CultureWatch

Bill Muehlenberg's commentary on issues of the day...

A review of How Much Does God Foreknow? By Steven Roy.

Dec 12, 2006

InterVarsity Press, 2006.

One of the most controversial doctrines of free will theism or openness theology is the claim that God does not know the future. The motivations for this may be good: to protect God from charges of being the author of evil; to preserve genuine human freedom, and the like. But many have asked whether too high of a price is paid to make these concessions.

That is, in the attempt to defend God, it seems that too much of Scripture is either distorted or abandoned altogether, in order to make openness theism work. Thus defenders of the traditional understanding of God’s knowledge have been less than happy with the openness stance.

For those unaware of the basics, let me fill in the picture somewhat. It has been a long-standing problem as to how one can reconcile belief in God’s foreknowledge, and belief in genuine moral choices made by his creatures. That is, if God foreknows everything that will happen, down to the smallest detail, does that not mean that all things must happen? And if everything is thus predetermined to happen, where is the free will involved? Does it not disappear?

This is a philosophical/theological problem that has existed for millennia, and various solutions have been proposed. While Roy very briefly canvasses those options, he is mainly interested in the biblical data here. Thus the first half of the book examines Old Testament and New Testament passages which have a bearing on the question of God’s foreknowledge.

If one simply considers the numerous predictive prophecy passages alone, as found in the Old Testament, one would have to strongly question how divine foreknowledge can be denied. These and other passages are focused on in considerable detail.

Image of How Much Does God Foreknow?: A Comprehensive Biblical Study
How Much Does God Foreknow?: A Comprehensive Biblical Study by Steven C. Roy Amazon logo

But it is the second half of the book where Roy specifically wrestles with passages produced by the free will theists. In this section he deals with the many objections and contentions made by those in the openness camp.

Thus passages where God is said to repent, or change his mind, are given careful consideration. Instead of indicating a lack of divine foreknowledge, Roy suggests they instead are metaphorical in nature, and must be evaluated in the light of other passages, such as Numbers 23:19 (“God is not a man that he should repent”). There are both similarities and differences that exist between divine and human repentance.

Testing passages such as Genesis 22 which describe Abraham’s offering of Isaac (“Now I know that you fear God,” v. 12) are also examined in detail. This passage does not explicitly teach divine ignorance, and what it does discuss is the present state of Abraham’s heart, not a future condition. So it really has nothing to do with divine foreknowledge.

After discussing some other issues (e.g., does classical theism depend too much on Greek philosophy?), Roy closes with five practical implications of the doctrine of divine foreknowledge. These are: worship, prayer, divine guidance, evil, and hope. Consider just one, the perennial problem of evil and suffering. Does openness thinking really help much here?

Recall what openness theologians believe. God fully knows every aspect about the past and present, but not the future. So consider some great evil, such as the Holocaust. God did not foreknow the Holocaust, but in openness thought, he knew everything that was going on in the minds of the Nazis say in 1936. He knew of their plans for the Jews, the concentration camps, world domination, and so on. He fully knew back then what purposes, plans and motives were presently in the Nazi minds. Yet for some reason he did not choose to intervene. He could have but he did not. (Free will theists say God does at times override human beings and their choices, but only very rarely.)

Moreover, since God does not have any explicit purpose for suffering, according to openness thinking, then this was not only allowed by God but totally pointless as well. Some free will theists, such as Pinnock, even argue that God cannot ensure that any good will come out of evil, contrary to Romans 8:28.

Of course classical theists have plenty of problems with the Holocaust as well. But at least in their framework not all evil and suffering is seen as pointless, and God may well have redemptive purposes for such suffering. The Holocaust is still a mystery and a great horror, but the openness case does not seem to really solve any problems here. Both camps seem to have great difficulty with what appears to be gratuitous evil. But classical theists at least contend that God is able to use suffering for good ends, something which free will theists tend to deny.

So which view is more comforting? One in which God is not fully in control, does not know what the future entails, does not like evil, but seldom will intervene to prevent it? Or one in which God is in control, does know the future, does hate evil, but allows it to occur in order to work out his plans and purposes, hidden as they may be to us?

Neither system provides fully satisfactory answers to the problem of evil, but for all its claims to really be a theodicy, free will theism does not seem to offer much better help or comfort on many crucial issues of practical importance.

In sum, this is a good overview and summary of the biblical evidence for divine foreknowledge, and a good critique of the biblical arguments made by the openness theists. Of course not all will be convinced, and many of the passages in question remain open to various understandings and interpretations.

No matter how noble the motives of the free will theists, ultimately their theological system, like any other, must be carefully assessed in the light of Scripture. Theology should flow from the biblical text, not the other way around, which seems to be the case with openness theism.

[987 words]

10 Responses to A review of How Much Does God Foreknow? By Steven Roy.

  • Bill, I think you have misrepresented the position of open theists. Either you or Steven Roy claim that openness theologians believe that “God fully knows every aspect about the past and present, but not the future”. The implication is that God is ignorant of the future, but this is not open theism as I read it. Of course all the predictive passages indicate that God not only knows, but also determines, much of the future. There are, however, dozens of passages in the Old Testament that indicate that the future to God is partly open. There are so many passages that indicate that God changes his mind, and that he entertains possible future outcomes, that this “maybe-maybe not” view of the future as God sees it must be taken seriously. It is simply not good enough to allegorise a very considerable part of God’s revelation.
    You (or Roy) claim that “some free will theists, such as Pinnock, even argue that God cannot ensure that any good will come out of evil, contrary to Romans 8:28”. I haven’t read Pinnock’s exegesis of Romans 8:28, but my own understanding of the force of the verb sunergei is (as in RSV and to some extent GNB) that “in all things God works for good in cooperation with those who are called according to his purpose”. Without human cooperation it would seem that good may not come out of all things; that in some cases (in the absence of the cooperation of human ‘agents’) unmitigated evil exists for which the only explanation is that Satan, the god of this world and the prince of the power of the air, has caused destruction and chaos. That is not to say that in any situation God is incapable of bringing good – he will, every time, as we cooperate with him.

    David Esdaile

  • Thanks David

    In the sentence you quote, perhaps I worded it in such a way as to be misleading. The sentence does not imply that God does not know the future (for the fwt’s), just not in “every aspect”. God does know parts of the future, but according to fwt’s, only those parts that he has decreed to bring about. God cannot know the future chosen actions of human beings as these are unknowable, according to their theology.

    Some fwt’s such as Rice speak of three different types of predictive prophecy, so the debate gets complex here. And then there are discussions about God’s relationship to time, and so on…

    There seem to be about 35 passages in total that speak of God changing his mind, at least using the Hebrew verb niham. (And 8 other OT passages can speak of the non-repentance of God.) And of course many dozens more passages where God says his will cannot be thwarted, he will bring to pass what he desires, and so on. Thus both sides have to grapple with what looks like conflicting evidence. The question is what is the best way (and the way most faithful to Scripture) to deal with these differences.

    As to allegorizing away revelation, there is a very real sense in which all or most of the language of scripture referring to God is at least metaphorical (but that is another discussion!). Thus while the passages cited by fwt’s are important and merit consideration, to argue that they may more properly be understood as anthropomorphic metaphors is not totally out of bounds. One can disagree however as to whether that is the best way to deal with these texts.

    As to Pinnock, his view comes from Most Moved Mover, p. 176, although he does not specifically refer to Romans 8:28 there. I added that reference. The RSV rendering of the passage, and its understanding of synergei, is a possibility, but not without its difficulties, and most scholars prefer several of the other options. And admittedly the verse can be an exegetical minefield, but the context seems to favour the idea of God’s transcendent power and authority over all things, and his ability to assist believers. It is God’s ability to work all things for good that is being highlighted here, not our cooperation with God.

    But these are all points for legitimate disagreement and discussion. Having read nearly everything that the free will theists have written, I can’t promise to look at the subject more fully! But I might suggest if you are interested, to give Roy a look, or Erickson, or Ware, or the many other works available on the subject. See my listing: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2006/12/13/everything-you-wanted-to-know-about-free-will-theism/ 

    Thanks again,
    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Hi Bill

    I appreciate this informed assessment of different theological viewpoints. I also struggle with many parts of the bible but by faith continually bow my knee to the Lordship of Christ. In regards to God’s foreknowlege and especially His involvement in evil and suffering I have always understood it in this manner:

    Evil and suffering are the consequences of our sin (our rebellion against God), also known as the curse that was instituted in Genesis 3. By imposing this curse God gave his people time and reason to repent (J. Hartnett, A. Williams, Dismantling the Big Bang, Master Books, 2005), thus saving us from eternal damnation. The psalmist seemed to understand this concept as we see in Psalm 119:67-71

    “Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I obey your word. You are good, and what you do is good; teach me your decrees. Though the arrogant have smeared me with lies, Their hearts are callous and unfeeling, but I delight in your law. It was good for me to be afflicted so that I might learn your decrees”

    In the last sentence we see that afflictions we suffer serve to drive us to God.

    How can it be that God allows or causes sufferings if it seems that a major part of Christ’s ministry on earth was to relieve sufferings. One explanation which helped me was that God may be the immediate cause (he has arranged things so that we will suffer), however, he is not the ultimate cause. The ultimate cause of our suffering is our own sin. The reason God causes us to suffer is that he loves us and wants the greatest good for us, that is being in right relationship with him for eternity. (Summary from Hartnett and Williams).

    That is in the same way a father disciplines his son, so God disciplines us. “Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as sons. For what son is not disciplined by his father?” Heb 12:7

    In summary if there was no suffering or evil, if we hadn’t been kicked out of the garden of eden then there would be no reason or evidence that something is wrong in the world. Cosnequently, we would see no need to repent from our sins or have faith in Christ, because we wouldn’t think we were eternally damned even though we were pronounced dead by God and would die.

    In Christ, Karne de Boer

  • I may be a little late to the party on this one, but I really just had a quick question for Bill.

    In your review (and in most of the books available today that attempt to refute open theism) you mention all of the usual weapons used to brush away open theism: anthropomorphic language, overstatement about what free will theists say God knows and doesn’t know about the future, an open theist who is not quite quoted correctly (Pinnock), etc.

    However, after David Esdaile’s helpful comment, you backed off on much of what you asserted in your review and admitted that the issue was a little more complicated than what you had originally made it out to be.

    My question? Why do opponents of open theism keep writing books and reviews and giving lectures with the same tired material that open theists have responded to time and time again? It seems that they are no longer dialoging with the open theist theologians but merely crying that there’s blood in the water in order to terrify the layperson and have him running for the hills and away from open theism.

    Ware’s books were only helpful for those who had already made up their minds, and the same could be said for John Frame’s book “No Other God.” They continuously misrepresent open theists, casting their position in the weakest possible form and then using inflammatory language to make it seem terrible and even dishonoring to God.

    Why? Wouldn’t it benefit everyone involved to have a real dialogue?

    Josh Crain

  • Thanks Josh

    But I do not read things the way you do. First, I did not back away, I merely tried to more clearly explain my position. Second, if there is misrepresentation and poor argumentation, that is easily true of both sides, not just one. Third, there is dialogue going on, it seems to me. Fourth, the classical theists are simply not convinced by the arguments of the FWTs, and are rightly concerned about the implications of their theology.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • I know I’m jumping in the conversation late but I had a quick question. In your last comment you directed at Josh you finished by mentioning that classical theists are concerned about the implications of the open view. Maybe you have touched on it but I was hoping you would be able to clarify some of those implications for me. From my understanding what classical theists seem to have issues with is the open view’s “attack” on the sovereignty of God. However, in my perspective this is not so much an attack but a redefining of God’s sovereignty according to scripture and I have not read anything from the classical party that offers a satisfactory rebuttal.
    Personally the issue of prayer is one that I would love to hear from the classical side on. If I’m not mistaken the Hebrew word for pray in the OT implies a responsibilty of the person praying meaning that my prayers make some sort of difference to God, that it is more than wishful thinking. I have a hard time reconciling this with the idea that everything is already known/decided by God and so I would love to hear your take on it.

    Thanks
    Evan Peters

  • Thanks Evan

    There are a number of concerns that classical theists have with free-will theism. Probably the main concern is the denial, or radical reworking, of the idea of divine foreknowledge.

    The issue of prayer and divine sovereignty has not necessarily been a problem for many believers. Nor is it just an Arminian/Calvinist debate. Even traditional Arminians believe in exhaustive divine foreknowledge, while still holding to libertarian free will. They are happy to affirm our significant moral choices, and also affirm that God knows all things, including future events.

    For what it is worth, I find the compatibalism position most satisfying in this regard. See for example D.A. Carson’s Divine Sovereignty and Human Responsibility (Baker, 1981).

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • If instances in scripture that show God to be considering a position, changing his mind, or realizing something uncertain are merely metaphorical, then what else in the Bible is metaphorical? The miracles of Jesus? The resurrection?

    This is a terrifying possibility and in my study of open theism/calvinism/arminianism I was stunned to learn how commonly believed it is.

    It is convenient, though. Take what you believe and if something doesn’t fit, hey! it’s just a metaphor!

    Aaron Smith

  • Thanks Aaron

    But what are you suggesting? That there are no metaphorical assertions or descriptions made about God anywhere in Scripture? If so, then is God granite, limestone or basalt in Psalm 18:2? Is Jesus a wooden or metal door in John 10:9? And is the door handle made of brass or gold? How large are God’s wings that he shelters us under in Psalm 17:8? Just how big is God’s hand in Numbers 11:23?

    The truth is, the Bible is full of metaphorical language, especially about God. Of course that does not mean that such language is therefore untrue or mythical. It simply means the Bible is, in one sense, written just like ordinary literature, full of imagery, metaphor and analogical language.

    So I do not have any problem arguing that some descriptions of God’s actions may well be metaphorical.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • I spotted the absurdity of the “nothing is metaphorical in Scripture, or else anything may be” position right off. That all-or-nothing philosophy seems to pop up frequently, along with (perhaps the same as) various false-dilemma fallacies, in various places: I’ve heard from people who should know better that “we should be preaching the basic gospel rather than defending creationism,” “we should be feeding the poor rather than debating the finer points of theology,” “gender-neutral Bible versions are preferable because all translations involve ‘interpretation'” (i.e., because some words require “interpretation,” any [or any amount of] interpreting is fine), etc.

    Kevin Moritz

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