Omniscience—God knows everything, but our free future actions lack existence.
Omniscience is the knowledge attributed to God. But what does omniscience mean? What is the scope of omniscience? Can God know our free future acts? Does God really foresee the future? And if so, how? Wouldn’t doing so thereby destroy our freedom? These are some of the theological and philosophical questions grappled over by the late great Thomist, W. Norris Clarke.
In The One and the Many: A Contemporary Thomistic Metaphysics, Clarke helps us to see the mystery of omniscience a little better. We Christians, together with Jews and Muslims, believe that God is omniscient. Omniscience means that God knows perfectly and exhaustively all that is and can be known. But how?
Omniscience VS Human Knowledge
Beware the limits of analogies. Everything we can know and say of God is analogy. That applies to inspired Scripture and all post-biblical theologies. All analogies are rooted in human experience. Therefore, in search of a fitting analogy, let’s consider how we humans know.
When human persons come to know things, it must be a very different kind of knowing than how God knows, omniscience. We human persons know real beings because the things we come to know are first there, independent of a real mind thinking them. That is to say, our human knowing of real beings is our passively receiving the action of this or that other real being in the world.
So we human beings come to know all that we know via passive reception. This cannot be divine knowing, omniscience. Instead, this passive, receptive knowing is our human way of knowing.
But when it comes to God knowing anything it must be radically different! God does not know anything—meaning any being—by passively receiving its action. Consider that if God knew things this way (passively and receptively), God would not be self-sufficient. Therefore, if God knew things as a spectator by passively receiving their actions, then God could not be God!
God’s Omniscience is Active
Put clearly, God does not know the world because it is there. Rather, the world is there because God creatively knows it and wills it into being. So God knows the world by giving being to it. Therefore, God’s knowledge must be active.
All of this means that God’s creating the world equals God’s knowing it. Thus, when God knows something, that means it is. Consequently, God’s act of giving being to things (creation) is IDENTICAL with God knowing it.
Omniscience and Human Freedom
But now, let’s consider human freedom. How is God’s active knowing—which makes other beings be—compatible with our human freedom, specifically our free future actions? With every created thing in all that it does, W. Norris Clarke explained that there is a concursus at work. God works with every creature in all that it does. God, constantly, feeds into them all the being they require both for their existence and their actions.
But Clarke explains that, in a risky and vulnerable way, God allows created beings to use and channel this power. God risks by giving the gift of existence, allowing us creatures to use it according to our own nature. Human nature is, ultimately, God’s own gift as well. This means that God allows free creatures (i.e., human persons) to channel and direct the power offered to them toward this or that particular goal determined by our free choice.
By this we can understand that God knows what all creatures are doing all the time, including us free created beings. How? Again, it is by how we allow God’s superabundant power to flow through us. It is by how we allow God to work with us. This is how God knows. God’s knowledge is active and never as a passive watcher. It is by actively doing with us all that we are doing—channeled through our own natures and free decisions—that God knows what we are doing, says Clarke.
How Omniscience Works
So how does God know? By actively doing, actively causing—that’s how God knows. God never knows things like we human creatures know things (i.e., by passively receiving the world). How mysterious! And yet, it must be!
And yet all of these observations bring us to a special problem, says Clarke. Consider our free future actions. Consider all the undecided mysterious things yet to be, all that will happen in the future. Does God know all that? If you say “Yes, God knows that!” we must reply, “But how? How does God know that without destroying human freedom?”
Scripture and Omniscience
Scripture, although held to be inspired and authoritative by Christians, was not written to be a metaphysical treatise explaining rigorously God’s relationship to time. Neither was it a philosophical opus on human freedom. The writers of Scripture were not speculative thinkers. So, when Paul and other Israelites do write of “predestination,” it needs to be carefully understood in context—
1 Thessalonians 1:2-4
We give thanks to God always for all of you, remembering you in our prayers, unceasingly calling to mind your work of faith and labor of love and endurance in hope of our Lord Jesus Christ, before our God and Father, knowing, brothers loved by God, how you were chosen.
1 Corinthians 2:5-8
Yet we do speak a wisdom to those who are mature, but not a wisdom of this age, nor of the rulers of this age who are passing away. Rather, we speak God’s wisdom, mysterious, hidden, which God predetermined before the ages for our glory…
We know that all things work for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. For those he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, so that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those he predestined he also called; and those he called he also justified; and those he justified he also glorified.
Scholars are wise to warn today’s Bible readers not to read into the ancient Scriptures any later ideas of predestination of individuals into eternal damnation or eternal happiness. Augustine was way off in his readings and his developed, later understandings of election don’t apply here. Also there is nothing Nostradamus-like about prophecy or predestinarian talk in the Bible. Prophecy is not prediction. Any talk in the Bible of predestination is always “after-the-fact” predestination.
Israelites commonly believed that because something has happened, it was supposed to happen. Also whenever something happens in the Bible, a who caused it. There is no Hebrew for “it rained.” The correct phrase is, “God sent the rains.” So when something happens in the Bible, someone caused it. If it wasn’t a human who, it had to be an other-than-human who—a spirit, a god, or the Most High God. Therefore, Israelites believed when something happened, God meant that to happen and caused it to happen, either directly or indirectly.
So biblically speaking, you can be sure of God’s will after something happens. Did you get married? Biblically speaking, you can be sure God wanted you married. The storm hit and killed half the town? Biblically speaking, rest assured God willed that to happen. Do you, a first century person, now belong to the Jesus group? Biblically speaking, know for certain that means God called you into it.
With this biblical after-the-fact predestination view in mind, Paul knows for certain that Thessalonian Jesus group members were chosen by God (1 Thessalonians 1:2-4; cf. Romans 8:28-30). Why? Because at the time of composing his letter, they remained in the Thessalonian Jesus group. Should one leave and Paul learn of it, then, after-the-fact, Paul would become just as certain that God foreordained that from all eternity also. Same is true for his description of the wisdom typical of committed believers (1 Corinthians 2:5-8).
Later Speculations of Omniscience
Eventually the Jesus groups began to think speculatively. How does God’s omniscience square with human freedom?
W. Norris Clarke says that St. Thomas Aquinas came to the rescue. Aquinas held that all true knowledge must be founded somehow on something real, meaning, something actually existent. If it is genuine knowledge then it must at least be established on the action of some real mind thinking it up. Genuine knowledge cannot merely float somewhere on its own, independent of any and all real existence.
The Classical Western metaphysical traditions sings out, “Truth is being known.” Ens et verum, convuntuntur (Latin for “being and truth are interchangeable“).
Here is where things get interesting. The future as future lacks any real existence in itself. This is because the future is not yet. Because of this, Aquinas claimed that since there is nothing yet to know, no mind, even God, can know the future as future. Apparently then God sees (i.e., creates), but never foresees.
How can Omniscience be Ignorant??
Saying that God cannot know the future beforehand and that God does not properly foresee anything seems heretical. Doesn’t that go against what all Christians, Jews, and Muslims claim about God’s knowledge? Don’t we believe that God knows all times—past, present, and future? Yes, we do!
And what about God knowing things like material chain-reactions? These get celebrated in games like pool (calculating where balls end up based on how they are struck) and Rubes Goldberg devises. Clarke explains that these situations involve the future actions of a non-free cause. Therefore God (and we humans, also) CAN know the future actions of such a non-free cause, because they are already determined as flowing necessarily from its own nature.
But is such the case with free agents, like ourselves? No way, and it should be evident as to why. Clarke explains that our free future actions are, well, free. This means that the action is not yet certainly determined and won’t be until it is actually decided on by a real agent. But whenever that happens, then it is no longer future, is it? Then it is PRESENT. All action happens now, in the present.
According to Clarke this is the reason why we free human person creatures, who are locked into the passage of time, cannot with any certainty know free future actions. But how then can God know free future actions, which sacred religious texts of all religious traditions, including Christianity, constantly assert?
God Knows the Future But Not as Future
Clarke says St. Thomas is uncompromising. Aquinas reminds us that God is timeless, entirely outside the flow of our time and all times. God is immutable and therefore cannot be affected by time which is based on some process of successive change. God exists in an eternal NOW.
In the eternal NOW that is God, God is present to every real event or being as it actually happens. Therefore God is present to every real event or being as Aquinas says, “in its presentiality.” Contrast that with us human creatures, stuck in the successive flow of earthly time. For us, things will happen in the future to us.
But omniscience is different. God does not see anything beforehand. God does not (and cannot!) foresee anything, despite all our God-talk and Scriptures. Rather, God sees all as it actually takes place. There is no past or future for God, despite God knowing when things happen for us human creatures stuck in successive change. Clarke and Aquinas hold that God is never absent to anything. God is ever the Present One to all things, and especially to us free creatures.
Why Omniscience Must Be So
Clarke demands this must be so. He claims it should be obvious why. God cannot know something not yet existent at all. This is because nothing can actually be or become real unless God actually works with it to make it real and able to carry on its action. But God’s real action can only be in the real present. God cannot have real action on a non-existent future. And you can’t be ignorant of no thing, can you? So this doesn’t make God ignorant.
Clarke invites us to consider what it would be like for God to know all the future beforehand including our free future decisions. Clarke says that it would be terribly useless to know it because then things would be unalterably fixed. Our fates would be sealed and could not be changed—otherwise it would be false knowledge!
Clarke says that if God did know all the future now (via a passive spectator knowledge), then it would be impossible for God to exercise any providence whatsoever! This is because everything would already be unchangeable, fixed without God’s active cooperation with us that can only be in a real now. Clarke teaches that this amounts to absurdity. How could God see God’s self-working in the future when God is not actually do it?
God’s a jazz player, folks. God improvises, creatively adjusting things instantaneously without needing any time. God works with us in our present—that’s providence. History unfolds and our free undetermined choices play out in consequences. We co-author the music of our lives with God in our irreducible yeses and no’s. God takes up the notes, sour and sweet, and plays out God’s Jazz and Blues, improvising creatively. It’s all God’s work and being, but it happens in our yes or no.
Omniscience and the Divine Plan
Is there any plan then? Sure (analogy alert!). We free human persons can say God “plans out things” for us “ahead of time” by our perspective. Clarke says the great objectives and divine interventions in world history do play out. But he also says that the personal details depend on our free responses. These are not determined except by God cooperating with us in our present.
Think about that and you will understand the Catholic theology of vocation differently. You may have to change many ideas. The dance that is your life is not determined—it is not yet danced. The song that your life is not determined—it has not yet been sung. Nowhere ahead of time, before it happens, is there a complete script of our lives written! And that was true of Satan and Judas and Hitler before their choices, dances, and songs. The script is being written only as it actually happens, by God and ourselves working it out together in our ongoing now’s.
Clarke says disturbing false problems can be dumped by this rigorously existence-based Thomistic theory of divine foreknowledge. Have you ever thought: “If God foresaw Judas betraying Jesus, then, why did he bother creating him in the first place?” Or this: “If God foresaw me going to Hell, then why did he create me?” And W. Norris Clarke responds: “If God actually foresaw this happening, it would be too late not to create; then his foreknowledge would be false!”
According to Clarke, only if God first risks by creating you (or Satan, or Judas, etc.), can God know what will happen to you (or Satan, or Judas, etc.). God must do all the work in your yeses and no’s all the way through till the very end. God can nonviolently invite you into the right direction, and will. However, final outcome is determined only by your last free choices at the end. God, again, is always present, but as Clarke explains, “only in the immanent order in which they actually occur existentially.”
Omniscience Is Paschally Risky
Is it uncomfortable to realize that God is not the cosmic micromanager? Is it offensive to call God a “risk-taker”? Is it more comfortable to think of God like Bach, instead of like Coltrane, as did J. R. R. Tolkien in his opening to The Silmarillion? Yes true believers. The God of Lord of the Rings is a jazz player.
But would it be going too far to also say that God is the “Ultimate Cosmic Gambler.” No, not if we understand it correctly, says Clarke. “…God also is an infinitely skilled player at the game!”
In a creative retrieval and development of Thomas Aquinas, W. Norris Clarke has moved us forward in understanding God as “the Great Allower.” He has helped us to better appreciate the amazing dignity and profound implications of human freedom.