by A. B. Caneday –
God reveals his likeness to us through his image, which we reflect. So, everyone has an innate concept of God. But sin inclines us toward inversion – measuring the Creator’s likeness by our own reflection. Scripture sets right this idolatrous inversion. The Bible is God’s authoritative revelation from which we derive a right understanding of what God is like.1
Philosophically forged likenesses of God are no less idolatrous than images carved from wood or stone. Are our “philosophical preconceptions of what God must be like”2less idolatrous because we seek to authorize them by Scripture? Consider this philosophical preconception of God’s likeness: “God knows the future choices his creatures will make only as possibilities, not as certainties, for otherwise God’s prior knowledge would render their choices not free.” This philosophically reasoned preconception of God’s likeness is the non-negotiable and undemonstrated assumption that grounds open theism.
This conception of God’s likeness has always lurked at the church’s door. It periodically enters, stirring conflict and attracting credulous followers. Its latest resurgence has originated among philosophical theologians who have popularized it with books explaining how they interpret the Bible to support their philosophically forged likeness of God.3True to post-modernity’s penchant for “open-ended interpretation” (one view is as good as another), one open theist writes, “I just wanted to summarize the types of Scripture passages that open theists use to arrive at our view. This certainly does not prove our case. It simply shows how we are reading Scripture…Not that you will agree with me, but I hope that you can understand how this view makes sense to me.”4
If we read the Bible through the lens of open theism’s assumed premise, Scripture seems to offer compelling support for its likeness of God. Yet, if it is correct, then our Christian beliefs have been profoundly wrong for two millennia. So, what makes open theisms use of Scripture seem compelling? Let’s investigate several ways that open theists use Scripture to support their assertions.
Transmuting Figurative Portrayals of God into Literal Portraits
The present conflict stirred by open theism provides an opportunity to correct common misconceptions of the Bible’s figurative portrayals that persist from earlier theological disputes.5Misuse of the terms “literal” and “figurative” dominates the attempts of open theists to prove that God does not know the future decisions of his creatures. Their “selective literalism” trades upon last century’s evangelical dispute over whether or not to interpret large portions of the Bible’s prophecies “literally.”6The debate persisted because many participants used “literally” contrary to its primary meaning: “in a manner that accords with the literal, exact, or primary meaning of a word or words.” Instead, they mistook “literally” to mean “really” and set it against “figuratively” and “metaphorically,” as if they mean “not real.”
So, the improper expression, “interpret the Bible literally,” became a shibboleth among dispensationalists and it is becoming so among open theists. They argue that they read the Bible more literally than others. They reject the belief that the Bible – when it portrays God as repenting, regretting, changing his mind, or asking questions – is anthropomorphic7, boasting that open theism “is truer to the whole counsel of Scripture.”8 Boyd explains:
The open view is rooted in the conviction that the passages that constitute the motif of future openness should be taken just as literally as the passages that constitute the motif of future determinism. For this reason, the open view concludes that the future is literally settled to whatever degree God wants to settle it, and literally open to the extent that God desires to leave it open to be resolved by the decisions of his creations (emphasis added).9
By the “motif” of future openness Boyd means those passages of Scripture that portray God as regretting, repenting, testing humans, etc. He thinks we should read them literally. But, his meaning is ambiguous, because he first uses literally as a substitute for really and places it as the antonym of figuratively (Boyd’s term: “nonliteral”10). Boyd’s second and third uses of literally substitute improperly for really or actually. And he suggests, in his next paragraph, that “just as literally” means “just as seriously,” another improper usage. In one paragraph, Boyd improperly uses literally as (1) really, (2) seriously, and (3) the antonym of figuratively. He mires himself in equivocation by claiming that classic Christian explanations of his “motif of future openness passages are less literal than classic explanations of his motif of future determinism” passages.
Open theists rightly insist that we should take the Bible seriously. But they wrongly condemn others for understanding the Bibles numerous portrayals of Gods repenting as figurative – as anthropomorphic. To claim the Bible’s authorization of their concept of God, open theists embrace the two popular misuses of literally: as a substitute for really, and as a general intensive before a figure of speech.
Improperly using literally to intensify figurative language may be humorous – “She had me literally climbing the walls”, but improperly using literally to explain figures of speech in the Bible is dangerous. It transmutes figurative portraits of God into pictures of him as he is in himself, creates theological confusion, and forges a defective theology, as in Boyd’s explanation of Jeremiah 26:2-3:
If in truth God never changes his mind, is he not lying when he tells the Israelites that he might do so? Is there not something odd going on in evangelicalism today when certain believers (open theist s) are labeled heretical for taking Gods promises (‘I may change my mind”) literally?11
For Boyd, God literally “changes his mind” after things turn out differently than he expected.
Also, according to Boyd, the Creator tests his creatures because he does not know what they will do. He appeals for support to such passages as Genesis 22; 2 Chron. 32:31; Deut. 13:1-3; Judges 2:22; and 3:4. Concerning these passages Boyd asserts, ‘Scripture teaches us that God literally finds out how people will choose when they choose.”12He reasons that to take God’s Word as truthful means that we cannot take any biblical portrayals of God interacting with humans by testing them figuratively without having to say that they fail to portray anything real or meaningful about God.13Boyd commits a category error. He set s literally (used improperly for really) against the antonym figuratively.
Open theists selectively substitute and manipulate language in order to wrench support from Bible writers for their philosophical assumptions. But, taking God’s Word as truthful and real – on its own terms and in a natural manner – requires us to take the Bibles anthropomorphic portrayals of God as figurative representations of God, not literal unveilings of Gods likeness (cf. Exod. 33:20).
Invalidating Idioms by Literalizing Them
Wanting Scripture to support their view of God’s likeness, open theists invalidate several biblical idioms that depict God’s interaction with humans by literalizing them. For example, the Lord expresses astonishment when he asks Jeremiah,
Have you seen what she did, that faithless one, Israel, how she went up on every high hill and under every green tree, and there played the whore? And I thought, ‘After she has done all this she will return to me,’ but she did not return, and her treacherous sister Judah saw it. She saw that for all the adulteries of that faithless one, Israel, I had sent her away with a decree of divorce. Yet her treacherous sister Judah did not fear, but she too went and played the whore (Jer. 3:6-8, ESV).
Sanders squeezes the idiomatic use of “I thought” to mean, “God is explicitly depicted as not knowing the specific future.”14Boyd concurs: “If God tells us he thought something was going to occur while being eternally certain it would not occur, is he not lying to us?”15
Concerning the Lords rebuke of Judah for building altars to false deities, “which I did not command, nor did it come into my mind” (cf. Jer 7:31; 19:5; 32:35), Sanders disfigures the idiom: “In these texts God is explicitly depicted as not knowing the specific future. God himself says that he was mistaken about what was going to happen.”16Boyd claims these passages “preclude the possibility” that God knew beforehand that the Israelites would enter into idolatrous worship.17
Sanders’ and Boyd’s arguments are not reasonable, however, because an idioms meaning is not equal to the sum of the meanings of its element s. As an idiom, “I thought” does not admit ignorance. Rather, it hyperbolically expresses reproach for unreasonable and foolish choices. The Lord uses the idiom, after Israel’s apostasy, not to expose his ignorance of what Israel would choose but to expose Israel’s failure to make the only reasonable choice, namely, to return to the Lord. Likewise, “it never entered my mind” is an idiom that does not confess prior ignorance any more than the following idiom admits defective memory: “For I will…remember their sins no more” (Jer. 31:34).
To prove their view of God’s likeness, open theists hyper-literalize Jesus’ hyperbolic idiomatic prediction, “there will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down” (Matt 24:2). With astonishing similarity to the skeptic s puerile argument (‘Can God make a stone so heavy…”), open theists aver that one stone resting upon another following Jerusalem’s destruction in AD 70 proves that Gods foreknowledge is not exhaustive and that Jesus prophecy remains unfulfilled.18This is linguistic and theological malpractice, for the idiom’s use simply signifies total destruction (Matt. 24:2; Mark 13:2; Luke 19:44; 21:6). God’s use of human idioms is anthropomorphism.
Squeezing Improper Conclusions from Gods Use of Questions
Open theists often interpret God’s use of questions as implied ignorance. But
functions of questions vary semantically, indicated by contextual use. Not all questions imply the questioner’s ignorance of the thing asked. Questions of deliberation or of anguished lament do not imply ignorance. Consider Paul’s deliberative questions: “Then, what shall we say? Should we persist in sin, in order that grace might abound?” (Rom 6:1). Ponder the psalmist’s questions to express anguished lament:” How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?” (Psalm 13:2).
Likewise, God expresses anguished lament to Moses: “How long will this people despise me? And how long will they not believe in me, in spite of all the signs that I have done among them?” (Num. 14:11-12). Boyd forces an unwarranted conclusion from this: “If God wonders about future issues, does this not imply that the future is to some extent unsettled?”19Likewise, Sanders uses Hosea 6:4 as proof that “God asks questions regarding an indefinite future. God agonizes over what to do with his sinful people.”20Yet, God’s questions clearly function deliberatively – “What shall I do with you, O Ephraim? What shall I do with you, O Judah?” (Hosea 6:4). God asks deliberative questions to rebuke Israel for her fickleness, not to express ignorance about “an indefinite future.”21God reveals his likeness by accommodating human likeness, using questions to express deliberation or lament, as humans do, without implying ignorance of future human decisions. This is another example of anthropomorphism.
Over-Interpreting Parabolic Portrayals of God
Open theists disfigure Isaiah s figurative portrayal of God in the Parable of the Vineyard (Isa. 5:1-7) to claim “sometimes God tells us that things turn out differently than he expected.”22
My beloved had a vineyard
on a very fertile hill.
He dug it and cleared it of stones,
and planted it with choice vines;
he built a watchtower in the midst of it,
and hewed out a wine vat in it;
and he looked for it to yield grapes,
but it yielded wild grapes (5:12; ESV).
This passage, according to Sanders, proves that God did not know Israel’s unfaithfulness beforehand.23Boyd argues, “If we take the passage at face value, does it not imply that the future of Israel, the ‘vineyard’, was not certain until they settled it by choosing to yield ‘wild grapes’?”24However, Isaiah s parable hardly yields these conclusions. The passage “at face value” or in its natural sense does not portray God as he actually is. Rather, Isaiah depicts Gods likeness figuratively through the extended figure of speech called “parable”. Because this imaginary story represents God as a farmer, the portrayal is figurative, an anthropomorphic depiction of God. The parable does not portray God as he actually is, but it also does not portray God’s likeness factitiously or as unreal.25 It figuratively depicts the reality of the unseen Creator who accommodates our senses, making his likeness known. This, again, is anthropomorphism.
Open theists champion their beliefs as the long-lost correct understanding that does justice to Scripture and to the true nature of God, as if most Christians have believed in a “relationally challenged” God invented by Greek philosophers. They ridicule the orthodox understanding that God reveals his likeness anthropomorphically, not as he actually is. With martyr-like protestation, Sanders unrepentantly proclaims,
If affirming that God can be grieved, respond to our prayers, test us, and interact with us in time is reducing God to human proportions, then so be it. I am guilty as charged. However, I really don’t think I’m reducing God at all, for I believe this is the way God actually is and there simply is no greater God (emphasis added).26
Christians have always believed in a God who is grieved with sin, who responds to our prayers and who tests our faith. We have further believed in a God who forgets our transgressions, who does not remember our iniquities, who remembers that we are dust, and who does all this without reducing himself to human proportions. Does this mean that God actually forgets or has to remind himself? No. The Creator condescends to reveal his likeness to his creatures in these ways and many more because we are made in his image and likeness. We truly know God though we cannot know him as he actually is in himself. This is the way of anthropomorphism.
Yet open theists mock, “Of course, those making such a claim were somehow able to transcend their finite minds in order to know what God is really like[and] are able to tell the rest of us which forms of discourse were accommodations and which were
literal.”27This mockery betrays their flippancy about the gravity of their claims to know God’s actual likeness. It is better to remain silent than to claim too much, because God is in heaven and we are on earth (Eccl 5:2)! Knowledge of the Creator is ours, but only because he makes himself known to his creatures, and this through analogical or figurative portrayals.
Who is like the Lord our God,
the One who sits enthroned on high,
who stoops down to look
on the heavens and the earth?
(Psalm 113:56, NIV).
Knowledge of God is ours, not by entering his realm, but by his stooping to enter ours. The invisible and all-consuming Creator veils his glory from us as he gives us glimpses of his likeness, accommodating our humble condition through anthropomorphism.28
A. B. Caneday is Professor of New Testament Studies and Biblical Theology at Northwestern College in Saint Paul, Minnesota.
1For development of this, see A. B. Caneday , “Veiled Glory: Gods Self-Revelation in Human Likeness – A Biblical Theology of God s Anthropomorphic Self-Disclosure,” Beyond the Bounds: Open Theism and the Undermining of Biblical Christianity, ed. John Piper, Justin Taylor, Paul Kjoss Helseth (Wheaton: Crossway, 2003), 149199.
2 Gregory A. Boyd, God of the Possible: A Biblical Introduction to the Open View of God (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2000), 86.
3 See John Sanders, The God Who Risks: A Theology of Providence (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1998); and Boyd, God of the Possible.
4 John Sanders, “Biblical Texts Supporting Open Theism,” Does God Have A Future? A Debate on Divine Providence (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003), 156-157.
5 Not all needed correctives are for open theist s alone, as I have shown in my essay, “Veiled Glory.”
6On “selective literalism.” See Timothy George, “What God Knows,” First Things 134 (2003): 7-9.
7When I say that Scripture anthropomorphically portrays God, I mean: “Because God formed Adam of the dust of the earth and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, making him in his own image and likeness, God makes himself known to his creatures in their likeness, as if he wears both their form and qualities, when in fact they wear his likeness.” For more on the idea of anthropomorphism and popular misconceptions of it, see my “Veiled Glory,” 158-161.
8Boyd, God of the Possible, 54.
11Ibid, 84. Emphasis added.
12Ibid, 65. Underlined emphasis added.
14 Sanders, The God Who Risks, 154.
15Boyd, God of the Possible, 60.
16Sanders, The God Who Risks, 74. Ponder Sanders’s claim that God was mistaken.
17Boyd, God of the Possible, 62. Boyd’s explanation of these passages contradict s his foundational belief that God knows all future things as possibilities. As he explains the passages, they would preclude God from having any prior thought even of the future possibility of Israel s idolatry. Boyd argues too much, even for his own view.
18Clark H. Pinnock, Most Moved Mover: A Theology of Gods Openness (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2001), 50-51. Pinnock states, “We may not want to admit it but prophecies often go unfulfilled…despite Jesus, in the destruction of the temple, some stones were left one on the other” (note 66, p. 51). See also Sanders, The God Who Risks, 135.
19 Boyd, God of the Possible, 59.
20 Sanders, “Biblical Texts Supporting Open Theism,” 154. See also Boyd, God of the Possible, 58-59.
21 Open theists use God’s question of lament in Hosea 8:4-5 to prove that God does not know the future with certainty. “They made kings, but not through me. They set up princes, but I knew it not. With silver and gold they made idols for their own destruction. I have spurned your calf, O Samaria. My anger burns against them. How long will they be incapable of innocence?” Why do open theists not argue that God sometimes does not know the present since the Lord says to Hosea, “They set up princes, but I knew it not”?
22 Sanders, “Biblical Texts Supporting Open Theism,” 254.
24 Boyd, God of the Possible, 60.
25 Contrary to Boyd’s claim (God of the Possible, 119)
26 Sanders, “Biblical Texts Supporting Open Theism,” 156.
27 Sanders, The God Who Risks, 33.
28 See my essay, “Veiled Glory: God’s Self Revelation in Human Likeness- A Biblical Theology of God’s Anthropomorphic Self-Disclosure,” Beyond the Bounds, 149-199.