Monthly Archives: October 2014

God’s Give-and-Take Relationship with Us

In this post I’ll consider the second point in John Sanders’ summary of openness theology at Open Theism Information Site:

Second, God has, in sovereign freedom, decided to make some of his actions contingent upon our requests and actions. God elicits our free collaboration in his plans. Hence, God can be influenced by what we do and God truly responds to what we do. God genuinely interacts and enters into dynamic give-and-take relationships with us. That God changes in some respects implies that God is temporal, working with us in time. God, at least since creation, experiences duration. God is everlasting through time rather than timelessly eternal.

In chapters 3 and 4 of his The God Who Risks (Downers Grove, Illinois, 1998), Sanders examines the Biblical evidence supporting the “risk” view of providence (God’s care) described in the first four sentences of the above quotation. Here I’ll give an example from each of the two chapters: from chapter 3 the establishment, breaking, and renewal of God’s covenant with Israel (pages 61-66) and from chapter 4 the inclusion of the Gentiles in the Church (pages 117-124). I’ll also summarize the two views of God’s eternity referred to in the last three sentences of the quotation: the common view, divine timelessness, and Sanders’ view, divine everlastingness.

The Establishment, Breaking, and Renewal of God’s Covenant with Israel

While the Israelites were camped at Mount Sinai, God established a covenant or agreement with them. “You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine, and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:4-6, ESV; all Biblical quotations are from the ESV). God freely established the covenant, but it involved obligations for both the Israelites and Him–they were to obey His word and He would bless them. Thus although the establishment of the covenant was unconditional, its continuance was contingent upon the Israelites’ obeying God’s word.

The breaking and renewal of the Covenant in Exodus 32-34 illustrates this. When God informed Moses of the Israelites’ worshipping the golden calf, He told him that He was going to destroy them and start over again with him. However as a result of Moses’ intercession for the Israelites, God changed His mind and didn’t do what He had said that He would do. After Moses visited the idolatrous scene, he returned to God and asked Him to forgive the Israelites. This time God refused his request and said that an angel, rather than God, would accompany the Israelites. However as a result of the Israelites’ taking off their ornaments as God instructed them to and of Moses’ continued intercession for them, God again changed His mind and said that His “presence” would go with them. He then renewed His covenant with the Israelites.

The Inclusion of the Gentiles in the Church

Sanders comments on what Acts 10-15 and Romans 9-11 show about God’s attempt to include the Gentiles within the Church without first having to convert to Judaism. I’ll limit his consideration to Acts 10-15.

In Acts 10 God showed Peter that Gentiles should be included in the Church as Gentiles by having an angel tell Cornelius, a Roman centurion, to send for Peter; by granting Peter a vision of ceremonially unclean food and commanding him three times to eat it; and by giving the gift of the Holy Spirit to those listening to Peter’s message about Jesus in the house of Cornelius. In Acts 11 Peter explained the situation to Jewish Christians who took issue with him and they concluded that God had accepted the Gentiles into the Church.

Acts 13-14 describes Paul’s first missionary journey, in which some Jews and many Gentiles came to faith in Christ. Acts 15 narrates how certain Jewish Christians told the Gentile Christians that they couldn’t be genuine Christians unless they practiced the law of Moses and how Paul and Barnabas disagreed with them and it was decided to take the matter to the leaders of the church in Jerusalem. It also describes that meeting, in which Peter recounted what had happened in the house of Cornelius, Paul and Barnabas told of signs and wonders among the Gentiles, James suggested certain minimum requirements that Gentiles should observe, and those in the meeting agreed to his suggestion.

Sanders observes that to accomplish His plan to develop both Jews and Gentiles into a body having faith in Jesus God was dependent on the people involved, especially Peter and Paul, to correctly interpret His actions in the events described in Acts 10-15; that although His plan met initial success, God did experience some setbacks, such as the incident at Antioch described in Galatians 2:11-21; and that despite His resourcefulness, God did not achieve everything that He wanted to accomplish regarding the Jews, most of them rejecting Jesus as their Messiah.

The Eternity of God

In Psalm 90:2, “Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever thou hadst formed the earth and the world, even from everlasting to everlasting, thou art God,” Moses (Psalm 90 is traditionally ascribed to Moses) expresses his faith that God not only exists and as creator has existed longer than created things, but also that God is eternal. But what does it mean to say that God is eternal? In the introduction to this post I identified two views: the common view, divine timelessness, and Sanders’ view, divine everlastingness.

The best-known exposition of the doctrine of divine timelessness occurs in the <i>The Consolation of Philosophy</i> of the sixth-century Christian philosopher Boethius. He defined “eternity” as “the whole, perfect, and simultaneous possession of endless life” and claimed that God sees all things, including things past and future, as if they were taking place in the present (Boethius, The Consolation of Philosophy, V, 6). An analogy is of a traveller on a road seeing only the neighbourhood where he is but someone in a high place above the road seeing the whole road at once. Proponents of the view argue that it follows from God’s being omniscient and immutable.

Opponents of the view claim that it is incoherent because according to it God is simultaneously present at a person’s birth, his present, and his death. This would seem to imply that his birth, his present, and his death are simultaneous times–which is false. A defender of timelessness would probably reply that the objection fails to distinguish between viewing an event from the divine perspective and from the human perspective. However opponents of the view also question how a timeless being can be the creator and sustainer of the world or a personal being who acts in history, both of which the Bible pictures God as being.

They (including Sanders) propose a temporal God, one who lives and acts within time. But can such a God be everything that the Christian God is supposed to be? They (and I) believe so. He can still be eternal, in the Biblical sense of being everlasting or without beginning and without end. He can still be omniscient, knowing all that it is possible to know (I’ll expand on this when considering Sanders’ fifth point). He can still be immutable, in the sense of remaining fixed in His essential nature. And He can act in time, as creator and sustainer of the world and as a personal God involved in human history. Thus to Him I can say, as did Moses, “THOU ART GOD!” (in Psalm 90:2, quoted in full at the beginning of this post).

The Love of God

Originally this was going to be the first in a series of posts expanding on the outline of the distinctive theology of open theism that I gave in What Is Open Theism?, an outline based on John Sanders’ “summary of openness theology” at Open Theism Information Site. However Dr. Sanders gave me permission to quote from “summary of openness theology” itself, and so in this post I’ll quote and comment on the first point in it:

According to openness theology, the triune God of love has, in almighty power, created all that is and is sovereign over all. In freedom God decided to create beings capable of experiencing his love. In creating us the divine intention was that we would come to experience the triune love and respond to it with love of our own and freely come to collaborate with God towards the achievement of his goals. We believe love is the primary characteristic of God because the triune Godhead has eternally loved even prior to any creation. Divine holiness and justice are aspects of the divine love towards creatures, expressions of God’s loving concern for us. Love takes many forms–it can even be experienced as wrath when the lover sees the beloved destroying herself and others.

A Bible verse that supports Saunders’ claim that God’s primary characteristic is love is 1 John 4:8, “Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love.” (ESV; Biblical quotations in the rest of this post are also from the ESV.) In the Greek original the word for “love” in this verse is agape, a word which scholars say points to a quality in the one loving rather than to qualities in the one or thing loved which make him/her or it attractive to the one loving him/her or it. This suggests that when the Bible refers to the love of God it has in mind an innate quality of God rather than just His feeling the kind of affection that we feel for a family member or a member of the opposite sex.

A few other passages that highlight God’s love are:
“It is because the LORD loves you and is keeping the oath that he swore to your fathers, that the LORD has brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharoah king of Eypyt”
(Deuteronomy 7:8).
“I have loved you [Israel] with an everlasting love; therefore I have continued my faithfulness to you” (Jeremiah 31:3).
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16, one of the first Bible verses memorized by me and countless others).
“God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).

“Divine holiness and justice are aspects of the divine love towards creatures” suggests that Sanders considers love to be the foundation of all of God’s attributes rather than just His primary characteristic. That many Christians believe this is affirmed by another open theist, Richard Rice, in his contribution to Clark Pinnock et al.’s The Openness of God (Downer’s Grove, Illinois, 1994): “As they interpret the Bible, love is not only more important than all of God’s other attributes, it is more fundamental as well. Love is the essence of the divine reality, the basic source from which <i>all</i> of God’s attributes arise. This means that the assertion God is love incorporates all there is to say about God” (page 21).

Although finding attractive the claim of modern open theists that love is the most important attribute of God, I haven’t been persuaded by their claim that love is the foundation of God’s other attributes rather than just the most important of His attributes, my feeling that some aspects of the world are inconsistent with a God motivated solely by love. Moreover I’ve been impressed by A. H. Strong’s argument that holiness is the fundamental attribute of God in his Systematic Theology (Valley Forge, Pa: Judson Press, 1907, pages 295-303) and by John M. Frame’s questioning that love is God’s most important attribute in his No Other God (Phillipsburg, New Jersey: P&R Publishing, 2001, pages 49-56; he argues that God’s lordship is at least as important as His love).

Thus I don’t view love, or holiness or any of God’s other attributes, as the foundation of God’s other attributes but view all of His attributes as ways of describing Him and essential to His being. However, consistent with the idea often expressed that God’s holiness required Him to punish sin and His love motivated Him to take the punishment upon Himself, I do view holiness and love as jointly the most important of God’s attributes (or at least of His moral attributes).

Passages Supporting God’s Foreordaining Everything

This is the last of four posts expanding on what I said about traditional theism in “What Is Open Theism?” In it I expand on this statement:

Other passages indicating that God knows the future are . . . those supporting the Calvinist view that God preordains all that is going to come to pass, such as Lamentations 3:37-38 and Romans 11:33-36.

John M. Frame’s No Other God (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2001) contains an excellent chapter presenting Biblical evidence for the Calvinist view, “Is God’s Will the Ultimate Explanation of Everything?” I’m going to look at the four passages in it that Frame claims explicitly teach that God foreordains everything–Lamentations 3:37-38, Romans 8:28, Ephesians 1:11, and Romans 11:33-36. He considers them on pages 84-87.

Lamentations 3:37-38

“Who has spoken and it came to pass, unless the Lord commanded it? Is it not from the mouth of the Most High that good and bad come?” (ESV; all Biblical quotations are from the ESV.)

Read by itself, the passage seems to say that nobody can make anything good or bad happen unless God has commanded that it happen. However John Sanders observes that the verses immediately before the passage assert that the bad that has come upon Israel was a consequence of sin as had been forecast in Deuteronomy 28-30 and concludes that the passage just asserts that a specific historical calamity, not all calamity, was brought about by God (The God Who Risks, Downers Grove, IL, 1998, pages 83-84). Bruce A. Ware concedes that the passage refers to a specific historical situation but argues that the truth asserted transcends the situation (God’s Lesser Glory, Wheaton, IL: Crossawy Books, 2000, page 205).

Romans 8:28

“And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.”

Although the passage just seems to say that whatever happens to God’s people He will bring good out of it, Frame interprets it as teaching that everything that happens is a part of God’s plan to bless His people.

Ephesians 1:11

“In him we have obtained an inheritance [OR we were chosen], having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will.”

Although the passage just seems to recapitulate the teaching of the preceding verses, which tell of God’s having chosen and predestined us and describe the blessings that we consequently have in Christ, Frame argues that in repetitively saying “the purpose of him who works all things” Paul is saying that our salvation is part of God’s overall control of the world.

Romans 11:33-36

“Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! ‘For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?’ ‘Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid?’ For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.”

In Romans 9-11 Paul sets forth the mystery of how the Jews’ rejection of the gospel opened the door for the Gentiles to be saved but that in the future God would save “all Israel” (11:26). He concludes with this doxology of praise to God. Frame claims that the “all things” in the final verse includes events, such as God’s judgment of the Jews and His blessing of the Gentiles, as well as material things.

Biblical Passages Containing Prophecies Later Fulfilled

This is the third of four posts expanding on what I said about traditional theism in “What Is Open Theism?” In it I expand on this statement:

Other passages indicating that God knows the future are those containing prophecies later fulfilled.

Prophecies about Cyrus and Josiah

In my last post, I referred to one such prophecy, God’s naming Cyrus as the one through whom He would later restore Jerusalem. The prediction is made in Isaiah 44:28 and its fulfillment is described in Ezra 1. Josephus records that when Cyrus read Isaiah’s prophecy he was so impressed by God’s power that “ambition seized upon him to fulfil what was so written” (Antiquities, XI, I, 2).

A similar naming and fulfilling is described in 1 Kings 13:1-3 (naming) and 2 Kings 23:15-17 (fulfilling):

“And behold, a man of God came out of Judah by the word of the LORD to Bethel. Jeroboam [the king of Israel] was standing by the altar to make offerings. And the man cried against the altar by the word of the LORD and said, ‘O altar, altar, thus says the LORD: <Behold a son shall be born to the house of David, Josiah by name, and he shall sacrifice on you the priests of the high places [unauthorized places of worship] who make offerings on you, and human bones shall be burned on you.>’ And he gave a sign the same day, saying, ‘This is the sign that the Lord has spoken: <Behold, the altar shall be torn down, and the ashes that are on it shall be poured out.>'” (1 Kings 13:1-4, ESV; all Biblical quotations are from the ESV.)

“Moreover, the altar at Bethel, the high place erected by Jeroboam the son of Nebat, who made Israel to sin, that altar with the high place he [Josiah, the king of Judah, 300 years later] pulled down and burned, reducing it to dust. He also burned the Asherah [images of the Canaanite goddess, Asherah]. And as Josiah turned, he saw the tombs and burned them on the altar and defiled it, according to the word of the Lord that the man of God proclaimed, who had predicted these things. Then he said, ‘What is that monument that I see?’ And the men of the city told him, ‘It is the tomb of the man of God who came from Judah and predicted these things that you have done against the altar at Bethel.'” (2 Kings 23:15-17)

God’s bringing this about involved using the apparently freewill choices of Josiah and others, providing support for the view of traditional theism that God foresees the whole future, not just what He intends to do.

More Examples of Prophecies That Were Later Fulfilled

“Then the Lord said to Abram, ‘Know for certain that your offspring will be sojourners in a land that is not theirs and will be servants there, and they will be afflicted for four hundred years. But I will bring judgment on the nation that they serve, and they will come out with great possessions. . . . And they shall come back here'” (Genesis 15:11-15). Thus long before they occurred God told Abraham of the future captivity of the Israelites in Egypt and of their deliverance from there and return to Canaan.

“Behold the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel [God with us]” (Isaiah 7:14). Matthew 1:22-23 observes that the birth of Jesus fulfilled this prophecy made centuries earlier through Isaiah to Ahaz, the king of Judah. The Old Testament contains many such prophecies that were fulfilled by Jesus.

“Jesus said, ‘I tell you, Peter, the rooster will not crow this day, until you deny three times that you know me'” (Luke 22:34). Each of the four Gospels contains this prediction made by Jesus to Peter while they were in the upper room before going to Gethsemane and records the fulfilment of the prediction when they were at the high priest’s house after Jesus was arrested in Gethsemane (Luke 22:54-62, etc.).

Traditional theists generalize from such examples that God knows the whole future beforehand. However open theists argue that although such examples may show that God is sovereign and can predetermine and thus foreknow whatever He wants to, they don’t justify the conclusion that He knows the whole future beforehand.

Biblical Passages Indicating that God Knows the Future

This is the second of four posts expanding on what I said about traditional theism in “What Is Open Theism?” In it I expand on this paragraph:

Two passages which indicate that God knows the future are:
Even before a word is on my tongue, behold, O LORD, you know it altogether. (Psalms 139:4, ESV; all Biblical quotations are from the ESV.)
Remember the former things of old; for I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me, declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, “My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose.” (Isaiah 46:9-10)

Psalm 139

Psalms 139:4, quoted above, makes clear that the Psalmist believed that God knew in advance all the words that he would speak. Even stronger support for God’s foreknowledge of the future is found in Psalms 139:16, “Your eyes saw my unformed substance; in your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there was none of them.” Clearly the passage indicates that the Psalmist believed that God had formed or ordained the days of his life before he was even born.

Isaiah 40-48

Bruce A. Ware devotes over twenty pages (pages 101-121) of God’s Lesser Glory (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway Books, 2000) to the portrayal of God’s foreknowledge given in Isaiah 40-48, considering separately 41:21-29; 42:8-9; 43:8-13; 44:6-8; 44:24-28; 45:1-7; 45:18-25; 46:8-11; and 48:3-9. I’ll comment here on just two of those passages–the first of them (41:21-29) and the one that I quoted from in “What Is Open Theism?” (46:8-11).

In Isaiah 41:21-29 God challenges the gods of the nations to “tell us what is to come hereafter that we may know that you are gods” (verse 23) and goes on to give an example of how He did so “that we might say, ‘He is right'” (verse 26). In his classic Discourses upon the Existence and Attributes of God Stephen Charnock comments: “He [God] puts his Deity to stand or fall upon this account, and this should be the point which should decide the controversy, whether he or the heathen idols were the true God; the dispute is managed by this medium,–He that knows things to come, is God; I know things to come, <i>ergo</i>, I am God; the idols know not things to come, therefore they are not gods.”

In Isaiah 46:9-10 God clearly asserts that He had declared in the past things about the future and that they would come to pass. Open theists argue that the things that God declared about the future that would come to pass were just things that God intended to do and not the freewill actions of people. However they included “calling a bird of prey from the east, the man of my counsel from a far country” (Isaiah 46:11), probably a reference to Cyrus, whom God predicts in Isaiah 44:28 would restore Jerusalem (Ezra 1 describes the fulfillment of this prediction). God’s bringing this about involved using the apparently freewill choices of Cyrus and others, providing support for the view of traditional theism that God foresees the whole future, not just what He intends to do.

In response open theists agree that God foreknows that some things will happen because He has determined to bring about those things but argue that His doing so doesn’t mean that He has foreordained and/or knows everything that will happen. For example William Huget, head administrator of Facebook’s Open Theism, Moral Government Theology, Pentecostal group, made this comment on the original version of this post:

“There are alternate understandings to these proof texts that really do not support EDF [exhaustive definite foreknowledge]. Ps. 139 relates to present knowledge, not to exhaustive definite FK [foreknowledge] of all future free will contingencies. Is. 46; 48, etc. shows that God does declare some vs all things about the future and brings them to pass by His ABILITY, not a supposed prescience that sees the non-existent future.”