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Monday, March 09, 2015

That Day and Hour

The return of the Son of Man to earth has been promised, prophesied, anticipated and longed-for — and equally disbelieved, sneered at, feared and ignored — for almost 20 centuries now. And when he comes again it will be at an hour nobody will expect. Though there are many facts concerning his return detailed in Bible prophecy, he will catch the world totally by surprise.

The exaltation of the Lord Jesus to his earthly throne — a throne that belongs to him both by right of birth and because he has fully and perfectly earned it — will mark the end of our current world order. This is no small event, and we could hardly expect to be let in on its specific timing.

But what is more than a little surprising is that the One who is coming also disclaims any knowledge of the time of his own arrival on earth … and further, seems entirely unconcerned about the dilemma this fact poses for any number of theologians.

This is what he actually said:
“… concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only.”

You See the Problem, Right?

The obvious difficulty for Bible students is this: Since we accept that the Son is fully God, as much of Christendom has historically affirmed, with that comes all the attributes of God. This includes omniscience.

Now I’ll stop here to let you off the bus if you’re not among those who believe that “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God”. It’s not the purpose of this post to try to prove something so clearly evidenced throughout all of scripture. If you think Jesus Christ was just a very good man, a prophet or even “A God”, as opposed to God incarnate, this post is probably not for you. The good news is there are thousands of more accomplished Bible students out there than Yours Truly, and Google will lead you to them in short order if you’re interested in that subject.

So for those still with me, let’s get back to omniscience. How can an omniscient God not know any particular given fact?

There’s the rub, as the saying goes.

Omniscience Un-Defined

Before we go any further, we should probably define terms. “Omniscience” is not a word used in scripture but rather a conclusion about God that thousands of theologians over the centuries have drawn from the scriptural evidence. But appealing to an English dictionary in the absence of a clear scriptural definition leaves us with considerable wiggle room. I’m going to give two very lowest-common-denominator definitions, not because they are necessarily better than more highbrow wording, but because they represent what large numbers of people understand by the concept.

Dictionary.com falls on one side of the divide with the following:
“having complete or unlimited knowledge, awareness, or understanding; perceiving all things”
Omniscience, mainly in religion, is the capacity to know everything that there is to know.”
You see the difference, right? By one standard, the omniscient being possesses unlimited knowledge. By the other, he could possess it if he wished to. The capacity is there, though perhaps not the will.

We’re off to a rough start if we can’t even agree on a definition.

Dangerous Territory

To begin rambling about how we think God thinks, especially if we step away from the explicit wording of scripture and engage in speculation, is a very dangerous pastime. That holds true even when those speculating are very intelligent indeed. “Take your sandals off,” said the voice from the burning bush to Moses. With good reason, for “who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?” So I am going to tread very carefully here. We must recognize that God is both other than us and beyond us. His silence at certain times and on particular issues has led some among his people to speculate that he is just like they are only to find out later that they were horribly misinformed.

So let’s not do that.

What He Did Not Say

When the Lord says “no one knows, not … the Son”, he is speaking not from heaven but during his life on earth. What he said tells us nothing about what he knows after his resurrection or what he knew before his incarnation. If what he knows about the timing of his return has changed since his statement in Matthew, we would know nothing about it.

We must remember that, as a man, the Lord (while continuing to possess them) gave up the independent use of the attributes of deity. He did only the things that pleased the Father. It seems to me that this is not simply a moral statement the Lord is making. He is not saying simply “I don’t displease the Father by sinning”, but that every action he took was at his Father’s specific direction: where he went, who he spoke to, what he said and how he said it. He looked to his Father for direction in everything. His level of dependence (a level he deliberately and respectfully chose of his own will) was such that he did not proceed in anything without full confidence of his Father’s direction and purpose.

It is difficult to imagine that the incarnate Son, who knew what was in man, did not know a particular detail about the Father’s purposes, but it is certainly within the scope of his self-chosen role as servant.

In any case, we would be remiss if we failed to note that the Lord’s statement tells us nothing whatsoever about the omniscience of the Son for a time period equal to eternity - @33 years. It definitely tells us nothing about the omniscience of the Father or the Holy Spirit. It is a huge leap from this statement to Open Theism.

In this scenario, the Lord Jesus didn’t know the day and the hour of his coming, but it really doesn’t change our concept of omniscience in any significant way. It even falls within the scope of the Wikipedia definition of omniscience. He certainly had the capacity to know if he had wished to.

It’s one possible scenario, but not my favourite. 

What He Did Say

The Lord said that no one knows that day and hour. The Greek word “knows” in the New Testament is extremely common (occurring over 90 times in Luke alone) and possesses a massive semantic range that is both literal and metaphorical (it is translated “saw”, “have seen”, “knows”, “perceive”, “behold” and many other ways). Here are three examples of the sorts of situations in which it is used:

Example #1: Paul says, “I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified”. By this we do not understand that Paul genuinely ceased to remember everything else he ever knew, but that he made it his deliberate focus to present no other doctrine than that of Christ and his cross.

It is not unreasonable to understand the Lord’s words in a similar way; he may be telling us that the day and the hour of his return are the province of his Father rather than something to which he must turn his personal attention.

Again we see the potential danger of getting caught up in the usage of a single word (in English or Greek) without recourse to the rest of scripture.

Example #2: In Matthew 25, the bridegroom tells the foolish virgins, “Truly, I say to you, I do not know you” (same Greek word). When we read this we do not necessarily conclude that the bridegroom had no acquaintance at all with the virgins knocking frantically on his door. After all, originally they had been invited to his wedding! Rather, he is saying that their display of carelessness is such a great offense that he refuses to acknowledge them as legitimate guests at his wedding.

It indicates a deliberate choice to ignore something that he actually does know. It is the equivalent of taking an official position rather than responding from personal knowledge. This too may be the sense in which the Lord used “know”.

Example #3: Luke tells us that at the birth of the Lord Jesus, after the angels made their famous announcement and left the shepherds standing in the fields, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”

In this verse the word “see” in Greek is the same as “knows” in Matthew 24:36 (as in “no one knows that day and hour”). It plainly indicates something that the shepherds already knew. How could they not know? A group of angels had just told them. By saying “let’s go see [or ‘know’] this thing”, they were not implying that they didn’t already know the truth of the matter, or that they thought the angels were lying. They were simply suggesting that they follow through on the knowledge they already had.

So we have two different kinds of knowledge here: official, declared knowledge and that had through personal experience. Perhaps this is what the Lord intended by “know” in Matthew 24.

We really ought to be careful about reading too much theology into a single word.

In this second scenario, the Lord knew exactly when he will return. We are being too restrictive if we read his words as a simple statement about the scope of his personal knowledge. Instead, he was revealing something about both his and his Father’s roles in the Godhead.

The Bottom Line

Open Theism would have us believe that there are things God doesn’t know because they haven’t happened yet. This verse is one which is frequently used to make that point.

But it simply doesn’t. The Open Theist interpretation of this verse depends on a constrained understanding of “knows” that fixes on one (rather convenient) meaning out of a number of other legitimate interpretive possibilities all used by New Testament writers.

If we are to believe in a Christ, let alone believe in a Father who is so committed to the free will of man that he cannot (or will not) see the future because of it, we need a whole bunch more evidence than this verse.

2 comments :

  1. Thanks, Tom. Just two small thoughts to offer for additional reflection, if I may.

    1) That last verse puts things very definitely: whatever the Son “does not know” about that day and hour, he very much affirms that the Father definitely, definitely does. So Open Theism has no help from that verse, but rather a major problem. It would seem that if Open Theism is true, God the Father should not know any such thing.

    2) Divine Foreknowledge would only be challenged if we are thinking of the Trinity as three separate entities: almost, if you will, three distinct candidates for the title “God.” If that were the case, then any perceived “deficiency” in one member of the Trinity would be a blow against His candidacy as God. But is not the attribution of “omniscience” a claim about the Triune God? If a “deficiency” (if I can use that ill-advised word: perhaps I would be best to say a “voluntary limitation by way of role” or something like that) on the side of one member of the Trinity is completely covered by the capability of another member of the Trinity anyway, is it not still true to say the Trinity as a whole is “omniscient”?

    Do you get me there? Why are we fretting if one member of the Trinity is said to have an attribute another does not — like the Son has a body, and the Father has not — or one member seems to not to exhibit some trait that others have, as when the Spirit does not speak of Himself but of Christ. Is not the Triune still complete, having all those attributes within Him?

    The Son said, “I and the Father are one,” and “How do you say ‘Show us the Father’? He who has seen me has seen the Father.” And of the Spirit, the Son promised, “I will come to you and dwell with you.” Not just “the Spirit,” but “I.” So He makes no meaningful distinction between one who has the Spirit and one who has Him, and one who has the Father also.

    If the Triune One Himself is complete and omniscient, why are we worrying about what each “segment” of that Trinity does or knows?

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  2. Prayer's purpose often is to be able to change a future trajectory like prevent war or forestall or cure some other evil (fall of communism). On a personal level, we often pray for specific benefits, which might be granted based on God's discretion. This implies that the future is dependent on our prayerful exhortations to God to change his mind about our future (compared to if we hadn't prayed). It thus does not seem to be deterministic, or what would be the purpose of prayer (if not based on free will, if it is just a predetermined script)?

    At the same time, an omniscient creator God would still have to know the time line(s), since he designed them or we would have to downgrade his powers. However, practical information available confirms his power to know the future (see my previous comment concerning Dr. Neal who died, met
    Christ and was sent back). She was foretold the day her teenage son would die, which happened exactly, but said (in her book) that some additional other foretellings did not come true while others did.

    We'll simply have to be resigned to the fact that God and his creation and capabilities (spiritual and material) will never be completely within our grasp or scope of reason. All this speculation is therefore clearly faulty and therefore irrelevant and futile and what counts is our relationship to God and our willingness to grow and remain in his friendship. (Of course, speculating often is an interesting past time for certain types of people, myself included, and makes life less humdrum).

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