The Omniscience of God and Hebrews 13

In an earlier post, I posted eight reasons that I believe show that the Bible teaches that God has exhaustive future knowledge. Andrew, a friend and the author of the blog Theo Geek, stated that my reasoning was completely unsound. While Andrew is a friend and a Christian, we don't always see eye to eye on matters of theology (which, of course, disproves the common contention of skeptics that Christians don't think for themselves), and I wanted to take up the issues more singularly in depth. Since responding to all of his arguments in a single post would be a monumental task (going well beyond the length of the typical blog), I will start with this first issue and see where it goes.

My first argument: God is the same yesterday, today and forever (Hebrews 13). If God doesn't know something, then he can learn something. If he is a learning God then he becomes different as the result of having learned something and He is not the same yesterday, today and forever.

Andrew's response:

The eight arguments given are completely unsound

1. Hebrews 13:8 says that "Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever." In context, it is talking how we ought to continue following the Christian teaching that teaches us to imitate Christ's way of life, and not be swayed by new and strange teachings that tell us to live some other way. The point is that the way Jesus Christ lived, and they way we should live in imitation of him cannot suddenly change.

So, it is not talking about knowledge like was claimed.

Furthermore, it is not advocating immutability in any strict sense - if Jesus Christ was truly immutable then he could have never become man, could never have grown up, could never have died, for all these things require change. I can imagine saying, using the same logic, "if Jesus Christ is the same everyday, he cannot [be] alive one day and dead the next, or incarnate one day and not incarnate the nextÂ… etc." (some of the Greek philosophers actually used this to object to Christianity, because they believed in a totally immutable God who could truly never change, and thus who could not become incarnate) such logic is clearly flawed and not at all what the verse is talking about, and so the idea that this implies immutable and unchangeable foreknowledge is clearly laughable.

Personally, I think that Andrew needs to be a bit more careful in how he addresses friends in a public arena. It may be that I am wrong, but is it "laughable"? Let's see:

First, the Hebrews 13 passage is not as constricted as Andrew contends. I agree that the passage argues that "we ought to continue following the Christian teaching that teaches us to imitate Christ's way of life, and not be swayed by new and strange teachings," but then it says that we should do these things because "Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever." (v. 8) In other words, Jesus doesn't change, i.e., he is immutable. Is this a unique view of this passage? Hardly.

Several commentators acknowledge that this verse shows God's immutability or his non-changing nature, such as Matthew Henry, John Gill, John Nelson Darby, John Wesley, and the editors of the editors of the Zondervan NIV Study Bible which is sitting on my desk. Thus, it appears that most commentators would agree that this verse speaks of the immutability of Jesus Christ, aka, God. But what does it mean to be immutable? Clearly, it does not mean that God is perfectly static because we can see that there was some change in Jesus. For example, Jesus became man and then He returned to the Father with a glorified body. Obviously, the verse is not intended to mean that God is absolutely static in his changelessness.

This verse is speaking of His divine nature; as John Gill notes: "[Jesus] is unchangeable in his person, perfections, and essence, as God; and in his love to his people; and in the fullness of his grace, and in the efficacy of his blood, and in the virtue of his sacrifice and righteousness." This is not some stilted "any change whatsoever disproves this verse." Obviously, Andrew doesn't believe that this is the understanding since he is arguing that this verse is much more limited in scope than I am claiming. So, since we are both in agreement that the verse is not to be read in a stilted fashion, the question is: what does it mean for Jesus to be unchangeable.

It is my contention that one of the things that is unchangeable must be his knowledge. My argument is stated in the original post: if God does not know the future exhaustively, then he is learning the future as well. As anyone who has gone off to college and actually taken the time to learn the material can tell you learning changes a person. Learning and change are inseparable, learning changes you; change requires learning, they are two aspects of the same continuum. To put my argument in a syllogistic form:

Premise One: If God does not have complete knowledge of the future, then he learns.
Premise Two: If a person learns, then that person is changed by what he has learned.
Conclusion: If God does not have complete knowledge of the future, then He is changed by what He has learned.

The argument is logically valid, so any argument must be with the premises. Since the premises seem fairly obvious, the argument appears sound and supports the inference.

But the response should be: no one disputes that God is not changed by His learning, the objection is that this type of change (learning) is not one of the characteristics that need to be immutable for Jesus to be "the same yesterday, today and forever." After all, I have just acknowledged that this verse is not to be a stilted reading of the text where any possible change (e.g., when God created He became a creator but wasn't a creator before that time) represents a violation of the verse. So why is this one of the characteristics that must be immutable?

The reason is that if God learns, then God is subject to change in his essential characteristics. Here's how: have you ever looked at the drawing of the old woman or young girl? When you first look at the drawing, you only see the young girl or the old woman (I saw the young girl, myself), but once you see the other, it is impossible to undo that change. You now see both sides and you can never go back to the single viewpoint again. You are changed as a result. Was the change significant? Not in this case, but learning can result in very significant changes. Changes can be as large as paradigm shifts wherein your entire worldview can change as the result of something you learn. A person who first learns about and accepts Jesus and His Gospel has a paradigm shift that can result in a whole new world view and cause a tremendous change in every aspect of that person's life.

Let's suppose that God is a learning God. Is it possible that He could learn something? If the people who espouse the idea that God is a learning God are correct, then God learned that man would sin only when Adam and Eve actually sinned. Until that time, He didn't know that they would sin although He could have calculated that the odds that they would sin would be extremely high. Would the actual occurrence of the fall becoming a reality instead of a mere probability have been a paradigm shift for God? It could have been such a shift because until it actually happened, God didn't know it would happen. Perhaps he thought it might, but He didn't (and couldn't) know. It could have been a revelation for Him, and He could have changed His entire approach to humanity because the contingency that He hadn't fully expected would happen had, in fact, happened causing Him to see humanity in a new light. He might have no longer seen humanity as the young woman but the old hag, and He could never go back to seeing the young woman only. God could have changed in His viewpoint and how he would have approached humanity.

Now, if God could change how He would approach humanity by this event, then other events could also change how He approached humanity. But if that were the case, then what becomes of the promise of Hebrews 13? Hebrews 13 argues that we should act in a certain way because God's approach to us is unchanging! Hebrews 13:5 says: "Make sure that your character is free from the love of money, being content with what you have; for He Himself has said, 'I WILL NEVER DESERT YOU, NOR WILL I EVER FORSAKE YOU,'" -- in other words, we should continue to obey His law because God has said He will not change His approach to you. Yet, if God can change his approach to humanity by entering into new paradigms of understanding as the result of having learned new things, then we can have no faith in His promises. But we need not fear Him forsaking or deserting us because we know that He is the same yesterday, today and forever -- His approach to us and His essential attributes will endure forever.

Could I be wrong? Of course, I could be wrong. My argument necessarily speculates about what God "may have" or "could have" thought or how He could have been changed as the result of events on earth -- and since I do not see where God has given us any clear reason to believe that He would have, in fact, changed because of these events, there is nothing in the Bible that will necessarily support my assertions. But is my argument "laughable?" Are my arguments "completely unsound" as Andrew contends? Only if you want to score points by rhetoric rather than substance.


Andrew said…
Clearly the verse in question implies that Christ does not change in some way. I think we are basically agreed that the verse in context is talking about Christ's unchanging character.

The question that remains is whether unchanging character can be said to logically imply unchanging knowledge. So it should be clear that what we are dealing with here is not so much "what the Bible says" as it is "what that implies to me".

BK has suggested an analogy with how our character is changed by the knowledge we learn at university. I don't really find that too convincing. Humans as they grow up, form and change their character dramatically. The older and more mature they get, the slower changes in character become. Through their time at university many people are still struggling to understand who they are and their place in the world. Their character is developing and everything that happens to them over that time influences their character. But correlation doesn't imply causation. BK has assumed that this shows that knowledge in general causes changes character. But does it really? Or is it simply the fact that university students are undergoing a period of their lives where formation of character is prominent and that everything during that period affects them?

We can imagine a wise old sage who has lived many years and knows many things and seen the types of things there are to see in this life. Is his character going to change with more knowledge? It seems unlikely. We can imagine us going to him and telling him our precise life story - and he'd learn knowledge he didn't have before. But would it change his character? Why should it? He's heard stories like ours before, he knows the sorts of things that happen to people in the world. The details of our story might be new to him, but there's no reason to think it would change his character. We see that a person with a developed character can learn factual knowledge quite happily without any danger of it affecting their character.

I suggest it is like this with God. He can see the possible futures - he's well aware of all the different types of things that can happen. Learning that a particular future is actual is hardly going to change his character any more than the wise old man is going to change character by learning the particular details of our lives.

At any rate, such discussion seems to me to be moot. Jesus explicitly states his lack of knowledge of a future event (Mat 24:36 / Mrk 13:32). Clearly after the event has happened he will have knowledge of it. Hence his knowledge does change and is not immutable.

As for the list of those who have interpreted the Hebrews verse as implying full immutability, the temptation is always great in biblical study to read your own beliefs into verses that sound vaguely like they might support them. This is why I believe serious biblical exegesis needs to be done by people who are quite prepared to disagree with what they read. Someone who is determined to believe what they think the text says is inevitably going to have what they want to believe affect their interpretation of the text to some degree or another.
BK said…
Andrew, I do not find what you are saying to be all that far from where I am. I do think that the sage can change if he is presented with a new paradigm, and I do believe that a God who learns would be equally capable of undergoing such a shift. But that is, of course, my conjecture.

I don't agree at all that the Bible verse that says that Jesus didn't know the time and day of something but only the father knew suggests that Jesus will learn it. But that is another story.

Overall, I think you have stated a good case even if I don't agree for the reasons I have already stated.
Andrew said…
Two further thoughts. Firstly, most open theists hold that God's character is immutable, eg that God is unchangingly good. We are agreed, I think, that this is what the verse in Hebrews is saying. Hence, the verse in Hebrews itself is totally in full agreement with open theism.

Your argument was that immutable character is incompatible with changing knowledge. So your argument was really that open theism is internally inconsistent. You were attacking the logical consistency of two of the premises of open theism: God's unchanging goodness and his changing knowledge. In that sense, it seems to me your objection here is made purely on logical grounds and has nothing particularly to do with the Hebrews verse at all. It was a logical objection not a Biblical one.

Secondly, most open theists hold that God knows every possible future. As time progresses, God learns which of those possible worlds is the actual one. In other words, God already knows everything that could ever happen. Nothing can ever happen that God doesn't already know. With that in mind I have to ask: How could God's character change? If indeed, increased knowledge can affect character, then surely it does so because the knowledge we gain is so radically new, so different to anything we have known before that it challenges us and leads to change in the core of our being.

But God already knows everything that might happen, so he is never going to be challenged in this way by new information. Nothing is going to happen totally out of the blue and challenge God to rethink his basic character in light of him learning something fundamentally new about himself or about the world. For everything that happens in the future, God already knew as a future possibility. Any content in that information is already a part of God's character. The only thing that God learns as time progresses is which of the possibilities he already knows about are actualised. There seems to be no reason to think such knowledge is able to influence character. It just seems a bit like telling someone what they already know and expecting that to change their character.

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