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The Power Of Basics Duncan Heaster  
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2-3 Limiting The Omniscience Of God

All these things are hard to really believe if we think that God knows all things from the beginning and knows the outcome of every prayer and repentance. The passion and emotion would be taken out of it. It is clear enough that God at times limits His power. He could save everybody, indeed He wishes to do this, yet He allows human freewill to be genuine and meaningful, to the extent that not all will be saved. Israel in the wilderness " limited the Holy One of Israel" . He was left by Israel as a mighty man powerless to save (Jer. 14:9). The Greek word dunatos translated 16 times " mighty" is also 13 times translated " possible" . God's might is His possibility. But our freewill can limit that might. All things are possible to God, and therefore all things are possible to the believer- but if the believer has no faith, then, those possibilities of God will not occur (Lk. 1:49; Mk. 9:23; 10:27). And so I have no problem with a God who limits His omniscience. Here are some further examples of God limiting His knowledge:

- Recall how He " went down" to Sodom to see if they had really sinned as much as it seemed. This was surely the omniscience of God being restrained in acting like that.

- He forgets our sins; and yet God knows everything that happens and is thought today, and also yesterday. And yet, He limits that total knowledge by forgetting our sins. In Amos 8:7 God swore He would never forget Israel's sin. Yet the same word is used in Is. 65:16 of how God hid their sin from His eyes. God restrained His omniscience. He erased His own permanent memory as it were.

- When God wanted to heal Israel, then He discovered their sin (Hos. 7:1; Ez. 16:57). Why speak like this if God already knew their sin from the beginning?

- Scripture repeatedly speaks as if God notices things and is then hurt by what He sees (Jonah 3:10; Gen. 29:31; Ex. 3:4; Dt. 32:19; 2 Kings 14:26; 2 Chron. 12:7; Ez. 23:13; Is. 59:15 cp. Lk. 7:13). If He knew in advance what they were going to do, this language is hard for me to understand. But God is therefore hurt and 'surprised' at sin- He saw Israel as the firstripe grapes, but they were worshipping Baal even then (Hos. 9:9). Thus God can allow Himself to feel an element of surprise- and this was a shock to Jeremiah, who queried: "Why are You like a man who is caught by surprise...?" (Jer. 14:9).

- The eagerness of the God who was in love with His woman Israel is quite something. " Surely they are my people, children that will not lie!" (Is. 63:8), He triumphed. But this was because of His mercy and love to them (v.7). That love as it were blinded His eyes to their sin. And this is the basis of our being counted righteous if we are in His beloved Son. But with Israel, " then I saw that she was defiled...then my mind was alienated" (Ez. 23:13,18). How does this square with the omniscience of God? He stopped restraining His omniscience. He saw them for who they were, unfaithful, and reacted. He did everything He could for His vineyard, and was then so bitterly disappointed when it brought forth wild grapes (Is. 5:4).

- God sent His Son to Israel, thinking " they will reverence him when they see him" (Lk. 20:13). But Isaiah 53 had prophesied that when Israel saw Him, they would see no beauty in Him and crucify Him. Yet God restrained that knowledge, in His love and positive hope for His people. Likewise Jesus, it seems to me limited His foreknowledge of Judas. He knew from the beginning who would betray him. One of the 12 was a traitor. Yet Judas was His own familiar friend in whom He trusted. Just as the Father thought that His people “surely” would reverence His Son, so He was ‘certain’ that if His people went to Babylon in captivity, “surely then shalt thou be ashamed… for all thy wickedness” (Jer. 22:22). But the reality was that they grew to like the soft life of Babylon and refused to obey the command to return to God’s land. Such was and is the hopefulness of God.

- Repentance, change of mind, can be hid from God's eyes (Hos. 13:14). He says in Ez. 5:11 that He will withdraw His eye, that it will not spare- when He saw the suffering of Israel at the hands of the invaders He sent (RVmg.). The idea of things being hidden from God's eyes is surely a poetic way of saying He limits His omniscience. Likewise God did not let His eye spare in punishing His people (Ez. 5:11; 9:5), after the pattern of His telling Moses to 'let me alone' that He might destroy them. It's as if God knows that He is emotional and is capable of being influenced by those emotions. And yet, God is so torn. He wanted to destroy them. But He wanted to save them. They were His children. And, worst of all, He " often" went through this feeling (Ps. 106:45).

- God speaks in Is. 65:16 of His ability to hide things from His own eyes- and the context speaks of the "former troubles"of Judah's sins.

- " I did not command or mention, nor did it enter my mind" (Jer. 7:31; 19:5) was God's comment upon infant sacrifice. One could think that all possibilities have occurred to an omniscient, eternal God. But, no, not all. And He is hurt and shocked when His people devise perversions which He Himself has never even dreamed of. In this alone we see a limitation of the omniscience of God (1).

This explains why God's anger comes up in His face; why He speaks in the fire of His jealousy when His 'woman' has been unfaithful (Ez. 36:5). It also gives us a window into how God can say that His bowels, His innermost heart, are troubled for His people when He sees them suffer (Jer. 31:20). These wonderful, wonderful words would lose most of their power if God calmly foresaw it all coming, and men were just acting out the part He knew they would play. In this is the vitality and dynamism of our relationship with God. We are made in God's image, and so we too have feelings of surprise, shock, hurt, anger, revenge. God does too. As we pray, as we struggle to understand, as we Hope in His grace, our feelings and His come together in a wonderful relationship.

Many times we read of God being provoked to remember someone, often for good (Lev. 24:7 LXX " that God may mercifully remember" ; Ps. 69:1 LXX; 37:1 LXX; Zech. 6:14; 1 Kings 17:18). This language of limitation surely suggests that the God who could be omniscient over time, not needing to have anything brought back to His memory, allows Himself to 'forget' so that sin or righteousness again brings things to His remembrance. Thus generosity and prayer is a memorial before God in the sense that it brings a person to His memory or attention (Acts 10:4), and He appropriately responds in their lives. When sin gets to a certain point, it causes other sins to be remembered by God, and thus judgment comes (Rev. 18:5). It has been suggested by Joachim Jeremias (2) that the Lord's command to break bread in remembrance of Him can mean 'that God may remember me'. On Passover evening the standard haggadah prayer asks God to remember the Messiah: " May there arise…the remembrance of the Messiah, son of David thy servant, and the remembrance of Jerusalem…may their remembrance come before thee, for rescue…" (3). So it could be that through our breaking of bread, we especially cause the Almighty to be aware of the need to fulfill Passover in the sending of Jesus back to earth. We are always in His presence, He is omnipresent, and yet surely there is a degree to which we are the more especially in His presence at some times rather than others. The breaking of bread is one such example.

Some Philosophical Reflections

God so respects human freewill that the future is in some sense ‘open’ for Him. If every human decision were to be somehow already known to God, then all the Bible talk about God’s hurt, shock, surprise, joy at human decisions, and His willingness to change His plans in response to human repentance and prayer… all this becomes somehow words lacking meaning. He would be a God who simply appears that way when actually He is not like that at all. Yet the God revealed in the Bible is surely, I submit, God as He really is- and not just a face He wishes to project. Rather than foreknowing human decisions, I would prefer to say that God has objectives in history, and His grace propels us towards fulfilling them without inappropriately forcing our hand- which means that the future is in this sense open. That the future is open is not quite the same as saying that God doesn’t know the future; it depends what we mean by ‘future’. If by its nature that future is ‘open’, then the question ‘So does God know it ahead of time?’ is inappropriate. We are dealing with different categories. This all gives so much more meaning to the value of human repentance and freewill decisions. The parables of the lost coin, sheep and son being found again (Luke 15) all involve an element of agonizing over the loss, and then the rush of relief and joy, even surprise, when the lost is recovered. And these parables speak of God’s feelings about human repentance. The argument against what I’m saying, of course, is that all this is mere anthropomorphism- God speaking of Himself in human terms although He is not like this. But my counter would be that in this case, who is God? Can we meaningfully say that the Bible reflects God as He really is? I believe it does. I don’t deny that especially in the Old Testament, we do encounter anthropomorphisms- but I would suggest that these are to prepare the way for us to meet God manifest in a man, in Jesus, in the New Testament.  The reality is, that Jacob and many others wrestled with God in prayer- and prevailed. Just as Moses changed God’s purpose with Israel, and Nineveh’s repentance changed God’s stated plan to destroy them at that time. Note how in these contexts, both Moses and Jacob asked God for His Name- “which in Semitic thinking gave the one knowing the name power over the one named” (4). The idea is so breathtaking that we struggle to by all means find some excuse why this cannot be the case- that God could somehow be so open to us, so sensitive to us, so respectful of us, that He is prepared to be change His plans for the sake of our prayers and repentances.  


(1) But what, then, of " foreknowledge" ? I have suggested that God limits His foreknowledge, to the extent that He feels genuine hurt, surprise, joy etc. in response to human behaviour. But it is possible to understand foreknowledge another way. The same word can have two meanings, depending upon whose perspective one has- God's, or man's. It has been observed: " A word like 'foreknowledge' makes sense only when considered from our earth-bound viewpoint. It presumes that time proceeds sequentially, frame by frame. From God's viewpoint…the word has a considerably different meaning. Strictly speaking, God does not 'foresee' us doing things. He simply sees us doing them, in an eternal present" . The idea of God operating in an " eternal present" means that God doesn't practice 'foreknowledge' as we imagine it; He could do, but He doesn't. It's an inappropriate concept for a being Who is outside of time.

(2) Joachim Jeremias, The Eucharistic Words Of Jesus (London: S.C.M., 1973 ed.), pp. 250-255.

(3) The Passover Haggadah (New York: Schocken Books, 1953), p. 63.

(4) John Sanders, The Openness of God (Carlisle: Paternoster,1994) p. 183.