Preface and Introduction
The God of the Possible
One evening about fifteen years ago, I came upon 2 Kings 20 while reading my Bible. I read about how king Hezekiah was sick and how the Lord told him through the prophet Isaiah, "Set your house in order, for you shall die; you shall not recover" (vs. 1). Hezekiah then prayed earnestly and persuaded the Lord to add fifteen years to his life (vs. 5).
I'd read these verses many times before, but for some reason they struck me more profoundly this particular evening. What puzzled me was this: Was God being truthful when he had Isaiah tell Hezekiah he was planning to bring him home? And if so, then must we not believe that God really changed his mind when he decided to add fifteen years to Hezekiah's life?
I began to wonder how this could be true if God eternally knew every detail about the future, as I had been taught to believe all my Christian life.
These questions set in motion a course of study which lasted several years. I wanted to resolve for myself whether or not the Bible taught that God always knows what is going to happen in the future. In the course of this prolonged study I combed through the whole Bible, carefully noting every passage which seemed to support the classical view that the future is exhaustively settled in the mind of God and every passage which, like 2 Kings 20, seemed to suggest that the future is to some extent open and that God does not know every detail about what shall come to pass. I then pondered various ways in which the two sets of passages could be reconciled into a coherent theological perspective. And I explored (and continue to explore) every possible objection that could be raised against each view and how the view might respond to it.
About three years later, to my surprise, I became convinced that the classical view was mistaken. I came to believe that the future is, to some degree at least, open-ended and that God knows it as such. I came to embrace what is now generally called "the Open view of God."
In this book I'd like to share with the reader the essence of this investigation. It explains how Bible believing thinkers who hold this view come to the conclusions they come to. It explains how Open theists respond to questions and objections that have been raised against this view. And it explains why this issue is not simply an academic issue: it can have important ramifications for your life.
I do not know whether you, the reader, will come to share my convictions. If my view is correct, even God may not know this as of yet. But I do believe that if you carefully consider the case set forth in this book it will reveal aspects of God's Word you may have not yet noticed before and open your mind to an intriguing--and in my estimation, wonderful--way of thinking about God and the future. Indeed, I personally know of a number of people whose faith and life were revolutionized by accepting this theological position. I am one of them.
I must express a profound word of love and appreciation to my adorable wife of nineteen years, Shelley Boyd. Thank you for tolerating, even embracing, my manic-compulsive character when I get a project like this under my skin. Thanks also to the many friends who have given me feedback on my position and constructive criticisms of my writing. I am especially indebted to Leland Eliason, Provost of Bethel Seminary, for his astute critique of earlier drafts of this work, and to Chelsea DeArmond whose amazing editorial skills helped make this work readable for lay people.
Finally, a special word of thanks must be offered to my dissenting friend, John Piper--a true Calvinist if ever there was one. Two brothers could hardly disagree more profoundly than we. But your public challenges have stimulated me and helped me clarify the issues. I would hope that this little work would convert you over to "the truth," but I suspect that may be a bit optimistic. Still, I appreciate your "iron sharpening" role in my life, and I pray this book in some measure returns the favor.
DR. GREGORY A. BOYD
Does God foreknow the outcome of every decision you shall ever make? Was it eternally certain that you would (say) choose to take the back roads home from work today rather than the freeway, just to give yourself some time alone? And is it true that there never was a time when it wasn't absolutely certain that you would (say) lie to a friend yesterday, or anonymously send a hundred dollars last week to a family you knew was in need? If it was, could you have chosen to do other than what you did? And if your entire future is eternally certain like this, if everything you shall do is already settled, is anything really left up to you to decide? Are you really free?
These are some of the questions which the classical doctrine of God's foreknowledge raises. Other questions are even more disturbing, however. If God foreknew that Adolf Hitler would send six million Jews to their death, why did he go ahead and create him? More troubling still, if God is eternally certain that various individuals will end up going to hell, why does he go ahead and create them? And why does he continue to strive with them to get them to accept his grace if all the while he is certain they will never come around?
Finally, if the future is exhaustively settled in God's mind, how is it that the Bible (as we shall see) repeatedly speaks about him changing his mind, canceling prophecies, expressing uncertainty about the future, being disappointed in the way things turn out and even occasionally regretting the outcome of his own decisions?
Questions such as these led me to my biblical and theological investigation of God's foreknowledge fifteen years ago and eventually led me to the conclusion that something was amiss in the classical understanding of this foreknowledge. I came to believe that the future was indeed partly determined and foreknown by God, but also that it was partly open and known byGod as such. I came, in short, to embrace what has come to be labeled the Open view of God.
In this book I am seeking to share with the reader the biblical evidence which led me to this conclusion as well as some of the theological and practical considerations which support it. Before embarking on this, however, a few introductory comments about the timing and nature of this book will help set the stage for what is to follow.
The Reason for this Book
I feel led to make the results of my investigation available to others at this particular time for two reasons.
First, when I initially came to embrace the Open view of God, there was little controversy surrounding it. I knew it was an untraditional view, but neither I nor those I shared it with considered it anything like a "heresy." How quickly things change! Today the controversy over the Open view of God is a hot topic within evangelical circles. And, unfortunately, the alarmist label "heresy" is beginning to be tossed around by some.
What is really sad about the current state of this debate is that Scripture seems to be playing little role in it. Most of the published criticisms raised against the Open view have largely ignored the biblical grounds on which Open theists base their position. For example, in his recent book, God the Father Almighty, Millard Erickson devotes an entire chapter to refuting the Open view, but never once interacts with any of the biblical arguments which support the Open theist position.
Unfortunately, this is typical of secondary literature on this issue. The Open view is consistently portrayed as though it were driven by unbiblical and invalid philosophical arguments. While I happen to believe that the Open view is the most philosophically compelling view available, the primary consideration which motivates me and most other Open theists to embrace it is not philosophy, but Scripture.
I feel it is time to set forth the biblical case in as clear, thorough, and concise a manner as possible. In the first two chapters of this work, therefore, I examine all of the most important passages which seem to me to require an Open view of God and the future and all those passages which others believe require the classical view that God possesses exhaustive definite foreknowledge of the future (what I shall henceforth call the EDF doctrine).
Second, most of the writing on the debate between the EDF and Open views of God and the future have been quite technical and limited to sophisticated philosophical and theological journals and books. While I consider such discussions to be very important, I also believe this issue is too important and too practically significant to be contained within professional circles. By the time the various issues trickle down from the ivory academic towers to the masses much of the information has been lost or distorted. As a result, many lay people become worked up over positions they don't fully understand. As a pastor and a professor, I am speaking from experience here.
I believe there is currently a need to present this issue in a manner that can include as many lay people as possible in on the discussion. This book attempts to do just this.
I am aware that some of the important nuances and arguments of both sides of the debate will have to be discarded to accomplish this. And I am therefore aware that some of my professional colleagues will (with some justification) accuse me of oversimplification. But if this book informs and motivates the audience it is intended for, I will most happily stand by my decision.
The Method of My Investigation
The methodology I use to resolve the issue of God's foreknowledge and the openness of the future is as commonsensical as it is rare--if I do say so myself. Basically, there are two categories of passages in the Bible that apply to this topic. First, many passages depict God as not knowing certain things about the future (I discuss these in Chapter I). Second, many passages depict God as foreknowing and/or predestining certain things about the future (I discuss these in Chapter II).1
The classical approach interprets the second category of passages as speaking about God as he truly is and it therefore universalizes these passages. That is, since these passages are believed to depict God as he truly is, they must represent his knowledge of the future as it always is.
Traditionalists thus conclude that God possesses eternal, exhaustive, definite foreknowledge (EDF) of everything that shall ever be. God's foreknowledge is believed to be eternal because there never was a time when he didn't possess it. And it is exhaustively definite because the entire future is known as definitely this way and definitely not any other way. In other words, God never knows the future as being possibly this way or possibly that way.
How does the classical view explain the first category of passages? Generally speaking, it concludes that these passages can't be speaking of God as he truly is; they rather describe God as he appears to us ("phenomenologically") in figures of speech that attribute human characteristics ("anthropomorphisms") to God. These passages are, in short, not to be taken literally.
My approach to these passages differs in that I do not conclude that the first category of passages speaks less truly or less literally about God than does the second category. I do not find anything in the texts themselves which suggests that they were intended to be taken less literally than the second category. Nor do I see any cogent theological reason for concluding they must be less literal (I address this further in Chapter III). And so, while the classical view constructs their theology of God's knowledge of the future exclusively out of the second category of Scripture, I construct my understanding equally out of both categories of Scripture.
Through this methodology I come to the conclusion that the future is to some degree a settled matter and thus perfectly known by God as such, and to some degree an open matter, a realm of possibilities, and is perfectly known by God as such. To some extent God knows the future as possibly this way and possibly that way, for according to the Open view, that is exactly how the future really is.
I encourage the reader to carefully consider all the passages presented in Chapter I which depict God as facing a partly open future and decide for themselves which approach best captures the originally intended meaning of the text. I encourage the reader as well to carefully consider the interpretations I offer regarding the passages which depict God as foreknowing aspects of the future and decide for themselves whether my interpretation of these texts is compelling.
The Real Issue Addressed in this Book
The careful reader may have already discerned a subtle but very important point regarding this whole debate about God's foreknowledge: namely, it is not really about God's knowledge at all. It is rather a debate about the status of the future. Though Open theists are often accused of denying God's omniscience because they claim that he doesn't know the future as exhaustively definite (they deny the EDF doctrine), this criticism is in truth unfounded. Open theists affirm God's omniscience as emphatically as anybody else. We agree that God knows all of reality exactly as it is. But the all-important question is, What is reality? More specifically, What is the content of the reality of the future? Here is where Open theists differ somewhat from classical Christian theology.
As said above, in the classical view the reality of the future consists exclusively of things that have always been definite--they are, from all eternity, definitely this way and definitely not any other way. The "definiteness" of every event--the fact that it will occur this way and not any other way--eternally precedes the actual occurrence of the event, and so God eternally foreknows the event in a definite manner. Again, in the classical view, there are no open possibilities for God. Everything is eternally settled in God's mind.
Open theists, by contrast, hold that the future consists partly of definite realities and partly of indefinite 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, they believe that God knows the future as consisting of both possibilities and certainties. In this sense Open theists could (and should) affirm that God possesses exhaustive foreknowledge. God exhaustively knows the future as the future is now: partially definite and partially indefinite. What they deny is that God possesses exhaustively definite foreknowledge (EDF), for they deny that the reality of the future which God foreknows is exhaustively definite.
In short, if God does not foreknow future free actions, it's 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! His not foreknowing future free actions limits him no more than does the fact that (say) he does not know that there is a green leprechaun sitting next to me right now. As a matter of fact there is no leprechaun sitting next to me, so it's hardly ascribing ignorance to God to insist that he doesn't know there's a leprechaun next to me. In just the same way, one is not ascribing ignorance to God by insisting that he doesn't foreknow future free actions if free actions do not exist to be known until free agents create them.
A person may of course choose to affirm that there is a leprechaun next to me or that the definiteness of future free actions exists before agents choose them. And so they may choose to affirm that God knows there is a leprechaun next to me and that he foreknows future free actions. But in doing so they are disagreeing about the content of reality, not about the omniscience of God.
It's important to keep this distinction in mind throughout this book. Those who oppose the Open view of God on the grounds that it compromises God's omniscience are simply misguided. The debate between the Open and classical understandings of divine foreknowledge is completely a debate over the nature of God's creation. Is it exhaustively settled from all eternity, or is it partly open?
Throughout this book, when I say that God does not possess EDF, I am not thereby saying that God lacks something which is possible to possess. It is rather a shorthand way of saying that the future is not entirely settled. It is in part open, and thus God perfectly knows it as such.
The Title of this Book
The title of this book, The God of the Possible, is directly related to this last point. My fundamental thesis is that the Church's theological tradition became misguided when it, under the influence of Hellenistic philosophy, defined God's perfection in static, timeless terms. All change was considered an imperfection and thus not applicable to God.2
Given this definition of divine perfection there was no way to conceive of God as entertaining real possibilities. In the classical view, God never genuinely faces a "maybe," a "perhaps," a "possibly this way or possibly that way." For God, reality is eternally definite, settled, fixed and certain. And since God, not us, knows reality perfectly, it followed for classical theology that reality must be eternally and exhaustively definite. Humans experience the future as possibly one way and possibly another only because we are imperfect.
This line of thinking is misguided on biblical, theological and practical grounds. Biblically, God is repeatedly depicted as facing a partially open future. Theologically, several unsolvable problems inherent in the classical view can be avoided when one accepts that God is the God of the possible and not simply a God of eternally static certainties. And practically, a God of eternally static certainties is incapable of interacting with humans in a relevant way. The God of the possible, by contrast, is a God who can work with us to truly change what might have been into what should be.
The Outline of this Book
As I mentioned above, in Chapter I I present all those passages which seem to me to support the Open view most strongly, offering a brief word after each passage as to why I feel it does so. In Chapter III present all those passages which seem to many to most strongly support the classical view, offering a brief discussion after each passage as to why I do not believe they support the classical understanding and how they might be interpreted by one who allows for the future to be partly open. Neither list, of course, covers every possible verse that could be used in support of either position. But my hope is that all the strongest verses for both sides are fairly addressed.
It should be noted that there are strengths and weaknesses to a verse-by-verse approach to presenting the biblical material as opposed to arranging it topically. One weakness is that it inevitably requires more repetition than readers may be accustomed to. I ask for the reader's patience in this regard. But this can also be considered a strength in that repetition allows the reader to feel the full force of the biblical material. Since my investigation fifteen years ago proceeded in this verse-by-verse manner, and since it was this repetitious force of the biblical material that ultimately convinced me of the Open view, it seemed wise to stick with it when sharing the results of my investigation, despite the sometimes tedious repetition.
Be that as it may, in Chapter III I address the most frequently asked questions and most frequent objections against the Open view. My conviction is that if a theological position is true it ought to be able to handle any and all objections and questions raised against it-at least able to do so better than competing candidates for belief can handle their questions and objections. And finally, in Chapter IV, I briefly discuss seven areas in which I think the Open view might make a practical difference as opposed to the classical view. Whatever else might be said about this controversy, it is not (or at least should not be) an irrelevant ivory tower squabble among specialists.
Our Attitude In Discussing Controversial Issues
Finally, it's vitally important that we keep this issue and the multitude of other issues which Christians debate in perspective. Jesus' final prayer to the Father for his Church was that "they may all be one, as we are one" (John 17:22). Believers are called to exhibit a loving unity among each other that reflects nothing less than the eternal perfect love of the Trinity!
This does not mean that we must always agree on things, any more than the love between a husband and wife means that they must always agree. But it does mean that we must agree to love one another amidst our disagreements. If we only love those who agree with us, we are in fact not loving others at all: we are only loving the (assumed) "rightness" of our own ideas!
Disagreeing with one another need not, and should not, be scary and divisive, so long as we keep our eyes focused, and our hearts centered, on the person of Jesus Christ. Indeed, when our eyes and hearts are properly focused, our dialogues with one another, however impassioned they may be, become the means by which we lovingly help each other appreciate aspects of God's Word we might otherwise overlook or fail to understand.
Yes, the debate about the foreknowledge of God is an important issue. For lovers of truth, all theological issues are important. But compared to our common faith in the person of Jesus Christ and the importance of our loving unity in him, this issue, and all theological issues, are peripheral at best. Again, this doesn't mean that we should pretend that our differences don't exist, as one might expect from a dysfunction family. Quite the opposite. It means that we must in love be real with our differences and discuss them openly in love (Eph. 4:15). This is how we teach each other and grow together in truth and love.
Though I will not conceal the depth of my conviction as I write, the reader should always remember that it is with this attitude that I am sharing the results of my investigation on this topic. And I pray it is with this attitude that the reader carefully and critically considers the fruit of this labor.
1Traditional Arminians hold that God foreknows everything as definite without predestining everything, while Calvinists hold that God foreknows everything as definite because he predestines everything. Both are versions of the EDP doctrine and contrast with the Open view. For the purposes of this book I shall mostly concern myself with contrasting the Open view with Arminianism, for if the Open view can be shown to be superior to Arminianism it will be shown to be superior to Calvinism in the process. That is, if it can be shown that aspects of the future are not known to God it follows as a matter of course that aspects of the future are not predestined by God.
2 I defend this thesis in detail in a forthcoming book entitled The Myth of the Blueprint.
This paper was originally published on the Internet at the Baptist General Conference Web site.