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,

Since for both of us the Bible remains the ultimate authority, it's probably best to compare notes concerning key exegetical issues. The key question for me is this: does the exegesis being produced by openness scholars possess the exegetical strength to overturn the heart of the church's interpretive teaching regarding God's knowledge of the future and God's relationship to time? What if we focus on two key texts, God's testing of Abraham in Genesis 22, and Judas's betrayal and Peter's denial of Jesus?

In our correspondence, you've asked me, "What do you do with all the Old Testament references to God's grieving, changing, delighting, and repenting? Does not God say to Abraham, 'Now I know you fear God' in response to Abraham's willingness to sacrifice Isaac? Does this not indicate that God's knowledge of Abraham has grown in response to Abraham's act of great faith?" Good question. You're right in seeing that we both will need to make sense of God's words in Gen. 22:12. "Do not stretch out your hand against the lad, and do nothing to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me" (Gen. 22:12).

Walter Brueggemann, whom you have quoted, writes that "God genuinely does not know. … The flow of the narrative accomplishes something in the awareness of God. He did not know. Now he knows." What did God need to know that he did not yet understand? Why the test to elicit the needed information?

You have written, "The answer is to be found in God's desire to bless all the nations of the earth (Gen. 12:3). God needs to know if Abraham is the sort of person on whom God can count for collaboration toward the fulfillment of the divine project. Will he be faithful? Or must God find someone else through whom to achieve his purpose? God has been faithful; will Abraham be faithful? Will God have to modify his plans with Abraham?" The straightforward, literal meaning of Genesis 22 is that God "now" learned that Abraham would be faithful.

Even an opponent of openness theology such as Bruce Ware admits that unless compelling reasons can be found for not accepting the straightforward meaning of the text, this meaning should be accepted. Ware, though, lists at least three fundamental problems with accepting the "literal" meaning, objections that appear quite reasonable to me.

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If God must test Abraham to find out what is in his heart, this surely calls into question God's "present knowledge of Abraham's inner spiritual, psychological, mental, and emotional state." Yet other biblical texts teach that God does know the inner thoughts of human beings. Indeed, one of the characteristics that sets God apart from humans, a trait that demonstrates the glory of God, is God's ability to do this very thing. The Chronicler writes that "the Lord searches all hearts, and understands every intent of the thoughts." In 1 Samuel 16:7 we read, "the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart." David writes, "O Lord, you have searched me and you know me. You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar. You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways. Before a word is on my tongue, you know it completely, O Lord" (Ps. 139:1-2).

It escapes me how God could possibly know David's thoughts before he expresses them, if God cannot know fully his unexpressed inner life. In fact, it is God's wondrous ability to far surpass humans in his knowledge that elicits David's praise: "Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, too lofty for me to attain" (v. 6). Of course it is. David is not God.

Surely texts such as these can provide a lens through which I interpret what is going on between God and Abraham. If I can't use them to interpret the Abraham narrative, then one must conclude that there are at least some of Abraham's thoughts, indeed, his most important ones, that are beyond the ability of God to discern until Abraham actually acts. Thus God's knowledge is not only limited as to the future but also in the present.

As a result of the test, God now knows that Abraham fears God. Ware rightly asks if God did not know this already. Is this lack of knowledge plausible? Had not Abraham's actions, from his response of faith in Genesis 12 to God's promises, to his willingness to continue to live a life of faith in Genesis 15, indicated that he deeply feared God? Is it plausible to believe that God did not know Abraham feared him until the very point when Abraham raised his knife above the child of the promise? If so, Abraham seems to understand God better than God understands Abraham, for Abraham realized that God possessed the power to raise Isaac from the dead (Heb. 11:19). Did God not perceive that Abraham understood God possessed this power? Abraham understands this before he ever attempts to sacrifice Isaac. And yet God couldn't perceive this tremendous faith in Abraham? Think, too, of Abraham's instructions to his servant in Genesis 22:5. He instructs his servant to wait for both him and Isaac. Why? Abraham fully expected that both would return, even if a resurrection is demanded for the return trip to take place. Such a perspective seems to be demanded if the logic of Hebrews is included in the interpretive grid of Genesis 22. If so, how can your interpretation be correct? A "literal" interpretation of Genesis 22 appears to run into insuperable difficulties.

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Ware, I think rightly, points to Paul's words in Romans 4:18-22 as evidence of Abraham's long track record of faithfulness and reverence, well before the command to sacrifice Isaac. "Against all hope," Paul writes, "Abraham in hope believed and so became the father of many nations. … Without weakening in his faith, he faced the fact that his body was as good as dead. … yet he did not waver through unbelief regarding the promise of God." Abraham's demonstration of faith and reverence, a faith credited to him by God as righteousness, is already established by the time we reach Genesis 22. Is that same God suddenly second-guessing himself by asking Abraham to sacrifice Isaac? Was God not convinced by the long history of faithfulness that had already occurred between Abraham and him?

Finally, Ware asks how can God possibly know, at least from an openness perspective, that Abraham will remain faithful in the future? In Ware's words, "What open theists claim God gained from this was, on openness grounds, either already known to God (so he did not learn something new in this test) or at best was a transient and passing truth (which could give no real assurance of how Abraham would act in the future). The straightforward meaning open theists commend simply cannot be the intended meaning of the text." If the text does not concern the extent of God's knowledge, what does it concern? When we find New Testament writers such as James or the author of Hebrews commenting on this text, they focus on Abraham's willingness to sacrifice Isaac as a sign of faith manifesting itself in good works, and on Abraham's faith in God's power to raise the dead. Even if Isaac dies at Abraham's hand, Abraham believes God can bring him back to life (cf. Heb. 11:17-19; James 2:21). No New Testament writer uses this text to develop ideas concerning the nature or extent of God's knowledge. So, if I'm to find the heart of the text's meaning, I need to hear the text as apostolic witnesses are hearing it.

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This reading of the text, one that focuses on Abraham's faith in God's power to raise the dead, is also emphasized by early patristic commentators on this narrative. Origen does mention briefly that some opponents (probably non-Christian critics of the gospel) have "thrown out against us that God says that 'now' he had learned that Abraham fears God as though he were such as not to have known previously." Origen dismisses this possibility out of hand, as do almost all patristic commentators on Genesis 22. Why?

He constantly compared Scripture with Scripture. The interpretation which Origen offers, along with other early Christian commentators such as Ambrose, Chrysostom, and Caesarius of Arles, is multileveled. For example, the Fathers frequently understood Isaac to be a type of Christ; so was the ram caught in the bush. Caesarius understands Abraham to be a type of God the Father, who later is to willingly offer his Son as a sacrifice for the sin of the world. Indeed, Caesarius notes that in the liturgical rhythm of the year, Genesis 22 was read at Easter, "when the true Isaac, whose type the son of Abraham showed, is fastened to the gibbet of the cross for the human race." I find this multileveled reading of the text to be exegetically fruitful and theologically profound.

Perhaps more to the point regarding the openness position, the comments of both New Testament writers and patristic commentators insist the heart of Genesis 22 is Abraham's faith, not God's knowledge. If the openness interpretation of Genesis 22 is valid, why do neither canonical nor patristic writers advocate it?

With warm greetings,


John Sanders replies, next page.

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