What does God know, and when does he know it? That was the question addressed at the 53rd annual meetings of the Evangelical Theological Society (or ETS), which I attended last week in Colorado Springs. The Society is made up of Bible scholars and theologians from across America. Most of the members teach in evangelical colleges and seminaries, or in other academic institutions, although many pastors also attend.
This year’s conference was entitled “Defining Evangelicalism’s Boundaries.” That title reflects the fact that the Society is currently engaged—some would say embroiled—in a significant doctrinal controversy concerning the knowledge of God.
During the past decade a group of theologians has begun to advocate a new doctrine of God known as “Open Theism” (or “the Openness of God”). So far discussions about this new theology have been limited primarily to academic theologians. But like all false teaching, eventually Open Theism will begin to infect the church. Indeed, debates concerning Open Theism recently have appeared in the pages of Christianity Today, and this year a number of popular books on the subject have been published.
What is Open Theism? It is the belief that God does not have exhaustive knowledge of the future. While there are many things that God does know, he cannot know human decisions in advance. He has chosen to limit his sovereignty in such a way that he does not know what we will choose to do. In fact, sometimes he is surprised by the choices we make. Only in this way, Open Theists argue, can human beings have meaningful freedom.
Bible passages that speak of God repenting (e.g. 1 Sam. 15:35), grieving (e.g. Gen. 6:6), or even changing his mind (e.g. Jer. 18:8, 10). According to Open Theism, in order for these passages to be true, God must be vulnerable to his creatures. It must be possible for him to be influenced by our actions—even to suffer from them—in ways that he did not expect.
The issue now confronting the Evangelical Theological Society is whether it will allow its members to teach this new doctrine of God. The ETS doctrinal statement does not address the divine attributes directly. It only requires members to affirm biblical inerrancy and the doctrine of the Trinity. The reason the Society gets away with such a short doctrinal statement is that it has enjoyed a high degree of consensus about the main tenets of evangelical theology. Now that consensus is threatened by a new doctrine of God.
Many of this year’s papers dealt in one way or another with Open Theism. Then on the last night there was an extended debate, after which the ETS passed the following resolution: “We believe the Bible clearly teaches that God has complete, accurate and infallible knowledge of all events past, present and future including all future decisions and actions of free moral agents.” For now the passage of this resolution has little practical effect, especially since only seventy percent of the membership voted in its favor. What remains to be seen is whether in coming years the Society will vote to deny membership to Open Theists. This is by no means certain, since an eighty percent majority is required to amend the standards for membership.
I voted in favor of the resolution because I believe that the denial of God’s foreknowledge is heresy, in the proper sense of the term. Open Theism is contrary to the orthodox teaching of the Christian church.
There are many ways to refute Open Theism. One is to list some of the passages of Scripture that clearly speak of God’s foreknowledge. The apostle Paul assured the Romans that “those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son” (Rom. 8:29). Peter addressed the early Christians as “God’s elect… who have been chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father” (1 Pet. 1:1-2). But what is true for us in salvation is true of everything that happens in the world: it is all according to God’s plan and purpose. As God said through the prophet Isaiah, “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” (Isa. 46:9-10a). Or again, “Who is like me? Let him proclaim it… . Let them declare what is to come, and what will happen” (Isa. 44:7). What distinguishes the true God from his rivals is that he alone knows the future.
Another way to refute Open Theism is to explain what the Bible means when it says that God repents, or changes his mind. Such statements are anthropopaphisms. That is to say, they express God’s emotions in human terms. They are similar to anthropomorphisms, in which God’s attributes are compared to human body parts. The Scripture speaks, for example, of God’s “right hand and his holy arm” (Ps. 98:1). Obviously, God does not have a bicep. These are simply manners of speech intended to reveal something true about God in terms that we can understand. But we would be mistaken to conclude from these metaphors that God has the same kind of body that we have. We need to understand the biblical statements about God grieving and repenting in the same way. These expressions help us understand our relationship with God, but they do not mean that God experiences emotion the same way that we do. Still less does it mean that his knowledge is limited.
A third way to refute Open Theism is to consider its implications for biblical inerrancy. The Bible contains thousands of prophecies about the future, many of which have already been fulfilled. Now when God made those prophecies, did he know for certain that they would come true? According to Open Theism, he could not have known, because nearly every biblical prophecy depends partly on the actions of human beings. For example, God promised to bless all the nations of the world through Abraham. But Open Theists say that when God tested Abraham on the mountain in the sacrifice of his son, he didn’t know whether Abraham would pass the test. But in that case, God’s promise was nothing more than a prediction.
Or consider a more serious example. Consistent Open Theists deny that God the Father knew whether or not God the Son would resist the temptation to avoid the cross. Yet the Scripture says that Jesus was crucified “by God’s set purpose and foreknowledge” (Acts 2:23).
Finally, the denial of God’s foreknowledge has obvious implications for the future. How can we be certain that God will deliver on all his promises for the end of history? If the future is the combined result of what God and his creatures decide to do, then how can we be sure that God’s forecast will come true? The denial of God’s complete foreknowledge is not simply false, but also heretical, and we should pray for God to defend his church against it.
[For a helpful critique of Open Theism, see Bruce Ware, God’s Lesser Glory (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2001)].
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