The error of Open Theism continues to be an important issue in our day. This article by Dr. Myron Houghton appeared at SharperIron (in four parts) in June of 2005 but didn’t make it back into the article database after the site crashed in 2006. Due to it’s length, we’ll be posting it two parts.
The primary purpose of this paper is to present the major points of the open view of God as found in Dr. Gregory A. Boyd’s recent book, God of the Possible1 and to respond to those points with an exegesis of relevant biblical passages. While I am not impartial, I intend to be fair, both in the clarity with which the major points of the book are explained and in the manner in which I respond to its major ideas.
In order to introduce my response to Dr. Boyd’s book, both the traditional view and the open view of God will be briefly presented. This will be followed by a presentation of major ideas of the open view of God as found in Dr. Boyd’s book and my response to each of these ideas. Unless otherwise identified, all Scripture quotations will be from the New King James Version of the Bible.
A. THE TRADITIONAL VIEW OF GOD
The traditional view of divine omniscience, held by Christian theologians (whether Catholic, Orthodox or Protestant, whether Calvinistic, Lutheran, Baptist or Arminian) is summarized by Enns:
The English word omniscience comes from the Latin words omnis meaning “all,” and scientia, meaning “knowledge”; thus it means that God has all knowledge. A more comprehensive definition will state that God knows all things actual and possible, past, present, and future, in one eternal act. A number of things should be noted about God’s omniscience.
- God knows all things that exist in actuality (Ps. 139:1-6; 147:4; Matt. 6:8; 10:28-30). The psalmist recognized the omniscience of God in that God knew his actions, his thoughts, his words before he even spoke them, and his entire life (Ps. 139:1-4).
- God knows all the variables concerning things that have not occurred. God knew what Tyre and Sidon would have done had the gospel been preached to them (Matt. 11:21).
- God knows all future events. Because God is eternal and knows all things in one eternal act, events that are future to man are an “eternal now” to God. He knew the nations that would dominate Israel (Dan. 2:36-43; 7:4-8), and He knows the events that will yet transpire upon the earth (Matt. 24-25; Rev. 6-19).
- God’s knowledge is intuitive. It is immediate, not coming through the senses; it is simultaneous, not acquired through observation or reason; it is actual, complete, and according to reality.2
One Catholic theologian discusses divine omniscience under the following propositions: (a) God knows all that is merely possible by the knowledge of simple intelligence; (b) God knows all real things in the past, the present and the future; (c) By the knowledge of vision (scientia visionis) God also foresees the future free acts of the rational creation with infallible certainty.3
The traditional view of God’s knowledge is directly related to His decree. Berkhof, quoting the Westminster Shorter Catechism’s definition of God’s decree as “His eternal purpose according to the counsel of His will, whereby, for His own glory, He hath foreordained whatsoever comes to pass,” explains:
But while the decree pertains primarily to the acts of God Himself, it is not limited to these, but also embraces the actions of His free creatures. And the fact that they are included in the decree renders them absolutely certain, though they are not all effectuated in the same manner. In the case of some things God decided, not merely that they would come to pass, but that He Himself would bring them to pass, either immediately, as in the work of creation, or through the mediation of secondary causes, which are continually energized by His power. He Himself assumes the responsibility for their coming to pass. There are other things, however, which God included in His decree and thereby rendered certain, but which He did not decide to effectuate Himself, as the sinful acts of His rational creatures. The decree, in so far as it pertains to these acts, is generally called God’s permissive decree. This name does not imply that the futurition [sic] of these acts is not certain to God, but simply that He permits them to come to pass by the free agency of His rational creatures. God assumes no responsibility for these sinful acts whatsoever.4
In the traditional view of God His decree involves His knowledge of everything that will occur, whether such events occur by His determination or by His permission.
B. THE OPEN VIEW OF GOD
A more recent, alternative view is the open view of God, proponents of which are sometimes called “open theists.” Boyd identifies himself as such. He describes people who hold his view in the following manner:
Open theists, by contrast, hold that the future consists partly of settled realities and partly of unsettled realities. Some things about the future are possibly this way and possibly that way. Hence, precisely because they also hold that God knows all of reality perfectly, open theists believe that God knows the future as consisting of both unsettled possibilities and settled certainties. In this sense, open theists could (and should) affirm that God knows the future perfectly. It’s just that they understand the future as it is now to include genuine possibilities.
If God does not foreknow future free actions, it is not because his knowledge of the future is in any sense incomplete. It’s because there is, in this view, nothing definite there for God to know!5
This view also teaches that God changes His mind. Boyd says, “…in the open view there is little mystery involved in accepting that God can regret his own previous decisions. Once we understand that the future is partly open and that humans are genuinely free, the paradox of how God could experience genuine regret over a decision he made disappears.”6
To summarize Boyd’s position in his own words:
We have seen that Scripture portrays God as the omniscient, sovereign Lord of history. He decrees whatever he wishes to decree. He controls whatever he chooses to control. He is never caught off guard or at a loss of options. He anticipates and ingeniously outmaneuvers his opponents. Hence, all who align themselves with him can have total confidence that he will ultimately achieve his objectives for creation.
We have also seen, however, that the passages that express this motif do not require us to believe that the future is exhaustively settled. To confess that God can control whatever he wants to control leaves open the question of how much God actually does want to control. If Scripture warrants it, there is “room” within this motif for the belief that some of the future is not determined, and thus not foreknown as settled by God. In the next chapter, we will argue that Scripture not only warrants this conclusion, it requires it.7
C. A RESPONSE TO ISSUES RAISED IN BOYD’S BOOK
In defense of his view that the future is not fixed, Boyd discusses a number of issues throughout his book, including genuine human freedom, God’s goodness and God’s change of mind. In this paper, I intend to discuss these particular issues but especially to focus upon God’s change of mind since Boyd develops it in detailed fashion.
1. Genuine Human Freedom
One issue concerns real human freedom to choose. Boyd asks, “if every choice you’ve ever made was certain an eternity before you made it, were you really free when you made each choice? Could you have chosen differently if it was eternally certain you’d make the choice you did?”8
My response is to say that Boyd is reading the concept backwards. The traditional concept merely states that God was passively aware of every choice we would make and falls into the permissive aspect of His decree. His certain knowledge of our choices did not cause them to be made; rather our making those choices caused God to possess that prior knowledge. Granted that Calvinists believe God’s awareness of future events is caused by His determination to bring about these events, this is not the issue under discussion. Later in his book, Boyd recognizes this point, because he says, “Classical theologians do not agree on howthe future is eternally settled, however. Some follow Augustine and Calvin and maintain that the future will be a certain way because God foreknows it this way. Others follow Arminius and argue that God foreknows the future a certain way because the future simply will be that way. In other words, classical theologians disagree about what comes first.
Does God’s foreknowledge determine the future, or does the future determine God’s foreknowledge?9
2. God’s Goodness
A second issue concerns the goodness of God. Boyd says, “even more troubling, if God foreknew that Adolf Hitler would send six million Jews to their death, why did he go ahead and create a man like that? If I unleash a mad dog I am certain will bite you, am I not responsible for my dog’s behavior?”10
Response #1: According to the traditional view, God knew what Hitler would do but permitted him to do it, for reasons known only to Himself. According to the open view, God did not know what Hitler would do, so He permitted him to be born and become a leader. But God, in Boyd’s thinking, “is never caught off guard or at a loss of options. He anticipates and ingeniously outmaneuvers his opponents.”11
Really? Then why didn’t God do something to prevent Hitler from carrying out his plan? Boyd’s view, therefore, falls under the same criticism he levels against the traditional view.
Response #2: We need to realize that human beings neither define nor determine the goodness of God. When someone addressed Jesus as “Good Teacher,” He responded, “Why do you call Me good? No one is good but One, that is, God.” (Mark 10:17-18). God has the right to define His own goodness. Since God alone is both good and sovereign, He is not responsible to explain to us why He determines certain events or permits certain things to happen.
Response #3: We need to ask ourselves whether or not we believe that God is sovereign. Boyd’s statement, “If the Bible is always true—and I, for one, assume that it is…”12, ought to make it possible to examine biblical passages and expect agreement with their affirmations. One such passage, which clearly teaches God’s sovereignty, states, “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 [exousia] over the clay, from the same lump to make one vessel for honor and another for dishonor?” (Romans 9:18-22). In light of this passage, should we not affirm that God is sovereign—recognizing that this sovereignty means God is in control?
3. God’s Change of Mind
A third issue concerns the biblical texts that tell us God changed His mind. Boyd asks, “If the future is exhaustively settled in God’s mind, as the classical view holds, why does the Bible repeatedly describe God changing his mind? Why does the Bible say that God frequently alters his plans, cancels prophecies in the light of changing circumstances, and speaks about the future as a ‘maybe,’ a ‘perhaps,’ or a ‘possibility’?”13 In the second chapter of his book, Boyd discusses this issue under eight subdivisions.
a. God regrets how things turn out.
Boyd draws our attention to two biblical passages to support his point: God’s regret concerning pre-flood humanity (Genesis 6:6) and God’s regret over Saul’s kingship (1 Samuel 15:10, 35).
Response #1: Notice that all of the biblical references to these ideas are found in the Old Testament and can be explained in anthropomorphic terms. One writer describes anthropomorphism as an attempt “to express the truth about God through human analogies”14 Passages such as Psalm 14:2-3 in which God’s omniscience is described in terms of God looking over the edge of heaven to determine if anyone seeks after Him would be an example of anthropomorphism. Further, a rhetorical device used by God for the benefit of His human creatures would also be a form of anthropomorphism. Thus, when God sought Adam and Eve after they had sinned, He called, “Where are you?” (Genesis 3:9). This question was not for God’s benefit, as if He didn’t know where Adam and Eve were hiding, but rather a rhetorical question for their benefit, giving them an opportunity to come out of hiding and explain what had happened. Another form of anthropomorphism would be the parent/child relationship as an analogy of God’s relationship to believers, In Psalm 103:13-14 we are told, “As a father pities his children, so the LORD pities those who fear Him. For He knows our frame; He remembers that we are dust.” Thus, God’s willingness to bargain with Abraham about the future of Sodom in Genesis 18:16-33 was to show Abraham how wicked the city really was. Similar to this anthropomorphic form is the ruler/subject relationship as an analogy of God’s relationship to the nations. This would also include passages where God’s pronouncement of judgment was either explicitly or implicitly conditional, as in the book of Jonah.
While “all Scripture is profitable for doctrine” (2 Timothy 3:16), it is also true that revelation becomes progressively clearer, culminating in God’s full and final revelation through His Son. In Hebrews 1:1-2 we read, “God, who at various times and in various ways spoke in time past to the fathers by the prophets, has in these last days spoken to us by His Son…” Since in the Old Testament, God spoke “in various ways,” one might expect God to be portrayed in human terms. In New Testament revelation, God is never pictured as changing His mind or regretting decisions He has made. Instead, God is described as unchanging in His nature and attributes. Thus, in James 1:17 God is described as, “the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow of turning.”
Response #2: Regret is an emotion that is sometimes caused by information not previously possessed, but this is not always the case. One may know what bad things people will do and still express regret when those evil things are done. So regret does not require limited previous knowledge.
Response #3: Did God know people would be sinful before He created them? Boyd doubts it. He asks, “Doesn’t the fact that God regretted the way things turned out—to the point of starting over—suggest that it wasn’t a foregone conclusion at the time God created human beings that they would fall into this state of wickedness?”15 By way of contrast, in 1 Peter 1:19-20, Jesus is presented as “a lamb without blemish and without spot…[who] indeed was foreordained before the foundation of the world, but was manifest in these last times….” Clearly God knew before creation that human beings would sin and therefore He planned Christ’s death as a sacrifice for sins.
Those who deny that God foresees the choice that people will make fail to understand the extent of God’s power. In Psalm 147:4-5 we read, “He counts the number of the stars; He calls them all by name. Great is our Lord, and mighty in power; His understanding is infinite.” By means of this great power and understanding, the Lord was able to predict with infallible certainty that Peter would deny Him three times—no more and no less! (Matthew 26:33-35). God is able to predict what choice people would have made under certain circumstances—even though these circumstances did not occur. Thus, Jesus could condemn the cities of Chorazin and Bethsaida, saying, “For if the mighty works which were done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes” (Matthew 11:21).
God not only foresees the free acts of men; sometimes he influences them! Thus Scripture tells us, “The king’s heart is in the hand of the LORD, Like the rivers of water; He turns it wherever He wishes.” (Proverbs 21:1). Rehoboam’s refusal to listen to the people is said to be from the Lord, so that He might fulfill the promise He made to Jeroboam to give him the ten northern tribes of Israel (1 Kings 12:15; cf. 11:29-39). The Bible says that God stirred up the king of Assyria’s spirit to take the Reubenites, Gadites and half the tribe of Manasseh into captivity (1 Chronicles 5:26). The Bible also says that He stirred up the spirit of the Philistines and the Arabians against King Jehoram of Judah to invade his palace and capture his possessions and most of his sons (2 Chronicles 21:16-17).
Response #4: Deuteronomy 32:11-12 describes the relationship between God and Jacob [and his descendants]: “As an eagle stirs up its nest, hovers over its young, spreading out its wings, taking them up carrying them on its wings, so the LORD alone led him.” One commentary says, “Apparently the eagle taught its young to fly by throwing one out of the nest, and then swooping down and allowing the young bird to alight on its mother’s wings.”16 Another commentary states, “The Lord exercised his loving care for Israel like an eagle caring for its young, especially as they are taught to fly (v. 11). The eagle, by stirring up the nest thrusts the eaglets out into the air to try their wings but does not leave them altogether on their own resources. The parent eagle catches the fluttering little ones on its outspread wings and again deposits them in the nest. Similarly the Lord took Israel out from Egypt into the deserts of Sinai but did not leave them without his help. His widespread wings supported them throughout the learning years in Sinai.”17
Is the eagle parent being mean and cruel when it throws the eaglets out of the nest? Does not the eagle parent have a good motive in so doing? When human parents threaten punishment for their child but ‘change their mind’ when he or she responds in obedience, are they being insincere? Might not their pronouncement of punishment simply be a means by which they motivate their child to obedience? If we recognize the legitimacy of this technique in parents, could we not do so for God as well? In Psalm 103:13-14 we read, “As a father pities his children, so the LORD pities those who fear Him. For He knows our frame; He remembers that we are dust.”
Response #5: In the very chapter where God expresses to Samuel His regret over setting Saul up as king (1 Samuel 15:11), Samuel confronts Saul, telling him God has torn the kingdom from him and explaining, “And also the Strength of Israel will not lie nor relent. For He is not a man, that He should relent” (v. 29). This points to the possibility that the statement concerning God’s regret was anthropomorphic.
b. God asks questions about the future.
Boyd cites God’s question to Moses, “How long will these people reject Me? And how long will they not believe Me, with all the signs which I have performed among them?” and then asks, “If God wonders about future issues, does this not imply that the future is to some extent unsettled?”18 Boyd himself recognizes that this is not the only possible way of understanding God’s question. He says, “Some suggest that in these verses the Lord was asking rhetorical questions, just as he had done when he asked Adam and Eve where they were (Gen. 3:8-9). This is a possible interpretation, but not a necessary one.”19 Why doesn’t Boyd understand God’s questions as rhetorical? He has already determined that the Bible presents God as uncertain of some future events. Thus one’s view of God influences which interpretation seems best.
c. God confronts the unexpected.
Third, sometimes God tells us that things turn out differently than he expected. For example, in Isaiah 5 the Lord describes Israel as his vineyard and himself as its loving owner. He explains that, as the owner of the vineyard, he “expected it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes” (v. 2). He then asks, “What more was there to do for my vineyard that I have not done in it? When I expected it to yield grapes, why did it yield wild grapes?” (v. 4). Because it unexpectedly failed to yield grapes, the Lord sadly concludes, “I will remove its hedge, and it shall be devoured” (v. 5).
If everything is eternally certain to God, as the classical view of foreknowledge holds, how could the Lord twice say that he “expected” one thing to occur, only to have something different occur? How could the Lord expect, hope for, and even strive (“what more was there to do?”) for something he knew from all eternity would never happen? If we take the passage at face value, does it not imply that the future of Israel, the “vineyard,” was not certain until they settled it by choosing to yield “wild grapes”?20
Response #1: From Boyd’s remarks in the previous section, it is clear he realizes that it is quite possible to understand God’s questions as rhetorical. It is not a matter of taking the passage “at face value,” but of which interpretation fits with one’s view of God.
Response #2: Does God know with certainty whether or not there will be a future for Israel? The eleventh chapter of Romans answers this question in the affirmative and ties the answer to God’s foreknowledge: “I say then, has God [permanently] cast away His people? Certainly not!…God has not cast away His people whom He foreknew” (vv. 1-2). For if, at the present time, “their being cast away is the reconciling of the [Gentile] world, what will their acceptance be but life from the dead?” (v. 15). How can God be so certain the restoration of Israel will be brought about? We are told:
Blindness in part has happened to Israel until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in. And so all Israel will be saved, as it is written: “The Deliverer will come out of Zion and He will turn away ungodliness from Jacob; For this is My covenant with them, when I take away their sins.” Concerning the gospel they are enemies for your sake, but concerning the election they are beloved for the sake of the fathers. For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable. (vv. 25-29).
This passage supports a view of God in which Israel is presently set aside from God’s program, both because they failed to respond to God’s word in faith (v. 20) and because it is God’s plan to do such in order that Gentiles might be saved (vv. 11-15), a view of God in which He is not surprised but sovereign, in which He turns ungodliness away from Israel and saves them—a salvation rooted in God’s irrevocable covenant with and love for Israel’s forefathers (vv. 25-29).
d. God gets frustrated.
Boyd tells us,
…throughout Scripture we find God being frustrated as people stubbornly resist his plan for their lives. This dominant feature of the biblical narrative is hard to square with the view that the entire future is eternally settled. …
For example, several times the Lord tried to convince Moses that he could use him despite his speech impediment. Moses repeatedly refused to accept this (Exod. 4:10-15). Finally, Scripture says, “the anger of the LORD was kindled against Moses and he said, ‘What of your brother Aaron, the Levite? I know he can speak fluently’ ” (v. 14). God was clearly frustrated by Moses’ persistent unbelief.21
Response #1: Nothing in this narrative states that God was frustrated.
Response #2: Nothing in this narrative suggests God did not know what the response of Moses to His call would be.
1 Gregory A. Boyd, God of the Possible (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2000).
2 Paul Enns, The Moody Handbook of Theology. (Chicago: Moody Press, 1989), 194-195.
3 Ludwig Ott, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma 5th edition (St. Louis: B. Herder Book Company, 1962), 40-41.
4 L. Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1939), 102-103.
5 Boyd, 16.
6 Ibid, 57.
7 Ibid, 51.
8 Boyd, God of the Possible, 10.
9 Ibid, 22-23.
10 Ibid, 10.
11 Ibid, 51.
12 Ibid, 11.
14 Millard Erickson, Christian Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1999), 294.
15 Ibid, 55.
16 Peter C. Craigie, The Book of Deuteronomy (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1976), 381.
17 Earl Kalland, “Deuteronomy,” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Frank E. Gaebelein, General Editor (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1992), 3:204-205.
18 Boyd, 59.
20 Ibid, 59-60.
21 Ibid, 62.
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.