Wednesday, August 28, 2019

Testing, Testing ...

“After these things God tested Abraham ...”

Once upon a time — okay, it was tenth grade actually — I wrote world’s worst exam. I doubt the test itself was unusually difficult, but I was uniquely ill-prepared to write it, having spent the first few months of my Fall semester reading novels in math class and ignoring my homework assignments with impeccable consistency. I had done so well in Grade 9 math that I had acquired the mistaken notion that paying attention to the course material was optional, and that I could figure it all out if and when I needed to.

Apparently it isn’t, and I couldn’t. I turned in the exam with exactly one line filled in: my name.

That was the tiniest bit embarrassing.

The Purpose of Testing

What I learned about testing that year is this: it’s not just something that happens to you so your teacher can assign you a mark and thereby justify his paycheck. That’s one purpose, certainly, but another is this: it tells the student exactly where he stands, in stark contrast to where he thinks he stands. Without testing, our assessment of our own abilities may be wildly off base. Mine was, and I needed to find that out before it was too late to recover my year.

Which is all to say that there is more to the testing process than pass/fail. Testing is itself a learning experience. The teacher learns about you, you learn about yourself, and ultimately the world may learn something about you too.

We all know the story of Abraham. “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love” said God to the patriarch, “and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering ...” It was a test, and a major one. Abraham acted in faith, and the result was that the angel of the Lord could say:
Now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.”
He passed.

A Non-Trivial Caveat

Now, in the case of a teacher testing a student, a wise teacher may have a fairly good idea how his students will perform when he tests them, but he cannot know with 100% certainty. God is not like that. In the book of Isaiah, he says this about himself:
“I am God, and there is none like me, declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done.”
There’s your 100% certainty. Nobody else can claim it. God knows a whole bunch of things even the most perceptive teacher does not. He can tell you the outcome of any given situation before it occurs. Sometimes he is even involved in producing the outcome in question.

With this in mind, it may be perplexing to read the words “Now I know ...” attributed to God. Some readers will surely take this to mean “I previously didn’t know, but now I do.” However, there are compelling reasons to reject any interpretation that imposes arbitrary limits on God’s knowledge, not least the army of verses which array themselves against such an interpretation.

Naked and Exposed

The Bible’s claims about the depths and extent of God’s knowledge are so frequent and so specific that the word “omniscient” has been coined by theologians to describe him. The psalmist says, “Even before a word is on my tongue, behold, O Lord, you know it altogether,” and again, “Your eyes saw my unformed substance; in your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there was none of them.” Or, as the writer to the Hebrews puts it, “No creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account.”

So it is not merely that God, as creator of the species, understands human nature perfectly and can anticipate it like nobody else. Nor is it merely that he knows his individual creatures exceedingly well by virtue of his extraordinary powers of observation. “Omniscient” may not be the perfect word, or even a biblical word, but it’s closer to what scripture describes than pretty much anything else.

More Reasons

A second reason to avoid taking the statement as a limitation on God’s knowledge is linguistic. The Hebrew verb translated “know” is yada`. It has a broad range of meanings not limited to simply becoming aware of a fact for the first time. It is often used of experiential knowledge, as distinguished from mere intellectual awareness. In this situation it might be rendered “Now I have been shown ...” or “Now you have demonstrated ...”

A third reason is practical. A thing cannot be said to be done until it is done. God could know beyond any doubt that Abraham was the sort of person who would not fail his test, but that knowledge is moot unless at some point Abraham is actually tested. It would be knowledge of a nullity or a possibility, not a real event. Even if God has impeccable foreknowledge, it is foreknowledge of reality, not just all possible speculative futures. Thinking about God sitting outside of history and even time itself is one of those things that makes my head hurt, but we cannot lose track of the fact that he still engages in real time with real people making real choices with real consequences. This being the case, to say “Now I know” need not imply God did not know previously, only that it is the event itself that makes the foreknowledge of it meaningful.

Testing in Real Time

A wise educator may prepare questions for his students, print them up for distribution, and have an accurate sense of how his students will perform. Still, no test has yet occurred, and no objective third party would declare the teacher’s knowledge of his class a substitute for the data produced by the test itself. In order that a test have significance to all parties involved, it is necessary that a class sit at a particular predetermined hour and respond for the record to the questions the teacher has for them.

But not all tests are alike. Not all have exactly the same purpose or method. Even God’s tests are not all designed to demonstrate exactly the same thing. More on this in Sunday’s post.

1 comment :

  1. This is one of those confounding topics that, by the nature of it, must be expected to be incomprehensible to human beings. We are physically, mentally, and emotionally locked inside a space-time continuum that does not allow us to imagine what a world outside of it could be like. Since the assumption is that God knows that (very specifically because of Christ) the question really becomes how does he want us to, based on his design, deal with that reality. Personally, I have envisioned us living in a large diameter glass tube that's nearly infinitely long (with time progressing along the length) and has many small windows along it's length that God can open, reach inside and make adjustments as needed. Now what you are proposing is that all the items in the tube are basically static to God (since he put them all in there). Thus, God interacting with mankind consists of occasionally tweaking things in that space-time tube as he sees fit. In a sense the world is like a doll house therefore? Clearly this is beyond my (our) capacity to envision and we have to be satisfied with accepting the way things are to us.

    There are better depictions provided by people who had NDE (Near Death Experiences). According to those accounts our souls enter a spiritual realm of our world that is identical in that it is populated with spiritual manifestions of this world (trees, flowers, landscapes, etc.). In that world also there is free will and the ability to choose.

    To me resolving these issues of personal freedom and God's foreknowledge is possible if I think of having been created with intelligent autonomy (compare it to yeast in dough) that can produce (has the freedom to produce) various results in the formation of and readiness of the dough. The final shape of the dough and texture are known therefore but the intelligent and autonomous yeast is not being directed and controlled but is subject to various influences (acidity, temperature, moisture, etc.) that play a role in the final product. Our mission in life therefore, should we choose to accept it, is to deliver the best dough possible.