Four Views of Divine Knowledge

posted in: Philosophy | 0

This weekend I’ll be preaching on the story of Joseph, including one fascinating phrase, “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good” (Genesis 50:20). The passage touches on the issue of divine providence, God acting in human life and history to shape events to our good. Our understanding of providence is largely intertwined with our concept of divine knowledge, or so I discovered while rereading a book titled, Four Views on Divine Providence (Helseth, et al). How God acts seems to depend on what – or better, how – God knows.

Allow me then to summarize the four basic views of divine knowledge along with some thoughts on their strengths, weaknesses, and validity. By necessity, these will be brief and therefore overly simplified.

1. The Reformed View of Divine Knowledge

The Reformed view of divine knowledge continues the Reformation’s heavy theological emphasis on the sovereignty of God as an absolute premise. Calvin wrote,

And truly God claims omnipotence to himself, and would have us to acknowledge it – not the vain, indolent slumbering omnipotence which sophists feign, but vigilant, efficacious, energetic, and ever active, not an omnipotence which may only act as a general principle of confused motion, as in ordering a stream to keep within the channel once prescribed to it, but one which is intent on individual and special movements. … Governing heaven and earth by his providence, he so overrules all things that nothing happens without his counsel (Institutes I.16.3).

If God’s will is the specific and exclusive cause of every event and consequence, then it follows that God would know with certainty all things and all outcomes. Humans in particular are contingent beings who depend entirely on God for their existence, nature, and action. All events can be known by God because all things “do whatever your hand and your plan have predestined to take place” (Acts 4:28).

In terms of strength, this view maintains an exalted view of God’s power and correctly emphasizes human dependence on him for existence. This is in keeping with much of Scripture.

In terms of weakness, this view fails to actually give to God control over all actions, specifically the first human action of rebellion. Calvin acknowledges that “Adam, therefore, might have stood if he choose, since it was only by his own will that he fell; but it was because his will was pliable in either direction, and he had not received constancy to persevere, that he so easily fell” (Institutes 1.15.8). If this first human rebellion was the result of human will in opposition to rather than response to God’s power, then the argument that God knows all because he controls all fails at the very outset. If instead you revoke the will of Adam and his capacity to freely choose, then you are left with the convoluted conclusion that Adam’s disobedience was in fact an act of obedience to God’s sovereignty, his rebellion an act of submission.

Ironically, this view which is so enamored with sovereignty still acts to deny God the power to create a being fully in his own image, possessing the capacity to make free choices. While you could argue that a completely dependent and free creature is a logical impossibility like a square circle, we know from experience that it is not. Humans make them all the time. Every baby is a creature of freedom but limited power, completely dependent upon the parent but not always submissive to the parent’s will. It is not accidental that the parent/child analogy is God’s favorite (Matthew 6:31).

2. The Molinist View of Divine Knowledge

Based largely on the work of 16th century writer, Luis de Molina, Molinists view God’s knowledge as consisting of three logically arranged components. God’s natural knowledge consists of his awareness of all possible outcomes. Once God acts or decrees something to be, God’s free knowledge consists of his awareness of all actual outcomes. In between these two types of knowledge, Molinists posit middle knowledge, God’s knowledge of all feasible outcomes. God’s middle knowledge includes his knowledge of hypotheticals including what free creatures would freely choose in specific circumstances. One typical Scripture example would be from John 18:36, “If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting.” Jesus knows what free human creatures would choose to do in a circumstance which is not actually the case.

The strength of this position is that it allows for human choice without calling the foreknowledge of God into question. If it is God’s will to be glorified by as many free creatures as feasible, then middle knowledge allows him to create a world to that end selected from the great multitude of possible worlds in his knowledge.

The weakness of this view depends on who you ask. For the Reformed thinker, Molinism subverts God’s sovereignty by adding an “if” to his knowledge. Folk of the free will persuasion tend to bee more suspicious of whether this scheme actually allows for truly free will. If God places you into a scenario where you can certainly be known to choose one option, then did you truly and freely make that choice? I elaborate on that concern in a lengthier consideration of Molinism which I’ve posted here.

3. The “Traditional” View of Divine Knowledge

Okay, so I realize that calling this next category “traditional” is enormously prejudicial and perhaps not at all accurate. Highfield would suggest this view holds to the true trajectory of Augustine-Aquinas-Calvin-Báñez-Barth, but many a Reformed scholar would certainly object.1 What can I say … I’m biased. I think Christian canon, philosophy, and tradition have all expressed just such a view as I am about to summarize, one that does not easily fit into categories anymore than God himself does.

In this Traditional View of Divine Knowledge, God is all-powerful as affirmed by Scripture. His power includes the capacity to create beings who as himself possess free volition. God has sufficient power to bestow actual power to his creatures and not be less for it. God has created us to be creatures which freely bring him glory, as children are the glory of a parent. Paul expresses both prongs of this truth to the Athenians from their own philosophy,

for “In him we live and move and have our being”;

as even some of your own poets have said, 

“For we are indeed his offspring” (Acts 17:28).

This view of God’s knowledge shifts the emphasis from God’s power to his love and personhood. He is not an ephemeral force fated to exist. He is a free and triune being who has in turn created free beings with whom to share himself. His knowledge of his creation is intimate and perfect, a perfection afforded only in love. Likewise the freedom of his creatures is not adverse to his will but the very result of it. God knows his creatures even as he knows himself. “Creation is not an alien eternal substance opaque to God. Creation is God’s own action of giving existence to his eternal plan.”2 Augustine likewise connects the Creator’s knowledge to his creative acts when he writes, “And with respect to all His creatures, both spiritual and corporeal, He does not know them because they are, but they are because He knows them” (On the Trinity 15.13).

The strength of this view in my estimation is in its primary commitment to God’s nature, not merely his power but also his love and personhood. It weaves together God’s action and his knowledge. It also reminds us that God is not a mere actor in creation but the sustaining reality of all creation. God does not then know as one object knows another. He knows as only the Creator can know, without any precise human parallel beyond “potter and clay” (Isaiah 64:8).

As a weakness, this view does not coincide with strong definitions of some terms. For example, the free will in this scheme is not libertarian free will. “No mere human act can be free in an absolute sense; for we do not have absolute knowledge of our intentions or the results of the action we are contemplating.”3 One might even question where sin lands in this view. Much like Reformed thinking, human choice now directly results from God’s own free will as do all things. What are we to make of a God who frees us to sin and knows our will to sin intimately even as he knows himself? Others may object that this view has not adequately articulated what makes it distinct from Reformed ideology.

4. The Open Theist View of Divine Knowledge

Finally, the more modern Open Theology view finishes off our spectrum of interpretations by positing that God does not in fact know all things in the traditional sense. He knows “all propositions such that God’s knowing them at that time is logically possible.”4 Open Theists do not see God as being outside of time in any sense, and so future events are not yet real to God anymore than they are to us. It would then be logically impossible for God to know that which has not yet happened, that is, what is logically impossible to know.5 God is said to have superior wisdom and to be infinitely intelligent, but not to have certain knowledge of the future.

The strength of this view is first in its emphasis of narrative texts in Scripture. Other philosophical approaches tend to diminish the great mass of canon that takes the form of narrative in favor of broad doctrine-sounding statements found elsewhere. Narrative takes up too many pages of the Bible to be ignored, and in narratives God does often seem to act in time and to respond to rather than cause human choices. Open Theism also has a favorable explanation of evil, noting that in all other approaches evil must ultimately be attributed to none other than the all-knowing and all-powerful God himself upon whom all choices are said to depend.

The bad news is that – simply stated – Open Theism is heresy. It is a view of God’s nature which undermines and at times outright denies characteristics of God plainly attributed to God in Scripture, upheld in tradition, and demanded by philosophy. It rejects the conclusions regarding God of the ancient creeds and the philosophical work derived from them, specifically impassibility and aseity. For Open Theism, God’s providential plan is a “choose your own adventure” book.6 Open Theism states that the future is unknownable and that the outcome of God’s will for this world is equally uncertain (as in open ended). God is in genuine risk of losing his war with evil, though an Open Theist would state that God’s infinite intelligence assures him that he will not. Scripture on the other hand shows God mocking any counterfeit God who lacks the capacity to know the future with certainty: “Let them bring them, and tell us what is to happen. … Tell us what is to come hereafter, that we may know that you are gods … Behold, you are nothing” (Isaiah 41:21-24). While I find Open Theism a “useful heresy,” one that helps me to ask difficult questions of my own view, it is ultimately unscriptural and false.

Conclusion

I don’t believe anyone has yet articulated a perfectly satisfactory understanding of God’s knowledge, though some are certainly closer than others. The greatest trap seems to be twofold. On the one hand, we are tempted ignore the otherness of God and how his knowledge is likewise foreign to us in so many ways. On the other hand, we tend to forget that the manner in which humans attain knowledge is a bit mysterious and multivalent itself, leading me to believe that our ignorance of God and of self are probably related. Likely the image of God in us is the least understood by us, and so we fail also to see Him.

 

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Footnotes

  1. Ron Highfield, Great is the Lord (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2008), 330.
  2. Ibid., 318.
  3. Ibid., 331.
  4. Hasker in Clark Pinnock et al, The Openness of God (Downers Grove, IL: IntervasityPress, 1994), 136.
  5. This would be a good place to stop and do some reading on God and time, as well as differing theories of time. I’d recommend William Lane Craig, Time and Eternity (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2001).
  6. Boyd in Helseth et al, Four Views on Divine Providence, 199ff.