Results tagged “Omniscience” from Reformation21 Blog

God's Forgetfulness and God's Face


True believers may, and do, experience times when they feel as if God has forgotten them. They feel as if the divine no longer takes interest in them. David felt this as well. He expresses this in Psalm 31 in language that may make one wonder about God, however. There we read, 

"How long, O LORD? Will You forget me forever? How long will You hide Your face from me?" (Psalm 13:1, NASB)

Does God really "forget" and does God really have a "face"? Is God omniscient or not? Is God invisible or not? How should we understand these statements?

David expresses himself in question form: "How long....Will You forget....will You hide Your face....?" Consider the following two aspects of David's complaint: "Will You forget me forever?" and "How long will You hide Your face from me?"

There are at least two ways to understand these and other statements like them. One way would be to take "forget" and "face" literally (i.e., properly). This would mean that as we "forget," so God forgets, and as we have a "face," so God has a face. If one looked up the words for "forget" and "face" in a lexicon one would find that "forget" means "to forget" and "face" means "face." So at first read, taking the words to mean what they normally mean, God forgets and God has a face. But does He?

Another way to understand these and other statements like them is to take "forget" and "face" as figures of speech (i.e., improperly). David utilizes and applies creaturely terms to God in order to describe his own experience. Applying creaturely terms to God is done many, many times by Scripture writers (e.g., Psalm 8:6, "...the works of Thy hands..."). The church has wrestled with this scriptural phenomenon over the centuries and derived from that study a method of interpretation that respects the fact the God is Creator and man is creature, that God is omniscient and we are not, that God does not have a literal face but we do.

Let's take the second term under consideration to illustrate how the church has understood it. Does God have a face (i.e., with contour, eyes, brows, cheeks, nose, lips, mouth, etc.)? In other words, is God like us, possessing physical or finite creaturely human features which take up space in time? The answer is no, obviously. We know this to be the case from many, many other places in Scripture (e.g., John 1:18). God is invisible (1 Tim. 1:17). But David says "Your face." Statements which predicate physical features of man to God have been labeled anthropomorphisms by the great minds of the church. An anthropomorphism is a physical feature of the created realm, in our discussion possessed by man, attributed to God. Things such as eyes, feet, hands, and a face attributed to God are anthropomorphisms. God, then, does not have a literal face; man does. But the figure of speech means something, doesn't it? Of course it does. What does it mean and how is it being used here? It must refer to divine favor extended to David on the earth. David felt as if God was not extending, or communicating, divine favor to him. It is like a human father who turns his face from his son. It is a figure of speech. Though God does not have a literal face, He does at times withhold the sense of His presence and favor from His children. So to "hide Your face" must refer to a perceived (by David) action of God.

But what about divine forgetfulness? David says, "Will You forget me forever?" One could understand "forget" as to cease, or fail, to remember or to fail to think of. This would mean that God at one time possesses the knowledge of things that at another time He does not possess. Taken this way, and reflecting on what David says (i.e., "Will You forget me forever?"), this would entail that what God forgets now He might forget forever. But it also leaves open the door that what God forgets now He might not forget forever. Who knows? Either way this would entail God can know things now that He might not always know. Assuming this view, and assuming the worst for David (i.e., that God forgot David forever), this would mean that God can know things now that He never knows again because He forgets them. In other words, at one moment, God possesses the knowledge of David and at another moment He does not. This would mean that, after all, God is like us, forgetting today what He knew yesterday. What a horrifying thought, if real!

Psalm 31 illustrates something important about interpreting the Bible. We must not take things at face value, if taking them as such contradicts other teachings of Scripture. If God forgets us, He is not omniscient. If God has a face, He is not invisible, nor infinite because faces have measurable limits. Who wants God to be like us, forgetting today what was known yesterday? Who wants Him to be a finite being, confined to space and time like us, a physical being, and thus a creature subject to change? I hope you don't!


Richard C. Barcellos, is pastor of Grace Reformed Baptist Church, Palmdale, CA and Associate Professor of Exegetical Theology at IRBS Theological Seminary. He is the author of Getting the Garden Right: Adam's Work and God's Rest in Light of Christ; The Covenant of Works: Its Confessional and Scriptural Basis; and Trinity and Creation: A Scriptural and Confessional Account (forthcoming from Christian Focus/Mentor).

Without a hint of shame or embarrassment or any sort of profound internal conflict, Jesus openly admits he is--or at least was, while living under the conditions of the fall and fulfilling all righteousness for us--ignorant of at least one thing: "concerning the day and hour [of my return] no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but the Father alone" (Matt 24:36 || Mk 13:32).

Though it may not have created any difficulties for Christ, this passage is notorious in theological discussions of the incarnation. Predictably, some argue it's evidence Jesus was not divine. That, of course, is impossible to square with the rest of Scripture. Others, with Peter-like zeal, deny he ever said such a thing--hence the footnote on Matt 24:36 in your ESV, that "some manuscripts omit nor the Son." But that's a favor too far, and one that robs us of the wonder of the cross just as Peter would have done when he rebuked Jesus for announcing he was going to be crucified (Matt 16:22).

God insists we contemplate the scandal of the incarnation: the eternal Son had to become fully human; he had to be the anti-Adam and empty himself, take on the form of a servant, and obey all the way to being crucified. There's no way around the scandal and offense of these things, and there's no way around the fact that the omniscient and eternal Word endured ignorance for us and our salvation.

Just how he was able to endure ignorance is not entirely clear to us (more than one possible explanation is on the orthodox table). But he did and this is no small matter. Consider Calvin's comment on Matt 24:36 || Mk 13:32:

The chief part of our wisdom lies in confining ourselves soberly within the limits of God's word. That men may not feel uneasy at not knowing that day, Christ represents angels as their associates in this matter; for it would be a proof of excessive pride and wicked covetousness, to desire that we who creep on the earth should know more than is permitted to the angels in heaven. . . . And surely that man must be singularly mad, who would hesitate to submit to the ignorance which even the Son of God himself did not hesitate to endure on our account. 

To say that the omniscient Son endured ignorance on our account is in no way "an insult offered to the Son of God," he argues. On the contrary, it shows how great his grace is toward us in how far he has gone in self-denial to save us from our sin:

For we know that in Christ the two natures were united into one person in such a manner that each retained its own properties; and more especially the Divine nature was in a state of repose, and did not at all exert itself, whenever it was necessary that the human nature should act separately, according to what was peculiar to itself, in discharging the office of Mediator. There would be no impropriety, therefore, in saying that Christ, who knew all things, (John 21:17) was ignorant of something in respect of his perception as a man; for otherwise he could not have been liable to grief and anxiety, and could not have been like us, (Heb 2:17).

Calvin continues,

the objection urged by some--that ignorance cannot apply to Christ, because it is the punishment of sin -- is beyond measure ridiculous. For, first, it is prodigious folly to assert that the ignorance which is ascribed to angels proceeds from sin; but they discover themselves to be equally foolish on another ground, by not perceiving that Christ clothed himself with our flesh, for the purpose of enduring the punishment due to our sins. And if Christ, as man, did not know the last day, that does not any more derogate from his Divine nature than to have been mortal.

To be clear, Calvin does not argue that the Son ceased to be divine or omniscient in the incarnation, only that he denied himself, for the purpose of accomplishing our redemption, the benefit or use of his omniscience. It was a voluntary act of self-denial in which the divine nature "did not at all exert itself." In other words, Jesus lived among us, while fulfilling all righteousness for us, just as one of us--and this is a glorious thing.