In the first half of this e-mail dialogue, we saw that the debate over openness theology has many dimensions. Some are pastoral (Do our prayers change God? Are the evils we experience part of God's plan for us?). The issues are also theological (Does God foreordain or even know the future?) and exegetical (How do we understand Bible verses that say God changes his mind?) and philosophical (What is God's relationship to time?). The questions raised by this controversial new theology affect almost every aspect of the way we believe, pray, and live.
Fortunately, our debaters not only have the wherewithal to tackle such meaty questions but do so in a way that engages even the theologically untrained. Eastern College's Chris Hall (author of Reading Scripture with the Church Fathers, IVP) and Huntington College's John Sanders (author of The God Who Risks, IVP) also model for us the way serious theological debate might be handled.
The first part left off with Hall making the first stab at exegetical concerns. He asked Sanders some pointed questions about Genesis 22, the story of Abraham's aborted sacrifice of Isaac. We begin with Sanders's reply.
This two-part dialogue was made possible in part by a grant from the Lilly Endowment Inc.
Again you cause me to think and to pursue the truth in dialogue with you. You raise the issue of the divine testing of Abraham. Let me begin by pointing out that God puts a great many people to the test in order to find out what they really value and believe. God repeatedly tested the people of Israel to see whether they would trust and follow him or not (Exod. 16:4, 20:20; Judg. 2:22) and God tested people such as King Hezekiah so that God would "know what was in his heart" (2 Chron. 32:31). Why all this testing if God already knew the outcomes? Yes, God knows our hearts, but he seems to obtain this knowledge by testing.
The openness interpretation does not call into question God's "present knowledge" of Abraham's character. Rather, the point is that Abraham's character is not fully formed in crucial respects until he has faced this ultimate test. What God knows about Abraham is different after the test because Abraham himself has become something different than he was previously. Abraham's decision and actions are part of the character-forming process, and the question for God is whether Abraham will trust him in this seeming reversal of the divine promise. Moreover, though God may have had a very good idea of what Abraham would do, Abraham's free decision was not enacted until that point. You and I have different views about human freedom. You believe in a form of "soft determinism" in which Abraham could not have done otherwise, so there is no uncertainty as to what Abraham will do and so God's test is not a test at all. However, I believe that Abraham could have, even at the last moment, refused to obey God, so the test is genuine.
You claim that Abraham's faith is already established by the time we reach Genesis 22. I do not believe God is "suddenly second-guessing himself." Rather, in Genesis 15:6 God indicates that Abraham is in the right sort of relationship with God. Abraham is making progress in trusting God, and God informs him that he is on the right track. However, the relationship is not static. True, Abraham has a history of faithfulness, but it is mixed with a history of not trusting God as well. He twice passes off Sarah as his sister because he fears men rather than God, has a son through Hagar, and complains to God that God has not fulfilled what he has promised. Abraham, like all of us, is a mixed bag. All through his life, Abraham is worried about protecting his life and is anxious about passing on his inheritance to his "real" son. All this is to say that Abraham is not a finished person, or the kind of person God believes he can count on until passing this test.
You chide me for finding something in an Old Testament text that neither the canonical nor the patristic writers advocate. This is a dubious principle of interpretation if left unqualified. If we can only repeat what the New Testament writers said about Old Testament passages, then we shall not have much to say. Though the interpretations of the canonical writers are correct, they do not say everything that needs to be said regarding the Old Testament. Just because Paul highlights certain parts of the narrative that suit his purpose does not mean there are no other points to the narrative. Following your principle, the patristic writers you cite were wrong to see Isaac as a type of Christ since none of the canonical writers do so. How can you let them get something out of the text that is not in the apostolic witness?
You ask why the Fathers do not interpret the "now I know" (Gen. 22:12) the same way I do. Elsewhere I have documented that though the Fathers were correct to engage and make use of Greek philosophy, they accepted certain philosophical notions that prevented them from reading some (not all) biblical texts in the correct way. We all have our presuppositions, and theirs led many of them to conclude that God cannot actually grieve or change his mind or be affected by our prayers. I find this quite unscriptural. Let me give some examples. God does grieve over our sinful rebellion (Gen. 6:6; Eph. 4:30). Though God originally planned to have Saul and his lineage be kings over Israel, because of Saul's sin, God changed his mind and selected David instead (1 Sam. 13:13, 15:11).
The prophet Isaiah says to King Hezekiah, "Thus says the Lord," you will die and not recover from this illness. Hezekiah prays to God, asking him to change his mind. God does and sends Isaiah back to announce, "Thus says the Lord," you will recover from this illness (2 Kings 20:1-6).
Our prayers can have an effect on God's plans. It makes no sense to say God grieves, changes his mind, and is influenced by our prayers, and also claim that God tightly controls everything so that everything that occurs is what God desired to happen! Furthermore, on several occasions God expected Israel to repent but they did not do what God expected (Isa. 5:2; Jer. 3:6-7, 19-20). Also, God uses words such as might, if, and perhaps (Exod. 4:8-9; Jer. 26:3; Ezek. 12:3), indicating that some of the future is open, but such words make no sense in your view—in fact, God seems less than genuine to offer forgiveness when he already knows they will not repent.
There are two types of texts concerning divine omniscience in Scripture: those that portray God as knowing precisely what will happen (Jer. 5) and those that portray God as not knowing precisely what will happen (the texts I've just cited). We believe the best way of holding on to both sorts of texts is to see the future as partly definite and partly indefinite, even for God. The typical strategy is to claim that the texts portraying God as knowing exactly what will happen are true while those that depict God as not knowing or grieving do not tell us the truth about God. You accuse us of "subjecting Scripture to human logic" but that is exactly what you are doing here! We uphold both types of texts rather than subsume one under the other, so we believe openness is a superior perspective.
Your fellow servant,
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