IS GOD IGNORANT?
T. PIERCE BROWN
I read recently some statements from a brother indicating that he thought the Bible taught that there are some things that God did not know. It was in an effort to defeat the specious arguments of a predestinarian who reasoned that if God fore knew everything, then He must also predestine everything, for if He knew it would happen, it had to happen. This paradox has plagued theologians and logicians for centuries, but though I believe it can be shown that foreknowledge and predestination are different things, that is not my point in this article. Our purpose now it to try to cast some light on some scriptures that may seem to teach or imply that God is ignorant of some things.
First, there is the statement in Genesis 6:6 and in various other places that God repented. The question is, “How could God repent of having done something if He knew how it was going to turn out ahead of time?” Without having to give a definitive exegesis of the difference between the various uses of the Hebrew word, “nacham” (repent) and the difference between the Greek “metamelomai” and “metanoeo,” it may be of some value to point out that the Septuagint in Genesis 6:6-7 has “enthumethe,” from “enthumeomia,” which means “think on, or reason about.”
However, a simple illustration may be better than an attempt at a scholarly exegesis to show how a person can be sorry or repent in the same sense God did here, without implying that He was ignorant of how the situation would turn out. When my sons were small there were some rare occasions when I felt it necessary to chastise them. While I was in the very act, I could have said in the language of Genesis 6:6-7, “It repents me that I have to spank you, and it grieves me in my heart” or, as some parents put it, “This hurts me worse than it does you.” My son could have asked me, “If you are so sorry about it, and it hurts you so much, why not stop?” My answer might have been, “I’m not that kind of sorry!”
So it is here and in 2 Samuel 24:16 and Jonah3:10where God “repented Him of the evil” that He had planned to do and did it not. It is neither “that kind of repentance” nor that kind of “evil.” That is, it is not the kind of repentance that means He wished He had not planned it. The “evil” simply means “bad,” as it would be a bad thing for them to be destroyed. It simply means that, since they changed, He changed His relationship to them. It is our judgment that the writers of the Authorized Version tried to get the idea across when they translated it, “It repented the Lord” and “it grieved Him in His heart” rather than “The Lord repented.”
Then in such places as Genesis 22:12 and Deut. 8:2, it might appear that before Abraham offered Isaac, God did not know that he feared God, and before God led the people through the wilderness for 40 years, He did not know if they would obey His word. Again, without taking the time or space to go into the various shades of meaning that are attached to more than a dozen words in the Old and New Testament that refer to “knowing,” let us try to illustrate how a person can know and not know at the same time, for the words may be used with different meanings.
Do you know what will happen to your hand if you hold it against a red-hot stove for about a minute? If so, how do you know? If you saw me do it, would you know it any differently than if you did it? Do you not see that there are at least three levels of knowledge suggested here? One is intellectual, one is by observation of another, and one is experimental, pragmatic, or existential.
God knew what Abraham andIsraelwould do in the sense that He could have accurately foretold it, but He did not know it in the sense that it had been demonstrated or proven. You may note that in Deut. 8:2, in the A.V., the expression “to know what was in thy heart” appears to be in apposition to “to prove thee.” That is, He was to know in the sense of “to demonstrate or prove.” The Septuagint suggests the same thing. It has “diagnosthe” — to make a diagnosis of the heart — to make manifest what was there. God could not know it, speaking anthropomorphically, in the sense of seeing it proven, until it had actually been proven or demonstrated.
Until we understand that man’s finite language and thought only apply relatively to an infinite God, we will have many troubles and difficulties with understanding much of the Bible. If one thinks of God’s eyes running to and fro through the earth (2 Chron. 16:9), or God’s ear being heavy (Isaiah 59:1) in any literal or humanistic way, one is already in trouble.
So, we can read or speak of God doing a thing in order to know or prove or demonstrate existentially that a certain thing is true without meaning that God did not know that it would happen in the future. It may be difficult to grasp, but from man’s viewpoint, God may be said to be or act in terms of past, present or future, for we are time-bound. But from God’s viewpoint, He IS, “I AM” (Exodus3:14). There IS no past, present or future with Him. Therefore what we call foreknowledge is simply knowledge from HIS viewpoint.
For a person who says, “God can choose not to know some things” is to involve himself in the logical difficulty of God having to know what He did not want to know in order to choose not to know it. The more reasonable and accurate way to understand God’s “ignorance” of anything is to be aware that God may properly be said to not know something from man’s viewpoint until the thing has been demonstrated. It is sometimes called “existential knowledge.”