Publications: Articles - Theology
The Characteristic Features (Gnwrivsmata) or Attributes of God
In the previous article the natural attributes of God were examined. Our attention is now turned to the logical features of God. Logical Attributes Omniscience Omniscience is that divine attribute which affirms that God is all-knowing – indeed the Church proclaims that God knows everything immediately and perfectly; knows all things everywhere and at all times and under all possible contingencies. Therefore, God's knowledge is not progressive since He knows eternally (ajcrovnw") and instantaneously. In addition, God's all-knowledge includes not only absolute knowledge of His divine Self (aujtognwsiva - cf 1Cor 2:111) but knowledge of the world and everything within it. Furthermore, theology claims that God does not simply know all things, which have already taken place or are in the process of taking place, but also of future events as well. As a 'personal' being, God is absolutely free, possesses absolute responsibility, and as such is all-knowing. With regards to God's omniscience the New Testament unequivocally states that: "God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything" (1Jn 3:20).
Furthermore, in St John's gospel we read that when Jesus had asked Peter if he loved Him a third time, Peter responded: "Lord, you know everything" (Jn 21:17). The above verse alone indicates unambiguously God's omniscience. God's all-knowing attribute is testified to throughout the Scriptures. Accordingly, the book of Job tells us that the Lord: "looks to the ends of the earth, and sees everything under the heavens" (Job 28:24); and Psalm 94 affirms that, "the Lord knows our thoughts" (Ps 94:11). Finally, another passage from the Psalms, which is pertinent with regards to God's omniscience is the following: O Lord, you have searched me and known me. You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away. You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways. Even before a word is on my tongue, O Lord, you know it completely. You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is so high that I cannot attain it. (Ps 139:1-6)
This shows clearly God's absolute and incomprehensible wisdom and knowledge of the entire created world; indeed, a knowledge which cannot be compared with that of a human person's limited and created 'intelligence'. Consequently this also underscores the fact that nothing that happens can be considered fortuitous, coincidental or even accidental. The fact that God has known all things from the beginning of time could justifiably gives rise to the following question: "if God's knowledge is absolute - since all is known in God in one simultaneous intuition - does this not necessarily interfere with the freedom and responsibility of the human person?" That is to say, at first glance, would it not seem contradictory to affirm a human person's freedom on the one hand, and then say that God knows what that person would do anyway? Ostensibly one could quote the following verse as evidence of this quandary: "For Jesus knew from the first who were the ones that did not believe, and who was the one that would betray him" (Jn 6:64).2
If misunderstood, one could draw the conclusion from this verse that people lack freedom and that their 'fate' is predetermined. Indeed, in the history of theology, two schools of thought developed with respect to God's omniscience and human freedom. Whilst the first sought to limit God's knowledge in arguing that God did not know those things pertaining to a person's free will, the second would sacrifice the human will, believing it to be apparent but not real, and argued that all things happen out of necessity. To this latter school belong those who have espoused the theory of predestination. In answer to this dilemma, the Orthodox Church has always made a distinction between foreknowledge and predestination because God's foreknowledge, as St John of Damascus stated, is not the cause of a human person's actions: God's foreknowledge… is not the cause of the occurrence of things, but rather He foreknows that we are to do this or that… thus, that which we are to do, does not have God as its cause, but rather our own free will.3
And so, regarding the foreknowledge of God, the Orthodox Church claims that this in no way limits the freedom of the human person, nor does it influence that person's decisions. An image often used by the Patristic tradition to explain this predicament is that of a diagnosis given by a doctor. Just as a doctor, who knows that a person will die as a result of a certain illness, is not the cause of that person's death, so too, God's foreknowledge is not the cause of a person's actions or 'fate'. This shows that a human person's actions, even though relatively free with respect to God, are nonetheless real and not predetermined. Consequently, the Orthodox Church would state that God knows all things that are going to happen, seeing all events as one continuous present for God, without such knowledge in any way exercising any influence upon them. In this way, God's absolute omniscience is safeguarded and the free will of the human person not undermined.
God's all-wisdom refers to that divine attribute by which God determines the most perfect and excellent means for the best end result. In his letter to the Romans, St Paul stated that: "all things work together for good" (Rom 8:28). Clearly, for St Paul, all things, which take place in the world, presuppose God's all-wisdom. That God is indeed all-wise is testified throughout the Scriptures where He is depicted as the source and giver of wisdom to the world and especially to humankind, the crown of His creation. Furthermore, the all-wisdom of God is especially revealed in the process of salvation, which God initiated from the beginning of time and fulfilled in Jesus Christ and His Church. In his letter to the Ephesians, St Paul emphasised that united 'in Christ', the Church could now make known the far-reaching wisdom of God to all within the world, and even to the angelic realm: so that through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety [hJ polupoivkilo" sofiva tou' Qeou'] might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places (Eph 3:10).
From the above significant verse, we see that Christ's life on earth together with His crucifixion, resurrection and ascension brought about such an intimate koinonia between the heavenly and created realms that it not only resulted in the reconciliation between God's heavenly kingdom and the world, but also gave human beings an insight into God's ineffable wisdom.4 Regarding God's all-wisdom in the Old Testament, the book of Proverbs, for example, notes the following: "The Lord by wisdom founded the earth; by understanding he established the heavens" (Prov 3:19). Also the Psalmist, in wonder and amazement at God's all-wisdom, which he discerned in the world around, proclaimed: "O Lord, how manifold are your works! In wisdom you have made them all; the earth is full of your creatures" (Ps 104:24). In the New Testament, the ineffable depths of God's all-wisdom is simply praised and wondered at by St Paul since no words could ever contain or exhaust its wonders: O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! “For who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counsellor?” “Or who has given a gift to him, to receive a gift in return?” (Rom 11:33-35).
Elsewhere, the infinite superiority of God's wisdom was further emphasised by St Paul who, in writing to the Corinthian community, would note that the 'foolishness of God' – that is, the lowest degree of divine wisdom - is wiser than human wisdom (cf 1Cor 1:25). In reflecting upon the all-wisdom of God in the fourth century, St Gregory the Theologian, in his Second Theological Oration, asked a series of beautifully phrased questions covering all aspects of creation (the animal kingdom, fish, birds, plants, the seas and the heavens above) in order to lead his listeners to a sense of wonder at the magnificence of God's all-wisdom. In this 'poem on creation', as it came to be known, St Gregory's point was simply to highlight that if the human mind could not comprehend the wisdom with which every visible creature was created and functioned, how could it ever expect to possess an insight into the unfathomable depths of God's all-wisdom.
For this reason, he concluded that, all human beings could do was simply to enjoy the created order and give praise and glory to God for His all-wisdom. Even a small excerpt from his long yet important Oration will serve to highlight his point regarding God's all-wisdom which human beings can behold in God's creation: "In what way is mind conveyed and communicated by speech? How does speech go through the air and enter along with objects?… There are still questions more basic than these. … What makes food nourishment for the body and speech for the soul?... There are many facts about speech and hearing, how sounds are produced through the vocal organs and received by the ears, how sounds and ears are knit together by the imprinted impulse transmitted by the intervening air? There are many facts about sight and its mysterious communion with objects… Sight is in the same case with mind, for it joins its objects with just the same speed as does the mind its thoughts…Would you like me to enumerate the points at which animals differ from us and from one another, differences in natural constitution, production, diet, differences in habitat, behaviour and social structure, so to say? What makes some animals gregarious, others solitary? Some eat grass, others are carnivorous? Some are fierce, others are gentle?... Look at the fish. They glide through the water, flying you might say, under the liquid element…. Who puts a sounding-board in the cicada's chest with the chirping songs it makes in the branches?... Turn you attention to the different kinds of plants, to the artistry displayed in their foliage affording at once the maximum pleasure to the eyes… consider too the lavish abundance of fruits, the special beauty of the particularly important kinds. Examine the potentialities the juices of their roots and the scents their flowers have, not just the pleasant but the medically useful ones too….."
Like St Gregory, many fathers of the Church attributed the entire created order as a testimony to the greatness of God's wisdom and knowledge. Indeed, they saw the entire world continuously directed by God towards a single aim – the perfection and transfiguration of the world so that all may share in God's eternal beatitude.
Academic Secretary and Associate Lecturer
St Andrew‟s Greek Orthodox Theological College
1. 1Cor 2:11: "For what human being knows what is truly human except the human spirit that is within? So also no one comprehends what is truly God’s except the Spirit of God."
2. The Orthodox Church would explain this passage by stating that God could indeed act in such a way as to change a certain person's path, since God is almighty, but chooses not to, so as not to interfere with a person's freedom. In this way God's omniscience is affirmed yet the human person's freedom is not undermined.
3. St John of Damascus, Dialogue against the Manichaens, 79. PG 94, 1577.
4. Cf this also with St Paul's letter to the Romans which states clearly that: "For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them" (Rom 1:19).com