Sovereignty, Freedom, and the Philosophers (pt. 1)

When I told a couple of my pastors that I wanted to be a philosophy major, they gave me some helpful advice: let my theology critique my philosophy, not the other way around. Of course, philosophy can play a big role as a handmaiden of theology, but they meant that I shouldn’t let my philosophical ideas contradict and judge Scripture. I think it’s good advice.

One of my biggest interests- and struggles- is the reconciliation of God’s sovereignty and omniscience with our moral responsibility and free will. How they can be reconciled has been a huge issue of debate amongst theologians and philosophers for centuries and probably won’t end until the return of Christ. There are many intriguing ideas, but I honestly find some of them disturbing and irreconcilable with Scripture. I wanted to give my thoughts on some of these views that contemporary theistic philosophers have. This is just my initial thoughts and concerns over these views, not some exhaustively studied essay on the subject. Perhaps after doing more research I will post more thoughts. If I have in any way misunderstood these views, I will undoubtably be corrected in future readings on the subject.

First, there’s a view called Open Theism, which is a view I got more interested in after listening to interviews with the philosophers Dean Zimmerman and Peter Van Inwagen. Popularizers of open theism are people like Greg Boyd and John Sanders. In open theism, God doesn’t fully know the future. He knows the past and the present perfectly, but there is no way He can know the future actions of free creatures. God can make plans for the future and try to arrange things so that they go His way, but most of the future is open since humans have free will and his plans are contingent on those factors. Proponents of open theism would say that this doesn’t diminish God’s omniscience, they just define differently what kinds of things can be known by an omniscient God.  Greg Boyd states himself that “The issue is not whether God’s knowledge is perfect . . . The issue is about the nature of the reality that God perfectly knows,” (1). Omniscience basically means that God “knows every true proposition and believes no false proposition” (2). According to William Lane Craig, there are also future tensed propositions, so God knows those as well. However, an open theist would say that since the future does not yet exist, future-tensed propositions have no truth value. Future events are neither true nor false, since the future hasn’t happened yet. So it’s no skin off God’s nose if He doesn’t know what the future actions of free creatures are, since it’s not possible to know those. The notion of knowing the future actions of free creatures is like the notion of a four cornered circle, it’s incoherent. Since most any philosopher of religion would say that God is coherent, it should be no problem for God’s omniscience that He knows only what is possible to know, and much of the future isn’t possible to know. It makes sense philosophically, but I’m not so sure I agree that future-tensed propositions don’t have truth value.  Open theists argue using the correspondence theory of truth, which means that truth is what corresponds to reality.  When I say “It is raining outside,” that statement is true if it IS raining outside (it corresponds to reality), but false if it is NOT raining outside (it doesn’t correspond to reality).  To the open theists, the future doesn’t exist, so when you state future tensed propositions like “It is going to rain tomorrow” or “It will rain tomorrow”, there is nothing for those propositions to correspond to, so they’re literally not true or false.  However, William Lane Craig says that those who hold this view “misunderstand the concept of truth as correspondence, which holds merely that a statement is true if and only if what it states to be the case really is the case . . . Truth as correspondence does not mean that the things or events which a true statement is about must exist,” (3).  Propositions in the present tense may need to correspond to an existing reality, but propositions in other tenses, like past and future, don’t need describe what exists.  Let’s take the past, does it exist?  No, the past is gone, it doesn’t exist anymore.  What if I were to say “It rained yesterday,” which is a past-tensed proposition.  Would this statement have truth value to it?  Of course it would!  If it DID rain yesterday, then the statement is true; if it DIDN’T rain yesterday, then it’s false.  So even though the past doesn’t exist anymore, past-tensed propositions are still true.  All that’s required for it to be true is that the claim is makes actually did happen in the past.  The same goes for future-tensed propositions.  If I say “It will rain tomorrow,” all that’s required for that to be true is if it indeed will rain tomorrow.  Let’s look at it this way:

February 12: It will rain tomorrow

February 13: It is raining

February 14: It rained yesterday

The second and third propositions are certainly true, why isn’t the first one true as well?  If it indeed did rain on February 13th, how was it not true (or false) to say that it will rain in the future?  If we deny the truth value of future-tensed propositions based on the logic open theists use, then we’d have to deny the truth value of past tensed propositions as well, which is clearly absurd.

Does it make sense Biblically? I don’t see how it does. We see numerous passages showing that God knows what will happen in the future and I don’t see how that can be reconciled with the open theist view. In Exodus he says “But I know that the king of Egypt will not let you go unless compelled by a mighty hand. So I will stretch out my hand and strike Egypt with all the wonders that I will do in it; after that he will let you go.” (Ex. 3:19-20). God here seems to clearly know that the Pharaoh wouldn’t let the people go if Moses told him and he wouldn’t let them go until God did wonders. You also notice later on that when things happen, like the Pharaoh hardening his heart, it happens “as the Lord had said” (Ex. 7:13, 8:15, 8:19, 9:12, 9:35). It seems highly unlikely that God simply made a conditional prediction. Another thing Scripture teaches is that God uses certain tests to show that the gods of other nations are false gods. “Let them bring them, and tell us what is to happen. Tell us the former things, what they are, that we may consider them, that we may know their outcome; or declare to us the things to come. Tell us what is to come hereafter, that we may know that you are gods,” (Isaiah 41:22-23). He uses the god’s lack of ability to see the future as proofs that they aren’t gods at all. “How presumptuous and wrong, then, for some system of theology to come along and deny of God the very basis by which he asserts his own deity,” (4). The main idea open theists have when it comes to interpreting Scripture is that passages that seem to show God’s ignorance of something, passages showing Him learning new information, or passages showing Him changing His mind should be read just as literally as any of the passages that seem to show Him knowing the future. The anthropomorphic or rhetorical interpretations of passages like Genesis 22:12, where God says to Abraham “now I know that you fear God”, are too awkward and farfetched to be taken seriously. They should be read in a straightforward manner. As for the passages that show God knowing the future, open theists get around that by saying God knows some of the future, like the things He decrees or the things that are an inevitable outcome of what’s already happened, but that doesn’t mean God knows the future exhaustively. So they believe that God knows the past and present fully, but only the future partly. However, if open theists are adamant about reading passages that seem to show God’s ignorance in a straightforward manner, why not passages showing God’s ignorance of present events? In Genesis 18:20-21, God tells Abraham that He will “go down” to Sodom and Gomorrah to see if they are sinning! If this is read in a straightforward manner, then we’d have to conclude that God doesn’t even know the past or present fully. Once more, we’d have to conclude that God isn’t omnipresent! Yet open theists affirm that God is omnipresent and knows the past and present fully, so there seems to be a difficulty on their part. They may say that those passages are clearly to be taken anthropomorphically because of the Scriptural evidence showing that God does know the past and present fully, but traditional theists would say that the passages showing God fully knows the future is very powerful and, therefore, passages seemingly showing God’s ignorance or change of mind should be taken anthropomorphically. If Scripture shows that God knows “the end from the beginning,” (Is. 46:10) and that He knows the words on our tongue before we even speak it (Ps. 139:4), and our philosophy contradicts that, perhaps there’s something wrong with our philosophy. If there’s any advantage to open theism, it’s that it seems to be a less troubling explanation for the problem of evil since it doesn’t run the risk of making God look like the cause of evil. Still, because of Scripture, I’m not willing to endorse this view myself.

I’m going to be learning more about this and other views of divine providence, so I’ll probably expand on this issue at some later date. Until then, I hope my description of open theism was accurate.

Here’s the interview I watched with Dean Zimmerman giving this view.

Here’s the interview with Peter Van Inwagen.

Here’s an interview with Greg Boyd, a pastor in Minnesota and one of the most well-known proponents and popularizers of Open theism.

Here is Boyd’s book, God of the Possible, which gives an easy to read introduction and defense of open theism.

Here is Bruce Ware’s book, God’s Lesser Glory, which is a biblical response to open theism.

  1. Boyd, Gregory A. God of the Possible: A Biblical Introduction to the Open View of God. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2000. 16. Print.
  2. Craig, William L., and J.P. Moreland. Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2003. 517. Print.
  3. Craig, William L. The Only Wise God: The Compatibility of Divine Foreknowledge and Human Freedom. Eugene: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 1999. 56. Print.
  4. Ware, Bruce A. Their God is too Small: Open Theism and the Undermining of Confidence in God. Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2003. 37. Print.
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2 Responses to Sovereignty, Freedom, and the Philosophers (pt. 1)

  1. Pingback: Apologetic Thursdays: Open Theism | Veritas

  2. Pingback: Apologetics Thursday – Knowing Pharaoh Beforehand | God is Open

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