Friday, July 12, 2019

The God of Abraham, Isaac, and open theism

On Facebook I got into an impromptu debate about open theism. It started out in response to a question about the binding of Isaac, but quickly developed into a discussion about open theism:

1. It was a counterfactual command, but to be a test, God couldn't let Abraham in on the secret.
2. To be a test of faith, it has to be something Abraham values. 
3. The ordeal is ultimately for the benefit of the reader. In a sense, the reader knows how the story ends before Abraham does. It gives the reader insight into God's trustworthiness, even when–or especially when, he makes apparently unreasonable demands. 
4. There are parallels between the ordeal of Abraham and the ordeal of Job.

The text suggests that the test/ordeal was for the benefit of God, to see whether Abraham feared Him and would be obedient to his command.

11 But the angel of the LORD called to him from heaven, and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” 12 He said, “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.

If you're an open theist. Is that your position?

Texts like this which suggest God learns lead me to lean in that direction.

i) One problem with open theism is other texts in which God is said to have everything that happens planned out in advance. But that would mean God can't be surprised by any turn of events. So there's the question of harmonization.
ii) Another problem is that open theist hermeneutics make Yahweh morally and intellectually similar to pagan gods who are finite in wisdom and knowledge. Pagan gods who lack emotional stability. Are dangerously fickle and unpredictable. Yet the Bible condemns paganism. But is the only difference that Yahweh is different pagan deity than Zeus or Ishtar? 
iii) It's inevitable that an intellectually superior being will accommodate his words and actions to the understanding of a less intelligent being, just as adults must adapt to the intellectual level of children. 
iv) Finally, it's hard to believe that the God who made the world, providentially controls the world, answers prayer, and reveals the future to prophets, is as dumb as the God posited by open theism.

1. I'm aware that pretty well every theological position has it's problematic verses. Which passages do you have in mind that state God has *everything* that happens planned in advance? 
2. Of course not. Can you help me understand why you think the Open Theist God is morally and intellectually inferior? Why would the Open Theist God who knows the future (which according to this view is not exhaustively settled but is partly comprised of possibilities) exhaustively be emotionally unstable? I believe God's character is unchanging. 
3. I agree, but God saying he learns something when in reality God knew all along seems more like obfuscation than accommodation.
4. Why do you think the God posited by open theism is dumb?

1. Ps 33:10-11,15; 139:16; Prov 19:21; Isa 14:24-27; 46:10-11; Acts 4:28; Rom 8:28-30; Eph 1:10-11; Rev 4:11. Rev 13:8; 17:8. 
2. Because open theists appeal to passages where God is lashing out in destructive rage when he's caught off-guard by unforeseen events, or having to be talked out of taking impetuous actions. Open theists appeal to passages showing God's impulsive, unthinking behavior and belated regret. That's how heathen deities behave in pagan mythology.
3. Even in human affairs, you may know more than you let on. Take leading questions that are designed, not to elicit information for the questioner's benefit, but to enable the respondent to recognize or discover something. 
4. Because open theists like Boyd appeal to passages in which God is blindsided by outcomes that are unsurprising even by human standards. How often must God be disappointed by human misbehavior before he wises up? Or God expressing dismay at the consequences of his own shortsighted actions.

The God of open theism is like an omnipotent child who lacks impulse control. Who lacks emotional maturity. He zaps his playmates in a fit of rage, then regrets his precipitous action. He's out of control. The God of open theism is all-to-human. That's like the gods of Homer and the Epic of Gilgamesh. Yet the Bible is supposed to present a corrective alternative to pagan concepts of divinity, where gods have a very humanoid psychological makeup.

The prooftexts for open theism are generally drawn from biblical narratives and poetic passages in the Prophets. Poetry is prone to hyperbole. 

Narrative theology has its own conventions. There's not a lot of editorializing. It describes events as participants experience them, sometimes from their viewpoint. What it was like for them to live through it, in suspense, not knowing the outcome. 

Occasionally the narrator will introduce a scene in a way that supplies interpretive clues. Occasionally the narrator will include editorial asides. But in general we must interpret biblical narratives in retrospect, with the benefit of hindsight. Like reading a novel, where you understand the plot better after you read it through once and know how it ends. 
Moreover, a check on narrative theology didactic literature that make abstract statements about God's nature and intentions from outside history, rather than viewing it from the inside. That detached viewpoint provides balance. 

In addition, there's polemical literature that draws a point of contrast between an erroneous viewpoint and the correct viewpoint. That's provides additional perspective. 
If narrative theology is primary, then Yahweh comes across as a thin-skinned, clueless deity who throws temper tantrums, then feels sorry for what he did after the damage is done.

Doesn't the use of language that suggests he does all of the above just confuse things and make it more likely that we'll come away believing falsehoods about God?

That cuts both ways. On an open theist reading of biblical narrative, God can't be trusted to keep his promises, in part because he's incompetent, and in part because he changes his mind at the drop of a hat.

Open theist hermeneutics is childish. In my experience, open theists, as well as some other Christians, think that when God is the speaker, we shouldn't expect God to express himself with any subtlety. In the case of divine discourse, we shouldn't have to make the same allowances we do in human discourse for the conventions and complexities of communication. The variety of functions and motivations. Some communication has a performative rather than propositional function. The purpose is not to much to convey information but to incentivize or disincentive certain behaviors, or to speak to the imagination, or to speak to the heart rather than the head.

Of the verses you listed, there's one that seems to fit the criteria of my question - Psalm 139:16.

Well, they fit my criteria to address your question. But perhaps this is not the best venue to run through each verse and expound it in relation to your question.

If indeed God has a metaphorical book containing all the days of the David's life before he was born, then that's a problem for open theism. Could it be that this was just a poetic/hyperbolic way of describing how intimately God knows David? Possibly. Are David's thoughts about God infallible? I don't see why must be so.

i) That's a costly move. Ps 139 is the locus classicus for the value of human life. If, however, those are merely David's fallible musings about God, then we lose a central prooftext for what makes human lives important.

ii) Moreover, the logic of your suggestion extends to the Psalter in general. There's a lot of theology in the Psalter, including messianic Psalms. Are those just the fallible musings of the psalmists? 

If I understand correctly, you think if we interpret narratives in which God changes his mind, is surprised, regrets etc. literally then we end up with a pretty crappy, incompetent God that can't be relied on? Got some examples?

On open theist face-value readings, God wipes out the entire race except for 8 survivors because he made a terrible mistake when he created them in the first place (Gen 6:6). 

God plans to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah without regard the innocent victims who might perish in the process. Abraham is wiser than God, giving him moral advice that God was too thoughtless to consider on his own (Gen 18). 

God is bent on annihilating the Israelites in the wilderness until Moses gets him cool off by shaming him and appealing to his vanity. What will the people say? (Deut 9:14,28). 

God isn't merely ignorant about the future but has false expectations about the future (Jer 3:19-20; Jer 7:31; 19:5; 32:35). 

God is so forgetful that he needs the rainbow to remind him of his covenant with Noah. Ditto: Isa 62:6. He suffers from amnesia. 

What about Gen 8:21? Does God have a sense of smell? 

I just think that if your view is correct it's beyond subtle - it's simply confusing.

Confusing to whom? Were ancient and medieval Rabbis confused? Were they open theists? 

You're saying that when scripture says God changes his mind, that the reality is the exact opposite. The metaphor is nothing like the reality is points to.

There's a difference between changing a plan and planned changes. For instance, some prophecies are conditional. But that's not God changing his mind in light of unforeseen eventualities. Rather, conditionality was built into the prophecies, and their purpose wasn't to predict the future; rather, the threats gave Israelites an incentive to repent. Take the programmatic passage in Jer 18:7-10. That's a standing policy rather than a changing policy. 

I am reluctant to use his words as proof texts, just as I wouldn't use derive theology from Jobs friends speeches.

Scripture treats David as a prophet, unlike Job's friends. 

1 comment:

  1. "The text suggests that the test/ordeal was for the benefit of God, to see whether Abraham feared Him and would be obedient to his command."

    Another issue with that pointed out by John Frame and others is that God could simply have looked at his heart and seen that he was a God fearing person. So, it isn't really necessary for God to request that of him to find that out.