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
- 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.
- 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
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
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
Yet the God revealed in the Bible is surely, I submit, God as He really
not just a face He wishes to project. Rather than foreknowing human
I would prefer to say that God has objectives in history, and His grace
us towards fulfilling them without inappropriately forcing our hand-
means that the future is in this sense open. That the future is open is
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
different categories. This all gives so much more meaning to the value
repentance and freewill decisions. The parables of the lost coin, sheep
being found again (Luke 15) all involve an element of agonizing over
and then the rush of relief and joy, even surprise, when the lost is
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
God speaking of Himself in human terms although He is not like this.
counter would be that in this case, who is God? Can we meaningfully say
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
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
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
cannot be the case- that God could somehow be so open to us, so
us, so respectful of us, that He is prepared to be change His plans for
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
Paternoster,1994) p. 183.