The Omniscience of God and the Heresy of Open-View Theism (Part III)
Introduction: Open-view theism contends that if God possesses exhaustive foreknowledge of the future (as the traditional understanding of omniscience holds) then that implies inevitability (i.e., it will certainly happen in the sense that it was ordained). If God knows the future in every detail then the future is already determined—and, they protest, that means there is no genuine freedom on our behalf. Since they insist that we possess a free will in the libertarian sense of the word,[i] then our understanding of God’s omniscience must be brought in line with that fundamental axiom. Open-view theist Greg Boyd puts it this way, “In the Christian view, God knows all of reality—everything there is to know. But to assume He knows ahead of time how every person is going to freely act assumes that each person’s free activity is already there to know—even before he freely does it! But it’s not. If we have been given freedom, we create the reality of our own decisions by making them. And until we make them, they don’t exist. Thus, in my view, at least, there simply isn’t anything to know until we make it there to know. So God can’t foreknow the good or bad decisions of the people He creates until He creates these people and they, in turn, create their decisions.”[ii]
It’s interesting to note that the leading theologians for Open-view theism are not specialists in Biblical exegesis—rather they are men who, for the most part, have backgrounds in philosophical theology. They appeal to the Bible to support their position (in a highly selective fashion that interprets a handful of texts in a suspect manner) but heretics from the days of the Apostles have done this (cf. II Peter 3:16).[iii] One particular text of Scripture that is problematic for Open View theists is Psalm 139.[iv] J. J. Stewart Perowne in his classic commentary on the Psalms had this to say about our text, “Nowhere are the great attributes of God—His Omniscience, His Omnipresence, His Omnipotence—set forth so strikingly as they are in this magnificent Psalm. Nowhere is there a more overwhelming sense of the fact that man is beset and compassed about by God, pervaded by His Spirit, unable to take a step without His control; and yet nowhere is there a more emphatic assertion of the personality of man as distinct from, not absorbed in, the Deity. This is no pantheistic speculation. Man is here the workmanship of God, and stands in the presence and under the eye of One who is his Judge. The power of conscience, the sense of sin and of responsibility, are felt and acknowledged, and prayer is offered to One who is not only the Judge, but the Friend; One who is feared as none else are feared; One who is loved as none else are loved.”[v]
I. God the All-Knowing
“O LORD, you have searched me and you know me,” he begins. “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” (Ps. 139:1-3). Can you reflect on how many times you sat down and stood up yesterday? Who can? Yet God was there the whole time. Can you remember the general content of your thoughts yesterday? Not very well, and most assuredly not accurately. Yet God knows all these things with impeccable exactness. And He does not know yesterday better than He knows twenty years ago. All these things are present to Him. David now turns from his actions and thoughts to his words: “Before a word is on my tongue you know it completely, O LORD” (v. 4). The you (speaking of God) is emphatic in the Hebrew. Even if I do not know what I am going to say, even if I have no idea what I will be thinking or saying next Thursday afternoon, God does. “God knows not merely the spoken word which men can hear, but its true meaning, and the secret thoughts which prompt its utterance. But the verse may also be rendered. For (when) a word is not yet on my tongue. Lo, thou &c. Before thought has formed itself into words and found expression, the Searcher of hearts knows it.”[vi] My unformed thoughts and words are like seeds, and their fruit is known in advance to the keeper of the heart. My future thoughts and deeds are fully known. “You hem me in—behind and before; you have laid your hand upon me” (v. 5). This expression refers to God’s sovereign authority over every aspect of the Psalmist’s life (cf. Job 9:33). David meditates on the fact that he is continually encircled within God’s knowledge. He may sleep and forget God, but the Almighty never sleeps. David says, in effect, “Your gaze is constantly upon me” (cf. Heb. 4:13). No wonder David continues, “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, too lofty for me to attain” (v. 6). We can only contemplate it; we cannot comprehend it. The Psalmist, contrary to Open-View-Theism, is overwhelmed with the fact of God’s omniscience. Such infinite knowledge baffles our finite minds. It is so exalted or lofty that we cannot attain unto it. The word used implies “high so as to be inaccessible” (cf. Isa. 2:11, 17; 12:4).[vii]
II. God the All-Present
Now David contemplates getting away from God; he wonders whether there might be some way to escape the Almighty’s continual gaze. Perhaps he feels uncomfortable knowing that God’s constant focus is upon him, as if he is the only one in the whole universe. “Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there” (vv. 7-8). If David reaches to the heavens, of course God is there; if he descends to Sheol, God is there, too. Yes, God must of necessity know what is happening in the grave and even in hell. There is no place on the earth or the heavens where God does not see us. There is one final possibility. What if David takes cover under a blanket of darkness? “If I say, ‘Surely the darkness will hide me and the light become night around me; even the darkness will not be dark to you; the night will shine like the day, for darkness is as light to you” (vv.11-12). Thieves do their deeds at night, hoping to escape the gaze of men. But to God the darkest night is as bright as the noonday sun. God has no such restrictions or limitations. We commit all our deeds in the blazing sunlight of God’s exhaustive knowledge.
III. God the All-Creative
Before the days of neurology and the unraveling of the DNA code, David already knew that he was a work of unsurpassed wonder. What we today call a fetus, David would call a preborn infant. Long before our birth, we are known to God, formed according to His will and purpose. “All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be” (v. 16). Again we must ask: how could all his days be ordained for him before his birth unless God knows the future infallibly? God could not know the number of our days unless He knew our decisions and those of others ahead of time. David understood that God had marvelously planned out his life. “How precious to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them! Were I to count them, they would outnumber the grains of sand. When I awake, I am still with you” (vv. 17-18). The fact of God’s meticulous interest and knowledge in him is a source of joy and hope. David now directs his thoughts toward the wicked; he prays that God will judge them. “If only you would slay the wicked, O God! Away from me, you bloodthirsty men!” (v. 19). Kidner’s comments are to the point “For all its vehemence, the hatred in this passage is not spite, but zeal for God. In ‘the day of salvation’ the New Testament will re-direct this fighting spirit, but it will endorse its single-mindedness (‘What fellowship has light with darkness? What accord has Christ with Belial?’). It is worth noting that David’s resolve was not necessarily easy, since the unscrupulous can be convenient allies, and the scoffers can be daunting opponents.”[viii] We are surprised at such language, but remember that David is speaking about people who want to kill him. “Do I not hate those who hate you, o LORD, and abhor those who rise up against you?” (v. 21). The word hate, as David uses it here, is akin to our word reject; David wants nothing to do with those who hate God. He rejects them and states that if they are God’s enemies, they are his enemies too. David knows that God not only has perfect knowledge of him, but of the wicked too.
Wenham comments, “Psalm 139 is a lovely acknowledgment of the marvels of God’s omniscience and omnipresence. Realizing something of this, David asks God to search his heart to see if there is any wicked way in him, and to lead him in the way everlasting. It is in this context that he prays for the overthrow of the wicked. He desires a perfect hatred of all that is evil. ‘Do I not hate them that hate thee, O Lord?…I hate them with perfect hatred; I count them my enemies.’ In these psalms there is severity indeed, but not personal vindictiveness. The supreme concern is for the glory of God.”[ix] God will bring them into judgment, and when that happens, He will overlook no fact. They will not have an opportunity to tweak their story or put their spin on events. But David is wise enough to know that he cannot be satisfied that God knows all things without personally responding to this revelation. He can speak about God’s knowledge of facts, he can speak about God’s knowledge of the wicked, but the searchlight must now shine into his own soul.
IV. God the All-Holy
The psalm begins with David’s awesome description of God’s omniscience. But now he says, “Search me, o God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting” (w. 23-24). He is saying, “God, You have already searched me, and now please show me what you see.” That is a brave prayer. We are too blind, too spiritually deceitful; we have fooled ourselves too many times to face the sin within. There is much in our hearts that we cannot see unless God reveals it to us. Yes, sometimes we know exactly what is within us that displeases the Lord. Other times we must pray like David, “Search me . . . know my heart” After searching comes testing. “Test me and know my anxious thoughts” (v. 23). Perhaps David is speaking of the anxiety he feels because of the threats of the wicked; he wants to be tested the way a refiner’s fire tests metal. And he wants to know whether there is any “offensive” way in him. Perhaps David had a specific sin in mind, perhaps not. Whatever was there, he wanted to see it. Searching leads to testing and testing leads to leading: “And lead me in the way everlasting” (v. 24). We plead for leading; we don’t plead for searching and testing. But perhaps there is an important order here; the leading follows a heart open in God’s presence.
Conclusion: “The Open-View of God, “writes Erwin Lutzer, “undermines our trust in Him. A drunk is cruising along the highway at seventy miles per hour, and God has no more knowledge of what that driver will do than the pilot of the chopper overhead. The Almighty cannot foresee whether there will be an accident or whether the driver will make it safely home. (After all, no one’s free will is as unpredictable as that of a drunk cruising along the highway.) Meanwhile you are driving the opposite direction, and the driver turns into your car. You are killed instantly. Not only was the decision of the drunk unknown to God, so was your death. You arrive in heaven that evening. And although God knew this could have happened, He did not know that it would. So God does not know who will live or die today; He does not know who will be saved today or in the future; He does not know how or when Antichrist will actually arise. He must, in effect, read the daily newspaper along with us to keep up to date on His world. Can you trust a God like that? Can you trust a God who does not know in the morning that you will be dead that evening? Does not the “open view” of God make us feel sorry for Him, since He can only react as best He can to the unforeseen decisions of Satan and men? Personally, I am grateful that the open view does not represent the God of the Bible.”[x]
[i] What is meant by freewill. One should never assume that a term like this one means the same thing in everyone’s vocabulary. Some use the expression to make the obvious point that we do, as human beings, possess the power of choice. In a stricter or more philosophical sense, the term refers to the belief that the human will has an inherent power to choose with equal ease between alternatives. This is commonly called the power of contrary choice or the liberty of indifference. This belief does not claim that there are no influences that might affect the will, but it does underscore the fact that the will can (and often does) overcome these factors and choose in spite of them. This is another way of saying that the will is autonomous from outside determination. When Armenians use the term free will they are referring to an independent and self-determining ability by which we are free to make autonomous choices. Calvinists agree that the faculty of will is itself free, and that the bondage into which sinful humanity has fallen is not bondage of the faculty of the will (we do make choices) but rather bondage of being. Our choices are not free from our soul’s anatomy. We choose according to our nature. The sinner does not act by external compulsion—but according to his strongest desire. Our disposition to sin colors our choices. The natural fallen will cannot even prepare itself for regeneration, let alone convert itself. It is apparent that Calvinists believe that the will (1) is free only in the sense that it is free to express the person’s character, (2) must be regenerated before it is free for obedience to God and (3) is never forced to act against its own nature. For extended discussion cf. R. K. McGregor Wright, No Place For Sovereignty: What’s Wrong With Free Will Theism? (IVP, 1996), pp. 43-50; R. A. Muller, Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms (Baker, 1985), pp. 176-177; G. Clark, Religion, Reason and Revelation (Craig Press, 1978), pp. 203-210.
[ii] G. Boyd, Letters From a Skeptic (Victor Books, 1994), p. 30. cf. also his God of the Possible: A Biblical Introduction to the Open-View of God (Baker, 2000), p. 15.
[iii] Boyd contends that this is only a secondary issue and one that should not be viewed as disrupting Christian unity (God of the Possible, p. 20). I beg to differ. The doctrine of God’s omniscience is, in the opinion of John Piper, about the glory of God and is not just a “peripheral” issue cf. John Piper “Why the Glory of God Is at Stake in the “Foreknowledge’ Debate”, Modern Reformation (vol. 8. No. 5, Sept/Oct. 1999), pp. 39-43.
[iv] Boyd makes a feeble attempt to square this Psalm with Open View theism but ends up calling the language of the text “ambiguous.” cf. God of the Possible, p. 41.
[v] J. J. S. Perowne, The Book of Psalms (George Bell & Sons, 1883), p. 650.
[vi] A. F. Kirkpatrick, The Book of Psalms (rpt. Baker, 1982), p. 787.
[viii] Derek Kidner, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries: Psalms 73-150 (IVP, 1975), p. 467.
[ix] J. W. Wenham, The Goodness of God (IVP, 1974), p. 164.
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