Matthew R. Perry

Is God Caught By Surprise? (A Perspective on Open Theism)

In Open Theism, Theology on September 18, 2008 at 3:10 pm

(I wrote this article for my church back in 2004 and thought I would post it again. Feel free to comment.)

Many of you here at Boone’s Creek Baptist Church who are reading this particular devotional have a rather strong view and belief on who God is. God is the Creator of all that is (Genesis 1:1) and that He is, as the Psalmist said, the owner of “the cattle on a thousand hills” — meaning that He owns all there is (Psalm 50:10, see also Psalm 24:1). We learn from the Scriptures that God knows all (1 John 3:20); sees all (Psalm 139:1-6); and that He will accomplish all that He sets out to accomplish (Isaiah 55:11).

Unfortunately, there are some in evangelical circles who deny these attributes of God. There is a strain of thought infiltrating our churches known as Open Theism. Matt Slick of the Christian Apologetics Research Ministries (CARM) describes this movement as follows:

It is the teaching that God has granted to humanity free will and that in order for the free will to be truly free, the future free will choices of individuals cannot be known ahead of time by God. They hold that if God knows what we are going to choose, then how can we be truly free when it is time to make those choices since a counter choice cannot then be made by us because it is already “known” what we are going to do. In other words, we would not actually be able to make a contrary choice to what God “knows” we will choose thus implying that we would not then be free.

In fact, Gregory Boyd, one of the leading proponents of this movement, states in his recent book God of the Possible:

Much of it [the future], open theists will concede, is settled ahead of time, either by God’s predestining will or by existing earthly causes, but it is not exhaustively settled ahead of time. To whatever degree the future is yet open to be decided by free agents, it is unsettled.”
To bolster this view, Open Theists quote a number of verses that, at first glance, seem to show that God has not yet made up His mind as to how history will work out and that the future is … well … open.

One verse is Genesis 6:6 where God was “sorry” that He made humanity. Another is Genesis 22:12 when Abraham was ready to sacrifice his only son Isaac, God intervened and said, “Now I know that you fear God” and did not keep Isaac from Him. And probably the most frequently quoted verse from Open Theists is Exodus 32:14. Here, God hears Moses intervention concerning the wrath He was to inflict upon the rebellious Israelites and is seen as “changing his mind” (NASB), “relenting” (NIV, NKJV), or “repenting” (KJV) about the harm and punishment He would bring.

There are many verses where God is seen as regretting something He has done, where He is surprised (Isaiah 5:3-7), where He tests people to know whether they will walk in His ways (Exodus 16:4, Deuteronomy 13:1-3, Judges 2:22), and various others. Open Theists claim that if God really knows all the events of the future, then He would never regret doing anything, never change His mind, and would never wonder if people were or were not going to walk in His ways.

A Lesson on How God Relates to His People

Open Theists take these verses and run with them, but what do they do with verses such as Isaiah 55:10-11, which read:

For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth, making it bear forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out of my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it (ESV).

Or one such as John 6:37 which reads, “All that the Father gives to me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out.” Or Acts 4:27-28 which read:

For truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place (ESV).

Not to mention Romans 8:29-30, Romans 9, Ephesians 1:3-11, and many others which speak so strongly on the sovereignty of God and how all things are under His control and all things are not only known by Him but also all things are ordained and orchestrated by Him.

How are these verses reconciled with what we have seem from Open Theists?

There is a device used by God called anthropomorphism. It is a literary device used by the authors of Scripture to apply human characteristics and attribute them to God’s nature or actions. For instance, we hear in Scripture the plea for God to “shine his face on us” (Numbers 6:24-26). Well, we know that God is spirit (John 4:24) and does not have a ‘face.’ Same with the term such as the “right hand of God.” God does not have a hand or an arm, but we use these terms to convey various attributes about God. It makes it less abstract and more concrete!

God is a God who is “high and lifted up” (Isaiah 6:1) and one whose ways are higher than our ways and thoughts higher than our thoughts (Isaiah 55:8). Our finite minds cannot understand the greatness, grandeur and majesty of God Most High! So words are used in Scripture to help us understand them.

The Issue at Stake

What is at stake is the nature of God! If God is not one who is in control of every part of His creation, then that means He is a God who is not the “unmoved mover” of old, but as Clark Pinnock describes Him, He is the “Most Moved Mover.” He is a God who makes mistakes, who moves to “Plan B and C” when “Plan A” may not work out as He intended.

And if God is not in control of our situations, then guess who is? We are — and that, my friends, is the ultimate issue.

We hold tightly to free will. We want to be in control of our lives. But friends, if you want free will — total and unabashed free will — then you are not ready to be a follower of Christ. Why?

Our free will outside of the working of God will always lead us away from God. Adam and Eve had one command in the garden: “Don’t eat from that tree” (Genesis 2:15). Sin had not entered the world or their hearts, but they were easily swayed by Satan (“Did God really say…?”) and self (“it was pleasing to their eyes”) and their free will took them away from God.

But Jesus says in John 6:44 that “No one can come to Me unless the Father draws him.” We do not nor cannot seek after God in our own flesh (Romans 3:9-10), but God seeks after us and even has “chosen us from the foundation of the world” (Ephesians 1:4).

See, God is not locked in to time and space. He created time and space. He is over time and space. He was before time and space. We are finite, He is infinite. We have limited knowledge, but the Bible says over and over that He knows all things (see Psalm 139:1-6). Nothing flies under His radar.

God is not one who responds to creation in general and humanity specifically — He is the One who orchestrates it all.

So does God have a plan? Yes. Is God the true sovereign of the universe? Yes. Are there times when it seems to us as if God repents, changes His mind, is surprised, and stumped at our actions? Yes, it seems that way in our eyes. But God makes Himself understood by using our language and terms to communicate HIS truth and HIS nature.

I recommend you looking at the CARM site and the section that deals with Open Theism at http://www.carm.org/open.htm . If God is not in control of everything and does not have the entire plan already worked out, He is not a God worth serving. But we know better …

… don’t we?

© 2004 by Rev. Matthew Perry. Boone’s Creek Baptist Church. 185 N. Cleveland Rd., Lexington, KY 40509. (859) 263-5466.
Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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  1. I’m commenting a couple years after the fact, but I recently became convinced of the Open Theist perspective on reality, in general. I started my blog with two posts which I think get right down to the heart of the problem, especially Part II. A friend linked me to your post here, so I figured I’d link you to mine! The relevant posts are “Do We Have Free Will?” and “Do We Have Free Will? Part II” God bless.

    http://wordframedworld.wordpress.com/

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