I have written on and thought much about middle knowledge (which seems to come and go in popularity among Christian apologists). I haven’t written much about simple knowledge—though I have thought about it at length. Simple knowledge is thought to answer some of the problems I identify in so-called “Classical Christian Theism,” so it is worth talking about.
If you are not familiar with the concept, “simple knowledge” is a phrase used to describe a-temporal (or eternal) knowledge of temporal reality. Because God is outside of time, it is said, his knowledge of the temporal world will not be like our knowledge. Instead of experiencing each moment as it passes by, God would see the whole panorama of temporal reality spread out before him. He would not see it as if there were a “before” and “after”; instead, each temporal moment would be before God in the eternal present. Augustine used the image of a tower with a path spread out beneath it. Those on the journey may see the path before them a bit, but they cannot see what awaits them over the next hill or beyond the horizon. However, the observer in the tower would be able to see the path behind and ahead of the traveller; the observer would see the whole journey laid out before the traveller (though, as we will consider shortly, this illustration is misleading).
One way to conceptualise simple knowledge as it is used to describe the eternal knowledge of the temporal world is to picture the temporal world as a single whole—an object—before the gaze of God. Imagine God’s mind as a room with furniture. Imagine the entire universe, in its temporal and spatial aspects, as an object in this room, let’s say a cube. It represents the entire created universe, every region of space from its beginning until its end. So long as that object is present, God could look at any facet of it or step back and see the whole. Thus, every moment would be immediately accessible (every moment would be present) to God’s eternity. This is the idea of simple knowledge. The issue I perceive is that simple knowledge is neither plausible nor necessary. That is, I don’t think we have any reason to believe that these analogies accurately represent God’s world nor his knowledge of it. Indeed, I believe there are good reasons to reject simple knowledge. Furthermore, I don’t think it solves any of the “problems” it is supposed to solve (I am not convinced many of them are truly problems).
Problems with Simple knowledge
Contrary to Popular Belief, Simple Knowledge Is not an Implication of Physics
Simple knowledge sounds great; what could be the problem? Several things actually. First, from a contemporary perspective, simple knowledge seems to line up quite well with the modern understanding of time as a dimension alongside the three spatial dimensions, having a form of extension. Indeed, simple knowledge requires time to be an extended (though not spatially extended) dimension, such that all time exists equally. On this view, time only comes and goes according to our perception; every moment exists from the moment God created it until time itself ceases to exist. The past does not cease to exist, nor does the future wait to come into existence. There is no development or change in time; it is a medium we pass through. Time, on this view, could be pictured with a flipbook: the frames all exist simultaneously, time being the experience of the drawing as it “moves” along the frames. The idea of space as a physical dimension in this way is plausible within modern physics but is not a necessary implication of it. There are other views of time that are compatible with known physics. As far as I understand it, modern physics interpreted in this way actually creates problems with reference to eternity—but that is far above my pay grade to explore.
Simple Knowledge Defies Experience
Second, and more importantly, this view defies our common experience. As Augustine describes it in his Confessions, we experience time as the present, the razor’s edge between the past and the future. The past exists as memories and the future as anticipation or as an element in God’s plan, but only the present truly exists—or so it seems. This is also the language of Scripture; events are spoken of beforehand and only come to pass later. Thus, in addition to not having a positive reason to accept it, it also defies experience. It results in absurdities, paradoxes, and theologically difficult conclusions. As I am writing this now, in God’s eyes, I am also being born, committing horrendous sins, and being converted: these are events in my past but his present. Moreover, assuming that I am indeed saved, I am also with him in heaven—my future, his present. Hell is not a reality yet to come but has existed and been filled since the moment of creation: it is only yet to come from our present perspective. Such things seem absurd, yet we could surely come to grips with them if this was truly the way of God’s world. However, the problems continue.
Simple Knowledge Casts Doubt on Causality and Personhood
Second, this view also casts causality and personhood in doubt. Causality is certainly a difficult enough issue, but it does at least seem that event B results because of A, not merely in conjunction with it. However, on the time-as-extension view, it seems like causality doesn’t exist; B is caused A as much as Side 1 of a triangle causes Side 2 or the whole triangle. No, Side 1 and Side 2 (and the whole triangle) are caused by something external (what made it), and the whole is caused by the sum of its parts (its explanation, that by which it is what it is). Imagine a movie reel: it is made up of thousands of individual frames. In a shot of a bat hitting a ball, each consecutive frame is not caused by the preceding one, it is only aligned with it, nor does the bat in frame 2 cause the ball in frame 3 to do anything. If we removed frame 2, the ball in frame 3 and on would still be moving. Instead, if the reel represents something filmed, there was a bat that caused a ball to change its trajectory; this event caused the frames to be the way they are. Return to Augustine’s illustration of the tower with me. His 3D analogy of a path or journey doesn’t capture the reality (and the absurdity) of time conceived in this way. Instead, imagine the man on a journey copied and pasted at each micron of the path. As the observer scans the path, he does not see an empty road but each moment of the man’s journey like individual frames in a film reel. There is no longer one man: there are millions or billions of him, each one slightly different, for they are each in a different place and will have a different subjective experience (if we can make sense of subjective experience on such a view).
Returning to time, if every moment exists, then the relationship between each moment is not progressive; no moment depends on another. Instead, they emerged simultaneously. Causality is an illusion created as we experience passage through the medium of time. Remember, “before,” “after,” “present,” are all subjective phenomena; physical causality depends on a “before” and an “after.” Think about it from another perspective. Time on this view is like an object in a room. This object is created by God. There is no progress in its creation: it did not exist, then it existed as a whole encompassing all temporal reality. God’s creative act does not set anything into motion (except perhaps our subjective experience, but we will consider that shortly); his creative act simultaneously establishes all things in all positions and postures they will ever inhabit. Moment 1 is not “before” Moment 2 as if it existed before Moment 2, for they came to exist simultaneously; nor is it clear that Moment 2 depends on Moment 1—both depend solely on God’s creative word—thus it is not “before” logically. The only “before” Moment 1 enjoys in relation to Moment 2 is analogous to a spatial “before” or “in front of,” as one domino in a series may stand before another, or like the first image in a film reel stands before the second.
Similarly, there is no absolute “I” or person for any of us. My “self” at this moment is the nexus of self-perception and 31 years of experience: I am not who I was yesterday nor who I will be tomorrow. I am changing. Yet, from God’s perspective, James at 9:24 PM on 17 January 2019 is no more the real me than James at 9:24 PM 17 January 2014. Neither “James” is identical with the other: they are perceptibly different and have different experiences right now (from God’s perspective). They are different, yet both exist. Therefore, a different James exists for every moment from my creation until eternity future (actually, that’s another potential problem: this view presupposes an actual infinity exists). Indeed, since God exists in heaven (a temporal place), there would seem to be a different God for every moment of creation. Now, if we had good reason to believe simple knowledge existed, these problems could perhaps be overcome. However, these problems are considerable reasons against adopting it, even if it were to solve a problem or two.
Simple Knowledge Creates Significant Theological Problems
However, as we will consider in a moment, it doesn’t solve any problems. More importantly, it raises two theological problems I don’t think can be resolved. The first problem is the Cross of Christ. The language of predestining and predicting the Cross can be explained as language adapted to the Biblical audience: what is present to God is past or future to us. However, there is a bigger problem: what is past or future for us is present to God. Simple knowledge means that Jesus is separated from the Father eternally and suffers the death of the Cross eternally. If we deny the eternal existence of the temporal world (the object in God’s mental furniture wasn’t always there), then Jesus began to be separated from the Father and suffer at some point, but that “some point” was the moment of creation. From the moment God created, the traumatic moments of Christ’s death—his cry of dereliction, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me”—had already happened. This was the future for Adam, Eve, Moses, and the prophets (as it is the past for us at this moment), yet it is present in God’s eternal, simple perception of the created world. So long as the temporal world exists, Christ is suffering the weight of God’s judgment and our sin. Christ did not bear our sin merely in the past: he is currently bearing our sin. The problem is captured in several traditional Christological concepts, such as the communicatio idiomatum (that all properties of Christ’s humanity or deity are said of his one person) and the extra Calvinisticum (that Christ was not restricted to the flesh in the incarnation but was simultaneously omnipresent in his divinity). Though Jesus would have a subjective past/present/future in his flesh, he would also experience the eternal present in his deity. It is not a stretch of the imagination to permit that God who is omnipresent, omniscient, and omnipotent—able act everywhere, present himself everywhere, and know everything—could enjoy both perceptions. However, we cannot allow a division of Christ’s person such that from his eternal perspective he looks down on his temporal self and perceives his suffering as that of another. Though this would seem to be an implication of simple knowledge, we can assume for the sake of argument that Christ’s eternal perception encompasses his temporal perception such that as he perceives in the eternal present his temporal suffering, he perceives this as his own, present suffering. However, accepting this leads to the very problem we suggested: in Christ’s eternal present he is continually experiencing the suffering of his crucifixion, and God in his eternal present is experiencing the distaste of human sin perceived in his Son and the pouring forth of his wrath. This will continue as long as the temporal world remains a piece of God’s mental furniture.
The problem does not end here. From God’s perspective, sin is never defeated; it is never consigned to a distant memory with no present existence. The first death never fades. No, if the temporal reality exists in God’s mental living room, then sin and the first death always exist. They are always afflicting his creation, holding it in bondage. Indeed, they are never defeated, for though sin and death in moments X, Y, and Z are defeated because of Christ’s death and resurrection at X, sin and death are ravaging away in moments A – W. The only way to end the experience of the cross and to do away with sin and the first death is to get rid of the temporal world. However, doing so defeats the whole reason for introducing simple knowledge in the first place. If the temporal world is destroyed from God’s living room, then he experiences significant changes. Not only does his living room now have a gap (perhaps replaced by the new creation, but then there is absolutely no continuity between the new and old…), but all knowledge that was once simple now becomes memories—a recollection of what was once known simply.
Simple Knowledge Fails as a Solution
Let’s focus on that a bit. The concept of simple knowledge exists within theology not to explain God’s omniscience, for God’s natural and decretal knowledge (knowledge of himself and knowledge of what he would do) explain God’s omniscience. No, simple knowledge exists to uphold the doctrine of God’s immutability and impassibility interpreted to mean that God experiences absolutely no change and is in no way affected by anything. However, as we have seen, simple knowledge fails in the first count and is not clearly successful in the second.
In the first case, God experiences at least one group of changes (pretty significant ones), though probably more. The temporal world is not co-eternal with God, thus it must have come into being. Thus, there was a time when simple knowledge was absent from God’s mental furniture. However, when God created, he would change in several ways. First, he would now be the creator; second, he would now be related to the creation (which only now exists) in a way he was not before its creation; third, his decretal and natural knowledge of the creation would now be complemented with simple knowledge of the creation; fourth, all his deeds within the creation and the temporal experiences of theophanies, communication, and the incarnation would now be his. If simple knowledge did not exist, God would experience these changes over the course of history; simple knowledge does not discard change but instead relegates it to one eternal moment, but that eternal moment follows another. This actually defeats the idea of eternity as atemporality, for if there is a succession of moments, eternity is indeed temporal. Now, we saw above that to even attempt to solve the theological problems of simple knowledge, one must conjecture that the temporal world ceases to exist at some point. However, this introduces another set of significant changes, mirroring those that its creation produced. To pick one of the changes we identified above, God’s simple knowledge will cease to exist; it will be replaced by God’s memorial knowledge, the remembrance of simple knowledge. Everything which God experienced in an eternal present would now be a memory, become the past (once again, introducing temporality into eternity).
We have gone on too long, but to bring this piece to a close, we can reflect on the success of simple knowledge in guarding God’s impassibility. In sum, it achieves more than it would aspire to. As we have seen, not only is God no longer affected by his creation, nothing is affected by the creation. That is, the reason for this or that emotion or affection, the cause of anything in the temporal world, is God’s creative action. However, on closer examination, simple knowledge does not guard God from being affected. God’s knowledge depends on creation; it is caused by it. God’s knowledge of the creation and action within it is attributed to an eternal present; unlike decretal or natural knowledge, this knowledge is not caused by God himself (it is not self-knowledge). This knowledge is of a distinct reality other than God, and thus depends on that distinct reality.
So, where do we stand? Simple knowledge fails to solve the problems that are supposed to necessitate it, and it introduces new problems that were worse than the former ones. Moreover, there is no compelling reason to accept it. Finally, it fails to do justice to our experience—including the Biblical portrayal of reality. These are the reasons I first rejected simple knowledge. I would add to them now, there is simply no Biblical warrant for believing simple knowledge exists. That is the most significant reason we should reject it.
Without simple knowledge, it is difficult to uphold immutability and impassibility as interpreted by Classical Christian Theism (see here, here, here, and here). However, there is no good biblical reason to uphold the CCT interpretation of these doctrines anyways, so this really isn’t much of a problem. Without simple knowledge, my criticisms of Classical Christian Theism stand—and new ones are added.