Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Does Denying Exhaustive Foreknowledge Acquit God?

The following is a paper I wrote last semester for my Theology I class on the Doctrine of God (otherwise known as Theology Proper). My paper is a critique on a narrow aspect of Open Theism, namely, their attempt to acquit God from being the ultimate cause of evil and sin.


Open theism is a relatively new theological perspective which seeks to provide a unique model for how we understand God. At its core are the denial of absolute sovereignty and exhaustive foreknowledge of God, and the affirmation of libertarian free will of man. Openness proponents claim a significant pastoral benefit in that God is acquitted from being the author of sin and acquitted from being to blame for evil and tragedies which occur in our lives. He is also hailed as preserving freedom and allowing humans to make decisions apart from divine coercion. The ensuing debate has created no small stir in the evangelical academic environment. Though a relatively small number of books have been written on the issue, significant debate has permeated theological journals and popular publications.

In denying God’s exhaustive foreknowledge, open theists have had to deliver a new understanding of prophetic texts where it appears God has at least some level of knowledge of the future. Regardless of which explanation open theists offer, they claim that no prophecy requires exhaustive foreknowledge of the future. The purpose of this paper is to examine that claim and determine whether open theists succeed in acquitting God from evil and intervening significantly in human affairs to accomplish his will. My goal is to demonstrate that open theism, far from acquitting God, makes him liable for innumerable sins and forces him to intervene in significant ways such that human freedom and responsibility is significantly damaged. I will examine two prophetic statements which open theists use to advance their position showing how they really do damage to their position.

Before beginning, an important note is in order. Discussing open theism is difficult because a number of issues are interrelated and it is difficult to approach any discussion without assumed presuppositions. For example, in debating whether God has exhaustive foreknowledge it is necessary to establish the knowability of the future, God’s relationship to time, whether God is self-limiting or externally limited, whether foreknowledge requires determinism, etc. Often debates on specific issues go unsettled because both sides operate with different presuppositions which go under-challenged or are entirely ignored. For the purpose of this paper, an entirely open theist perspective is assumed. The question being answered is not whether the traditional model is absolutely correct, but whether open theism can maintain structural integrity in its own framework.

Open Theist View of Prophecy

John Sanders, a major proponent of openness theology, has put forth what appears to be the most common openness view of prophecy. In his book The God Who Risks Sanders explains there are three types of prophecy: (1) conditional, (2) inferential, and (3) absolute. Conditional prophecies are those which are dependent on human actions. They are the if… then… prophetic statements such as Deuteronomy 28 which contains predictions of blessings or curses depending on the obedience of Israel. Nineveh is an example of an implicit if… then... because though no condition is given in Jonah’s preaching, the repentance of the city resulted in the relenting of the prophesied wrath. An inferential prophecy is one where God utilitizes his exhaustive knowledge of the past and present to make a prediction of the future—he infers from the past and present to declare the future. Absolute prophecies are those which God guarantees regardless of human actions. Open theists highlight prophecies where God can act unilaterally apart from human agents to accomplish his will (the incarnation), however they also admit that God can and does override human freedom to accomplish his will (the crucifixion). Such coercion is the exception, not the rule in how God relates to humans. It is this third category which we must investigate further.

Divine Omniscience

Before exploring open theisms claim of absolute prophecy, it is critical to understand their proposal for divine omniscience. My goal here is not to significantly interact with, but to attempt to give a baseline understanding which will provide stimuli for the discussion on absolute prophecy.

The traditional understanding of omniscience in its various definitions has included complete and absolute knowledge of the past, present, and future. Open theists, in an effort to maintain traditional terminology have not redefined omniscience directly, but more fundamentally, knowledge. In essence, open theists say God knows everything any being could possibly know, yet because the future has not happened (i.e., it does not exist in reality), it does not meet the requirements of a knowable fact. In this understanding, the term omniscience can be maintained because it does not limit God’s knowledge of that which is knowable. A brief illustration should suffice. One cannot say that because God does not know about an alternative universe inhabited solely by aliens he is not omniscient. Just as the unreal alternative universe is not a candidate for knowledge as a matter of fact, the unrealized future is also not a candidate for certainty.

This is not the end of the matter, however. Since the future is yet unrealized, it is in a state of potential and possibility. Therefore open theists go on to say that God knows every possible thing that could occur, and even further, the probability level of their occurring. In the context of near infinite potential realities, God has plans which he has made known through Scripture. While he does not know for certain how those plans will come about, he knows all the potential paths to fulfillment and, if all else fails, his omnipotence can be used to accomplish his will. In other words, God cannot be certain how his plans will be accomplished, but he can be certain that they will. With regard to this, Boyd highlights God’s infinite intelligence to the degree that “there is virtually no distinction between knowing a certainty and knowing a possibility. God thus gains no providential advantage by knowing future events as certain as opposed to knowing them as possible.” In other words, though Boyd cannot claim certainty for God (in many cases), he virtually claims it based on God’s intelligence.

While it appears all the major open theists have written in agreement with the above understanding of divine omniscience, there are some who prefer to distance themselves from the idea that the future is inherently unknowable. Dallas Willard advances the view that the future is knowable, but God simply chooses not to know it, much like Jesus chose to limit the expression of his deity while on earth. For the purpose of this paper I am assuming the more common understanding for two reasons: First, I have not found Willard’s view among the most popular open theists (Pinnock, Sanders, Boyd). Second, it appears to “re-tie” the knot open theism attempts to untie. Namely, open theists claim that if the future is a matter of fact it must be determined (actively or passively), therefore libertarian freedom is removed. Because open theism’s primary concern is the preservation of libertarian freedom, the future cannot be determined in any sense. Cuthbertson surmises, “in committing oneself to open theism, one is committed to a certain philosophical position with regard to time.” In other words, in order for open theism to maintain its structural integrity, it must be consistent in its view of time. An open theist believing in a determined future is closer to a classic Arminian, than an open theist.

One final caveat offered by open theists is critical to understanding the framework. Though God cannot know what has not been realized, and though he does know every possibility and its degree of probability, God can determine whatever he pleases for the future. Boyd states that God “foreknows certain things are going to take place because he knows his own purpose and intention to bring these events about. As sovereign Lord of history, he has decided to settle this much about the future.” This is distinct from Willard’s view in that Willard states the future is knowable, but God chooses not to know it. Boyd states that it is not knowable except that which God determines.

Having established the open theist understanding of divine omniscience, we move on to understand and critique open theism’s understanding of prophecies where grand levels of detail are displayed which appear to demonstrate profound knowledge of the future.

Absolute Predictions

In God of the Possible Boyd navigates numerous examples that he considers “Settled Aspects of the Future.” The de facto approach to understanding settled aspects of the future is to conclude that when Scripture speaks definitively and specifically of the future, it does so circumstantially rather than universally. In other words, just because God can give a detailed prophecy (e.g., Peter’s denial), it does not mean that God knows all of the future exhaustively. On the surface it appears that such a statement is correct. No single prophecy necessarily teaches nor entails exhaustive foreknowledge. However when one considers the arguments both exegetically and logically, that conclusion quickly appears to oversimplify what God does when he makes a definite and specific prophecy. The rest of this paper will interact with two examples provided by open theists to show that while exhaustive foreknowledge is not necessary, the open theist interpretations inherit the same criticism given to exhaustive foreknowledge.

Prophetic Statements Which Involve Vast Foreknowledge
Prediction of Captivity

Genesis 15:13-15 records the revelation to Abraham that Israel will be held in a foreign land for 400 years. By analogy, Boyd responds to this prediction by attempting to show that within the boundaries of such predictions, innumerable free decisions could be made without affecting the overall prediction. What food was eaten, marital decisions, attitudes, etc. are all examples which ultimately bear little or no impact on Israel’s 400 year hiatus in Egypt. Boyd’s point comes across clearly, namely, that God doesn’t need to know every decision that everyone makes in order to predict a 400 year exile. Yet Boyd neglects the full prediction which is significantly more specific than simply predicting the 400 years.

The prediction God made is clear and extensive. There are ten aspects that are all interrelated: 1) they will be sojourners in a foreign land, 2) they will be servants, 3) they will be afflicted, 4) it will be for 400 years, 5) God will judge the foreigners, 6) they will be freed, 7) they will leave with abundance, 8) Abraham will die old and before any of this happens, 9) they will return in the fourth generation, and finally, the ultimate reason behind all this, 10) because the iniquity of the Amorites is incomplete. Genesis 15:16 sheds a bright light on the 400 year prediction. God predicted the 400 year exile on the basis of the iniquity of the Amorites. Further, God did not randomly decide to wait 400 years before dealing with the Amorites. He said their iniquity would not be “complete” until 400 years was over. Whatever measure God is using to make that statement, it is difficult to see how one could get around the fact that there are 399 (or so) years where God knows in advance that their sin would not be complete, and then finally he knows that it is complete after 400 years. For God to know this for certain, under the open theist framework, he would have to determine it. For God to determine 400 plus years of sin seems far outside the range of what open theists would want to claim as necessary intervention. This is to say nothing of the eight other details God predicted.

An exegetical issue is worthy of consideration. God’s use of the term “certain” forces us to conclude that this was determined and could not fail. This is not an intelligent guess based on exhaustive knowledge of all future possibilities, this is a certainty. With this much, Boyd appears to agree. Yet one has to question how God could make such a certain and specific prediction without knowing how it would occur. According to open theists, at this point in Genesis God is not yet certain of Abraham’s faith because it isn’t until many years later (Gen. 22) that God finds out for sure that Abraham trusts him. How could God be so certain about the future of Abraham’s descendents in Genesis 15 and yet require such a drastic test of Abraham’s faith in Genesis 22? It doesn’t seem to make sense that God could make a determination while still being uncertain as to the participation of the key player—Abraham. Clearly the answer from open theists is that since God knows all possibilities and their probabilities, he knew that the way things turned out is how they would likely turn out, or at least he knew generally how things would shape up and he would ensure it came together in the end. A more simple answer would seem to be that God was already certain of Abraham’s faith before making the 400 year prediction and the test with Isaac served a different purpose. This seems clear from the previous verses where Abraham believed God “and it was counted to him as righteousness” (Gen. 15:6).

Additional details seem troublesome. Richard Rice explains that God reacted to the Joseph’s brothers’ action by using it to preserve the Hebrews from the famine. Yet such an explanation ignores Joseph’s testimony in Genesis 45 when he repeatedly states that it was “God [who] sent me before you to preserve life” (v. 5). It was “God [who] sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth” (v. 7). “It was not you who sent me here, but God. He made has made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house and ruler over all the land of Egypt” (v. 8). It was “God [who] has made me lord of all Egypt” (v. 9). After the death of Jacob, Joseph had to reassure his brothers that “you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good” (50:20). The clear emphasis is on God’s initiative through human agents, not his response to them.

The famine itself is troubling in the open theist framework. The entire discussion of God’s lack of foreknowledge centers around human freedom. But a question which open theists have yet to answer is how much does God know about other future events, in this case, weather. The debate over global warming aside, weather is completely uncaused by human action (at least it was back then). Certainly the open theist would claim God can predetermine weather, but we must assume (in the open theist framework) that generally God does not know what the weather will be like in the future. One could be quick to say that God determined the weather when he gave Pharaoh the dreams hoping to get Joseph out of prison, but as mentioned above, Joseph claims that God sent him to preserve life. The reference is, of course, to preserving Israel through the seven-year famine. If God somehow knew about the famine, it must have been before Joseph went to Egypt. According to open theists, the only way for God to know the future is to determine it. Therefore, God must have determined the famine, presumably for the purpose of getting Israel into Egypt. Precisely when God determined this cannot be known. In addition, it cannot be known whether God enjoyed free humans acting in such a way that fit his famine plan, or if he necessarily coerced many actions (e.g. the sin of Joseph’s brothers) in order to get Israel in Egypt. It would seem that the latter must be the case because to imply that God determined a severe weather pattern in order to get a large family (who knew nothing of the famine) to move away from their promised land without any external pressure seems like an odd way to force the move.

The sin of the Amorites, the certainty of the prediction, and the foreknowledge of the famine do not automatically require exhaustive foreknowledge. However, such a significant amount of information of the future is necessary in this prediction that all the charges open theists make against exhaustive foreknowledge such as determinism, loss of freedom, and making God responsible for sin would be necessarily applied on a grand scale in the 500 years or so of history where these predictions took place. No, exhaustive foreknowledge is not required, but the effect of exhaustive foreknowledge (according to open theists) is no different than the effect of this supposedly partially determined plan.

Peter’s Denial

The specificity with which Jesus predicts Peter’s denial is so powerful that open theists have had to come up with plausible explanations. Several different explanations have been offered including an inferential explanation where Jesus knew all the present factors and could predict with accuracy Peter’s response to a certain situation. Sanders mentions how Lorenzo McCabe offers a determined explanation where God purposefully determined the denial and eventual restoration in order to prepare Peter to lead the church. It appears Sanders doesn’t take that position, but prefers a conditional understanding. He explains at length that the denial did not need to occur, and that the prediction was no prediction at all, but a warning about what would happen if he wasn’t careful. Boyd (taking the inferential side) states that “we do not know how much, if any, supernatural intervention was employed in God’s orchestration of the events of that evening. But the outcome was just as he anticipated.” In other words, the prediction could have involved multiple methods of knowing.

According to Boyd, God’s perfect knowledge of Peter’s character in conjunction with the present circumstances made it obvious what Peter would do under extreme pressure. Yet he has not made a reasonable case for such a drastic change in Peter’s behavior. Up until the disciples (including Peter) fled when Jesus was arrested, Peter demonstrated nothing but courage and loyalty. Boyd’s explanation is that Peter assumed Jesus was a military leader and when that expectation was removed he lost confidence. Boyd forgets, however, that earlier in Jesus’ ministry that in the midst of a mass rejection, Peter affirmed his loyalty to Jesus not on the basis of his political aspirations, but on the basis of Jesus’ “words of life” (John 6:68). By the time of Jesus’ arrest, the disciples could only have been strengthened in their resolve that Jesus was the Messiah. Indeed the disciples on the road to Emmaus acknowledged as much (Luke 24:21). Therefore it doesn’t make sense that Peter was utterly predictable in his denial. If anything one would think Peter would have fought the soldiers arresting Jesus to the death had Jesus not stopped him.

Of course Peter’s denial is only part of the prediction. As with the sin of the Amorites, timing is everything. Jesus predicted Peter would deny him “before the rooster crows”. Not once, but three times. “Anyone who knew Peter’s character perfectly could have predicted that under certain circumstances (that God could easily orchestrate), he would act just the way he did.” There are at least two problems with this statement by Boyd. First, no one could have known Peter’s character perfectly in the future. Certainly God could have known it at the moment of the prediction, but Peter was still loyal at the time. Boyd claims (without proof) that Peter’s character was solidified toward predictable denial , but until fleeing, we are given no record of Peter showing any inclination toward desertion. Since there was no prior history, God could not have known for certain how Peter would react under “certain circumstances.” What Boyd is allowing God here he denies from God elsewhere in the case of Abraham’s test with Isaac. Somehow God could predict a totally contradictory act with Peter, but not a relatively consistent pattern with Abraham. As of yet open theists have not answered the question of why Peter did not deny Jesus twice or four times, and how was three times predictable by his character?

Beyond Peter’s character is the issue of the rooster crowing. Certainly nothing in Peter’s character or the nature of the situation precipitated that detail being predictable. It could have taken the entire day to get the three denials. Open theists must fall back on the claim that God simply ordained the timing and therefore could know it in advance. This begs the question: if Jesus knew Peter would deny him three times by the time the cock crowed, did he know what would cause those denials? Did he know that there would be trials during the night and that Peter would be trying to listen in? Did God coerce those who questioned Peter into doing so in order to accomplish his plan? Finally, if Peter’s character was solidified in denying Christ once he realized Jesus was not the Messiah Peter thought he was, wouldn’t that imply a lack of freedom in the denial? How could such a solidified character weep as Peter wept realizing what he had done?

It seems as though the clearest explanation is that Jesus knew exhaustively what would happen. He knew Peter’s unrevealed character, where Peter would be, that Peter would be within earshot of a cock crowing, that Peter would be challenged three times to identify himself, and that he would deny it three times. If God orchestrated (determined) certain aspects to cause Peter to deny him, then God is equally liable to the charges made against exhaustive foreknowledge. God is just as responsible for sin. God has removed libertarian freedom from Peter and those who identified him, making the lesson meaningless for Peter since he had no choice except to deny him.


Open theism stands as a stalwart proponent of human libertarian freedom. Whether limited externally by the nature of knowledge or internally by self-limitation, God is put forth as one who guards human freedom to the greatest possible extent. Open theists have not been convinced by the efforts of scholars who have attempted to demonstrate how exhaustive foreknowledge is compatible with human freedom (to an extent), and that libertarian freedom itself is an unbiblical position. Yet when faced with intricate prophecies which seem to indicate God’s exhaustive foreknowledge, open theists simply claim that God can know certain things, and doesn’t need to know everything to make those predictions. They are right to the extent that the text does not make explicit mention of God’s exhaustive foreknowledge. But where their explanation falls short is in realizing the extent of information God must know in order to make predictions with certainty. If an entirely determined future does irreparable damage to the God-human relationship, making God responsible for sin, and making humans robots that could do nothing other than what God determined, what of the open God who necessarily determined certain aspects to fulfill his will? Is God not culpable for the sin of Joseph’s brothers? Is he to blame for the massive havoc the seven-year famine caused in the ancient world? Is he not liable for the deaths of the Hebrew children commanded by Pharaoh since he put them there? Is he not responsible for generations of the Amorites whose sin he knew beforehand? Is Peter’s denial genuine since God must have determined enough of it to make it certain? Did those who identified Peter do so freely, or were they coerced by God?

Those who hold to exhaustive foreknowledge have made multiple contributions in books and articles demonstrating how divine exhaustive foreknowledge and human freedom (understood properly) can be compatible. Thus far open theists have yet to significantly challenge those explanations. Additionally, open theists have yet to explain how the open God can determine anything of the future without being culpable of the same charges they make against the traditional view of God.