In two previous articles, I summarized the open view of God advocated by Gregory A. Boyd in his God of the Possible and offered a basic criticism of this view. Boyd’s book represents a significant movement within North American evangelicalism, which wants to revise in a substantial way the traditional understanding of God’s omniscience and omnipotence. The fact that a respected publishing house like Baker would be willing to publish this kind of book illustrates the extent of the influence of this view.
In my previous article, I noted that, according to the open view of God, we need to limit God’s knowledge and determination of the future in the interest of preserving human freedom. There are some things in the future that even God cannot know, namely, the free actions of free creatures. This is the real source of the many errors to which the open view of God leads. Contrary to Boyd’s claims that his view arises out of the study of Scripture, I suggested that it really expresses a specious view of human autonomy. The preeminent value in Boyd’s theological position, which trumps even the biblical teaching regarding God’s transcendent greatness and sovereign dominion over all things, is the freedom or power of creatures like human beings to do whatever they will. Because human beings are free to create their own future, whatever that future might turn out to be, God can neither know it in advance of its occurrence or direct it infallibly to accomplish His purposes.
Language About God: “Literal” or “Analogical”?
One of the large claims of Boyd’s book is that the open view of God is able to resolve the problem of divine sovereignty and human freedom. Rather than settling for the “impenetrable paradox… of asserting that self-determining free actions are settled in eternity before free agents make them” (91), this view offers a simple explanation of things.
Specifically, the open view of God treats literally the biblical descriptions of God’s “repenting” or “changing His mind,” including His expressions of regret or remorse regarding the way things turn out in certain circumstances.
According to Boyd, the classic view of God treats literally those biblical passages which speak of God’s foreknowledge and foreordination of all things. But the classic view is unwilling to treat literally those passages which suggest that the future is undetermined or open to a variety of possibilities. By comparison, the open view has the advantage of treating all of the biblical passages in the same way. Passages which suggest that the future is (partly) open, even from the vantage point of God’s foreknowledge and counsel, should be treated as literally as those passages which suggest the future is (partly) closed. The simplest way to show the compatibility of divine sovereignty and human responsibility is to say that God is partly responsible for what happens and human beings are partly responsible. God does His part and we do ours what could be more simple?
Lurking beneath the surface of this superficially simple solution lies a serious problem, however. Boyd has little or no appreciation for the complexity of the Bible’s language regarding God and His dealings with His creatures. Historic Christian theology has maintained that the language of Scripture, when it speaks of God’s works in relation to the creature, should be treated with special care. Because the Triune God is transcendently great and surpasses in His ways and works all human comprehension, we may not regard the biblical descriptions of His actions as though they literally mean the same thing with respect to His actions as they might mean with respect to ours. Furthermore, we may not draw conclusions about who God is from one group of passages (for example, passages that seem to limit His knowledge) without comparing them with other passages. A balanced and full understanding of the Triune God will be one that carefully weighs all of the biblical testimony.
For example, if the Bible speaks of God “changing His mind” or “regretting” a particular turn of events, this should be taken “as a manner of speaking” which, though true, does not have the literal meaning for God as it has for us. We are speaking, after all, of God’s, not man’s, repenting. Whatever such repentance means for God, it does not entail all of the things that it means for us. No doubt it means that God’s relations with His creatures are real and significant to Him, as they are to us. But it does not mean that God changes His mind in the way we human beings change our minds. Similarly, when God is said to “come to know something” (e.g. the testing of Abraham’s obedience, Genesis 22), this has to be understood in the light of the whole teaching of Scripture and in a way that guards against reducing God to a human standard of what it is to come to know something experientially.
In the history of Christian theology, the language of Scripture, especially when it describes the Triune God and His works, has been described as “analogical,” not “literal.” Analogical language is language which compares two persons or things in terms of their similarities and their dissimilarities. To describe someone analogically is to say that he is “like” and “unlike” someone else; there is similarity with a difference. For example, if I were to say that someone is as “sly as a fox,” I am not saying that the person is a fox. That would be a literal misunderstanding of my description. Rather, I am saying that the person is like a fox in that he sly and clever. Likewise, when the Bible says that God “repents,” it means that He is like us in having sorrow or regret over certain events, even though we know from the Scriptures that He is unlike us in never being truly frustrated in the realization of His purposes. There is always similarity with a difference in the comparisons between God and the creature.
Something like this is true of all of the biblical descriptions of God. The Scriptures reveal God to us by using the language of analogy, comparing Him in a rich variety of ways with His creatures. For example, anthropomorphisms, which use human characteristics and qualities as points of comparison (e.g., “the eyes of the Lord are in every place, beholding the evil and the good”), are not literal but analogical descriptions. Because God is transcendently great and glorious, no creaturely point of comparison can be equated or identified with Him, lest He be belittled or maligned.
One of the problems of the open view of God is that it fails to do justice to the whole range of biblical revelation regarding God, including especially those passages which distinguish Him in His greatness from all things creaturely. By treating the language of Scripture literally, particularly when it speaks of God’s actions in terms drawn often from human experience, God is “humanized” in the sense that He becomes smaller. One cannot avoid the impression that the open view of God leaves us with an all-tao-human figure. The “god” of the open view is a figure who is often baffled and frustrated by the way things turn out, who tries a variety of methods to accomplish His purposes with greater or lesser success. How a “god” who is ignorant of much of the future, who is so weak as to be unable to secure His ends in the manner He pleases, and who contributes only a little to the salvation of His people—how such a “god” could be worthy of worship or evoke the wonder and awe of His creatures is difficult to conceive.
Speaking of “Practical Differences”
Rather than leave my evaluation of Boyd’s study at the level of these general concerns, I would like to conclude by briefly noting some problems of a more “practical” nature. Though Boyd claims that the open view has a number of practical benefits, the truth is that it has a number of very serious practical difficulties.
Nothing in Boyd’s book is more disturbing than the way he deals with God’s gracious purpose of election in Christ. In one striking passage, which purports to be a statement of the teaching of Ephesians 1:4, Boyd asserts that our salvation “is not up to God alone” but “whoever chooses to be ‘in Christ’ is predestined to be ‘holy and blameless before him in love’” (47, emphasis his). This treatment is fairly representative of Boyd’s handling of other biblical texts (if they are mentioned at all) on the doctrine of election. When all is said and done, the salvation of any person hangs upon their “free choice” to believe. Not only so but any prospect of salvation for the future continually hangs upon our choices to continue to believe. Whether it be in the past, the present, or the future, our salvation, according to Boyd, stems from the free and undetermined decisions that we make.
I am reminded in this connection of Calvin’s insistence that there are two things that are especially to be remembered when it comes to our salvation by God’s sovereign grace in Christ: God’s honor and our comfort. Our salvation is wholly of grace. Election in Christ from before the foundation of the world stops our mouths and removes every occasion for boasting before God. God loved me in Christ and secures my salvation in Him merely of grace. And that, of course, is my great comfort. I can rest securely in God’s grace toward me in Christ, confident that the work He begins He will certainly finish.
Little of this is to be discovered in Boyd’s study. God’s grace is diminished; human free will is exalted. But all of this carries a high price: the loss of God’s honor in our salvation and the pathetic prospect of depending for my salvation upon my own resources of free will.
A Secure Future
A further difficulty of the open view of God is that it can afford little hope for the future. Because the future depends in large measure upon the uncertain foundation of indeterminate choices of sinful human beings, there can be no real promise for the future perfection of God’s saving work. This holds true not only for the salvation of particular individuals (myself included), but also for the realization and perfection of God’s kingdom.
The problem here is not difficult to discern. If human freedom, as Boyd and advocates of the open view of God understand it, is a preeminent value, then it must be maintained at all costs. If to be human means to be free to do the contrary, whatever that contrary might be, then we must forever be free to oppose and resist the Triune God and the doing of His will. The Christian hope for the consummation of God’s kingdom in the new heavens and earth, together with the complete and utter destruction of all opposition to God’s will, can never be realized. All eternity will witness the continued acting of free creatures, sometimes in obedience to God, sometimes, if they so choose, in disobedience to Him.
What is terribly wrong here is the idea that genuine human freedom lies in any other condition than what St. Augustine called true “liberty.” Liberty for the Christian is no other condition than that of perfect, gladhearted and resolute obedience to God. In the perfected state of believers, we will enjoy what Christian theologians have called the consummate state of the will: no longer able (because unwilling) to sin. To be in a state in which love for God is the perfect joy of the believer—that’s the end of our salvation. But in the view of someone like Boyd, no such liberty is possible, since it would conflict with the higher value of remaining free to do the contrary.
Problem of Evil
What I am suggesting, moreover, is that Boyd’s view does not come close to resolving the problem of evil. Rather, he makes the problem of evil intractable. Calvinists who affirm the biblical view of God’s complete and exhaustive sovereignty may have to struggle with the question, why does God include evil within the embrace of His sovereign designs and counsel? They may even be charged with making God thereby the Author of evil—a blasphemous thought. However, only the biblical Christian who confesses the greatness of God’s designs and purposes, which encompass all things whatsoever that shall come to pass, can confidently claim that the Triune God will so use and overrule human sin and evil to realize infallibly His good and wise ends. Only the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who loved us in Christ from before the foundation of the world, can promise that nothing will separate us from His love. A limited god, one to whom the future is partly unknown and unpredictable, cannot begin to promise the things promised by the God of the Scriptures.
Therefore, it is a curious feature of Boyd’s argument that he believes the open view of God resolves the problem of evil. Exactly the opposite is the case. Not only can his “god” not secure the future with any certainty, but he is also guilty of creating creatures and unleashing forces in history over which he enjoys no final dominion. Why would anyone find a god who lets loose upon the world a creature capable of extraordinary and uncontrollable (as well as unpredictable) evil more worthy of praise than the God of the Scriptures who knows the end from the beginning, and whose designs for good will sovereignly be accomplished?
Though more needs to be said regarding each of these points, this should be adequate to illustrate some of the far-reaching implications of Boyd’s open view of God. In the final analysis this view fails the test of Scripture and opens a “Pandora’s box” of difficulties greater than any which accompany the classic view of God.
What makes Boyd’s view so alluring is its apparent simplicity on the one hand, and its scarcely concealed humanism on the other hand. We do not live in a day which highly prizes careful study and reflection upon the Word of God in the line of the historic confessions of the church. When a view like Boyd’s comes along, which offers facile solutions to very difficult problems, it will likely prove attractive to many. Furthermore, when it exalts human freedom and autonomy at the expense of God’s transcendent greatness and sovereignty, it will likely prove the more inviting. For these reasons, Christian believers need to resist the open view of God in the name of Scriptural truth and in the interest of the proper honor and worship of God. Our God is great and greatly to be praised. Let us resolve, accordingly, to resist any teaching, including the teaching of an open view of God, that diminishes Him.
1. Though these passages teach that God is not immobile and unmoved in His dealings with His creatures (He takes pity upon us, He is sorrowful, etc.), they should not be taken to mean that He must now face “unforeseen circumstances,” be required to make an unanticipated change of course, or find Himself overtaken by events outside of His superintendence. Though all of these latter dimensions may be present when creatures “change their minds” or “repent” of a certain course of conduct, they are not present when God “repents,” lest we be compelled to conclude that what the Scriptures teach elsewhere about God is untrue. There is no reason why we cannot assume that, in those cases where God is said to “repent” in relation to His people, He does so in terms of the (implied) principle stated in Jeremiah 18:7–8 (“If at any time I declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, and if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will repent of the evil that I intended to do to it.”). See David Wells, “Classical Theism and the State of the Evangelical Movement,” Modern Reformation 9/4 July/August, 2000):10–12.
2. Usually, the language used here is “univocal” and “analogical.” As the tenn “univocal” suggests, this would be language about God which has the same meaning, when applied to Him, as it does when applied to the creature. Rather than such language being analogical (similarity with a difference), it would be used with the identical sense with respect to God and the creature with which He is compared. However, to use language “univocally” or “literally” in this sense would be to ignore the difference between the Triune Creator and the creature.
Dr. Cornelis Venema, a contributing editor of The Outlook magazine, teaches Doctrinal Studies at MidAmerica Reformed Seminary in Dyer, Indiana.