, had circumstances and choices been different. He gives an outcome, not theoretical, but presents it as factual, yet conditional. If Sodom had seen the mighty works Capernaum saw, it would have remained until this day. To the extent that this strikes us as a logical impossibility is part of the limitation we as humans have in our understanding of an infinite God. This is one reason I find arguments against middle knowledge (or whatever term we may want to use) not compelling. “How can God…?” is often a question that has no satisfactory answer for us, and when we do put forth an answer that satisfies, we often end up with a truncated theology.

One example is where Boyd addresses the age-old question of “why would God allow Adolf Hitler to be born if he foreknew he would massacre millions of Jews.”?  Says Boyd,

“The only response I could offer then, and the only response I continue to offer now, is that this was not foreknown as a certainty at the time God created Hitler. If you claim God foreknew exactly what Hitler would do and created him anyway, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the world must somehow be better with Hitler than without him. Think about it. If God is all good and thus always does what is best, and if God knew exactly what Hitler would do when he created him, we must conclude that God believed that allowing Hitler’s massacre of the Jews (and many others) was preferable to his not allowing it. If you accept the premise that God is all good and all powerful and the he possesses exhaustively settled foreknowledge, the conclusion is difficult to avoid.” (p. 98-99)

Boyd’s analysis makes some assumptions, but are they valid? Boyd must believe that the information we as humans have about this situation is exhaustive, or at least sufficient to make a summary judgment of the matter. But how do we know this to be the case? How do we know that our (admittedly limited) human knowledge of this situation allows us to make such a judgment and to pronounce it as the one that is inevitable or difficult to avoid?

Job’s three friends were similarly convinced that they had sufficient knowledge to declare the true cause of Job’s misfortunes, even though within the book itself we as readers see they were wrong, that they did not have all the information. It is not difficult to see cases in our own human experience where we jump to a conclusion we must later revise, precisely because we did not have all the information.

When human free agents are not involved, how are we to think of events? That is, when tornados, earthquakes or floods take lives, is this because God only knew these things as possible, but wasn’t aware they would actually transpire? The Psalms repeatedly affirm God’s control over the weather.

“By the east wind you shattered the ships of Tarshish.” Ps 48:7

“Whatever the Lord pleases, he does,
in heaven and on earth,
in the seas and all deeps.
He it is who makes the clouds rise at the end of the earth,
who makes lightnings for the rain
and brings forth the wind from his storehouses. Ps 135:6-7.

Apart from any possibilities in human agents, God controls events of nature. Seeing these as only possible, uncertain, is difficult to comprehend.

I readily grant the difficulty in making sense of the atrocities of human history and understanding how God is behind them—how, if sovereign, omnipotent, and omniscient, he allows them. Yet it is reasoning from effect to cause, and brings perils. Boyd’s view is that God is not omniscient when it comes to such things. He only knows them as possibilities, but he does not know them as facts. Scripture tells us of God’s knowledge and understanding, however.

Great is our Lord, and abundant in power;
his understanding is beyond measure. Ps. 147:5

He does not faint or grow weary;
his understanding is unsearchable. Is. 40:28

Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!
For who has known the mind of the Lord,
or who has been his counselor? Rom 11:34-35

It is difficult to see these passages presenting God’s knowledge or understanding as limited, or consisting of the possible in some situations. Moreover, we as humans simply don’t have the eternal perspective that allows us to say unequivocally that we know what is eternally good.  We can import our ideas of what must be good and right into situations in an effort to make sense of things, but we can attribute things to God’s character that are untrue or unnecessary. We are uncomfortable with paradoxes, though Scripture gives us many. In the open view of God, things we as humans see as evil are not attributable to God, because God is good. Indeed, Scripture says

You are good and do good. Ps 119:68

but also,

Is a trumpet blown in a city,
and the people are not afraid?
Does disaster come to a city,
unless the Lord has done it? Amos 3:5

How can we reconcile these two seemingly contradictory truths? I suggest that the open view limits God’s knowledge to an extent that Scripture does not support, but it is also likely that a resolution that ultimately satisfies us may be unobtainable here and now. One of the definitions of faith is the assurance of things not seen. A resolution to the question of how can foreknow everything, yet not foreordain it all as well is one of these unseens.

In Solomon’s prayer of dedication for the Temple, he prays this: “hear in heaven your dwelling place and forgive and act and render to each whose heart you know, according to all his ways (for you, you only, know the hearts of all the children of mankind).” 1 Kings 8:39.  Solomon affirms that God, and God only, knows the hearts of mankind, and that he knows them exhaustively. I see nothing in Solomon’s words that allows us to say God’s knowledge is limited, that he does not know what is, or what will be in the hearts of mankind.

One of the criticisms Boyd has for the “classical view” of God’s foreknowledge and foreordination is that it sees those passages that speak about God changing his mind or repenting as anthropomorphisms, only seeming to say what they do, while other Scriptures that declare truths about God are taken literally, at face value. This is a valid criticism. But, could it be that seeing God’s knowledge only as possible knowledge, not actual knowledge, is also a kind of anthropomorphism, an accommodation to our inability to reconcile that God can both know everything that ever will be or could be, while at the same time not having fatalistically determined these outcomes?

I’m sure some will read this assessment and say that I haven’t brought closure or clarity to the issue. That’s not an unfair conclusion. Given the information Scripture gives us, and the manifest limits of human understanding, I don’t think the degree of closure some affirm is possible. But given all of that, I’m also not prepared to say I know with certainty that God’s knowledge is limited. I believe Scripture testifies otherwise.

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