God of the Possible: A Biblical Introduction to the Open View of Godby Gregory A. Boyd
Through an examination of relevant biblical passages, this theologian-pastor presents an alternative "open view" to the classical doctrine on God's foreknowledge of the future.See more details below
Through an examination of relevant biblical passages, this theologian-pastor presents an alternative "open view" to the classical doctrine on God's foreknowledge of the future.
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The Classical View of Divine Foreknowledge
As mentioned in the introduction, two motifs in Scripture pertain to the nature of the future and thus to the content of God's foreknowledge. The first expresses and celebrates God's sovereign control and foreknowledge of the future. The second expresses and celebrates an open aspect of the future and God's willingness to adapt to it. The classical view of divine foreknowledge is founded on the conviction that only the first motif describes God as he really is. The second motif is considered nonliteral in this view. In contrast, the open view is founded on the conviction that both motifs describe God as he really is.
In this chapter, I present an overview of the first motif and critique its application in the classical view of foreknowledge. In the next chapter, I present an overview of the second motif and show why open theists believe it requires the rejection of the classical view of foreknowledge.
Foreknowledge and Classical Theism
The Unchanging God
Before discussing the motif of future determinism in Scripture, it may prove helpful to place the classical view of divine foreknowledge in a broader theological context. The classical view of divine foreknowledge comes from what is generally called "the classical view of God." Most theologians since the time of Augustine (fourth to fifth century) have espoused this view in one form or another.
According to classical theology, God is unchanging in everyrespect. Not only his character, but also his will, his knowledge, and his experience never vary. They are what they are from all eternity. If this is so, then of course God's knowledge of the future must be unchanging. It can never come into being, nor can it ever be adjusted. It is eternally the same. It is forever settled as a "this" and "not that." There can be no "maybe" in God's knowledge, a "possibly this" or a "possibly that." Hence, whatever takes place in history, from events of great significance to the buzzing of a particular fly, must take place exactly as God eternally foreknew it would take place. The future is exhaustively settled and eternally known by God as such.
Two Versions of the Classical Understanding of Foreknowledge
Classical theologians do not agree on how the future is eternally settled, however. Some 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?
Many followers of Augustine and Calvin maintain that since God alone exists eternally, the eternal settledness of the future could only come from him. Followers of Arminius usually admit that the cause of God's eternal foreknowledge is a mystery, but insist that unless we accept this mystery we cannot avoid the dreadful conclusion that God is ultimately responsible for everything that transpires in history, including evil.
In any event, both schools of thought agree that the future is eternally settled and that God eternally knows it as such. This constitutes the heart of the classical view of divine foreknowledge as well as the crucial point that separates the classical view from the open view.
A Third Option
Open theists agree with some followers of Augustine and Calvin that future events cannot cause God to know them. We agree that if God foreknows a future event, it must either be because he determined it or because it is an inevitable effect of past or present causes. However, we also agree with the followers of Arminius that if all future events are determined by God, then he must be ultimately responsible for everything about the future, including evil. Where we disagree with both views is that we deny that Scripture teaches that the future is exhaustively settled. We hold that God determines (and thus foreknows as settled) some, but not all, of the future.
For all who believe in the infallible authority of Scripture, the issue must be settled by a comprehensive investigation of God's Word. While some (including myself) argue that the development of the classical view of God was decisively influenced by pagan philosophy, classical theologians have always maintained that it is deeply rooted in Scripture. This chapter will investigate this claim as it pertains to the classical view of foreknowledge.
Since it is important to fully understand and appreciate the strengths of a position before we critique it, our first objective will be to examine those passages that most strongly support the classical position. Following this, I will reexamine this material, asking whether it actually proves that the future is exhaustively settled.
As mentioned earlier, I am not yet attempting to prove that Scripture actually exhibits a partly open view of the futurethat is the task of the next chapter. For now, I am simply attempting to show that the biblical material used to support the view that the future is exhaustively settled doesn't, in fact, prove this point. I will argue that it only proves that some of the future is settled. If so, there is room beside the motif of future determinism to incorporate the motif of future openness, which will be examined in the next chapter.
The Biblical Foundation of the Classical Position
The Sovereign Lord of History
Undoubtedly the strongest statements in all of Scripture regarding the foreknowledge of God come from Isaiah. Here the Lord repeatedly demonstrates that he is the Lord of history and distinct from the idols many Jews were tempted to follow by showing that he can do what none of them can donamely, declare the future. Hence, in Isaiah 46:9-10, the Lord declares:
I am God, and there is no other;
I am God, and there is no one like me,
declaring the end from the beginning
and from ancient times things not yet done.
Even more emphatic is Isaiah 48:3-5:
The former things I declared long ago,
they went out from my mouth and I made them
then suddenly I did them and they came to pass.
Because I know that you are obstinate,
and your neck is an iron sinew
and your forehead brass,
I declared them to you from long ago,
before they came to pass I announced them to you,
so that you would not say, "My idol did them,
my carved image and my cast image commanded
Defenders of the classical view of foreknowledge argue that these verses show that God is certain of all that is to come. They argue that if God can declare "the end from the beginning," what could possibly be uncertain to him?
Examples of God predicting future events throughout Scripture are interpreted as confirmations of the classical view of God's foreknowledge. For our present purposes, these can be broken down into five categories.
Foreknowledge of the Chosen People
First, God exhibits a remarkable knowledge about the future of his chosen people. For example, the Lord told Abraham that his offspring would be slaves in Egypt "for four hundred years," but afterward would "come out with great possessions" (Gen. 15:13-14). Similarly, when Israel was in captivity, the Lord promised them that after seventy years, "I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place [Jerusalem]. For surely I know the plans I have for you ... plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope" (Jer. 29:10-11).
Foreknowledge of Individuals
Second, a number of times the Lord demonstrates foreknowledge of particular individuals and various events in their lives. Twice in Scripture the Lord names individuals before they are born and provides some detail about their lives. Josiah was to tear down the pagan altars and destroy the pagan priesthood that plagued Israel (1 Kings 13:2-3; see 2 Kings 22:1; 23:15-16), while Cyrus was to help rebuild Jerusalem (Isa. 44:28).
In a similar fashion, Jesus tells Peter ahead of time that he would deny him three times before the next morning (Matt. 26:34). Jesus also foretells Judas's betrayal of him (John 6:64, 70-71; 13:18-19; 17:12) and the fact that Peter would die a martyr's death (John 21:18-19). Just as impressively, David suggests that the exact length of his life was known by God before he was born. "In your book were written all the days that were formed for me," he writes, "when none of them as yet existed" (Ps. 139:16). Similarly, the Lord appointed Jeremiah to be "a prophet to the nations" when he was still in the womb (Jer. 1:5) and set Paul apart before he was born (Gal. 1:15-16). Defenders of the classical view of foreknowledge consider this evidence that God foreknows everything that every individual will do before he or she is born.
Finally, under this category, we should mention that a number of times the Lord prophesies that certain things were going to happen to various nations or cities. Often these prophecies involved the activity of particular individuals. For example, God foretells the succession of four kingdoms through Nebuchadnezzar's dream (Dan. 2:31-45). Most impressively, the Lord prophesies a number of details about the fate of Tyre (Ezek. 26:7-21). The fulfillment of this prophecy involved to a great extent the activity of one ruler, Alexander the Great, centuries after it was given. To defenders of the classical view of foreknowledge, this implies that God foreknew exactly what Alexander would choose to do centuries before he did it. And if this much can be foreknown as settled by God, they conclude, we have no reason to deny that every detail about the future is settled in God's mind.
Foreknowledge of Christ's Ministry
Third, many passages of Scripture make it clear that God foreknew and foreordained aspects of Christ's ministry, especially his death. Indeed, Scripture tells us that "[Christ] was destined before the foundation of the world" (1 Peter 1:20). The Old Testament contains many passages that anticipate his coming. For example, in Zechariah the Lord says that the Jews would someday "look on the one whom they have pierced [and] ... mourn for him" (12:10), an apparent reference to Christ's crucifixioncenturies before crucifixion had been invented as a form of execution. Similarly, in Isaiah we read that the suffering servant would die "with the wicked" though he would be buried "with the rich" (53:9). Jesus, of course, was crucified as a common criminal but was buried in the tomb of the wealthy Joseph of Arimathea (Matt. 27:57-60).
Jesus also foretold what would happen to him several times throughout his own ministry. He would suffer "at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised" (Matt. 16:21; see also 20:17-19). When this actually happened, Scripture says it was "according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God" (Acts 2:23; 4:28). Defenders of the classical view take this as confirmation that all of the future is foreknown by God as settled.
Foreknowledge of the Elect
Fourth, defenders of the classical view of foreknowledge argue that Scripture demonstrates that God foreknows, if not predestines, who his "elect" will be. Paul teaches us that "those whom [God] foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son" (Rom. 8:29). In Ephesians, he tells believers that "[God] chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love" (1:4). We were given grace "in Christ Jesus before the ages began" (2 Tim. 1:9). Defenders of the classical view argue that if we were "chosen" and "given grace" before the world began, God must have foreknown (if not foreordained) that we would believe before the world began as well.
Foreknowledge of End Times
The final category of passages that are relevant to the issue of God's foreknowledge are prophecies about the end times. In several instances, scriptural authors seem to make predictions about things that will take place at the end of history.
For example, Paul says that " ... in later times some will renounce the faith by paying attention to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons" (1 Tim. 4:1). Among other things, these people "forbid marriage and demand abstinence from foods" (1 Tim. 4:3). He also informs his readers at Thessalonica that before the final day, a great "rebellion" would come and a certain "lawless one" would "[exalt] himself above every so-called god or object of worship" and would "[take] his seat in the temple of God, declaring himself to be God" (2 Thess. 2:3-4).
Finally, we should mention the Book of Revelation, since in the mind of many contemporary readers this book is about events that will occur at the very end of history. Some defenders of classical foreknowledge consider this further confirmation of the exhaustive settledness of the future.
A Reexamination of the Case for the Classical View
At first glance, the case for the classical view of divine foreknowledge seems impressive. Indeed, the reader at this point may be wondering how any believer in their right mind could deny it. I understand the sentimentI was once there myselfbut I encourage you to keep an open mind until all the evidence is in. Whenever we are used to hearing only one side of a story, it is easy to read our beliefs into the evidence rather than allowing all the evidence to speak for itself. If we truly want to hold beliefs that are determined by the Word of God and not simply by what we're used to believing, we must take care to examine all of Scripture and to consider objectively perspectives that may differ from the one we're used to.
In the remainder of this chapter, I will offer the reader explanations of the verses we just examined from a different perspectivethe open perspective. I will show that while they celebrate God's sovereign control over the future, they do not teach that the future is exhaustively settled.
Declaring His Intentions
Let's begin with the most explicit and compelling verses in the Bible pertaining to God's foreknowledge: Isaiah 46 and 48. As we saw, Isaiah 46:9-10 tells us that God "[declares] the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done." Does this imply that everything about the future is settled in God's mind? When the verse is read in context, I believe the answer is no.
Immediately after telling us that he declares "from ancient times things not yet done," the Lord adds, "My purpose shall stand, and I will fulfill my intention" (Isa. 46:10b). The Lord is not appealing to information about the future he happens to possess; instead, he is appealing to his own intentions about the future. He foreknows that certain things are going to take place because he knows his own purpose and intention to bring these events about. As sovereign Lord of history, he has decided to settle this much about the future.
The point is even more emphatic in the next sentence: "I have spoken, and I will bring it to pass; I have planned, and I will do it" (Isa. 46:11). The Lord's announcement that he declares "the end from the beginning" must be understood in the light of this specification. He tells us that he is talking about his own will and his own plans. He declares that the future is settled to the extent that he is going to determine it, but nothing in the text requires that we believe that everything that will ever come to pass will do so according to his will and thus is settled ahead of time. Indeed, if everything came to pass according to his will, one wonders why God has to try to overcome the obstinacy of the Israelites with these assertions about particular future intentions. Wouldn't the Israelites' obstinancy itself be controlled by God?
The same holds true for Isaiah 48:3-5. The Lord says, "The former things I declared long ago ... then suddenly I did them." The Lord did this because he did not want the Israelites saying, "My idol did them" (48:5). In other words, as a supernatural means of confronting the lie that idols have power to bring about events, Yahweh announced and then manifested his sovereign ability to bring about events.
Again, this is not simply a matter of the Lord possessing information about what was going to take place. It was rather a matter of the Lord determining what was going to take place and telling his children ahead of time. The verse doesn't support the view that the future is exhaustively settled in reality, and thus exhaustively settled in God's mind.
Openness and Process Thought
Passages such as these beautifully demonstrate that the future is settled to whatever extent the sovereign Creator decides to settle it. God is not at the mercy of chance or free will. This understanding of divine sovereignty contrasts sharply with a popular liberal theological movement called "process theology." Some evangelical authors have wrongly accused open theists of being close to process thought, but in truth the two views have little in common.
Process thought holds that God can't predetermine or foreknow with certainty anything about the distant future. Open theists rather maintain that God can and does predetermine and foreknow whatever he wants to about the future. Indeed, God is so confident in his sovereignty, we hold, he does not need to micromanage everything. He could if he wanted to, but this would demean his sovereignty. So he chooses to leave some of the future open to possibilities, allowing them to be resolved by the decisions of free agents. It takes a greater God to steer a world populated with free agents than it does to steer a world of preprogrammed automatons.
A Partly Open and Partly Settled Future
The notion that some of the future is open while some of it is settled seems contradictory to some people. I suspect this is because they are used to thinking in all-or-nothing categories about the futureeither the future is totally open or totally settled. Since they are certain from the Word of God that it cannot be totally open, they conclude that it must be totally settled. This all-or-nothing way of thinking about the future is misguided. Far from being contradictory, or even just unusual, the view that the future is partly open and partly settled is the view we all assume unconsciously every time we make a decision.
For example, I am at the present time deliberating about whether or not I should travel to San Diego next month. In deliberating about this matter, I assume that it is up to me to decide when, where, and how I will travel. How could I honestly deliberate about this decision if I didn't believe this? But notice, I also assume that much of the future is already settled and not up to me to decide. To deliberate about whether I should travel to San Diego or not, I have to assume that (among many other things) San Diego will exist next month, that the laws of physics will operate as they do today, and that I will be basically the same person then as I am now. I cannot deliberate about issues that are up to me to decide without presupposing the settledness of many other issues that are not up to me to decide.
This example illustrates that we cannot consider choices without presupposing that the future is partly open and partly settledthe very position that the open view advocates. If we believed that all of the future was open, we could not decide between options. If we believed that none of the future was open, we could not decide between options. Hence, the fact that we obviously do decide between options suggests that at some level we all assume that the future is partly open and partly closed.
The open view simply recognizes this commonsense feature of life and says that it more or less reflects the way things really are. Far from being contradictory, it's the only view that fits with our experience and the Bible's admonitions for us to make godly choices about the future.
Settled Aspects of the Future
Foreknowledge of Israel's Future
Once we understand that the future consists of both open and settled aspects, there is little difficulty understanding how God can foreknow as settled some things about the future without assuming that the future is entirely settled.
To cite just a few examples, let us grant that for wise reasons God decided to have his chosen people remain in captivity "for four hundred years" (Gen. 15:13-15) in one instance and for "seventy years" in another (Jer. 29:10). Would God have to control and/or foreknow every future decision to ensure this? There is no reason to think that he would.
Consider that none of us chooses where, to whom, or in what socioeconomic class we are born. These matters are decided for us. Yet each of us has a wide range of choices to make within the parameters of these determinations. None of us can choose our mother, for example, but most of us can choose our spouse. Even if we are in a culture where we aren't allowed to choose our spouse, we can choose how we will treat him or her.
We always have choices within parameters of things we do not choose. Lock me up in prison and take away every external freedom I have, and I still have a world of choices available to me. Will I love God or not? How will I respond to the temptation to hate, to lust, to despair? Will I pray or not? How will I respond to the harsh treatment of the guards, the spiritual attacks of demons, and the physical discomforts of the prison? How will I respond to the prompting of the Holy Spirit to act and think in godly ways?
Since freedom is always restricted in certain ways, there's no reason to assume that God would have to control or foreknow all the future decisions people would make in order to prophesy that the Jews would be in captivity for a particular period of time. This is simply a matter of the Lord defining the parameters within which human freedom will Occur.
Many prophecies pertaining to individuals can also be understood as examples of the Lord establishing particular parameters ahead of time. The two most impressive examples of this are Josiah and Cyrus. As a supernatural sign to his people, God named Josiah ("the Lord strengthens") and Cyrus and declared their accomplishments before they were born. This decree obviously set strict parameters around the freedom of the parents in naming these individuals (see also Luke 1:11-23). It also restricted the scope of freedom these individuals could exercise as it pertained to particular foreordained activities. In other respects, however, these two individuals and their parents remained self-determining agents.
To conclude from these two examples that the names and activities of all people are settled from eternity is unwarranted. They certainly show that Yahweh is the sovereign Lord of history and can predetermine (and thus foreknow) whatever he pleases, but they do not justify the conclusion that he has settled the entire future ahead of time.
Foreknowing Predictable Characters
Sometimes we may understand the Lord's foreknowledge of a person's behavior simply by supposing that the person's character, combined with the Lord's perfect knowledge of all future variables, makes the person's future behavior certain. As we all know, character becomes more predictable over time. The longer we persist in a chosen path, the more that path becomes part of who we are. Hence, generally speaking, the range of viable options we are capable of choosing diminishes over time.
Our omniscient Creator knows us perfectly, far better than we even know ourselves. Hence, we can assume that he is able to predict our behavior far more extensively and accurately than we could predict it ourselves. This does not mean that everything we will ever do is predictable, for our present character doesn't determine all of our future. But it does mean that our behavior is predictable to the extent that our character is solidified and future circumstances that will affect us are in place.
Perhaps the most familiar example is when the Lord tells Peter he will deny him three times before morning (Matt. 26:33-35). Contrary to the assumption of many, we do not need to believe that the future is exhaustively settled to explain this prediction. We only need to believe that God the Father knew and revealed to Jesus one very predictable aspect of Peter's character. Anyone who knew Peter's character perfectly could have predicted that under certain highly pressured circumstances (that God could easily orchestrate), he would act just the way he did.
Some have thought that Peter's general bravado, and especially his act of cutting off the ear of the high priest's slave, reveals that his character was not cowardly (Matt. 26:51-52). On the contrary, exposing the superficiality of this bravado was one of the central points of this divinely orchestrated lesson. Peter had just made the typically proud claim to Jesus, "I will never desert you ... even though I must die" (26:33-34). Jesus told him of his denial at this point in order to set up the disclosure of just how deluded Peter was about both his own character and the character of the Messiah.
It's important to remember that Peter had always believed that the Messiah would be a military leader who would not suffer but rather would vanquish his enemies. Among Jews of the time, this was a common idea. This explains why Peter opposed Jesus' teaching about the need for his sacrificial suffering (see Matt. 16:21-23). It also explains why Peter appeared so courageous when the miracle-working Jesus was around but turned into a total coward after Jesus was arrested. His false dream of what Jesus was going to beand what he would be alongside himwas shattered.
God, of course, saw past Peter's false bravado and knew the effect Jesus' arrest would have on him. He lovingly used this knowledge to teach this important future pillar of the church an invaluable lesson about love and servant leadership. We do not know how much, if any, supernatural intervention was employed in God's orchestration of the events of that evening. But the outcome was just as he anticipated.
Three times Peter had his true character squeezed out of him so that, after the resurrection, he might three times have Christ's character squeezed into him. It is no coincidence that three times the resurrected Jesus asked Peter, "Do you love me?" telling him to feed his sheep after each refrain and concluding with a prophecy about how Peter would die a martyr's death, just as he had (John 21:15-19). Never again would Peter identify leadership with military victory. Leadership in the kingdom of God is about laying down one's life and feeding the Lord's sheep. It was a lesson Peter had to learnand liveif he was to be everything God knew he could be.
In any event, it seems evident that we do not need to believe that the future is exhaustively settled in God's mind to make sense of Jesus' prediction of Peter's denial. We need only believe that God possesses a perfect knowledge of the past and present and that he revealed some of it to Jesus.
Judas and the Betrayal of Jesus
I believe that Scripture makes the most sense when we understand Jesus' predictions about Judas's betrayal along similar lines (John 6:64, 70-71; 13:18-19; 17:12). Three things need to be said about Scripture's teachings regarding God's foreknowledge of Judas's betrayal.
First, Scripture says that Jesus knew "from the first" that Judas would betray him (John 6:64). This word (arche) does not imply that Jesus knew who would betray him from a time before the person decided in his heart to betray him (let alone from all eternity, as the classical view of foreknowledge requires). As in Philippians 4:15, the word can mean "early on." This verse thus suggests that Jesus knew who would betray him from the moment this person resolved to betray him, or from the time Jesus chose him to be a disciple.
Second, many assume that when Jesus referred to Judas as one who was "destined to be lost," he meant that Judas was damned from the beginning of time (John 17:12). However, the verse simply doesn't say this. The Greek translated as "destined to be lost" literally says "son of perdition," with no indication as to when Judas had become this. We only know that by the time Jesus said this, Judas had, of his own free will, made himself into a person fit for destruction.
Scripture elsewhere teaches us that a dreadful time may come when God discerns that it is useless to strive with a particular individual or a group of people any longer. At this point, he withdraws his Spirit from these people, hardens their hearts, and thus seals their destinies (e.g., Gen. 6:3; Rom. 1:24-27). When this occurs, the only remaining issue from God's perspective is how he might strategically weave the wicked character of these "sons of perdition" into his divine plan (see Rom. 9:22; Prov. 16:4). By virtue of his self-chosen wickedness, Judas had put himself in just this position. God was now weaving Judas's wickedness into his providential scheme by having him "fulfill" the Scripture about the Messiah being betrayed.
This leads directly to my third point. Jesus tells us that Judas fulfilled Scripture, not that Judas was the one who had to fulfill Scripture. We have every reason to suppose that earlier on Judas could have (and should have) chosen a different path for his life, but as a free moral agent, Judas tragically chose a path of self-interest and ultimately self-destruction. If he had made himself into a different kind of person, he would not have been a candidate for fulfilling the prophecy of the Lord's betrayal. In this case, the Lord simply would have found someone else to fill this role.
In my view, this is how we should understand the activity of all the individuals who played prophesied roles in the death of Jesuse.g., the soldier who pierced his side (John 19:34-37), the soldier who gave him vinegar (John 19:28-29), and the wealthy man who offered his tomb for Jesus' burial (Matt. 27:57-58; cf. Isa. 53:9). Each had acquired a certain kind of character that made him a candidate for the providential use to which the Lord put him. God does not orchestrate that good people carry out evil deeds. He simply specifies parameters around the way people act out the good or evil character they have already chosen for themselves.
In any event, we are far outrunning the evidence if we draw the conclusion from these episodes that everything about the future is eternally settled. While it may be difficult to imagine ourselves carrying out a providential plan so masterfully without a meticulous blueprint ahead of time, there is no reason to bring the Lord down to our level. If we grant that God is all-powerful and infinitely wise, we should have no trouble seeing how he could weave free agents into his plan while allowing them to resolve for themselves a partly open future.
Foreknown Life Plans
Our argument has been that the future is partly settled and partly open. The extent to which it is one way or another at any given moment is ultimately decided by God. How does this understanding square with those passages in Scripture that seem to suggest the course of a person's life is determined before they're born, as in the cases of Jeremiah (Jer. 1:5) and Paul (Gal. 1:15)? And how does it square with David's apparent teaching that all the days of his life were written in God's book before he was born (Ps. 139:16)?
Set Apart from the Womb
It is clear from these verses that God had a life plan for Jeremiah and Paul before they were born. This is evidence of exhaustively settled foreknowledge only if Jeremiah and Paul had no choice but to carry out God's plan. Why should we assume this, however? As Paul suggested to King Agrippa, he could have chosen to be "disobedient to the heavenly vision" by which he was called (Acts 26:19). This alone suggests that God's "call" on a person's life isn't a guarantee that the person will follow him.
Scripture is filled with examples of people who "rejected God's purpose for themselves" (Luke 7:30). In fact, every sin we have ever committed is an example of resisting God's purposes for our lives, for God doesn't intend us to sin. The same is true of every person who refuses to enter God's eternal kingdom, for God wants "all to come to repentance" and be saved (2 Peter 3:9). The reality of sin and damnation, in other words, demonstrates that God's purposes do not always come about.
Hence, the fact that God intended a course of action for Jeremiah and Paul didn't guarantee that it would come about. Jeremiah and Paul were still free agents, despite God's unique calling on their lives. We know about God's prenatal intentions for these individuals only because they, perhaps unlike others who were called, did not disobey this heavenly calling.
Our Days Recorded in God's Book
Is it true that "our days are numbered"? Does David's testimony that "In your book were written all the days that were formed for me" (Ps. 139:16) refute the open view of the future? I'd like to offer four brief considerations in response to this question.
First, even if this verse said that the exact length of our lives was settled before we were born, it wouldn't follow that everything about our future was settled before we were born, and certainly not that it was settled from all eternity. God can at some point predetermine and/or foreknow some things about the future without eternally predetermining and/or foreknowing everything about the future. We must be careful not to outrun what Scripture teaches.
Second, the fact that the literary form of this verse is poetry should strongly caution us against relying on it to settle doctrinal disputes. The point of this passage is to poetically express God's care for the psalmist from his conception, not to resolve metaphysical disputes regarding the nature of the future.
Third, the Hebrew in this passage is quite ambiguous. First, the word translated in the NRSV as "formed" (yatsar) can be interpreted in a strong sense of "determined" or in a weaker sense of "planned." Second, the subject matter of what was "formed" and written in the "book" before they existed is not supplied in the original Hebrew. It is thus not clear whether what was planned were the days of the psalmist's life or rather parts of the psalmist's body. The King James Version is an example of a translation that decided on the latter meaning. It reads, "Thine eyes did see my substance, yet being unperfect; and in thy book all my members were written, which in continuance were fashioned, when as yet there was none of them" (Ps. 139:16). Though this wording is a bit awkward, it has the advantage of being consistent with the rest of this psalm and especially with the immediate context of this verse. Psalm 139 is about God's moment-by-moment, intimate involvement in our lives. The verses immediately preceding verse 16 describe the formation of the psalmist's body in the womb. Indeed, the first stanza of verse 16, "Your eyes beheld my unformed substance," also concerns the intimate awareness the Lord has of the psalmist even before he's formed. An interpretation of this verse that continues this theme seems most appropriate, whereas one that inserts an unrelated reference to the psalmist's future seems out of place.
Finally, even if we choose to take the subject matter of what is "formed" and "written" in this verse to be the days of the psalmist's life (not the parts of his body), this does not require us to believe that the length of his life was unalterable. Scripture elsewhere suggests that what is written in the Lord's Book of Life can be changed (Exod. 32:33; Rev. 3:5). Hezekiah's success in getting the Lord to "add" fifteen years to his life supports this perspective (Isa. 38:1-5), as does the Lord's self-professed willingness to alter decrees he's made in light of new circumstances (Jer. 18:6-10). The notion that what God ordains is necessarily unalterable is foreign to the Hebrew mind.
In the context of the whole counsel of Scripture, it seems best to understand the term yatsar as well as the writing in God's "book" as referring to God's intentions at the time of the psalmist's fetal development, not an unalterable decree of God.
Prophecies of Kingdoms and Judgments
Choose Your Own Adventure
What about biblical passages that speak of the future movements of nations, such as the four successive kingdoms mentioned in Nebuchadnezzar's dream (Dan. 2:38-40)? The open view "explains" this and every other passage of Scripture that relates to the future by simply accepting that the future is settled to the extent that the passage in question says it is settled, no more or no less. Where the open view and the classical view differ in their treatment of passages such as these is that the open view does not read into these verses the assumption that the future must be exhaustively settled.
This passage certainly presupposes that the succession and relative strengths of several future kingdoms was settled at the time of Nebuchadnezzar's dream. But the verse does not say that everything about the future, or everything about these particular kingdoms, was settled. As we noted earlier, freedom is always restricted within parameters set by God and other factors.
An overly simple but clear analogy of the open view of providence might be the children's "Choose Your Own Adventure" stories. In these stories, an author writes a number of possible plotlines and allows readers to create their own story by choosing between alternatives. The author provides a structure to the story as a whole and to each possible plotline within the overall structure. But within these predefined parameters, there is room for readers to create their own stories by choosing between the options that the author has given.
This is a model (albeit, infinitely simplified) of how we may understand God's sovereign design allowing for some openness in the future, both at an individual and at a national level. The God of the possible is the author of the whole story line of creation and the one who offers possible alternatives to his human and angelic creations. The rise and fall of nations is to some extent providentially guided according to God's plans for world history (see Dan. 2:21). But within this general guidance, there is plenty of room for individuals to exercise free will.
Ordaining National Boundaries
This is also how we should understand Paul's teaching that God "made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live" (Acts 17:26). This is part of the structural outline of God's plan for world history. These providential parameters certainly condition the scope of human freedom, but they do not eliminate itjust as our genes and environment condition our individual freedom without eliminating it.
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