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).

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