Open Theists claim that God does not have exhaustive knowledge of the future and that He learns things and changes over time. This philosophy was developed primarily as a response to Calvinistic determinism, and most of the discussion on the topic have focused on the differences between Open Theism and Calvinism. I do not hold to either view, and I was content to let them bicker among themselves until I received several requests from friends asking me why I reject Open Theism. I decided to answer their requests by reading the best books I could find from Open Theist authors and writing point-by-point responses to the Open Theist claims.
The first book that I will be responding to is The God Who Risks by John Sanders. Sanders is a professor of religious studies at Hendrix College in Arkansas. He has played a pivotal role in the modern debate over Open Theism and even helped coin the term itself. His academic work on the topic has received hundreds of citations, and his books have received many accolades from other Open Theists.
In this article, I have placed quotations from Sanders in italics followed by my commentary. I’m just sharing my thoughts as they come with minimal editing, so this initial series of articles will probably be a little rough. If there is enough demand for the material, I’ll eventually collect all my notes, polish things up a bit, and write a book. If you would be interested in a book on this topic, please let me know.
And now, here is part one of The God Who Knows: A Critique of The God Who Risks:
"The doctrine of creation sets the stage for the doctrine of providence, so it is important here to take it into account ... Although I affirm creatio ex nihilo, I agree with most modern studies of Genesis 1 that this doctrine cannot be derived from this text. Genesis 1 can, however, legitimately be understood to refer to an absolute beginning in which God is prior to all else."
I agree with Sanders that the doctrine of creation is foundational, and it is interesting to note that his rejection of the literal reading of the first chapter of Genesis is foundational to his treatment of the rest of Scripture. Sanders holds to a long-age, evolutionary view of creation. Thus, his view of God differs from the God of the Bible right from the start. The Bible does not speak of God slowly developing order from chaos. It teaches that He spoke a perfect world into being from the beginning. Chaos was introduced into the world by man's choice to sin.
"Several implications follow from this understanding. First, just as we cannot in principle, penetrate to grasp whatever may have existed prior to the big bang, so we cannot in principle, fathom God apart from our relationship as creatures."
This statement directly contradicts the previous claim that Genesis 1 refers to an absolute beginning in which God is prior to all else. If Sanders really views the big bang as an absolute beginning which was preceded only by God, then it makes no sense at all to speak of things which may have existed prior to the big bang.
"Since the creation is contingent, not necessary, one cannot draw conclusions about the Creator from the nature of the creation without further ado."
This is just plain silly. The Bible tells us that even a child is known by his doings, and how much more can God be known by His works? According to Scripture, God's invisible attributes are clearly discernable from His works, even His eternal power and Godhead (Rom 1:20). The heavens declare the glory of God, and there is no speech or language which can obscure their voice (Psalm 19:1-3). God so indelibly branded His creation with a testimony of His being that He equated the voice of nature with His own Word (Rom 10:17-18) and proclaimed that all men are justly condemned who reject that divine testimony (Rom 1:20).
"The other way of looking at the creation texts focuses on 'conflict and victory' or creatio contra nihilum (creation versus nothing/chaos). This position notes that Genesis 1 does not actually say that God created everything, since darkness seems to already exist ... The emphasis of the creation story is not on God's absolute sovereignty but on God's 'mastery' over his opponents. The chaos forces were confined at creation but they from time to time mount a challenge against God, so God has to subdue them again and again."
I've heard many an atheist claim that zero isn't always zero because, sometimes, zero is a positive one and a negative one. Atheists use this claim to argue that nothingness can randomly become something all on its own, and Sanders makes an equally ridiculous claim here when he uses the preexistence of darkness to argue that the creation story is about God's mastery over His opponents. Darkness is not some physical thing that light must struggle to overcome. The term “darkness” simply refers to the absence of light. Where there is no light, there is darkness, and when light appears darkness vanishes away. There is no fight, no struggle between order and chaos. There is simply the absence of light followed by the presence of light.
"These two understandings of creation share some important affirmations ... In each God brings beings into existence and then names them. Such acts testify to Yahweh's lordship and relationality. (To name something is to respond to it.)"
Here again, Sanders has presented a dialogue that contradicts the record of Scripture. God did not bring things into existence and then name them. He named things and then spoke them into existence. God did not create light and then say, "I think I'll call this light." He said "Let there be light: and there was light." The fact that God named things before they existed makes it utterly preposterous to claim that "to name something is to respond to it." Sanders would do well to drop that particular claim back into the toilet that he pulled it from.
"In both views God stands against that which works to undo us ... The stage is thus set for what Levenson calls the 'dramatic enactment: the absolute power of God realizing itself in achievement and relationship.'"
Sanders is using the term "realize" in this context to mean "made real" in the same sense that we might use "digitize" to mean "made digital" or "colorize" to mean "made colorful." He is claiming that God's power is not actually real until after it is used to accomplish some achievement in relationship to something else. Earlier in the chapter, Sanders denied implying "an initial dualism where Yahweh is limited by chaos," but that is exactly what Sanders is teaching here. If God's power can only be made real when it is used in relationship to the chaos that He keeps at bay, then God is limited by chaos. Without it, His power is merely a potential and not a reality.
Now, I recognize what Sanders is actually attempting here. He is attempting to define God's power in the context of Aristotle's dichotomy of potentiality and actuality. But if we were to speak of God's power in Aristotle's terminology, it would be more proper to describe it in terms of entelechy. It is something which exists in a persistent state of completion. This is what Aquinas meant when he referred to God as the unmoved mover or uncaused cause. God's power is uncaused; it is not dependent on its relationship to anything else. It is an eternal actuality.
"If we want to know what sort of relationship comes about between the Creator and the creatures, we must look to revelation to see what exactly God has decided to do ... Only revelation informs us whether providence remains always the same or whether it is subject to changes."
I agree with these statements and applaud Sanders for making them. I am eager to see if he will adhere to them, but his treatment of Genesis 1 leaves me somewhat doubtful.
"The narrator has the serpent being shown correct and God wrong -- sort of ... Death could have a broader meaning whereby the humans experienced a breakdown in relationships and so, in a sense, 'died' ... The threatened 'death' may also have its more straightforward sense of immediate physical death ... If it is interpreted as immediate physical death, then God does not follow through with the threat but rather expels them from the garden. In this case we have the first instance in the Bible of what will become a major theme: divine relenting from negative consequences in favor of mercy."
Sanders has obscured an important and foundational theological truth in order to twist this passage into a support for open theism. Genesis 3 does NOT present the theme of divine relenting from negative consequences in favor of mercy. What this passage actually teaches is divine sacrifice to satisfy the law and provide salvation. The promised punishment was immediate death. Adam and Eve were spared that punishment because Christ took that punishment for them on the cross. God did not relent from the punishment; He took the full weight of the punishment upon Himself in order to save those whom He loved. This is pictured in what is called the protoevangelium (first gospel) found in verse 15 and in the death of the animals that God sacrificed in order to clothe Adam and Eve (Gen 3:21). The sacrifice of Christ is the propitiation of the sins of the whole world (I John 2:2) even of the sins which were already in the past by the time that He died (Rom 3:25).
"God had threatened to terminate the relationship if the humans failed to trust God. But when God faces the sin, he cannot bring himself to fulfill this threat. A dire consequence -- expulsion -- is enforced, but God chooses not to end the relationship."
Sanders has greatly cheapened the sacrifice of Christ by making this claim. On his view, there is no need for God to ever follow through on any threatened punishment for sin. God could choose at any time to ignore His threat and act in a manner completely contrary to what He has said. From that perspective, there is no need for Christ's sacrifice at all. God could just shrug His shoulders and say, "You know what? I really don't like the idea of sending anyone to Hell, so I think I'll just give all of you sinners a lighter punishment here on earth and still let everyone into Heaven." Christ's death has no meaning at all if God cannot bring Himself to fulfill His threats.
What Scripture teaches, on the other hand, is that God loves us so much that He died in our place and took the punishment of death for our sins on Himself so that anyone who chooses to accept His payment can live forever (John 3:16). When God was faced with our sin, He carried out the punishment of death on Himself instead of on us. That is the only reason why Adam and Eve did not die the moment that they ate of the forbidden fruit.
"Although there will be an ongoing struggle with sin (symbolized by the serpent), humanity will eventually triumph by crushing its head. This is probably not a messianic prophecy, but it does suggest some hope for the future."
Sanders probably denies the messianic nature of Genesis 3:15 because his view of God doesn't allow for God to have known at this time that a Messiah was necessary. Sanders is reading his view of God into the text rather than allowing the text to speak for itself. When we consider the actual construction of the text, it is apparent from the grammar that this verse is a prophecy of a single individual who will defeat Satan. The word translated as "seed" is a singular noun. It is used in conjunction with a singular verb, and its singularity is emphasized by the grammatically unnecessary inclusion of an additional singular pronoun. There is no valid way to interpret this passage as anything other than a promise that, at some future date, a particular individual will be born who will defeat the serpent. The importance of recognizing the singularity of the seed is pointed out by Paul in Galatians 3:16 where he noted that the Abrahamic promise was also focused on a single, particular descendant which, Paul tells us, is Christ.
"Despite God's continued efforts to work with his creatures, sin becomes ever more pervasive ... God takes full responsibility for creating these beings who have turned toward sin, and this responsibility brings grief to God (6:6). God regrets his decision to go ahead with the creation in light of these tragic developments ... God is involved in the situation and it affects him deeply. Whatever God decides, he will never be the same again. God now knows what it is to experience grief."
Here Sanders introduces the idea that God can learn something which He did not previously know. In this instance, Sanders is claiming that God learned what grief feels like. However, there is nothing in the text to indicate that God learned something here. The text does tell us that God experienced grief, but it does not say that God's grief taught Him something. To accept the idea Sanders proposed, we must first accept that either God had no idea what grief was before this time or that God's understanding of grief was flawed before this time. Both possibilities are fraught with problems.
To claim that God had no prior concept of grief is to claim that He created free creatures in total ignorance of the possibility that those creatures might choose to reject Him. I doubt that Sanders holds this view because it implies that the risk taking which Sanders attributes to God is more the result of foolishness than of intention. A god with no concept whatsoever of grief would be a god who should have known better but did not.
I suspect instead that Sanders takes the second view that God's understanding of grief was flawed or incomplete prior to this time. On this view, God has some inkling of the possibility of grief before He creates the world, but He doesn't fully understand grief until He experiences it in relation to human beings. This may seem to be a more palatable view, but it still requires God's powers of reasoning to be sharply curtailed. A god who cannot understand something until he experiences it is a god who lacks the ability to reason abstractly. Such a god may have some inkling of how grief might feel, but he lacks the cognitive power to fully understand that idea before he experiences it.
"It may be the case that although human evil caused God great pain, the destruction of what he had made caused him even greater suffering. Although his judgment was righteous, God decides to try different courses of action in the future."
Sanders sort of glosses over this statement quickly at the end of the section, but it highlights the fact that he thinks of God as some sort of weak-minded simpleton. The god Sanders describes is like a madman who inadvertently drops something and breaks his right foot. Then, when the pain from the break becomes unbearable, he decides to cut off his foot only to realize afterward that cutting his foot off ended up causing far more pain than he would have experienced if he had waited for the break to heal. This is not the God of the Bible.
"God puts his own life on the line by passing through the sacrificed animals: in his relationship with Abraham God proclaims, in effect, 'may I be cut in two if I fail in my promises to you.' This act of self-imprecation reveals just how committed God is to Abraham. God is willing to become vulnerable for the sake of his promise."
This is just silly. There is nothing in the text to indicate that God was putting His life on the line or becoming vulnerable. This is just something that Sanders pulled out of thin air. On the contrary, the entire passage is focused on God's almighty power in bringing judgment against both the Canaanites and the Egyptians as He brings Israel into possession of the land. God is proclaiming His power not His vulnerability.
"In Genesis 16 Sarah comes to the conclusion that the divine promise is not going to come through her, so she gives her maid Hagar to Abraham to bear his child. Some interpret this maneuver as a lack of faith on the part of Abraham and Sarah, who scheme instead of waiting on divine providence. But this reflects a misunderstanding of how providence works. God has not told them through whom the child will come, so why should they not use the brains God gave them? God names the boy and makes a promise to Hagar, 'I will so greatly multiply your offspring that they cannot be counted for multitude,' using the same language God had used with Abraham. Thus one could reasonably conclude that Sarah was correct and the promised son would be Ishmael. There was nothing improper or faithless in their decision, for Genesis acknowledges that God works through human planning."
I really don't know what to say to this. If your theology is such that you see it as perfectly acceptable for a woman to force her servant to sleep with her husband, then our views of God way too far apart for any sort of reconciliation. The god that Sanders worships is completely foreign to me. What we find in the Bible is that Sarah very quickly realized that her actions were wrong, but she blamed Abraham and Hagar instead of herself (Gen 16:5). And in the New Testament, Paul used the tension between Hagar and Sarah as an allegory of the tension between the Judaizers and the Gentiles in the church. Paul referred to Ishmael as being born after the flesh and to Isaac as being born after the promise. Paul presented Sarah's command to "cast out the bondwoman and her son" as if it had been a command from God, and he applied that command to the Judaizers to teach the Galatians to abandon that theology (Gal 4:21-31). If there were nothing at all wrong with Sarah forcing her maid to lie with her husband, then Paul's allegory would be meaningless.
"God puts Abraham to the test to see whether he has faith ... The test is genuine, not fake. Walter Brueggemann says that this test 'is not a game with God; God genuinely does not know" ... The only one in the test said to learn anything from the test is God ... If the test is genuine for both God and Abraham, then what is the reason for it? The answer is to be found in God's desire to bless all the nations of the earth. God needs to know if Abraham is the sort of person on whom God can count for collaboration toward the fulfillment of the divine project. Will he be faithful? Or must God find someone else through whom to achieve his purpose?"
There are a phenomenal amount of errors in this statement from Sanders. It is filled with claims and implications that contradict what he has written prior to this point, and many of the claims here are expressly refuted in the Bible.
Sanders begins this section with the statement that God designed this test to see if Abraham had faith, but Abraham had already demonstrated his faith in God 40 years earlier as noted in Genesis 15. In fact, Abraham's faith at that earlier point in his life was so strong and dependable that Paul later wrote that Abraham was "not weak in faith," that he "staggered not at the promise," that he was "strong in faith," and that he was "fully persuaded" of God's ability to fulfil the promise (Rom 4:19-21). Abraham's faith in God at that earlier time was so pure that God granted him salvation and the forgiveness of all his sins because of it (Gen 15:6, Rom 4:3, Rom 4:22, Gal 3:6, Jam 2:23).
And that wasn't the only previous demonstration of Abraham's faith in God. God Himself had claimed that He knew for a fact that Abraham would remain faithful (Genesis 18:17-19). About 15 years before Abraham's testing, God came to him in physical form along with two angels. the three of them ate a meal with Abraham, and then God asked if He should tell Abraham what He was planning to do to Sodom. God answered His own question by saying "I know him, that he will command his children and his household after him, and they shall keep the way of the LORD, to do justice and judgment; that the LORD may bring upon Abraham that which he hath spoken of him" (Gen. 18:19). Here we have God Himself telling us that He already knows that Abraham will remain faithful to Him, or to use the same language as Sanders, God already knew that "Abraham [was] the sort of person on whom God can count for collaboration toward the fulfillment of the divine project."
If, as Sanders claims, God designed the test in Genesis 22 because He really did not know if Abraham had faith, then we have ask the question: why did God not know? Did He forget? Was He confused? There is no good answer to these questions. The open theist who insists that God did not know if Abraham would be faithful is, at the same time, admitting that his god is foolish, incompetent, and untrustworthy.
I would be remiss, however, if I only pointed out the flaws in the open theist view of this passage without also addressing the challenge that it presents to my own theology. Obviously, I reject the idea that God designed this test because He did not know if Abraham really would remain faithful. That view contradicts other passages of Scripture, so the question that my theology needs to answer is whether there is some other way of understanding the phrase "now I know."
There are two other places in Scripture where the phrase "now I know" is used by individuals who already knew the thing that they referred to with this phrase. The first is found in Exodus 18:11 where Jethro, the father-in-law of Moses, said "Now I know that the LORD is greater than all gods: for in the thing wherein they dealt proudly he was above them." Jethro was a priest of God (Ex 3:1, 18:12), and as such, he would have already known that the Lord is greater than all other gods. His statement was not an admission that he had just realized this. He was rejoicing to hear an additional confirmation of something that he already knew to be true.
The second time that the phrase is used in this manner is found in I Kings 17 where we find Elijah bringing the widow's son back from the dead. When Elijah brought the boy to his mother, she replied "Now by this I know that thou art a man of God" (1 Ki. 17:24), but she did not use this phrase to mean that she had not previously known that Elijah was a man of God. She could not have meant it that way because just a few verses earlier we find her referring to Elijah as "thou man of God." The text tells us that Elijah had been staying with the widow and her son for many days by this point and that he had been performing miracles every day to keep them alive. It is highly improbable that the widow did not already know that Elijah was a man of God. Her statement is better understood as an expression of joy over yet another confirmation of the truth that she already knew.
When I read of Abraham's testing in Genesis 22, I read the phrase "now I know" in the same way that I read that phrase in these other two passages. I do not see this as God admitting to a previous lack of knowledge. I see it as God rejoicing over yet another confirmation of a fact that He already knew to be true.
This concludes the first part of my response to the book The God Who Risks. I will post part two just as soon as I finish jotting down my notes. I hope that this review has been helpful so far. Please let me know if you would like additional clarification of anything that I have said to this point.
Click here to read Part 2
Bill Fortenberry is a Christian philosopher and historian in Birmingham, AL. Bill's work has been cited in several legal journals, and he has appeared as a guest on shows including The Dr. Gina Show, The Michael Hart Show, and Real Science Radio.
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