Monday, July 18, 2011

Does Exhaustive Divine Foreknowledge Eliminate Human Freedom? An Examination of the Words of Dr. Greg Boyd

“Suppose for the sake of argument that God decided to reveal to us everything he knew to be true on November 22, 1963. Suppose that on this date God sent down a book from heaven containing all of this information entitled God’s Book of Known Facts. Now, if everything you will ever do in the future is listed in this book given on November 22, 1963, and if you are not free in relation to anything in the past, is it not obvious that you could not be free with regard to anything in your future as well? Your whole future is settled in the past---right there in God’s Book of Known Facts. To get even more concrete, suppose you read about your future in this book. Let us suppose that among many other things, you read that you will choose to cheat on your taxes on April 12, 2003. This was written on November 22, 1963. Wouldn’t you feel the truth that you are no more free to decide your future than you are free to change the past---for now you see your future in the past? How could you possibly believe that it was still up to you to resolve whether or not you would cheat on your taxes on April 12, 2003, when you know it is not up to you to resolve any settled fact about November 22, 1963?” (Gregory A. Boyd, God of the Possible: A Biblical Introduction to the Open View of God, Sixth Edition. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2006, pages 121-122)

Let me just say that it’s good to return once more to the Center for Theological Studies. Many of you may not know, but I’ve had some issues with feet swelling, allergies, and physical fatigue this summer. Arriving at graduation this past May was a wonderful feat---but it was also an exhausting one. My body decided that after graduation, it would go into “sick” that’s pretty much what I’ve been up to. Pushing myself earlier this summer did not help, but I’m better now. I still don’t feel at 100%, but by God’s grace, I’ll get there. Now as a Master of Theology (ThM) candidate, I’ve got much work to do. It’s time to rise to the occasion once more.

I’ve read quite a few books this summer: F. Leroy Forlines’s Classic Arminian Systematic Theology, as well as some books by Dr. Ed Stetzer on missional living, church planting and revitalization (see his works Breaking the Missional Code and Comeback Churches for more information). Such material, while extremely different from my usual reading, has helped me to be more intentional in my evangelistic witness and has given me greater respect for those who have devoted their lives to missions work. Praise God for them...and I hope more believers will do the same!

I decided to somewhat begin the end of my summer vacation (though not “the end of the end” yet) with a return to somewhat familiar reading that I had not read. I am familiar with the theological position of Dr. Greg Boyd and the Open Theist camp, but I had never read Dr. Boyd’s work. Now that I have given myself a little free time, I decided to pick up the work and read it.

Boyd’s quote above about God’s “Book of Known Facts” is an interesting one indeed. Although I disagree with Boyd’s conclusion, I found the example to be an intriguing one example that provides an innovative way for my readership here to think about the debate of divine foreknowledge and human freedom. In the example, he states that, if God foreknew you would cheat on your taxes (about 40 years before you did it), how could you do otherwise on April 12, 2003, EXCEPT cheat on your taxes? It seems inevitable in such a circumstance, right??

At this point, however, I think Boyd falls in his conclusion. The very end of his book provides questions and objections regarding his Openness View. Post-questions and objections, Boyd then provides an appendix of passages that he believes aid his view. One such passage is 1 Samuel 23:10-13. Here is Boyd’s commentary on the text:

“This passage reveals that God’s foreknowledge is not always about what will certainly happen; it is often about what might happen. The Lord tells David that Saul will come to Keilah and that the people of Keilah will deliver him over. David doesn’t consider this a declaration of an unalterable future, however, for he immediately attempts to alter what the Lord just told him would happen! He leaves Keilah and thus avoids what God foretold would happen” (Grey Boyd, God of the Possible, page 160).

Boyd reveals here that he has an interest in possibilities: “God’s often about what might happen.” His thesis throughout the book is that God is a God of possibilities---that is, God foreknows what “might” or “could” happen, but not what “definitely will” happen. If God foreknows the exact action, according to Boyd, then God has foreordained or foredetermined it. In Boyd’s view, the only way to prevent God from wearing the charge “author of sin and evil” is to argue that God did not foreknow evil actions, occurrences, and decisions. Divine ignorance then becomes a way to escape the Calvinist charge (or at least, the charge given to the Classical Theist position of exhaustive, divine foreknowledge).

But in the 1 Samuel 23 passage, do we not see God’s foreknowledge? He foreknew something not about Himself, but about David---that is, David would be handed over by the citizens of the town of Keilah to his enemy, King Saul. God offers no other alternative to this bad one could easily make the case that this event would happen. This was the definite event at the time. Notice in 1 Samuel 23 that David does not consult God about what “could” happen; he consults God about what will certainly happen: “and now, will Saul come down as your servant has heard?” This does not translate to “could he come down?” but rather, “will he come down?,” thus ruling out the idea that God only foreknows possibilities. He also foreknows “actualities.”

Next, the Lord tells David, “He [Saul] will come down.” The Lord does not respond with, “He may come,” but “He will come.” Once again, the event was considered to be definite at the time. The only hint the reader is given that the event was not definite in nature is when David and his men escape Keilah...and Saul, once learning David has escaped, calls off the expedition. So, God foreknows an event that was certain at the time, but does not happen. How can the believer make sense of this?

The answer refutes Greg Boyd’s comments on “God’s Book of Known Facts”:

“if everything you will ever do in the future is listed in this book given on November 22, 1963, and if you are not free in relation to anything in the past, is it not obvious that you could not be free with regard to anything in your future as well?”

Is this true? No, of course not! One’s relation to the future is very different from one’s relation to the past. While the past actions have occurred, the future events have not. And this is why one could change future events but not change past events. One such example is the case of David and Saul. The event had not yet happened, and David was granted an opportunity to change the divinely-foreknown event. Again, if the text is telling us the truth (and I happen to think the Scriptures are not deceptive by nature), then God’s foreknowledge of an event does not make that event necessary, but possible. If human freedom really exists, then humans can change future events because God has granted this possibility.

Boyd’s example of God’s Book of Known Facts brings us back to an age-old question: “Does an event happen because God foreknows it, or does God foreknow it because it will happen?” Those who disagree with the latter question do so because they believe that God cannot foreknow things that do not exist. And yet, God foreknew an event (David’s being handed over to Saul) that did not come to pass. If God can foreknow events that have not yet come to pass (or never actualize), then can He not foreknow people who do not exist or will never actualize?


Unknown said...

I enjoyed Dr. Boyd's book, and am glad you read it. I am not a divinity student, but I do know that as I slowly gain a better understanding of the diversity of theological thought, I better clarify my personal evaluation of what I believe, and how it motivates me to live for Christ.

I am not clear as to how your argument refutes anything Dr. Boyd wrote. It seems to me that your final conclusion "If human freedom really exists, then humans can change future events because God has granted this possibility" exactly agrees with Dr. Boyd's views.

Elsewhere you say, "So, God foreknows an event that was certain at the time, but does not happen. How can the believer make sense of this?"

I think the answer is in unraveling your definition of the future 'possibilities" that God might know, and the future "actualities" that God's foresees but but don't come to pass.

I think they are a difference without a distinction. A future "actuality" that does not come to pass is, by the duck test, nothing more than a possibility by another name. An "actuality" that God can envision as occurring is indistinguishable from a "possibility" in that, if the "actuality" never comes to pass, then it was never an "actuality" at all, only a possible outcome that God foresaw might happen.

A possibility.

Which takes us back to Dr. Boyd's concepts of might and might-not, and how they play into our conception of God and how He works in our lives.

I wish you the best of luck on your Masters, and may God use each of us to our fullest potentials in Christ!

Deidre Richardson, B.A., M.Div. said...


This is Deidre, owner of the CTS blog. Thanks so much for commenting here at the center for theological studies.

In regards to your comment, my disagreement with Dr. Boyd is over the idea of God knowing only future "possibilities." Boyd's work seems to suggest rather strongly (at least from my interpretation of it) that God can know what a person "might" do, but cannot know what an individual will "certainly" do.

Boyd believes that God foreknows His own future decisions, His own future responses to individuals. But how can God foreknow future responses to individuals if He does not foreknow what those individuals will do? God's foreknowledge of His own decisions is much stronger than just "I may do this, depending on this." Genesis 3:15 (the protoevangelium or first gospel) is such an example. God foreknew His exact actions in the future, not what He "could" or "might do." But how would He foreknow this if He did not foreknow exactly what Adam and Eve would do in the Garden?

I think that if God can foreknow at least one action of an individual (that He did not cause), He can foreknow actions of all individuals that He did not cause. Pharaoh in Egypt is a good example. The Lord told Moses that Pharaoh would not heed Moses' words, though the Lord did not cause this. And this example of Pharaoh is one that proves divine foreknowledge without divine foreordination. How does it make sense to say that the Lord Himself punished a Pharaoh whom He made to sin and rebel against God? Would this not be a case of God punishing unjustly?

I differ with Open Theism over the issue of divine foreknowledge. I don't understand why divine foreknowledge must necessarily entail divine foreordination. That seems to be an underlying philosophical claim of Greg Boyd's book...but holding to such a view seems to emphasize more of man's freedom in the process to change the future than divine control over it. I agree that the Scriptures teach divine sovereignty (divine foreknowledge), and I also agree that the Scriptures teach human responsibility (man's freedom). If open theism is right, however, God's control over the future is very limited, and man has more freedom over the future than God has foreknowledge of it. What I see in Scripture, though, is that man does not control the end of time...but God does, despite our actions. And only God foreknows the exact end, despite our choices. Because man has been made a little lower than the angels (Psalm 8), he has less control than His Creator does. Man's freedom is a derived freedom given by the Almighty God.

Genesis teaches me that the problem with Adam and Eve in the Garden is that they attempted to seize power that belonged to God alone. If God only foreknows possibilities of human choices, then humans foreknow their own choices (which means that humans foreknow more than God does). And if humans foreknow more than God does, this means that humans have more control over the future than God does. And if humans have more control over the future than God does, this means that humans are more sovereign than God Himself is. This is the reason why I find Dr. Boyd's position to be heterodox. Humans will always err in contemplating the divine; but it is better to err on the side of divine sovereignty than to err on the side of human freedom and ascribe too much control to mankind.

Thanks for writing, and feel free to return to CTS and comment at any time. God bless.