Is There a Future?
How could the sovereignty of an omniscient, omnipotent and benevolent God be reconciled with the intuitions of the basic free will we possess, especially in light of special revelation about the accountability under which he holds his subjects?
This has been a difficult question for thinkers of many persuasions, theologians and philosophers, and it has recently made a comeback, especially in evangelical circles.It seems that this is fueled by a renaissance of philosophical thought among generally conservative scholars, which seemed to be largely dormant since the period immediately after the Reformation, and throughout the appearance of German liberalism and the reacting fundamentalism that ensued.
Most Christian philosophers and theologians today are not under the umbrella of a single visible Church, and thus they advance new models that are not constrained by established historical frameworks in theology. This is ultimately profitable, for it forces the exercise of rigorous thought on ultimate issues, which provides the possibility of more accurate results in our understanding of them.
One of the most critical controversies in philosophical and theological thought during the 80s was about the nature of time, of God, and of his relationship with man. Many Christian philosophers and theologians have argued for the “Open View of God” (OVG), “Open Theism (OT) or “Free Will Theism” (FWT).
In a nutshell, their main contention is that God cannot foreknow the future for two reasons: first, because the future is not “there” to be known; and secondly, because that very concept would render free agency impossible.
Proponents of one kind or another have included Clark Pinnock, Richard Rice, John Sanders, William Hasker, David Basinger, Greg Boyd, Thomas Morris, and Richard Swinburne. Their understanding of the nature of God has implications in many crucial areas, including the understanding of evil, the character of God, and the relevance and nature of prayer.
There seems to be much misunderstanding on the different sides of this issue. Misrepresentations abound, and sometimes it is not clear whether this is due to a genuine lack of understanding of the opponent’s position, or whether it is a strategy of deliberately shooting down straw men. This issue has become a very heated dispute in some circles, which would explain such tactic; furthermore, the problems in each position involve extremely complex philosophical arguments.
As an example of the widespread complaints of misrepresentation, in an article published in Christianity Today[i] six leading openness theologians (Sanders, Pinnock, Boyd, Hasker, Rice, and Basinger) write that many assumptions made about their views are simply wrong. In referring to a previous interview with Royce Gruenler, published in that magazine, they declare that “[the] interview … contained so many errors concerning openness of God theology that we wonder whether he really intended to give an honest and accurate account of our views. We hope he did intend this, but if so, he failed abjectly … Gruenler, for example, says we are ‘Pelagian’ … Gruenler says, falsely, that we deny there can be biblical prophecy.”
Misrepresentation of OT does happen, but it also abounds on the opposite direction. OT theologians almost invariably contrast their position with what they call the “classical” position. Thus, Rice states that “on the [classical] view of divine foreknowledge the course of future events is already definite. Everything happens in accordance with an invariable divine plan. God is really the only agent. Everyone else plays the role God assigns“[ii] (emphasis mine). OT frequently asserts that their position allows for free agents, whereas the alternative, the “classical” position, requires that God is the responsible agent of every choice and action that ever takes place, including evil.[iii]
Was There a Coherent Theological Past?
But it is hardly the case that proponents of the “classical” position would consider that an accurate description of their beliefs. OT proponents often fail to present views espousing a picture of God where his sovereignty is safeguarded, and yet compatible with free agency – and yet Christian tradition has historically affirmed that such apparent polarities are united in the eternal mystery of God and creation, of providence and responsibility, of grace (the energeia of God transforming his people) and human response. God’s foreknowledge is not incompatible with human freedom: God knows all the possibilities of each state of affairs, of action and free choice, and he also knows the ones that will be actualized.
Gregory Boyd, one of the leading proponents of the OT, states that
[I]n the ‘Openness of God’ position … the future is partly open to possibilities, and since God is omniscient and knows all of reality just like it is, he knows the future as being partly open to possibilities. In the classical view of God, the future is eternally settled. For God there are no genuine possibilities – no genuine ‘maybes’ … I do not see that Scripture teaches that all future events be settled. In my view, it is a very insecure deity who needs to control everything in order to ensure anything. [iv]
Boyd starts his project with an attempt to rethink a classical theology that, in his view, has been corrupted to its core by Greek pagan philosophy. He states that a shift against such philosophy has finally allowed “people to read Scripture and to think about God and the world in ways that are less influenced by Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics, and Newton”.[v] Aside from the hubris of arguing that 2,000 years of Christian tradition and theology has been not much more than functionally illiterate as it followed their philosopher du jour, this is merely an unfalsifiable argument (and hence a fallacy). That is to say, if you don’t agree with OT, you don’t understand Revelation, you are just following those sinister Greek philosophers. End of story.
This is one of the main criticisms of the OT proponents, that theology has been developed by thinkers such as Augustine and Aquinas under pagan philosophy’s assumptions and influence. That is to say, a true reading of the biblical text will reveal a God who takes risks, who changes his mind, who can genuinely regret his actions and genuinely interact with men; a God who in principle cannot know the future exhaustively (since the future is not “out there” to be known), but is capable of making extremely accurate predictions based on his exhaustive knowledge of the present; a God who can be genuinely surprised, disappointed and hopeful; a true reading of the biblical text, it is claimed, will not reveal a Stoic God who is impassible, who knows the future as present, and who cannot allow for genuine free will – this would be closer to Aristotle’s “unmoved mover” than to the God of the Bible.
OT proposes that the future is partially settled and partially open. What they mean is that God at times intervenes in history to accomplish his purposes, and at other times he doesn’t – the future is open, and will be the actualization of the choices we make. The future God knows infallibly is that which he creates when he sovereignly intervenes, since he is the one who brings it about. Whenever he doesn’t, he can only make good predictions of what will happen.
What Does God Know Anyway?
Here we must be careful with misrepresentations. We must not think that OT proposes a God who is not more than a mere gambler, who merely hopes to make good predictions about the future. Rather, he knows his creatures perfectly, and thus is able to predict our behavior far more extensively and accurately than we could. Boyd states that “this does not mean that everything we will ever do is predictable, for our present character doesn’t determine all of our future.”[vi] Hence God can make extremely accurate predictions of my actions based on his “perfect”[vii] knowledge of me.
But here we might question the consistency of such claim. For, if God knows me perfectly, and I take this to mean exhaustively, completely, then there is no reason to think that he could not always perfectly predict what I will do, since he knows the present and the past exhaustively, and he knows me exhaustively. Basinger states that
[T]hose who believe the God possesses what has come to be labeled “present knowledge” (PK) maintain that God’s knowledge is limited to everything that is (or has been) actual … [and that] God, as the ultimate psychoanalyst or behaviorist, can with great accuracy predict what individuals will freely decide to do in the future in many cases. He might well, for instance, be able to predict quite accurately who will win the American presidential election in the year 2012.[viii]
If one would assume that what gives me a unique personality, that is, what makes me, me, and not somebody else, is not just my unique body, but the sum total of my desires, beliefs, thoughts (including memories), sensations and volition, and if God knows everything about me exhaustively, he must also know what I would do in every situation. OT seems to want to have the cake and eat it at the same time: they grant God’s exhaustive knowledge of the essence of each and every person who has ever lived, and yet deny that this would yield perfect prediction of their actions and reactions.
This intuitively seems wrong: one might think of the all too common examples of people that have lived together for, say, 50 years, and they know their partner so well that the level of predictability of the partner’s actions is extremely high. Yet, this kind of knowledge could not compare with a God who knows each and every component of that partner’s particular essence (or the soul – as described above, the thoughts, beliefs, desires, etc.). If our level of predictability can be so high, why wouldn’t complete knowledge yield complete predictability? The answer is that, given OT, the premise that freedom is incompatible with perfect foreknowledge of the future is the final, infallible dogma. Any reasoning, tradition, or exegesis that would deny it must by definition be wrong.
Can God Know Future Evil if He will Not Be its Author?
Another difficulty arises from OT’s contention that God can only know perfectly the future that he himself will bring about. Again, OT does not assert the future is completely open, or that God simply cannot know anything about the future. Rather, He occasionally intervenes to bring about his purposes. Rice cites, as examples, the decree that brought Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem. God was intervening so a prophecy concerning the birth of the Messiah in Bethlehem could be fulfilled. God told Micah what he had decided to bring about, and enforced it at the proper time, turning around the events that seemed to point to a Jerusalem birth.
This at first seems to be acceptable: prophecies that are not conditional will be made good by God’s intervention. He will flex his sovereign muscle whenever necessary to actualize his will. But the OTproponents seem to overlook a serious problem with this thesis. If the future which God can know is simply what he will bring about, because he will bring it about, then this seems to render any prophecies about future sins impossible.
For example, the book of Daniel records God’s predictions about a historical figure who would deceive Israel, oppress it, and eventually defile the temple of God by setting up the “abomination of desolation.” There are vary historical, textual, and theological questions involving this issue that are beyond our discussion here; but most, if not all, of the OT proponents cited would consider these predictions to have been fulfilled about 400 years after they were given, and arguing that in some way they may be fulfilled in the future.
Now the problem is how could God have known that a particular individual, who was not yet born, would take a particular course of sinful actions against God himself? OT proponents would have to deny that God foreknew it, and concede that he brought about the fulfillment of the prophecy. But then God would have to make somebody sin to bring about the fulfillment of a prophecy, and that does not seem to be an option.
In principle, God could never predict a sin, unless he knew the sinner exhaustively. That, however, runs into difficulties with Boyd’s contention that God’s prediction could not be 100% accurate. Much less could he make such prediction if at the time of the prophecy there were no such specific sinner – he could not know such person exhaustively if this person was not yet even alive.
One recalls that Christ’s redemptive work in his suffering, death, and burial, was “foreordained before the foundation of the world” (1 Pet. 17-21). How could God know for sure that there would be a need for this redemptive work, before creation, and in advance foreordain the Passion and Resurrection of the Incarnate Logos? In other words, God could never know with certainty what he does not bring about himself, and he does not bring about evil. He can make fairly accurate predictions about the future, based on his exhaustive knowledge of the present, but never precisely predict an action or choice that is out of accord with his will.
God could perhaps have very good indication that, given the human nature, there would very likely be a need for redemption. Setting aside questions of whether such could be inferred from a human nature who had not yet fallen, it would still be a good reason for God to make plans for a redemptive work, but not for his ordaining (determining) of it. Thus, it seems that conservative Christian philosophers and theologians involved in this discussion are in a tight spot when the Bible predicts specific acts of specific persons that are against God’s will (and therefore not brought about by him). These issues are significant because many of OT proponents are theologians, and are very concerned with the nature of prophecy.
[i] Christianity Today’s “Reader’s Forum”, Openness of God: Truth at Risk April 23, 2001, p. 103
[ii] Rice, God’s Foreknowledge and Man’s Free Will, p. 17
[iii] Ibid., p. 72
[iv] From the November/December 1999 issue of Modern Reformation magazine
[vi] Gregory Boyd, God of the Possible p. 35
[viii] David Basinger, The Case for Free Will Theism – A Philosophical Assessment p. 40