The Omniscience of God and the Heresy of Open-View Theism (Part II)
Introduction: “And God repented”—This has a very odd ring! How can God repent? “Repentance,” wrote one old divine, “hath ever some grief annexed unto it, and an accusation of ourselves, of something done amiss which we would gladly retract.[i] But this could never be said of God! But what are we to make of this text and others like Gen. 6:6—”It repented the Lord that he had made man upon the earth,” or Jer. 18:7-10. “If that nation against whom I have pronounced, turns from their evil, I will repent of the evil that I thought to do unto them”? Can God change His mind? Open-view theism loudly contends that God does change His mind because He does not know the actions of free moral agents and as such He must adjust His thinking.
John Sanders is representative of this position when he writes, “The view of omniscience, known as the openness of God (or presentism), can explain both scriptural passages in which the future is sometimes definite and passages in which it is indefinite, even for God. Texts indicating that a future event is definite suggest that either the event is determined by God to happen in that way or God knows the event will result from a chain of causal factors that are presently in place. Passages in which God does not know the future indicate that God has not decided what will be. The matter is open for both God and creatures. Both sets of texts have straightforward explanations, and there is no need to call one sort of biblical passages the “literal” truth about God while labeling the others “anthropomorphic”. Although I affirm that the future is partly definite and partly indefinite for God (that is, the openness of God), the most important issue here is the affirmation of relational theism, in which God enters into reciprocal, give-and-take relations with creatures. If proponents of exhaustive foreknowledge can coherently accommodate this into their theology, then so be it. However, I do not think the biblical material supports their position.”[ii]
Another Open-view theist argues, “The biblical descriptions of divine repentance combine elements of emotion and decision to provide a striking picture of the divine reality. They indicate that God is intimately involved in human affairs and that the course of human events has profound effects on him. . . . God works toward his objectives in history in dynamic interaction with human beings. Their experiences and decisions affect his experiences and decisions. So important is the notion of divine repentance in biblical thought that it deserves to be regarded as one of the central themes of Scripture. It represents an important interpretive vehicle for understanding the divine activity throughout the canon.”[iii] We are told in I Samuel 15:29 “He who is the Glory of Israel does not lie or change his mind; for He is not a man, that he should change his mind.” What are we to do with texts like Jonah 3:10 which seems to indicate otherwise?
I. The Manifestation of Faith
God “saw” their works, the result of their believing God’s word, and they turned from their evil way. God saw more than just the external and outward behavior. He saw that they did “heartily, presently, and universally turn from the ways of impiety against God, of injustice against man, from the ways of luxury and pride, from all their violence . . . without this all the rest had been not worth the observing, nor would God have regarded it.”[iv]
II. The Manifestation of God’s Character
The Nineveh that God threatened to destroy is no more. A great change has taken place. Nineveh has been “overthrown” by the preaching of Jonah. It is not the same place it once was. Repentance is linked to Nineveh and to God. How does this square with God’s unchangeableness?
A. The Immutability of God: This refers to the unchangeableness of His essence, attributes, purposes, and consciousness. Malachi 3:6, “I am the LORD, I change not”; Ps. 102:26, “The heavens shall perish, but thou shalt endure,” James 1:17, “With whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning.” Repeatedly the Scriptures declare God’s steadfastness. “God is not a man that he should lie; nor a son of man that he should repent”; Isa. 46:10, “My counsel shall stand”; Ps. 33:11, “The counsel of the Lord standeth forever”; Ps. 110:4, “The Lord hath sworn and will not repent”; I Sam. 15:29, “The strength of Israel will not lie nor repent”; Heb. 6:17, “Whereby God, willing to show the immutability of his counsel, confirmed it by an oath.” God is immutable because:
1. This being is from Himself, and not from another;
2. He cannot change for the better, nor for the worse;
3. All causes for chance (dependence, error, lack of knowledge) cannot be charged to God.
B. The Language of Scripture: When we place the texts of Scripture that speak of God repenting alongside those which declare that He does not repent, are the Scriptures so blatantly self-contradictory?
1. Figures of Speech: “Traditionally,” writes C. Samuel Storms, “students of Scripture have appealed to a common figure of speech known as “anthropopatheia’ or ‘anthropopathism’ (from the Greek ANTHRŌPOS ‘man’ plus PATHOS ‘affection, feeling’). Thus, an anthropopathism is a figure of speech wherein certain human passions, feelings, mental activities, and so on are predicated of God. This, of course, is related to the more well-known figure of speech called ‘anthropomorphism’ (again, from the Greek for ‘man’ plus MORPHĒ ‘form’), in which there are ascribed to God human body parts (e.g. eyes, mouth, nostrils, hands).”[v] “God’s repentance,” notes W. C. Kaiser, “is a form of anthropomorphism that dares to picture the God/man relationship in terms of our everyday lives…in this case, anthropopathisms…are valuable in communicating to us the emotions and feelings of God, they also pose limitations—especially when it comes to describing the justice of God whose qualities of justice exceed anything known or found in the justice of men.”[vi]
2. The Hebrew Terms: The word to “repent”, NIHAM, is almost always used of God in its thirty-eight instances (the two exceptions being Jer. 8:6 and 31:19). When “repentance” in its basic human usage occurs, the word SUB is used. The two words are not really interchangeable. Alexander writes, “Unfortunately, various English versions translate the verb NIHAM as “repent” (cf. AV, RV, RSV), and this, quite naturally, creates difficulties for many readers…However, whereas the English term ‘repent’ conveys the idea of a change of behaviour from worse to better, the Hebrew verb NIHAM refers rather to a decision to act otherwise, and does not necessarily imply that the first action is inferior to the second. The English verb ‘relent’ (JB, cf. NIV) conveys better the meaning of the Hebrew.
David Wells provides us with a helpful summary: “We should begin by remembering that some of our English translations do not always capture the full range of meaning in the original languages. In this instance, nakham (the verb in the Niphal stem), is translated thirty-five times in the Greek Old Testament (LXX) as either metamelornai, meaning “a change of heart” or “changed feelings,” or by metanoō, “repenting or thinking differently about something.” Thus these references to divine “repentance” carry several slightly different meanings, which the Revised Standard Version captures better than other translations: when the Lord saw the pre-flood wickedness on earth, he said “I am sorry that I have made them” (Gen. 6:7); the psalmist says that despite the disobedience of God’s people, “he remembered for their sake his covenant, and relented according to his abundance of his steadfast love” (Ps. 106:4S); then, again, the word can be translated as “pity” as when we read that “the LORD was moved to pity by their groaning because of those who afflicted and oppressed them” (Judges. 2:18). So, what are we to make of the twenty-seven occasions when God is said to relent, have a change of heart, or have pity?…In a number of instances repenting language is used of God to convey the thought of how pained he was by human behavior just as we are told, in the same language, that “Samuel grieved over Saul” (I Sam. 15.35). The text already cited in Genesis 6 is a good example, that God was “sorry” that he had made humanity. Given the overall biblical context, however, the onus rests on the “openness of God” proponents to show that when God said this, he was not merely saying that he was deeply pained by them, but that what he really meant to say was that he had just then realized what a monumental mistake he had made. Alongside of this sense of God being pained are those texts that speak, as it were, of an emotional release through the exercise of wrath as when God says to Isaiah that “I will vent my wrath on my enemies” (Isa. 1:24; cf. Ezek. 16:42). When applied to humans, this same word, in some instances, still carries an emotional sense but that of being comforted or consoled. The more interesting use of nakham in relation to God concerns those cases where there is a clearly built-in understanding that God will act in judgment if his people do not change their ways but will relent or repent if they do. In those cases where the people of God did repent in this way, then, God himself is spoken of as “relenting” or even “repenting.” The principle is 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.” The repenting of God here says nothing about the changing of his mind and everything about the changing of the behavior of his people. This repenting has to do with the retraction of a proposed course of action on God’s part when his people have a change of mind or it may mean the withholding of blessing when they do not. At the heart of the prophetic message was this built-in understanding of how God would respond to sin. And when God does “relent” because people have repented it is because of his unsurpassed goodness. This was what Jonah, in all ill moment lamented. When the Ninevites repented, God “repented of the evil which he had said he would do to them” (Jonah 3:10). Then Jonah lamented that he knew this would happen if the Ninevites repented “for I knew that thou art a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and repentest of evil” (Jonah 4:2). It is these four divine characteristics that Nehemiah cites as the reason why God did not forsake his people even when they were rebellious (Neh. 9:16-17).[vii]
Conclusion: To speak of God’s immutability is not to say that God is impersonal. God is unchangeable in His attributes and character. The change, as we call it has to do only with His manner of treating men. “It is not a change of will,” wrote William B. Green, “but a will to change that is intended.” This will to change, moreover, is in this case, the expression and condition of a changeless will in the sense of disposition. Thus, if God had willed to treat the Ninevites after their repentance as He had threatened to treat them before their repentance, this would have proved him mutable. It would have revealed him as displeased at one time with impenitence and at another time with penitence.”[viii]
[i] John King, Lectures on Jonah (The Nichol Series on Puritan Divines, 1864), p. 249.
[ii] John Sanders, The God Who Risks: A Theology of Providence (IVP, 1998), p. 75.
[iii] Richard Rice, “Biblical Support For a New Perspective” in The Openness of God: A Biblical Challenge to the Traditional Understanding of God ed. Clark Pinnock, et. al. (IVP, 1994), p. 34.
[iv] Matthew Poole, A Commentary on the Holy Bible II (rpt. The Banner of Truth Trust, 1975), p. 932.
[v] C. Samuel Storms, The Grandeur of God (Baker, 1984), p. 113.
[vi] Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., Toward Old Testament Ethics (Zondervan, 1983), p. 250.
[vii] D. F. Wells in Whatever Happened to the Reformation? eds. G. L. W. Johnson and Fowler White (P & R, 2001), p. xxv.
[viii] William B. Greene, “The Ethics of the Old Testament,” in Classical Evangelical Essays in Old Testament Interpretation, ed. W. C. Kaiser, Jr. (Baker, 1972), p. 209.
In 1961, A.W. Tozer wrote in The Knowledge of the Holy that the way some Christians think about God is sinful. Dr. Arnold Frank, in The Fear of God: A Forgotten Doctrine confirms that the 21st century church, in the pew as well as the pulpit, continues to regard God as impotent and irrelevantin other words, without godly fear. As such, Dr. Frank, with a theologian’s skill and a pastor’s heart, walks us through the Scriptures, letting the Word of God speak about the fear of God.
In addition to clear, biblical exposition, Dr. Frank also weaves in the wise and timeless counsel of the Puritans to help us see how the fear of God is a most needed and practical doctrine.
Do you approach God with a godly fear? The Fear of God: A Forgotten Doctrine will be a skillful and gracious reminder of how we should regard the holy, sovereign Creator.
“The biblical concept of the fear of God is too often marginalized or ignored by the Christian church and its preachers today. The result is shallow views of sin, easy belief, and antinomianism. With the aid of Puritan preachers, Arnold Frank sounds a clarion call for a biblical and sure approach to the fear of God.” Joel Beeke (President, Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary)