What Does God Know and When Does He Know It?: The Doctrine of Divine Foreknowledge and the Current Controversy by Millard J. Erickson, Hardcover | Barnes & Noble
What Does God Know and When Does He Know It?: The Doctrine of Divine Foreknowledge and the Current Controversy

What Does God Know and When Does He Know It?: The Doctrine of Divine Foreknowledge and the Current Controversy

by Millard J. Erickson
Does God know the future? Or is the future unknowable to even God?

Open theists believe the search for biblical answers will spark a new Revolution.
Are they right?

Arguing that God interacts with his creatures spontaneously, the controversial new movement known as "open theism" has called classic church theology up for reexamination. Confronting this view,


Does God know the future? Or is the future unknowable to even God?

Open theists believe the search for biblical answers will spark a new Revolution.
Are they right?

Arguing that God interacts with his creatures spontaneously, the controversial new movement known as "open theism" has called classic church theology up for reexamination. Confronting this view, classic theists maintain that God has complete foreknowledge and that open-theist arguments are unorthodox. Each view has implications for our vision of the future and of God's dealings with humanity.

Author Biography: Millard J. Erickson has taught theology at several evangelical seminaries. He has written over twenty-five books and numerous articles. He and his wife, Virginia, have three daughters and live in Mounds View, Minnesota.

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What Does God Know and When Does He Know It?

The Current Controversy over Divine Foreknowledge
By Millard J. Erickson


Copyright © 2003 Millard J. Erickson
All right reserved.

Chapter One

the biblical basis of the open view

The starting point for discussion on any matter of evangelical theology must always be, What do the Scriptures say? Open theists have repeatedly described their view as biblically based. This can be seen in the subtitles of some of their most significant books on the subject. They have complained that the traditional view is based on philosophy-or at least on a philosophically based reading of Scripture. They have also protested that their critics have not interacted with the texts to which the open theists have appealed. Similarly, although Christianity Today has called for both sides to give more attention to the relevant biblical passages, it is apparent that this concern is especially addressed to traditional theists: "Classical theists, please return to a more robustly biblical approach to talking about God.... But the biblical revelation, and not a suspect theological traditionalism, must be the starting point for fresh theological reflection in every generation. If classical theists fail to be biblical, they will surely lose the debate where it counts: in the churches." We will turn first to those passages on which the open theists base their theology.

Repentance Passages

Genesis 6:6, 7. This is one of the most interesting and most frequently cited passages. The open theists are unanimous and emphatic in their interpretation of this passage. Here God surveys the evil thoughts and actions of humans and contemplates what he will do. The key expression comes in v. 6, where the text says that God "was grieved [or repented] that he had made man on the earth," and v. 7, where God says, "for I am grieved [or repent] that I have made them."

Boyd does very little real exegesis of the passage. He comments: "How can God feel this regret if he knew, even before he created them, that humans would degenerate to this exact condition? ... Shouldn't we conclude that God hoped (but was not certain) things would not have turned out the way they did? And doesn't this imply that the future was not exhaustively settled in God's mind when he created humanity?"

The major issue here is the meaning of the Hebrew word [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE] (niham). This is in the Niphal stem, the simple passive stem of the verb, which can also carry reflexive meaning. In that stem, it can have several possible meanings, according to Brown, Driver, and Briggs:

1. be sorry, moved to pity, have compassion, for others.

2. be sorry, rue, suffer grief, repent, of one's own doings ... for ill done to others.

3. comfort oneself, be comforted: ... concerning the evil.

4. be relieved, ease oneself, by taking vengeance.

The problem is determining which of these meanings the word bears in this passage. One of the most complete studies of this verb, by Parunak, says, "Unfortunately, with this root, much recent theology has flowed through a channel tracing it to the Arabic nahama (the snorting of a horse), and thus to a sigh, whether of comfort or pain." The whole etymological approach has been seriously called into question, however, by the work of James Barr and others. More hopeful is attempting to determine the meaning by semantic indicators such as parallelism, context, and idiom. Parunak finds the meaning of the verb in this passage to be "to suffer emotional pain." He finds that the parallelism is particularly significant here, so that it is to be understood as equivalent to the latter part of the verse, "he was grieved at his heart." In terms of idiom, the presence of here, as in Judg. 21:15, confirms this classification.

Some commentators see a parallel here with Lamech's statement in Gen. 5:29, which shares three words, niham, asah, and asab, with this verse. Wenham speaks of "the ironic punning of the Hebrew text." This parallelism suggests that the meaning of comfort in that passage also applies here, but it should be observed that naham there is in the Piel (simple active intensive stem). Westermann suggests that the parallelism between [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE], (el-libbô) in v. 6 and [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE] (libbô) in v. 5 means that just as God is depicted anthropomorphically in v. 5, where he "sees" human evil, so the statement about him here "shows that this human way of speaking is used deliberately of God." Matthews notes not only the parallel between the two verbs in v. 6 but also the similarity to the painful consequences of sin for the man and woman in 3:16-17 and 5:29. Thus, here God also experiences the painful consequences of the sin of the humans. Matthews maintains that "Genesis 6:6-7 is describing the emotional anguish of God; our verse does not present an abstract statement about God's decision making. This would be altogether out of place for the intention of the passage, which depicts God as wronged by the presumptuous sin of humanity. Moreover, the parameters of this verse have been dictated by the author's intention to imitate 5:29 with its distinctive vocabulary and mood."

1 Samuel 15:11, 35. Here is a statement much like that in Gen. 6:6, in which the Lord says that he is grieved, in this case because he has made Saul king of Israel and Saul has been disobedient. Boyd renders this as "I regret that I made Saul king, for he has turned back from following me." He feels that the point is reiterated for emphasis in v. 35.

Once again we face the issue of how to translate niham. Bergen sees definite parallels between this verse and Gen. 6:7, not only in the lexical linkage involving this word but also in the clause and phrase similarities: "The degree of similarity suggests that the writer was making a deliberate connection between the Genesis and Samuel narratives. Certainly similarities exist between the outcomes of the stories." Just as the wickedness of humanity caused God pain and he then destroyed the population but raised up Noah, so here Saul's disobedience caused God pain but led to his raising up David to take his place. The expression appears again here, as it did in Gen. 6.

One of the problems with the interpretation of vv. 11 and 35 is the presence of v. 29, where the same verb appears regarding God, but the text states that he does not repent. The contradiction requires some explanation or resolution. Fretheim observes that both v. 29 and the similar verse in Num. 23:19 are speaking of God's commitment to David, the latter being a foreshadowing of the relationship that will prevail between them. While Jehovah will never turn from that commitment, vv. 11 and 35 speak of his change of mind with respect to his establishment of Saul as king. Interestingly, however, this is certainly not made explicit in either 1 Sam. 15:29 or Num. 23:19.

In both vv. 11 and 35 it could be argued that the context favors the idea of regret or repenting or changing of the divine mind, for God then goes on to say that he is going to remove Saul from his position. This certainly contrasts with what he has previously done. Yet the arguments from parallelism and idiom cited earlier seem to favor the meaning simply of emotional pain.

Perhaps the most we can say from a direct exegetical treatment of these passages is that they teach that God experiences emotional pain as a result of his having created humans and put certain ones of them in positions of leadership. Whether they teach that God changes his mind, and if so, whether this entails the idea that God must not have known antecedently what was to take place, remains to be decided.

There are at least two possible interpretations of these passages. One is that God, not knowing what would happen when he created humans and when he established Saul as king, was then disappointed and pained when these did not act as God desired them to. He consequently regretted his action, recognizing that it was a mistake, and acted to correct the consequences of his earlier actions. That could have been the case only if God did not have perfect foreknowledge of these human actions. This is the interpretation favored by open theists.

We must wonder how the Lord could truly experience regret for making Saul king if he was absolutely certain that Saul would act the way he did. Could God genuinely confess, "I regret that I made Saul king" if he could in the same breath also confess, "I was certain of what Saul would do when I made him king"? I do not see how. Could I genuinely regret, say, purchasing a car because it turned out to run poorly if in fact the car was running exactly as I knew it would when I purchased it? Common sense tells us that we can only regret a decision we made if the decision resulted in an outcome other than what we expected or hoped for when the decision was made.

It should be observed that Boyd's analogy is not completely fitting, since this would require that Saul had actually displayed that behavior prior to his being chosen, rather than God's knowing that he would later display it. Nonetheless, the structure of the open theist argument for limited foreknowledge on the basis of these passages is something like this:

1. niham here means "to relent or change one's mind or repent."

2. One can only repent of that which one did not know in advance.

3. Consequently, the attribution of niham to God here entails that he did not know in advance what the human race (Gen. 6) or Saul (1 Sam. 15) would do.

Two issues need to be raised, however. One is whether the verb should carry the meaning of "repent" here. On the basis of the evidence we have cited, it is questionable whether anything more than simply God's feeling pain should be attributed to these statements. The other question, however, is whether the feeling of such pain, occasioned by God's having brought these persons into these positions, implies a surprise or something that he did not know would occur.

Is it the case that if I know that something unpleasant will occur, I do not feel pain when it occurs? If we are to appeal to common sense, as Boyd does, it seems that this is not necessarily the case. For example, one may know that one's parents will someday die and that in all likelihood their deaths will precede one's own, yet grieve and feel deep pain when they actually occur. Similarly, an athlete may choose a training regimen that he or she knows will be painful and exhausting, but that prior knowledge does not diminish the subsequent pain. Knowing that one will experience a particular emotion and actually experiencing it are not the same thing.

Change of Mind Passages

Genesis 18:20-33. In this passage Jehovah declares his intention to destroy the wicked cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, and nothing conditional is mentioned in his statement. Abraham asks him whether he would destroy the city if fifty righteous people can be found there, and Jehovah responds that he will not. Abraham then proceeds to negotiate further: forty-five, forty, all the way down to ten. This seems to be a clear case of God's changing his mind in response to a human request. Sanders comments on this passage: "The divine decision was yet open, and God invited Abraham into the decision-making process. God chooses not to exercise judgment without the human input of this man he trusts. In cases such as this, it is plain that God considers others as having something significant to say." Keil and Delitzsch summarize well the most obvious explanation of the incident:

This would indeed be neither permissible nor possible, had not God, by virtue of the mysterious interlacing of necessity and freedom in His nature and operations, granted a power to the prayer of faith, to which He consents to yield; had He not, by virtue of His absoluteness, which is anything but blind necessity, placed Himself in such a relation to men, that He not merely works upon them by means of His grace, but allows them to work upon Him by means of their faith; had He not interwoven the life of the free creature into His own absolute life, and accorded to a created personality the right to assert itself in faith, in distinction from His own.

Presumably, had God known what Abraham was about to do in this situation, it would have affected his intention from the start. This change therefore suggests that the future was open, and God did not take that into account

There is, however, another possible interpretation. This would be that God did not really change his mind. He simply agreed that if X number of righteous persons could be found, he would not execute his intended destruction. Knowing that there were not such righteous persons, he knew from the beginning that he would not end up sparing the city. This would be the case, despite his foreknowing that Abraham would intercede for the city. Abraham's failure to find such was vindication of God's act of destroying the city.

2 Kings 20:1-20. In this passage, King Hezekiah is ill and anticipates dying. He reminds God of his past faithfulness to God, and God decides to increase his life by fifteen years. This was a key passage leading Boyd to the open theist position. It seems clearly to represent a change in what God is going to do because in v. 1 Hezekiah is told to prepare himself, since he will not recover from the illness and will die. The original declaration would not have been made if God knew that Hezekiah would cry out as he did.

Here again, however, a feature of the narrative presents a problem for the open theist position. Bruce Ware in particular points out that Jehovah does not just tell Hezekiah that he will extend his life. He is much more specific: his life will be extended by fifteen years. Ware says:

Does it not seem a bit odd that this favorite text of open theists, which purportedly demonstrates that God does not know the future and so changes his mind when Hezekiah prays, also shows that God knows precisely and exactly how much longer Hezekiah will live? On openness grounds, how could God know this? Over a fifteen-year time span, the contingencies are staggering! The number of future freewill choices, made by Hezekiah and by innumerable others, that relate to Hezekiah's life and well-being, none of which God knows (in the openness view), is enormous.

God Tests People

Genesis 22:1-19. Here is one of the most commonly cited passages. In it we are told that God tested Abraham (v. 1), although Abraham is not told that this is a test. Abraham is asked to sacrifice his son Isaac and proceeds to do so, but he is stopped by the angel of the Lord, who says, "Do not lay a hand on the boy. Do not do anything to him.


Excerpted from What Does God Know and When Does He Know It? by Millard J. Erickson Copyright © 2003 by Millard J. Erickson. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author

Millard J. Erickson (PhD, Northwestern University) has taught theology at several evangelical seminaries. He has written over twenty-five books and numerous articles. He and his wife, Virginia, have three daughters and live in Mounds View, Minnesota.

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