Does God Really Know the Future? [Limited Divine Foreknowledge in the Old Testament]

Does God know exactly what will happen in the future? I imagine that for most Christians the answer to this question is axiomatic – of course he does! This belief, known as “divine foreknowledge,” is part of the default theological package inherited by Christians which can be called classical theism. However, many have questioned whether this belief actually has a legitimate biblical basis.

To put in another way: is it likely that someone who reads the Bible with no cultural influences would conclude that the God presented in it knows the future in its entirety? Or do some of our beliefs about God come from philosophical assumptions that are actually foreign to the biblical text? The following are 5 types of Old Testament material* that might be taken to indicate that God does not exactly know the entire future:

[1] The Divine “Perhaps”
There are multiple instances where God uses the term “perhaps” when speaking about the future: Ezekiel 12:1-3 and Jeremiah 26:2-3 are two notable instances [see also: Amos 5:15, Jeremiah 51:8, and Exodus 32:30]. These seem to suggest that God, although knowing all the possibilities and all the probabilities of the future, does not genuinely know what the future actions of his creatures will be. For many, any reading other than this calls into question the integrity of God’s speech – if he really did know, was he lying? What would be the point of these divine speech-acts?

[2] The Divine “If”
There are also a plethora of conditional statements made by God throughout the Old Testament: Jeremiah 7:5-7 and 22:4-5 are two notable examples (using the Hebrew construction of im (if) + imperfect verb – regularly seen as suggesting a sincere possibility or uncertainty). Once again, many see the integrity of God’s speech in question here if he truly does know the future. In fact, it can be argued that if God knew Israel’s future disobedience as a predetermined reality then this makes his speech pointless, deceptive, and a rather cruel holding out of false hope for Israel. What then makes God’s knowledge of the future different from our own? Fretheim states: “Where the divine perspective exceeds the human may be said to lie in the ability to delineate all of the possibilities of the future, and the likelihood of their occurrence, in view of a thoroughgoing knowledge of the past and present.”

[3] The Divine Consultation
The Old Testament contains many narratives describing a human response that contributes in a genuine way to the shaping of the future of both God and Israel. Notable examples are found in Genesis 18:7-22 and Exodus 32:7-14 (see also: Numbers 14:11-20, 1 Samuel 15). The multiplicity of these narratives suggests a pattern in God’s activity – having made a decision or plan, He often consults with an Israelite leader to receive their insight… insight that could (and regularly does) reverse the plan God had previously decided on.

[4] The Divine Question
The God of the Old Testament is regularly asking questions. While these are usually seen as rhetorical (and thus not genuine questions), this is not always indicated by the text. For example, there are many passages which speak of the divine decision making process regarding Israel in terms of a genuine inquiry or struggle: see Hosea 6:4, 11:8, and Jeremiah 5:7-9. There are also questions that speak more of the present in relationship to the past than the future: Jeremiah 2:31, 8:5, 19; Isa. 5:4, 50:2. Once again, these texts are usually dismissed as metaphorical – but even metaphorical language must have some reasonable relationship to reality. Not all biblical scholars are convinced there are any good reasons to read these as rhetorical questions… apart from holding prior assumptions about God’s nature that come from outside of the text.

[5] The Divine Repentance
Lastly, there are more than thirty texts in the Old Testament which speak of God repenting (Hebrew: nhm) or “regretting, being sorry, changing his mind.” This type of language is found in a variety of Old Testament genres and traditions, including creedal statements about Israel’s God: Genesis 6:5-8Exodus 32:12-14, Joel 2:13, and Jonah 4:2 are good examples. These texts again call into question the assumption that God knows the future exactly – how then can God feel genuine remorse or regret?

Terence Fretheim, a respected Old Testament scholar, concludes the following: “From these considerations regarding divine foreknowledge one may conclude that any talk about divine omniscience in the OT must be limited when it comes to talk about the future. It is limited in such a way as to include a genuine divine openness to the future – an openness which, however, is constantly informed by the divine will to save.” He claims that the Old Testament does not support a view of foreknowledge that sees God’s relationship to the future as closed. Instead he argues that the future is seen throughout the Old Testament as consistently open to both Israel and God himself. Perhaps texts commonly quoted to support an exhaustive divine foreknowledge (Psalm 139:1-6 and Isaiah 40-55) are less specific than they are often assumed to be and make limited claims that are not meant to be universalized. Indeed, this understanding of limited divine foreknowledge still fits nicely with the classical doctrine of omniscience (the belief that God knows all things) – God knows all things that exist… and in this view the future exists in terms of possibilities, probabilities, and personal divine commitments.

What do you think?
Is there solid biblical evidence for the belief that God
knows the entire future in an exact way?
If so, how would you read the above texts from the Old Testament?

 


* The first four points are summarized from Terence Fretheim’s “The Suffering of God” [Chapter 4 – God and World: Foreknowledge] and the fifth is summarized from John Sander’s “The God Who Risks” [Chapter 3 – Old Testament Materials for a Relation View of Providence Involving Risk].

2 thoughts on “Does God Really Know the Future? [Limited Divine Foreknowledge in the Old Testament]

  1. … You’re gonna have to do the NT on this one as well, Mike. Because, again, we have to acknowledge some conceptual thought changes through the ages leading up to the NT. And ultimately, I don’t think we can square the representation of God’s knowledge in the OT completely with that which is in the NT.
    Honestly, I don’t think we’re going to be able to marshal enough evidence from the Bible, either, Mike. I wish I could say that, but I don’t think it’s even possible…
    And finally, upon that question of possibility, lies the question of mystery. What we’re basically asking ourselves, within our own limited cognition, is the very nature of how God knows something, anything at all. We don’t completely have a representation of how we “know” something; epistemology and neurobiology are going to continually be re-understood and things will be discovered anew…
    Anyways… sorry if that seems like a cop-out…

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    1. I don’t think it’s a cop-out to say there may be some things we never know (or at least never know fully and completely), especially about God. Is this not part of the basis for faith? If we could figure God out completely and fully, then, well, we’d be gods, too. I’ve come to accept there are things God can do that are far beyond my comprehension. A purely scientific view would say that just because we don’t know something now, doesn’t mean we won’t know it in the future. But when it comes to God, I’m not sure that applies. But we’ve been conditioned to think that every question has a concrete, quantifiable answer, so it’s natural for us to ponder these things.

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