The limits of human freedom

In the discussion on my last post  GD took the discussion into the area of human freedom (which, as usual in discussing origins questions, I had avoided because of the TE tendency to conflate free-will with free-nature, whatever they mean by that). But having raised it maybe looking at some aspects of free-will itself may be of value to some.

The discussion between penman, GD and myself suffers the disadvantage that we all agree, I think, on a classical theological concept of human freedom as being within, and subsumed by, God’s overarching sovereign purpose. But that’s not the commonest view nowadays. So I want to set up some questions and scenarios arising from what I take to be the more prevalent way of seeing things.

At the heart of the quasi-Arminian view of free will most commonly met nowadays, certainly in popular evangelicalism, is the concept of autonomy. The starting point is often the axiom that I must be free to choose what wouldn’t have otherwise happened, or I’m no better than a robot. It follows from that that my decision cannot have been in any way determined or even unduly influenced by nature, and still less by God. Indeed, even God’s infallible foreseeing of it presents a problem to many, which largely explains the rise of Open Theism in which the future is undecided and/or God doesn’t know it.

Given that autonomy, then, for most the idea of God’s directly “interfering” (note that word, familiar from the origins debate – there is parallel thinking going on!) with my will, say to turn it away from some evil act directly, is a no-no. I would then be a robot. For some, even God’s knowing what I plan to do is an infringement of liberty, for I wouldn’t be able to change it to something else.

But supposing that God does know our free decisions, yet would be morally prevented, or incapable, of changing them, as I have outlined? Could he not prevent the evil by, say, striking us down physically with a thunderbolt? Morally, on this model, that’s just as coercive – you can decide what you like, but the thought police will prevent its coming to fruition by night arrests and execution. That, they say, is a practical denial of free will. Note the widespread abhorrence of the acts of judgement recorded in the Bible nowadays: part of that disbelief might be due to thinking that God doesn’t really do miracles, but mostly it is that he oughtn’t to if we are to be free humans.

The same “moral” considerations apply if God were to direct natural means to control any evil actions we might will: for example if the dictator dies of an infection that prevents his genocidal intent. After all, much of the theodical approach to divine sovereignty in modern theology generally, as well as in origins questions, is that we can only be free if God leaves us alone to be evil (and in evolutionary discussion, also allows the Universe to be evil and to produce polioviruses and homicidal apes).

But here there’s the additional “scientific” assertion of God’s non-interference (that word again) in natural events. If God is hands-off with regard to polioviruses, then he certainly wouldn’t, or couldn’t, use them to take out our genocidal dictator. So not only ought God not to monkey with nature to direct history, but he can’t, having set it up to run on natural laws and/or having endowed it with its own freedom to create itself without his constant and inappropriate tinkering.

In the same way, God could not use a good man to prevent the evil man’s action, because that would imply manipulating the good man’s will, which is no better than turning aside the bad one’s. If evil men’s wills are sancrosanct, how much more the good man’s?

So, as far as I have seen over the years, this is how many Christians see things. A large number of people assert that human will is, and must necessarily be, completely independent of any outside controls, especially from the loving, non-coercive God. This is, I think, a necessary corollary of placing human will outside of God’s greater purposes. So here’s a scenario based on one of my comments to GD on the last thread.

We know from experience that the human will can become distorted in evil ways. Gunmen with a grievance will quietly plan to take out as many innocent people as possible before they’re killed, if only to make a name for themselves. Jihadists can persuade themselves it’s Allah’s will to destroy every infidel in the assurance that they themselves and all the true Muslims caught in their cross-fire will go straight to paradise. We even know that serious scientific minds have suggested that humanity is an infection that mustn’t be allowed to spread its evil across the Universe.

Imagine that history had been slightly different (and why not, if it is ruled only by arbitrary human will rather than God’s sovereignty?), and that the Cold War of the 60s, with its massive nuclear arsenals and policies of mutually-assured destruction, were being waged not against communism, but against jihadic extremism. Further imagine that an African-American US president actually were, unlike Obama, not only a closet Muslim but a closet jihadist. Either that, or the stresses of office led him to paranoia and dirty tricks … not an unknown phenomenon amongst presidents.

So, quietly becoming more and more obsessed, over a period of time our world leader contrives to bypass the checks and balances on the nuclear deterrent and, hoping to make his name in heaven, or galactic history, by wiping out the infidel and bringing the saints of whatever persuasion to glory, he launches all out nuclear war, triggering the inevitable holocaust. Unlike the films, there are no struggling survivors:. The world is uninhabitable, as Tom Lehrer foretold with humour but serious intent.

Given the autonomous concept of freedom I have outlined, such a scenario would be plausible, and it is certainly technically feasible (or was before arms reduction). There is, however, no reason to think that this was the way God planned that the world should end. On many understandings he didn’t even know about it – the future was open. Whatever God had intended within his eternal plan to redeem the earth – including the sufferings of Jesus – would be wiped out at a nuclear stroke by the actions of one pathetically deranged – but wholly autonomous – man.

So before we think in terms of freedom as being subject to God’s sovereignty, as I believe it must be to be true to Christian revelation, have I covered the bases on the popular autonomy view? Is God really such a risk-taker, or do the open theists and so on have ways of explaining why my doomsday scenario could not happen?

Avatar photo

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
This entry was posted in Creation, Science, Theology. Bookmark the permalink.

22 Responses to The limits of human freedom

  1. Avatar photo GD says:


    Interesting approach – just to show you that I may adopt a different approach, I offer the following: I commence that God is, and we are not disputing this point. I also add that a Christian with good intent and will lives according to the maxim, “do unto others as you would have them do unto you – for everyone’s well being and a good life”. Yet she lives in a world with a virtually endless range of possibilities. Can we envisage a situation where she performs her acts in this way, and yet there may be outcomes that are non-beneficial or harmful to her or her neighbours? If so, how would we consider free will and outcomes? Can we deal with this using causality as a guide? I find these type scenarios useful when developing ‘mind simulations’ of human activities within the context of a given dynamic (world) creation.

  2. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    Situation known to me, GD. Christian knows single mother finding difficulty making ends meet and feed 3 kids. She anonymously sends her a modest sum; whereupon single mother arranges to get kids taken into care and disappears with boyfriend.

    Clearly, the loving maxim outweighed the wisdom (who could have foreseen the outcome?). In Christian terms, God sees the heart of the giver and is glad, but one would hope he might also exercise some degree of sovereignty, beyond human free wills both bad and unwise, to bring good from the situation.

    Not sure if that is along the line of your thought or not.

  3. Avatar photo GD says:


    I am considering at the limitations of human beings, our capacity to do good (and intention as good-will), and the question of good and evil. Patristic teachings discuss good as real and evil as the absence of good – yet the Law and the power, or outcomes of sin, are real, just as the results of bad acts are real to all of us. Your example of someone helping a person who than uses this to perform additional bad acts is of different intent(s), and understood more as differing attributes for each person. My thinking is on-going and I cannot offer any clear and concise account which would look at questions of good and evil, the possibilities confronting humanity within our limitations, and our freedom to choose between good and evil. However I am convinced that the acts resulting from this are intrinsically connected to the attributes (the persons we are) and this may indicate a type of ‘change over time’ for us. This however, is countered by the unchangeable nature of God, and the perfect example of Christ as the Son of Man and the Son of God. Thus my basis for this is our understanding of freedom and the Law as provided to us by Grace – we are confronted by possibilities and yet shown the ‘end-result’ as determined.

  4. Jon,
    I can’t comment on GD’s post, but I have some preliminary thoughts on ‘interference’, ‘foreknowledge’ and ‘free will’:

    According to Scripture, God routinely ‘interferes’ in human history, and I have every reason to suppose that He will continue to do so.
    That much I do not question.
    What I am unsure of is whether God knows everything that there is to know about the future (in the sense that He has seen its final state, as if it had already happened). Maybe He does not.
    Perhaps, without knowing my entire actual future, but knowing my every possible future and how likely each future is, He chooses to ‘interfere’ (or not) in the cosmos according to the choices I have available, the choices I make and according to His will and eternal plan. My human freedom may thus remain within, and be subsumed by, His overarching sovereign purpose.
    Does God’s ‘sovereignty’ imply that everything that happens He has willed to happen? I don’t think it does. It appears that some things that happen are not according to his will.
    In allowing mankind autonomy of will and by eschewing the use of coercion [on man’s will – that’s not to say He may not use other kinds of coercian], does God necessarily place man’s will outside of His greater purposes? I tend to think that God is able to both give mankind free will and also achieve His desired ends.


  5. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    Hi Peter

    Thanks for contributing. The idea of God as the perfect “tactician”, responding effectively to any human action, is clearly part of the truth. For example, it’s hard to imagine that God would be so laissez-faire as to let my psychopathic president destroy the world when he could cause a technical malfunction, or whatever, to prevent it. However, even that “interference” is a problem to many people: one sees sci-fi films in which the protagonists realise they are not free because the aliens are aware of their every move: does the Bible actually teach that we can will what we like, but achieve only what God permits?

    However, since God’s active government doesn’t trouble you (or me) there’s therefore an element of subjectivity about what is thought necessary for “freedom”. Should we then start from what God ought to allow, or what Scripture says he actually does?

    God’s imperfect knowledge of the future is a recent idea, and of course is the central innovation of Open Theism – previously the difference between Arminians and Reformed was to what extent God determines the future in relation only to human choice (not evolution!): all agreed his infallible foresight was taught in Scripture. In the Arminian system, of course, that foresight is made the basis of predestination and grace: God foresees I will believe, and gives predestining grace to make it so. The possibility of apostasy is left open “for further examination of the Scriptures”.

    To me the governing idea is not that God knows a lot, but that he is knowledge. If his knowledge increases, then the perfect God must get better over time – and was pretty ignorant at t^0.

    The Open Theistic response is that the future is unknowable, since God must go through time as we do – which seems to pose more problems than it solves (a) because time is universally believed to be a created function of space-time – is God restricted to his creation? And (b) because time is relativistic, meaning God has to decide to restrict himself to a certain velocity so he doesn’t get ahead of us. Specifically, if he travelled to Proxima centauri and back at light speed, his knowledge already be several years ahead of ours.

    Suppose, though, we take the classical position that God’s knowledge is complete – and bear in mind, the Son covenanted to die for our sin before the creation itself ( He foresees before creation, then, that mankind will freely sin (and sin is the negation of his will). If that were against his absolute will, he has the simple option of not creating mankind at all. That it was neverteless his will to create us, knowing what would happen, means that in some sense human contradiction of his will can still fall within his greater purpose.

    How am I doing?

  6. Perhaps God would let a psychopath destroy the world. It’s a matter of degree. He lets psychopaths murder individuals, groups (e.g. of school-children), races of people. Where does He draw the line? In relation to the end of the world a preterist might say, “He’ll draw it wherever He likes”.

    I have not seen God described as ‘knowledge’ before. Is God less than perfect if He does not know everything? Perfect in what sense? Do we become ‘better’ the more we know? Was Jesus always less than perfect and gradually became better throughout his life on earth?

    Today I asked my son Daniel what he thought about God’s foreknowledge. He came up with a couple of interesting comments:

    Firstly, he suggested that God might choose to selectively forget aspects of our future, so that His experiences with us, and ours with Him, are effectively new to us both. God can, after all, ‘forget’ aspects of our past.
    When God goes to have a look at what some folk are up to, or He gets angry when folk are disobedient, or He regrets a decision He’s previously made, He gives the appearance of someone who either does not have foreknowledge or has dispensed with it in some way. Anthropomorphisms? Accomodations?

    Secondly, Daniel said, “If I knew my kids were going to, or even possibly going to, choose eternal damnation I would never have kids”.
    Of course, if God knows the future then one might think that He could choose to create only those who, of their own free will, will choose salvation. But His greater purpose includes the eternal suffering of countless (perhaps) billions whom He created despite knowing that they would reject Him. Or so it seems. Another aspect of the mystery of God’s foreknowledge. Yes, I do start with what the Scripture says, but sometimes I wish I didn’t have to!

    This is a great subject and I would like to continue thinking about it, but that’s all I have time for just now.

  7. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    Hi Peter

    The classical formulation is to the effect that all God’s attributes are part of his simple essence, so that his love and his justice, his wisdom and knowledge are all equivalent, all perfect and all infinite. If his knowldege is lacking, so are the others.

    As the commentary on the Westminster Confession says, “In his sight all things are open and manifest. He has a perfect knowledge of himself, and he alone knows himself perfectly… it may be remarked that God knows things not by information, nor by reasoning and deduction, nor by succession of ideas, but by a single intuitive glance; and he knoweth them comprehensively, and infallibly.”

    So the upshot is that he knows because “in him are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Col 2.3) and he knows himself. So to forget, in a literal sense, God would need to not know himself completely – a worrying thought.

    On anthropomorphisms/accommodations the choice is between saying that God accomodates to our weakness, but that his claims to future knowledge, etc, are true: or that his apparent ignorance is real, and the other passages (eg Isaiah 46) rather vainglorious polemic. Historically the Church, and Israel, always preferred the former – Open Theism following the Socianians has oped for the latter.

    I don’t know how old your Daniel is (my kids are now becoming parents in their own right!) but his words would imply that God was clever enough to create the Universe, foresee sin and provide a Saviour in advance, but so unwise he didn’t even consider the possibility that some might be damned. If Ed Milliband had been around, he’d surely have been saying, “He just doesn’t get it, does he?” It also means that when the Bible foretells damnation at the end, it’s as unreliable as God’s original plan, so we may as well ignore it: it was just God having a bad hair day!

  8. Avatar photo GD says:

    Jon and Peter,
    This is indeed a great subject and shows, amongst other things, how we may think of, and about God, as free human beings. As I have said in previous remarks, I continue to consider this profound subject, and I am grateful for the guidance of Orthodox teachings, such as those on attributes of God revealed to us, and those that are comprehensible/utterable, while others are not. The tendency to consider attributes as known to use is directly linked to human knowledge and human identity – Paul said, that the spirit of man knows the things of man, and the Spirit of God knows the things of God, (as some are revealed to us). I however also note that, “we have the mind of Christ, and we may scrutinise all things….” Such statements are breathtaking within the context of human attributes and freedom that God grants as an act of Grace.
    As a comment on God having foreknowledge, I would ask, is our notion of this equivalent to how we may have such foreknowledge – just how can we equate knowledge as being ‘outside’ of time and space, and yet we may discuss such a notion between ourselves? I cannot envisage such a thing – yet we are prone to discuss God while we are both limited to time and space (so we may discuss knowledge in a way that makes sense to us), and also accept that God is greater and beyond this. In my attempt to understand (if I ever do) such concepts, I consider a world within which I am free to determine my every act, and yet always confronted with a range of possibilities that may be know and not-know to me. The very act of doing, in that moment, dissolves all possibilities in the moment I present that concrete act – yet the next thing I may do is still confronted with a range of further possibilities. This to me makes my freedom comprehensible, my actions as those of a finite human being, and confronted (and perhaps sometimes confounded by, and left in a ‘fuzzy’ state) the sense of freedom.
    I hope these remarks are interesting, even though I understand they may not always be clear and easily understood.
    On those that may be damned, I am convinced that God wills that all are saved (the price He paid as the Son of Man equates to this) but there are those who may not be saved – on this matter, I prefer to use the phrase, “Only God knows”.

  9. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    I am free to determine my every act, and yet always confronted with a range of possibilities that may be know and not-know to me. The very act of doing, in that moment, dissolves all possibilities in the moment I present that concrete act

    An interesting link to information theory, GD, in the sense that information is defined as the reduction of uncertainty. Maybe choice = information. Would there be any mileage in exploring free-will as the ability to add information to the Universe deliberately? I’m not sure it would dot the i’s wrt God’s sovereignty, but it seems an interesting thing to juggle with.

    Your wonder at our being able to discuss eternity though within space-time reminds me of Ecclesiastes, “he has put eternity in the hearts of man”. And also of that quote I put up from Gregory Nazanzius, in which he expresses amazement at our mind’s ability to travel across the Universe.

  10. Avatar photo GD says:

    “ the sense that information is defined as the reduction of uncertainty.”
    An approach I have yet to explore; would we perhaps consider ‘information’ as knowledge of our surroundings or a personal world? If so, I am proposing that we may have full knowledge as an agents of things around us, but that I am also part of a collection of such agents that constitutes both an ‘individual world’ and also ‘overlapping and interacting worlds’. We may act on a belief that is underpinned by certainty for that moment (I am certain that I am writing this post), but I would still consider possible outcomes (you may respond, or not, may agree, or otherwise, etc.). I think we may discuss expectations that fit within our world, but if not, we would be confronted with something novel. All this is underpinned by a view that nature is a system that we may understand, but we as humans add a dimension that may be ‘out of nature’. Perhaps this dimension is termed human freedom.

  11. Thanks for you response, Jon.
    Some time in the distant past I was taught that, ‘I will never again remember their sins and their lawless deeds’ meant that God actually chooses to forget our sins (not just chooses not to mention them again).
    Here’s someone who says the same thing:
    I don’t know his credentials – I just point this out as a possibly widely held belief.
    From what you have previously said, I assume you fundamentally disagree.
    I’m now off to the Midlands for my niece’s wedding and will look out for any comments when I get back.

  12. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:


    I was considering information in, as it were, byte form as per Shannon – so how nature is at any moment isn’t information, but how I register it mentally, or communicate it, is. Similarly, your post, containing more or less measurable bytes of information, limits both what you might have said, and also alters the future, in the sense that I have to respond to what you said, rather than the infinite number of things you might have said.

    At the same time, I can choose a million ways to respond, including erasing your post or even you, were I some psychopath. So we both have freedom, which is limited by each other and by nature as well as, presumably, by God.

    But I agree that this freedom is outside nature – our posts are not governed by, though they conform to, physical and biological law. Sometimes I’m awed that one short blog post contains more significant information than the non-conscious Universe.

  13. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:


    I learned the same thing about that verse, only “choosing to forget” was contrasted with “not being able to remember” instead of “choosing not to mention.” I’ve even used the point in preaching.

    But I’d want to distinguish a verse with a clear pastoral application – our sin is gone as far as God is concerned, so we should rejoice and banish our fear – from a philosophical judgement on God’s nature and psychology. Do I really want to say that God has amnesia that I was a sinner, rather than that it’s so well dealt with that it is irrelevant?

    We must surely consider Hebrew idiom, too, before we press the meaning of a word too far. So in Judges 8, no sooner has Gideon died than the Israelites did not remember the Lord their God. Clearly we’re talking about spiritual, rather than acute neurological, failure here?

    The dangers of such literalism are obvious: In Jer 23.39 God says he will forget sinful Judah and cast them out – it would be foolish to say that if he’d forgotten them he couldn’t remember to cast them out! I’m certainly anxious about the competence of a God who doesn’t foresee sin in the future and creates a Universe in ignorance, and then forgets that it happened in the past. That surely would be the Teutonic god Alzheimer?

  14. Avatar photo GD says:

    “But I agree that this freedom is outside nature – our posts are not governed by, though they conform to, physical and biological law.”

    I suggest this freedom is ‘inside’ nature in that we are physical beings subject to laws of nature, but it is also ‘outside’ nature as we have shown. If we agree that all else is nature, than we have a starting point for discussing human beings as ‘in the world (or nature)’, but not of, or from the world, since we can to some extent, decide the world as it is, and as it will be, through our actions as free beings. It is here that materialists become frantic and want to designate freedom as ‘made up’ or an imaginary thing that has no basis in human beings.

    “I was considering information…. how I register it mentally, or communicate it,..”

    I prefer the ‘intelligibility’ of nature, or how we are ‘in the world’ through language and intellect. I am of the view that within faith, this is an aspect of existence that borders on mystery, since nature is accessible to our intellect, but I cannot see a scientific basis for this. We make sense of it primarily for our communal benefit (or otherwise). Although language and communication is part of the system of information, would this in itself impact in any way on nature? Just thinking and saying something about nature, in itself, seems to me to be without consequences. It is human activity that does, and separating such activity (or seeking different categories) is problematic, simply because we human beings act within nature, but can bring novelty and new things that nature could not.

    This way of thinking also allows us to understand ourselves as limited before God – I also think that someone who does not believe in God (atheist) would not seek a basis for freedom in this way (they cannot base their view on faith), while those who think it means both God is and Nature is free, may be forced to ‘make up, a god that can accommodate the conflicts that would result.

  15. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:


    I think we’re nibbling at the same thing in only slightly different ways here; though my tack at this stage was prompted by your remarks. We’ve got a bundle of concepts: intelligibility, reason, logos, information, communication – which we’re relating to the freedom of God and humans (and angels, I suppose) to affect the world in a unique way.

    To an animal the world just is what it is, and it responds accordingly. We, however, look at its “meaning” (in various senses of the word) by our God-given reason, which I would argue entails translating “isness” into “information”, which then leads to purposeful action. That, in turn, often entails imparting information through communication, design or whatever it may be.

    There’s a further sense in which our imposition of information on the world is actually only rediscovering the information that God put into it in creation. That’s why the “meaning” we infer has a grounding in reality – the Universe is indeed more than merely a brute fact.

    Looking at it that way arises from thinking of information as a fundamental of the Universe (and separate from its physical structure). Have you read any of Paul Davies’ stuff on this? Well worthwhile if not.

  16. Avatar photo penman says:

    There’s some provocative theologizing going on here, e.g. God literally forgetting our sins. That would mean He was no longer omniscient: in fact, that He had chosen to annihilate His omniscience. Kenotic theology taken to its limits? Which other divine attributes might God choose to destroy? Can this really be orthodox theology?

    Also I wonder how God can then judge His people on the last day: “We must all appear before before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one might receive the things done in the body, whether good or bad”, 2 Cor.5:10. Such judgment would be impossible if God no longer had any knowledge of our bad things. And Paul here is talking about believers – context!

    Strange how these things work out. Many Evolutionary Creationists find evolution acceptable theologically through a denial of God’s providence / sovereignty. (He can’t be blamed for the unpleasant bits.) It’s the other way round for me: my belief in God’s providence / sovereignty is what makes me comfortable with evolution. If our God is governing its processes, we can be sure that the universe is “on our side”, as in Rom.8:28.

    As for the unpleasant bits, that’s not a new problem. It was always there. It seems to me that scripture does not shrink from putting the unpleasant bits firmly within & under the sovereignty of God. “Who has made man’s mouth? Who makes him mute, or deaf, or seeing, or blind? Is it not I, the LORD?” Ex.4:11.

  17. Avatar photo GD says:


    I am less concerned with views such those of Davies, and instead am interesting in developing the notion of freedom, along with the Law of God, to provide a framework for understanding how human beings may consider divine revelation. We may all agree that our knowledge regarding God and salvation is revealed and not derived from science. The question remains however, how is it that as human beings we may have the capacity for revelation – since it is not forced or imposed by God in some way that removes freedom of a human being – thus revelation is within the freedom of a human being to respond to God. The intelligibility of nature is part of the ‘creation pointing to God’. Our ability to be within nature but also display a capacity for a freedom not found in the natural order, is relevant to these matters. We have the capacity to know all that is around us, and the additional capacity (imperfect and with difficulty) to consider knowledge of God and the sacred.

  18. Helpful, Penman, comparing Scripture with Scripture.
    I was reminded of the following at the wedding (comprised mostly of Christian believers) I’ve just returned from:
    God tested the Israelites in order to see what was in their hearts (Deut. 8.2).
    Implication: He didn’t know what was in their hearts.
    Perhaps there is another Scripture which says that He did know what was in their hearts, but it doesn’t spring to my mind at present.

  19. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    Hi Peter – weldome back. Hope it was a good wedding.

    Off the top of my head, try Deut 31.21, 27, 29 for the local situation. 1 Chr 28.9 for a straightforward and factual general statement – the last is propositional rather than narrative.

    I suppose that leaves us either viewing Deut 8.2 as some kind of figure of speech, or saying that under certain odd circumstances, there’s a blockage to God’s usual ability to read hearts … that one borders on the blasphemous, as well as the frivolous!

    Maybe partly it’s intended to convey a reflex to the Israelites’ testing of God’s word in the desert: “When your fathers tested me, proved me and saw my works…” “You were testing me to see if I meant what I said – so was I testing you.” Maybe there’s a sense of “testing” bringing the hidden into the open – not only did God know, but they knew he knew. Just as Jesus “learned obedience” not because he was ignorant of what it menat, but that by living it his character came into the open.

    Penman may well have more to add on that – and some more Scriptures.

  20. Avatar photo penman says:

    Peter & Jon

    There are passages in scripture that show God knowing the content of the heart. In fact this is generally used as a “proof” of Christ’s deity, since He knows the heart. A few such passages would be Matt.9:4, Mark 2:8, Jn.2:24-5, Jn.21:17.

    General passages about God & the heart – Ps.44:21, Ps.139:23, Prov.24:12, Jer.17:10, Lk.16:15, Acts 1:24, Acts 15:8.

    Sorry I can’t actually print out the verses!

    The Deut.8 passage, therefore, I would understand in the sense of bringing out into the open what was in their hearts: a practical testing, rather than a bare act of abstract omniscience. Then God would “know” in the experiential, empirical sense of the word (as often in scripture) what was in their hearts by “tasting the fruit” in the heart’s actual deeds. But we can’t ignore the other passages & interpret Deut.8 as a denial of God’s omniscience.

    Do I make sense here?

  21. It was helpful to look over those Scriptures, thanks.

    Perhaps, then, ‘to see what was in their hearts’ can mean ‘to demonstrate what was in their hearts’. A Hebrew scholar might be able to clarify this.

    I think those relating to Christ do not necessarily speak to omniscience in this area. There were things He did not know.

  22. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    Hi Peter

    Yes, Hebrew idiom is one possibility – but deliberate anthropomorphism for the sake of the narrative still needs to be remembered. Interestingly, the nearest I have to a Hebrew linguist is the Greek Septuagint (translated by Jews, of course), whose parallel English text reads: “…and that the things in thy heart might be made manifest, whether thou wouldst keep his commandments or no.”

    Regarding Jesus, I think we tread on Holy ground. On the one hand, the attempt to extend human fallibility to Jesus in principle on the grounds of Philippians 2 is simply poor exegesis (

    On the other the texts themselves show clear signs, as penman has shown, of unusual knowledge, not only in the authority of his teaching, but his knowledge of how to deal with turbulent nature, resistant demons and shifty humans. He knew that if he went up the mountain at a particular time he would meet Moses and Elijah and be transfigured. His enemies were amazed at his knowledge. And John 16.30, taken as literally as some people take the Deuteronomy passage, is telling.

    Yet he also gives responses suggesting limitation: “Who touched me?” “Who do men say that I am?” etc. In such cases he might have been speaking for the people’s sake – a conversation where he said “I know” to every statement would be offputting – or he may have suppressed knowledge or made some more general accommodation to living the human condition. In the end we don’t know – the only real danger, it seems to me, is assuming too much knowledge of his ignorance (!) and so changing his teaching in the light of “more complete modern knowledge.”

    And certainly the least orthodox conclusion of all is that he showed ignorance because that reflects his Father’s ignorance.

Leave a Reply