Sunday, November 16, 2008

God's foreknowledge as a result of his sovereignty

In my last post I criticized Greg Boyd's otherwise-excellent arguments in "God of the Possible" as giving insufficient attention to God's sovereignty as an important key to understanding his foreknowledge. I suggested that while Boyd correctly answers his objectors toward the end of the book, by saying that the Open View of God does not diminish--and may in fact enhance--the view of God's authority, he could have applied the fact of God's sovereign nature to the question at hand to far greater effect. In this post I will elaborate on why I think it matters.

The classical view of God's foreknowledge, which Boyd describes well, seems to me to imply that part of the foundation of God's authority rests on the fact of his settled foreknowledge about all that will happen. Though I am vastly oversimplifying, in essence the thought seems to be that God's power and/or authority depend at least in part on God's omniscience--his ability to see the end from the beginning--to "know all things."

I submit this is getting the cart before the horse, and the fact that Boyd does not point this out complicates his own explanation about the future being "partially open" and "partially settled." I suggest rather that God has settled in his mind that there are certain things he's going to do, and certain outcomes that he is going to ensure take place. Those things are "settled" for the simple reason that God has resolved that he will do them. Isaiah 45:23 is a great example of this, where God says "I swear by myself" that one day everyone will acknowledge he's the only God. This is not conditional on anything, but nor is it a passively-settled future event. It's something God is going to accomplish, and he knows he can and will do it. His foreknowledge, therefore, is absolutely settled because God the omnipotent can deliver on his commitment.

In the same vein, however, those things that God in his sovereignty has delegated to his creatures to decide, remain uncertain until his free moral agents choose among the possibilities. Here Boyd makes a very plausible case that God, being infinite in knowledge, can forsee all of the possible choices we might make, and even rank them in probability based upon our character and the character of other players, environmental factors, etc. that lead us to decide as we do. This perspective permeates the book, but one good place to see it is in his question 6 discussion on pp 126 and following, where he offers the analogy of God as the "infinitely intelligent chess player" who can anticipate all our possible moves. As Boyd correctly points out, this actually requires a lot more intellectual horsepower than simply to know the one fully-determined script that everything is going to follow, and thus an open view of God actually posits a more intelligent, more wise, more glorious perspective for God than that of exhaustive, settled foreknowledge.

Even if the choice we make from among the possibilities is one that God did not expect or desire (and Boyd makes an unambiguous Scriptural case for this happening), this does not diminish the fact of his sovereignty in the slightest, because regardless of the outcome of our choices, he is confident in his power (and so ought we to be) to take whatever mess we make and still accomplish his good purpose. Put crudely, we have the ability to screw things up because that's one of the possible consequences of the freedom to choose, which God has granted. However--and this is cause for joy--we don't have the ability to screw them up beyond repair. THAT is God's sovereignty (and his grace) in full force!

The Sovereignty of God

I’ve just finished Greg Boyd’s lay treatise on the Open Theism entitled “God of the Possible.” In the main I think Boyd has laid out an excellent perspective that conforms far more closely to my understanding of Scripture and my observation of the world, than does the classical view that God has exhaustive foreknowledge of a settled future. I definitely recommend the book.

However correct he is about the openness of the future and of God’s knowledge of that future, I think Boyd misses the significance of God’s sovereignty as it informs God’s future knowledge. It is not wholly unaddressed—Question 16 in chapter 4 deals in some degree with the objection classical evangelicals raise, that the open view of God somehow demeans God’s sovereignty (pp. 147 and following in the paperback edition). Nevertheless I suggest that if Boyd were more fully to consider the basic nature of God’s sovereignty, he could present a more forceful response to this question.

We Americans (perhaps others, but I know “us” best) don’t get the concept of sovereignty in anything remotely approaching a Biblical sense. It’s not our fault exactly, it’s in the DNA of our nation. The American Declaration of Independence illustrates my point, when it states that governments “. . .deriv(e) their just powers from the consent of the governed.” This concept, that we, the ruled, are in fact the source of the ruler’s authority, is a fundamental American belief, but it was wildly revolutionary in the context of European monarchs whose sovereignty was derived, either from divine right (that is, conferred upon them by God), or by their own self-existence. Interestingly, even now the term “Sovereign” in a monarchy refers, not to the state or the nation, but to the person of the monarch him- or herself. This contrasts sharply with our constitutional republic in which the people themselves are the sovereign (I speak, of course, of the governing philosophy with no comment on how it is—or isn’t—reflected in reality).

But all too often--and in sharp contrast to the way any Biblical contemporary would have understood it--American Christians’ description of God’s sovereignty falls into the trap of imputing to God’s authority the same source as human governments—namely us. This is true any time anyone makes the claim “if God weren’t this way (pick the theological trait of choice), he wouldn’t be sovereign.” This is hubris of the highest degree. What we’re really saying is that we couldn’t possibly grant the sovereignty of anybody who doesn’t measure up to our standard. In other words, God Himself is presumed to derive HIS just powers from our consent. Now, no good Evangelical would actually admit that is what he is saying; in fact he’d rightly counter that it was heresy. But when we attach conditions to the sovereignty of God, that’s exactly what we’re doing.

What I’m getting at is that God is sovereign simply and completely because he is—full stop. There are no conditions, no criteria that define or justify the fact that God is supreme over all things in heaven and on earth. God doesn’t derive his power or authority from anything at all. Rather it is one of the truths of his self-existent being. If nothing else we believe about God were true, his supreme authority would not be affected in any way, because it stands on its own. Therefore, any pronouncement of the sort “If X were not true, God’s sovereignty would be diminished” is sheer nonsense.

This brings me back to the open view of God, and Boyd’s book in particular, but I’ll save that for the next post.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Insight from Boyd on Bringing Our Presuppositions to Scripture

I'm in the middle of Greg Boyd's excellent book "God of the Possible," an introduction to the "Open View of God" which I find quite compelling, but which I'm sorry to say some of my Evangelical friends have flatly rejected as heresy. I'll address the Open View in future posts, but for now I wanted to share a point he makes regarding our interpretation of Scripture.

Boyd clearly espouses a tighter view of Scriptural inspiration than I do--that is, he consistently refers to the whole Biblical text as the Word of God rather than searching for the Word of God WITHIN the Biblical text as I propose. Nevertheless I am in full agreement with the following statement (p 56-57 of the paperback edition), which he makes in partial response to the objection that if God regrets a decision he has made, he "must not be perfectly wise":

. . .it is better to allow Scripture to inform us regarding the nature of divine wisdom than to reinterpret an entire motif in order to square it with our preconceptions of divine wisdom. If God says he regretted a decision, and if Scripture elsewhere tells us that God is perfectly wise, then we should simply conclude that one can be perfectly wise and still regret a decision. Even if this is a mystery to us, it is better to allow the mystery to stand than to assume that we know what God's wisdom is like and conclude on this basis that God can't mean what he clearly says. (emphasis mine)

This quote highlights a problem that I believe pervades a great deal of theology, both modern and of long standing. Two observations that I think are key:
  1. Our theology is far too intolerant of mystery. We seem to operate under the assumption that unless our system of belief has a complete explanation for every conceivable objection, we have not got it right. I regard it as the height of arrogance that finite humans could presume to fully understand the ways of an infinite God, yet in questions such as God's sovereignty we insist on explaining and analyzing it as if we were in fact the arbiters of God's authority.
  2. The plain reading of Scripture is frequently far simpler (and, I submit, more likely to be true) than the contortions we force it through in order to fit our systematic theology. While it by no means always holds true, we would do well to start with the assumption that if a simple explanation fits the facts (or in this case, the Scriptural texts), it makes no sense to look for a more complicated one.