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

In a previous article in The Outlook, I summarized the argument of Boyd’s God ofthe Possible. Written for a popular audience, Boyd’s study presents a case for what has come to be known as the “open view” of God. Contrary to the classical understanding of God, which teaches that God exhaustively knows the future, the open view insists that the future is partly determined and partly open. With respect to those future events that remain open, God does not (and cannot) know them before they occur. Only some such limitation upon God's knowledge of future events will allow us to affirm a genuinely open future in which creatures, particularly human beings as God's image-bearers, have the freedom to act in one way or another. According to Boyd, the classical view of God's (fore-)knowledge amounts to a determinism in which all events must take place; whatever God foreknows must inevitably occur. If, for example, God knows who will be saved and who will not be saved in advance of the free response of human beings to the preaching of the gospel, then we can no longer speak meaningfully of human freedom or responsibility.

Though Boyd presents his case in a popular style and in a superficially persuasive manner, there are some very serious objections to the open view of God. Despite Boyd’s plea that this view be given a hearing and that it be permitted to stand alongside the classical view of God's exhaustive knowledge of all things, Christian believers need to be on their guard against it. However congenial the manner of his presentation, Boyd’s position does not pass the test of Scripture or of the confessions of the historic Christian church. Indeed, though Boyd asks critics of his view not to violate the demands of Christian love by declaring it heretical, love for the Triune God and the truth of His Word demands that we call this view what it is: a serious and far-reaching departure from the truth. Since the doctrine of God is the most basic of Christian doctrines, it is not surprising that this view of God brings with it consequences that are detrimental to Christian truth all the way down the line.

Admittedly, a full evaluation of the open view of God would require a study at least as extensive as Boyd’s. However, for the purposes of our brief review, we will only note in this and a subsequent article some of the more basic problems with Boyd’s argument.

The Starting Point: Human Autonomy

Boyd presents his case as though it were simply a matter of determining what the Scriptures teach about God’s knowledge of the future. However, the real starting point for his position is a certain view ofhuman freedom. In fact, one way of characterizing Boyd’s position would be to say that it represents a consistent outworking of an Arminian view of human freedom. However, unlike the classic Arminian view, which still upheld the doctrine of God's exhaustive foreknowledge of all things, Boyd’s open view of God insists that, if human beings are truly free, then God cannot know in advance the choices that they will make. Were God to know in advance what human beings would decide in particular circumstances, then it would no longer be possible to say that they could have decided differently. If God infallibly knows the future, then the future must be settled and determined in advance. Because Boyd is committed to the principle that human freedom means the ability to choose to do the contrary of what actually occurs, he cannot affirm God's exhaustive foreknowledge of the choices human beings actually make.

Throughout his study, Boyd frequently appeals to this “common sense” view of human freedom to argue against God’s exhaustive knowledge of the future. In his introduction, for example, he insists that “[t]o whatever degree the future is yet open to be decided by free agents, it is unsettled” (16). Indeed, the reason God cannot know the future is simple: it does not yet exist and therefore cannot be known. If the future is partly the product of “future free actions,” then “there is nothing there for God to know” (16). When God is said to “elect” certain persons to salvation, accordingly, this can only mean that He has chosen to save a “class” of persons, namely, those who will freely choose to believe in response to the gospel. Any suggestion that God might know in advance whc are elect and reprobate would b{ incompatible with the idea that peoph are free to believe or not to believe It would also contradict the Scriptura teaching that God genuinely desire the salvation of all persons, sino God could hardly desire somethinl that He has chosen to make impossible.

No doubt the question of human freedom and responsibility in relation to the will of God is a difficul one. It is certainly a question that we cannot possibly resolve in an articl like this. However, the view of human freedom that Boyd upholds is nowhere near as obvious or commonsensical as he claims.

First, Boyd’s view of human freedom assumes that the choices people make, especially choices as important as to whether to believe or not to believe the gospel, are completely undetermined by the kind of people they are. People are "free" to embrace or not embrace Christ as they will. Nothing (including God's foreknowledge or foreordination) determines the choices we make except what we freely will to do. The problem with this view, however, is that it fails to do justice to the complexity and concreteness of human freedom and its exercise, particularly in relation to the gospel's summons to faith and repentance.

Certainly, as Reformed believers have always insisted, we are free to do as we please without being coerced by forces wholly outside of ourselves. But the great problem of the sinful human condition is that we are not free to please whatever we please. Sinful human beings who hate God by nature and are enslaved to the dominion of sin simply do not wish to please God (Romans 6:15–22; 8:6–8). Spiritually dead creatures have no capacity to “pull themselves up by their own bootstraps,” spiritually speaking (Romans 3:1-12; Ephesians 2:1–3). Unless we are regenerated by the Spirit of God, we are wholly incapable of doing any spiritual good. We are not able to see or enter the kingdom of God (John 3:3–6). When it comes to the question of salvation, the kind of free creatures who indifferently choose to believe or not to believe in response to the gospel simply do not exist. The freedom which Boyd maintains for human creatures is, simply put, an unbiblical fiction.2

Second, Boyd’s view of human freedom actually suggests that, when human beings make free choices regarding their salvation, they literally create something out of nothing. The future so far as it comes to be because of the free choices of human beings has no prior existence, whether in the mind of the Triune God or anyone else. The only possible explanation for the choices we make, if those choices are genuinely and wholly undetermined, is that we create them out of nothing.

To put the matter a little differently, Boyd's position implies that the more free we are to make choices , the less likely it is that we could explain those choices! Any explanation for our choices that would appeal to the purpose of God or to our particular inclinations would tend to mitigate their genuine freedom. Thus, the more irrational, unpredictable and indeterminate our chOices, the more free they are. One cannot help but be reminded at this point of the magician who, by a sleight of hand, manages to pull a rabbit out of his hat.

However, in the case of Boyd’s attempt to define human freedom as a creation of something out of nothing, we need to remember that he actually believes the rabbit is real and that it had no previous existence! Boyd’s suggestion that there are human beings who are utterly indifferent toward God, who at one and same time are equally attracted and repelled by the gospel, has no basis in Scripture or experience. Such people do not exist, as any preacher of the gospel can attest.

Lest this all sound a bit too technical and abstract, let me explain the point I wish to make in yet another way. What I am suggesting is that the starting point for Boyd’s doctrine of God is not the teaching of Scripture but an exalted and spedous view ofman and his pretended autonomy.

In order for man to increase in power and freedom to do whatsoever he arbitrarily and sovereignly decides to do, God must decrease. Why can God not know in advance what I will choose to do? Because this would limit my freedom and creativity to do whatever I sovereignly decide to do. Why can God not determine in advance whether I will be saved or not? Because that would mean that my salvation wholly depends upon God’s grace, not my free decision. Why can God only know the future in part? Because otherwise the future and all things would be what they are and do what they do because of their relation to the all-encompassing will and purpose of God. Then the world, particularly my world, would not be partly of my own making. Indeed, what is so offensive about the classical view of God’s exhaustive foreknowledge is that it deprives me of the claim to be master of my own fate, determiner of my own destiny, creator of my own reality!

Summary

In the final analysis, we are left here with one or another choice. Either we acknowledge the transcendent greatness and glory of the Triune God who by His eternal counsel determines whatsoever shall come to pass, or we exalt man at God’s expense, making our “god” small in order to make more room for ourselves. Boyd has chosen the second way. Because he insists upon asserting a certain view of human freedom and autonomy, he is compelled to deny important features of the biblical doctrine of God, specifically God's sovereign dominion over all things and exhaustive knowledge of the future.

Contrary to Boyd’s claim, Calvinists who seek to be biblical in their thinking do not deny the importance of human responsibility. They freely acknowledge that God’s image-bearers always have the freedom to do what they are pleased to do. Human beings are always answerable to the Triune God for what they choose to do.3 We are not robots or puppets at the end of the divine string of God's counsel. Howeyer, our freedom does not compete with God's sovereignty. God need not decrease that we might increase. Rather, our freedom is found within the outworking of God’s counsel. However diffirult itmight~to a:mprehend, Calvinists embrace God’s sovereignty and human responsibility, while recognizing that their inter-relationship cannot be fully comprehended or explained. They do so, however, without jettisoning what is crudally important: the transcendent greatness and glory of the Triune God who knows and works all things according to His sovereign counsel and purpose.

(To be continued)

Footnotes

1. Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 3.

2. This point can be illustrated by a trivial example: If I were to take a friend to a restaurant whose menu listed a number of entrees. I could fairly well predict that he would not select one that was undesirable to him. In fact, I have a friend who hates pizza with a passion. Though free in the sense that he may determine what he wishes to order (no one makes this choice for him). it is certain that he will not order pizza when given the choice. He has no taste for it: Similarly, sinners whose hearts are at enmity with God, who do not understand or seek God (Rom. 3), will freely and willingly (and certainly) choose against Him—unless, of course, God grant them a new heart.

3. It should be noted that this is the basic idea of the term “responsibility”: we are able and obliged to respond or answer to God for what we do. No biblical Calvinist seeks to deny this simple truth.

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

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