The Limits of Divine Omniscience

Posted By on January 29, 2011

That’s the focus and/or question in this article (entitled: The Limits of Omniscience). I thought it was an interesting thing to have you all read on the heels of the election and predestination discussion.  The last paragraph nicely highlights the issue, but you’ll have to read the article to fully grasp its importance.  I’d like to hear what you all think. This is a good “test case” for a couple of items:  whether we really read the text closely, and how to (theologically) parse the results of a close reading.

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40 Responses to “The Limits of Divine Omniscience”

  1. Rick says:

    Clicking “this article” takes me to a page (Naked Bible page no less) informing me that the “article” does not exist. Is this because Omniscience, by definition, implies no limitation?

  2. haibane13 says:

    I’m getting an error on the link .

  3. cognus says:

    link broken

  4. Lisa says:

    For some reason, the rss feed is not loading anymore…. I tried deleting and renewing the rss feed, but it’s still not working.

  5. str says:

    link’s dead.

  6. DT says:

    This was a great read. There’s been a lot of discussion about this in my church and family. It can be a very touchy subject, and it’s really easy to sound like one is placing limitations on an infinite God.

    The disagreement that came up within my family was to whether or not God has foreknowledge of all of one’s future actions. My position was/is, “No, because that would negate free will.” [Reasoning — A. Choice is a necessary component of free will; B. God cannot be wrong; C. If God has foreknowledge that one choice within a set of choices will be made, then the outcome is as binding as “Destiny” or “Fate” and choice does not exist for the party — only one possibility within the set can be chosen or else God is wrong.

    Then how does God claim to be omnipotent (*this*, I think, is at the heart of the debate — full omniscience and foreknowledge are components of God proposed as ways to account for his omnipotence)? One possible explanation for this is the Master Chess Player. God’s will is accomplished on Earth regardless of our choices because he sees more moves ahead and can outplay any ‘choice’ we make the same way a 2000+ chess player will always beat even a mediocre 1400 player. The grandmaster will win every game he plays against even a very good beginner. There’s no chance he’ll lose, and he has less of a clue how the beginner may act than he does another expert.

    Sometimes people talk about Free Will as if it negates God’s will — “Oh, He won’t touch or influence me because he’s cheating if he does that, and God doesn’t cheat.” If one stretches the [admittedly thin] metaphor further, is the grandmaster cheating if he knows he’s playing a beginner and uses his own will within the rules to manipulate that of his opponent’s?

    I understand why many have the reaction that such thoughts are placing God in a box, but I strongly disagree. I see no way in which God is lessened by the above view. A man who knows every move his opponent will make before it is made is a cheat, and winning is without meaning. One whose knowledge has eclipsed that of all others, who has the ability to respond to any combination with a winning line, is far more powerful (and knowledgeable, although that’s redundant). In this regard, I find this meager composite of God to be more awe-inspiring and far less limited than the idea of God that paints him as a psychic.

    Is there a strong rebuttal to the reasoning shown above that full foreknowledge short-circuits human free will?

    • MSH says:

      you know I’d disagree with your response in the second paragraph since I do not equate foreknowledge with predestination. I also use the omniscient chess player analogy. God never loses. Who is the greater player? The player who has determined all his opponent’s moves ahead of time and watches for his moment of victory, or the player who foresees every move made freely by his opponent, but whose knowledge is so surpassing, that he makes the best move in anticipation of the opponent’s next one — and can not be predictable in a way that the opponent can anticipate? And then multiply that to include the fact that he’s playing everyone in the world at the same time, and many of the players influence their peers to make moves in the midst of the game.

      The answer’s pretty clear to me. It is truly awe-inspiring.

      Sure there’s a rebuttal – Keilah. God foreknew things that never happened. Therefore, foreknowledge does not *necessitate* or *require* predestination. Therefore, all human acts, though foreknown, cannot be said to have been predestinated on the basis of foreknowledge (but God can predestinate acts if he wants).

      • DT says:

        This is why I keep coming back here…lol…Perfect rebuttal, and that’s exactly why I asked. That’s some major food for thought, especially as pertains to my current epistemological construct (that all knowledge has an inherent amount of uncertainty).

        I can’t tell you how much I appreciate this kind of stuff, Mike.

        • DT says:

          …and to further clarify my understanding of your response, are we in agreement in the chess analogy that God foresees all possible moves and has a response for each, not just one specific line?

          And another point of clarification: If it were the case that God sees only the one specific line that will come to pass, does the other player have free will? This is the definition of foreknowledge I disagree with (the specific line) because I cannot see how the player has free will in that case. Given your first response, it seems that you define foreknowledge in the other, more encompassing sense — and this is what prompted my first response.

          I had not considered that the definition of foreknowledge had been hijacked in my own mind to mean the “Single, specific line.”

        • MSH says:

          you’re welcome, and it’s appreciated; scholars need to feel useful from time to time.

  7. Nobunaga says:

    Very interesting and provocative paper, i like the way scholars seek out paradoxs and try to find antinomy’s i suppose it comes with the job. I will stay on the side of God can read minds even if i had to go by the OT for the data, but to me the most powerful display of this was with Jesus and Nathanael to me that is the deal clincher.

    The paper sort of left the option up in the air as to weather God can or cant read minds but could you comment on the rhetorical statement at the end of the paper, perhaps you could read a scholars mind better than me being one yourself.

    (QUOTE) “To what extent are the theologies that appear to be operative in various biblical texts actually shaped by literary imperatives?”

    Can you decode the scholar speak here, to me it sounds like this is the crux of the matter and i think i can guess where its headed in theology terms, but i could be reading it wrong.

    • MSH says:

      Yes, that sentence is the crux. The article concludes (last paragraph) that the Scriptures say both on the mind-reading. The issue is why both portrayals exist. And so the author asks: “To what extent are the theologies that appear to be operative in various
      biblical texts actually shaped by literary imperatives?” He’s asking a chicken or egg question: What came first, the writer’s need/desire to portray God either way, or the reality of what God can/cannot do? One could answer that this way. First, it’s dirty pool to (theologically) begin with no mind reading and that say “oh, well, I guess God can.” But if you begin with mind-reading and then take it away, it argues for a purpose. Put another way, adding attributes you denied earlier is like cheating. Not using attributes one possesses feels more like strategy. Assuming you are God and you *can* read people’s minds, you have your own reasons for influencing a writer (inspiration) to say otherwise. In fact, most of the times you influence writers to cast you this way. Why? The short answer is that you wanted perhaps to create a certain impression on readers, or wanted to set them up for something that follows, or wanted to “play fair” with the characters in the story, or wanted to “humanize” the omniscient one, etc. Ultimately, we may not be able to correctly discern what the inspirational motive was; we just know we see both.

      In a worldview that denies the supernatural, you just throw up your hands and say the writers contradict themselves. Then you don’t need to think about it. Sleepy time.

      • Nobunaga says:

        Ok its clearer now thanks, So it may be the biblical writers used desecration with what God can do depending on his thoughts on what’s important to the story or what’s important to emphasise i.e God or man. common sense now in hindsight.

        I’d agree with the reasoning that the writers were using strategy rather than being imaginative, must a attribute be emphasised at every opportunity to be found credible.

        Good paper, i bought it from jstor when the link didn’t work, there’s £10 i wont see again. :-)

  8. rode says:

    simply WOW….
    this sure is a very ‘touchy’ subject, something that probably will never be discussed at a church…at least not my local ones.
    great article…thanks

  9. Janina says:

    Interesting food for thought.
    The writer of the article uses quite clever argument to bring God to human level, imposing on God human limitations. Only limited mind of a created would try to limit incomprehensible Creator.
    Curiously the writer does not cite any NT examples.

    “Trying or testing hearts” does NOT prove that God is unable to know human thoughts. It serves a totally different purpose. It is done more for the benefit of the one being tested to prove a point. “Talk is cheap” – it’s easy to utter empty platitudes – Isa 29:13.

    Can we even imagine that the One who knows every molecule of a human body, One that created human mind is unable to know what that mind thinks? What about people unable to speak – God has no idea what they think? Does not hear their prayers?

    God knows all possibilities, He knows the outcome of every probability, but He still gives us a choice.
    Knowing what choice we would make does not mean it was predetermined – at the end we are responsible for that choice (hence the testing).

  10. Bran says:

    I found it intriguing. it would be disheartening to think that all my inner prayers went unheard, but my life would seem to indicate that they had not. I suppose that is neither here nor there.

    I have been following a lot concerning the Divine Council, the Angel of the Lord vs the LORD, other “elohim” taking part in all this. That made me wonder, would it be possible to correlate those instances of needing external signals to one of the other Elohim or a more “angel of the Lord” like figure and the instance of mind reading to the Supreme creator God??

    • MSH says:

      I’m not sure what you’re asking.

      • Anonymous says:

        Ok, for instance. In Genesis 22 does it not use the word Elohim at the beginning of the story? Which Elohim is this?

        Then, it is an angel of yahweh that stops him to say, “Now i know….”

        So, what it seems to me, is that this passage may not be the best to use as evidence that YHVH cannot read the mind.

      • Anonymous says:

        Take Genesis 22 for instance. In the account, is it not “elohim” that commands Abraham to take Isaac and offer him up? Which Elohim?

        Is it not the “angel of Yahweh” that stops Abraham and says “now I know.”…?

        I am wondering if these aspects make genesis 22 a less than good example of YHVH being unable to read minds as it perhaps was not YHVH that needed the external test in those passages.

  11. Bran says:

    Take genesis 22 for example. is it not “elohim” that asks Abraham to offer up isaac?

    is it not the “angel of YHVH” that stops Abraham and says, “Now i know.” …?

    So, i am wondering if genesis 22 perhaps isn’t a good example of YHVH being unable to read minds as it may not be YHVH that needs an external test in those passages

  12. Bran says:

    Sorry for the triple post. I’m not sure how i did that.

    I’m not so concerned with what the author would think. I am more concerned with what the biblical text actually is describing, for real.

  13. Jonnathan Molina says:

    Hello, Dr. Heiser. Amazing article and a most uncomfortable read but important nonetheless! I think that we’re missing an obvious conclusion with regards to the dual portrayals of a God who can and can’t read minds in both the OT and the NT ( since Christ is shown using omniscience in regards to different people (Matthew 9:4, Mark 2:8, Luke 5:22) but claims ignorance when it comes to divine knowledge (Matthew 24:36). So here it is: God is a Person, not some computer synced up to every living conscience 24/7 without regard to input or output, like some eternally open circuit of knowledge. He has the right to be *selective* with his omniscience.

    If we regard the fact that he is pure, and good, and holy then it stands to reason he wouldn’t *want* to see or know the filthy, evil, and unholy torrent of mankind’s stream of consciousness eternally. Would you? Perhaps he did allow his mind to interact with us this way before the Flood (Genesis 6:5) and that’s what caused him to send it! Maybe now the only way he can keep the promise to not do so again is to limit his omniscience to main participants and events directly tied to his sovereign will and plans (like Sarah and Abraham or the experts of the law in the NT) while closing himself off from everybody else at least until they’re converted to faith in Christ (more on this in a moment).

    Again, as a Person with actual feelings God must screen or filter certain things to temper himself (and he would since he’s the ultimate Temper). Where does that leave the Christian who relies on God hearing his unspoken prayers? I think that since true Christians are given the Spirit of God to indwell them (Romans 8:9, 2 Timothy 1:4, 1 Corinthians 3:16) that He is the one who filters and sorts and delivers all these silent prayers to the mind of God (Romans 8:26) thus restoring the intimacy and communication (I’m speculating) God denies to the rest of the ungodly world, which I think would be a fair use of his power, again given his nature.

    As a side note, this opens up a possible support for the free will argument: if God puts himself out of reach from ‘sinners’ (not in the sense that we are all sinners separated from God spiritually but, specifically, in the sense that He doesn’t want to know their thoughts, see John 9:31) by practicing selective omniscience, then by allowing people to choose for or against the gospel of Jesus (and it’s power to reengage his omniscience through the indwelling Spirit) then God is letting himself be influenced by man’s free will which must now respond to the separation from God’s thoughts if they wish to be heard;God is allowing an external influence upon himself through a free-willed agent to recapture his omniscient attention (since no man can have access to commune with God directly without His approval, they would have to obey the proper protocol to engage him (not to be saved, please do not confuse the two things, I am not saying we have to ‘do’ something to be saved other than believe just to actually perform the act of speaking and communing with God’s omniscient mind as would follow in my scenario where God is not just open for every line of chatter and thought indiscriminately). Now don’t mistake him for a crotchety anti-social hermit: he has sent a world-wide invitation to renewed intimacy via the Gospel (an analogy used by Christ in parables and that, of course, requires an action of free will to accept). Of course, he can at any moment break this speculated, self-imposed restriction on his interaction with our minds since he is God.

    So, to sum up: God is omniscient in the full sense of that word but–just like we can practice selective listening–he practices ‘selective omniscience’ as it suits his holy purpose. Is this a reasonable position Dr. Heiser (forum) and can you think of a rebuttal or something I’ve missed? Thanks.

  14. Jonnathan Molina says:

    2 Timothy 1:4 in my post should read 2 Timothy 1:14. I apologize for the confusion.

  15. Bran says:

    I can separate the author of the article above and the author of the bible. Maybe I misunderstood what you meant.

    In this chapter at least, it seems (emphasis on that word) that the Angel of YHVH quotes YHVH, thereby separating itself from YHVH.

    Could it be then that it is the Angel of YHVH that needed the external test?

    • MSH says:

      I doubt you could make that consistent dichotomy; the author is basically saying both portrayals are in the text, and trying to discern why. I’m still guessing there is a literary reason for it.

  16. james fletcher says:

    I BELIEVE GODS WILL IS A COMPLICATED MATTER BECAUSE WE KNOW HIM IN A LIMITED WAY. FOR CERTAIN SATAN LACKS OMNISCIENCE. BUT BACK TO GOD. THE BIBLE RECORDS LIES TOLD BY SATAN AS WELL AS HUMANS. I BELIEVE GOD KNOWS ALL LIES THAT ARE TOLD BY CULTS. THE DISTINCT PROBLEM IN QUANTIFYING GODS LEVEL OF OMNISCIENCE IS HIS WILL IS SO FLEXIBLE. HE HAS BOTH A PERFECT WILL AS WELL AS A PERMISSIVE WILL.THAT IS BUT ONE REASON WE PRAY. FROM READING THE BOOK OF REVELATION IT SEEMS THAT ALL OF HISTORY IS ALREADY ACCOMPLISHED AND A PARADE THAT ONLY GOD SEES IN ITS ENTIRETY. I THINK SINCE HE CREATED TIME,HE WOULD ALSO HAVE TO KNOW ITS ENTIRE CONTENTS. I THINK ALL OF HISTORY HAS ALREADY BEEN WRITTEN WITH MANY SUPRISES TO THROW MANKIND OFF SO THAT THE FUTURE REMAINS A MYSTERY TO HIM. EVEN THOSE SAINTS IN HEAVEN WILL NOT BE PRIVY TO ALL GOD KNOWS. WHEN YOU TALK ABOUT SUCH VARIABLES ALONG THE TIME LINE,I THINK EVERY ACTION OF MAN IS PRECARIOUSLY BALANCED ON THE BACK OF EVERY OTHER THROUGH OUT HISTORY TO HIS AUTHORIZED SPECIFICATIONS. NOTHING IS BY CHANCE OR WITHOUT PURPOSE. GOD IS A PURPOSEFULL ENTITY AND PURPOSE REQUIRES KNOWLEDGE. I FEEL HIS KNOWLEDGE IS COMPLETE ON ALL LEVELS. GLORY TO GOD IN THE HIGHEST! I WILL LEAVE WHAT HE KNOWS UP TO HIM. MY JOB IS TO TRUST HIM AND BE SUBORDINATE.GOD BLESS YOU IN YOUR QUEST TO KNOW HIM BETTER.SOME THINGS WILL HAVE TO REMAIN UNANSWERED UNTIL ETERNITY. THAT IS ONE OF THEM.

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