God's Knowledge In View Of Genesis 18 & 22: Is It Limited?
by Allan Turner
Psalm 147:5 says that God's understanding is infinite. Infinite in this verse is the Hebrew micpar and means the same thing it does in English. Now, if God's understanding is infinite (having no boundaries or limits), and understanding is predicated on knowledge, then it follows necessarily that God's kno1wledge is also infinite. If not, then why not? Of course, such infinite knowledge would, in fact, be “unsearchable” by finite creatures, and this is exactly what Romans 11:33 says. In other words, God “knows all things” (1 John 3:20). Notice that the Bible does not say God has the capacity to know all things, which He certainly does have; instead, the argument is that God actually “knows all things.” Now, if God knows all things, what is it that He does not know? Remember, the Great Intelligence of the universe is writing to His intelligent creatures. Consequently, not only does He teach us through direct statements and approved examples, but He also expects us to make necessary conclusions. By direct statement, the Bible teaches that God “knows all things” (1 John 3:20), and the necessary conclusion is that there is nothing God does not know—and this includes the then, now, and not yet!
But, some say that this is not true. For example, bro. Ken Green takes the position that there are some things God cannot know, such as the future, contingent, free will choices of men and women. For those interested in pursuing bro. Green's argument, get a copy of the Green-Turner debate on the foreknowledge of God that took place in the Gospel Anchorseveral years ago. On the other hand, there are others who believe that God has the capacity to know all things, but, for reasons known only to Him, chooses not to know somethings. Unlike bro. Green, this group does not take this position primarily for philosophical reasons. Instead, they take this position only because the Bible seems to be saying that there are things God did not know (Genesis 18:21 and 22:12), and, as they are wont to say, the sincere Bible student knows the Bible does not contradict itself.
Yes, the Bible does not contradict itself; therefore, if the Bible teaches that there is not anything God does not know, then passages like Genesis 18 and 22 must be interpreted in light of this truth. In fact, a fundamental rule of hermeneutics (Bible interpretation) says that we must understand Scripture in its normal sense unless a literal interpretation contradicts other clear teaching found in God's Word. This, in my opinion, is the error one makes in thinking these passages negate the all-knowingness of God. (If you disagree with me, I would be very interested to know what you think Psalm 147:5; Romans 11:33; and 1 John 3:20 are saying about God's omniscience.) In their defense, many who take this erroneous position argue that just as God being all-powerful does not mean He has to be doing everything He has the capacity to do, being all-knowing does not mean that God must actually know everything He has the capacity to know. What to many otherwise bright individuals seems like iron-clad logic is, in fact, a non sequitur, an argument that does not logically follow the premise or evidence. Yes, being all-powerful, definitionally, does not mean one has to be engaged in doing all things; but, on the other hand, knowing all things, definitionally, means knowing all things. Being all-powerful infers ability only, while being all-knowing infers not just ability but the actual knowledge itself, which, in this case, is universal in scope. In other words, God is not claiming that He could know all things; He's claiming He does know all things!
It should be clear, then, that those who wrongly believe Genesis 18 and 22 to be teaching that God has chosen not to know some things are trying to explain away, ignore, or impugn, by their literal interpretation of the these passages, the plain teaching of those passages I have cited that teach the all-knowingness of God . Of course, fairness compels me to admit that it is equally possible for one to argue that I am guilty of the same thing I am arguing against. This is why I would like to know how those who disagree with me interpret the passages I have cited in favor of God's all-knowingness. Evidently, they must think these passages mean something other than what they literally say. But, whether one agrees with me or not, the task before us is to harmonize two seemingly contradictory teachings—God knows all things; God does not know some things—and do it in a way that does no damage to the integrity of either set of scriptures.
So, here is how I try to explain the apparent dilemma. In Genesis 18:21, we are dealing with an unusual circumstance. God, who is omnipresent, which means His ontological being is present to all of space equally, has, on occasion, entered space at specific points and become present in it for a specific purpose. The theologians call these “theophanies.” This seems to be the case in Genesis 18:21. In verse 1 of the chapter, it says, “Then the LORD appeared to him by the terebinth trees of Mamre, as he was sitting in the tent door in the heat of the day.” In verse 2, it mentions “three men.” Whether these three men are manifestations of the triune nature of God, or whether the other two were angels, is not clear. What seems clear is that this is, in fact, a theophany. In entering the time/space continuum, God, who is infinite ontologically, willingly, and somehow, without ceasing to be who He is, allowed Himself to be subject to the finite. It's mind-boggling, I know, but, nevertheless, this appears to be the clear import of Scripture. Now, let's look at the passage in question with my interpretation of it:
“I, [who have somehow subjected Myself to the time/space continuum] will go down [not from heaven, but down the way geographically] now [not in eternity, but right now at this moment, subject to time and space] and see [i.e., learn experientially in time and space] whether they have done [and, more importantly, continue to do “now”] altogether according to the outcry against it that has come to Me [in eternity, not limited by time and space]; and if not [i.e., if they are no longer doing what I knew they were doing before I allowed Myself to be subject to time and space], I [God subject to time and space] will know [experientially]” (verse 21).
Notice that I have emphasized the word “now” by putting it in bold letters. This is because I believe this word to be the key to understanding this passage. God, who ontologically knows the past, present, and future, contextualizes His knowing to the “now” of the time/space continuum. Are we really supposed to think that the self-existent, eternal, infinite Spirit who is God did not really know everything that had been happening in Sodom and Gomorrah? 1 John 3:20 makes it absolutely clear that God is greater than our heart (he knows our heart as well as every other heart) and knows all things. No, whatever Genesis 18:21 means must be understood by the context, and the context clearly indicates a theophany. Therefore, the theophany must be taken into consideration when trying to understand this passage. When I debated bro. Green on the foreknowledge of God, he at least admitted that God knew the past and present perfectly. Now, some are wanting me to believe that the all-knowing God does not even know the past and present perfectly. This, of course, is the only conclusion one may come to if this passage is to be understood literally and apart from the “now" context. Consequently, this conclusion is not—and, therefore, cannot be—true.
We now turn our attention to what I consider to be the more difficult passage. In Genesis 22:12, the angel of the Lord says to Abraham, “Do not lay your hand on the lad, or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from Me.” Although the “angel of the LORD” is involved in this episode, the unusual circumstances associated with a theophany are not a part of the context of this passage. Furthermore, as we have already observed, the Bible teaches us that the self-existent, eternal, and infinite Spirit who is God “knows all things.” So, again, citing a fundamental principle of hermeneutics, this passage cannot be interpreted in a way that would negate this truth.
Now, in this connection, it is interesting to note what the self-existent, eternal, infinite Spirit who is God knew about Abraham before He ever “tested” him. In Genesis 18:18-19, the Lord said: “...since Abraham shall surely become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him? For I have known him, in order that he may command his children and his household after him, that they keep the way of the LORD, to do righteousness and justice, that the LORD may bring to Abraham what He has spoken to him.” In other words, God knew that Abraham would pass the “tests,” of faith, which included the one mentioned in this passage. To disregard this information, as well as the truth about God's “all-knowingness,” is to make a serious mistake when trying to understand this passage. Yes, taken literally, the passage does appear to be teaching that God learned something about Abraham that He had not previously known. But, if God really does know all things, and if He therefore knew Abraham would pass all “tests,” then Genesis 22:12 cannot be teaching us what it seems to be teaching.
Although I admit to feeling a little uncomfortable making this kind of statement, nevertheless, I am confident that this is the correct way to think about this passage. One must realize that Paul was not the only inspired writer who wrote things difficult to understand, which, if we are not careful, can be twisted to teach something completely contrary to truth (cf. 2 Peter 3:16). Our responsibility is to be diligent to present ourselves approved to God, as workers who do not need to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth (2 Timothy 2:15). This is not always easy, but if we work hard at it, then we, too, will pass the “test.”
I think the answer to understanding Genesis 22:12 is found in places like Deuteronomy 29-30, where God promises to give life or death and blessings or cursings, depending upon one's obedience to His Word. Do what is right and one is blessed; do what is wrong and one is cursed. This is, in fact, a principle taught many places in the Bible. And although we do not expect to hear the voice of the “angel of the Lord” today, nevertheless, this principle is still true: If we serve the Lord faithfully, He will bless us; if we disobey Him, He will curse us.
God is all-knowing. This is what the Bible clearly teaches. Even so, He has agreed to deal with us in the time/space continuum. In the passage cited, you will notice that I have once again emphas ized the word “now.” This is because I believe the key to understanding this passage, like the key to understanding Genesis 18:21, is the “now” context. In the “now” of Abraham's time and space, the voice of the angel of the Lord could be heard audibly, and God is acknowledging His blessing on or appreciation of Abraham at a very critical timeand place in his “walk of faith.” In fact, the word “know” in this passage is sometimes translated “to recognize, admit, acknowledge, confess, declare, or tell.” So, in harmony with the rest of Scripture, and without doing any violence to the words of this passage, Genesis 22:12 is not teaching that the all-knowing God of the universe did not really know whether Abraham would pass this critical test. He is, instead, acknowledging His appreciation of Abraham's faithfulness to Him. In other words, He is declaring, “Abraham, I have been testing you...and you have passed the test!”