Does God Know Everything All The Time?

Great is our Lord, and of great power: his understanding is infinite. —Psalm 147:5.

There is nothing which God does not know—he is omniscient or all-knowing. Psalm 139:4 helps to illustrate how God knows everything. There the Psalmist said, “Even before a word is on my tongue, behold, O LORD, you know it altogether.” This knowledge was of something before it occurred. This knowledge was complete or “altogether.” The knowledge of God displayed here is different than what is called open theism, where God is learning about the future alongside his creation. God’s knowledge is also related to his presence. Psalm 139:7-8 asks, “Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there! If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there!” God is fully present everywhere, at every time, and knows everything. 

Isaiah 42:9 points to another aspect of God’s knowledge. There God said, “Behold, the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare; before they spring forth, I tell you of them.” God’s knowledge is not learned or arrived at through study. God’s knowledge is definite. He knows the future because he can already sees it. We must also appreciate that God’s knowledge is comprehensive. The minutest detail of each and everything is eternally and simultaneously open to his sight (Heb 4:13). There is nothing unknown. This knowledge is also eternal. God does not learn by observation. He can’t grow in his knowledge of anything. He eternally knows everything perfectly (Is 46:10; Dan 2:22). Because he is God, his knowledge does not depend on anything outside of himself. Michael Horton summarized the definite nature of God’s knowledge. He wrote, “It is impossible for God not to know everything comprehensively. Given his eternality, he knows the end from the beginning in one simultaneous act.”[1]

God’s knowledge can also be seen in how God is described as “light.” Darkness is the absence of light—the absence of knowledge. God dwells in unapproachable light. Bavinck wrote, “He is light and in him is no darkness (1 John 1:5). He dwells in unapproachable light (1 Tim. 6:16) and is the source of all light in nature and grace (Ps. 4:6; 27:1; 36:9; 43:3; John 1:4, 9; 8:12; James 1:17; etc.). Implied in the designation “light” is that God is perfectly conscious of himself, that he knows his entire being to perfection, and that nothing in that being is hidden from his consciousness.”[2]Therefore, there can be nothing which God does not fully know. “The notion that something should be unknown to him is dismissed as absurd…. Over and over mention is made of his wisdom, might, counsel, understanding, and knowledge: חָכְמָה, גְּבוּרָה, עֵצָה, תְּבוּנָה, γνωσις, σοφια (Job 12:13; 28:12–27; Prov. 8:12ff.; Ps. 147:5; Rom. 11:33; 16:27; Eph. 3:10; etc.).”[3]

Since God knows all things, has God caused all things, and is free will real? Aquinas answered briefly that “Hence it is manifest that contingent things are infallibly known by God, inasmuch as they are subject to the divine sight in their presentiality; yet they are future contingent things in relation to their own causes.”[4] The Thomistic logic is customarily astute. He linked the causation of all things with God’s own nature when he wrote, “Now it is manifest that God causes things by His intellect since His being is His act of understanding; and hence His knowledge must be the cause of things, in so far as His will is joined to it. Hence the knowledge of God as the cause of things is usually called the knowledge of approbation.”[5]

Since God created all things, he could be said to cause all things from the beginning as the first cause and as the universe’s perpetual Sustainer. God’s knowledge and causation of all things must be understood considering the nature of God’s creation. God created Adam and Eve “in his image” (Gen 1:26-27). Adam and Eve were created to have dominion in the world. In the exercise of their measure of sovereignty, Adam and Eve chose to sin without God’s compulsion. God created humanity with a will, and the foremost quality of humanity is this will that God gave humanity to exercise. Without this gift, humanity would simply be a robotic creature. “The reason that creatures possess any power and freedom at all is that they are created in the image of the God, whose sovereignty is qualitatively distinct and unique.”[6]

Perhaps this relationship could be illustrated with the creation of machines. In the past, machines have only done what they have been instructed to do. Even the most advanced computers, unless there was a system error or failure, only did as instructed. Today, this is not precisely the case. Modern computers and robots with Artificial Intelligence (AI) can learn and react. The computer is moving beyond robotic programming to be “relational” in a sense. God did not create humanity to be robots. God created humanity to be relational. Therefore, these relational beings enjoy a real will and intellect of their own. Therefore, God could be said to be the cause of all things, but he causes some things through secondary means. 

Even Aquinas, who acknowledged that God caused all things, also acknowledged the reality of the human will. He wrote, “Man has free-will: otherwise counsels, exhortations, commands, prohibitions, rewards, and punishments would be in vain.”[7] God remains the first cause and Sovereign but operates with and through the decisions of his creatures. Augustine, in the Enchiridion, said, “Nothing, therefore, happens but by the will of the Omnipotent, He either permitting it to be done or Himself doing it.”[8]

God has given his human creatures will. This will which God has given his creatures functions within God’s own sovereign will. Horton explained, “The reason that creatures possess any power and freedom at all is that they are created in the image of the God, whose sovereignty is qualitatively distinct and unique.”[9] Horton compared the typical way of looking at God’s will and human will as a pie chart in which God either has all the power, a portion of the power, or no power. The popular view is a false dichotomy and an erroneous view of how God’s will functions with human will. Horton explained that the “freedom pie” is God’s. He does not surrender pieces but gives us our own pie that is a finite analogy of his own. “In him, we live and move and have our being” (Ac 17:28). As God’s image-bearers, we reflect God’s glory, but God does not give his glory to a creature (Isa 48:11).”[10] Therefore, the human will is compatibilistic with God’s own will and knowledge. 

Molinism has become a popular way of viewing God’s knowledge of our future.[11] Molinism argues for a “middle knowledge” that is somewhere between God’s necessary and free knowledge. Molinism teaches that God knows contingent events that exist logically before his decrees. In this system, God acts or reacts based on what people decide they will do. God is never surprised by human action because he already knows all the possibilities from which they may choose. 

The Molinist theory is an attempt to maintain human free will and the omniscience of God. However, the main point of contention between Molinism and classical omniscience is that Molinism teaches God knows every possible option every person may take and what he will do in each case, but the classic doctrine of omniscience teaches that God knows exactly what everyone will do not what everyone might do. Molinism teaches that God “learns” what is actualized as people make their decisions. The main question is not whether events and decisions are conditional, and that God could know what would happen by following the chain of cause and effect. God cannot be said to “learn” anything. This “learning” would negate omniscience. God cannot know what “will” happen since he is outside of time. God knows everything because to him all people and all times are freely open to view—since he exists outside of time. 

Since God exists outside of time and is the “first cause,” he knows everything eternally and certainly. Molinism teaches that God is dependent on the world for his full knowledge of events. He is constantly learning just as we are—though on a universal scale. In the Molinist understanding, God derives his knowledge from the will of creatures.[12]This learning from the creation and dependence on the creation forces some dangerous consequences for the nature of God. Bavinck noted that in Molinism, “God, accordingly, becomes dependent on the world, derives knowledge from the world that he did not have and could not obtain from himself, and hence, in his knowledge, ceases to be one, simple, and independent—that is, God.”[13]

If God is dependent and gains knowledge, then he, by definition, ceases to be God. The creature also becomes, in measure, independent from God. In this view, God watches as humanity sovereignly decides. This dependent God who learns from observation of his creation is antithetical with the doctrine of God who knows all things fully. Aquinas summarized the necessity of God’s perfect knowledge of all things when he wrote: 

His knowledge extends as far as His causality extends. Hence as the active power of God extends not only to forms, which are the source of universality but also to matter, as we shall prove further on (Q. XLIV., A. 2), the knowledge of God must extend to singular things, which are individualized by matter. For since He knows things other than Himself by His essence, as being the likeness of things, or as their active principle, His essence must be the sufficing principle of knowing all things made by Him, not only in the universal but also in the singular.[14]

Even when one views history as a series of contingencies, God would not know that contingencies exist. He would necessarily know every option every creature would choose. If God did not perfectly know every option that every creature would choose, he would not know even his people perfectly (Ps 32:13-15—God fashions and knows the hearts of all his creatures). 

To retain the doctrine of God, true omniscience must be retained. Aquinas wrote, “Now God knows all contingent things not only as they are in their causes, but also as each one of them is actually in itself. And although contingent things become actual successively, nevertheless God knows contingent things not successively, as they are in their being, as we do; but simultaneously.”[15] This complete and perfect knowledge of all things seems to be a consequence of God’s eternality and distinct existence apart from created time and space. Since God is outside the time and space he created, he necessarily views all time simultaneously. “God’s knowledge can no more be confined to a temporal past than his presence can be confined to a spatial place.”[16] God’s eternality and distinct existence apart from creation point away from the functionality of the middle knowledge paradigm. 

Middle knowledge may be the result of an attempt to understand God from the wrong starting point. Suppose one begins with human experience and the necessity of free will as the two foundational doctrines which cannot be moved. In that case, the theory of Middle knowledge becomes much more attractive and possible. However, if one begins with the doctrine of God and his perfections, which stem from his aseity, simplicity, immutability, and impassibility, then God’s knowledge becomes less humanlike and more transcendent. Michael Horton explained the difference between the knowledge humans experience and divine knowledge. He wrote: 

For us, knowing certain things is accidental to our nature; our humanity is not threatened by our ignorance of many things. However, God’s simplicity entails that none of his attributes are added to his existence. It is impossible for God not to know everything comprehensively. Given his eternality, he knows the end from the beginning in one simultaneous act. God knows all things because he has decreed the end from the beginning and “works all things according to the counsel of his will” (Eph 1:11).[17]

Since God existed perfectly before creation, we should attempt to understand God’s nature before his interaction with creation is investigated. If God’s interaction with creation is approached from a human perspective, then the truth will become even more elusive since we are attempting to understand a divine action and viewpoint from a human perspective. If theology begins with human experience and God’s interaction with his creation, then the doctrine of God will be increasingly humanlike rather than truly transcendent and divine. 

[1] Michael Horton, The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims on the Way (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011), 260.

[2] Herman Bavinck, John Bolt, and John Vriend, Reformed Dogmatics: God and Creation, vol. 2 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2004), 191.

[3] Herman Bavinck, John Bolt, and John Vriend, Reformed Dogmatics: God and Creation, vol. 2,192.

[4] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, I q.14 a.8 resp. trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province (London: Burns Oates & Washbourne, n.d.).

[5] Thomas Aquinas, STh., I q.14 a.8 resp.

[6] Michael Horton, The Christian Faith: A Systematic, 261.

[7] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, I q.83 a.1 resp.

[8] Augustine of Hippo, “The Enchiridion,” 95 in St. Augustin: On the Holy Trinity, Doctrinal Treatises, Moral Treatises, ed. Philip Schaff, trans. J. F. Shaw, vol. 3, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, First Series (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1887), 267.

[9] Michael Horton, The Christian Faith, 261.

[10] Michael Horton, The Christian Faith, 261.

[11] God, properly speaking, does not have a “future” in our space-time existence as such since he is in eternity. The Bible speaks of God’s foreknowledge, but this is different than foreknowledge from the perspective of creatures who are bound inside the time-space system. To have foreknowledge inside the system would be to look down the corridors of time. To have foreknowledge outside the time-space system would be to know events and people perfectly and eternally. This divine foreknowledge can only be described as foreknowledge anthropomorphically. Aquinas wrote, “all things that are in time are present to God from eternity, not only because He has the types of things present within Him, as some say; but because His glance is carried from eternity over all things as they are in their presentiality…. Hence it is manifest that contingent things are infallibly known by God, inasmuch as they are subject to the divine sight in their presentiality; yet they are future contingent things in relation to their own causes” (STh., I q.14 a.13 resp). 

[12] J. Schwane, Dogmengeschichte, IV, 52.

[13] Herman Bavinck, John Bolt, and John Vriend, Reformed Dogmatics: God and Creation, vol. 2, 201.

[14] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, I q.14 a.11 

[15] Thomas Aquinas, STh., I q.14 a.13 resp.

[16] Michael Horton, The Christian Faith, 262.

[17] Michael Horton, The Christian Faith, 260.

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