How Much Does God Know: A Comprehensive Biblical Study

Steve Wellum

Over the last two decades there has been a radical re-thinking of the nature of God which has taken place in evangelicalism primarily due to the writings of Clark Pinnock, John Sanders, Gregory Boyd, and others. This re-visioning of the doctrine of God is known by a variety of names, but probably its most popular label is that of "Open Theism." Prior to its discussion among evangelical theologians in the late 1980's and early 90's, some of its tenets were discussed and debated in the philosophy of religion literature, especially in discussions regarding the age-old debate over the logical compatibility of affirming divine exhaustive foreknowledge and the reality of human libertarian freedom. Historically, the open theist denial of exhaustive divine foreknowledge has had its roots in the post-Reformation heresy known as Socinianism, even though it is not legitimate to identify open theism with it, given open theism's affirmation of the doctrine of the Trinity and Chalcedonian Christology, contra Socinianism. Since the mid-90s, within evangelical theology, there has been a steady stream of material presenting both the positive case for open theism as a specific viewpoint (see e.g. Clark Pinnock, et al. The Openness of God [IVP, 1994] John Sanders, The God Who Risks [IVP, 1998]; Greg Boyd, God of the Possible [Baker, 2000]; Clark Pinnock, Most Moved Mover [Baker, 2001]), as well as providing an evaluation and critique of the position (see e.g. Bruce Ware, God's Lesser Glory [Crossway, 2001]; John Frame, No Other God [P&R, 2001]; John Feinberg, No One Like Him [Crossway, 2001]; Paul Helseth, et al. Beyond the Bounds [Crossway, 2003]). Steven C. Roy's volume is a welcomed addition to the latter category.

At the heart of the open view is a redefined view of divine omniscience. According to open theists, the God of Scripture has immense knowledge but he does not have complete and exhaustive knowledge of the future free actions of human beings since, given libertarian freedom, it is not logically possible for God to know future free actions before they occur. For open theism, this does not entail that God knows nothing at all about the future. Since the future is partially definite in the sense that many of the events that will occur in the future are the result of past and present causes and since God knows the past and present exhaustively, open theists contend that the future is partially definite for God. Furthermore, since God knows with certainty what he is going to do in the future, irrespective of human choices, open theists argue that it is best to think of the future as partially definite as well as partially open. Obviously the implications of such a view are vast, not only for how we view God, but also for how we think of the relationship between God's knowledge and such practical issues as worship, intercessory prayer, guidance, and Christian hope. Such a move away from historic Christian theology demands nothing less than a full evaluation, not only philosophically and theologically, but primarily biblically. Is this re-worked view of God's knowledge biblical? In fact, what does Scripture teach on the subject of God's omniscience and whether his knowledge is exhaustive and infallible? Historically, Christians have argued that Scripture clearly teaches exhaustive divine foreknowledge, so who is right on this point? It is these questions, as well as many more, that Steven Roy seeks to address in his work, which first began as a Ph.D. dissertation at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.

After an initial introductory chapter (chapter 1) in which Roy discusses how he is going to approach the subject, both in terms of delimitation and methodologically, he spends two chapters (chapters 2 and 3) discussing the biblical evidence for the traditional position of the church over against open theism by looking at the OT and NT data, respectively. Much of his treatment of the biblical data is simply excellent as he investigates carefully such important texts as Ps 139, Isa 40-48, Acts 2:23, Rom 8:29, 11:1, and such themes as predictive prophecy, the foreknowledge of Jesus, as well as divine foreknowledge and its relationship to the Fall and the entire plan of redemption, as well as the theme of prayer. In my view, Roy's treatment of each of these areas is even-handed, judicious, and convincing. The only area that I would have liked to see further discussion was under the heading of OT Messianic prophecies. Much of his discussion focused on texts which spoke of the coming Messiah in terms of verbal predictions (e.g. Mic 5:2), but a more detailed discussion regarding how OT Messianic expectation is often tied to typological structures along the story line of Scripture that then point forward in a variety of ways to the coming of Christ, would have helped his discussion. Why? Because for typology to work in a prophetic manner, it requires both divine foreknowledge (God must know how the type and anti-type relate to each other and where the plan of God is going in redemptive history), as well as divine sovereignty to bring it about. On this point, I have not seen open theists address this issue at all, other than reduce OT Messianic expectation to a kind of "retroactive prophecy," thus robbing it of its strong, predictive element.

After laying out the biblical evidence for thinking that God has exhaustive divine foreknowledge, Roy then turns to the open theism's biblical argument for their position (chapter 4). Once again, he accurately and fairly describes in detail their appeal to the thirty-five or so divine repentance texts (e.g. Gen 6:6-7; 1 Sam 15:11, 35, Jon 3:9-10; Jer 18:7-10; Ex 32:11-14, etc.) as proof that Scripture teaches that God does not have exhaustive divine foreknowledge. He also spends time describing their appeal to other texts which, on a superficial reading, seem to imply that God does not know future free actions of his creatures. In his response to open theism's handling of these texts, especially in regard to the theme of divine repentance, Roy rightly questions whether such texts prove the open theist position. In my view, he not only demonstrates well that open theists do not coherently synthesize these kind of texts with the other eight OT texts which strongly affirm that God does not repent (e.g. Num 23:19; 1 Sam 15:29; Ps 110:4; Jer 4:28, etc.), but he helpfully discusses the nature of biblical language with reference to God. In a few places I would have liked a better discussion of what is meant by "literal" reference and its relation to univocal and analogical language, but overall his hermeneutical approach of taking the whole of Scripture into account in trying to determine what is similar and what is different between divine and human repentance is a more consistent and biblically faithful approach than the open theist hermeneutical approach to Scripture.

After surveying the biblical data and before turning to how this entire debate works itself out in the practicalities of the Christian life, Roy, in chapter 5, wrestles with two crucial hermeneutical issues central to the debate. First, he responds to the constant, yet tiring open theist charge that historic Christianity has imbibed too much of Greek philosophy and has thus read the Scripture wrongly. He rightly demonstrates that this charge is incorrect for not only is it reductionistic in thinking that Greek philosophy is monolithic, but it also fails to note how the church selectively appropriated Greek thought while all the time seeking to be faithful to the teaching and authority of Scripture. In the end, the charge will not stand. In fact, Roy rightly argues that one may rightly question the philosophical influences upon open theism such as their dependence on a libertarian view of freedom and their indebtedness to process theism at certain points. At the end of the day though, Roy is right in asserting that one must ultimately make one's case from Scripture and not simply dismiss viewpoints by appeal to their perceived cultural and philosophical indebtedness. Second, Roy investigates the claim of many open theists, particularly the assertion of Greg Boyd, that Scripture teaches both a partly determined and partly open future. After questioning whether Scripture even teaches an open, unknowable future, Roy then critiques the coherence of such an assertion. In a classic reductio ad absurdum, Roy cogently argues that Boyd's proposal is inadequate to account for the biblical data, and that it does not adequately do justice to specific biblical evidence, particularly in the area of predictive prophecies, that demonstrates that God does indeed foreknow future free human decisions. Thus, Roy concludes, in the absence of clear and explicit biblical teaching to the contrary, the traditional view of the church is upheld as the biblical view.

Before Roy concludes his work (chapter 7), he nicely spells out the practical entailments of the open vs. traditional view in such areas as worship, prayer, guidance, suffering and evil, and Christian eschatological confidence (chapter 6). Open theism has often appealed to these areas to demonstrate the superiority of their position, but Roy cogently demonstrates that the situation is really the opposite. He concludes that in everyday Christian practice, the historic position that affirms God's exhaustive divine foreknowledge corresponds more faithfully and accurately with the vision of the Christian life given in Scripture. As such, on every biblical front, the open theist position is found wanting and the traditional view is upheld.

Overall, I highly recommend Steven Roy's work to be read by all Christians, and especially those who are leaders and teachers in the church. His in-depth and extensive biblical argument for exhaustive divine foreknowledge is powerfully done, and it will be found persuasive by most readers who desire to listen to what Scripture actually says. Needless to say more work needs to be done in terms of a full-blown response to open theism, as Roy himself admits. But his work fills a hole in the literature, especially in regard to a detailed biblical response to the specific arguments of open theism made at the textual level. However, one area of response which still needs to be accomplished in responding to open theism is to respond to it as an entire theology or worldview. Even though, as Roy and many others admit, the heart of open theism is found in its denial of exhaustive divine foreknowledge, in my view, this point only begins to scratch the surface in terms of their overall theology. I am convinced that we must view open theism as an entire theological viewpoint and when we begin to do so--when we begin to think through their view of human freedom, original sin, divine sovereignty, divine aseity, the nature of the atonement, Scripture, the state of those who have never heard the gospel, eschatology, and so on--open theism will be seen to be further and further removed from historic, biblical Christianity. If I am right about this, it will then be impossible to view the debate between traditional Christian thought and open theism, as even Roy seems to do, as merely an in-family debate among evangelicals, but a debate, in the end, between historic Christianity and that which is Christianity in name only.

Stephen Roy / Downers Grove: IVP, 2006
Review by Steve Wellum, Professor of Theology, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, KY