Does God Limit His Own Foreknowledge?
Does God foreknow everything? Are there things that God chooses not to know?
One of the most difficult tasks for the Bible student is any attempt to discuss, with great precision, the attributes of God. The divine qualities are so infinite, and our minds so finite, that we scarcely can fathom the Creator’s marvelous features. In attempting to accommodate our limited scope of understanding, biblical writers often resort to symbolic language.
One such figure is called anthropomorphism, whereby certain attributes of God are described in physical terms (e.g., the eyes, ears, or face of the Lord [1 Peter 3:12], or the arm of Jehovah [Isaiah 53:1]). A similar figure is known as anthropopathism, which attributes certain human emotions or thinking processes to God, such as when the Lord is said to have “repented” that he made man (Genesis 6:6; cf. 1 Samuel 15:35). This type of symbolism must be borne in mind when attempting to deal with the question under consideration.
With that in mind, here are some further points for contemplation:
(1) The Bible clearly teaches that God is omniscient (from omnis, “all,” and scientia, “knowledge”), thus God is “all knowing.” He can look into the hearts of men (1 Samuel 16:7), and he is aware of what is in the mind of every human being (1 Kings 8:39). He is conscious of the activities of the entire earth (2 Chronicles 16:9), he knows the intricacies of our bodies (Psalm 103:14), and the very “ways” of our lives are open to him (Psalm 119:168). Virtually the entirety of Psalm 139 extols the omniscience of Jehovah.
A part of the total “package” of God’s omniscience is his ability to know the future, just as he knows the present and the past. Isaiah affirmed that Jehovah could declare the “end from the beginning,” even things “not yet done” (46:9-10). This quality of God is evidenced repeatedly in Bible prophecy; the Lord, centuries in advance, could depict explicitly what was to happen—a feat which no false god ever could accomplish (cf. Isaiah 41:21-24).
(2) But does God choose to limit his own knowledge, thus electing not to know certain things? Some contend that he does, and they feel there is scriptural support for this idea.
For example, when Abraham was poised to offer Isaac, the Lord said: “Now I know that you fear God” (Genesis 22:12), suggesting, it is alleged, that God had shielded his knowledge regarding the patriarch’s earlier level of faith. Others, however, argue that the language here is merely that of the accommodative anthropopathic format (mentioned above), and is not to be pressed literally. E. W. Bullinger notes of this passage: “God, of course, knew it already; but, in wondrous condescension, He stoops to make Abraham understand” (1968, 884).
(3) It appears certain that Christ, as deity incarnate, did limit his knowledge on occasion. En route to Jerusalem, he saw a certain fig tree in the distance and came toward it, “if haply he might find anything thereon” (Mark 11:13). The language indicates that the Savior was not aware, until he arrived at the tree, that it was barren. He himself stated that he did not know the time of his second coming (Matthew 24:36). One thing is clear: this self-imposed limitation of knowledge on the part of Christ did not in any way militate against his divine nature.
It may be, however, that this restriction of knowledge, on the part of Jesus, was a part of that emptying process that occurred in connection with his becoming a human being (cf. Philippians 2:6ff). It does not necessarily follow from this that God the Father has limited his knowledge in any way.
(4) Some allege, though, that if God knows everything of the future, such as the fact that we will sin, then one could not avoid sinning. They thus conclude that the Lord chooses not to foreknow our individual actions. This is a faulty conclusion that does not accord with the evidence.
The fact that God knows what one will do does not mean that he removes that person’s free will and forces him to act in a particular way. God knew both Jeremiah and Paul and the roles they would accomplish even before they were born—as Scripture explicitly affirms (Jeremiah 1:5; Galatians 1:15)—yet it was their choice to follow the Lord; they were not predetermined to do so, irrespective of their wills.
Similarly, Jesus knew, from the beginning of his ministry, who would betray him (John 6:64), and yet Judas acknowledged responsibility for his own sin (Matthew 27:4). He terminated his life by suicide and went to “his own place” (Acts 1:25), i.e., the place he had prepared for himself by his rebellion.
In the final analysis, it seems quite unnecessary to deny the full foreknowledge of God.
Scripture references: 1 Peter 3:12; Isaiah 53:1; Genesis 6:6; 1 Samuel 15:35; 1 Samuel 16:7; 1 Kings 8:39; 2 Chronicles 16:9; Psalm 103:14; Psalm 119:168; Psalm 139; Isaiah 41:21-24; Genesis 22:12; Mark 11:13; Matthew 24:36; Philippians 2:6; Jeremiah 1:5; Galatians 1:15; John 6:64; Matthew 27:4; Acts 1:25
- Bullinger, E. W. 1968. Figures of Speech Used in the Bible. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker.