Wisdom and Truthfulness
We’re thinking today about God’s knowledge. And when the theologians discuss God’s knowledge, they not only write about what he knows, but they also write about his wisdom and his truthfulness. The Dutch theologian, Louis Berkhof, defines God’s wisdom as:
that perfection of God whereby he applies his knowledge to the attainment of his ends in a way which glorifies him most.
In other words, God always knows what’s the best thing to do. Because we aren’t perfectly wise, then very often we don’t know what’s the best thing to do or the right thing to do when faced with a decision to make. And sadly, we often make foolish choices. But God is not like us. He is perfectly wise and therefore he always knows what’s the best thing to do and the thing that will always bring him glory. That’s God’s wisdom. And in Proverbs 8, God’s wisdom is personified and it was said to be with God when he created the world. And so, in Psalm 19, the heavens declare God’s glory because we see his wisdom all around us in what he has made. And in Romans 11:33, Paul praises the wisdom of God’s knowledge which is displayed in the way he has worked out the salvation of Jews and Gentiles. God’s wisdom is displayed in the way he made the world and in the way he has saved his people. And those who see his wisdom in these things want to praise him for it.
When the theologians discuss God’s truthfulness, they mean that God is the true God and not a false idol. They also mean that his revelation of himself is true. A hypocrite is someone who pretends to be better than they really are and we’re all tempted to hide our faults from one another. But there’s no difference between what God is and what he has revealed about himself. And by God’s truthfulness, the theologians mean that God knows all things truly or he knows things as they really are. You and I can be deceived by appearances, but God cannot be deceived by anyone or anything. And when the theologians discuss God’s truthfulness, they also mean that he is faithful to his covenant promises and therefore we can always trust in him to do all that he has said. And so, Jeremiah 10:10 tells us that the Lord is the true God. And, according to Numbers 23:19, he does not lie as we do. According to Hebrews 4:13, no creature is hidden from his sight. And the Scriptures everywhere testify to God’s faithfulness.
So, when the theologians write about God’s knowledge, they write about his wisdom and they write about his truthfulness. But mainly they write about his knowledge. That is, they write about his omniscience, because he knows himself and all other things perfectly. His knowledge of himself is implied when John tells us in 1 John 1:5 that God is light and in him is no darkness at all. Whereas the human heart is deceitful so that we’re often in the dark about ourselves and about our faults and weaknesses and the reasons we do what we do, God’s knowledge of himself is perfect. He is never in the dark about himself, but he is light through and through. He knows himself perfectly.
And his knowledge of everything else is perfect. Herman Bavinck lists many of the places in the Bible which speak of God’s knowledge and the following is only a sample. So, according to Psalm 94:4, it’s absurd to think that the one who made the ear cannot hear and the one who made the eye cannot see. Of course he can hear and see and he hears and sees everything. Job 12:12 tells us that with God are wisdom and might and counsel and understanding. According to Psalm 147:5, his understanding is beyond measure. 2 Chronicles 16:9 uses the image of his eyes running to and fro throughout the whole earth to convey to us that he knows everything about everything. He also knows the most minute details. And so, according to the Lord Jesus in Luke 12, he does not forget any of the sparrows he has made and he knows the number of hairs on our head. And the Lord teaches us not to be anxious about what we’ll eat and drink or wear, because our Heavenly Father knows that we need them.
God can test our heart and mind, according to Jeremiah 11:20. And therefore he knows what is in our heart and mind. According to Psalm 139, he discerns our thoughts from afar and he sees us when we sit down and when we rise up and he knows what we’re going to say before we say it. We can never go out of his presence and we’re never hidden from his sight so that he knows everything about us. He even saw us in our mother’s womb so that before we were born, he knew us. According to 1 Corinthians 3:20, he knows the thoughts of the foolish, And, according to Proverbs 15:11, Sheol and Abaddon — the place of the dead — lie open before the Lord. And he knows our folly and our sin according to Psalm 69:5. And in 1 Samuel 23, David was in the city of Keilah when he heard that Saul was coming for him. And he asked the Lord what the people of Keilah will do to him if he stayed in the city. If I stayed in the city, will they hand me over to Saul? And the Lord knew what the people would do. And Isaiah 42:9 is but one place of many which tells us that God knows the future:
Behold, the former things have come to pass,
and new things I now declare;
before they spring forth
I tell you of them.
And in Isaiah 45, the Lord foretold how he would save his people from exile by the hand of a king called Cyrus. And so, years before Cyrus was born, the Lord knew who Cyrus was and what he would do. And according to 1 John 3:20, our God knows everything.
Infinite, eternal and unchangeable
In our church’s Shorter Catechism we say that God is infinite, eternal and unchangeable in his wisdom. When it refers to his wisdom, it includes his knowledge. And God’s wisdom and knowledge are infinite, eternal and unchangeable because that’s what he is: he is infinite and eternal and unchangeable.
By saying God’s wisdom, which includes his knowledge, is infinite, it means God’s knowledge is not restricted in any way and it is not limited in any way. In other words, as John says, he knows everything. There’s nothing he does not know. He knows the past, the present and the future. Whereas our knowledge or memory of what happened in the past diminishes as the years go by, God does not forget anything which is past. And, of course, our knowledge of the past and the present is always limited, because we are limited and it’s impossible for us to know everything. But he knows everything that has gone before us and he knows everything that is happening in the present. And the future is known to him as well. As James reminds us, we must not boast about what we’ll do tomorrow, because we don’t know what tomorrow will bring. However, God knows the future. I’ll say more about this in a moment. But for now we should note that when we say God’s knowledge is infinite, we mean he knows all things, past, present and future. He knows all things exhaustively.
But the Catechism also teaches us that God’s wisdom, which includes his knowledge, is not only infinite, but it’s also eternal and unchangeable. In other words, his knowledge does not increase over time. Our knowledge increases, because when we were born, we didn’t know much, apart from a few basic instincts like how to suck and how to grasp. But as time went on, we learned to roll over and to crawl and to stand and to walk and to talk. We learned to ride a bike and we learned later in life to drive a car. When we first went to school, we learned to read and write and count and we’ve developed those skills over the years. And we’re continually learning new things about ourselves and about the world around us. I don’t yet know what will happen on Thursday, 28 October, but tomorrow I’ll find out. Our knowledge increases over time. And we learn new things by observation, because every day we’re observing ourselves and the world around us.
So our knowledge accumulates over time. It’s neither eternal nor unchangeable. But God’s knowledge is eternal and unchangeable. That is, it does not accumulate over time. This is how Bavinck puts it:
God knows things not by observation, but from and of himself. Our knowledge is posterior: it presupposes their existence and is derived from it. Exactly the opposite is true of God’s knowledge: he knows everything before it exists.
So, he is the Creator of all things and he is the one who determines all things. He knew all about the world and its history before he made any of it. He decided what would exist; and what it would be like; and what would happen to it. He decided who would exist; and what they would be like; and what they would do; and what would happen to them. And so, he knew all about the world before it existed. Whatever new fact we discover was known by God from all eternity, because he was the one who determined what that fact would be.
This, of course, is related to God’s aseity. Since God does not rely on anything or anyone outside of himself for anything, then he doesn’t rely on anything or anyone for his knowledge. Again as Bavinck says:
He knows all things in and of himself and by himself.
For instance, he doesn’t depend on me in any way for his knowledge of me, because his knowledge of me and my life and what I will say and do and become was determined by God before I ever existed. And so, in Psalm 139 the psalmist says that all the days ordained for me were written in God’s book before one of them came to be.
God’s foreknowledge of free actions
I said before that God knows not only the past and the present, but also the future. And that verse from Psalm 139 helps us to see how it is that God knows the future. He knows the future because he has ordained it. He has planned it. He has decreed what will happen. And therefore he knows what will happen.
And yet, isn’t it true that each one of us feels that we are, within reason, free to do what we want to do? I say ‘within reason’, because there are many things we cannot do. For instance, we cannot fly even if we want to and there are many other things we might like to do, but we can’t, because those things are impossible for us. Nevertheless, in general we feel that we’re free, don’t we? We get up in the morning and we decide what we’re going to do that day. We go to a restaurant for lunch and we decide between the fish and the meat. Later we decide to stay up late in order to finish the movie we started to watch. Meanwhile, we plan our holidays and decide where we’d like to go next summer. So, we make all these decisions during the day and we make them freely.
So, how do we combine these two idea? The first is that God knows the future because he has planned the future, including every detail of my life. And the second is that I make free choices and normally I don’t feel that anyone is forcing me. So, how do we combine those two ideas that God knows all things because he has planned all things and yet I can freely choose to do what I want? If God has planned what I do, surely that means I had to do it? But then, if I’m free to do what I want, how can God have planned it beforehand?
The solution to this problem is to bear in mind that our actions are free so long as we can do what we want to do. So long as we can do what we want to do, and we’re not forced to do anything against our will, then our actions are free. So, when we go to a restaurant, I freely choose meat and Yvonne freely chooses fish. And she chooses fish because she likes fish and I choose meat because I like meat.
And here’s the thing. God, who knows all things, knows that I like meat and he knows that Yvonne likes fish. And if, for some reason, Yvonne decides one day to have the meat, or I decide one day to have the fish, then God knows the reason why we wanted something different that particular day and chose it. You see, there’s always a reason for what we choose. And God knows the reason. And he knows the reason because he’s ordained it. He’s planned it. He’s decreed it.
Now, I need to be clear. I’m still responsible for my desires and inclinations. And so, if I want to do something sinful, then that’s my fault. God is not the author of my sin. But God is able to use my sinful desires and inclinations for his own good purposes. And so, when, in the Old Testament, Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery, they were doing what they wanted to do. But it was all part of God’s plan for Joseph to make sure he was in the right place at the right time to save God’s people from the famine. And since it was God’s plan, he knew in advance what they would do. And when the Jews asked Pilate to crucify the Lord Jesus, they were doing what they wanted to do. But it was all part of God’s plan to deliver his Son up to death on the cross to save us from our sin and misery. And since it was God’s plan, he knew in advance what they would do.
Our actions are free, because we freely choose to do what we want. But God knows what we want to do, because he has planned what we want to do. He’s not responsible for our sin, but he’s able to use our sinful desires and inclinations for his own good purposes. And since everything that happens is according to his will, then he knows the future exhaustively. And nothing is able to take him by surprise.