What Does God Know and When Did He Know It?

To be God is to know … everything. He is the Creator who brings beings into being from out of nothing. If something, anything, exists, God knows it; and he knows it completely, exhaustively, immediately. He knows the world from the inside, as a singer knows the song she holds on her breath. It’s not as if God creates the world, at which point it then becomes available for his inspection and study. Divine creation and divine knowing are one eternal act. David Burrell states the fundamental theorem: “God knows what God does,” and what God does is makes things be (Freedom and Creation in Three Traditions, p. 108). There can be no more intimate and comprehensive form of knowledge than the infinite Creator’s knowledge of his finite creatures.

Standing in the analytic philosophical tradition, Hugh McCann prefers to formulate divine omniscience in terms of propositional knowledge: “An omniscient God should know of every true proposition that it is true, and of every false proposition that it is false” (Creation and the Sovereignty of God, p. 62). Perhaps this is the most helpful way to think about divine omniscience, but its seeming anthropomorphism makes me uncomfortable. What is this but the projection of the human mode of rationality upon the screen of eternity. Are we to think of the divine Creator as a being who thinks discursively, forms concepts, has beliefs and assents to propositions? But perhaps I protest too much. Let us assume that divine omniscience is properly defined as the timeless knowing of true propositions.

Christians have traditionally confessed the omniscience of God. It’s part of the job description for divinity. The problem arises when we speak of God’s knowledge of future events. How can God cognize what hasn’t happened yet? Does he peer into a crystal ball? The theory of atemporal eternity provides a nifty solution: God does not foreknow future events; he apprehends them in his timeless present. Boethius advanced the classic formulation in the sixth century:

Since then all judgment apprehends the subjects of its thought according to its own nature, and God has a condition of ever-present eternity, His knowledge, which passes over every change of time, embracing infinite lengths of past and future, views in its own direct comprehension everything as though it were taking place in the present. If you would weigh the foreknowledge by which God distinguishes all things, you will more rightly hold it to be a knowledge of a never-failing constancy in the present, than a foreknowledge of the future. (The Consolation of Philosophy V.6; cf. Lydia McGrew, “Before the Mountains Were Brought Forth“)

Consider the following proposition: John is going to mow the lawn next Saturday. You and I might have every reason to believe that John will mow his lawn. We have witnessed him doing it every Saturday for the past two months and know this is habit and rule. He has specifically informed us that he intends to mow his lawn this coming Saturday. The weather bureau is predicting fair weather. But any number of things might happen that could prevent him from mowing his lawn. Perhaps the mower will break down. Perhaps John will come down with a bad case of the flu. Perhaps his kids will prevail upon him to take them to the county fair. We therefore cannot know that the proposition is true. It thus qualifies as a future contingent.

Now the interesting thing is that if God enjoys a temporal mode of existence, as Richard Swinburne, Alan Rhoda, and many other philosophers claim, then God may well be in the same predicament as the rest of us. What’s going to happen tomorrow is as future to him as it is to us. Yes, the sempiternal Deity knows a lot and is therefore in a great position to make super-accurate predictions, but unless he causally determines human decisions and actions, he cannot predict with 100% accuracy what John is going to do. John may well surprise him and go out of town on Saturday. Nor need this ignorance be seen as compromising the divine omniscience. Just as God cannot do the logically impossible, so he cannot infallibly know the logically impossible. Swinburne proposes a revision of divine omniscience—“not as knowledge at each period of time, of all true propositions, but as knowledge of all propositions that it is logically possible that he entertain then and that, if entertained by God then, are true, and that it is logically possible for God to know then without the possibility of error” (The Christian God, p. 133). Omniscience only guarantees the knowing of that which can be known. The future is not something that can be known, and at the point it can be known, it won’t be future anymore. When will then be now? Soon.

But the situation is different if God enjoys an atemporal mode of existence, transcending space and time:

By contrast, a timelessly eternal God would, as the creator of time, have equal access to all events—past, present, and future. Thus, the atemporalist reasons, a timelessly eternal God would have no difficulty knowing about John’s mowing his lawn, since he is eternally aware of that very action. And, of course, this does not compromise John’s freedom, any more than it would if next Saturday had already arrived and you and I were watching him mow his lawn. (McCann, p. 62)

It’s not as if God knows the future before it happens; he knows it in the same way he knows past and present, in timeless apprehension. Burrell states the position clearly:

God, who knows eternally and who knows by a practical knowing what God is doing, knows all and only what is, that is, what God brings into being. Yet by that knowledge, like an artist, God also knows what could be, although this knowing remains penumbral and general, since nonexistent “things” are explicitly not constituted as entities. By definition, an eternal God does not know contingent events before they happen; although God certainly knows all that may or might happen, God does not know what will happen. God knows all and only what is happening (and as a consequence, what has happened). That is, God does not already know what will happen, since what “will happen” has not yet happened and so does not yet exist. God knows what God is bringing about. Yet since our discourse is temporal, we must remind ourselves not to read such a statement as saying that God is now bringing about what will happen, even though what will have happened is the result of God’s action. (p. 105)

But the atemporalist is not out of the woods. Contemporary philosophers have raised the question whether a being who surpasses time can know what William Lane Craig calls “tensed facts.” Consider, for example, this statement: John is mowing his lawn. This is not a report of a timeless state of affairs. As McCann notes, its full force is “that John’s act of mowing his lawn is occurring now, that it is actually present” (p. 63). The same situation obtains with other tenses. If I assert, “John will mow his lawn again next Saturday,” then I am saying that it will occur after the mowing that is presently occurring. If I assert, “John mowed his lawn last Saturday,” then I am saying that it occurred before the present. “Always, then, tensed statements display a perspective that respects temporal transition,” explains McCann. “They are not just indexed to a certain temporal location, but indexed to it as present” (p. 63). This means that in order to know whether a given tensed statement is true, one needs to know its temporal location; one needs to know what the present moment is.

But can a God who lives outside of time apprehend time in this way? Is he capable of distinguishing past and future and therefore of identifying the relevant “present moment,” thus enabling him to judge whether a tensed statement is true or false? Temporal eternalists think not. In order to make the proper determination, God would need to be active in time at the relevant moment, but the atemporal God transcends all such moments. It would appear, therefore, that timeless Deity is unable to grasp what John did, is doing, and will do. So much for omniscience.

How does God tell what time it is? The answer is simple. He looks at his infinity wristwatch. But apparently it doesn’t tell time because, so the argument goes, it isn’t in time. Quite honestly, this has all the feel of a pseudo-problem generated by a failure to properly appreciate the divine transcendence. God knows reality not in the mode of a created being but in the mode of infinite Being who knows all creatures as their transcendent source and ground. As St Thomas Aquinas writes: “Since God is the cause of things by his knowledge, his knowledge extends as far as His causality extends” (ST I.14.11). It sure doesn’t sound like a tensed fact would be a problem for the holy Omniscience—he is, after all, the Creator of tensed facts. But the temporalists tell me it’s a genuine problem that demands resolution. I’m not convinced and neither is McCann.

McCann believes there is an error lurking in the argument somewhere. A tensed proposition, he notes, “is tied to the perspective of the speaker who asserts it and to the moment of its assertion, so that a unique set of conditions determines its truth or falsehood” (p. 65).  If yesterday I had said, “John is mowing his lawn,” I would have meant that he was mowing it then. If he was not mowing his lawn at that time, then the proposition is false. It would not become true if John mows his lawn the next day. I could not acclaim, “Aha, my statement was true after all.” I would need to make a new statement, perhaps verbally identical, to cover the situation. The truth conditions of a tensed proposition, McCann further explains, “are defined by a perspective localized to a single point in time, and so must simply either be satisfied or not. They cannot change within the instant that determines them, and nothing that occurs at any other instant matters” (p. 65).

Where does this leave us on the issue of whether an atemporal God can know tensed propositions? If what is said above is correct, the truth or falsity of a tensed proposition is not an elusive thing at all. It is, rather, a timeless and unchanging state of affairs, just like the truth or falsity of a statement in mathematics. But then it cannot be a difficult assignment for a timeless God to know such propositions. What would be required is the same thing such knowledge requires in our own case—namely direct experience of the world of change. If the account of God’s action as creator developed here is correct, that is precisely what he has. Simply by being aware of his own activity in creating the world, God has direct and unchanging awareness of the entire sweep of history, of which time is merely an aspect. It seems clear, therefore, that God can know tensed propositions without difficulty. (p. 65)

Philosophers can argue this out.  I keep coming back to Burrell’s maxim: “God knows what God does.” God isn’t an observer to historical and cosmic events, limited by his atemporal perspective. God is the doer of space and time, the doer of history, the doer of change, process, activity, and event, and thus the doer of every propositional statement ever uttered. As the doer of time, he is present in all tensed nows in their nowness and thus uniquely qualified to distinguish between this present now and all other nows. He knows the time now and knows that other nows are not the time now. He doesn’t even need a watch.

“Great is our Lord, and of great power: his understanding is infinite” (Ps 147:5).

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17 Responses to What Does God Know and When Did He Know It?

  1. Young and Rested says:

    I can’t help but wonder…in what way does God know evil?

    “I keep coming back to Burrell’s maxim: “God knows what God does.” God isn’t an observer to historical and cosmic events, limited by his atemporal perspective. God is the doer of space and time, the doer of history, the doer of change, process, activity, and event, and thus the doer of every propositional statement ever uttered.”

    Also, if God is the “doer of every propositional statement” how do we avoid eliminating creaturely agency or account for evil?

    I feel as though the answers must somehow hinge on what exactly is meant by God being the “doer” of everything and working out the implications of the privation view of evil. I suspect that I’m also still locked in something of an anthropomorphic conceptual prison here too. It’s difficult for me to avoid thinking with the crude concepts of God that I was raised with.

    Any clarification or suggested reading would be greatly appreciated! Thanks!


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Evil is the biggie. I hope to read a couple of books on this theme in 2017. One book I will be reading will be Thomas Aquinas on God and Evil.


      • Young and Rested says:

        Thanks Fr Kimel. Brian Davies has been suggested to me on multiple occasions as a good resource for these sorts of questions. In particular, his book The_Reality_of_God_and_the_Problem_of_Evil was highly recommended (though I have yet to read it). I’ll put his book on Aquinas on the list too. I found David Bentley Hart’s book The_Doors_of_the_Sea to be an enlightening read on the topic of evil as well, but must admit that much of it went over my head.

        I have a suspicion that the final word on theodicy still waits to be spoken and will not be clear until the culmination of the ages. Even so, it is important to try to understand the evil and its surrounding questions because it poses, for many, a formidable obstacle to belief; and also because if we are to battle against evil it would help to understand it.


  2. The question it seems to me is not whether or not a timeless being could know temporal changing beings but whether it couldn’t know free *contingent* ones. If his knowledge is the cause of things, this would seem to eliminate freedom.


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      I was wondering if anyone would pick up on the Aquinas quote. 🙂

      I’m not prepared to discuss Aquinas’s understanding of divine knowledge. I hope someone who does know his Aquinas might chime in.

      To push the discussion along, let me throw in this quotation from Herbert McCabe:

      God’s understanding of me or of any of his creatures is not something other than his creating and sustaining of them. God, you may say, knows what he is doing and what he is doing is keeping these things in their being and everything about them. God’s knowledge of me, then, like his creating of me, is a relational predicate true of God because of a reality in me. Just as I will be a great-uncle because of the reality of my great-niece. God knows me not by having a concept of me distinct from a concept he has of you. He knows me by knowing himself and thus knowing himself as creator of me and you. (God Still Matters, p. 47)

      Liked by 1 person

  3. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Non-rhetorical questions:

    Isn’t this a matter of ktesiology, accurately explicated?

    Hasn’t God as Ktestes created a cosmos the ‘subsequent’ configurations of which are non-existent until they ‘come-to-be’?

    Whether one thinks of time-space, or of an acosmic ‘time’ including a ‘future’ applied to a cosmos-as-moving-ikon-of-eternity, can the ‘future state’/configuration’ be other than non-existent until it ‘comes-to-be’?

    This seems to be what Burrell is saying with “God does not already know what will happen, since what ‘will happen’ has not yet happened and so does not yet exist.”

    By being Ktestes of the kind of Creation He Triunely chose to Create, has He not made His eternal, atemporal knowledge of the Creation contingent upon its temporality/’movingness’?

    Has He not so created that the creaturely-non-existent ‘future’ can only be known to Him when it is ‘present-by-coming-to-be’?

    If not, why/how not?

    Why is, or is this not, ‘problematical’ (for an Omnipresent Providential Sustainer)?

    Liked by 1 person

    • obscure terminology says:

      In case anyone was wondering, you can pretty much just replace the word “ktesiology” with “creation” and Ktestes with “Creator” in the above post.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

        David is always throwing these lexical curveballs. He likes to keep me busy with Google search and Dictionary.com. 🙂


        • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

          It comes of puzzling around with (interlinear) Greek New Testament eds. and Rahlfs’ Septuagint and what not!


    • I happen to think the most promising way to reconcile Gods mode of “pure being” or “unconditionality” with his relation to the contingent creation is in terms of self-chosen parameters of becoming. That is, I think it is more promising to try and reconcile the idea of God being “first cause” and causing all things and creaturely freedom by imagining that God as Being also has within himself (as something NOT imposed or conditioned by another) the potentiality to “take on becoming” in some sense – as for example in choosing to relate to know and relate to a changing world.


  4. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    Here’s a question for the brethren: Does God know how a strawberry tastes?


    • Jonathan says:

      Hmm. . . the Romans wrote about strawberries (fraga), they definitely were picked wild in Italy in Vergil and Ovid’s day. But I don’t know about in Palestine. That would be the only way in which God could be said to know what strawberries taste like in the same way we know, if Jesus ate them. Right? But what God knows in a different way is the goodness of all things. Or is this a meaningless distinction? But then what kind of knowing is implied when it is written that God calls his creation good?

      Jesus definitely missed out on some good stuff — chocolate, coffee, tomatoes, hops, scotch whiskey, etc. Nonetheless, I’ve always thought God (not surprisingly) chose the best place in the world (gastronomically speaking) to be born. The Mediterranean diet really is the best, and it hasn’t changed fundamentally in 2000 years, although the addition of tomatoes and coffee has improved it, I think. But the basics — red wine, fish, bread, olives, honey, spices, dairy but not really decadent dairy — that’s all there. If I had to live exclusively on that for the rest of my life I couldn’t complain.


      • Jonathan says:

        Iain’s response incites me to hazard a better answer, which I’m sure anyone reading here could state more succinctly and correctly:

        If God, indwelling his creation, knows the taste of a strawberry, then he must also in some sense be or subtend or ordain the good taste of that strawberry. The taste comes to us as a surprise, a delight — what a wonder that there is not only a world, but a world that tastes good, too! Can God surprise and delight himself? I take it that in some sense he can. There’s something of that in the creation account of Genesis, or in the baptism of Christ: “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.”

        The Wisdom of God must know the taste of a strawberry. I’m inclined to say, though, that God, or God in his Wisdom, knows the goodness of a strawberry, a goodness to which the taste points, or which we experience as taste. What I’m trying to get around is implying that God knows in the same way we know any old pleasure. If I commit adultery, I don’t want to say that God knows the specific pleasure of my sin in the way I know it, even though I do want to say that he knows and has ordained the goodness of sex (or perhaps that should be, ‘of the sexes’). Likewise, take the whiskey I referred to. I would love to be able to state that God knows the taste, or the goodness, of high quality whiskey. But I can’t say he knows it the way an alcoholic knows it. And yet there is some way in which God knows sin more perfectly even than I, the sinner, know it, because he can see and gauge the distance separating us perfectly, whereas I cannot.

        Does this make any sense? The moral here, for me anyway, is that the question about strawberries leads before long to the question of sin, and God’s knowledge of sin. Who’d have thought that about an innocent little fruit?! Oh, wait. . .


    • Iain Lovejoy says:

      Strawberries in Palestine aside, only if he experiences what we experience and feels what we feel: isn’t the phrase “closer to us than we are to ourselves”? If he did not, then we would know things God does not know, in this respect wiser than. he is, and that can’t be right, surely?


      • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

        It doesn’t seem right to say that God needed to become Man in order to enjoy the taste of a strawberry. On the other hand, it does seem right to say that God needed to become Man in order to experience death. I think I’m confused. Where’s Thomas Aquinas when I need him? 🙂


        • Iain Lovejoy says:

          How about this. Death (or at least the pain of death in sin, and indeed sin itself) is an absence or lack of God’s presence, whereas strawberries are a positive presence, supplied by and created by God. God can know the taste of a strawberry because he is with us when we taste it, but he can’t know the sting of death because if he is there to experience it with us there is by virtue of his presence no sting to experience.
          This can only be got round with incarnation as he empties himself of himself (so to speak).


  5. Mike H says:

    My goodness. I must confess that I’m not a huge fan of the movie, but it’s genius to lead with this Spaceballs clip.


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