What is God like? What does he know? What does he control? Where is he? What is his relationship to time? Those are the kinds of questions we began looking at in the last episode of Thinking Theology. We began looking at what are often called the attributes of God. We looked at some of the non-moral attributes: God’s self-existence, his eternity, omnipresence, omnipotence and sovereignty. In this episode we’re thinking about some of God’s other non-moral attributes: his omniscience, wisdom, immutability, infinity, unity and simplicity.
(the following transcript may contain errors)
What is God like? What does he know? What does he control? Where is he? What is his relationship to time?
Those are the kinds of questions we began looking at in the last episode of Thinking Theology.
In the last episode we began looking at what are often called the attributes of God. We looked at some of the non-moral attributes: God’s self-existence, his eternity, omnipresence, omnipotence and sovereignty.
In this episode we’re thinking about some of God’s other non-moral attributes: his omniscience, wisdom, immutability, infinity, unity and simplicity.
Hi. My name is Karl Deenick. I’m a pastor, theologian, writer, and Bible college lecturer. Welcome to Thinking Theology, a podcast where we think about theology, the Bible and the Christian life, not just for the sake of it, but so we can love God more, with all our heart, soul, mind and strength.
The first attribute we’re looking at is omniscience. Or to say it how it’s spelt: omni-science.
Omniscience refers to God’s knowledge of everything.
So Psalm 147:4–5 says,
He determines the number of the stars and calls them each by name. Great is our Lord and mighty in power; his understanding has no limit. (Psalm 147:4–5 NIV)
Or Psalm 50:11
I know every bird in the mountains, and the insects in the fields are mine. (Psalm 50:11 NIV)
Hebrews 4:13 says,
Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account. (Hebrews 4:13 NIV)
Or Job 28:23–24,
God understands the way to [wisdom] and he alone knows where it dwells, for he views the ends of the earth and sees everything under the heavens. (Job 28:23–24 NIV)
So God knows all that goes on in the world. But God not only knows all that happens, he also knows what lies in our hearts and minds even before we do. So, David says in Psalm 139,
You have searched me, Lord, and you know me. You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar. You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways. Before a word is on my tongue you, Lord, know it completely. (Psalm 139:1–6 NIV)
And yet, there are a few passages in the Bible that suggest that maybe God doesn’t know everything.
For example, in Genesis 18:20, God says,
The outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is so great and their sin so grievous that I will go down and see if what they have done is as bad as the outcry that has reached me. (Genesis 18:20–21 NIV)
But why does God need to go down to Sodom? Doesn’t he already know what’s going on there?
Or in Genesis 22, after Abraham shows himself willing to sacrifice Isaac, God says to Abraham,
Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son. (Genesis 22:12 NIV)
But didn’t God already know what was in Abraham’s heart?
The same occurs in Deuteronomy 8 when God says of the people of Israel in the wilderness, that,
the Lord your God led you all the way in the wilderness these forty years, to humble and test you in order to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commands. (Deuteronomy 8:2 NIV)
Or in the very same Psalm where David exalts God’s knowledge of him, he also invites God to,
Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. (Psalm 139:23 NIV)
The solution to those is quite straightforward. In each case, the issue is what God already knows being shown to be true.
God knows what is going on in Sodom and Gomorrah, but he goes to see in order that he might be seen to be completely just. He knows what is in Abraham’s heart and the heart of the people of Israel, but he tests them in order to bring to light what he already knows.
So, too, in Psalm 139, it is because God knows what is in him, that David calls on God to know him. David is simply asking God to do what he knows God does.
But God not only knows what’s going on at this very moment and everything that has gone on in the past and everything that is inside of us. The Bible also tells us that God knows everything that will happen.
For example, in 1 Samuel 23:11, David asks God,
Will the citizens of Keilah surrender me to him? Will Saul come down, as your servant has heard? Lord, God of Israel, tell your servant.” And the Lord said, “He will.” Again David asked, “Will the citizens of Keilah surrender me and my men to Saul?” And the Lord said, “They will.” (1 Samuel 23:11–12 NIV)
Clearly God knows what will happen.
Or in Jeremiah 1:5, God says,
“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.” (Jeremiah 1:5 NIV)
God knew Jeremiah before his birth. That knowledge is not simply “knowing about” but “knowing”. God knows people in a relational sense. A like when I say that I know my friend, I don’t simply mean that I know about him or that he exists, I actually know him in a deeper relational sense. So, too, the Bible says, God knows his people. He even, foreknows them, that is knows them relationally before we are born.
Finally, there’s also reason to believe that God possesses what is sometimes called “Middle knowledge”. That is, God knows what would have happened in particular situations that never occurred.
For example, he knows what would have happened if you have got up 10 minutes later today instead of the time you did get up. Or he knows what would have happened if you said the thing you were thinking but decided not to say.
There are a couple of passages that highlight God’s middle knowledge. For example, Jesus says in Matthew 11:21,
“Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes.”
For if the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Sodom, it would have remained to this day. (Matthew 11:21–23 NIV)
Or there’s a little episode in Jeremiah in Jeremiah 38 where God says through Jeremiah to the king, if you surrender then this will happen, but if you don’t surrender then that will happen.
Related to omniscience is wisdom. Although quite similar, the two, however, are distinct. While omniscience focusses on knowing all the facts, wisdom focusses on understanding. Not only does God know all that is going on in the world all the time, he always chooses the best and the wisest path and he always knows what the best and the wisest path is.
So Job says in Job 12:13,
“To God belong wisdom and power; counsel and understanding are his. (Job 12:13 NIV)
Just as power belongs to God—absolute power. So too does wisdom, counsel and understanding.
In fact, God is not simply wise, but he is the very source of wisdom. Proverbs 2:6 says,
For the Lord gives wisdom; from his mouth come knowledge and understanding. (Proverbs 2:6 NIV)
That is, all wisdom that exists comes from God. Thus all wisdom is found completely in God.
Back in Job 12, he continues,
To [God] belong strength and insight; both deceived and deceiver are his. He leads rulers away stripped and makes fools of judges.… He silences the lips of trusted advisers and takes away the discernment of elders. He pours contempt on nobles and disarms the mighty. He reveals the deep things of darkness and brings utter darkness into the light.… He deprives the leaders of the earth of their reason; he makes them wander in a trackless waste. They grope in darkness with no light; he makes them stagger like drunkards. (Job 12:16–25 NIV)
In other words, not only is God wise but his wisdom makes the wisdom of the wisest people on earth foolish. He gives wisdom and he takes it away.
But then Isaiah 28:29 tell us that God’s,
plan is wonderful, [and his] wisdom is magnificent. (Isaiah 28:29 NIV)
That is, God’s wisdom is not only complete and total but beautiful.
We see a glimpse of that again in Romans 11 when Paul’s reflections on the wisdom of God’s plan of salvation lead him to worship,
Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out! “Who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counselor?” (Romans 11:33–34 NIV)
Another attribute of God is his immutability or his unchangeability.
Numerous times God affirms that as one of his essential characteristics.
So Psalm 102:26 says,
They will perish, but you remain; they will all wear out like a garment. Like clothing you will change them and they will be discarded. But you remain the same, and your years will never end. (Psalm 102:26–27 NIV)
Or Micah 3:6 says,
“I the Lord do not change. So you, the descendants of Jacob, are not destroyed. (Malachi 3:6 NIV)
Or James 1:17,
Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows. (James 1:17 NIV)
So, too, God’s self-revelation as “I am” implies that he is unchanging. He is today who he was yesterday and will be tomorrow who he is today.
Which is what the writer of Hebrews says in 13:8,
Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever. (Hebrews 13:8 NIV)
You and I change from day to day. Our character changes and we change physically, we get weaker or stronger. One day we’re more tired than another day. The same is not true of God. He is constant in his character. He is also constant in his very nature. He is always all-powerful. He is always all-knowing. That means we can always rely on him.
But God is not only unchanging in his nature, he is also unchanging in his purposes and plans.
So Numbers 23:19 says,
God is not human, that he should lie, not a human being, that he should change his mind. Does he speak and then not act? Does he promise and not fulfill? (Numbers 23:19 NIV)
Hebrews 6:17 says,
Because God wanted to make the unchanging nature of his purpose very clear to the heirs of what was promised, he confirmed it with an oath. (Hebrews 6:17 NIV)
2 Corinthians 1:20
For no matter how many promises God has made, they are “Yes” in Christ. And so through him the “Amen” is spoken by us to the glory of God. (2 Corinthians 1:20 NIV)
God’s nature, character and plans and purposes do not change. And yet there are a number of places in the Bible that suggest that God does change in some way.
For example, after the episode with the Israelites making the golden calf in the desert, we’re told in Exodus 32:14,
Then the Lord relented and did not bring on his people the disaster he had threatened. (Exodus 32:14 NIV)
Or literally, the Lord changed his mind.
So, too, in Judges 2:18 it says,
Whenever the Lord raised up a judge for them, he was with the judge and saved them out of the hands of their enemies as long as the judge lived; for the Lord relented because of their groaning under those who oppressed and afflicted them. (Judges 2:18 NIV)
Or Jonah 3:10,
When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he relented and did not bring on them the destruction he had threatened. (Jonah 3:10 NIV)
In fact, Joel 2 tells us that God changing his mind and relenting is part of his very character:
Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love, and he relents from sending calamity. Who knows? He may turn and relent and leave behind a blessing— grain offerings and drink offerings for the Lord your God. (Joel 2:13–14 NIV)
Perhaps the strangest example, however, is 1 Samuel 15 where God says that he regrets making Saul king, and then only a few verses later Samuel says that God is not a God who changes his mind or regrets.
A few things can be said. The first is that God genuinely responds to his creatures. He is grieved by the things we do. He punishes us for our rejection of him. He responds with grace to repentance.
In the history of the church, a view arose out of an overly strong definition of God’s unchangeability that said that God was also impassible, or without passions. It held that God did not really have emotions and did not really respond to his creatures in any meaningful sense.
But the Bible clearly portrays God as responding and reacting in meaningful ways.
Our actions can grieve God, he sympathises with our weakness and so on.
And yet, he does that in such a way that neither his nature, character nor his plans and purposes are changed.
When God relents from sending judgement on Nineveh, it is because they have repented. We know from other places in the Bible that God’s threat of judgement is conditional. He is willing to relent if people return to him.
So Jeremiah 18 says,
“Like clay in the hand of the potter, so are you in my hand, Israel. If at any time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be uprooted, torn down and destroyed, and if that nation I warned repents of its evil, then I will relent and not inflict on it the disaster I had planned. And if at another time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be built up and planted, and if it does evil in my sight and does not obey me, then I will reconsider the good I had intended to do for it. (Jeremiah 18:6–10 NIV)
God is willing to relent if people return to him in repentance and faith. That is actually in accord with his plan and purpose and, as we saw in Joel 2, perfectly in line with his unchanging character.
So, too, pushing into the passage in 1 Sam 15, God is rightly grieved that he made Saul king. But that is not to say that God is not still achieving his purposes. Everything still happened exactly as God had planned. We know that Saul was never the king that God intended to be the ultimate king, because he was from the tribe of Benjamin and not Judah. So too, Saul represented the king that the people wanted. That is, God gave the people what they wanted. But in his plan, God had purposed another king, David, whose descendant Jesus would sit on God’s throne forever.
The next attribute of God is his infinity.
Infinity can be understood in several ways.
As John Frame points out, Greek philosophy understood infinity in two ways. Either the absence of limitations, or positively, “existing so far beyond reality that it cannot be named”.
Frame describes both those ideas as “the non-Christian view of transcendence”.
Defining and understanding infinity as the complete absence of limitations is problematic because God is limited in some senses. God cannot sin. God cannot create another God. Both those would violate his own character. God cannot make himself cease to exist.
So, too, God’s love is not infinite in every sense. God loves some and not others. He loved Jacob and not Esau. He loves his people in a saving way, but those he does not save he loves in a way that doesn’t lead to their salvation.
But far from those things being inadequacies in God, they are part of his perfection.
Thus, Frame says we should understand God’s infinity in either or both of the following ways:
1. God is free from the limitations inherent in creaturely existence, and
2. “God’s attributes are supremely perfect, without any flaw”.
Not only is God’s power complete, it is perfect power, exercised perfectly in every way.
But moving beyond those basic ideas is surprisingly tricky.
As we’ve seen, we need to ask what it means for God’s power to be perfect? Or what it means for God’s love to be perfect.
The idea of God’s infinity opens up to us one of the dangers of theology done poorly. By simply saying that God is infinite we open the possibility of philosophical speculation on the basis of nothing else than our imagination. We begin to imagine what it might mean that God is infinite, and our speculations become untethered from the Bible.
Fundamentally, the only way we can know what it might mean that God is infinite is by understanding the ways that he describes himself to be. How does God describe his power? What limits does he place on it himself? What limits does he place on his love? And so on.
Of course, there is a sense in which God’s infinity means he is beyond our knowing. So Job says,
“Can you fathom the mysteries of God? Can you probe the limits of the Almighty? They are higher than the heavens above—what can you do? They are deeper than the depths below—what can you know? Their measure is longer than the earth and wider than the sea. (Job 11:7–9 NIV)
And Psalm 145 says,
Great is the Lord and most worthy of praise; his greatness no one can fathom. (Psalm 145:3 NIV)
But to say that we can’t understand everything about God is not to say that we can’t understand anything about God. God has revealed things about himself in the Scriptures so that we can know him, even if he hasn’t explained everything. And the limited knowledge that he reveals to us is still true knowledge.
So undoubtedly there will be some ways in which God’s infinity exists that we simply don’t know or can’t know for certain. But there are many ways that the Bible describes and we do well to list those, understand those, and leave the rest unknown. If God felt we needed to know, he would have told us.
Unity and simplicity
Finally, there is the unity of God.
The unity of God really just refers to the idea that God is one. There’s only one of him.
We saw a couple of episodes ago that God is the only God.
So God says in Isaiah 45:18,
“I am the Lord, and there is no other. (Isaiah 45:18 NIV)
That idea lies at the heart of the first of the Ten Commandments, too:
“You shall have no other gods before me.” (Exodus 20:3 NIV)
Or better: “You shall have no other gods apart from me.”
Perhaps the most famous expression of the unity of God is in Deut 6,
Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. (Deuteronomy 6:4 NIV)
That idea is repeated in the New Testament. So Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 8,
We know that “An idol is nothing at all in the world” and that “There is no God but one.” For even if there are so-called gods, whether in heaven or on earth (as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords”), yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live. (1 Corinthians 8:4–6 NIV)
Although people have made up all kinds of idols and gods, Paul says, there’s actually only one real God. And yet, that God is in some way complex—he is both Father and Son, Jesus Christ. We’ll dig into that more when we come to the trinity in a few episodes time.
So, too, Jesus reaffirms that unity of God, and he uses it as the ground that we love God with all our being. Jesus says in Mark 12 that the most important command is
‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ (Mark 12:28–33 NIV)
The reason we can love God with all of our being is that there is only one of him. Our love is not divided among many gods but is focussed on one God.
Often alongside the biblical idea of God’s unity, is set the idea of what is called God’s simplicity.
That idea holds that God is free from any division into parts. At a surface level, that seems a fair enough. For example, the Father, Son and Spirit are not parts of God. God is not like human beings in which we can distinguish a body and a spirit, and our spirit can exist apart from our body.
Nevertheless, in theology, simplicity tends to move beyond that rather reasonable assertion to something more philosophically complex. Simplicity also holds that it is impossible to distinguish between God’s essence and his attributes. God simply is justice. God simply is love. Moreover, it is impossible to distinguish between those attributes.
Strange as it may seem, the reason for holding that view is those theologians are concerned not to make God dependent on something external to him. If love is a characteristic of God, then God is dependent on some idea that is outside himself. Or so they argue.
That might all seem a bit weird. And to be honest, I think it is. It is the perfect example of what I called way back in season 1, episode 1, philosophy rather than theology.
Philosophy asks “What do I make of the world that I see? How do I think it works?” And, indeed, how do I make sense of God from my own imagination?”
While theology asks, “What does God say about the world that I see? How does God say that it works?” Or to be more specific, “What does the Bible say about the world that I see? What does the God say about himself in the Bible?”
The problem is there just isn’t any explicit biblical support for the more complex philosophical idea of God’s simplicity.
There is some support. For example, the theologian Herman Bavinck says that there’s evidence in the fact that God is described by various adjectives—God is loving, gracious, king—but also by the fact that he’s described using nouns—God is love, God is justice.
This becomes clear when one considers the fact that Scripture in giving us a description of the fulness of God’s being uses not only adjectives but also nouns: it tells us not only that God is faithful, righteous, living, omniscient, loving, wise, etc., but also that he is the truth, righteousness, life, light, love, wisdom, etc., Jer. 10:10; 23:6; John 1:4, 5, 9; 14:6; 1 Cor. 1:30; 1 John 1:5; 4:8; and that every attribute is identical with God’s being by reason of the fact that every one of his virtues is absolutely perfect.
But it needs to be asked whether those verses that say God is love are really intending to say that is what God actually is in his essence and being.
Instead, to say God is love is to say that love is completely summed up by God. God is the source of love. He is the perfect definition and expression of love.
Divine simplicity is the perfect example of coming up with a complicated philosophical idea to protect a whole lot of other ideas, when we’d probably just be better off saying what we mean. That is, ideas like love, justice, righteousness and so on are not ideas external to God, rather they are intrinsic to God. He is their definition and perfect expression and source. And they are not parts of him that he can switch on and off but they are the very fabric of who God is.
God is all-knowing. He’s all-wise. He does not change. He is infinite and perfect. He is one God.
Again, it’s important that we realise that these attributes of God are not just interesting things to know, they help us to relate God.
For example, God’s omniscience gives us great confidence. After all, as John Feinberg points out, a God who was all-powerful but didn’t know everything that was going on, as well as everything that was going to happen, would be a terrifying idea. He could intervene in the world in really disastrous ways.
So too, his omniscience means that we can absolutely trust him to know what is best for us. And we can trust him that he always knows, not only what we tell him but also what we don’t. He knows how we feel. He knows it even better than we know it ourselves.
That’s it for this episode of Thinking Theology.
Join me next time as we think about the character of God. That is, what is he like to relate to?
Please join me then.
 John S. Feinberg, No One Like Him: The Doctrine of God, Foundations of Evangelical Theology (Wheaton: Crossway, 2001), 302.
 Other examples can be found in Ps 106:45; Jer 26:19.
 John M. Frame, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Christian Belief (Phillipsburg: P&R, 2013), 360.
 Quoted in Feinberg, No One Like Him, 328.
 Feinberg, No One Like Him, 299.