Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 2000, 175 pages.
This essay debunks the philosophy espoused by Gregory Boyd in his work: God of the Possible. It is also an attempt to clarify Boyd’s fundamental doctrine and to examine the alternative views he discredits. His philosophy must certainly be dealt with in any current dialogue on the sovereignty of God and brings renewed importance to an age-old debate.
It was recently posed to me that the evangelical church in America has become overwhelmingly saturated with the doctrines of the reformation; namely, the tenet of God’s foreknowledge. I would instead argue that the evangelical church of America is either unwilling to take a legitimate stance on the issue or is entirely unwilling to prescribe such authority to our God. Both views are troublesome, but a perspective dependent upon the openness of God is important to debunk. In essence, the debate on the foreknowledge of God delves into the essence of God’s character and His ability to govern man.
Boyd argues in his book God Of The Possible:
By definition, one cannot change what is permanently fixed. Hence, every time the Bible teaches us that God changes his mind it is teaching us that God’s mind is not permanently fixed. This directly contradicts the classical understanding of foreknowledge. It means that some of what God knows regarding the future consists of things that may go one way or another. He adjusts his plans—changes his mind—depending on what does or does not take place (Boyd 75).
Boyd’s argument depends primarily on the philosophy that certain parts of the future are unknown to God—as He is dependent upon human choice to determine that end. More simply, God cannot know what will happen in certain instances until man acts in accordance to our free will. Boyd simplifies it by stating:
Prior to creation, God possessed 100 percent of all power…When the Trinity decided to express their love by bringing forth a creation, they invested each creature (angelic and human) with a certain percentage of their say-so (Boyd 97).
I find this tenet troubling in its most elementary form, and potentially heretical in its most advanced. For if the doctrine of God’s foreknowledge is not accepted, one must then argue that God’s redemptive plan for man in the perfect work of Jesus Christ was a reflexive response by God to the actions of Adam. If God created Adam without knowing that his Fall would occur shortly thereafter; we must explain away the assurance Paul gives in Ephesians 1:4-5 that
He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before Him. He predestined us to adoption as sons through Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the kind intention of His will… 3
How could the God of openness know, prior to even His creation of man, that man would choose to sin thus necessitating a perfect sacrifice in Jesus Christ. Boyd’s logic falls short on this point as he merely gives a superficial response to this passage. He never discusses the dilemma he creates by claiming God was unable to truly know Adam’s choice at the tree, but was able to know that there would certainly be a need for the sacrifice of Christ.
Boyd examines and discusses several well-known passages of Scripture to defend his belief, and formulates a cogent argument in favor of the openness of God. However, in defending the doctrine of God’s foreknowledge, one must merely interpret these passages differently than does Boyd. For example, Boyd claims that the most blatant example of God’s openness or ability to change His mind rests in Jeremiah 18.
If at any time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be uprooted, torn down and destroyed, and if that nation I warned repents of its evil, then I will relent and not inflict on it the disaster I had planned. And if at another time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be built up and planted, and if it does evil in my sight and does not obey me, then I will reconsider the good I had intended to do for it (vv. 7-10).
Boyd can certainly defend his position with a perfunctory reading of this passage. He asserts that God is not a “unilaterally controlling God,” but rather a God that examines the actions of his people and graciously responds. Boyd maintains that God’s willingness to relent shows his gracious nature, but also shows that He is uncertain as to the potential outcome in this situation.
“How can someone sincerely intend to do something they are certain they will never do? And how can they truly change their mind if their mind is eternally made up?” (Boyd 77).
However, I think the theologian can honestly interpret this text and yet continue to adhere to a classical view. Boyd claims that to do so, the classical theologian must state that Jeremiah was speaking anthropomorphically. The anthropomorphic argument is a valid one, however, I don’t think that is the only way to examine this text, or the proper way. In fact, I don’t think that this text, in any way, speaks to or discredits the foreknowledge of God. It instead purports God’s gracefulness to His people.
I believe that throughout the pages of Scripture, God clearly responds and reacts to the situations and actions of His Creation. His Word provides us a detailed account of that which has pleased and displeased Him since Adam. That is what took place in Jeremiah 18. One can state with certainty that God is an emotive being and at times is either grieved or angry with His creation (Genesis 6:5-6; 1 Samuel 15:11). However, emotions do not necessitate ignorance.
Boyd asserts that God’s relenting in Jeremiah 18 shows His uncertainty regarding what was to occur. God presents a statement to His people concerning their actions, not his knowledge of those actions. Boyd argues that since God presented two possibilities, He must therefore be uncertain as to which would occur. I would assert that God is merely speaking as He does throughout all of Scripture and stating what is pleasing to Him and what is displeasing. If the people are disobedient, He is of course going to be displeased with those actions and present a consequence to that disobedience. If those same people then repent of that action, God clearly would extend His grace. How does that in any way discredit His knowledge of their actions from the beginning to the end? It merely describes the grace of God and His willingness to promote repentance among His people.
If we are to accept Boyd’s interpretation of Jeremiah 18 and others like it, we must extend the results throughout all of Scripture. We then look to passages such as Ephesians 1, which we looked at prior to this, and wonder how a God unknowing of the actions of His creation would have established a salvific plan for that creation prior to its inception.
If we refuse to accept a traditional interpretation of the text, and maintain that Boyd presents a cogent argument, where does that leave the church today? Simply stated, if God is not a wholly omniscient God, does it affect His people? I believe God speaks to this issue Himself in the book of Isaiah as He equates His power and glory with the ability to know what is to come.
“Bring in your idols to tell us what is going to happen. Tell us what the former things were, so that we may consider them and know their final outcome. Or declare to us the things to come, tell us what the future holds, so we may know that you are gods. Do something, whether good or bad, so that we will be dismayed and filled with fear. But you are less than nothing and your works are utterly worthless; he who chooses you is detestable.” (Isaiah 41:22-24)
“Gather together and come; assemble, you fugitives from the nations. Ignorant are those who carry about idols of wood, who pray to gods that cannot save. Declare what is to be, present it—let them take counsel together. Who foretold this long ago, who declared it from the distant past? Was it not I, the LORD? And there is no God apart from me, a righteous God and a Savior; there is none but me. “Turn to me and be saved, all you ends of the earth; for I am God, and there is no other.” (Isaiah 45:20-22)
Here, we clearly see God’s unwillingness to allow the idols to be equated with Him. “Declare to us the things to come,” he taunts. God knows that there are none that are able to determine that which has not yet happened except for Himself. He alone has the ability to predict the future. He alone has the audacity to claim complete knowledge of that is and all that will be, and He places His pronouncement as the only true God on this test of foreknowledge.
Another passage, and quite possibly the most powerful is also found in the book of Isaiah.
“Remember the former things, those of long ago; I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me. I make known the end from the beginning, from ancient times, what is still to come. I say: My purpose will stand, and I will do all that I please.” (Isaiah 46:9-10)
What joy there is to know that our God has the ability to “make known” what has not yet come to pass. Boyd might argue that these statements by God merely predict His own actions, but the text does not make that distinction. Regardless, several of Boyd’s own examples examine things that God will or will not do.
Although the Old Testament presents an infallible account of God’s foreknowledge, perhaps the greatest proponent for an entirely omniscient God is Christ Himself. The gospel accounts ring with Christ’s pronouncements of what was to come, and the gospel writers acknowledge His foreknowledge in several instances (Matthew 10:17-19; 16:21-23; 20:17-19; 26:21; 26:34; John 6:64; 13:19,21; 13:27-28; 13-36-38).
These are merely some of the instances given that show the gospel writers belief that Jesus had an ability to determine what things were to occur. Christ’s declaration to Peter in regard to his betrayal is magnificent in the fact that it determines exactly how many times Peter will betray him and in a given frame of time. Jesus had a clear vision of every event that was to occur on that night. From his betrayal by Judas, to the little girl that confronted Peter causing him to deny, there was certainty in the mind of Christ.
Boyd speaks continually in his book about the comfort given by a God willing to change, and how an open view ties in comfortably with human experience. I however have found the exact opposite to be true in my life. I find great comfort in the knowledge that the God of perfect love has more than just a potential for my life. I find comfort that He knows perfectly the outcome of all that he has created and all that will ever be. I also find that fitting perfectly into the God I experience on a daily basis. My experience calls for more than merely fanciful hope on God’s part; I find Him to be the active determination of all that is good and perfect in my life and in all of His creation.
Ben J. Helwig
1840 Wayne Ave.
Dayton, OH 45410