The O’s Have It Part I: God’s Omniscience in the Bible

One of the first things I learned in Seminary was that the gap between biblical and theological studies grew wider as scholars specialized. Even the vocabulary and basic assumptions about belief, faith, and the nature of God differed between the two camps. I was raised in a Christian tradition considered “full Gospel,” meaning any belief should have its basis in the Bible. As a child, I memorized scripture and learned how to find passages in the Bible to support foundational beliefs. However, the answers in specific biblical passages became less clear and straightforward as I read and studied the Bible in its original languages. It turns out that you can find nearly any interpretation of many Bible verses and passages to support various opinions, beliefs, and so-called truths. As original language Bible study has become more widely available and accessible using digital and internet learning, people from different backgrounds and fields of study deconstruct long-held beliefs that are not well supported in the biblical text. One of those beliefs is the Three Big O’s: God’s Omniscience, Omnipresence, and Omnipotence.

What is omniscience?

Omniscience is Latin for all-knowing. Early Christian church theologians determined that for God to be God, God must be all-knowing. It is a philosophical position that elevates God above humanity and supports other doctrines like creation, salvation, and responses to sin and evil. One of the problems with this belief is that the Bible doesn’t keep it well. A systematic theologian could better explain how this is overcome, but as I mentioned earlier, I am trained in biblical studies. From a biblical perspective, God is not portrayed as omniscient or all-knowing.

Is God Omniscient?

Even as early as in the first chapters of Genesis, God is portrayed as being in a relationship with humans in such a way that implies God is curious, choosy, remembers things, forgets things, and tries things. Belief in God’s omniscience is an idea formed by church councils in the early Christian church. The basis for their reasoning was to create coherence in the religious structure of Christianity. The Bible doesn’t provide a simplistic view of God. Some people describe these complexities as contradictions. A better way of understanding it is that Christianity formed as a religion based on, but distinct from, much of the Bible.

A Curious God

Genesis 11 describes a story about people building a tremendous ziggurat-like structure to communicate with the gods. God became curious about what the people were doing and came down to see the form (11.5). God must not have liked what they were doing because God then said to the other divine beings, “Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and confuse their language there so that they will not understand one another’s speech.” (11.6,7 NRSV). This story accentuates God’s use of power to disrupt an activity that humans began without God’s knowledge.

A Choosy God

There are many stories of God’s seemingly random election in the Bible. The first happens in Genesis 4, where God prefers Abel’s sacrifice to Cain, which leads to an infamous murder. Even though both offerings fit Levitical descriptions of acceptable sacrifices, God chooses one for some reason.

When God floods the earth, God chooses Noah. God chooses Abraham to bless and make a patriarch. God favors and chooses Joseph. God’s preferences extend to one and not another, even though, in many cases, there is no particular reason for the distinction. God chooses Sarah and Isaac, yet offers a blessing to the outcast enslaved Egyptian, Hagar, interacting with Hagar with concern for Ishmael much more than with Sarah, the mother of Abraham’s promised son. Election by God is a theme that runs through the Bible. The text does not usually explain, but in one case, the reason is constant, given that God is concerned with rescuing oppressed or enslaved people. As a prime example, many prophets and psalms point to the fact that God chose to liberate the Hebrew enslaved people because they were being oppressed.

A God who Forgets … and Remembers

God is characterized in the Bible as a divine being who remembers and forgets things. God is surprised and delights in human ingenuity. The word for ‘remember’ (zchr) has a range of meanings with nuance for engagement or enactment. However, remembering still connotes an intention lost or forgotten and found at a particular time. It is also translated as thinking about or spending time in thought about a thing. In Exodus 2.24, God responds to the groans, or cries for justice, of the enslaved people in Egypt and remembers the promise made to the patriarch Abraham. Other references are in Genesis. Genesis 8.1 refers to God’s remembering Noah and the animals, thereby stopping the flood; Genesis 19.29 describes God remembering a negotiation with Abraham to save Lot and his family; and in Genesis 30.22, God remembered Rachel, who had trouble conceiving a child and opened her womb.

The Bible portrays a God capable of thinking about things, forgetting, and remembering things. God considers and thinks about engagements with humans.

A God Who Tries Things

God is creative. In Genesis 2, God creates a human out of clay and uses divine breath from Godself to spark life. God threatens to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah but is willing to compromise when Abraham argues against it. In Exodus, God uses fire to lead the Israelites by night and a wind tunnel by day. This creative sign is not seen anywhere else in the Bible. When God has trouble getting through to someone, God gives a speech through a donkey to stop a prophet from cursing Israel in Numbers. God’s creativity is less confined than God’s knowledge in biblical accounts.

Is God still God Without Omniscience?

Many popular culture and casual definitions of God presume omniscience is a prerequisite for a true God. This is problematic when people read the Bible, in which God interacts with humans genuinely and personally. One way the biblical God differs from many other deities is that God doesn’t lord power over humans like other gods.

The biblical portrayal of God emphasizes God’s awareness of essential metaphysical states and natural knowledge of all possible outcomes. Still, God’s interactions with humans demonstrate a limited perspective of individual human agency. This is also the view that supports free will. Theologians refer to this as Molinism or middle knowledge. In Psalm 139, the Psalmist claims that God knows every thought and attitude and requests God to search his heart to understand what is there. The Psalmist’s request supports the middle knowledge view. God has access to perfect perception and knowledge of all that is possible, but the Psalmist does not take it for granted that God will know without the request and participation of human agency.

A God who is omniscient is distant, removed from humanity, and inaccessible. The portrayal of God as omniscient best serves religious leaders who want people to rely on them as mediators. The Bible, however, is written by and for minorities. The text portrays God as personable, engaging, approachable, and willing to negotiate with humanity and consider human creativity. It is more challenging to build and standardize a religion around a God who participates in the time and culture of humanity. Perhaps this is why there are so many different interpretations of the Bible.

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