This is part two of my review of the book The God Who Risks by John Sanders. (Part one can be read here.) Sanders is an Open Theist who claims that God does not have exhaustive knowledge of the future and that He learns things and changes over time. I believe that this idea contradicts Scripture which teaches that God knows everything that will happen in the future, that He does not learn new things because He already knows everything, and that He does not change.
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 two of The God Who Knows: A Critique of The God Who Risks:
For the next several pages after the section covered in part one, Sanders is focused on the debate between determinism and libertarian free will. I agree with Sanders that the Bible teaches libertarian free will, so I'll skip over those sections of his book. He picks up his argument about God’s foreknowledge in the section about Moses.
"Moses is told that the elders will believe what Moses says. He is then instructed to take the elders with him to Pharaoh and request a time for sacrifice to Yahweh ... This lengthy divine speech is usually understood to imply foreknowledge ... however, not all of these statements come to pass exactly as 'predicted.' First, the elders are never said to appear before Pharaoh. Instead, Aaron takes their place ... God goes to 'plan B.'"
I don't know why Sanders seems to have such a hard time reading his Bible. He claims that the elders of Israel never appeared before Pharaoh, but Exodus 5:15 clearly says: "Then the officers of the children of Israel came and cried unto Pharaoh." Now, Sanders may want to argue that the elders didn't appear at the same time as Moses, but that's not what he claimed in the book, and even that claim is not necessarily true. The elders could have been with Moses during his initial meeting with Pharaoh. The Bible doesn't say that they were not. The elders had no difficulty obtaining an audience with Pharaoh to complain about the increased workload, so there is no reason to assume that they weren't present when Moses asked Pharaoh to let the people make a sacrifice in the wilderness.
"Second, whereas God had said the elders would believe Moses, Moses asks God, in effect, 'What if you are wrong about this? What if they will not believe you sent me?' ... Apparently God thinks Moses has a legitimate point, for he gives him the sigs to verify his commission ... God concedes the possibility that Moses is right when God acknowledges that the first wonder may not compel belief. A reason is given for the second sign: 'If they will not believe you or heed the first sign, they may believe the second sign' ... 'If' language implies a somewhat uncertain future. In other words, God admits to Moses that he does not know for certain how things will go."
According to Sanders, any time God uses the word "if," it implies that He's uncertain about the future, but this is demonstrably false. The word "if" only implies contingency. It does not imply uncertainty. An example of this can be found in John 14:1-2, where Jesus tells His disciples, "I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you unto myself; that where I am, there ye may be also." Does Sanders think Jesus was uncertain about whether He would actually prepare a place for His disciples in Heaven? Does he think it's uncertain whether Christians will spend eternity with Christ? If that's what he thinks, then he's very much mistaken. The word "if" only conveys contingency, not uncertainty. Jesus was certain He would depart to prepare a place for His disciples, and His certainty about the first part of the "if" statement meant He was just as certain about the second part. His entire "if" statement is settled and certain.
The word "if" in God's conversation with Moses also conveys contingency instead of uncertainty. There is nothing in the "if" statements to indicate that the elders didn't believe Moses right away. God didn't say the elders wouldn't believe Moses. He simply said that, if they didn't believe his words, then they would believe after seeing the miracles. When we read the end of chapter four, we find that Moses met with the elders, told them what God had said, and showed them the miracles. Then the Bible tells us the elders believed Moses "when they heard that the LORD had visited the children of Israel, and that he had looked upon their affliction." They didn't believe because of the miracles. They believed because of what Moses had said. The word "if" in this case was an unnecessary contingency. God knew that the elders would believe, but He gave Moses some miracles to perform because Moses doubted that God really knew the future.
"The breaking of the covenant in Exodus 32-34 gives important insight into the divine-human relationship ... The worship of the golden calf constituted a grievous breach of the covenant. The event precipitates a rather heated and tense exchange between God and Moses ... God informs Moses of a new plan of action. God will destroy the people and start over again with Moses ... Moses risks divine wrath in order to intercede for the people ... God changed his mind and did not do what he said he would."
Sanders and other Open Theists are fond of pointing to this passage as an example of God changing His mind, but that's a bit of an oversimplification of what actually took place. The Bible tells us that God "repented of the evil which he thought to do unto his people" (Ex. 32:14), but I don't think this is teaching that God changed His mind in the sense that is meant by Sanders.
One of the features of God's character is His eagerness to forgive those who sin against Him, and there are many examples in Scripture of God forgiving entire nations after pronouncing judgment against them. These are not examples of God changing His mind. They are examples of God staying true to His character and His Word.
God explained in Jeremiah 18:7-8 that He will always forgive a nation that repents after He has pronounced judgment against them. We find examples of this throughout Scripture, including God's promise that He would not destroy Sodom if there were even ten righteous people in the city (Gen. 18:32) and His mercy on Ninevah after they repented (Jonah 3:10). God even told Abraham the reason the children of Israel would suffer for so long in Egypt was to allow the Amorites in Canaan to bring their sin to the full (Gen. 15:16), which likely means that God was waiting until they no longer repented before finally bringing judgment against them. It's part of God's unchanging character to forgive entire nations when even a few of their citizens repent and seek His mercy.
Jeremiah tells us this path to forgiveness is implied in every one of God's pronouncements of judgment, and Moses would have known this. He had just spent forty days in direct communication with God. During that time, Moses received all of the Law from God, including Leviticus 26, where God specifically said that He would forgive Israel and turn from His judgment against them if they repent. Moses, therefore, knew the character of God both from personal communion with the Lord and from the Law which he had received. He knew God would forgive Israel and not utterly destroy them if Moses asked Him to. There were many men in Israel who had remained faithful to God, including the entire tribe of Levi (Ex. 32:26), and Moses was essentially making the same plea Abraham had made for Sodom, only, in this case, there were many righteous men among the people, and God spared the nation for their sakes. God changed His actions toward Israel, but He didn't change His mind. God takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked; it is always His desire to forgive them (Ez. 33:11).
"The divine repentance texts create tensions with the notions of divine immutability and foreknowledge."
The doctrine of immutability is far from the cohesive whole that Sanders presents it as. There are a large number of differing views on what exactly God meant when He said, “I change not” (Mal. 3:6). Sanders focuses on what he calls the classical view, which is what I would term the Thomistic view of immutability. This view was articulated by Thomas Aquinas in his fifteenth-century work, Summa Theologica. I don't hold to the Thomistic view of divine immutability. Aquinas taught that God is entirely unchangeable to the extent that He doesn't experience emotions, but the Bible tells us that God experiences both grief (Gen. 6:6) and pleasure (Matt, 3:17), as well as many other emotions. The Thomistic view of a god who is wholly unmoved by anything that takes place on Earth is not consistent with the Scriptures.
However, I think Sanders goes too far in the opposite direction when he describes God as being so moved by whims and passions that He is like the double-minded man described in James 1. The Bible tells us it is impossible for God to lie (Heb. 6:18), God never makes a mistake (Deut. 32:4), His advice is completely trustworthy (Is. 46:10, Heb. 6:17), and His plans and purposes cannot be thwarted by men (Is. 14:24-27). This is what I believe God meant when He said He does not change. The Bible describes God changing when it speaks of Him experiencing various emotions, but all the changes attributed to God in Scripture are consistent with His character and His Word, and those will never change.
As a father, I have experienced a wide range of emotions in relation to my son. I have been sorrowful at times and joyful at others because of his actions. Do these opposite emotions give my son a reason to charge me with inconsistency? Not at all. As long as I am consistently sorrowful when he does wrong and joyful when he does right, I cannot be said to be inconsistent in my emotions. I would be inconsistent if I were joyful when my son does right in one instance and then sorrowful when he does right in another, but changing my emotion to fit the situation does not make me inconsistent as a father.
The same is true of God. God is grieved when we sin and pleased when we obey, but that doesn’t contradict the verses claiming God doesn’t change. God is always grieved when we sin, and He is always pleased when we obey. That is how He does not change. God will always do what is good and appropriate and right. If it is good to grieve over sin, then God will grieve over sin. If it is good to rejoice in righteousness, then God will rejoice in righteousness. He will never do the opposite by rejoicing in sin or grieving over righteousness, for that would not be good. God changes only in the sense that He responds to us in whichever manner is appropriate for the situation, and in doing this, God never changes. Sanders presents many examples of what he calls “divine repentance texts,” but all these examples are compatible with the view that God is always consistent with His character and His Word.
"That God's word may be alterable does not imply that it is always or easily changed. The prophet Nathan announced the 'word of the Lord' to David that the child born to him and Bathsheba would die. In response David fasted and cried to the Lord to let the child live, believing that God might change his mind about the announced judgment. David did not accept the word of the Lord as unalterable. Nevertheless, in this case God refused to be moved by David's prayers and fasting."
Sanders has completely missed the mark in his interpretation of this passage. God promised to forgive those individuals and nations who repent after He has pronounced judgment against them, but the death of the child was not part of God's judgment for David's sin. David repented of his sin, and God forgave him (II Sam. 12:13). However, that forgiveness was followed by an explanation that God would take the life of the child to undo some of the effects of David's sin (verse 14). God explained that David had given the enemies of the Lord an occasion to blaspheme God. Perhaps He was referring to the possibility that these enemies might accuse God of sanctioning David's actions. Taking the life of David's child would have silenced those accusations and preserved God's testimony. We don't know if this is what God meant or not, but the Bible is clear in making the distinction between God forgiving David and not killing him personally and God taking the life of the child to undo the effects of David's sin. The view that Sanders presents completely ignores God's own explanation of His decision.
"Many today admit that God experiences changes in emotions, but these same people also affirm that God possesses exhaustive definite foreknowledge of future contingent events ... Fretheim identifies a problem with this view ... 'God should be immediately angry at the point of God's knowledge of the sin, and not just at the point of its occurrence.'"
Sanders doesn't explain why he thinks God should be angry as soon as He knows something will happen, and I can't think of any reason for this to be so. God's wrath is not whimsical; it is the proper response for Him to have toward our sin. However, the Bible teaches that it would be wrong for God to have that response to a particular sin before that sin had even been committed. Solomon wrote in Proverbs 18:13, "He that answereth a matter before he heareth it, it is folly and shame unto him," and in John 7:51, Nicodemus challenged the Pharisees of his day by asking, "Doth our law judge any man, before it hear him, and know what he doeth?" Both of these men were referring to the first chapter of Deuteronomy, where the judges of Israel are instructed to be impartial and to "hear the small as well as the great" (Deut. 1:17). If a man is not to be judged before he can present his case, then he is definitely not to be judged before he even commits the act. God doesn't respond to our sins before we commit them, because doing so would make Him guilty of judging us before we had any chance to plead our case. God follows His own advice to "judge nothing before the time" (I Cor. 4:5).
"The prophets learned that God is free to change his mind. In the words of Heschel: 'They had to be taught that God is greater than His decisions.'"
This is not what the Bible teaches. David wrote of God that "thou hast magnified thy word above all thy name" (Ps. 138:2), and Jesus Himself said that "the Scripture cannot be broken" (John 10:35). God places so much emphasis on His Word that He has proclaimed it will never be wrong and it is greater than even His own name. Sanders isn't able to quote a single passage that teaches otherwise.
"In each of the passages ... where Yahweh 'declares the end from the beginning,' the context is very specific about what the 'end' is: the people will be delivered from their exile in Babylon ... I believe that the texts refer only to the return from exile."
Once again, Sanders makes a claim that is easily refuted just by reading the Bible. The prophecies in Isaiah 40-48 do not just refer to the return from exile. This passage is filled with very specific prophecies that demonstrate God's knowledge of future events. Here is a partial list of the prophecies given in this section of Isaiah:
A voice will cry in the wilderness to announce the coming of the Lord and to proclaim that all the earth will soon see God's salvation (40:3-5, Luke 3:4-6).
A righteous king in the east will rule over kings (41:2).
All nations that fought against Israel will be destroyed (41:11-12).
A Messiah will bring judgment to all the earth (42:1-4, Matt. 12:18-20).
The Messiah will be a light to the Gentiles (42:6, Luke 2:32).
The Messiah will heal the blind and set prisoners free (42:7).
Israel will be restored to the promised land (43:5-6).
The Babylonians will be defeated (43:14).
God will blot out the sins of those that return to Him (44:22).
Jerusalem will be reinhabited, and the cities of Judah will be rebuilt (44:23).
Some seas and rivers will be dried up (44:24).
Cyrus will serve God and rebuild Jerusalem and the temple (44:25).
Cyrus will conquer Babylon by entering the city through the leaved gates by the river, which will be left open instead of being shut like they should have been (45:1).
Cyrus will rebuild Jerusalem and release the Jews from captivity, and do it all freely with no desire for profit or reward (45:13).
Judah will be taken into captivity (46:2).
Babylon will be defeated and embarrassed (47:1-5).
Babylon will be defeated in a single day (47:8-9).
Babylon will not see their destruction coming (47:11).
As you can see, the return of the Jews from their captivity is a central focus of these passages, but there are far too many specific prophecies to just dismiss this entire passage as referring “only to the return from exile.” For starters, the nation of Judah wasn’t even in exile when the book of Isaiah was written. Thus, at the very least, this passage must be referring to both the conquest and the return. But there are also several Messianic prophecies in these chapters that have nothing to do with the return from exile. And the prophecies about Cyrus are far too specific to be brushed off as generic references to the return of the Jews. The prophecy in Isaiah 45:1 even tells us which gate Cyrus would use to sneak his army into Babylon and defeat them. These prophecies are not just a generic prediction that the Jews would eventually return to the promised land; they are detailed foretellings of specific events that occurred exactly as they were predicted.
"God expresses disappointment because the Babylonians punished the Israel more severely than God desired and expected (Zech1:15)."
Sanders claims that God didn't know how severely Babylon would punish Judah, but the pronouncement of Zechariah 1:15 is very similar to what God foretold in Isaiah 7. Long before Babylon conquered Judah, God already knew that He would punish Babylon in retribution for how severely she would treat His people.
"A lengthy prophecy that is not fulfilled is the destruction of the city of Tyre (Ezek 26). Even allowing for hyperbole, two aspects of the prophecy are clear: (1) King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon is specifically named as God’s intended agent to destroy Tyre and (2) the city would be utterly destroyed and would never be inhabited again. Nebuchadnezzar did try to destroy Tyre but he failed and the city was continuously occupied for hundreds of years ... Ezekiel himself admits that the prophecy failed so he revised it (Ezek 29:17-20). Ezekiel acknowledges that Nebuchadnezzar tried very hard to take the city but was unsuccessful."
Sanders makes a critical mistake here. He neglects to notice that the passage in question uses both plural and singular pronouns. When speaking of the actions of Nebuchadnezzar (a single individual), this prophecy uses the singular pronoun “he,” but when the prophecy shifts to the actions of unnamed future nations, it uses the plural pronoun “they.” Sanders completely misses this distinction and assumes that the entire prophecy is about Nebuchadnezzar’s attack on Tyre.
What the passage actually claims is:
This sequence of events is exactly what we find in the record of history. Nebuchadnezzar attacked Tyre and killed many of the people, but he was unable to take the island fortress where all the wealth of the city was stored. Several years later, Alexander the Great also attacked Tyre. Alexander took all the stone and timber from the city and dumped it into the sea to build a land bridge for his army to reach the island fortress. Alexander conquered the island and took all of its treasure. Alexander’s land bridge still exists today, and it is often cited as one of the best evidences of fulfilled prophecy in the Bible.
"God said that instead of Tyre he would give Egypt to Nebuchadnezzar as payment for his services. Jeremiah also said Nebuchadnezzar would conquer Egypt ( Jer 46:25-6) and that the Egyptian city of Memphis would be burned to the ground and be uninhabited ( Jer 46:19). Even these revised prophecies, however, did not come to pass since Nebuchadnezzar never conquered Egypt."
Sanders makes two mistakes here. First, these are not revised prophecies. As previously noted, God was very specific about the fact that Nebuchadnezzar would not completely defeat Tyre. The conquest of Egypt wasn’t a consolation prize; it was a reward. Nebuchadnezzar did exactly what God wanted him to do when he attacked Tyre, and God rewarded his obedience by giving him an even greater victory over Egypt.
This leaves us with the claim that Nebuchadnezzar didn’t conquer Egypt, and in this case, Sanders made the mistake of assuming that the absence of proof is proof of absence. Sanders is under the impression that there is no archaeological evidence of Nebuchadnezzar conquering Egypt. He is mistaken in that impression, but even if he were right, the absence of archaeological evidence doesn’t prove that a historical event never happened. The most this would prove is that we don't know if Nebuchadnezzar conquered Egypt.
However, there actually is archaeological evidence that Nebuchadnezzar conquered Egypt just like the Bible said. The ancient Babylonian writer Berossus recorded:
"When Nabolassar, father of Nabucodrosor, heard that the governor whom he had set over Egypt and over the parts of Coelesyria and Phenicia, had revolted from him, not being able to bear fatigues himself, committed certain parts of his army to his son Nabucodrosor, who was then but young, and sent him against the rebel. Nabucodrosor joined battle with him and conquered him, and reduced the country under his domination again."
Berossus provides us with independent historical confirmation that this prophecy was fulfilled. Egypt was conquered by Babylon during this time, just as God had promised.
That concludes my review of The God Who Risks by John Sanders. I did not cover everything in the book because, frankly, much of it was too poorly supported by arguments to be worth refuting. If there is a particular part of the book that you would like me to respond to, please let me know either in the comment section or on my Facebook page.
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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