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Open Theism Part One: 2 Kings 20

In my last post, I introduced this new series on a book I’ve read / am re-reading called God of the Possible, written by Greg Boyd. The book is about Open Theism, a theological system that teaches that the future is partly open and, as a result, God does not know every aspect of the future exhaustively, but rather infinite possibilities. (Some aspects of the future are determined, others are not.)

Let’s dive into the preface of the book, which revolves around 2 Kings 20:

In those days Hezekiah became sick and was at the point of death. And Isaiah the prophet the son of Amoz came to him and said to him, “Thus says the Lord, ‘Set your house in order, for you shall die; you shall not recover.’” Then Hezekiah turned his face to the wall and prayed to the Lord, saying, “Now, O Lord, please remember how I have walked before you in faithfulness and with a whole heart, and have done what is good in your sight.” And Hezekiah wept bitterly. And before Isaiah had gone out of the middle court, the word of the Lord came to him: “Turn back, and say to Hezekiah the leader of my people, Thus says the Lord, the God of David your father: I have heard your prayer; I have seen your tears. Behold, I will heal you. On the third day you shall go up to the house of the Lord, and I will add fifteen years to your life. I will deliver you and this city out of the hand of the king of Assyria, and I will defend this city for my own sake and for my servant David’s sake.” And Isaiah said, “Bring a cake of figs. And let them take and lay it on the boil, that he may recover.”

We have quite in interesting interaction here between God, the prophet Isaiah and King Hezekiah. As you can see, it seems God changed His mind and added fifteen extra years to Hezekiah’s life. Now what are we to make of this?

1. If God knew that Hezekiah would actually live (divine foreknowledge), it seems strange for God to declare that he would “not recover” as that simply wasn’t true. Did God effectively lie about the future (strong way of putting it, I know)? For what reason? To get Hezekiah to humble himself? To get Hezekiah to pray? But then God would have known what Hezekiah’s response was going to be, so the initial statement was not true. It seems strange to me that God would ever declare something untrue.

2. If God had sovereignly determined, ahead of time, that Hezekiah would live for another fifteen years (predestination) before he actually declared he would in the story above, it seems odd that God would declare differently at first. In other words, if it was God’s plan to add fifteen years to Hezekiah’s life right from the beginning, Hezekiah’s prayer didn’t actually mean anything or change anything. And besides, God would have determined that prayer ahead of time anyway, making Hezekiah’s prayer mean even less (this would be the view of a strong determinist) and giving further confusion to what it is God is actually doing here in this story.

Unless, God had sovereignly predestined that He would add fifteen years to Hezekiah’s life based on His exhaustive foreknowledge that Hezekiah would pray for healing. Fair enough, except then it takes us back to point (1) as God’s predestination was based upon divine foreknowledge, rather than the other way around. He acted in response to foreknowledge. Now you’re once again stuck with the problem that God declared an untruth to Hezekiah – saying he wouldn’t recover when God knew full-well that He would heal him, since the beginning of time.

You’re also stuck with another problem. If God acted in response to foreknowledge, that means God might have acted differently in response to the same foreknowledge. See, the language gives it away – if the future is settled, what exactly is God responding to? What is He acting on? There’s nothing to respond to – if I know exhaustively that the glass will fall off my desk in the next second – because the future is settled – that means I cannot respond to it. The second I am able to respond to such knowledge, it means that I have the power to change the outcome. That then means that the future is not exhaustively settled.

The conundrum is that a settled future not only limits our freedom but limits God’s freedom. He cannot respond to foreknowledge – the minute He responds He changes the way things might have gone. All His actions in history are therefore either meaningless (God had no choice as he had to go with what was an already settled future) or determined by God (God writes the story).

The problem is, the latter choice puts God responsible for evil in the world.

As per Boyd:

“How could God have truly changed his mind in response to a prayer if the prayer he was responding to was forever in his mind? How could Scripture say God added fifteen years to Hezekiah’s life if it was certain to God that Hezekiah was going to live those ‘extra’ fifteen years all along?”

These are difficult questions and trying to work them out are as difficult as trying to understand time travel in the Terminator movies. But that may only be, I submit, because of how we view time to work.

Boyd’s basic premise here, and for his book, is that the Scripture actually means what it says:  God changed His mind. Instead of things going one way they went another. (Note, the healing wasn’t instant! Also note, Isaiah still uses some kind of medicine!)

Many theologians answer this one by claiming it as an anthropomorphism (in other words, it gives God a human attribute, or it’s simply relating the story from the way it was perceived by us humans – God didn’t change His mind, it just looked that way). Carm is one example:

“From the eternal perspective, God does not change His mind since He knew from all eternity what the ultimate decision would be.  From the temporal perspective (relative to us), God changes His mind in response to the prayers and pleading of His people.”

This seems odd to me in this case. Isaiah was pretty strong about it being God’s Word from the beginning. Since the Scriptures make no mention of Isaiah making a mistake or going rogue, it simply can’t be that Isaiah got it all wrong. God was the one who declared Hezekiah would not recover and God was the one who declared otherwise afterwards.There’s not much space (if any) for it to ‘look’ as if He changed His mind.

Secondly, God specifically says, “I have heard your prayer; I have seen your tears,” implying strongly that this was the reason why He was adding fifteen years to Hezekiah’s life. There is also the hint at Hezekiah having begun a work and wanting to see it finished and God honouring that. Michael Eaton says that this is more than likely what the king alludes to in verse 3 – not that he seeks favour because of being a good person, but because God had given him a calling that still needed to be completed.

Eaton doesn’t address what we’re talking about in his commentary on 2 Kings 20 directly. What he does say is that Hezekiah ‘pushed judgement into the future’. Hezekiah achieved his calling: protecting Jerusalem. I find Eaton’s language here rather interesting, that Hezekiah actually changed the course of time, and changed what God had planned to do; although I know Eaton’s views on Open Theism aren’t favourable.

The anthropomorphic principle puts us back into problem (1) above or into our conundrum around the fact that the minute God can respond to foreknowledge, it means the future isn’t settled.

When looking at the Scripture as plainly as I can, I have to say that taking this scripture literally (God really did change His mind) appears to me to be both more reasonable and true to the text. Plus, the genre of the book appears to me to point towards less metaphor. When I first read this Preface in Boyd’s book I had already known about the scripture and, to be honest, scriptures like this one are partly what made Open Theism intriguing to me from the beginning.

Of course, this doesn’t seal the issue, not in light of scriptures like 1 Sam 15:29 which specifically state that God does not change His mind. We’ll have to get to that in another post as we go through the book.

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Apologetics influences theology

Many of the early church fathers, including Augustine, formed theology through the realm of apologetics. Their apologetics then became accepted theology.

This seems to be the case. You can’t really separate theology and apologetics, because the apologetic wants to present a clear-cut case of theology, but in doing so he can affect theology.

Well, to illustrate my point, let me give you an example. In discussions with an atheist on the Internet we were arguing about the foreknowledge of God. I was saying that just because God has absolute foreknowledge of an event doesn’t mean God purposed for the event to happen, nor does it mean we don’t have choices in life.

He was saying that if an event is “destined” to occur it is predetermined. There’s nothing I can do to change the event. I have the illusion of choice but I don’t really have the ability to change the event – so do we REALLY have free will? We have the illusion of free will, yes.

I argued my point thoroughly that foreknowledge of an event does not necessarily mean the event is predetermined only to realise he was right and I was wrong. The event IS predetermined.

Then I stumbled upon this intriguing and excellently written essay on the topic:

To quote the writer, Dennis Bratcher:

The biggest problem for the foreknowledge of God is the relation of foreknowledge to human freedom. If God knows that something will happen, then it will happen. That is, if God knows the event to be a historical reality, then that event must occur; it is predestined. If it does not occur than God did not know.

If you have time to read the article, you should. Basically, Bratcher advocates that the absolute foreknowledge or omniscient model is not exactly wrong, just perhaps not the whole story. A better model would be incarnation, and he attaches this to the realm of prophecy, referring to certain prophecies in the Bible that didn’t come true the way the prophet initially prophesied it, but it did come true in just a different way (a different nation etc.).

I’m aware of Gregory Boyd’s work into the concept that God, in his sovereignty, actually chooses not to know the future absolutely but rather the infinite possibilities of every choice. This means the future is not determined, and not even God really knows which choice I’m really going to make. He knows all of the infinite possibilities and has a plan for all of them, but ultimately my freedom is my freedom.

I find it fascinating and intriguing, and some of the apologetics on Boyd’s site and Bratcher’s are incredibly compelling.

The problem is that this presents theology that is unconventional and sometimes seen as heretical. In an earlier post I mentioned that we’re all going to be a heretic to someone, eventually, so I guess we have to accept that. The issue is what do we DO – if an apologetic presents a compelling case, based on the Scriptures and reason, that goes slightly against (or even opposite) to the “accepted” theology on the topic, what do we do? If the case is so compelling it may bring skeptics to faith in Christ, what do we do? What do I do in my own apologetics? When am using “heresy” to bring people to Christ, and is that wrong? Right? Are we not making a big deal out of periphery stuff?

This is a conundrum. Should I defend certain theology just because it’s the “accepted” theology, but doesn’t stand up to intellectual scrutiny of the day? Or should we be forming new theologies based on new apologetics and intellectual discoveries? Why is it so difficult to say that Augustine may have been wrong, or he wasn’t necessarily wrong he just didn’t have the whole picture – or the questions been asked were entirely different?

One thing that Bratcher mentions is how the new generation asks different questions, but we attempt to answer it with the answers to older questions.

Yet, in the process of answering the new questions – new because the new generation is mainly post-modern or existential in its outlook – how much does this affect theology? And what should theologians, pastors, etc. do about it? What should writers do about it? 😉