Sunday, 4 December 2011

Omniscience or does God know everthing?

Sermon on Romans 15: 4-13 and Luke 21: 25-33, St Matthew’s, 4th December 2011

Yet again I am not going to say much about the two readings for today. This is partly because I preached on the Gospel reading last Sunday and you can read that sermon on my blog. I don’t think I have anything much to say about the second coming than I said there. And though I have had a few conversations about my sermon I haven’t really changed my views.

Today I would like instead to say a little about God’s omniscience: the idea that God knows everything including the future. There is sort of a connection with today’s readings in that both contain prophecies. In the Epistle reading Paul quotes a prophecy of Isaiah which seems to have already come to pass to some extent. Isaiah predicts that ‘a root of Jesse’ (Paul clearly has Jesus in mind) ‘shall rise to rule over the Gentiles’. The Gospel reading gives us a I sermon of Jesus where he is talking about the end times and spells out that ‘they shall see the Son of Man coming in a power with power and great glory’.

Prophecy implies – at least to some extent – knowledge of the future. The prophets of the Old Testament – according to the Old Testament writers get this knowledge from God. Jesus –according to the Gospel writers – clearly has foreknowledge: he predicts his death and what will happen after his death – and the Gospel writers clearly assume that this knowledge comes from God too.

In coming to understand that Jesus was God I think we are right to assume that this power of prophecy is an aspect of his nature as God and yet Jesus never seems entirely certain what is going to happen. When in the Garden of Gethsemane, Matthew, Mark and Luke tell us that Jesus prays ‘Father, if thou art willing, remove this cup from me, nevertheless not my will, but thine, be done.’ he seems to know clearly what is likely to happen him but yet hopes for a different future which is surely still open at that point.

A well known text from Isaiah states: ‘I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me. I make known the end from the beginning, from ancient times what is still to come’ (Isaiah 46: 9-10). The Bible contains numerous examples of prophecies many of which have already been fulfilled but not all of prophecies are. For example Jonah predicts God’s destruction of Nineveh (Jonah 3: 4) but in the event the people of Nineveh repent and God does not destroy Nineveh. God changes his mind. And there are many other examples of these so-called conditional prophecies. A prophecy then may express God’s general intention for and knowledge of the future but what actually happens can depend on what humans do. I am coming to think that whatever the prophecy the outcome may depend on what God (and to a lesser extent humans) in the event do. That the outcome is never certain –even for God.

God – clearly has extraordinary knowledge – but the question for me is whether he can know everything that is going to happen including what we humans are going to do before we do it. The omniscience of God relates to the omnipotence of God – on which I preached about two Sundays ago. I said then that I thought I don’t think God is omnipotent in the sense that many Christians have traditionally regarded him. And this leads me also to question whether God is omniscient in the traditional sense of that word.

I have been reading a bit about God’s omniscience over the last few weeks and in particular a book Steve has leant me – called the Openness of God by Clark Pennock, Richard Rice, John Sanders, William Hasker and David Basinger. This book makes it clear that our traditional understanding of God’s omnipotence, omniscience, unchangeablity, etc, is not necessarily Biblical but is largely derived from the ideas of the Greek philosophers – particularly Plato and Aristotle. The early Church Fathers such as Augustine took these ideas and mixed them together with Biblical ideas and came up with what we have come to regard as the orthodox view of the nature of God. This view has remained largely unchallenged by theologians until recently.

Now some of these theologians have realised that an omniscient God is needs to be reconciled with human freedom. If God knows everything we are going to do in advance of what we are going to do then we are in a sense predestined to do what we are going to do and we do not have freedom to do other than what God knows we will do. However for me human freedom is compatible with an omniscient God. This is because I do not think God’s knowledge is the cause of future events. God could simply see what is going to happen and human beings use their freedom in the way God predicts. Whether human beings choose to have faith in God or whether God gives human beings faith in him is of course a separate but related question. I am inclined to the view that faith is a gift from God. But that is a different sermon.

My main problem with the idea of an omniscient God is that it seems to me to be in conflict with the idea of an all loving God. This is because I think love is a two way process – a relationship. Yes God’s love for us is infinitely greater than our love for him but there is a sense in which a lover needs a loved one for there to be love. God created his creation not because he needed to but out of love. Furthermore God has given us - the pinnacle of his creation -freedom to love him. He now needs us to love him if he is to love us in the way that he desires i.e. that we freely choose to love him. He cannot compel us to love him –as love by definition cannot involve compulsion - and this means he cannot know in advance whether or not we are going to do so. If he did know in advance that we would love him then he would not experience love as love.

Of course this presupposes that love needs to be felt and God has feelings of love. This might seem that I am anthropomorphising God – making God out to have emotions like we humans do. That I think God has feelings is not unreasonable from any cursory reading of the Bible. The God of the Old Testament clearly experiences feelings of love (amongst other emotions) for his people the Israelites. And Jesus – the incarnation of God clearly does feels love for his disciples. It is only the God of the philosophers who because he is omnipotent and omniscient and in consequence unchangeable who does not feel love.

What’s all this to do with the good news you might say? Well it’s part of the explanation – a small part perhaps – of the mystery behind why God could come to earth as a human baby – whose first bed was in a stinky stable. God chose this way of being to demonstrate his powerlessness not his power. A baby knows nothing too. Power and knowledge are something but not everything. Love is everything and power and knowledge need to be laid aside for love to operate. Power and knowledge were clearly laid aside in the shape of the baby Jesus. Perhaps power and knowledge were also laid aside when God created human free will. And perhaps even before that.

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