Continually Sharpening

A theological blog by Janelle Zeeb

Open Theism and Bible Prophecy

I came across a book chapter titled "Open Theism in the Hands of an Angry Puritan: Jonathan Edwards on Divine Foreknowledge" by C. Samuel Storms.1 Storms tries to use Jonathan Edwards' arguments about God's foreknowledge to refute Open Theism.

Since I wrote my MTS thesis on Open Theism, and I am now studying Edwards, this is something that caught my attention.

Storms argues that God needs perfect foreknowledge of the future in order for God to fulfill Biblical prophecy, and therefore, Open Theism can't possibly be true.

However, in this post I will argue that Storms is mistaken, and also that the Open Theist approach to Bible prophecy actually glorifies God's omnipotence more than if God had perfect foreknowledge.

A Short Introduction to Open Theism

Open Theism is the view that God does not have absolutely perfect foreknowledge of the future.

Open Theists say this is because it is impossible for anyone (including God) to foreknow the outcome of a genuinely free choice.

This is because Open Theists say that if God perfectly foreknows how I will behave, then even if to me it appears that I could act in a variety of ways, this is only an illusion, for I actually must act exactly in the way that God foreknows I will act. I cannot do anything else, or it would mean God's foreknowledge was wrong. So for a choice to be genuinely free, it cannot be perfectly foreknown by God.

And our choices must be genuinely free, in order for people to be morally responsible for them, and praised or blamed accordingly.

(Arminians would disagree with this argument, but both Open Theists and Divine Determinists like Storms and Edwards agree with the above claims.)

Sometimes Open Theism is portrayed as saying God has absolutely no idea about the future. But this is false. God knows the purposes he intends to achieve, and his final goals for history.

Open Theists can say that God has perfect knowledge of everything as it is in the present, including things that humans are unaware of, and so God can make much more accurate predictions than humans can. Plus, God can perfectly predict all the things that do not depend on free choice, such as things subject to the laws of physics.

Also, God is the most intelligent being there is, who knows the intimate details of our inner hearts and minds, and thus, God has a very good idea about what we may be most likely to do.2 For example, He might know I'm 20% likely to have soup for dinner, but 80% likely to have spaghetti instead. Or 10% likely to cheat on a test, but 90% likely to not cheat.

So Open Theists can say that just because humans aren't all that good at accurately predicting the future doesn't mean God is not very good at doing so, even if there is the potential for God to be 'surprised'.

This doesn't mean God is 'surprised' in the sense that something happens that God was entirely unprepared for. Instead it just means that something happens that God thought was less likely to happen, but which was still known to be a possibility by God.

So that's a brief introduction into the main points of Open Theism.

Excursus on Foreknowledge

The main question in this post is whether God needs perfect foreknowledge in order to fulfill his goals and promises for how the future will turn out.

Although, this claim that God needs foreknowledge to know what people will do so that He can direct the future accordingly is actually kind of bizarre. Since, if God already knows how things will turn out, then it seems that even God is powerless to change the future that He foreknows will happen, and so foreknowledge does not give Him any extra control over things.

God would at least need middle knowledge - the knowledge of what someone would do in any particular situation - so that He can know how or when to intervene in human history in order to achieve His desired outcome.

But the philosophical basis of middle knowledge is doubtful. For if people actually could choose to act in many different ways, then how does God know what they certainly would choose in any situation, apart from foreknowledge? So middle knowledge doesn't actually answer any questions about how it's possible for God to foreknow a free choice.

Middle knowledge is also deterministic, because it implies that God can place a person in a specific situation and then that person must act in the way God's middle knowledge knows they will, and so that person genuinely could not do otherwise (or it would invalidate God's middle knowledge). This view turns people into pawns who God manipulates by controlling which situations people are placed into, and so middle knowledge is not really much different from Divine Determinism.

But according to Divine Determinists, God doesn't need foreknowledge or middle knowledge at all, because God can just make people 'freely' do what God wants them to do, because freedom and determinism are 'compatible', they say. So it's strange why Storms, a Divine Determinist, is arguing for God's foreknowledge, which is unnecessary in Divine Determinism.

It seems he's only trying to prove God's foreknowledge (by appealing to Biblical prophecy) in order to disprove Open Theism. But, if Open Theism could explain Biblical prophecies in a way that does not require God to have perfect foreknowledge, then there is no need to keep believing that God has perfect foreknowledge, and Storms' attempt to refute Open Theism is also refuted.

Storms' Arguments Against Open Theism

Storms says Edwards believes that for God to make prophecies about what will happen in the future, God needs perfect foreknowledge of that future. And thus, all 'free' choices that humans make which contribute to that future must also be perfectly foreknown by God.3

Storms writes "if God cannot foreknow the future volitions of moral agents, 'then neither can he certainly know those events which are consequent and dependent on these volitions'".4

For example, Storms compares free choices to a table of billiard balls, where one hits another, which then hits another, which then hits another, and on and on. He claims "If God does not foreknow the first cue ball (or human choice/deed as the case may be) on which all its subsequent effects depend, he cannot know the latter or the subsequent effects they each cause."5

And thus,

"If God does not have [perfect foreknowledge], not only is his ignorance incalculable, but there is no possibility that God could ever predict or prophesy any volition or event or deed in the vast web of interrelated causes and effects represented by the multitude of interactive billiard balls. Neither could he even foreknow what he himself intends to do, given the fact that what he does (not to mention when and how) is itself dependent on and only possible within the historical framework created by the incalculable web of human decision making, the latter of which open theists insist he cannot know."6

Basically, if I make a free choice, which then affects someone else's free choice, which then affects even more people's free choices, Storms claims that for God to know the outcome of this series of choices God would need to perfectly foreknow the future. God could not simply predict the outcome of each free choice because Storms seems to think that would be too hard, even for an omniscient God.

Storms lists several examples used by Edwards to demonstrate that God does have perfect foreknowledge of future free choices, such the moral behavior of Ahab (1 Kings 22:20-22), Hazael (2 Kings 8:12-13), and Cyrus (Isa. 44:28; 45:13; Ezra 1:1-4). Also, he notes that the Bible predicts, by name, how Josiah will act (1 Kings 13:2), 300 years in the future.

Storms claims God could not have foreknown this last fact unless he also foreknew the choices of all Josiah's ancestors and everyone else in Israel who lived before Josiah did. God would also need to foreknow that Josiah would live long enough to fulfill what God prophesied of him, and that Josiah would have the moral character to act how he was prophesied to act.7

Another example is how God's prophecies of invasion of Israel by specific foreign kings depended on Israel's moral decisions (as well as the decisions of those foreign kings), but these decisions would not be properly punishable unless they were freely made.8

Storms' argument amounts to repeating this same argument over and over, each time, bringing up a fairly detailed prophecy about specific people's actions in the future, and claiming the only way God could prophesy this accurately is to perfectly foreknow the morally-significant (and thus free) choices of human individuals.

He claims that God's foreknowledge of the future is the only thing that makes God distinguishable from false idols (Isaiah 44:7-8).9 (Although it should be noted that Open Theists say this verse means God can bring about the things that he declared he would do ahead of time, unlike idols, and so this verse is not about foreknowledge at all.)

Open Theists and Prophecy

Now, Open Theists are not unaware of the issues that divine prophecy raises for Open Theism. Storms himself is aware of how Open Theists John Saunders and Gregory Boyd deal with Bible prophecy.

Saunders writes: "God can predict the future as something he intends to do regardless of human response, or God may utter a conditional statement that is dependent on human response, or God may give a forecast of what he thinks will occur based on his exhaustive knowledge of past and present factors."10

And Boyd says God can limit the freedom of individuals in particular ways that are not morally relevant, such as limiting the freedom of parents in naming their children (as in the cases of Josiah and Cyrus).11

Boyd points out that many prophecies are conditional either implicitly or explicitly, and also that it is much easier to predict the actions of a large group of people than the actions of specific individuals (as even humans do this through statistics).12

Another Open Theist, Clark Pinnock, explains that if we look carefully, most prophecy is explained by either "God's predicting – on the basis of what he knows – what is going to happen, or by God's announcing ahead of time what he plans to do in such and such a circumstance or by some combination of these two factors. Prophecy is after all profoundly conditional and oriented to our response to God."13

For example, God's prophesied destruction of Nineveh did not happen because the people repented (Jonah 3:4, 3:10).

Pinnock points out that some prophecies were not fulfilled exactly as predicted, and others were fulfilled in unexpected ways. He says long-range prophecies like those in the books of Daniel and Revelation are vague in detail,14 and so God could fulfill them in a number of ways. Elsewhere Pinnock suggests that some prophecies in Daniel are a result of later editing based on events during the Maccabean revolt.15

Flaws With Open Theism and Prophecy

However, I agree with Storms that some of these statements above by Open Theists are unacceptable.

For example, anyone who believes in the divine inspiration of scripture will not approve of Pinnock's claim that the later chapters of Daniel are written after these events happened and were only written to seem like fulfilled prophecy.

Open Theists also tend to ignore the book of Revelation, or as seen above, claim that it is vague. As someone who is also interested in a pre-millennial, futurist interpretation of the book of Revelation, I am not satisfied with any claims that say Revelation was fulfilled during the 70 A.D. Roman invasion of Jerusalem, or that John was writing about past events such as the persecution of Christians by Nero. And the prophecies in Revelation are certainly not "vague", even if they are described symbolically.

While I agree that a large number of prophecies could fall within the categories outlined by Open Theists above (e.g. things God plans to bring about in some way or another, conditional prophecies, or predictions of large groups of people's behavior), it is true that Open Theists have not convincingly explained the very detailed prophecies that Storms brings up, where people's seemingly free, moral choices are predicted by God many years ahead of time.

There are also potential issues with how Open Theists deal with some of the prophecies about negative moral behavior. For example, I have not yet read a convincing Open Theist approach to how God is able to prophesy Judas’ betrayal of Jesus, or Peter’s three denials of Jesus before dawn or even the crucifixion of Jesus on the exact right date of Passover.

We cannot say that God caused Judas to betray Jesus, or made Peter deny Christ in order to fulfill prophecy,16 or we would be taking away Judas’s and Peter’s personal responsibility for their behavior, and making God responsible for evil.

And while God could have known that Judas was considering betraying Jesus, Open Theists cannot say that God perfectly knew that Judas would actually go through with it. If Judas had freely chosen not to betray Jesus, then God would have needed some other way for Jesus to be delivered to the Sanhedrin.17

Even if God knew that at that particular moment in time, Peter had the sort of character which made him likely to deny Jesus if he were pressured,18 it would have required God to coordinate all the circumstances that Peter was in that night in order to make sure he was asked by the right people at the right times to make it all happen. And what if Peter freely decided to go home and sleep after the first denial?

A similar level of complicated divine coordination of people’s evil actions would have been needed to ensure that Jesus would be crucified on the exact right date, not a week earlier or a few days later, in order to fulfill the Passover foreshadowing from the Old Testament.

Therefore, I hope to study Open Theism and Bible prophecy in more detail, because I think it's something that needs to be improved.

Flaws with Storms' Claims

However, I disagree with Storms when he claims that the ONLY way God could fulfill these specific prophecies is if God has perfect foreknowledge of the future.

As someone who understands Open Theism, I want to offer an Open Theist rebuttal to Storms' argument above.

I believe that Storms has made the mistake of allowing his metaphor (the billiard balls) to weigh too heavily on his assumptions about how God must operate in history. Although he says his metaphor "is not to suggest that the universe is an impersonal and mechanistic cause-and-effect world",19 it seems this is exactly the model he pictures when discussing the chain of events that lead to the particular prophecies.

It seems that in each prophecy he mentions, Storms assumes that the only inputs into the future state of affairs prophesied by God are human actions. And even those, he seems to imply, are directly caused by the choices of others.

But, unlike billiard balls, people's choices are not directly caused by the choices of others. We may be influenced by others, but, having free will means that we have choice over how we act. So to update Storms' model, each billiard ball would have to have some sort of internal motor and wheels and AI programming that allow it to control itself, to some extent, even though it is hit by other balls.

Additionally, and most critically, Storms is ignoring God's influence on the billiard balls.

To say that God only sets the initial conditions of the universe and the rest plays out predictably in a chain of cause-and-effect would be to give into a Deistic worldview. But Deism is what Edwards was specifically attempting to refute! Therefore, any non-Deistic version of Christianity needs to leave room for God to influence people and events.

Some Open Theist Possibilities for Biblical Prophecy

Open Theists emphasize God's flexibility, wisdom, and ability to interact with his creatures in many ways, in order to achieve His desired outcomes without perfect foreknowledge. For example, Gregory Boyd writes:

"I am told that the average novice chess player can think ahead three or four possible moves. If I do A, for example, my opponent may do B, C, or D. I could then do E, F, or G, to which he may respond with H, I, or J…. Now consider that God’s perfect knowledge would allow him to anticipate every possible move and every possible combination of moves, together with every possible response he might make to each of them, for every possible agent throughout history. And he would be able to do this from eternity past".20

So God's unlimited intelligence means God has many ways of making sure that all the right pieces come together to fulfill His prophecies.

As an example of this, let's look at the Nativity story. It is full of instances where God is able to influence people to achieve his desired outcome and fulfill many prophecies, yet in ways that do not override people's free will.

God sends Joseph a dream that convinces him it is ok to go ahead and marry Mary (Matt. 1:20). He also sends another dream to tell Joseph to flee into Egypt to save Jesus' life (Matt. 2:13), and again when it's ok to come back home (Matt. 2:19), and even where to live (Matt. 2:22). God sends another dream to the wise men to return home without stopping back to see Herod (Matt. 2:12). So dreams are one way God can influence people without overriding their free will.

Also, an angel shows up to Zechariah in the temple and persuades him to name his son John, as God desires (Luke 1:13). God sends an angel to Mary and instructs her to name her baby Jesus (Luke 1:31). These two examples prove that it's not hard for God to convince people to name their children something specific, if a prophecy requires it.

So the examples of God prophesying Josiah's and Cyrus's names are really not too difficult, and contra Boyd, does not require God to 'constrain' their parents' freedom (although Boyd is correct that even if God had to do so to fulfill a prophecy, naming a child is a morally-neutral action). Perhaps God sent a dream to Cyrus' parents, saying that their son would be blessed and become great if they name him Cyrus? In a religious culture that took dreams seriously, this would be quite convincing.

Then, God could have helped Cyrus and Josiah rise to power, and kept them both healthy and protected them from accidents or attacks, to ensure they would live long enough to do what God prophesied.

I think God could perhaps go even further, so that if God absolutely requires extremely particular actions by specific individuals which can only be done by them, then God can override free will. If God wants someone to do a morally-neutral or good action, God could theoretically force them to do it.

For example, Stanislav Petrov is called "the man who single-handedly saved the world from nuclear war" for his decision regarding whether a nuclear missile alert was true or false. This choice was extremely important for the direction of the world's future, and thus, for the fulfillment of future Biblical prophecies. So if God had to override Petrov's free will temporarily in order to make him make the right choice, we (and Petrov) should all be very grateful for that intervention.

But, God could not override anyone's free will to force them to believe the gospel to be saved, or force them to do evil. Doing these things would undermine God's own desires for the world.

If God needs an evil action to occur (say, Judas' betrayal of Jesus), God could choose to withdraw the influence of the Holy Spirit, thus increasing the likelihood of sin (given that other factors remain the same - human sinful tendencies and spiritual warfare). Although the individual would still be held responsible for their choice, for I don't believe any of these influences are ever so strong that a person must sin (or they couldn't be held morally responsible for it).

Anyways, those are just some of my ideas. But the point is that God has many ways of influencing people to do what God needs them to do to fulfill prophecy, even though Scripture doesn't record all the insider details of how God did this for every prophecy.

Conclusion

Therefore, what really matters for God's prophecies to be fulfilled is not perfect foreknowledge, but omniscience (perfect knowledge of the present) and omnipotence (the ability for God to achieve his plans and purposes, and to have the future turn out the way he promised it would).21

How God fulfills prophecy in an Open Theist paradigm would involve a combination of factors, such as:

  • God's perfect knowledge of the present state of the world.
  • God's perfect knowledge of people's thoughts, desires, and motives.
  • God's ability to perfectly predict events that don't depend on free choices.
  • God's ability to miraculously intervene in events that don't depend on free choices.
  • God's knowledge of how people would likely respond to particular influences or events.
  • God's knowledge of the most persuasive ways to influence individuals.
  • God's power to allow or restrain evil.
  • God's power to limit creaturely freedom if necessary (but only in particular ways).

Thus, I think Storms is actually the one who is underestimating God's omnipotence, for he seems to think that the fulfillment of Bible prophecy would be impossible, even for God, without perfect foreknowledge.

In contrast, Open Theists trust that God's wisdom and omnipotence allow God to achieve his prophesied outcomes, even without foreknowledge.

It doesn't take any wisdom or skill to simply foresee the future. But it does take a lot of wisdom and skill to achieve goals despite human free will and demonic opposition.

So God's fulfillment of prophecy is actually more praiseworthy in Open Theism than in Arminianism or Divine Determinism. Open Theism, rather than diminishing God's omnipotence, elevates it, trusting that God has ways to do all that He has promised.

Footnotes:

  • 1. C. Samuel Storms, "Open Theism in the Hands of an Angry Puritan: Jonathan Edwards on Divine Foreknowledge," in The Legacy of Jonathan Edwards, eds. D.G. Hart, Sean Michael Lucas, Stephen J. Nichols (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic,2003), 114-130.
  • 2. Richard Rice, Suffering and the Search for Meaning: Contemporary Responses to the Problem of Pain (Downers Grove, IL: Inter Varsity Press, 2014), 93.
  • 3. Storms, 118.
  • 4. Storms, 118.
  • 5. Storms, 119.
  • 6. Storms, 119.
  • 7. Storms, 120-121.
  • 8. Storms, 122.
  • 9. Storms, 124.
  • 10. Storms, 121, referring to John Sanders, The God Who Risks: A Theology of Divine Providence (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1998), 136.
  • 11. Storms, 122, referring to Gregory A. Boyd, God of the Possible: A Biblical Introduction to the Open View of God (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2000), 34.
  • 12. Boyd, God of the Possible, 45-46.
  • 13. Clark H. Pinnock, “Clark Pinnock’s Response,” in Predestination & Free Will: Four Views of Divine Sovereignty & Human Freedom, eds. David Basinger and Randall Basinger (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1986), 139.
  • 14. Clark H. Pinnock, Most Moved Mover: A Theology of God’s Openness (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2001), 51.
  • 15.Clark H. Pinnock with Barry L. Callen, The Scripture Principle: Reclaiming the Full Authority of the Bible, Second Ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2006), 144.
  • 16. Boyd, God of the Possible, 34
  • 17. Gregory A. Boyd, Is God to Blame?: Moving beyond Pat Answers to the Problem of Evil (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003), 192.
  • 18. Boyd, God of the Possible, 35; Bruce A. Ware, God’s Lesser Glory: The Diminished God of Open Theism (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2000), 69.
  • 19. Storms, 119.
  • 20. Boyd, God of the Possible, 127.
  • 21. Pinnock says we should "rely on God’s faithfulness and resourcefulness to work things out and not on a divine crystal ball. We have to trust God and not an abstract omniscience as our guarantee". Pinnock, Most Moved Mover, 52.