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Systematic Theology - Volume I
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§ 8. Knowledge.

A. Its Nature.

By knowledge is meant the intellectual apprehension of truth. It supposes a subject and object; an intelligent subject that apprehends, and something true that is apprehended.

So far as we are concerned, knowledge is either intuitive or discursive. Our senses give us immediate knowledge of their appropriate objects; the understanding perceives intuitively primary truths; our moral and æsthetic nature gives us the immediate cognition of things right or wrong, and beautiful or deformed. Most of our knowledge, however, is derived ab extra, by instruction, observation, comparison, deduction, etc. In all cases there is the distinction between the mind which perceives and the object which is perceived.

Such being the nature of knowledge, can there be knowledge in God? Can there be this distinction between subject and object in an absolute and infinite Being? Not only are the wicked and the worldly disposed to think that God cannot know; that either He is too exalted to take cognizance of earthly things; or that it is impossible even for an infinite mind to embrace the universe and all its perpetual changes in his mental vision; but the possibility of knowledge, in the ordinary and proper sense of the word, is expressly denied to God by a large class of philosophers, and virtually even by many theologians of the highest rank in the history of the Church.

The Pantheistic Theory precludes the possibility of Knowledge of God

1. As, according to the pantheistic theory, the universe is the existence form of God, as the infinite comes to intelligent consciousness and life only in the finite, there is and can be no knowledge in the infinite as distinguished from the finite. God lives only so far as finite beings live; he thinks and knows only so far as they think and know. Omniscience is only the sum or aggregate of the intelligence of the transient forms of finite beings. All this, as even Hamilton and Mansel admit, necessarily flows from the idea of an absolute Being which precludes the possibility of any such conditions or relations as are involved in consciousness or intelligence. Strauss therefore says:414414Dogmatik, i. p. 575. “Not in Himself, but in finite intelligences is God omniscient, which together constitute the fulness or completeness of all the possible forms or degrees of knowledge.” And Spinoza says:415415Ethices, I. xvii. Scholium, edit. Jena, 1803, vol. ii. p. 53.Intellectus et voluntas, qui Dei essentiam constituerent, a nostro intellectu et voluntate toto cœlo differe deberent, nec in ulla re, præterquam in nomine, convenire possent; non aliter scilicet, quam inter se conveniunt canis, signum cœleste, et canis, animal latrans.” This subject was considered in the chapter on Pantheism.

Knowledge and Power not to be confounded.

2. The possibility of knowledge in God is virtually denied by those who deny any distinction between knowledge and power. Knowledge, which is power, ceases to be knowledge; and therefore if omniscience is only a different name for omnipotence, it ceases to be a distinct attribute of God. It makes little difference whether we expressly deny a given perfection to God, or whether we so determine it as to make it mean nothing distinctive. It is deeply to be regretted that not only the Fathers, but also the Lutheran and Reformed theologians, after renouncing the authority of the schoolmen, almost immediately yielded themselves to their speculations. Instead of determining the nature of the divine attributes from the representations of Scripture and from the constitution of man as the image of God, and from the necessities of our moral and religious nature, they allowed themselves to be controlled by à priori speculations as to the nature of the infinite and absolute. Even Augustine, as before stated, says: “Nos ista, quæ fecisti videmus, quia sunt: tu autem quia vides ea, sunt.416416Confessiones, XIII. xxxviii. 53, edit. Benedictines, vol. i, p. 410, b. And Scotus Erigena says,417417De Divisione Naturæ, III, 17, p. 235.Voluntas illius et visio et essentia anum est.418418Ibid. 29, p. 264. . . . . “Visio Dei totius universitatis est conditio. Non enim aliud est ei videre, aliud facere; sed visio illius voluntas ejus est, et voluntas operatio.” Thomas Aquinas also says,419419Summa, I. xiv. i, edit. Cologne, 1640, p. 36.Deus per intellectum suum causat res, cum suum esse sit suum intelligere. Unde necesse est, quod sua scientia sit causa rerum.

The Lutheran and Reformed theologians represent God as simplicissima simplicitas, admitting of no distinction between faculty and act, or between one attribute and another. Thus Gerhard says: “Deus est ipsum esse subsistens, omnibus modis indeterminatum.420420Tom. i. loc. iii. cap. vi. § 43, p. 106, edit. Tübingen, 1762.Solus Deus summe simplex est, ut nec actus et potentiæ, nec esse et essentiæ compositio ipsi competat.421421Ibid. cap. x. § 80, p. 119. “Essentia, bonitas, potentia, sapientia, justitia, et reliqua attributa omnia sunt in Deo realiter unum.”422422Ibid. chap. vii. § 47, p. 108. He also says: “In Deo idem est esse et intelligere et velle.” In like manner the Reformed theologian Heidegger423423Corpus Theologiæ Christiane Tiguri, 1732. says: “Voluntas ab intellectu non differt, quia intelligendo vult et volendo intelligit. Intelligere et velle ejus idemque perpetuus indivisus actus.” This does not mean simply that in an intelligent being, every act of the will is an intelligent act. He knows while he wills, and knows what he wills. The meaning is, that knowledge and power in God are identical. To know a thing is, and to will it, are the same undivided and perpetual act. From this it would seem to follow, that as God knows from eternity He creates from eternity; and that “all He knows, is.” We are thus led, by these speculations, into pantheistical views of the nature of God and of his relation to the world.

This mode of representation is carried still further by the modern philosophical theologians. With Schleiermacher, all the attributes of God are virtually merged into the idea of causality. With him God is ens summum prima causa.424424Christliche Glabue, i. § 55. Werke, edit. Berlin, 1842, vol. iii. p. 295.He says that God’s thinking and willing are the same, and that his omnipotence and omniscience are identical. When we say that He is omnipotent, we only mean that He is the cause of all that is. And when we say that He is omniscient, we only mean that He is an intelligent cause. His power and knowledge are limited to the actual. The possible is nothing; it is the object neither of knowledge nor of power. “Gott,” says Schleiermacher, “weiss Alles was ist; und Alles ist, was Gott weiss und dieses beides ist nicht zweierlei sondern einerlei, weil sein Wissen und sein allmächtiges Wollen eines und dasselbe ist,” i.e., God knows all that is, and all is that God knows. God, therefore, is limited to the world, which is the phenomenon of which He is the substance.

Another philosophical view of this subject, adopted even by those who repudiate the pantheistic system and maintain that God and the world are distinct, is, that as God is immanent in the world, there is in Him no difference between self-consciousness and world-consciousness, as they express it, i.e., between God’s knowledge of Himself and his knowledge of the world. They therefore define omniscience by saying, “Insofern Gott gedacht wird als die Welt mit seinem Bewusstseyn umfassend, nennen wir ihn den Allwissenden.425425Bruch, Die Lehre von den göttlichen Eigenschaften, p. 162. That is, “So far as we conceive of God as embracing the world in his consciousness, we call him omniscient.” Whatever such language may mean to those who use it, to the ordinary mind it conveys the revolting idea that all the sins of men enter into the consciousness of God.

The Doctrine of the Scriptures on this Subject.

The Scriptural view of this subject, which distinguishes the attributes in God as distinct, and assumes that knowledge in Him, in its essential nature, is what knowledge is in us, does not conflict with the unity and simplicity of God as a spiritual being. There is a sense in which knowledge and power, intellect and will, may be said to be identical in man. They are not different substances. They are different modes in which the life or activity of the soul manifests itself. So in God when we conceive of Him as a spirit, we do not think of Him as a compound being, but as manifesting his infinite life and activity, in knowing, willing, and doing. What, therefore, we must hold fast to, if we would hold fast to God, is, that knowledge in God is knowledge, and not power or eternity; that it is what knowledge is in us, not indeed in its modes and objects, but in its essential nature. We must remove from our conceptions of the divine attributes all the limitations and imperfections which belong to the corresponding attributes in us; but we are not to destroy their nature. And in determining what is, and what is not, consistent with the nature of God as an infinitely perfect being, we are to be controlled by the teachings of the Scriptures, and by the necessities (or laws) of our moral and religions nature, and not by our speculative notions of the Infinite and Absolute. God, therefore, does and can know in the ordinary and proper sense of that word. He is an ever present eye, to which all things are perfectly revealed. “All things,” says the Apostle, “are naked and opened unto the eyes of Him with whom we have to do.” (Heb. iv. 13.) “The darkness and the light are both alike” to Him. (Ps. cxxxix. 12.) “He that planted the ear, shall he not hear? He that formed the eye, shall he not see?” (Ps. xciv. 9.) “O Lord thou hast searched me, and known me. Thou knowest my down-sitting and my up-rising, thou understandest my thought afar off.” (Ps. cxxxix. 1, 2.) “The eyes of the Lord are in every place, beholding the evil and the good” (Prov. xv. 3.) “Hell and destruction are before the Lord: how much more then the hearts of the children of men?” (Prov. xv. 11.) “Great is our Lord and of great power: his understanding is infinite.” (Ps. cxlvii. 5.) “O house of Israel I know the things that come into your mind, every one of them.” (Ezek. xi. 5.) “Known unto God are all his works from the beginning of the world.” (Acts. xv. 18.) “The very hairs of your head are all numbered.” (Matt. x. 30.)

This knowledge of God is not only all-comprehending, but it is intuitive and immutable. He knows all things as they are, being as being, phenomena as phenomena, the possible as possible, the actual as actual, the necessary as necessary, the free as free, the past as past, the present as present, the future as future. Although all things are ever present in his view, yet He sees them as successive in time. The vast procession of events, thoughts, feelings, and acts, stands open to his view.

This infinite knowledge of God is not only clearly and constantly asserted in Scripture, but is also obviously included in the idea of an absolutely perfect being. Such a being cannot be ignorant of anything; his knowledge can neither be increased nor diminished. The omniscience of God follows also from his omnipresence. As God fills heaven and earth, all things are transacted in his presence. He knows our thoughts far better than they are known to ourselves. This plenitude of divine knowledge is taken for granted in all acts of worship. We pray to a God who, we believe, knows our state and wants, who hears what we say, and who is able to meet all our necessities. Unless God were thus omniscient, He could not judge the world in righteousness. Faith in this attribute in its integrity is, therefore, essential even to natural religion.

B. The Objects of Divine Knowledge.

Various distinctions are made by theologians as to the objects of the divine knowledge.

1. God is said to know Himself and all things out of Himself. This is the foundation of the distinction between the scientia necessaria and the scientia libera. God knows Himself by the necessity of his nature; but as everything out of Himself depends for its existence or occurrence upon his will, his knowledge of each thing as an actual occurrence is suspended on his will, and in that sense is free. Creation not being necessary, it depended on the will of God whether the universe as an object of knowledge should exist or not. This distinction is not of much importance. And it is liable to the objection that it makes the knowledge of God dependent. Being the cause of all things, God knows everything by knowing Himself; all things possible, by the knowledge of his power, and all things actual, by the knowledge of his own purposes.

2. This distinction between the possible and actual, is the foundation of the distinction between the knowledge of simple intelligence and the knowledge of vision. The former is founded on God’s power, and the latter upon his will. This only means that, in virtue of his omniscient intelligence, He knows whatever infinite power can effect; and that from the consciousness of his own purposes, He knows what He has determined to effect or to permit to occur. This is a distinction which the modern philosophical theologians ignore. Nothing, according to their philosophy is possible, but the actual. All that can be, either is, or is to be. This follows from the idea of God as mere cause. He produces all that can be; and there is in Him no causality for what does not exist.

The Actual and the Possible.

It seems to be an inconsistency in those orthodox theologians who deny the distinction in God between knowledge and power, to admit, as they all do, the distinction between the actual and possible. For if God creates by thinking or knowing, if in Him, as they say, intelligere et facere idem est, then all he knows must be, and must be as soon as He knows or thinks it, i.e., from eternity. If, however, we retain the Scriptural idea of God as a spirit, who can do more than He does; if we ascribe to Him what we know to be a perfection in ourselves, namely, that our power exceeds our acts, that a faculty and the exercise of that faculty are not identical, then we can understand how God can know the possible as well as the actual. God is not limited to the universe, which of necessity is finite. God has not exhausted Himself in determining to cause the present order of things to be.

C. Scientia Media.

Intermediate between things possible and actual, some theologians assume a third class of events, namely, the conditionally future. They do not actually occur, but they would occur provided something else should occur. Had Christ come a thousand years sooner than the date of his actual advent, the whole history of the world would have been different. This is a popular mode of regarding the concatenation of events. It is constantly said, that if Cromwell had been permitted to leave England; or, if Napoleon had failed to escape from Elba, the state of Europe would have been very different from what it is at present. God, it is assumed, knows what would have been the sequence of events on any or every possible hypothesis. It is therefore said that there must be in God, besides the knowledge of simple intelligence by which He knows the possible, and the knowledge of vision by which He knows the actual, a scientia media, by which He knows the conditionally future. Illustrations of this form of knowledge, it is thought, are found in Scripture. In 1 Samuel xxiii. 11, it is said that David inquired of the Lord whether the men of Keilah would deliver him, should he remain among them, into the hands of Saul; and was answered that they would. Here, it is argued, the event was not merely possible, but conditionally certain. If David remained in Keilah, he certainly would have been delivered up. Thus our Lord said, that if his mighty works had been done in Tyre and Sidon, the people of those cities would have repented. Here again is declared what would have happened, if something else had happened.

The Origin of this Distinction.

This distinction was introduced into theology by the Jesuit theologians Fonseca and Molina; by the latter in his work “De Concordia Providentiæ et Gratiæ Divinæ cum Libero Arbitrio Hominis.” Their object was to reconcile the foreordination of God with the freedom of man, and to explain the reason why some, and not others, were elected to eternal life. God foresaw who would repent and believe, if they received the knowledge of the Gospel and the gift of the Spirit, and these He elected to salvation. This theory of a scientia media was, for a like purpose, adopted by the Lutheran and Remonstrant theologians, but was strenuously opposed by the Reformed or Augustinians. (1.) Because all events are included under the categories of the actual and possible; and, therefore, there is no room for such a class as events conditionally future. It is only possible, and not certain, how men would act under certain conditions, if their conduct be not predetermined, either by the purpose of God, or by their own decision already formed. Besides, it is the fundamental principle of the theologians who adopt this theory, or at least of many of them, that a free act must from its nature be uncertain as to its occurrence. A free agent, it is said, can always act contrary to any amount of influence brought to bear upon him, consistent with his free agency. But if free acts must be uncertain, they cannot be foreseen as certain under any conditions. (2.) The futurition of events, according to the Scriptures, depends on the foreordination of God, who foreordains whatever comes to pass. There is no certainty, therefore, which does not depend on the divine purpose. (3.) The kind of knowledge which this theory supposes cannot belong to God, because it is inferential. It is deduced from a consideration of second causes and their influence, and therefore is inconsistent with the perfection of God, whose knowledge is not discursive, but independent and intuitive. (4.) This theory is inconsistent with the Scriptural doctrine of God’s providential government, as it assumes that the free acts of men are not under his control. (5.) It is contrary to the Scriptural doctrine, inasmuch as it supposes that election to salvation depends on the foresight of faith and repentance, whereas it depends on the good pleasure of God. (6.) The examples quoted from the Bible do not prove that there is a scientia media in God. The answer of God to David, about the men of Keilah, was simply a revelation of the purpose which they had already formed. Our Lord’s declaration concerning Tyre and Sidon was only a figurative mode of stating the fact that the men of his generation were more hardened than the inhabitants of those ancient cities. It is not denied that God knows all events in all possible combinations and connections, but as nothing is certain but what he ordains to effect or permit, there can be no class of events conditionally future, and therefore there can be no scientia media. By conditionally future is meant what is suspended on a condition undetermined by God.

D. Foreknowledge.

Among the objects of the divine knowledge are the free acts of men. The Scriptures abundantly teach that such acts are foreknown. Such knowledge is involved in the prediction of events which either concern the free acts of men, or are dependent on them. If God be ignorant of how free agents will act, his knowledge must be limited, and it must be constantly increasing, which is altogether inconsistent with the true idea of his nature. His government of the world also, in that case, must be precarious, dependent, as it would then be on the unforeseen conduct of men. The Church, therefore, in obedience to the Scriptures, has, almost with one voice, professed faith in God’s foreknowledge of the free acts of his creatures.

The Socinians, however, and some of the Remonstrants, unable to reconcile this foreknowledge with human liberty, deny that free acts can be foreknown. As the omnipotence of God is his ability to do whatever is possible, so his omniscience is his knowledge of everything knowable. But as free acts are in their nature uncertain, as they may or may not be, they cannot be known before they occur. Such is the argument of Socinus. This whole difficulty arises out of the assumption that contingency is essential to free agency. If an act may be certain as to its occurrence, and yet free as to the mode of its occurrence, the difficulty vanishes. That free acts may be absolutely certain, is plain, because they have in a multitude of cases been predicted. It was certain that the acts of Christ would be holy, yet they were free. The continued holiness of the saints in heaven is certain, and yet they are perfectly free. The foreknowledge of God is inconsistent with a false theory of free agency, but not with the true doctrine on that subject.

After Augustine, the common way of meeting the difficulty of reconciling foreknowledge with liberty, was to represent it as merely subjective. The distinction between knowledge and foreknowledge is only in us. There is no such difference in God. “Quid est præscientia,” asks Augustine, “nisi scientia futurorum? Quid autem futurum est Deo, qui omnia supergreditur tempora? Si enim scientia Dei res ipsas habet, non sunt ei futuræ, sed præsentes, ac per hoc non jam præscientia, sed tantum scientia dicipotest.”426426De Diversis Quæstionibus ad Simplicianum, II. ii. 2, edit. Benedictines, vol. vi. p. 195, a. Compare also what he says on this subject, De Civitate Dei, XI. xxi.: Ibid. vol. vii. p. 461.

E. The Wisdom of God.

Wisdom and knowledge are intimately related. The former is manifested in the selection of proper ends, and of proper means for the accomplishment of those ends. As there is abundant evidence of design in the works of nature, so all the works of God declare his wisdom. They show, from the most minute to the greatest, the most wonderful adaptation of means to accomplish the high end of the good of his creatures and the manifestation of his own glory. So also, in the whole course of history, we see evidence of the controlling power of God making all things work together for the best interests of his people, and the promotion of his kingdom upon earth. It is, however, in the work of redemption that this divine attribute is specially revealed. It is by the Church, that God has determined to manifest, through all ages, to principalities and powers, his manifold wisdom.

Of course those who deny final causes deny that there is any such attribute as wisdom in God. It is also said that the use of means to attain an end is a manifestation of weakness. It is further urged that it is derogatory to God, as it supposes that He needs or desires what He does not possess. Even Schleiermacher says: “Bei Gott ist Allwissenheit und Weisheit so gänzlich einerlei, dass die Unterscheidung keinen Werth hat, die Weisheit wäre nichts als auch wider absolute Lebendigkeit der Allmacht, also Alwissenheit.” Wisdom is omniscience, omniscience is omnipotence, omnipotence is simply causality of all that is. Thus God sinks into the mere cause or ground of all things. It is not thus the Scriptures speak. We are called on to worship, “The only wise God.” “O Lord, how manifold are thy works! in wisdom hast Thou made them all,” is the devout exclamation of the Psalmist. (Ps. civ. 24.) And in contemplation of the work of redemption the Apostle exclaims, “O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God!” (Rom. xi. 33.)


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