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.