Throughout the history of Christian theological thought, a key tenet of orthodox belief has been that of divine omniscience–that God knows (infinitely) all that can be known. Notwithstanding the various caveats that need to be assigned in order to properly qualify such a statement, there are several logical and theological challenges that must be balanced in order to properly maintain not only the internal coherence of such a assertion, but also the meaningfulness of it to theological belief.

One of the challenges is related to the necessary distinction that must be maintained between the eternal nature and being of God and the ontology of that which God has created. After all, if a “strong” theory of omniscience is established that concomitantly breaks down this necessary distinction, the preservation of the doctrine of omniscience leads to, IMO, a much worse end than would otherwise be had.

So let’s start with an apparently simple statement:

“God knows that X will happen in the future.”

From a “strong” doctrine of omniscience, the answer to such a statement is an easy yes. After all, since the future is assumed to be “something” that can be known (especially in re: prophecy, et al), God must “know” the future in order to be omniscient.

At first blush, this might seem to be a perfectly legitimate and reasonable conclusion. Surely, one might argue, the God of all creation “knows” what “will” happen in this creation, even if it has not happened yet. But I think it’s not quite that simple, and it is this perhaps too simplistic of a conclusion that can lead to the conceptual ontological breakdown that I mentioned previously.

So back to our statement:

“God knows that X will happen in the future.”

Again, this sounds fine, but let’s remember our categories of omniscience. We are not speaking of divine knowledge in the arena of temporal events. When we speak of divine omniscience, we are asserting–at least according to classical definitions–that God’s knowledge is infinite, perfect and without lack.

The Problem

So where’s the problem?

Well, first, let’s talk about “knowledge” of the “future.” When we think of “future,” we tend to think in terms of an isolated series of events. The future, to our thinking, is “this” or “that” happening, much in the same way that the past is “this” or “that” that “has happened.” But space/time is not really a series of events–rather, it is a state of being, a particular and unique constitution of the universe-as-it-is. Therefore, the “past” is no different from the “present” or the “future” in regards to “events,” inasmuch as these concepts are merely pointers to descriptions of a peculiar state of being of the universe.

(As a terrific digression, this is precisely why “time travel” is a logical impossibility. If the “past” and “future” are not collections of events locked in the recorded memory of the universe, but rather are unique constitutions of the universe in and of itself, then traveling to either the “past” or the “future” would be tantamount to simply reconstituting the universe to be “this” or “that”–synonyms for “that which is”. Anyway, back to the subject :))

The point of this brief digression is simply this: the “past” and “future” are not abstract, non-objectified aspects of knowledge, as if they are merely pointers to something that “isn’t” but “one day” may “be.” Quite to the contrary, insofar as they are conceptual pointers to thinking about the universe according to its particular ontological constitutions, then to speak of knowledge of the “past” or the “future” is to speak of something that ontologically “is.” In another way, one cannot speak of the future as if it is simply a collection of events that have yet to obtain in reality; rather, given that the future is necessarily a conceptual description of an actual constitution of the universe, to have infinite, perfect knowledge of the “future” is to necessarily have knowledge of that which actually exists.

Therefore, if we say that the domain of omniscience encompasses the “future,” we are necessarily positing the existence of the future as an ontological fact whereby it might be the object of divine omniscience. Again, we are not simply saying that God has knowledge of that which “will be”–this would be absurd, for how can God know no-thing? No, in order to assert that God’s knowledge includes the “future,” we must accept that this requires the concomitant obtaining of all possible constitutions of the universe-as-it-is. That is, as God’s knowledge encompasses all that exists (and is necessarily exclusive of that which doesn’t exist), the future must exist in order to be an object of divine knowledge.

The Beginning of the Breakdown

So at this point, we see that saying God has knowledge of the “future” is not really all that helpful, and is tantamount to asserting that God has infinite knowledge of the universe-as-it-is (whether the “is” is conceived of as the “past,” “present” or “future”).

In some ways, there is nothing fundamentally wrong with such a position; after all, an elementary conception of divine omniscience must–at least on some level–allow that God has knowledge of that which God has created…otherwise, God would be ignorant of that which God has created. No, the problem arises when we start asking “where” this knowledge comes from.

As before, the answer might initially appear to be a no-brainer; obviously, the knowledge comes from God, for God infinitely knows all things, of which the universe is a part, right?. Ah, but let’s not move so quickly!

Remember, above we established the logic that God’s knowledge encompasses that which exists; to speak of God “knowing” that which doesn’t exist is nonsensical, for “no-thing-ness” does not ontologically obtain whereby it might be an object of knowledge. And in relation to divine knowledge of the “future,” we established that it is the universe-as-it-is that is object of divine omniscience, not particular series of obtaining or non-obtaining (a contradiction…) events.

And it is here that the problem arises. IF God’s omniscience of an object requires its ontological actuality, AND we further posit that this infinite, exhaustive knowledge is intrinsic to the eternal and divine nature of God, we’ve moved dangerously close to the brink of the breakdown that I mentioned earlier. After all, if we must presume the actuality of the universe-as-it-is in order to place it within the domain of the omniscience of God, at which point do we draw the distinction between God and that which God has created? Must we not, then, conclude that the universe-as-it-is is itself eternal whereby it might properly belong to the intrinsic and eternal knowledge of God? Where, then, can the ontological distinction between that which God is and that which God has created be drawn? If God’s knowledge of the universe-as-it-is is eternal and intrinsic, we must argue that no such distinction can be made. The breakdown is complete, and one is left with a subtle, yet very real pantheism. In such a scenario, then, to speak of divine knowledge of the universe is equivalent to speaking of divine self-knowledge.

Toward a Different Conclusion

So given this quite unpalatable end, the question remains: how can we maintain the doctrine of divine omniscience without derailing into such terrible conclusion?

One potential solution might be to think of divine knowledge of creation as being “emergent.” In such a conception, divine knowledge of the universe-as-it-is does not logically precede the existence of the creation (as it does in the above), but rather arises (or emerges) out of the divine act of creation. In such a scenario, divine knowledge of the universe-as-it-is is not eternally “innate” to the divine being, but rather arises from the creative act itself.

Such a perspective is promising, in my estimation, for a number of reasons.

First of all, it avoids the fundamental problem of unintentionally positing the existence of universe-as-it-is within the eternity of God’s ontology in order to make it an object of divine omniscience. Rather, because knowledge of the universe-as-it-is arises from the creative act, a very clear distinction is able to be made between the eternity of God and the ontology of that which God creates ex nihilo.

Secondly, I think it provides an opportunity to speak of God’s knowledge and omniscience in a much more fluid and dynamic manner. In the first picture of omniscience which I outlined, divine knowledge is seen as almost (if not entirely) static. It is set in stone, so to speak, mired in the eternal and unchanging nature of God, and it becomes quite difficult to conceive of divine interaction within creation beyond the level of pure automation.

In the idea of emergence, however, we find much more promise. Even as God’s knowledge of the universe-as-it-is arises out of the creative act, so too we can extend this to the dynamism of a perpetual, creative relationship within creation. In this way, the universe-as-it-is can be seen not so much as something necessarily locked in a primal, singular creative act, but rather as the unfolding of the continuous and infinite creative activity of God. And even as God’s knowledge of creation arises from the primal creation of the universe ex nihilo, so every “moment” of universal space/time is itself an ex nihilo creative act, and divine knowledge of it emerges infinitely.

Some Objections Answered

Now of course, the first objection to such a perspective is obvious: if God’s knowledge of creation “emerges” from the creative acts of God, are we not actually saying that there was a “time” when God didn’t know something (e.g., the object of the creative act)? That is, “before” God created, aren’t we saying that God didn’t “know” about creation? How then can God be “omniscient”?

On one level, the answer is yes. If we apply the categories of space/time to the eternity of divine knowledge, this may be a reasonable conclusion. But on the most important level, the answer is clearly no.

Remember, we’ve already established that God’s omniscience infinitely encompasses that which exists. This definition, however, does not extend to that which doesn’t exist, for it would be absurd to say that God knows no-thing. So if we truly believe the doctrine of creation ex nihilo, we can fairly easily hold together the “lack” of God’s knowledge of the universe-as-it-is “prior” to creation, for the creation “in nothingness” did not exist–therefore, it could not be the object of knowledge (and as we argued above, to say that it is eternally an object of divine knowledge has worse consequences…).

But a better objection to the emergent view of divine knowledge is that of the apparent “change” or “increase” in knowledge that occurs. After all, if God does not “know” the universe-as-it-is “before” creation, but then comes to “know” the universe-as-it-is because of the creative act of God, are we not asserting that a fundamental change has occurred within God? Doesn’t this contradict the important doctrine of divine immutability?

As with the former criticism, the initial and apparent answer is “yes.” Obviously, to speak of a “time” or “state of being” in which knowledge of creation “emerges” signifies–at least linguistically–a change. However, the change that is signified is no different from that which must be acknowledged in any orthodox definition of creation ex nihilo. That is, if God creates “out of nothingness,” some change must be equally asserted–otherwise, we’re right back to the conclusion of pantheism which was outlined above.

So the real question is whether this categorization of “change” in divine knowledge constitutes a breach of the doctrine of immutability. I would argue that it doesn’t, and here’s why.

At the opening of this note, I said that the definition of divine omniscience is that God has infinite knowledge of that which can be known, and “that which can be known” is necessarily exclusive of that which does not exist. In other words, for God to be omniscient, we are really arguing that God has infinite knowledge of that which exists.

Now before we continue, an important point must be made. If God’s knowledge is infinite, we are really saying that it is unquantifiable. In other words, divine omniscience does not mean that God has knowledge of “x, y, and z,” as if “x, y and z” were a collection of quantifiable objects by which the actuality or non-actuality of God’s omniscience could be measured. Rather, by “infinite,” we simply mean that God’s divine knowledge encompasses the totality of existence, including the infinite and unquantifiable existence of God. Therefore, given that God’s knowledge is infinite insofar as it encompasses “that which is,” we must further acknowledge that its infinity can be neither increased nor decreased. Because it is unquantifiably infinite, the supposed extension or diminution of divine knowledge can in no way alter the determination of divine omniscience.

With that established, let’s return to the idea of emergence. While it’s true that in one sense we could argue that God’s knowledge has “changed” due to the emergent knowledge of creation, on a more important level God’s knowledge has, in fact, NOT changed. Given that the universe-as-it-is emerges from nothingness (which cannot be known), the incorporation of knowledge of creation out of nothingness occurs seamlessly into the domain of divine omniscience (infinite knowledge of that which exists). That is, as the universe-as-it-is obtains existence ex nihilo, by virtue of its existence it is properly an object of divine knowledge.

But note: while one might argue that the “content” of God’s knowledge has changed, the nature of this knowledge has absolutely not. As the universe-as-it-is obtains, it is existent and therefore within the domain of God’s omniscience. Yet because the domain is infinitely exhaustive of that which exists, God’s knowledge remains unchanged in nature by the emergence of the universe-as-it-is (and knowledge of it). In another way, as the universe-as-it-is has never been excluded from the knowledge of God (given that its exclusion could only happen on the level of non-existence, which contradicts the nature of God’s knowledge), so its emergence into the domain of divine knowledge renders no change within God, for God’s divine knowledge is still infinitely inclusive of that which obtains.

Phew. That’s kind of a brain-bender, so let me try to explain a bit more with an analogy a little closer to home that might help to clarify this a little bit.

When we think of the universe, we tend to think in terms of spheres and containers. We imagine an outer “boundary” of the universe, for the notion of infinitude violates basic ideas we have about space/time. However, by definition the universe is “infinite,” for to posit that something is “outside” the “walls” of the universe violates the very definition of what the universe is (e.g., “that which is”).

So let’s think about the expansion of the universe. Big Bang cosmology suggests that the universe “began” (bad choice of words) as a infinitely small, infinitely dense singularity. From the singularity emerged the particular constitutions of the universe that we experience. Now from the best estimates, the universe “extends” somewhere in the neighborhood of 14 billion light years. But don’t be fooled: this description of the “expanse” of the universe is not to suggest that if one goes 14 billion light years
in any direction that one will reach the “boundary” of the universe beyond which is “something else”; rather, it is simply a description of how far we are able to conceive (and “see”) of the universe extending within space/time. The fact remains that the universe is infinite and boundary-less.

But the important part here is that the universe has “always” been infinite. Whether one speaks of an infinitely “small” singularity or the 14 billion years of space/time that we are able to think about today, the infinitude of the universe has not changed in nature. While the internal constitution of the universe may phenomenologically appear to be arranged in different ways, the domain of the “all that there is” of the universe remains unmodified. From singularity to an inestimable inflation, the infinity of the universe is equivalent and unchanging.

While it is obviously an imperfect analogy, I think this is helpful in thinking of the possibility of emergent, divine knowledge and the preservation of the immutability of God. As with the universe, if we recognize that the domain of God’s knowledge is necessarily infinite (e.g., encompassing the totality of that which exists, including God’s infinite existence), then the concept of emergent divine knowledge poses no threat to the immutability of God. After all, even if one assumes the eternal emergence of knowledge through an infinite series of creative acts, the incorporation of knowledge of that which has been created ex nihilo is still properly located within the infinite domain of divine knowledge of that which exists, and so therefore no change to the unquantifiable infinity of God’s knowledge obtains.

And as that which emerges from non-existence cannot be posited as objects of knowledge “prior” to their emergence from non-existence, we can further locate no lack or deficit within divine knowledge regarding the objects of creative emergence. Even as divine knowledge emerges through creative acts, so God forever and unchangingly knows all that there is to know (e.g., all that exists) and this infinitely and perfectly.

Wrapping Up…

Obviously, the idea of emergent divine knowledge is a sticky subject and much needs to be worked out still. Nonetheless, I think it is a promising avenue for not only avoiding the problems inherent to more classical conceptions of omnipotence, but more importantly for envisioning a more interactive and dynamic understanding of the nature of divine knowledge and the relation of it to the universe-as-it-is, where we live and worship God.