Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Inbox: Qualified Omniscience

Qman points out that we have a pachyderm on the premises:

“The word of the Lord came to Samuel: ‘I regret that I have made Saul king, for he has turned back from following me and has not performed my commandments.’ ”

It is apparent this type of statement does not present a problem to you but it might to the newcomer. It seems to contradict or at least not explain the presumption or notion of God’s omniscience. How can God regret something that he is, by definition, aware of from the beginning?”

Q’s email arrived just as I was sitting down to pick out a topic for today’s post. We may have to change his name to “On-Cue Man”. There’s more to his missive, including thoughts-in-progress about how such a conundrum might be resolved, which you can find here, at the original post.

Qualifying or Abandoning Omniscience

Okay then. “I regret that I have made Saul king.” A statement like this can be explained several different ways, some more theologically palatable (and consistent with the rest of scripture) than others.

Qman’s own reading of the passage falls somewhere in the middle of this range of possibilities, retaining God’s “omniscience” [his word], but qualifying it with an explanation.

Considerably further out than Q, we encounter theologians like Greg A. Boyd and Clark Pinnock and a theory called either “Open Theism” or “neotheism”, depending on the authority. [Immanuel Can and I consider a few of the problems with Open Theism’s approach to the scriptures here, and Norman Geisler pummels it mercilessly here.] As Geisler puts it, “They claim, among other things, that God can change His mind and that He does not have an infallible knowledge of the future.” Geisler classes neotheism as a “doctrinal deviation” rather than an outright heresy.

Literal and Figurative Readings

A third, more conservative approach to the problem considers word choice. Given the dynamic nature of language, it should hardly surprise us if some Hebrew or Greek words used about God in scripture [nacham, in this case, translated “regret”] have since acquired secondary or tertiary definitions which might mislead us if we insist on reading that particular definitional option back into the passage. Nor should it surprise us if the more literal translations from the original languages into English use words which are not precisely equivalent to their Hebrew counterparts in the interest of brevity, rather than the alternative. Translations which opt to render every possible interpretive option in full can be a hard slog, as readers of the Amplified Bible will readily attest. As a result, translators do this sort of “shortcutting” all the time.

My own approach to other passages which raise this question has been to point out that we are probably encountering what I call “the language of accommodation” and IC calls “anthropomorphism”. For God to communicate with mankind at all requires stretching language to its outer limits. Though we are made in his image, it is abundantly clear the differences between Creator and his creations are not merely differences of degree, but also of kind. For example, man has a spirit, but God is spirit. Many such differences exist. We cannot rule out the use of “regret” as a sort of metaphor here, as we cannot reasonably presume God’s thought processes are precisely equivalent to our own. In fact, we can be very sure they are not. I’m quite certain God chose the most apt word then in use in the Hebrew language to describe his feelings, but even that could hardly be more than an approximation by analogy.

Also, bear in mind that God needed to choose a word which could be successfully translated into multiple languages for all manner of diverse cultures over thousands of years. Given the limitations of human understanding, I think he did a spectacular job of communicating.

An Unnecessary Difficulty

However, in this particular situation none of the above approaches is actually necessary. We are importing a problem we find elsewhere in scripture when none really exists in the text of 1 Samuel. The word nacham has a broad semantic range, and is translated many different ways, most or all of which do not imply surprise. Even in English, “regretting” something does not necessarily mean one has been caught off guard by it. Expressing regret is merely a formal declaration of sorrow, and the wish that something which did occur had not actually occurred.

Consider the following uses, plucked from the internet at random:
“It is with deep regret and profound sadness that we announce the passing away of a valued staff member of the Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity ...”

“My deepest regret is that my own group was divided on the vote on this report, which should have been accepted in the most genuine spirit of liberalism.”

“This matter will show in practice whether European solidarity is just a phrase on the lips of some politicians, or whether it exists in reality. At the moment, unfortunately, and I say this with pain and regret, it is nothing more than a phrase. I wish that the opposite were true.”
Every death notice in history probably contains the word “regret”, in many cases when the death in question was not only quite inevitable but very much expected, and its timing correctly projected right down to the day or week. In the case of a friend, the doctor called it to the hour. We were not surprised, but we regretted losing him. In the second instance, a committee chair will often call for a vote knowing full well that sitting across from him are members with whom he resolutely disagrees, and who will surely oppose his own desired outcome. His post-vote statement of regret about the divided committee may even have been drafted the night before the vote. In the third instance, any idealist hopes for a world in which everyone agrees with him, but most are intelligent enough to recognize that achieving solidarity will take considerable time and may not ever happen at all.

Regret and Surprise

Surprise forms no essential part of regret. When father says to his child, “I regret it has come to this” as he takes off his belt, he is not in any way suggesting that he had no clue his boy was capable of throwing the first punch in the schoolyard. He is simply acknowledging that he wishes he were not, and that the necessary discipline did not have to be administered.

The real theological difficulty with this passage is not that God was surprised. He does not tell Samuel that, and we have no good reason to assume it. The problem we are running into is that some of us cannot envision a God who would grant authority or opportunity to a man, all the while knowing full well that he was going to abuse that authority.

And yet this is precisely what we find all the way through our Bibles: a God who allows others to choose courses of action which cause him sorrow, and sometimes even puts them in positions where they can do the greatest possible damage. In doing so, he is teaching man lessons he would not learn any other way.

Appoint for Us a King

In the case of Saul, Israel wanted a king. They demanded “a king to judge us like all the nations”, even though God was their king. So God gave them precisely the sort of king they were asking for, one like all the other nations around them had. A strong, handsome man who could inspire obedience, and who stood head and shoulders above them all. A man who hailed from a tribe of pugnacious warriors who wreaked more havoc in Israel than any three other tribes combined. A man who would hang onto power like it was the only thing that mattered, who would appoint his friends, family and cronies to all the most powerful positions in the kingdom, who would crush dissent, settle old scores and strive to eliminate his rivals by any means necessary.

He was exactly what Israel was looking for, and he was flawed to the core.

God taught Israel a lesson through Saul. It was not a pretty lesson, but it was a necessary one. There was no way around it. A scholarly discourse about the relative benefits of theocracy vs. monarchy would not do the job. Prophetic warnings about the horrible things their king would do to them did not change Israelite minds. Sometimes only living through the consequences of your choices will make you realize your errors. The Psalmist describes a similar situation with a similar outcome:
“They had a wanton craving in the wilderness, and put God to the test in the desert; he gave them what they asked, but sent a wasting disease among them.”
It is difficult to imagine a more apt way of describing such a painful education process.

Regrets, I’ve Had a Few ...

Does God regret it when men are stubborn and foolish and refuse to learn, or when he is compelled to give them the things they ask for because only having their way will ever make them despise those choices and see them for what they are? Of course he regrets it. How can a loving father enjoy dispensing necessary discipline?

That doesn’t mean God was caught off guard. In fact, the whole story tells us nothing about the extent of God’s knowledge at all.


  1. First, to clarify, the pachyderm seems to be yours since mine has stripes (looking more like an obese zebra).

    Now with regard to regret and what led me to my wonderment pertaining to finding it expressed by an omniscient God. I agree that regret might or might not imply surprise depending on circumstances. What I meant to imply is that it can only come about for an omniscient God when he (by definition -being God) permits it for himself. See, the father with the belt had only limited means to interfere and prevent his son's misbehavior (by properly raising him) since he cannot see the totality of his future.

    It is therefore hard to understand why God would not interfere since that might prevent eternal expulsion for some from his presence. What it points at, of course, is the absolute preeminence of free wil to God in his creation (again, within reason since free will can also be impaired in our world) to the point of honoring our wishes for him to either not interfere (by denial) or to interfere (through prayer, e.g.). Free will defines our freedom and who we are as individuals and we do not appreciate anyone interfering with it (although in some situations we might even ask God for help by bending our free will to his will, and hopefully he does). And if we don't ask for that it might explain why he feels regret.

    1. "Wonderment" is a good word. The determinists believe we have a God powerful and wise enough to bend everything and everyone to his will. I believe we have something even better: a God who could, but does not.

      Exactly how it is he benefits from that is something that will surely be revealed eventually, but in the meantime, it is very certain we do.