Answering Greg Boyd's Openness of God Texts
#1 Hezekiah's Repentance and 15 Added Years
In those days Hezekiah became mortally ill. And Isaiah the prophet the son of Amoz came to him and said to him, "Thus says the LORD, 'Set your house in order, for you shall die and not live.'" 2 Then Hezekiah turned his face to the wall and prayed to the LORD, 3 and said, "Remember now, O LORD, I beseech You, how I have walked before You in truth and with a whole heart, and have done what is good in Your sight." And Hezekiah wept bitterly. 4 Then the word of the LORD came to Isaiah, saying, 5 "Go and say to Hezekiah, 'Thus says the LORD, the God of your father David, I have heard your prayer, I have seen your tears; behold, I will add fifteen years to your life.'"
- All agree that God did not express an exception when he said, "You shall die and not live."
- All agree that there was an implicit exception, perhaps: "You shall die, unless you repent and pray."
- Boyd denies that God knew whether Hezekiah would fulfill the implicit exception.
- Historic Christian exegesis affirms that God knew that Hezekiah would fulfill the implicit exception.
- Boyd says that it would have been disingenuous of God to say that Hezekiah was going to die if he knew that he would not die but live 15 more years.
- But Boyd's own view also seems to make God disingenuous. Is God telling the truth when he says," You shall die, and not live," when he really means," You might die, but won't if you repent"? Boyd's criticism of historic Christian exegesis applies to himself at this point.
But it is not true that one must always express explicitly the exceptions to the threats one gives or the predictions one makes in order to be honest. One reason for this is that there can be a general understanding in a family or group of people that certain kinds of threats or warnings always imply that genuine repentance will be met with mercy.
For example, in 1 John 4:8 "The one who does not love does not know God, for God is love." And 1 John 3:14 says, "We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brethren. He who does not love abides in death." These could be taken in isolation to mean there is no exception or escape for any failure to love. But we don't take the implicit threat that way because a general understanding exists in John's community that this refers to unconfessed and persistent refusal to love. 1 John 1:8-9 makes this clear: "If we say that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness."
Therefore, we do not need to jump to the conclusion that every exception to every warning needs to be expressed especially where there is an understanding that genuine repentance and confession will be met with mercy. Hezekiah's earnest prayer for mercy seems to indicate that he did not assume there was no escape clause even though none was expressed. He seemed to assume that mercy may well be given if he repented.
- What about the sincerity of God in making warnings when he knows that the warning will be heeded and the threatened punishment averted. We deal with that in the case of Jonah and the Ninevites.
#2 Jonah and the Repentant Ninevites
Then Jonah began to go through the city one day's walk; and he cried out and said, "Yet forty days and Nineveh will be overthrown."
When God saw their deeds, that they turned from their wicked way, then God relented concerning the calamity which He had declared He would bring upon them. And He did not do it.
- Both Boyd and historic Christian exegesis assume that there is an implicit condition that if the Ninevites meet, they will be spared.
- Boyd believes that, if God knew with certainty that Nineveh would repent, the prophecy of impending destruction was insincere.
But the accusation of insincerity is warranted only if the threat or the condition of repentance was not true. That is, if God would NOT have overthrown Nineveh had they not repented, or if he WOULD have overthrown Nineveh even if they repented, then his threat would have been insincere. He would have been lying. But the threat and the condition were true. God would have indeed destroyed them had they not repented, and he did not destroy them when they did repent.
Greg seems to rule out the possibility that a God who knows all that will come to pass can sincerely warn against consequences that he knows will not come about (e.g., "Nineveh will be overthrown if you don't repent"). But, in fact, in God's mind, the warning may be the very means he is using to see to it that his foreknown future will come about; namely, that Nineveh will repent. God is not insincere in giving this warning. Had they not repented they would have perished.
#3 God's Changing His Plan
At one moment I might speak concerning a nation or concerning a kingdom to uproot, to pull down, or to destroy it; 8 if that nation against which I have spoken turns from its evil, I will relent (= repent) concerning the calamity I planned to bring on it.
- It is entirely possible to see the "plan" of God here to be the thought or intention of his mind that went something like this: "I will bring calamity against a people that is evil and unrepentant." This is true and sincere. In other words, God's "plan" or "intention" or "thought" or "mind" may simply be such a fixed resolve in his mind. His resolve to punish correlates with the evil presently in the people when he expresses the resolve. If the people repent, God's resolve or "plan" or intention toward that people changes, that is what is meant by his "relenting" or his "repenting." This does not necessarily mean he has not foreknown this change in his "plan." In fact, the expression of his resolve to punish the kind of people he sees may be the means he uses to bring about the change in them that he foreknows so that his own change of resolve will accord with their new condition.
- Boyd says that people have tried to evade the meaning of these texts by saying that God is speaking "anthropomorphically." Moreover the only reason one would argue this way, he says, is that one brings to the text a philosophical presupposition that God cannot literally change his mind.
- But I do not argue this way. I say that there is a real change in God's mind, but that this does not imply a lack of foreknowledge. God can express an intention or a resolve toward a people that accords with what is true now, all the while knowing that this condition will not be true in the future, and that his resolve will also be different when their condition is different. That an future-knowing God speaks this way is owing to the fact that he really means for his word to be the means of bringing about changes in people to which he himself responds in a way that he knows he will.
- The kind of change of mind Boyd wants to see, namely, a change owing to unforeseen future developments, is resisted perhaps not out of philosophical presuppositions, but out of exegetical insights from other relevant texts which make us hesitant to affirm that God changes his mind without qualification. (See 1 Samuel 15 and the issue of God's repenting that he made Saul king.)
#4 God's Repenting that He Made Saul King and God's Repenting that He Created Man
- God says, "I repent that I have made Saul king; for he has turned back from following me, and has not performed my commandments."
1 Samuel 15:28-29
And Samuel said to [Saul],"The LORD has torn the kingdom of Israel from you this day, and has given it to a neighbor of yours, who is better than you. 29 And also the Glory of Israel will not lie or repent for he is not a man, that he should repent."
- A natural reading of 1 Samuel 15 would seem to imply that there is a way that God does "repent" and a way that he does not. That is what I am arguing in the texts that Boyd puts forward. He insists that God repents in a way that implies lack of foreknowledge of what is coming. I think this is the kind of "repentance" that would fall under Samuel's criticism: "God is not a man that he should repent."
- In other words, God does not have the human limitations of knowledge that would involve him in repenting that way. Rather his repentance is an expression of a resolve or an attitude that is fitting in view of new circumstances. That God is ignorant of what will call for that new resolve or attitude is not necessarily implied in the change.
So the repentance over Saul means not that he did not know what Saul would be like, but that he disapproves of what Saul has become and that he feels sorrow at this evil in his anointed king and that he looks back on his making him king with the same sorrow that he experienced at that moment when he made him king, foreknowing all the sorrow that would come.
For God to say, "I feel sorrow that I made Saul king," is not the same as saying, "I would not make him king if I had it to do over knowing what I know now." God is able to feel sorrow for an act that he does in view of foreknown evil and pain, and yet go ahead and will to do it for wise reasons. And so later when he looks back on the act he can feel the sorrow for the act that was leading to the sad conditions, such as Saul's disobedience.
Then the LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great on the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. 6 The LORD was sorry that He had made man on the earth, and He was grieved in His heart.
- In view of the warning in 1 Samuel 15:29 that, "The Glory of Israel will not lie or repent; he is not a man, that he should repent," we are slow to attribute human-like repentance to God.
- Rather it is plausible to find a "strange" repentance that is unlike anything we experience, namely, that God regrets what he foreknew - that the human race would fall into sin and be in need of a savior.
- We are led to believe that God did foreknow this because of 2 Timothy 1:9 "God has saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works, but according to His own purpose and grace which was granted us in Christ Jesus from all eternity." If the grace we needed in Christ was foreknown (even planned) from eternity, then the fall and the misery of man was known too.
- In 1 Chronicles 29:18 David prays for the people after they have so willingly given to build the temple: "O LORD, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, our fathers, preserve this forever in the intentions of the heart of Thy people, and direct their heart to Thee." This phrase is the same as the one in Genesis 6:5 but here it seems as if David assumes that God can govern what "intents of the heart" we have. If so, we should not assume too quickly that God can't know what they are in the future.
- I propose that God created the world already feeling both the joy of this final salvation and the grief of the intervening fall and misery. When the fall and misery reached a height in Genesis 6:6 it is not unfitting for God to express this sorrow the way he does.
#5 When God Says, "Perhaps"
In the beginning of the reign of Jehoiakim the son of Josiah, king of Judah, this word came from the LORD, saying, 2 "Thus says the LORD, 'Stand in the court of the LORD'S house, and speak to all the cities of Judah who have come to worship in the LORD'S house all the words that I have commanded you to speak to them. Do not omit a word! 3 Perhaps they will listen and everyone will turn from his evil way, that I may repent of the calamity which I am planning to do to them because of the evil of their deeds.'"
- The word "perhaps" may be spoken here by God not to express that he is unsure what they will do, but to express that from a human vantage point the people may or may not listen to him. But if they do, he will have mercy and not bring calamity.
- Are there any clues in Jeremiah that we should be hesitant to say God does not know what will come to pass in the future? Jeremiah 10:23 causes me to be hesitant: "I know, O LORD, that a man's way is not in himself, Nor is it in a man who walks to direct his steps." On the face of it, this text seems to say that ultimately man is not the one who governs his steps. If so, then man does not have the kind of self-determining power that Boyd attributes to man. This means that man is not in a position to "create" out of nothing choices that surprise God. Rather, man's steps are finally governed by something outside him, and God would be able to know what these influences are and thus know the future.
- Therefore, we should be slow to jump to the conclusion that when God says "perhaps" something will come to pass, he is expressing his own uncertainty rather than the perspective of man who cannot know ahead of time.
#6 Does God make Wrong Predictions and Get Surprised?
Then the LORD said to me in the days of Josiah the king, "Have you seen what faithless Israel did? She went up on every high hill and under every green tree, and she was a harlot there. 7 I thought (literally: I said), "After she has done all these things she will return to Me"; but she did not return, and her treacherous sister Judah saw it.
- Boyd says that God really thought that the people would turn to him. But I do not see how he can evade the problem that this involves God in a mistake. God thought a falsehood as if it were true.
- He says that God had a "perfectly accurate assessment of all probabilities" and given that assessment he thought that the people would repent. But, he says, "self-determining creatures opted for the more improbable course of action."
- This implies two important things: one is that the only way that God cannot be mistaken here is if his statement ("they will turn") included the implicit qualification: "given the ordinary expectations under these conditions." This is what I think God meant. The difference between Boyd and me is that I believe God knew what the people would really do, when he implied that ordinary human probabilities would seem to lead to repentance. But Boyd believes that God did not know what they would do.
- The other implication is that this text shows how vulnerable God would be if Boyd's view is right. God would do his very best in predicting on the basis of infinite knowledge, and would miss it, because of human self-determination. The implications of this are huge. It means that all talk of God's managing the world on the basis of known human influences is not very encouraging, because it is the essence of human self-determination that the most utterly unexpected choices can arise from the will and surprise God.
#7 The Testing of Abraham's Fear of God
Then they came to the place of which God had told him; and Abraham built the altar there and arranged the wood, and bound his son Isaac and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. 10 Abraham stretched out his hand and took the knife to slay his son. 11 But the angel of the LORD called to him from heaven and said, "Abraham, Abraham!" And he said, "Here I am." 12 He said, "Do not stretch out your hand against the lad, and do nothing to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from Me."
- Boyd says that God did not know if Abraham would remain faithful and that the words "now I know" are disingenuous if this were not so. The test would be a charade if God already knew the outcome.
- There is another way to think about God's knowing here. If God knows what will come to pass, does that mean that all testings in history are pointless? I don't think so. God has not created the world just to be known in terms of what would be if tests were given. He created the world to be actualized in history. That is, he wills not just to foreknow, but to know by observation and experience. That is the point of creating a real world, rather than just knowing one that might be. Therefore, may not God truly know what Abraham is going to do, and yet want to externalize that in a test that enables him to know it by observation, not just prognostication? "Now I know," thus may be, "Now I see . . . now I experience by observation of your real action."
- A problem with Boyd's view is that God cannot really be sure it is true when he says, "Now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son." The knife had not been put into the boy's chest and this is the moment when the will may well rebel and say "No!" We have seen from Jeremiah 3:7 how "mistaken" God's predictions can be on Boyd's way of seeing things. God cannot be sure that Abraham would have killed his son, because the volition had not yet been created for God to know. But perhaps this is not significant, since, even if Abraham had killed his son, God could still not be sure Abraham would not in the next moment rebel against the God that had forced him into such a test.
# 8 Which Signs of Moses Does God Expect to Be Believed?
Then He said, "Put your hand into your bosom again." So he put his hand into his bosom again, and when he took it out of his bosom, behold, it was restored like the rest of his flesh. 8 "If they will not believe you or heed the witness of the first sign, they may believe the witness of the last sign. 9 "But if they will not believe even these two signs or heed what you say, then you shall take some water from the Nile and pour it on the dry ground; and the water which you take from the Nile will become blood on the dry ground."
- Can a God who knows what will come to pass with certainty say meaningfully, "Such and such may come to pass, if it doesn't then do this." Yes. Because he may only be saying that he chooses not to reveal what will in fact come to pass. He will only reveal possibilities and how to respond to them. He is not saying that he only knows possibilities. God may have his reasons for why he sometimes wants to communicate to us possibilities about the future, and other times certainties.
- Boyd would say that it is disingenuous of God to say they may believe on the basis of the first or second miracle when he knows exactly how many it will take to persuade them. But there is at least one clue that God intended for Moses to do all the signs, namely, Exodus 4:17 where God says to Moses, "You shall take in your hand this staff, with which you shall perform the signs." God seems to know that more than one will be needed.
- There are passages in the Pentateuch that show that there is a disconnect between the way that God talks about knowing, and the way he actually knows. For example, Genesis 18:21 "I will go down now, and see if they have done entirely according to its outcry, which has come to Me; and if not, I will know." This text portrays God as if he were too far away in heaven to know what is happening for sure in Sodom. But there are reasons for this way of speaking: it stresses God's condescension to be involved with his creatures and his intimate dealing with them and knowledge of them.
- Similarly, I assume God has his reasons for speaking in Exodus 4:8 as if he did not know whether the elders would believe.
©2015 Desiring God Foundation. Used by Permission.
Share the Joy!: You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in physical form, in its entirety or in unaltered excerpts, as long as you do not charge a fee. For posting online, please use only unaltered excerpts (not the content in its entirety) and provide a hyperlink to this page. For videos, please embed from the original source. Any exceptions to the above must be approved by Desiring God.
Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: By John Piper. ©2015 Desiring God Foundation. Website: desiringGod.org