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Is open theism consistent with biblical Christianity?

GRACEVILLE, Fla. (BP)–The advocates of open theism are self-professed evangelicals affirming the inerrancy and authority of Scripture. Clark Pinnock and John Sanders hold membership in the Evangelical Theological Society, an important scholarly organization committed to the inerrancy of Scripture. Gregory Boyd is, as far as I know, committed to the inerrancy of Scripture.

In fact, open theists claim Scripture leads them to a denial of the historic understanding of God’s knowledge of future events. Open theists, such as Pinnock, Boyd and Sanders, isolate five types of Scripture passages that lead them to reformulate their understanding of God.

First, open theists point to passages that speak of the future in terms of contingency, that is, what “may” happen (Exodus 4:1-9; 13:17; Matthew 26:39). For example, in Exodus 4:1-9 Moses questioned his duty if the Jewish leaders failed to believe in him. God detailed several miracles which at the hand of Moses “may” lead the people to believe in Moses as God’s messenger. This passage, however, does not mean that God did not know how the Jewish leaders would respond to Moses. God told Moses in advance the response of the Jewish leaders (Ex. 3:18).

Again, some open theists interpret Jesus’ prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane in which He requested the removal of the cup of death as meaning the events of Calvary lacked certainty. According to Sanders, Jesus could avoid the cross, in spite of the fact of the scriptural claims that foreknew the sacrifice of Christ (Acts 2:23; Revelation 13:8.).

Second, open theists highlight as most important passages that suggest God tested people to discover people’s responses. In response to Abraham’s willingness to offer his son Isaac, God responded, “Now I know that you fear God” (Genesis 22:12 NKJV). However, if their interpretation is correct, then God lacked present knowledge of Abraham’s heart as well as his future decisions. God previously reckoned Abraham righteous because of his faith and established an unconditional covenant (Genesis 15; Romans 4). Hebrew scholars note that the term translated in Genesis 22:12 as “know” denotes a confirmation of knowledge.

Third, open theists accentuate passages which describe God as asking non-rhetorical questions about the future (Numbers 14:11; 1 Kings 22:20; Hosea 8:5). Yet, to call these questions non-rhetorical is a matter of interpretation. Scripture frequently records God asking rhetorical questions. For example, Genesis 3:9-13 describes God asking Adam and Eve the following questions: “Where are you?” “Who told you that you were naked?,” “Have you eaten from the tree?,” “What is this you have done?” A non-rhetorical interpretation of these passages in Genesis suggests that God lacks knowledge of the past, as well as, the present and future. In like manner, in Numbers and Hosea God rhetorically asked “how long” His people would despise Him. God frequently asked rhetorical questions in connection with the commissioning of a servant (1 Kings 22:20; Isaiah 6:8) without implying a lack of knowledge.

Fourth, open theists emphasize passages in which God expresses regret, indeed repentance, for his decisions (Genesis 6:6; 1 Samuel 15:11, 35). Genesis 6:6 says, “The Lord repented that He made man on earth, and He was grieved on earth” (KJV). 1 Samuel 15:11 states, “I repent that I made Saul king, for he has turned back from following me” (KJV). Neither of these passages directly affirms that God does not know the future; rather, open theists infer that God would have decided on another course of action if He foreknew the results. To understand Genesis 6:6 as an expression of divine ignorance insinuates that God did not foresee the fall of humanity into moral corruption. If the corruption of sin took God by surprise, how could God establish a redemptive plan prior to creation?

The same chapter in Samuel affirms, “I repent that I made Saul king” (1 Samuel 15:11, 35) and “the Strength of Israel will not lie nor repent, for He is not a man, that He should repent” (1 Sam. 15:29). The Hebrew verb translated “repent” (naham) means “relent” or “grieve” rather than repent. Saul could not establish a dynasty according to the Word of God; Jacob’s prophecy stated the royal king would arise from the tribe of Judah (Gen. 49:8-10). God’s rejection of Saul because of the king’s disobedience did not violate God’s plan. Because God is not man, He would neither relent nor lie regarding His decision to give the kingship to David. Yet, God “grieved” in the sense that He expressed the appropriate moral response to the failure of a leader.

Finally, open theists stress passages in which God expressed surprise or disappointment (Jeremiah 7:31; 19:5; 32:35). The passages in Jeremiah appear to support open theism. God said three times that the idolatrous abomination of child sacrifices never “entered my mind.” Yet, the passage does not claim that God never thought about this specific behavior. Three times God specifically warned Israel of this particular sin centuries before the sixth-century prophet Jeremiah (Leviticus 18:21; Deuteronomy 12:31; 18:10). Rather, the phrase “enter my mind” commonly described intention. The act of child sacrifice unashamedly opposed God’s intention or will.

Bruce Ware, a professor at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, has written a book for laymen addressing the faulty biblical rationale of open theists: “God’s Lesser Glory: The Diminished God of Open Theism.”
Used by permission of the Florida Baptist Witness, available online at www.floridabaptistwitness.com.

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  • Mark Rathel