Introduction | John Sanders 1 | Chris Hall 1 | Sanders 2 | Hall 2

Part 2:
John Sanders 3 | Chris Hall 3 | Sanders 4 | Hall 4 | Sanders 5 | Postscript

Dear John,

Like you, I think it's quite helpful to reflect on what has shaped each of us, and how this formation no doubt influences how we do theology and the conclusions we reach. What and who has deeply formed me? My questions and struggles have surely shaped me. Probably the greatest question I've faced over the years, theologically, spiritually, and emotionally, has been the problem of evil. And lurking behind this question, especially during my early days as a Christian, was the question of God. More particularly, was God good? Could God be trusted?

The divorce of my parents when I was a very young believer, for instance, caused me great anguish, especially when it appeared as though God had remained deaf to my fervent prayers that my parents' marriage be preserved. At that time, it seemed to me that my petitions had bounced back into my face, ricocheting off the walls of an inaccessible heaven.

During the same period, I worked as a driver and handyman for one of California's largest mortuaries, and I daily faced the question of evil and suffering. Was God in control of human history? Did God genuinely realize how many people were dying in Los Angeles, oftentimes alone, in despair, and in horrific circumstances? Did God care?

Lastly, during my later college years I began traveling internationally and quickly learned that the tragedies I had encountered in my family and behind the wheel of a hearse were multiplied worldwide. Indeed, the level of suffering I observed in countries such as Indonesia and India surpassed what I had experienced in the States.

I specifically recall visiting a refugee camp in Calcutta as war broke out between East and West Pakistan in the early '70s. As I witnessed children dying from starvation and disease I again wondered, Where is God in all this? Is God in control of human history? Does God know the end from the beginning? Is God sovereign over time itself? Is God's knowledge of the future perfect and complete? Is God ever caught off guard or surprised by what occurs as history unfolds? Is God good? Is God loving? Can God be trusted? Are there certain decisions, events, and accidents that God could not prevent, largely because God either did not know they were going to occur or did not desire to violate human freedom? Did God possess the power and knowledge to protect me from my own folly, sin, and error? What could I expect from the God portrayed in the Scripture?

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How have I gone about finding answers? Two key sources come to mind: First, there is the Bible itself. I, like you, affirm the absolute authority of the Scripture over my life and thought. This affirmation is not a guarantee that I'll read and interpret it well or correctly, but the Scripture and its inherent authority is an indispensable starting point for theological reflection. Hence, if you can convince me that the Bible affirms and supports the openness position, I'd have to make serious adjustments in my own thinking and practice as a Christian.

Second, the church's history of exegesis or exegetical tradition deeply influences the interpretive choices I make as I read the Bible. Tom Oden has particularly helped me to see that the church's exegesis, particularly in its earliest years, must never be overlooked as we work exegetically and theologically in the modern context.

Thus, a key question: "Has the church, Orthodox, Roman Catholic, or in its many Protestant communities, ever taught that God's knowledge of the future is limited, or that God is surprised or caught off guard by what occurs as time progresses?"

Stan Grenz ponders the same question in his comments on your work in his recent book, Renewing the Center. "What is perhaps even more disquieting about Sanders's proposal," Grenz writes, "is that it seems to require the rejection of such a broad swath of the Christian theological tradition. He intimates that on something as fundamental as our basic conception of God, nearly everyone from the fifth century to the present has deviated far from the true understanding of biblical texts."

I acknowledge that there have been figures in the church's history who have argued that God's foreknowledge is limited, but they are minor figures at best, and the church as a community has never validated their conclusions. While the interpretive tradition of the church is not infallible, extremely convincing exegesis will need to be forthcoming if the two marks of openness theology are to be accepted, that is: (a) God's knowledge of the future is limited, and (b) God's knowledge grows as time itself proceeds.

Finally, James Packer taught me that while biblical revelation is absolutely infallible, it presently contains certain irresolvable tensions, largely because God haschosen to keep certain things to himself, at least for the present. Thus, while God always speaks truthfully, God might well choose to remain silent or incomplete in his communication. Indeed, Moses taught Israel that the "secret things belong to the Lord" (Deut. 29:29). Packer has warned me, both as his student in Vancouver and in many of his writings, to beware of draining the mystery out of the Scripture in a misplaced desire for rational consistency. In Packer's words, we can frequently trace theological confusion and error to "the intruding of rationalistic speculations, the passion for systematic consistency, a reluctance to recognize the existence of mystery and. … a consequent subjecting of Scripture to the supposed demands of human logic." Hence, I have learned to live with incompleteness, paradox, incomprehensibility, and deep mystery in my relationship with God and as I think theologically.

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Simultaneously, though, the Bible makes certain things quite clear. For instance, while evil in its essence may remain inexplicable to me, in Jesus Christ, God has clearly spoken against evil and sin. While I may not understand why God has allowed certain events to take place, or has seen fit to remain seemingly silent in answer to certain of my prayers, I can know that God loves me and his world infinitely. How so? God has demonstrated this love and goodness in the incarnation, ministry, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. While God allows evil to occur and, indeed, uses it to further his own purposes, God has spoken and acted against that very same evil, as seen in the earliest sections of the biblical narrative (cf. Gen. 3). In Christ we have God's definitive statement against sin, evil, and suffering. God's last word will always be a redemptive one.

I find Tom Oden's comments in The Living God to be helpful, both concerning the nature and extent of God's knowledge and regarding God's relationship to time itself. In a way, Oden is simply summing up the ecumenical consensus reached upon these issues in the early centuries of the church's history. God's knowledge is "without limitation or qualification." It is, as the psalmist writes, "beyond all telling" (Ps. 147:5). What of God's knowledge of the future? "God's incomparable way of knowing knows the end of things even from the beginning: 'I reveal the end from the beginning, from ancient times I reveal what is to be; I say, "My purpose shall take effect, I will accomplish all that I please"'" (Isa. 46:9). God knows "past, present, and future. … external events and inward motivations."

Unlike human nature, God's knowledge is not partial or fragmentary, most importantly because God's knowledge does not occur "from a particular nexus of time." Rather, God "knows exhaustively, in eternal simultaneity." In short, God's knowledge is "incomparable." Surely this is what we should expect if we're dealing with God.

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A word or two further regarding God's relationship to time might be appropriate, particularly in light of the openness model's contention that there are aspects of the future God does not know. I contend that this is incorrect, largely because God's relationship to time forecloses the possibility that God does not know all aspects of the future. Here Oden is again helpful. The argument runs along the following lines:

God's knowledge of the world is infinite. Hence, God in relationship to time "must be aware of duration and succession, even though not bound by them. If God did not understand duration and succession, God would understand even less about time than we do."

Even though God understands time, God is not trapped within it. God remains eternal. Thus, God "views all times as eternal now," while simultaneously understanding "the process of temporal succession." Here is a key distinction between divine and human knowledge. "We do not know next year until next year, but God knows next year already. We learn only successively through experiencing, but God does not have to learn something God already knows. We know things in part and by pieces, but God knows things fully, all at once," while still understanding duration and succession.

Thus, future events are not future for God, "but simply present." This seems to me to be a critical distinction that clearly sets off the classical model from that held by openness theologians.

Let me know what you think.

With warm greetings,


John Sanders replies, next page.

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