Founders Journal · Fall 2001 · pp. 9-22
Pastoral Implications of Open Theism
[This article is adapted from a chapter that appears in the book, Bound Only Once, edited by Douglas Wilson and recently published by Canon Press.]
Recent years have witnessed a revisioning of God and reality by some that nevertheless want to maintain their credentials as evangelicals. The proponents of this new approach call themselves “open theists” and advocate a redefinition of God’s omniscience that is based on a creative understanding of knowledge and the future. God, they tell us, knows everything that is capable of being known. But since the future does not fit into that category (at least not always), then it is nonsensical to suggest that God either does or does not know it. It is like debating whether God knows unicorns. Consequently, events often catch God off-guard just as they do finite beings. Knowing this, we are told, helps people to think better of God and trust Him more readily, especially when tragedies occur.
In many respects, Open Theism is a perfect theological fit for the contemporary American zeitgeist. In an age where empathy trumps truthfulness we are more comforted by someone who feels our pain than by someone who speaks honestly, unequivocally and consistently. Disappoint us if you will, fail to keep your promises if you must, but do not cease to reassure us that you really feel for us. The God of Open Theism perfectly fits this criterion.
Greg Boyd claims that the differences between the openness and orthodox views of God are “relatively unimportant,” “peripheral” and “minor.” Open Theism cannot legitimately be classified as a subset of evangelicalism. It is a radically different understanding of reality and therefore of the real God. Its implications for the Christian life are as far reaching as they are devastating.
Some of these implications are self-consciously held and celebrated by the proponents of Open Theism. For instance, Boyd finds it pastorally helpful to counsel a person who has experienced great tragedy that God was as surprised as everyone else at what happened. In Boyd’s mind this makes God kinder and gentler and therefore more trustworthy. Other implications are subtler and may well be renounced by open theists but, as will be seen, are nevertheless inherent in their system of thought. One cannot possess a forest without owning the trees, no matter how vehemently he might protest to the contrary.
Undermines confidence in Scripture
Boyd argues that “if we simply accept the plain meaning of Scripture” we will concur with Open Theism’s claims that sometimes God “regrets how decisions he’s made turn out,” “questions how aspects of the future will go,” “experiences frustration because free agents choose unlikely courses of action” and “genuinely changes his mind about intended courses of action.” His optimistic overstatement notwithstanding, the openness perspective actually calls into question Scripture’s “plain meaning” and violates fundamental principles of interpretation. The result is a huge cloud of doubt left hanging over the perspicuity and reliability of Scripture.
A long standing principle of hermeneutics declares that passages which clearly assert a doctrine or principle are to be used to shed light on narrative passages.
Interpret historic material by didactic material. Historical material is narration, the accounts of what happened in the past. Didactic material is teaching material. It is important for the didactic material to interpret the historical material rather than the other way around.
The importance of this guiding principle can be demonstrated by applying it to the sinfulness of mankind. Romans 3:23 makes a straightforward affirmation of the universality of human sinfulness, “For all have sinned and come short of the glory of God.” This didactic passage sheds light on other passages that are narrative or testimonial. For example, the story of Daniel’s life might lead one to believe that, because there is no record of any sin he committed that he was a sinless man. If the narrative passages of his life were all that we had then we, at best, could not refute such a claim.
If the principle articulated above is followed, there will be no danger of reaching that conclusion. Though the narrative might suggest that there was no sin in Daniel, the didactic passage assures us that there was. By giving priority to clearly stated teaching regarding sin and using the light which it sheds on the story of Daniel’s life, we will resist making any claims of sinlessness for him.
Open theists turn this principle of interpretation on its head. John Sanders goes to great lengths to establish patterns from narrative passages on divine-human relationships and then uses those patterns to reinterpret clear, didactic Scriptures. The stories of Adam, Noah, Abraham, Gideon, Moses and David are all cited as examples of God changing his mind, repenting, being disappointed or caught off guard by what happened. The survey of these stories is set forth as evidence “that God is in a dynamic give-and-take relationship with humans and in which God sometimes does not get what he wants.”
Efforts to interpret these texts in the light of didactic passages which assert God’s sovereign control over people and events (what Sanders calls “pancausality texts”) is charged with “hermeneutical malpractice.” Statements like the following are all reinterpreted in light of narrative “evidence” of the openness of God:
- “‘O house of Israel, can I not do with you as this potter?’ says the LORD. ‘Look, as the clay is in the potter’s hand, so are you in My hand, O house of Israel!’” (Jeremiah 18:6).
- “A man’s heart plans his way, But the LORD directs his steps” (Proverbs 16:9).
- “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).
- “Who has made man’s mouth? Or who makes the mute, the deaf, the seeing, or the blind? Have not I, the LORD?” (Exodus 4:11).
Some of the results would be amusing if the stakes involved were not so high.
For instance, Proverbs 16:9 and 21:1 are taken to mean only that “God directs his people’s steps (16:9) and guides the king of Israel (21:1) when they seek God’s wisdom.” Exodus 4:11 becomes nothing more than “a general statement that such things happen in God’s world” and an admission that He takes “full responsibility” for creating such a world where defects are possible.
With its presupposition that God has only limited knowledge of what will happen in the future, Open Theism must reconstruct plain statements of Scripture to the contrary. The story of Joseph provides a case in point. At the end of the narrative, Joseph makes his famous declaration to his frightened brothers, which reflects his simple and complete confidence in God’s sovereign, detailed arrangement of his life. It is his divinely inspired explanation of the events of his life: “But as for you, you meant evil against me; but God meant it for good, in order to bring it about as it is this day, to save many people alive” (Genesis 50:20).
Sanders’ interpretation of this verse is dismissive at best. He writes, “I take this to mean that God has brought something good out of their evil actions.” He further comments, “Although he [Joseph] acknowledges that they sold him into Egypt, he suggests that everyone look on the bright side–what God has done through this. Their lives and those of the Egyptians have been spared the devastating effects of the famine.” From a profound, theological declaration of God’s unmitigated providence, Sanders reduces Joseph’s words to, “Serendipity!”
Intentional or not, the openness reading of Scripture, if followed consistently, renders direct teachings of the Bible vacuous if not incomprehensible.
Undermines confidence in God
The open theistic vision of God is one that robs believers of comfort and confidence. The traditional understanding of God gives full weight to those biblical declarations which describe Him as “Lord God Almighty … King of the Saints” (Revelation 15:3), who “rules over the nations” (Psalm 22:28) and “the raging of the sea” (Psalm 89:9) and who shall “reign forever and ever” (Exodus 15:18; cf. Psalms 93:1, 96:10, 9:1, 99:1, 146:10). Nebuchadnezzar’s inspired declaration of God’s unhindered, meticulous exercise of His divine providence is no embarrassment to orthodox theism:
All the inhabitants of the earth are reputed as nothing;
He does according to His will in the army of heaven
And among the inhabitants of the earth.
No one can restrain His hand
Or say to Him, “What have you done?” (Daniel 4:35).
Open Theism dismisses the view of God and providence that these verses naturally portray because it does not “fit” with the “biblical story” as they see it. Instead of recognizing God as the unrivaled Ruler of the universe, free will theists want to portray Him as the “cosmic Gambler.” This view of God is supposed to engender comfort and hope on the part of believers; but in fact, it destroys the very foundation that the Bible establishes for trusting God.
Sanders is quite plain in expressing his desire to replace God as King with God as “risk taker.” God took a chance in creating a world that He populated with creatures that are endowed with libertarian free wills. He did so in an effort to accomplish “the divine project,” which “involves the creation of significant others who are ontologically distinct from himself and upon whom he showers his caring love in the expectation that they will respond in love.” This risk, Sanders argues, had a “great chance of success and little possibility of failure;” in fact, “although sin was possible–given this sort of world–it simply was not plausible in view of the good environment God established and the love he bestowed.”
However, any honest reading of history or Scripture demonstrates that the “divine project,” as Sanders defines it, is a colossal failure. Jesus said that only a “few” will enter the narrow gate and walk the narrow path of loving God (Matthew 7:13-14) and missiological analyses of Christian history certainly confirm His announcement. If the sin and degradation of the world are the result of a highly implausible disruption in God’s low-risk creative venture, how can anyone be expected to trust Him for future “projects?”
Open Theism reduces God to a cosmic gambler–and not a very successful one at that. He created billions of image bearers, gambling that they would choose to love and trust Him. This was to have been an “almost sure thing” because of His love and provision. Nevertheless, in terms of sheer quantitative analysis, His gamble hardly paid off. From creation to the present, the openness God has continued to take risks, only to experience repeated failures. Both the Bible and history are filled with accounts of people and “projects” that he counted on in vain.
How can such a God be trusted? If that which he has intended to do has so catastrophically and repeatedly failed to come to pass, why depend on Him to fulfill any of his promises, no matter how well intentioned they may be? I would sooner risk my family’s finances on a lottery ticket than my soul to a gambler with such a poor track record.
Boyd does not see this problem and, in fact, argues that the open view of God makes Him more trustworthy than the classical view. Instead of seeing God as meticulously ruling and overruling all of the affairs of life for good and holy purposes, Boyd chooses to think of God’s exercise of providence as being like a child’s “Choose Your Own Adventure” story, in which the author creates a number of possible plots which the reader can progressively select as he or she moves through the book. In a similar way “the God of the possible is the author of the whole story line of creation and the one who offers possible alternatives to his human and angelic creations,” thus leaving “plenty of room for individuals to exercise free will.”
A God who exhaustively knows the future or who ordains it is not worthy of trust, Boyd says, because that bad thing which He knows will happen to you in two days must infallibly happen, no matter what you do or do not do. He complains,
How does believing this help you “trust God”? What are you trusting God for? To simply know from all eternity that this terrible event is going to happen to you: What security is there in that: How does this belief help you in the least?
Far better, Boyd contends, to have a God who knows this thing not as inevitability but as merely one of many possibilities which might befall you in two days. In this case, God works to encourage you to create a future which avoids that bad possibility–especially if “you are a person who frequently talks and listens to God” and “have family and friends who pray for you on a consistent basis.” In such cases, God “can be trusted to inspire [you] to avoid certain future possibilities he sees coming.”
Of course, what Boyd fails to address is why anyone should be willing to trust the promptings of a God whose best intentions have been thwarted repeatedly throughout history. Indeed, an episode out of his own pastoral experience stands in protest against his theory. He tells the story of “Suzanne,” a young woman who was “raised in a wonderful Christian home,” had been a “passionate, godly disciple of Jesus Christ” from her youth and had a near life-long desire to be a missionary to Taiwan. She prayed daily for her future husband that he would share her vision for Taiwan, “remain faithful to the Lord and remain pure in heart.” She met and courted such a man for more than three years during college. After months of prayer, fasting, and consulting with their parents, pastor and friends, everyone agreed that “this marriage was indeed God’s will.” Suzanne herself received a special confirmation of this while in prayer one day.
Shortly after her marriage, while in missionary school, Suzanne’s husband began a pattern of adultery and abuse and refused to be helped or to repent. When he filed for divorce, she was left pregnant, “angry,” “emotionally destroyed and spiritually bankrupt.” In order to help her deal with the devastation of her ordeal, Boyd offered her “an alternative way of understanding the situation.” He writes, “I suggested to her that God felt as much regret over the confirmation he had given Suzanne as he did about his decision to make Saul king of Israel (1 Sam. 15:11, 35; see also Gen. 6:5-6).” However, why did God not work in Suzanne to encourage her to create a future that avoided this possibility? Surely she fits Boyd’s profile of the type of person who can trust the open God to do just that.
How can God be “trusted to inspire” His children to take certain decisions when He Himself is as fallible as we are because He does not exhaustively know the future? It is hard to see how this view does not reduce God to the level of a television meteorologist–one who, because he is an expert in his field has access to information which is not readily available to others, is in a better position than most to make educated guesses about the future. The question remains, “Why should we trust such a God?”
It is one thing to base your picnic plans on a weatherman’s forecast. If unexpected rain ruins your day you may be disappointed and even frustrated with him and his predictions, but you recognize that he is only making an educated guess about meteorological patterns. You do not expect him to be infallible. We have much higher expectations of God. If He inspires us to actions which He later regrets then He is ultimately untrustworthy.
The classical view of God will never lead to that conclusion. If, contrary to Open Theism, God knows the end from the beginning (Isaiah 46:10) and thinks and works in ways which are much higher than our ways (Isaiah 55:8-9), then we can trust Him to work all things–including inexplicably bad things–together for our good (Romans 8:28). Remove God’s sovereign control over life and His complete knowledge of the future and the very foundation for trusting Him begins to crumble.
Undermines faith in Christ
Open Theism’s revisioning of the nature of the future and of God erodes the very heart of the Christian faith by undermining faith in Jesus Christ. No doubt, this is one of the unintended implications of openness proponents–and one that they would strongly renounce. When God’s limited foreknowledge is applied to the incarnation and crucifixion, however, the credibility of Christ and the biblical witness to Christ is compromised.
In the openness scheme Jesus did not–could not–know beforehand that He would be called to die for sinners. Sanders unashamedly reconstructs the events leading up to and surrounding Christ’s death to portray both Father and Son deciding only at the last minute that Jesus had to die. “Although Scripture attests that the incarnation was planned from the creation of the world, this is not so with the cross. The path of the cross comes about only through God’s interaction with humans in history.” Not until the agonizing prayer in Gethsemane do “Father and Son … both come to understand that there is no other way.” Even after this new discovery comes to God, the question still hangs over Jesus, “Will this gambit work?”
Jesus’ predictions of His betrayal, death and resurrection are disregarded as general observations of future possibilities rather than, as He intended, evidence that He is the Messiah. Boyd believes that “Scripture makes the most sense when we understand Jesus’ predictions about Judas’s betrayal” as a well-informed prediction based on good insight into Judas’s character. In Boyd’s view, God planned the basic outline of Jesus’ death. Then, when he observed Judas turning himself into a “son of perdition,” all God had to do is figure out “how he might strategically weave the wicked character” of Judas into the divine plan.
But this construction is evidently still too deterministic for Sanders. Jesus, he argues, did not really know that Judas would betray Him. Even when He told Judas, “What you do, do quickly” (John 13:27), a huge risk was involved, “since there is no guarantee which way Judas will decide.” The foretelling of Peter’s denial is treated similarly. Sanders finds it preferable to view Jesus’ prediction as an educated guess which in no way suggests that He knew with certainty what would happen before it happened. None of Jesus’ prophecies concerning His death and resurrection “require exhaustive foreknowledge.” In Sanders’ mind, the cross was not planned before creation and Jesus Himself did not certainly know beforehand what events would lead up to and surround His arrest and execution. Things could have gone quite differently and, according to Open Theism, it would not make one bit of difference in the life and ministry of Jesus or in our own esteem of Him.
Jesus, however, viewed the matter quite differently. In the upper room discourse, He specifically links His predictions to His deity and to His disciples’ belief in His deity. When washing His disciples’ feet He said, “You are not all clean” (John 13:11), in an obvious reference to Judas. He alluded to Judas again a few verses later by identifying him with an Old Testament prophecy: “I do not speak concerning all of you. I know whom I have chosen; but that the Scripture may be fulfilled, ‘He who eats bread with Me has lifted up his heel against Me’” (John 13:18). Three verses later Jesus pointedly declares, “Most assuredly, I say to you, one of you will betray Me” (v. 21). Finally, He singles out Judas as the betrayer by passing a piece of bread to him (v. 26).
In the midst of these clear expressions of foreknowledge, Jesus explains to the disciples why He is telling them these things: “Now I tell you before it comes, that when it does come to pass, you may believe that I am He” (John 13:19). The pronoun “He” is supplied by translators. Literally what Jesus says is “that you many believe that I am [ego eimi].” He connects His foreknowledge of events and His announcing of them, to His deity and to the disciples’ recognition of it. It obviously mattered to Jesus that He be understood as foretelling with certainty what was going to happen to Him. His foreknowledge is foundational to the disciples’ belief in His deity.
Diminish Jesus’ foreknowledge and you bring His deity into question and thereby undermine the faith of those whom He calls to trust Him. Yet, this is precisely the effect of Open Theism. We are asked to trust a Christ who was prone to mistakes because He could not know the future exhaustively. As John Piper has commented on this passage, Jesus’ foreknowledge “was an essential aspect of his glory as the incarnate Word, the Son of God. The denial of this foreknowledge is, I believe John would say, an assault on the deity of Christ.”
Proponents of Open Theism regard the “status of petitionary prayer within this model to be one of its most attractive features.” Prayer is seen as a means of influencing God to the degree of moving Him to reverse His own plans. Conversely, God is so dependent on prayer that at times, because of the failure of people to pray, He abandons plans that He would prefer to carry out.
One’s understanding of providence necessarily affects his view of prayer. What God can do or has chosen to do in His relationship to the world governs the ways that we invoke His help for specific needs. The openness view of reality eliminates the specific control that God exercises over creatures. Because the future is not “real” and therefore cannot be known by God, and because people have libertarian freedom, God is dependent on people to help Him create the future. When God is viewed as having this kind of contingency in relation to His creation, petitionary prayer is ultimately undermined in the life of the believer.
This may not be immediately apparent. In fact, Open Theism may initially appear to have the exact opposite effect. Boyd argues that his view is a great motivation for prayer because in it God can be significantly affected and influenced by us. Many biblical examples are cited by open theists as proof that prayer does indeed bring about a change in God’s mind. Abraham (Genesis 18:22-33), Jacob (Genesis 32), Moses (Exodus 32:14, 33:1-2, 14; Deuteronomy 9:13-29), Hezekiah (2 Kings 20:1-6) and Amos (Amos 7:1-6) are all regarded as having altered God’s intentions through their petitions. Prayer is seen as the creature’s way of exercising “spiritual say-so” which God decided to share by making personal beings. Because prayer can change God’s plans, people should be excited about getting in on the effort to do just that in order to create a future which conforms to their own desires.
God’s stated repentance and His response to prayers that plead for something different from that that has been previously announced, are hermeneutical conundrums that challenge biblical interpreters of every persuasion. Open theists profess to solve the problems (and to stake out the exegetical high ground in doing so) by taking such passages “literally.” Traditionalists, we are led to believe, simply skirt around these passages, thereby robbing people of real incentive to pray passionately.
Reformed commentators and others throughout history have addressed these challenges without giving up the classical view of God. There can be no doubt that passion, fervency and effectiveness characterized the prayer lives of the biblical characters cited. It does not follow, however, that these qualities were born of an open view of God. Furthermore, when these examples are considered in their broader context, they set forth a view of reality (and therefore, God) which is radically different from that of Open Theism. The vision of God and His world that emerges can and should invigorate heartfelt prayer in ways that the openness view cannot.
Consider the case of Hezekiah. Isaiah is sent by God to tell the sick king, “Set your house in order, for you shall die, and not live” (2 Kings 20:1). After Hezekiah prays with bitter tears, God, in response to the prayer, promises him an additional fifteen years of life. Boyd sees this account, which was determinative in his own theological pilgrimage, as demanding an openness view of God.
Now, if we accept the classical view of foreknowledge and suppose that the Lord was certain that he would not let Hezekiah die, wasn’t he being duplicitous when he initially told Hezekiah that he would not recover? And if we suppose that the Lord was certain all along that Hezekiah would, in fact, live fifteen years after this episode, wasn’t it misleading for God to tell him that he was adding fifteen years to his life?
Boyd cannot escape his own criticism because the openness view must also deal with the fact that God said something was going to happen which did not happen. The open theist concludes that God spoke out of ignorance because He did not know that Hezekiah would pray with such passion and fervency as to change the divine plan. Since God did not know, there is no moral dilemma in His reversal of His announced plans. The classical theist concludes that God’s threat carried an implicit exception and that He did know that Hezekiah would repent and pray. Thus, God intended all along to extend the king’s life fifteen years and to do it in response to prayer.
The classical view is supported by the broader context of this story. When Hezekiah died, his son Manasseh, who was twelve years old, became king in his place (2 Kings 20:21, 21:1). What this means is that Manasseh was born during the fifteen year extension of Hezekiah’s life. Sanders says that if Hezekiah had not prayed to God, “biblical history would have been different.” That is a woefully inadequate understatement. Had Hezekiah died when Isaiah first spoke to him, he would have left no heir to the throne and the promise that God made to David three hundred years earlier would have been broken. The Lord had promised David, “You shall not lack a man on the throne of Israel” (1 Kings 2:4), which “simply affirms that the posterity of David was not to be cut off, so as to leave no offshoot which could take possession of the throne.”
If, as Boyd and his colleagues contend, God was truly ignorant of the timing of Hezekiah’s death when He sent Isaiah to him, then we are left with insurmountable doubts about the Lord’s faithfulness. Had Hezekiah died before his son Manasseh was born, God’s Word would have failed. If God cannot be trusted to do what He says, why ask Him to do anything at all? This blasphemous thought, which emerges (no doubt unintentionally) from Open Theism’s view of God, will quench any desire to pray with passion and fervency.
This problem is compounded if God is viewed as having created a world in which people have the power to do things that He never intended to happen. Any specific intervention by God to interfere directly with a person’s chosen course would be a violation of the individual’s personhood, as well as the “rules of the game God sovereignly established” in creating people with libertarian freedom. How could someone pray passionately for God to restrain evil people or protect His own people if he genuinely believes that the rules by which God is bound prohibit Him from ever removing the potential to choose evil from a person? Would not such prayer be asking God to do what He has committed Himself not to do?
The examples of fervent prayers that we have in the Bible are not the least bit inhibited in these ways because they are not based on an open view of God. When Daniel prayed for the restoration of Judah, he was motivated by his recent discovery of God’s promises to do just that (Daniel 9:1-19). When Zerah led a million Ethiopian soldiers against Judah, Asa prayed, “O Lord, You are our God; do not let man prevail against You!” (2 Chronicles 14:11). There is not the slightest hint of concern about any violation of Zerah’s free will. A similar lack of concern is found in one of Hezekiah’s earlier prayers against the Assyrian commander, Rabshakeh: “Now therefore, O Lord, our God, I pray, save us from his hand, that all the kingdoms of the earth may know that You are the Lord God, You alone” (2 Kings 19:19).
Such examples could be multiplied many times over. The Bible is filled with prayers that exude great confidence in God to do all that He has promised He will do and bold petitions for God to specifically and directly intervene by causing people to change their intended course of action. Confidence in God’s unmitigated sovereignty coupled with a clear-headed awareness of our own personal responsibility provides a much stronger foundation for passionate prayer than the one offered by Open Theism.
Undermines confident living
The openness view rejects the idea that a person can be genuinely free if his actions are in any way determined by God. By defining freedom in libertarian terms, open theists exclude all thought of God’s precise control over the world. This stems from an unwillingness to recognize a distinction between God’s revealed will and His decreed will. Sanders gratuitously dismisses this distinction as “another example of the attempt to discover a God beyond the God of Scripture on the basis of a human ideal.” But Scripture gives ample reason to think in these terms: “The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but those things which are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law” (Deuteronomy 29:29). If one does not distinguish between God’s secret will and His revealed will, then the biblical claims regarding God’s designs, intentions and desires become terribly confusing.
If God is not in control, then who is? No one, according to free will theists. In their scheme, the world is at the collective mercy of libertarian free human wills, libertarian free angelic wills and God. Of course, neither people nor angels have as much power as God, but neither does God have complete control over them. One of the most devastating implications of this is the existence of gratuitous evil in the world. Sanders admits that “at least some evil is pointless” and “God does not have a specific divine purpose for each and every occurrence of evil.” Boyd also concedes this point: “It is true that according to the open view things can happen in our lives that God didn’t plan or even foreknow with certainty (though he always foreknew they were possible). This means that in the open view things can happen to us that have no overarching divine purpose.”
This thought, which is rightfully disconcerting for those who have come to see God’s unmitigated sovereignty taught in Scripture, is applauded by open theists as a significant theodicy. Boyd believes that “it offers the most plausible way out of the dilemma of assuming God has a purpose for allowing particular evils.” Bassinger is even more enthusiastic:
Moreover, viewing evil in this manner has practical significance. For instance, it means that we, unlike proponents of specific sovereignty, need not assume that some divine purpose exists for each evil that we encounter. We need not, for example, assume when someone dies that God “took him home” for some reason, or that the horrors many experience in this world in some mysterious way fit into God’s perfect plan. We can justifiably assume, rather, that God is often as disappointed as are we that someone’s earthly existence has ended at an early age or that someone is experiencing severe depression or that someone is being tortured.
From our perspective, to view specific tragedies in this world as the result of a system over which God has chosen not to exercise complete control is more appealing than to view such events as the outworking of some specific, preordained divine plan.
This perspective fails to deal adequately with the death of Jesus. The paradigm by which all evil in the world must be judged is that which we find in the cross. In the crucifixion we are forced to recognize the two different ways of willing in God and we find ground for hopeful and confident living in a fallen world. The death of Jesus Christ is the greatest miscarriage of justice which the world has ever witnessed. The only innocent man who has ever lived was crucified as a common criminal. Yet, how does the Bible require us to think about the cross? Was it God’s will? Or was it a violation of His will? The open theist must choose between these two questions, because they refuse to see any distinction in the ways that God wills things. The classical theist sees the cross as the fulfillment of God’s decreed will (which He purposed from eternity) and a violation of His revealed will (namely, the commandment not to murder).
The early apostles did not view the death of Jesus from an open theistic point of view. At Pentecost, Peter preached Christ as, “Him, being delivered by the determined counsel and foreknowledge of God, you have taken by lawless hands, have crucified, and put to death” (Acts 2:23). “Determined counsel and foreknowledge of God,” means it was God’s (decreed) will. “Lawless hands” means it was contrary to God’s (revealed) will. This same perspective is found in the disciples’ prayer recorded in Acts 4:24-30. It is difficult to understand, in the light of this apostolic viewpoint, why Boyd is driven to help us “rid ourselves of any lingering suspicion that evil somehow fits into the eternal purposes of God.”
If the greatest evil in all the world, though a clear violation of God’s revealed will, was definitely decreed by God for the good of His people, then why would we not believe that in a similar way all lesser evils in the world, though contrary to God’s commandments, nevertheless fall within His good, wise and sovereign will for those who love Him and are called according to His purpose? Such a view of God’s ways with us in no way diminishes the tragedy of evil and suffering. However, it does give us reason to live with joy and hope in the midst of suffering. For though the pain that a child of God endures may seem pointless, it cannot be. No suffering by believers in this world is ever wasted. Joseph, Job, Stephen, Paul, and any other believer who, like their Lord, experience evil in this world may take hope and be confident that God is working out His good and wise purposes through their sufferings.
The opening question and answer in the Heidelberg Catechism summarizes this hopeful vision of the Christian life in a wonderful way. The question is, “What is your only comfort in life and in death?” to which the following answer is given.
That I am not my own, but belong–body and soul, in life and in death–to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ. He has fully paid for all my sins with His precious blood, and has set me free from the tyranny of the devil. He also watches over me in such a way that not a hair can fall from my head without the will of my Father in heaven; in fact, all things must work together for my salvation. Because I belong to Him, Christ, by His Holy Spirit, assures me of eternal life and makes me whole-heartedly willing and ready from now on to live for him.
No open theist will ever know such comfort.
The devotional house in which one lives will be largely determined by the doctrinal foundation on which he builds. The vibrant, joyful life of faith which marked the New Testament church was rooted in a steadfast commitment to the “apostles’ doctrine” (Acts 2:42). The Apostle Paul regularly structured his arguments in his letters to the early churches so that his imperatives rested upon his indicatives. First, he laid a doctrinal foundation (for example in Romans 1-11 and Ephesians 1-3); then he exhorted his readers to live up to what they believed (as in Romans 12-16 and Ephesians 4-6). Right believing leads to right living.
It is hard to understand, then, the almost nonchalant attitude of Boyd when he writes, “Next to the central doctrines of the Christian faith, the issue of whether the future is exhaustively settled or partially open is relatively unimportant. It is certainly not a doctrine Christians should ever divide over.” Contrary to the way Boyd makes it sound, Open Theism is not simply a philosopher’s debate. Redefine reality and the God of reality changes with it. What is at stake is the very doctrine of God, and with that, every aspect of the Christian life.
As A. W. Tozer noted in the middle of the last century, “The gravest question before the Church is always God Himself, and the most portentous fact about any man is not what he at a given time may say or do, but what he in his deep heart conceives God to be like.” He goes on to observe, “Were we able to extract from any man a complete answer to the question, ‘What comes into your mind when you think about God?’ we might predict with certainty the spiritual future of that man.” Open Theism’s redefinition of God bodes ill for those who embrace it. If our vision of God is diminished, vital godliness is sure to shrink with it.
1 Greg Boyd, God of the Possible (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2000), 8, 20, 89.
2 Ibid., 103-6.
3 Ibid., 87.
4 James M. Boice, Standing on the Rock, Biblical Authority in a Secular Age (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1994), 82. See also Robertson McQuilkin, Understanding and Applying the Bible (Chicago: Moody, 1992), 233-34, and R.C. Sproul, Knowing Scripture, (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1977), 68-75. Sproul points out the need for particular care in recognizing phenomenological language in biblical narrative.
5 John Sanders, The God Who Risks, a Theology of Providence (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1998) 41-75.
6 Ibid., 81.
8 Ibid., 84-85.
9 Ibid., 55.
10 Sanders, 228.
11 Ibid., 11. See Boyd, God of the Possible, 57-58.
12 Sanders, 169.
13 Ibid., 172.
14 See, for example, ibid., 71-72 and Boyd, God of the Possible, 55-56.
15 Boyd, God of the Possible, 43.
16 Ibid., 151.
17 Ibid., 152.
18 The details of this story, from which the quotes of this paragraph are taken, can be found in ibid., 103-6.
19 Ibid., 105.
20 Sanders, 100-01. He writes, “My own view is that the incarnation was always planned, for God intended to bring us into the joy and glory shared among the triune Godhead (Jn 17:22-24). Human sin, however, threw up a barrier to the divine project, and God’s planned incarnation had to be adapted in order to overcome it.” Ibid., 103.
21 Boyd, God of the Possible, 37.
22 Ibid., 38.
23 Sanders, 99.
24 Ibid., 134-36.
25 John Piper, “Why the Glory of God is at Stake in the ‘Foreknowledge’ Debate,” Modern Reformation (September/October 1999), 42.
26 David Bassinger, “Practical Implications,” in The Openness of God, by Clark Pinnock et al. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press), 162. Boyd writes, “I do not see that any view of God captures the power and urgency of prayer as adequately as the open view does, and, because the heart is influenced by the mind, I do not see that any view can inspire passionate and urgent prayer as powerfully as the open view can” (God of the Possible, 98).
27 Boyd, God of the Possible, 97; Sanders, 273-74.
28 Boyd, God of the Possible, 82-85; Sanders, 53-54; 63-66.
29 Boyd, God of the Possible, 96-97.
30 Ibid., 84.
31 Besides standard, time-tested writers like John Calvin, John Gill and Matthew Henry, many contemporary expositors have convincingly addressed the exegetical questions raised by open theists. One of the most thoughtful of the latter is John Piper, who has published several articles on the web site of the Baptist General Conference. See his Answering Greg Boyd’s Openness of God Texts. 11 May 1998 and The Enormous Ignorance of God: When God Doesn’t Know the Future Choices of Man. 2 Dec. 1997, available at http://www.bgc.bethel.edu/4know/pessays.htm.
32 Boyd, God of the Possible, 82.
33 See Piper, Answering Greg Boyd’s Openness of God Texts.
34 Sanders, 271.
35 C. F. Keil and C. Delitzsch, Commentary on the Old Testament, volume 3; translated by James Martin (Grand Rapids: Eerdmanns, 1986), 28.
36 Sanders, 222; cf. 194-95. David Bassinger tries to hedge his openness bet at this point. He admits that God “can unilaterally intervene in earthly affairs” but quickly adds that “a key assumption in the open model is that God so values the inherent integrity of significant human freedom–the ability of individuals to maintain control over the significant aspects of their lives–that he will not as a general rule force his created moral agents to perform actions that they do not freely desire to perform or manipulate the natural environment in such a way that their freedom of choice is destroyed” (Openness, 160-61, emphasis added).
37 An excellent resource for comparing the openness view of providence and prayer with other models is Terrance Tiessen, Providence and Prayer, How Does God Work in the World? (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000).
38 Sanders, 331, fn. 5.
39 Theologians have made this distinction in various ways throughout history. For a very helpful treatment of the issue from a biblical-theological perspective, see John Piper, “Are There Two Wills in God? Divine Election and God’s Desire for All to Be Saved,” in The Grace of God, the Bondage of the Will, eds. Thomas R. Schreiner and Bruce A. Ware (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1995), 2 vols. 1:107-31.
40 Boyd, God of the Possible, 153; Tiessen, 100-2. Boyd has called attention to the demonic realm of influence from the openness viewpoint in his God at War: The Bible and Spiritual Conflict (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1997).
41 Sanders, 261-62.
42 Boyd, God of the Possible, 153.
43 Ibid., 99.
44 Bassinger, 170.
45 Ibid., 171.
46 Boyd, God of the Possible, 102.
48 Boyd, God of the Possible, 8.
49 The Knowledge of the Holy (San Francisco, CA: Harper and Row, 1961), 1.