This is the second half of an article by Dr. Myron Houghton which appeared at SharperIron (in four parts) in June of 2005. Part one ended with a look at the fifth of Gregory Boyd’s eight evidences that God changes His mind. Part two continues by addresessing the sixth.
e. God tests people to know their character.
Boyd states, “The fifth and strongest group of passages we’ve examined thus far that suggest the future is not exhaustively settled shows that God frequently tests his covenant partners to see if they will choose to follow him or not.”22
Response # 1: When evidence to the contrary from Scripture is presented against this point, Boyd’s response is less than satisfying. He explains:
Perhaps the most familiar example is when the Lord tells Peter he will deny him three times before morning (Matt. 26:33-35). Contrary to the assumption of many, we do not need to believe that the future is exhaustively settled to explain this prediction. We only need to believe that God the Father knew and revealed to Jesus one very predictable aspect of Peter’s character. Anyone who knew Peter’s character perfectly could have predicted that under certain highly pressured circumstances (that God could easily orchestrate), he would act just the way he did.23
There are two problems with Boyd’s response. First, it does not take into account the fact that Christ predicted Peter would deny Him three times—no more and no less. Second, Boyd’s view of God here—as One Who knows how people will react under certain circumstances and Who orchestrates those circumstances—is not consistent with his view of God elsewhere as One Who gets frustrated and Who regrets earlier decisions.
Response # 2: Once again the issue is the intended meaning of these passages, and that, in turn, hinges on what the interpreter believes about the content of God’s knowledge. Referring to traditional theologians who believe God possesses knowledge of all things—including knowledge of the choices humans will make even before they actually make them, Caneday states,
These Christian theologians have always observed that the Bible primarily portrays God with five relational metaphors: (1) king and subject; (2) judge and litigant; (3) husband and wife; (4) father and child; and finally (5) master and slave. Biblical imagery ascribes human likeness to God because the God who made his creatures in his own image, discloses himself to them in keeping with the God-like adornment he gave Adam and his descendants. This is the essence of anthropomorphism. In Christian theology books these five anthropomorphic portrayals of God’s relationship with his worshipers dominate the discussion of God’s relationship with his creation. God reveals himself to us in human terms.24
Thus, those who believe God possesses exhaustive foreknowledge will understand God’s role in these passages in terms of anthropomorphism.
Response # 3: Geisler comments,
What God knew by cognition, he desired to show by demonstration. By passing the test, Abraham demonstrated what God always knew: namely, that he feared God. For example, a math teacher might say to her class, Let’s see if we can find the square root of 49,” and then, after demonstrating it, declare, “Now we know that the square root of 49 is 7,” even though she knew from the beginning what the answer was.25
In the traditional view of God, the purpose of testing Abraham was to demonstrate his trust in God. Hebrews 11:17-19 tells us,
By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises offered up his only begotten son, of whom it was said, “In Isaac your seed shall be called,” concluding that God was able to raise him up, even from the dead, from which he also received him in a figurative sense.
The traditional view of God believes that God already knew this and used the test to demonstrate Abraham’s faith, while the open view teaches that God did not know this and used the test to discover whether or not Abraham would obey Him.
f. God speaks in terms of what may or may not be.
One of the most interesting examples of this is when God tries to convince Moses to be his representative to the elders of Israel who are in bondage to Pharaoh. The Lord initially tells Moses that the elders will listen to his voice (Exod. 3:18). Moses apparently doesn’t hold to the classical view of divine foreknowledge, however, for he immediately asks, “suppose they do not believe me or listen to me?” (Exod. 4:1).
God’s response to him suggests that God doesn’t hold to this view of foreknowledge either. He first demonstrates a miracle… . Moses remains unconvinced, so the Lord performs a second miracle and comments, “Ifthey will not believe you or heed the first sign, they maybelieve the second sign” (4:8). How can the Lord say, “they maybelieve”? Isn’t the future behavior of the elders a matter of certainty for the Lord? Apparently not. Indeed, the Lord continues, “If they will not believe even these two signs or heed you, you shall take some water from the Nile and pour it on the dry ground; and the water that you shall take from the Nile will become blood on the dry ground (4:9).
If the future is exhaustively settled, God would of course have known exactly how many miracles, if any, it would take to get the elders to believe Moses. In that case, the meaning of the words he chose (“may,” “if”) could not be sincere.26
Response # 1: That Moses would question God about the willingness of the elders of Israel to heed what he tells them doesn’t necessarily mean Moses thought God was ignorant of their response. It is possible, holding the classical view of exhaustive divine foreknowledge, to understand God’s promise in an ultimate sense, i.e., that ultimately the elders would heed his voice. At the same time, it is possible to understand the question of Moses in an immediate sense, “yes, ultimately they will heed my voice but what if they do not do so when I first approach them?”
Response # 2: Realizing that God is interactinging with Moses and, given the possible scenario in my previous response, it is inappropriate to impute insincerity to God as the only possible alternative if He, indeed, possesses exhaustive foreknowledge.
g. Hastening the Lord’s return.
Boyd refers to 2 Peter 3:12 where Peter admonishes believers to be godly people, “looking for and hastening the coming of the Day of God.” Then he comments:
If taken at face value, the verse is teaching us that how people respond to the gospel and how Christians live affects the timing of the second coming. But how is this teaching compatible with the view that everything, including the timing of the second coming, is eternally fixed in God’s mind? What is the point of talking about God’s delay due to his patience or encouraging believers to speed up Christ’s return by how they live if in reality the exact time has been settled from all eternity?27
Response # 1: The teaching of Matthew 24:36 is, “But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, but My Father only.” This passage seems to teach that God the Father knows precisely—even to the day and the hour—when these eschatological events will take place.
Response # 2: 2 Peter 3 is a response to the scoffers who imply God either does not know when Christ is going to return or else has forgotten to send Him (v. 3). In his response, Peter states: [a] these scoffers have willfully forgotten that both creation and the flood were direct interventions of God (vv. 5-6). Furthermore, the same God who brought the world into existence and who brought a judgment by water to it has promised to judge the world by fire (v. 7). [b] God’s timetable and ours are not the same; we view God as being late, but He is right on schedule according to His timetable (vv. 8-9). Thus, the “hastening” of the Day of God in verse 12 is from our perspective, not God’s. This interpretation not only takes the passage “at face value,” but also in its context.
h. Jeremiah 18 and the flexible potter.
The final aspect of the motif of future openness we need to examine is also the strongest. Numerous times in Scripture we find that God changes his mind in response to events that transpire in history. … Perhaps the best example of this is found in Jeremiah 18. Many in Israel had heard that the Lord was planning on punishing her for her wickedness and had wrongly assumed that this meant “It is of no use!” (Jer. 18:12). If God has prophesied against us, they reasoned, there is nothing that can be done about it. It seems that they were reading into God’s prophecy the assumption that the future was unalterable.
To correct this fatalistic thinking, the Lord directed Jeremiah to go to a potter’s house to watch a potter at work. “The vessel he was making of clay was spoiled in the potter’s hand, and he reworked it into another vessel, as seemed good to him” (v. 4). The Lord then instructed Jeremiah, “Can I not do with you, O house of Israel, just as this potter has done? … Just like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel” (v. 6).
The Lord then continues:
At one moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, but if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will change mymindabout the disaster that I intended to bring on it. And at another moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom that I will build and plant it, but if it does evil in my sight, not listening to my voice, than I will changemy mindabout the good that I had intended to do to it (vv. 7-10).
The Lord then applies this teaching to Israel: “Look, I am a potter shaping evil against you and devising a plan against you. Turn now, all of you from your evil way, and amend your ways and your doings” (v. 11). There are several points worth making regarding this remarkable passage.
First, many ancient and contemporary interpreters have used the potter/clay analogy to argue that God exercises unilateral control over us. They mistakenly read Paul to be using the analogy in this fashion (Rom. 9:21-23). … What is important for us to note is that in Jeremiah (the passage Paul is alluding to), the analogy is used to make the exactoppositepoint. As the potter was willing to revise his vessel once the first plan was “spoiled,” so God was willing to revise his initial plan when circumstances call for it. He is not a unilaterally controlling God; he is a graciously flexible God. The “clay” he works with is not lifeless but has a mind and will of its own, to which he responds appropriately.
Second, we must take very seriously the Lord’s word in Jeremiah 18 that he will “change [his] mind about the disaster that [he] intended to bring” on one nation (v. 8) and/or “change [his] mind about the good [he] had intended to do to” another nation, if these nations change (v. 10). If the future were exhaustively fixed, could the Lord genuinely intend to bring about something and then genuinely changehis mindand not bring it about? How can someone sincerely intend to do something they are certain they will never do? And how can they truly change their mind if their mind is eternally made up?
[Third,] classical theologians usually argue that texts that attribute change to God describe how he appearsto us; they do not depict God as he really is. It looks like God changed his mind, but he really didn’t.… I suggest that if this text isn’t enough to convince us that God’s mind is not eternally settled, then our philosophical presuppositions are controlling our exegesis to a degree that no text could everteach us this. People who affirm the divine authority of Scripture do not want to be guilty of this charge.
Fourth, while classical theologians have always considered the notion that God changes his mind as denoting a weakness on God’s part, this passage and several others (Jonah 4:2; Joel 2:12-13) consider God’s willingness to change to be one of God’s attributes of greatness. …
Finally, we must reconcile Jeremiah 18 and all the other passages that speak of God “changing his mind” with Samuel’s statement to Saul that “the Glory of Israel will not recant or change his mind” (1 Sam. 15:29). A nearly identical statement was made by Balaam when he told Balak, “God is not a human being, that he should lie, or a mortal, that he should change his mind” (Num. 23:19). … A closer examination of both passages reveals that they do not contradict the teaching that God changes his mind and do not speak about God any more literally than the passages in which God does change his mind.
Regarding Samuel’s statement to Saul, it is important to recall that both before and after this verse we find Scripture explicitly teaching that God regretted making Saul king over Israel (1 Sam. 15:11, 35). He intended to bless him but ended up judging him instead (1 Sam. 13:13-14).
It’s important to note that Samuel had prayed all night trying to change the Lord’s mind regarding Saul’s dethronement. (1 Sam. 15:11-12). This alone is enough to demonstrate that Samuel believed that God could, in principle, change his mind about things. It’s just that, after trying all night, he came to conclude that in this instance God wouldn’tchange his mind.28
Response # 1: Concerning the dethronement of Saul, we have already seen that regret doesn’t require ignorance. One may be aware of a particular event and still have regret when it happens. 1 Samuel 8 shows that Israel’s desire to have a king was a rejection of the Lord’s leadership (v. 7) yet this did not prevent the Lord from instructing Samuel to anoint Saul as king to lead Israel (1 Sam. 9:15-16). The traditional view of God can be harmonized with a multifaceted divine plan that includes knowledge of everything that will come to pass, including changes in God’s attitude and actions.
Furthermore, 1 Samuel 15:11-12 does not say Samuel tried to change God’s mind. Here is the text: “Now the word of the LORD came to Samuel, saying, ‘I greatly regret that I have set up Saul as king, for he has turned back from following Me, and has not performed My commandments.’ And it grieved Samuel, and he cried out to the LORD all night” (Vv. 10-11).
Response # 2: Concerning Jeremiah 18, we note that God makes clear to Israel and Judah that His threat to destroy them is conditional and would not be carried out if they repented: “Now therefore, speak to the men of Judah and to the inhabitants of Jerusalem, saying, ‘Thus says the LORD: Behold, I am fashioning a disaster and devising a plan against you. Return now everyone from his evil way, and make your ways and your doings good’” (v. 11). The point of the potter analogy is that both God and the potter have authority over the “material” with which they are working. In God’s case, the “clay” refers to living human beings, and He graciously condescends to make His judgment upon them conditional upon their refusal to repent. Nothing in Jeremiah 18 requires us to deny that God possesses exhaustive foreknowledge.
This is also true in Romans 9:14-24. We read, What shall we say then? Is there unrighteousness with God? Certainly not! For He says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whomever I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whomever I will have compassion.” So then it is not of him who wills, nor of him who runs, but of God who shows mercy. For the Scripture says to the Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I may show My power in you, and that My name may be declared in all the earth.” Therefore He has mercy on whom He wills, and whom He wills He hardens. You will say to me then, “Why does He still find fault? For who has resisted His will?” But indeed, O man, who are you to reply against God? Will the thing formed say to him who formed it, “Why have you made me like this?” Does not the potter have power over the clay, from the same lump to make one vessel for honor and another for dishonor? What if God, wanting to show His wrath and to make His power known, endured with much longsuffering the vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, and that He might make known the riches of His glory on the vessels of mercy, which He had prepared beforehand for glory, even us whom He called, not of the Jews only, but also of the Gentiles?
Rather than denying God’s exhaustive foreknowledge, the ninth chapter of Romans defines God’s sovereignty in terms of His absolute control.
D. TWO ISSUES IN FAVOR OF THE TRADITIONAL VIEW
1. Biblical Anthropomorphism
Boyd implies throughout his book that if one interprets God’s activity as an example of anthropomorphism, then he or she is not taking the biblical text at face value but is interpreting it in a nonliteral manner. If Boyd has interpreted correctly the various passages already examined in this paper, how are we to understand Psalm 14:2-3, which tell us, “The LORD looks down from heaven upon the children of men to see if there are any who understand, who seek God. They have all turned aside, they have together become corrupt; There is none who does good, no, not one”? Would not Boyd [and others who interpret Scripture similarly with respect to the open view of God] be required to conclude that God not only is unaware of our decisions before we make them; He is also unaware of those decisions after we make them—until He decides to look down from heaven to discover what our choices have been? Does this passage really teach that God does not know what humanity is doing until He looks down upon them, or is this an anthropomorphic way of stating God’s omniscience?
2. Divine Foreknowledge of Human Salvation
Boyd states his view in the following way:
In the same way that God predestined and foreknew the death of Jesus without predestining or foreknowing which individuals would condemn him, so God predestined and foreknew the church without predestining or foreknowing which specific individuals would belong to it. A careful examination of the relevant texts supports this interpretation.
For example, when Paul says that God “chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world,” he immediately specifies that this predestination was for us “to be holy and blameless before him in love” (Eph. 1:4). Note, Paul does notsay we that we were individually predestined to be “in Christ” (or not).…
Something similar must be said about Paul’s statement that “those whom [God] foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son” (Rom. 8:29). Many interpret this verse to mean that God foreknew that certain individuals would believe and then predestined them to be conformed to the image of his Son. But we must notice that Paul doesn’t specify that God foreknew certain individuals would believe. He simply says, “those who [God] foreknew he also predestined. We must be careful not to read into the verse more than is there.
Now, if by “foreknowledge” Paul meant to refer to certain information about the future that God possessed, this passage would present a serious problem to the classical view of divine foreknowledge. For the verse contrasts “those whom God foreknew” with others God did not foreknow. But in the classical view of foreknowledge, of course, God foreknows with certainty everything about everyone throughout the whole of the future. There is nothing for God’s knowledge to contrast with.
There is no reason to think that Paul has information in mind when he speaks of God’s foreknowledge, however. In customary Semitic fashion, Paul seems to be using the word know to mean “intimately love.” This is clearly his meaning when, two chapters later, he refers to Israel as the people “whom [God] foreknew” (Rom. 11:2). …
So too, in Romans 8:29 Paul is saying that the church as a corporate whole was in God’s heart long before the church was birthed. But this doesn’t imply that he knew who would and would not be in this church ahead of time. He predestined that all who choose to receive Christ would grow to be in the image of his Son. But whether particular individuals receive Christ and thus acquire this predestined image depends on their free will.29
Response # 1: Boyd is critical of those who define foreknowledge in terms of informational content (see previous page), yet he himself includes this concept when he states, “He predestined that all who choose to receive Christ would grow to be in the image of his Son.”30 One cannot avoid including information in a biblical understanding of foreknowledge, whether one defines it in terms of passive awareness [as non-Calvinists do] or active involvement in a plan [as Calvinists do]. Furthermore, Boyd is not correct when he says Romans 8:29 “contrasts ‘those whom God foreknew’ with others God did notforeknow.”31 Rather verses 29 and 30 describe the five things God includes in His purpose for “those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose” (v. 28). The text says nothing about those who are not foreknown, predestined, called, justified and glorified.
Response # 2: It is true that “Christ loved the church and gave Himself for her…that He might present her to Himself a glorious church, not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing, but that she should be holy and without blemish” [Eph. 5:25, 27]. But it is equally true that God foreknew, predestined, called, justified and glorified individuals [cf. Rom. 8:29-30]. Justification refers to the change in God’s records whereby He forgives the sins of believers and no longer credits them to their account but rather credits their account with a righteousness they did not earn (Romans 4:2-8). God does notjustify groups!He justifies individuals who put their trust in Christ! Jack Cottrell, a non- Calvinist, comments:
A popular belief among non-Calvinists is that “God predestined the plan, not the man.” The Scriptures, however, show that it is always persons who are predestined and not just some abstract, impersonal plan. This is so obvious that it hardly seems necessary to mention it. In Rom. 8:29, 30 Paul is speaking of persons.The same persons who are predestined are also called, justified and glorified. In 2 Thess. 2:13 he says that “God has chosen you,” the Christian people of Thessalonica, “for salvation.” Eph. 1:4, 5, 11 speaks of God’s predestination in relation to his plan, but it is specifically stated that God predestined us (persons) to adoption as sons in accordance with his purpose and plan.32
Does God know everything-including the choices people will freely make? If so, He is in control of each circumstance we face. If He doesn’t, then there are times when He is caught off guard, times when He is does not anticipate and ingeniously outmaneuver His opponents, times when He does become frustrated. Do we “know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose” (Romans 8:28)? Do we really believe that God is in control of everything that happens? If so, now is the time for us to publicly affirm our belief in the traditional view of God, recognizing that this is the authentic teaching of God’s Word.
The Bible teaches that God’s knowledge and wisdom are exhaustless. Further, it connects this infinite knowledge and wisdom to His sovereignty. “Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and His ways past finding out! ‘For who has known the mind of the LORD? Or who has become His counselor?’ ‘Or who has first given to Him and it shall be repaid to him?’ For of Him and through Him and to Him are all things, to whom be glory forever. Amen.” (Romans 11:33-36, emphasis added). It is precisely because His relationship to all things is that of source (of Him), creator (through Him) and possessor (for Him) that He has this infinite knowledge and wisdom, and this makes Him worthy of our praise (to Whom be glory forever).
22 Ibid, 63.
23 Ibid, 35.
24 A. B. Caneday, “The Implausible God of Open Theism:A Response to Gregory A. Boyd’s God ofthe Possible” (Long Version. Unpublished paper appearing in the “foreknowledge” section of the Baptist General Conference/Bethel website: www.bgc.bethel.edu), 21. This website has articles and other material—both for and against the open view of God.
25 Norman L. Geisler, Creating God in the Image of Man? (Minneapolis: Bethany House Publishers, 1997), 88.
26 Boyd, 67.
28 Ibid, 75-80.
29 Ibid, 46-48.
32 Jack W. Cottrell, “Conditional Election,” in Grace Unlimited, Clark H. Pinnock, editor (Minneapolis: Bethany Fellowship, Inc1975), 57.
Myron J. Houghton is the Senior Professor of Systematic Theology and director of the Master of Arts Theological Studies program at Faith Baptist Theological Seminary. He taught at Denver Baptist Bible College and Theological Seminary before coming to Faith in 1983.