What We Believe: Decreasing God So As to Increase Ourselves – A Critical Review of Gregory A. Boyd’s God of the Possible (Part 1)

Though its importance has not yet registered with many evangelical and Reformed Christians, there is a significant movement afoot to revise substantially the historic Christian understanding of the Triune God. Often termed the “open view” of God, this movement is represented by a number of well-known contemporary evangelical theologians and has made Significant inroads into the evangelical community in North America. Not long ago the most important periodical of the evangelical community in North America, Christianity Today, offered the opinion that, though this new view of God departs from previous understanding, it does not fall outside of the boundaries of evangelical thought.

Rather than attempt to trace the development and advocacy of this new doctrine of God in its broader context, I would like to consider a recent, popular defense of it by Gregory A. Boyd, in a book entitled God of the Possible. Boyd, a popular pastor/preacher in the Baptist General Conference who teaches at Bethel College in Minneapolis, offers in this volume a defense of the new view targeted at a general audience. Thus, what has been largely a movement among evangelical theologians now threatens to become a broader movement with influence directly upon the evangelical community itself.

The Issue

In the preface to his study, Boyd begins with an account of how the subject of his study first became a matter of personal interest to him. While reading the story in 2 Kings 20 of the sickness of King Hezekiah, he was struck by the strange contrast between God's prior declaration to the king that he was about to die and His subsequent declaration, in answer to Hezekiah's prayer, that He was persuaded to add fifteen years to his life. According to Boyd, this account raised in his mind the question how God “could have truly changed his mind in response to a prayer if the prayer he was responding to was forever in his mind” (7, emphasis Boyd’s)? If God foreknew exactly what was going to occur in advance of its occurrence, why would He have first declared that Hezekiah was going to die? With this question in his mind, he subsequently studied the Scriptures further and came to the conclusion that the customary doctrine, that God exhaustively knows the future before it occurs, is mistaken. The future, contrary to the traditional understanding of God's exhaustive foreknowledge of all things, is “partly” determined and foreknown by God, but also “partly” open or unknown by Him.

The Classical View of Divine Foreknowledge

In the opening chapter of his book, Boyd attempts to describe what he terms “the classical view of divine foreknowledge.” This view of God's knowledge of the future, whether articulated in a Calvinist or an Arminian framework, amounts to the claim that God knows all future occurrences. No future event, however great or small, is unknown to God.

For Calvinists, God exhaustively foreknows the future so that all future events will certainly take place in the way He knows them. For Arminians, God exhaustively foreknows the future, even though many of the events He knows are not determined by His will and purpose. Though both Calvinists and Arminians are agreed that God's foreknowledge is exhaustive, they have quite different views as to how God's will relates to future events. Whereas Calvinists insist that God's counsel ultimately determines all things—God works all things according to the counsel of His will (cf. Eph. 1:11)—Anninians insist that some future occurrences, particularly the “free” acts of responsible creatures, are undetermined. In Boyd’s words, “[s]ome follow Augustine and Calvin and maintain that the future will be a certain way because God foreknows it this way. Others follow Arminius and argue that God foreknows the future a certain way because the future simply will be that way. In other words, classical theologians disagree about what comes first. Does God's foreknowledge determine the future, or does the future determine God's foreknowledge” (23)? Acknowledging that the final authority for settling the issue of the extent of God's foreknowledge is the SCriptures, Boyd maintains that the classical view of God appeals to one motif in the Scriptures as most basic. This motif is what he calls “the motif of future determinism.” This motif appeals to those biblical passages that emphasize God as “foreknowing and/or predestining certain things about the future” (13). However, there is another motif in Scripture, which Boyd labels the “motif of future openness,” in which God is said to face a “partly open future” (14). Unlike the classical view, which tends to read the first motif literally (God truly determines things) and the second figuratively (the future is open to God only “as a manner of speaking”), the open view of God insists that each of these motifs is literally true. In his consideration of the argument for the classical view, Boyd devotes four pages to a quick sketch of the biblical passages typically adduced. However, the preponderance of his chapter on the classical view amounts to an attempt to show from the Scriptures that the biblical evidence does not support the doctrine of God's exhaustive foreknowledge.

The biblical foundation for the classical view appeals to those passages which affirm God's sovereign lordship over history (e.g. Isa. 46:9–10; 48:3–5). God can “declare the end from the beginning” because He rules and governs all things. Furthermore, God knows His chosen people, not only in terms of their future as a people but also in terms of the events that will occur in the lives of individual persons. Many passages of Scripture include what is sometimes called “predictive prophecy”: events that will occur in the future are foretold by the Lord’s servants the prophets (e.g. Cyrus’ help in rebuilding the temple, Judas' betrayal of Jesus, Paul’s ordination before birth to his apostleship). Many of the events of Jesus’ ministry, moreover, were foreknown and foreordained of God. God also “foreknows” His elect (Rom. 8:29) and the events that will consummate the present period of the history of redemption.

Though this kind of biblical evidence “seems impressive” (29), Boyd argues that it can be interpreted in a manner that does not require the idea that God exhaustively knows all future events. When the Bible speaks of God's specific purposes and plans which will certainly come to pass, this only means that the “future is settled to the extent that he is going to determine it” (30). It does not mean that our “commonsense” conviction that human beings are free to do as they choose is to be repudiated. God’s plans for the future are real, but not exhaustive. They certainly do not, indeed they cannot, mean that we are no longer free to choose between differing options. According to Boyd, the best way to interpret those biblical passages that speak of God's foreknowledge of the future is to treat them as “partly” predictive of some events, to the extent that these can be legitimately known, but not exhaustively predictive in the event of those occurrences which presume a measure of human freedom and unpredictability. Jesus’ prediction of Peter’s denial, for example, does not require the assumption that the future is exhaustively predicted. It only required a sufficient acquaintance with Peter’s character to make the prediction a plausible and likely knowledge of what he might do. Similarly, Judas’ betrayal of the Lord, though it might not have occurred were Judas to have made different and contrary choices in his life, was predictable given those “parameters of life” that offered a reasonable certainty of what he would do under certain circumstances.

In his consideration of those biblical passages that address God's plans for the lives of His creatures, Boyd insists that they cannot teach a doctrine of exhaustive divine foreknowledge. If this were their teaching, then the freedom of human persons would be seriously infringed. Indeed, we would become mere "automatons" whose every act and decision is fully determined by God, in advance of its occurrence. Often in the Scriptures we are told that God “wills” something which does not come to pass simply because free creatures are unwilling to do what God wills. For example, 2 Peter 3:9 says that God wants “all to come to repentance,” but we know that many people do not obey the gospel call when it is extended to them (41). Even in the instance of the crucifixion of Jesus, the certainty of this event within the “definite plan and foreknowledge of God” (Acts 2:23) does not mean that the individual persons involved were unfree to do otherwise. The only thing certain within God's plan was the general certainty of Christ's crucifixion, not the particular persons who willingly chose to crucify Him. Likewise, when the Bible speaks of God's purpose of election, this does not refer to a definite election of particular persons. When the apostle Paul speaks of God"choosing us in Christ before the foundation of the world," what he means to say is “that whoever chooses to be ‘in Christ’ is predestined to be ‘holy and blameless before him in love’” (47, emphasis Boyd’s).

Though we may speak of the “corporate election” of the church, as a class of persons who will be saved through Christ, those particular persons who will be saved must exercise their “free will” to become members of this class. To suggest that this choice is made for them by God is to deny the freedom of the creature to choose to do as he wishes.

After considering the biblical case for the classical view of divine foreknowledge, Boyd concludes: “The passages that express this motif [that is, of divine determination of future events] do not require us to believe that the future is exhaustively settled. To confess that God can control whatever he wants to control leaves open the question of how much God actually does want to control” (51).

God Faces a Partially Open Future

In the following chapter of his book, Boyd appeals to those Scriptural passages that support the “motif of future openness.” Traditional defenders of the doctrine of God's exhaustive foreknowledge typically fail to do justice to these passages, arguing that they are not to be taken literally. However, Boyd insists that these passages ought to be given as much weight, and be interpreted in the same literal manner, as those passages which teach the “motif of future determinism.”

In his consideration of these passages, Boyd offers several different categories of evidence. The first of these concerns those biblical passages that speak of God’s “regret” over how things have turned out. Examples of such regret include God’s sorrow at the fall into sin and its consequences (Genesis 6:6) and His remorse at Saul's kingship. A second aspect of the biblical portrait of God involves those passages where God asks questions about the future, as to how it will tum out. The third of these categories includes passages in which “God tells us that things tum out differently than he expected” (e.g. Isa. 5:2). The fourth aspect of Scriptural teaching that underscores the openness of the future motif is the testimony to God's “frustration” when people “stubbornly resist his plans for their lives” (62).
According to Boyd, these categories of evidence are not as compelling as a fifth group of passages. These are passages that reveal God “testing” His people in order to determine whether they will choose to follow Him or not. If these passages are taken seriously, as they must be, then they suggest that there is a real and important sense in which God does not know in advance of His people's choices what those choices will be. God is not playing games, for example, when He seeks to ascertain whether Abraham fears Him by asking him to sacrifice his son, Isaac. Similarly, when God tests Hezekiah to know what is in his heart, this is a true test of his character.
The most important categories of evidence for the open view of God, however, are provided in a sixth and seventh group of passages. The sixth group of passages portray God as expressing Himself regarding the future in terms of what “may” or “may not” occur. These “maybes,” as Boyd terms them, confirm that God does not know everything about all future events or contingencies. Included in this category of texts are those which express “conditionals”: “if” certain conditions are met, “then” certain consequences will follow. However, since these conditions involve the free actions of responsible creatures, there is no way for God to know what will happen unless we deny human freedom. The seventh and final category of passages that Boyd considers, is the “strongest” (75). These passages teach that God often “changes his mind in response to events that transpire in history.” For God’s changing His mind to make sense, it has to be assumed that His mind is not “permanently fixed” (75). Changing responses to His Word call for changing responses on God’s part.

At the close of his survey of these categories of evidence, Boyd argues that the classical view of God's exhaustive foreknowledge cannot adequately account for them. Rather than allowing these texts to speak for themselves, the classical view is “driven by philosophy rather than by texts” (86). According to Boyd, the classical view is not so much based upon biblical teaching as it is upon a philosophical doctrine of God's unchangeableness. This doctrine owes more to the influence of Greek thought, especially Aristotle's doctrine of God as the “unmoved Mover,” than it does to the teaching of Scripture.

What Practical Difference Does it Make?

In the third and concluding section of his study, Boyd takes up the question of what he calls the “practical difference” of the open view of God. What difference does it make whether God exhaustively knows all things in advance of their occurrence or only partly knows what the future will bring? Though Boyd is careful to insist that the difference between the classical and open views is a “minor” one—certainly not one that ought to break the bonds of Christian fellowship and love—he does believe that there are significant positive advantages that follow from the open view. Among these advantages, there are seven that Boyd singles out for special emphasis.

First, compared to the classical view, the open view “makes more intellectual sense” (90). Rather than denying the apparent freedom of creatures to decide their destiny, the open view affirms that the free choices we make in life, choices that are not foreknown or foreordained, make all of the difference. In this way, the open view “avoids the impenetrable paradox (or, many of us would argue, the contradiction) of asserting that self-determining free actions are settled an eternity before free agents make them so” (91).

Second, the open view passes one of the tests of faithfulness to the teaching of Scripture: the ability to “reconcile coherently” different aspects of biblical teaching that may appear, superficially read, to be in conflict. Unlike the classical view, which treats the motif of an open future as merely figurative while interpreting literally the motif of a predetermined future, the open view is able to affirm both motifs in their literal meaning. The resolution of the apparent conflict between these motifs is to recognize that the future is partly closed and partly open. God knows some events before they occur, while other events, because they result from the exercise of human freedom, are unknown to Him.

Third, the classical view of God tends to encourage a posture of fatalism among its adherents. If different possibilities are unreal, because they differ from God's exhaustive knowledge of a certain future, then there is little reason to resist the injustices of the world as it is. On the other hand, if the future is open, then there is every reason to strive after a more just and acceptable world.

Fourth, unlike the classical view God, which tends to make intercessory prayer a perfunctory exercise in acquiescing to the will of God, the open view affirms that the future genuinely depends upon the prayers that we offer to God. Since the future is partly open, the requests we make to God can truly effect, for better or for worse, the course of future events.

Fifth, the open view of God provides a more satisfactory explanation of the problem of evil. Rather than including evil within the plan and purpose of God, the open view regards evil as the consequence of God's decision to create genuinely free creatures whose choices are the reason for the introduction of evil into God's good creation.

Sixth, the open view of God allows us to understand in a more appropriate way the adverse circumstances of our lives. When a wife, for example, discovers that her husband is a cruel and abusive person, she is not obligated to accept this in a spirit of resignation. She does not need to accept passively a circumstance that she is free to change and that does not reflect in any meaningful sense God's “will” for her life.

And seventh, the open view of God is more consistent with developments in modern science than the traditional view. Modern science has come to understand that reality at its most basic level displays a measure of indeterminacy. Contrary to the older science, which posited the existence of fixed laws and an unalterable nexus of cause and effect, recent science affirms the relativity of time and space, and the uncertainty suggested by quantum theory.

Conclusion

This brief sketch of Boyd's argument for the open view of God should be enough to illustrate how radically it revises the traditional doctrine of God. Though Boyd claims that this view does not depart from the boundaries of Christian orthodoxy, it is apparent that he has a rather elastic view of those boundaries. If this view of God is correct, it will undoubtedly lead to a radical revision of many aspects of Christian doctrine.

Since no doctrine is more fundamental than the doctrine of God, the kind of revision in this doctrine that Boyd and others are proposing can only mean a wholesale reformulation of many other doctrines of the Christian faith. These serious and unacceptable implications of the open view of God will be considered in a subsequent article, D.V.

Footnotes

1. God of the Possible. A Biblical Introduction ID the Open View of God. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2000.

2. E.g. Clark Pinnock, John Sanders, William Hasker, Richard Rice, and David Basinger.

3. Boyd’s views have been the subject of debate at the annual meetings of the Baptist General Conference. During its June 25–28, 2000, meet· ing, two resolutions dealing with the issue were made. The first resolution affirmed that God's knowledge of future events was "exhaustive" and mailltained that the “openness” view is “contrary to our fellowship’s historic understanding of God’s omniscience.” The second resolution, however, approved the Bethel College Trustees’ decision not to terminate Boyd’s appointment and to affirm that his views “fall within the accepted bounds of the evangelical spectrum.”

4. It is difficult to avoid the condusion, in this connection, that Boyd has skewed the biblical evidence to favor his position. Not only does he give shortshrift to the biblical materials that favor what he calls the “motif of future determinism,” but he also ignores a considerable body of biblical evidence regarding God's purpose of election and the comprehensive scope of His counsel and will. A glance at his Scripture index will show, for example, that he nowhere does Ephesians 1:11, a text that, like many others in the Bible, simply asserts that God works “all things according to the counsel of His will.” Needless to say, this text lends no comfort to Boyd's position. It is hard to suppress the suspicion that this maybe why he omits to mention it!

Dr. Cornelis Venema, a contributing editor of The Outlook magazine, teaches Doctrinal Studies at MidAmerica Reformed Seminary in Dyer, Indiana.

Outlook Index
2017
2018
2019
2016
2015
2014
2013
2012
2011
2010
2009
2008
2007
2006
2005
2004
2003
2002
2001
2000
1951