Is God ever Surprised? 2

John Goldingay, in his new book, Key Questions about Christian Faith: Old Testament Answers, has a chp on a question many “fresh” readers of the Bible ask: Does God have surprises? Or does God know everything so that nothing surprises him?

Which brings us to part two in this series — God’s knowledge of the present and the past.

Goldingay distinguishes “innate” from “empirical” knowledge — the former what God knows as God and the latter what God discovers by searching.

Innate knowledge is seen in Exod 34:6-7: “6 And he passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, “The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness,7 maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation.” This is God’s self-description; it must refer to what God knows about himself innately.

But the Old Testament has plenty of passages where God seems to learn or come to know something by probing, asking, discovering:And these aren’t easy to square with the traditional theist account of God’s omniscience.

Thus, Psalm 14:2:

2 The LORD looks down from heaven
on all mankind
to see if there are any who understand,
any who seek God.

Or Gen 18:21 “…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.”

God asks questions, and some of these seem to be in order to find out an answer that God does not know (he sees Gen 3:11 here). And God tests people, which is designed to see “if” and “what” will happen — assuming that the test will manifest something new to God — Gen 22:12 is a good example; here God says to Abraham on the mount where he was tested about his son: “Do not lay a hand on the boy,” he said. “Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son.”

Goldingay: “God does not have innate knowledge of what is in people’s hearts but does have the capacity to get to know this…” (36).

On Omniscience: both open theists and classic theists think to be God means to know all things that can be known and know them truly. Goldingay: “But this conviction … is not one derived from scripture or present in scripture” (36). It comes from what he calls “natural theology.” Such ideas from natural theology often get embedded in our theology.

Goldingay says the Bible’s descriptions of God don’t focus on knowledge though there is an emphasis on wisdom. He says it is hard to find scripture that speaks of omniscience. He trots through Psalm 147:5; Isa 40:13-14; Job 37:16; 36:4; 1 John 3:20 — which is the only one really close to this belief. He contends John 21:17, which tells Peter that he will “know all things” may be of the same category. Even Psalm 139 is set up by God’s probing discoveries in verse 1.

Is this “speaking in human terms” or “accommodation” or “phenomenological language”? Do we give priority to those texts that speak of omniscience over texts that speak of discovery? Why? How?  Goldingay observes that people appeal to anthropomorphisms when things are said that don’t fit their view of God.

God has surprises and God is not afraid of surprises.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than forty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • http://LostCodex.com DRT

    I am sorry if this is a bit off topic, but during a work bible study yesterday we were doing Matt 24 and had a bit of a discussion around omniscience of Jesus. Does anyone contend these days that Jesus knew all when he was alive?

  • John Mc

    Following on the discussion from 1/25/11, I have to say that I feel vindicated, it appears that theologically speaking I am in tune with Goldingay. If I am reading Scot’s review accurately it affirms that Goldengay asserts that the traditional Theist notion of divine omniscience is more a product of Greek philosophy (i.e., which I interpret as ‘natural theology’) rather than an authentic aspect of God as derived from God’s self-revelation.

    “How” God knows and “what” God knows are truly ineffable, but in considering those questions Scripture teaches us that the future of the human Creation is contingent and not fixed, and that there is room for human agency and there is room for God to respond to events in creation as they happen.

    And seeing the use which Goldengay makes of narrative references, once again I have to question those who would dismiss out of hand the practice of drawing substantive theological conclusions from Scriptural narrative; it would appear from Goldengay’s employment of Scriptural examples that the practice, with appropriate safeguards, is sound.

  • Susan N.

    “Do we give priority to those texts that speak of omniscience over texts that speak of discovery?”

    I think the answer to this is yes. Depending on one’s disposition toward God (authoritarian, benevolent, etc.), a systematic theology that supports that view will be adopted. Once a person locks in on a particular “system” of interpreting God through the Bible, any one doctrine that doesn’t fit the system of belief has the potential to shake the person’s faith. The inability to imagine a God who can be surprised is perhaps due more to the fear that we’ll be the ones who are surprised in finding that God is not exactly who we were so sure that He is.

    The example of God testing Abraham to sacrifice Isaac is a tough one. If God thought there was any chance that Abraham would actually go through with it, or was so detached from how events proceeded, then God really asking Abraham to do that is questionable (in my view of God). As my son wisely suggested, God could know everything, but *sometimes* He chooses not to know.

    “Goldingay observes that people appeal to anthropomorphisms when things are said that don’t fit their view of God.”

    I think this is unavoidable. We are human. We do have limitations in understanding God fully. I believe the Holy Spirit helps us to understand God’s Word, and to make sense of our experiences with God, in Christ. But, there’s no moment in this earthly life when we arrive and see with complete accuracy the full nature of God. Scripture itself uses language that compares God to human form and immaterial nature. I think the fact that God took on human form in the Person of Christ is significant. We can see God’s true (perfect) nature lived out in a human being. Jesus surprised a lot of people during his life by *not* being the Messiah they expected Him to be. Jesus didn’t need to know everything in advance to uphold the perfect will of God.

    This is where I hope I can say, in faith, even if God can be surprised, and I certainly might (will) be surprised by God, I can trust Him, like Jesus trusted the Father when He didn’t know exactly what was ahead.

  • Susan N.

    DRT – Ha! We were on the same wavelength, thinking about Jesus and what he knew or didn’t know. I have assumed from my reading of the gospels that there were things that Jesus didn’t know right from the get go. Then again, there were instances when Jesus knew a person’s thoughts or apparently what they would do next (i.e., Judas). Judas’ situation bothers me a lot, btw; puzzling over that one recently. I’ll be interested to hear what Scot and others think about Jesus’ foreknowledge. :-)

  • http://www.gettingfree.wordpress.com T

    DRT (& Susan),

    Jesus clearly says that there are things that even he, the Son, does not know, and only the Father knows. So omniscience of Jesus is really not a biblical option.

    I personally believe the best explanation for Jesus’ knowledge of things that goes beyond mere human capacity is the same explanation as his ability to cast out demons and heal the sick (and the same explanation for how his followers did and do the same), namely, the Holy Spirit. Jesus said he cast out demons by the Spirit, and the Spirit is also the source of revelation and prophetic insights. So, I don’t believe that Jesus was walking around with something like a few degrees short of omniscience. I believe that he had to trust, just as we do, that he had to learn, that he relied on the Spirit both to teach him, counsel him, to make him wise, and to give him specific revelations as needed.

  • http://ingles.homeunix.net/ Ray Ingles

    I’m an atheist, and I don’t have a problem with the notion that a putative entity ‘outside of time’ would be able to ‘see’ what we ‘will do’ tomorrow. (To combine disciplines a bit, it sure seems to me that the relativity of simultaneity implies a B-series ordering of time.)

  • http://rhymeswithplague.blogspot.com Bob Brague

    This Jesus who didn’t [need to] know everything in advance, are you talking about the Jesus who said in the mouth of the first fish you catch will be a coin; pay the taxes with that? Or the only sign this wicked and adulterous generation will receive is the sign of the prophet Jonah? Or before the cock crows (once or twice, who cares?), you will deny me three times? Or I will be crucified and on the third day I will rise again? Is that the Jesus you mean?

  • http://LostCodex.com DRT

    Bob, the real one behind all of those.

  • johnfouadhanna

    How can God be one and three? How can Jesus be fully divine and fully human? How can be God be transcendent and immanent? How can God be sovereign and our choices truly be our own? In the face of suffering, how can God be all-powerful and all-loving?

    These are the questions that lie at the heart of our faith? This issue seems to fall into that category. If God is all-knowing, how can he truly relate to us?

    The error that we fall into with respect to all these questions is that we attempt to resolve them by weakening or even eliminating one side.

    One of the glories of our creedal commitments is that we don’t do that, but live in and with the tensions. Not only do we hold on to both “sides,” but we stretch them, and in turn find ourselves stretched by them. Thus, we don’t at all have to deny any of the texts quoted above, but gladly receive both those that speak of God’s omniscience and those that describe him as truly experiencing and entering into relationship with us. Historically, this is what orthodoxy at its best has done.

  • John W Frye

    With respect to Jesus, I think T (#5) gave the most grounded answer. Gerald Hawthorne’s *The Presence & the Power: The Significance of the Holy Spirit in the Life and Ministry of Jesus* and Hawthrone’s exegesis of the “kenosis” text in his WBC commentary on Philippians is worth a read.

    This open theism/classical determinism discussion in popular evangelicalism has been around about 10 years now. I still think Greg Boyd’s observation is correct about the majesty of God; God’s sovereign majesty is not diminished or threatened in the least by an open theism view. Just the opposite. The “open” God is an appealing, amazing God who’s not afraid of the rough and tumble that comes with truly free creatures.

    I am glad Goldingay (and others) are finally giving us back the Old Testament without us having to do theological systematic gymnastics to “protect” God from being vulnerable.

  • http://rhymeswithplague.blogspot.com Bob Brague

    THE REAL ONE BEHIND ALL OF THOSE????

  • dopderbeck

    There is a significant difference between what the incarnate Christ knew as the incarnate Christ and the broader and more general question of what God knows. God’s kenotic self-limitation in the incarnation is different than God’s inherent knowledge. In fact, the kenosis is a self-emptying or self-limitation precisely because God is not inherently so ontologically limited. So let’s separate out the question of the incarnate Christ’s kenotic self-limitation from God’s inherent capacity to know.

    On the latter question — God’s inherent capacity to know — I can’t go where Goldingay seems to be going here. I think John (#9) is right. Yes there is a tension in all these various texts and maybe we as human beings can’t fully resolve that tension. (Personally I think many of the texts that speak of God probing to find out what people are thinking are anthropomorphic and/or represent the phenomona of theological development across the various Biblical texts).

    To me, the fact that God knows me, really knows me, inside and out, upside and down, “my going in from my coming out” as the Psalmist says, is vastly, enormously, wonderfully comforting. There is no sense in which I can be a pretender or a fraud before God because He knows every last bit of me. And that frees me to throw myself utterly on his grace. And this, in turn, sets me free to become the person He knows I really can be, the person He created me to be.

  • http://LostCodex.com DRT

    Bob, not that I am denying all of that or the , but there is a real Jesus that was (I believe) and it is that one that I try to know through the text as well as the Holy Spirit and the relationship with others.

    John Frye – I too like T’s view.

    T – Thanks.

  • http://LostCodex.com DRT

    dopderbeck@12 – Yes, sorry for taking this a bit off topic to Jesus.

    To me, the fact that God knows me, really knows me, inside and out, upside and down, “my going in from my coming out” as the Psalmist says, is vastly, enormously, wonderfully comforting.

    …or terrifying. I too am comforted by God knowing me now, but that was not always the case….

  • http://LostCodex.com DRT

    Sorry the …terrifying was my comment, not dopderbecks.

  • dopderbeck

    DRT — yes, it can be terrifying that God knows everything about us — and “the fear of the LORD is the beginning of Wisdom.” But “perfect love casts out fear.” When we cast ourselves upon His grace, that is freedom.

    I very much love how C.S. Lewis portrays this sort of thing throughout the Narnia Chronicles. People who encounter Aslan have different reactions. But Aslan himself isn’t the problem.

    And wouldn’t it be terrifying if God didn’t really know us? What if He didn’t know some hidden sin or intention — could we really ever be fully redeemed? What if He didn’t really know our deep, burried fears and addictions — could He ever really Shepherd us?

  • Percival

    It seems that some of these OT passages that talk about God “going down” so that He would know, or where He is testing people, are using normal human language to describe how God deals with human behavior. He certainly knew beforehand what people were doing and why they were doing it- other scriptures indicate this. (The eyes of the Lord are everywhere, seeing the evil and the good.) But this type of language could be a way of giving a picture of how a judge/ruler comes down to apply his judgment to a situation that has become serious enough to warrant personal intervention. This perspective does not answer philosophical questions, but it may give direction about the intent of the passages.

  • smcknight

    Percival, you are not alone in this thread in raising the issue of the kind of language is at work — accommodation, anthropomorphic, phenomenological — but Goldingay thinks this is a way of imposing our non-biblical theology on what the text actually does say.

  • Tim Seiger

    I had the privilage a couple of years ago of spending several days with with Greg Boyd (one of the leading thinkers on the subject of Open Theism.) and listening to him teach. He remarked that Calvin once commented that God uses anthropomorphic language because as humans we are not capable of understanding the deeper truths of who God is. Fair enough and I think probably true. However, Calvin apparently goes on to explain just what it was that the anthropomorphic language ACTUALLY tells us about God. Boyd noted that if Calvin could explain what God actually meant why could God not explain it himself? Was Calvin more capable than God of explaining God to us? This just to say that no matter what we are uncomfortable with in scripture, whether the explained by the claims of traditional theism or open theism, or something in between, we should be careful not to presume more certainty about those claims than is warrented by the text, which is, I think, what Goldingay is arguing. I can’t wait to read the book.

  • http://www.gallifant.com/ Caleb

    “Goldingay observes that people appeal to anthropomorphisms when things are said that don’t fit their view of God.”

    This is a two way street. This applies to open theists as much as it does to classical determinists.

    Well, said Susan N. (#3).

  • http://www.gallifant.com/ Caleb

    Tim (#19),

    “Boyd noted that if Calvin could explain what God actually meant why could God not explain it himself? Was Calvin more capable than God of explaining God to us?”

    “we should be careful not to presume more certainty about those claims than is warrented by the text”

    Absolutely. This works both ways though. Couldn’t the same be said for Boyd’s certainty about non-anthropomorphic claims?

  • Luke B

    Fretheim looks at 4 repeated types of language God uses in the OT to look at the surprise/foreknowledge question (in The Suffering of God: an OT Perspective): 1 The Divine Perhaps 2 The Divine If 3 The Divine Consultation 4 The Divine Question. And also addresses the anthropomorphizing question in the intro. “God’s relationship to others in time and history is real and affects the very life of God.” http://www.amazon.com/Suffering-God-Testament-Perspective-Overtures/dp/0800615387

  • Alan K

    Scot@18,
    I have not read Goldigay’s book, but I was wondering to what degree or if at all he would utilize a Christological lens for reading the passages in the OT about the God who has a gap between innate and empirical knowing? I see no such gap at all in the New Testament.

  • Tim Seiger

    Caleb #19 Absolutely! That is what I was trying to say with the first part of the quote you pulled- “This just to say that no matter what we are uncomfortable with in scripture, whether explained by the claims of traditional theism or open theism, or something in between we should be careful not to presume more certainty about those claims than is warranted by the text”

    I don’t begrudge the fact that people will gravitate toward particular systems of theology whether because they were taught that system from an early age, came to it as conscious choice later in life, or stumbled into for very personal reasons.The systems help us begin to order the massive amounts of information and understandings through time and that “tradition” needs to be respected. The problem for me comes when the “systems” become closed and the discussion can no longer go on in a productive way where we might find helpful and needed corrections to our particular theologies. Theology is never a finished, static product, God is too big for the case to be closed and contained completely, no matter how long standing the “tradition.” Jesus himself is a prime example of how the long standing Jewish tradition got some serious things wrong about God and dismissed Jesus as not with the program.

  • Percival

    Scot #18,
    I didn’t think I was actually proposing that this was anthropomorphic language, but I guess I was. I was actually trying to think about how the talk fits into the story. In any story there is dialogue and there is narration. Which is which? It’s hard to tell sometimes. Sometimes I hear people resort to anthropomorphism as an explanation of the narration because they want to avoid the implications of the biblical language. So when God says, “I will go down to see if…” this seems like dialogue, not narration.

    But as for other dialogue, when God says to Abraham, “Now I know” it may indicate actual new knowledge gained through the resulting decisions made by Abraham. To me, this is different. To investigate the truth of a present situation is not the same as to testing the human heart for the outcome of a possible future.

    I fear that Goldingay is going to propose that God limits his knowledge willingly or that the OT writers are ignorantly putting words into God’s mouth. I am comfortable with neither of these alternatives.

  • dopderbeck

    Tim and Caleb — fair enough, but OTOH that all sounds a bit Biblicist. The Bible for us Protestants is our final authority, but not our only source of authority. At least for me, as I study the Tradition and think analytically (reason) through all this along with studying the varied witness of scripture, the more traditional balance of God’s sovereignty and foreknowledge along with His self-limitation in the incarnation make more sense of everything.

    And, while I generally agree with Barth that every human statement in the Tradition — even the Creed — is a human statement that is in principle reformable, it seems very wise to me to try to think of God within that centered set of generous orthodoxy absent some utterly compelling need to do otherwise. I just don’t see the need to completely break with traditional Theism on these questions. There are lots of tweaks — kenotic theology, Jenson and Bruce McCormack’s Christological approaches, and so on — that hold together both the Godhead’s transcendence and immanence.

  • PaulE

    Psalm 14 describes God looking down from heaven – obviously figurative language unless we believe heaven is just the second star to the right on ’til morning – and describes him as seeing – though, of course, God does not have eyes – and from this Goldingay thinks he is able to discern something of the ontological nature of God’s knowing?

    Moreover he thinks that God – the One who will bring into judgment every deed, “including every hidden thing”, the One before whom “nothing in all creation is hidden from his sight”, the God whose eyes “are everywhere, keeping watch on the wicked and the good” – he thinks this God needed, for the sake of his own knowledge, to ask Adam whether or not he had eaten from the tree or who had told Adam he was naked? Or that he had to “go down” to Sodom and see if the outcry he’d heard was real?

    God may or may not be surprised that anyone takes these thoughts seriously, but I sure am.

  • Tim Seiger

    dopderbeck #26 I was going to let it go with you since we unpacked in the last post’s comments :). We really are not that far from one another I don’t think. You may feel differently. You just weight what you call traditional/classical theism, which I also gather has a significantly reformed bent to it, more heavily than I or some others would. Not all agree that Open Theism stands that far outside the tradition and I suspect it has as much to do with how deeply in the tradition one stands. Before the shift to Open Theism for me I was raised in an Arminian tradition which also for some falls outside the tradition. I will not defend to the death the Open Theism position, but like you I have studied sources outside the Bible and reasoned analytically and come, obviously, to some very different conclusions. I find at the center of reformed theology a paradox at best and at worst a contradiciton. I cannot say with certainty which is which. But I can also say that I don’t find the Open Theist’s approach to be wholly antithetical to what is found in scripture and even at other places in the history of the church.

  • John W Frye

    I hope we can keep an irenic discussion going on this very intriguing topic. It is not first a theological matter, but a hermeneutical one. How are we to understand the O.T. passages that reveal a God who discovers, who really discovers things? To read Calvin’s accommodation or a imposed construct as anthropomorphism is not fair to the texts under review. The Platonic idea that God is absolute perfection and perfection cannot change (or grow in knowledge) is a philosophical rabbit trail. Perfect and change are not philosophically antithetical.

  • http://LostCodex.com DRT

    John Frye#29, I agree, let’s continue irenic conversation. I have found this to be very illuminating. Over the past several months I have learned to *teach the controversy* to folks I am studying with and found that to be wonderful in developing loving relationships. So much so that I have continued to think that certainty in these matters is the thing that divides, not ambiguity.

  • Tim Seiger

    If there are those that are feeling tension from me or a tone that would indicate that I am being contrary or something other than irenic in spirit I apologize. I harbor no ill will toward anyone here nor have I felt ill will from others. I Certainly don’t wish to create an adversarial atmosphere with my comments as I too am enjoying the conversation. :)


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