Is God ever Surprised? 1

Both classical theists and open theists agree that God knows everything. But classical theists believe God knows not only the past and the present, but also the future — absolutely. Augustine said that the one who does not know the future exhaustively is most certainly not God.

But open theists think God knows the past and the present, but not the future because there is not yet a future to know.

Where are you on this one? Do you think God knows what you will wear tomorrow? Which way you will turn at the corner when you go for a leisure drive? What you will order when you go to Chipotle?

Both classical theists and open theists think they’ve got biblical support, and they do — if I may distance myself from either side in order to watch them operate.

Which forces us to ask questions about the Bible and how to read it, and that is why I want to turn once again to one of my favorite writers on the Old Testament, John Goldingay. His new book, Key Questions about Christian Faith: Old Testament Answers, has a chp on this very question: Does God have surprises?

I’m a fan of Goldingay because he’s full of surprises! So, let’s dig in a bit to this chp to see what he finds in the Old Testament, and it is the Old Testament [he calls it the First Testament but says he’s not “anal enough” to call the New Testament the “Second” Testament], that both creates the issues and to which both classical and open theists appeal. I suspect Goldingay has something up his sleeve for us.Sometimes God knows how things will turn out.

One reason this is so is because God sometimes makes things happen. God, Joseph, Egypt, fat cows and thin cows: “The reason the dream was given to Pharaoh in two forms is that the matter has been firmly decided by God, and God will do it soon” (Gen 41:32). When this happens, God isn’t predicting — God is making things happen.

Another reason though is that God sometimes knows what will happen but doesn’t make the event happen. God knows, for instance (Gen 15:13), that Israel will be in Egypt for 400 years. Goldingay doesn’t think God made these happen the way he described the previous passage (Gen 41:32). He suggests sometimes God may know because it can be inferred from watching what is going on. That is, God infers.

Prophets and humans and the devil sometimes know what will happen. God isn’t alone in knowing what will happen.

Sometimes God does not know how things will turn out.

I’m aware some of us are bothered by this statement, but I’m summarizing Goldingay and he’s reading the Bible and some passages in the Bible can be read just that way. So where?

Here’s one. Exodus 33:5: For the LORD had said to Moses, “Tell the Israelites, ‘You are a stiff-necked people. If I were to go with you even for a moment, I might destroy you. Now take off your ornaments and I will decide what to do with you.’” Or this one from Jeremiah 26:3: “Perhaps they will listen and each will turn from their evil ways. Then I will relent and not inflict on them the disaster I was planning because of the evil they have done.” It is the word “Perhaps” that reveals that either God is deceiving or God doesn’t know (or maybe others have other explanations). But a “plain reading” knows that “perhaps” implies contingency. And a final one from Exodus 4:8 Then the LORD said, “If they do not believe you or pay attention to the first sign, they may believe the second. 9 But if they do not believe these two signs or listen to you, take some water from the Nile and pour it on the dry ground. The water you take from the river will become blood on the ground.”

Sometimes things turn out differently from God’s expectations.

“God experiences disappointment” (29). In Isaiah 5 we find a song about a vinedresser and a vineyard, and it tells us that God expected/hoped for justice and righteousness but that’s not what happened. God was surprised. Read Jeremiah 3:6-7, 19-20; Isaiah 63:8-10.

Sometimes things turn out differently than God’s announcements.

Micah predicts through God that Jerusalem would be destroyed but it wasn’t (Mic 3:12); the king submitted himself to God (Jer 26:17-19). And Jonah predicted through God that Nineveh would be destroyed in 40 days and it wasn’t (Jonah 3:4, 10). The word here is “unless.” If things change, God’s announcements won’t turn out.

God and Nebuchadnezzar in Ezek 26:1-21; 29:17-20. God “sought to kill Moses” but his wife, Zipporah, stepped in and God backed off (Exod 4:24-26). Goldingay says Adam would die if he ate the fruit but he didn’t die — and that is another instance of this. He sees the predictions of Jesus — Matt 10:23; Mark 9:1; Mark 13 — as the same sort of thing.

Goldingay sees this as God’s intent and announcement but that they will happen if God doesn’t change his mind or things don’t shift. God remains consistent with the goals God has in mind.

Goldingay thinks open theism’s explanations don’t always apply. Sometimes God can know the future. Before it happens. But classical theists can’t explain that sometimes God doesn’t know and that sometimes God’s announcements don’t always occur as announced.

Scripture isn’t bothered by these problems, so Goldingay observes.

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  • Also, among the Open Theists (I do count myself in these ranks) there are at least two camps- those that say the future is COMPLETELY open, while others say it is partially open. I think that is a fairly crucial distinction as well.

  • The second reason God sometimes knows what will happen, according to your summary of Goldingay’s points, strikes me as highly implausible. Since the future has not yet happened—and this assumes a A-theory of time, or that time is real and not illusory—then any inference made from the present to predict the future would be contingent, uncertain. Just as Goldingay points out later, circumstances could “shift” or God could change God’s mind. Therefore, this second reason fails to obtain. If God says a specific future outcome is certain, God alone can ensure the arrival of that outcome. All future outcomes that are not brought about by God are subject to causality and contingency. The parts of the future God predetermines are certain, all else is either determined by causality or is contingent upon the choices/actions of free agents.

    Goldingay flirts with Openness, but is not ready to commit. This is unfortunate. His logic would be much more consistent if he dispensed with the myth of definitively-knowable yet un-actualized future outcomes. These are as illogical as unmarried bachelors and round triangles.

  • Luke

    I love Goldingay, I really do. He is probably my favorite OT scholar as well. But Goldingay is not an open theist, nor is he a classical theologian. Goldingay would be described as a process theologian. He (i.e. God) finds things out, is surprised, doesn’t know when things are occurring sometimes, and learns from his mistakes. Many of his writings spell this out quite clearly (while not using the term “process theologian,” of course). He makes valid points that I am always wrestling with, and I don’t think he’s “dangerous” or anything, but I think people should know that this is not some mediating position between classical theism and open theism; this goes beyond open theism. I’m actually quite surprised I haven’t seen many conservative scholars call him out for what he has said in his writings since he’s an evangelical teaching at an evangelical institution and the author of dozens of books. In any case, he’s a great author and thinker and this book sounds fascinating.

  • Jorge L

    Future is a category we know. How can future apply to God? God is eternal, time-less. Our future already IS to Someone for whom there is no past or future, only Absolute Present.

    Sure, it’s impossible for us to conceive of nothing but Absolute Present. It’s an article of faith that God is eternal and timeless.

    But to say that God does not know the future is to anthropomorphize God, totally. We cannot help some anthropomorphizing, which is why negative theology always says that whatever we say about what God is, God is always infinitely Other than that, is Not That.

    So, if we cannot not think in terms of time (even our language is tensed, cannot not be tensed), then whatever God is, God is Not Tensed, not Timed.

    Future-talk is silly when applied to God. Open Theism has reduced God to our level.

  • @Jorge L:

    Praise the God Who “reduced” Godself to “our level”!!!

    You are correct that divine timelessness is an article of faith. Too bad it is not one that is supported by Scripture.

  • Victor Jack

    I have been reading & listening to Greg Boyd, as well as Roger Forster in the UK, over the last few months and do not (at least currently) see that God could not/ would not limit his ability to exhaustively know our future choices in order to enter into genuine relationship with us. God does seem ‘surprised’ in many prophetic writings that despite all his tender, Fathering love Israel continues to go after other gods. Yes, one can argue that that is anthropomorphism, but one has to accept that the ‘plain reading’ of those texts is that God did not (or chose not) to know how exactly they would react to his love.

    I haven’t yet read any Goldingay, but being a big Tom Wright fan, was planning to use some of the OT ‘For Everyone’ books for devotions.

  • Susan N.

    So, it would seem this question is strongly related to the one, “Is God a moral monster?” In all of the scripture references cited above, if God wasn’t surprised by the outcome of the events, then the text simply reflects the human participants’/author’s interpretation of God’s involvement in the unfolding of events.

    This is a really tough question for me. I’m not sure I have come to a fixed conclusion. I believe that events are affected by God’s directing hand *and* the willful choices of human beings. To what degree human will comes into play in relation to God’s omnipotence, and whether the future is fully determined, from the beginning of time, I’m not sure. Believing that God has predetermined the future seems overly fatalistic. If the world goes to hell in a handbasket, I can be O:K with that, because it must have been God’s will. Where is the conviction to get up and *move* on God’s/the Gospel’s behalf? Dangerous thinking.

    I have always wondered at the interaction between God and Abraham, when God decides to tell Abraham about Sodom and Gomorrah’s impending destruction. And then, Abraham bargaining for the sparing of the righteous. And God changing his mind and acquiescing to Abraham’s request. If I’m reading that right, it would seem that not only can God change His mind, but we have an ability to impact the outcome when we intercede on behalf of others in prayer or action (as was the case with reluctant Jonah for Ninevah).

  • Jorge L

    TC Moore. I too rejoice that God entered time and space to save us. And that Scripture tells us,though Scripture itself is the written precipitate of something greater, namely God’s self-revelation.

    But God cannot be reduced to God’s self-revelation. Revelation testifies to that. You concede this in your “stooping” language. If God stooped to reveal, then God is greater than that which He has revealed.

    If he stooped to reveal Himself in Time then He dare not be reduced to Time.

    Future is our problem. Not God’s. That we can’t fully conceive of how God perceives what we perceive is our problem. Not God’s problem.

    That’s what Negative Theology is about: whatever we perceive, whatever we glean from Revelation (which includes Scripture), God is Other than that.

    God is Other than what we designate by Past and Future.

    God is Presentness. We cannot conceive of pure Presentness because we are bound by Time, by past and future which, together, make “present” for us.

    But not for God. God don’t need no Past and Future to know All that Is, just plain is.

    And as for God’s eternality and un-timedness not being Scripture, well, there’s that Name He gives himself: “I am” Pure present tense.

    Yes, I know people interpret that in all sorts of ways. But any denial that God’s timelessness is Scriptural involves a whole lot of interprting just my reading of Scripture to say that it says God is timeless (Other than Time) involves interpretation. We can’t avoid interpreting.

  • This post is why I hate (okay, dislike intensely) theology and even some theologians. I’m joking, I think.

    But it is akin to asking, “If all those angels standing on the head of a pin stood on tiptoe, could they see farther?”

    The short answer is: I don’t know and I don’t care.

    God is probably laughing all over heaven about this one.

    This has been another comment from Bob Brague.

  • P.S. – Anybody ever hear of free will? Either we have it or we don’t. And either God knows in advance what we will choose or He doesn’t. And either He will (or can) use our actions and responses to accomplish his long-range goals or He won’t (or can’t).

    But try to figure Him out? Never! (except to say with C.S. Lewis: “Safe? Who said anything about safe? Of course he (Aslan) is not safe. But he is good.”

    We want safe to equal good and good to equal safe at all times, and both to equal predictable. No such luck.

    We walk by faith, not by sight.

  • Scott Eaton

    Scot, I think you have somewhat misrepresented the open view of the future. Open view advocates (Boyd at least) would say that God does know the future exhaustively, but he knows it as an exhaustive set of possibilites and he sees these possiblities as already settled realities. As a result, open view advocates would claim that God in reality knows MORE than classical theists. But, as you have pointed out, God does not know which possibility will come to be until it comes to be because it is not yet knowable (this is a matter of the nature of reality and not a limitation with God).

    Also, as Cody above points out, most open view advocates would say that the future is only partially open, not fully open. God did settle some future events, but not all or even most. Again, the reason for this is not some limitation in God, but it is simply the way HE sovereignly chose to create HIS world.

    This is their view as I understand it.

  • T

    Assuming that there is something to the fact that God does not know the future in every detail for a second, I think another explanation needs to be considered. If I play various games with my daughter, I may have plenty of surprises, but still have the ability to set the parameters for all kinds of outcomes. Assuming that God’s intelligence and knowledge of all relevant factors, including human tendencies, creates a much wider gap, comparatively speaking, than between me and my daughter, God doesn’t just “infer” in the standard sense. Predicting humans, especially as he interacts with them, may be much, much easier than we think, even if it is not totally controlled.

  • T

    One other issue: I frequently also raise the Jonah prophecy because the message from Jonah contains no “unless.” The people of Nineveh reason that maybe God will change his mind if they repent, and they were right. But I raise this issue to counter the argument made by some cessationists regarding prophecy that any prophet whose prophecies don’t happen should be put to death without exception. On this point (and relevant to this post), I think God has the right to bluff or to threaten or promise based on then current conditions, and then, as said above, change his mind or actions based on changed conditions.

  • Taylor G

    @Bob Brague – But can’t you see the huge implications of this issue?

  • Jason Lee

    T: I like your picture of playing games with children and setting the parameters … to build on this though lets consider the fact that God is the author and master of math. Let’s say that God has all the data on all the children in history and their game behaviors, all the data on emotional responses of the particular child in question, and can do mammoth statistical models in God’s head on the spot using all this data. That’s a lot of predictive power (without ever bringing any actual knowledge of the future into the equation) …talk about a master chess player! What a grand and glorious God!

  • John

    The Hebrews were wise to refrain from depicting God, no images, an empty throne and all of that. There is a lesson in that for us Christians which we just cannot grasp. God is not infinite, but ineffable. The employment of infinities to define God is as misguided as are graven images. We want to take a humanly discernible quality and to show respect to God we conclude that God has this quality in spades, in fact God has it to infinity -and we think this gets past the problem of anthropomorphizing God. It doesn’t do that at all, it’s just a cheap logic trick – we are still trying to apply a human characteristic to the ineffable. To suggest that humans can know somethings but God knows everything, or that humans can see some things but that God can see everything, or that humans can do some things but that God can do everything, is still anthropomorphizing. To apply the label “infinite” is to render the characteristic meaningless to the point of absurdity.

    As for the root question, is God surprised? I would respond that God is dynamic, subject to change, and that conclusion suggests that outcomes are not a given.

    The one underlying characteristic in all of creation, in all of the constellations of matter and energy, microscopic or macroscopic, is change. Change is where something is not WHAT it once was or WHERE it once was, or even exactly AS it once was. Nothing is still, nothing remains in place, and nothing is unaffected by the rest. My sense is that this reveals a basic characteristic of God, dynamism. God infused this dynamism into the Creation because God is dynamic. Every aspect of Creation is marked by this dynamism, and God’s every interaction with the Creation is marked also by this dynamism.

    With change and dynamism also comes contingency, the either\or, opportunity and possibility. And so I think that ‘change’ and ‘contingency’ are in the very DNA of the Creation project; it thrives on change and, by extension I believe that its Creator thrives on change, contingency and possibility. I can imagine that God knows how things will work out, but then the whole Creation project seems rather pointless, kind of like putting the puzzle together over and over again.

    With the element of change, there comes a logical conflict with certainty, and like the classic conundrum of the irresistible force and the immovable rock, they cannot coexist. And since we know that change is a given, then divine certainty as to outcomes seems (to me) logically precluded. (I acknowledge that God is not governed by rules of logic – but I am.)

    We cannot know the answer, but as an operating principal of life, it makes more sense to me to assume that change is paramount and that my life as a creation of God is filled with possibilities, and that my failures and my successes, my joys and my grief, are not predetermined, just waiting for me to play out the string. To conclude otherwise would suggest a Creator whose cruelty is truly infinite to the point of absurd.

  • Susan N.

    Taylor G @ #14 — Yes, that’s exactly the point. What we believe and how we understand God have HUGE implications on the “walk”. I agree with you Bob to some extent, that theologizing is a lot of talk; it’s where the rubber meets the road that counts (in living rightly with God and others). The way we view God, His world, and the way the two relate gets communicated to others through our words and actions. How do we answer the “hard” questions that people have about God and the Bible (and that we ourselves wrestle with from time to time)? Just saying that it’s unknowable — “just trust God” — doesn’t cut it when you’re between a rock and a hard place. Learning to live with the unsearchable mysteries of God is a necessary part of faith, I agree. But continuing to ask questions and look for applicable meaning in our practical living isn’t necessarily a sign of weak faith or pride, imho.

  • dopderbeck

    I do not think God is ever “surprised.” Nor do I think His plans are ever frustrated or sidetracked in the least by anything that happens in time. Nor do I think God, in His divine being, ever changes or suffers. (Christ, in his humanity, experienced change and suffering, and thus the Triune God takes up into His life the human experience of change and suffering. But God in His being as God does not change or suffer).

    Obviously this is one of this fascinating tensions between systematic theology and Biblical studies. IMHO the problem with emphasizing too heavily the “Biblical studies” end of that tension is that other sources of theological knowledge — reason, tradition, and experience — get lost in the shuffle.

    If God can be “surprised” or His plans can be frustrated, then we have no firm basis for hope in the Resurrection or in the blessed consummation of history in Christ. Sin, death and the Devil might turn out the winners after all.

    BTW, the view that “systematic theology doesn’t matter because all that really matters is how we live” is itself a kind of systematic theological statement. You can’t avoid theology — theology is simply human thought about God. We might rail against scholasticism, and rightly so because good systematic theology tells us that all our human thinking about God is merely analogical. But you can’t avoid theology.

  • Scot McKnight

    Scott Eaton. I think I represented Goldingay’s sketch of open theism accurately.

  • Jeremy

    Bob – I would shy away from reducing our pursuit of knowledge regarding God to mere utility. Sure, there is a point where such pursuits can consume an undue portion of our attention, but we’re talking relationship, right? If I was only interested in the aspects of my loved ones that were useful or helpful to my own personal development, I would be a terrible husband/brother/son/whatever. I see theology somewhat like trying to learn my wife. Sure, it’s not always practical and even maybe a bit esoteric at times, but that’s part and parcel of caring for her for her own sake.

    On topic – I love Goldingay. He’s pushed my thinking on a few occasions. I’ve wrestled with those passages before and haven’t come to a good answer. It’s hard to separate the philosophical and extremely extrabiblical presuppositions I’ve been handed regarding the infiniteness and eternality (I made that word up) of God. I mean, we can barely grasp what those words mean, yet we place a very high priority on them meaning very specific things (i.e. God existing in all points of time at once, etc etc)

  • Taylor G

    Dopderbeck: Maybe surprised is to strong a word. What if we changed the question to ask, can god change his mind? And if he can’t, what’s the point of prayer? What’s the point of working toward anything?

  • Jeremy

    David – It seems to me that the assertion that God does not suffer is wrong. Throughout scripture, God is angry, disappointed, filled with sorrow, and willing to go to great lengths to restore us to Him. These are all emotions we associate with suffering. No suffering means no love. A being that does not suffer does not care one whit about what is going on, and the only image of God that meshes with is the one I find in the middle ages.

    There are some bold assertions in that paragraph, but I think my point is clear enough. Do I make sense?

  • johnfouadhanna

    I concur with dobderbeck (18).

    This subject is I think similar and related to discussions pertaining to sovereignty and free agency; “God did it” or “humans/nature did it.” In all these cases, we insist on either/or but the Scriptures point us to both/and. In his excellent book “Reasons for Faith,” Scott Oliphint offers the helpful categories of God’s essential and covenantal attributes. I found it helpful because it alllows us to hold on to the tensions of affirming all the Scriptures instead of pitting them against each other. So God in his being is of course unchanging, all knowing, sovereign. Yet relationally and personally, he truly does enter into our experience and participate in it, without being subject to it. Ultimately, we see this in Christ, who is fully God and fully human.

  • Robert A

    Open theism has been robustly (and rightly) refuted in evangelicalism. This is honestly one of the first posts I’ve seen on it in a long time.

    It needs to stay defeated.

  • Percival

    Dopderbeck #18,
    If that’s the balance you are looking for between Biblical studies and systematic theology, it seems unbalanced to me. Scripture is our authority; then reason, tradition, and experience are helps for our interpretation (the quadrilateral). What is that called – Prima Scriptura? Otherwise, you might as well be a Greek philosopher using the Hebrew scriptures an extra resource.

  • dopderbeck

    Taylor G (#21) — the underlying question is about the relationship between God and time. I’m not a process theologian so I reject the notion that God is bound to time or develops over time. What we experience over a linear timeline — I pray, then God responds — God in His own being knows in a sense all at once. Of course, God enters into time through the incarnation, so in this sense God knows our linear perception of time.

    So, no, God does not “change His mind,” because that implies a linear timeline in the life of God; but yes, God does really respond to our prayers, and in particular we have an “advocate” in the incarnate person of Christ.

    Does this make logical sense? Yes, but only when we really start to grasp the otherness of God’s being and the immediacy of the incarnation.

  • dopderbeck

    Percival (#25) — no, that’s not a correct statement of the quadrilateral. Scripture is the norma normans, but not the only norm. Tradition, Reason, and Experience are all proper sources of norms. When we say scripture is the final or finally norming authority, that isn’t license to read it in ways that utterly subvert tradition, reason or experience.

  • Taylor G

    David, Could you please put this in simple terms? Not kidding when I write that. Why do I pray? When I ask God to bring faith to a family member that does not have faith, what is being accomplished?

  • Richard

    @ 24 Not really. There are some evangelicals that refute it but there are many who embrace it.

    @ Dopderbeck

    What about Scriptures that seem to attribute regret to God (i.e. prior to the flood or one of the times he thinks about destroying Israel and Moses “talks him out of it”)? Is regret possible for a God that isn’t surprised by an outcome? If everything goes according to a determined plan (or for our Arminian brothers and sisters, a known future), why would the Scriptures portray God as experiencing regret?

  • DRT

    I agree with those that say to even ask this question seriously is an anthropomorphization (?) of God and is not useful for understanding the nature of God.

    But, I do think it is useful for understanding and discussing how we relate to God. I feel it is best for us to think of our interactions with God as an open theistic interaction and we should do our best to try and surprise God with what we do in our lives.

    I also think it is useful to do the analytics that dopderbeck suggested since an eternal God does give us confidence in what he has shared and done with us.

    So it is a both/and to me.

  • Jason Lee

    On the reason, tradition, experience thing:

    I find the classical view of God and future to be at odds with “reason.”

    As for “tradition,” I may be totally wrong about this, but I seem to remember the Eastern Orthodox tradition comporting much better with open theism than the Western Augustinian tradition. What’s a Protestant to do?

    Don’t most of us “experience” God as if God were a person that responds in time?

  • dopderbeck

    Taylor — in simple terms, we pray because of promises like this one: “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” (Phil. 4:6-7)

    From our perspective a finite creatures, it’s proper and good to understand that God “responds” to our prayers. But we shouldn’t confuse this with an ontological statement about God’s being as God is in Himself. In fact, one reason we can have confidence and peace as we pray is the knowledge that God transcends all the contingent circumstances that cause us fear.

    Richard (#29) — of course regret is possible even if one is not “surprised” by the outcome. Having brought three children into the world, I feel great pain and regret when they make bad choices for which they have to bear the consequences. But I’m not “surprised” by those choices — at least not in the sense of having been unaware that it would even be possible for my little babies ever to become rebellious. In fact, if I’m honest I’d say I knew without any doubt when my children were conceived and born that they would experience rebellion and suffering, because this is the lot of all human beings, including myself. In a very roughly similar way, I don’t think it’s inconsistent at all to take these two facets of God’s relationship to humanity together: his knowledge that we would rebel and His regret over our rebellion.

  • dopderbeck

    Jason Lee — no, Eastern Orthodox theology is utterly opposed to anything like open theism. God’s impassibility is a vital aspect of Eastern Orthodox thought. See, e.g., David Bentley Hart, The Beauty of the Infinite.

  • MatthewS

    I believe that the metaphor of “Flatland” has a good lesson. I chuckle at the little points in space running around thinking they are the most important thing going yet they are incapable of understanding so much that is beyond them.

    We have come to realize we can’t even see what is right in front of us from a completely objective perspective (Wittgenstein’s Poker, for example). From what perch do we describe God’s limitations?

    FWIW, A link to Flatland:

  • David (#26)

    You wrote: “Does this make logical sense? Yes, but only when we really start to grasp the otherness of God’s being and the immediacy of the incarnation.”

    I have to politely disagree. It is inherently illogical for us to believe that prayer can change the future or has an effect on God’s plans and yet God is immutable. That’s what makes this topic and many others so difficult to comprehend and discussion-worthy. That doesn’t mean these discussions aren’t meritorious, but at some point we’re going to reach the end of where logic can take us and we need to be honest about that.

  • Scott:
    Does God wear a watch? I have always seem time and space as human constructions. Something we conceive in order to give our minds a framework to work within. Thus, God would not be constrained by the space time continuum. Terms such as future, past, present wouldn’t apply to God. God told Moses His Name was I AM. For me, at least, it seems it’s always now.

  • Ross

    @ Bob Brague (9 and 10)
    First you say you strongly dislike theologians, that this is a ridiculous issue, that you don’t know and don’t care, and that God is laughing at us stupid humans for being so trivial. That was post number 9.

    Then you post some very theological statements that would lead someone to believe that you do know at least something and do care. That is post number 10.

    Which one is it?

  • B

    Everyone seems to be missing the fact that Goldingay does NOT consider himself an Open Theist, much less a process theologian. At the end of this chapter, Goldingay writes:

    To conclude: Scripture implies that God has some innate knowledge and also has access to all knowledge about everything past, present, and future. I infer that God sometimes chooses to exercise that access but sometimes chooses not to do so.

    Boyd or Sanders could never make this kind of statement. Goldingay believes that sometimes God knows the future and at other times he doesn’t. For Goldingay, this comes from an honest reading of the text. The problem for many (so dopderbeck) is the scholastic tendency to systematize every belief and tie up every loose end. God must be EITHER in time or out time, have exhaustive knowledge of the future at once or none at all, etc. However, Goldingay is comfortable in the “messiness” of interpretation.

  • dopderbeck

    Justin, I think the problem is that you aren’t yet thinking carefully enough about the relationship between God and “time.” I agree, though, that this is not in the least a simple question, and that it all ends up stretching our capacity for analogical reasoning to the breaking point.

    I take much of my thinking about this from Robert Jenson’s Systematic Theology, particularly his discussion of Christology and also his chapter on “Time, Created Being, and Space.” Here is what Jensen says:

    The God of Exodus and Resurrection assuredly is absolute Lord, and so indeed not subjected to created time’s contingencies. The notion could never occur to any biblical writer that an event or aspect of history could be outside the Lord’s control…. But the question is, How does God transcend time’s contingencies?

    With the proposition at last in place that the sufferer of the Gospels is, without qualification or evasion, the second identity of God, we are free to say what would otherwise have been obvious to faith all along. God the Son suffers all the contingencies and evils recorded in the Gospels, and concludes them by suffering execution. God the Father raises him from the dead; nor do we have reason to think of this act as dispassionately done. So and not otherwise the Father triumphs over suffering. God the Spirit is the sphere of the triumph.

  • T


    I don’t think your explanation of why we pray goes far enough or does enough justice to the scriptural data. Similarly, I agree there’s got to be a deep sense in which God continues to have joy even amidst his suffering, the assertion that God never suffers in his divine being goes too far against the biblical data and reason.

    The God you are portraying comes off as a little too removed, in feeling, thought and action, more so than what I see in the Narrative and experience.

  • Tim Seiger

    @dopderbeck #18 wrote “If God can be “surprised” or His plans can be frustrated, then we have no firm basis for hope in the Resurrection or in the blessed consummation of history in Christ. Sin, death and the Devil might turn out the winners after all.

    While others have alluded to this same idea that somehow open theism leaves us with a God who is impotent and unable to be relied upon, dopderbeck states it outright. However, it is a non sequitur. It does not follow that if God does not know the future choices of free individuals that God is therefore powerless. In fact it is precisely here I think that most people that I have encountered get open theism wrong. God is still omnipotent in the traditional understanding of that concept. Therefore God’s ultimate plans are never thwarted as he has the power to realize what ever he desires. Therefore, the future is open only in relation to the choices that individuals make and the consequnces that follow from those choices in particular instances. Any future that God determines will be realized as an act of his power not as a function of his omniscience. The efficaciousness of the resurrection is in no way impacted by an open future as the resurrection simply inagurates the new creation in both people and the world. Refusing to accept that reality on the part of an individual has implications only for the individual and not the intention or ability of God to finalize that reality at some point in the future. As hard as it is to say “sin, deathe and the Devil” do turn out to be the winners in the lives of individuals who refuse “the hope of the resurrection.” Unless of course one tends toward a more universalist understanding of salvation where everyone will eventually enter the kingdom in which case an open theist’s position does call into question the hope of the resurrection; but I don’t think anyone is arguing that here at this point.

  • John

    Mike @36
    My understanding of God’s name is that it contains within it the notion that “I WILL BE WHAT I WILL BE.” The emphasis which I take from this expanded meaning is on the continuing unfolding of God into human history. Of course what God ‘will be’ could be understood to be fixed, but then why not leave it at ‘I AM?’ The use of such an expansive name suggest to me an open-endedness, and reservation to God of the prerogative to be self-creative, which means to be surprising and to be surprised by what God creates.

    Coming at this from a different perspective, the very call to humanity to adhere to God’s commands (and all of Scripture is about this call and our response) and the provision for choice should open the door for contingency and surprise. If we had no option but to conform to a predestined script, then the whole thing is a play-act and we are but puppets.

    Without the opportunity for genuine surprise, the whole of Creation is nothing but an exercise, and I highly doubt God does exercises; experiments yes but not exercises.

  • Linda

    God is perfect, a perfect being does not learn, therefore He is never surprised.

  • dopderbeck

    Tim (#40) — I was responding to the question whether God can be “surprised.” I agree with you that there are permutations of open theism in which God could not be “surprised,” at least not in an absolute sense, because God has foreknowledge of all that can be known. The problem is that loophole: “all that can be known.”

    Really the bigger problem, IMHO, is the ontology of open theism. The open theologies that I’ve read suggest that the future is unknowable because it does not yet “exist”; it is yet to be constructed by, among other things, the choices of free agents, including human beings and God.

    I think the “future” exists as an ontological reality that is already realized in the Resurrection and that the “present” is a proleptic construction of this “already extant” future that is “not yet” known in our time-bound experience. We speak of the “in-breaking” of the Kingdom because the Kingdom is ontologically real — indeed, in a sense, more “real” than our current experience. So I think there is no sense whatsoever in which God lacks knowledge of “the future.” The future consummation is when God Himself will be “all in all.” (1 Cor. 15:28). If God does not fully “know” this then He does not fully “know” Himself.

  • dopderbeck

    John (#42) — no, you’re confusing and collapsing primary and secondary causes.

  • Rick

    Just heard physicist Brian Greene yesterday on NPR’s “Fresh Air” program say that the one thing he is interesting in learning more about is “time”. He said we really don’t understand what “time” is.

  • K.

    In defense of Bob Brague, theologians can sometimes take something simple and muck it up. As for God, being omniscient, I believe that he does know the future, but is not the divine puppet master that some think he is; we humans still have free will (although, there have been times where God has had to step in and do some “arm twisting” like with Moses).

  • B

    Linda: Why can’t a perfect being be surprised?

    Dopderbeck: Please understand that your arguments against Open Theism do not apply to Godlingay. He does not argue for an open future. He says that Open Theism “is a theory driven by the philosophical conviction of open theory that by its nature the future cannot be known until it happens. As scripture sees it, God sometimes knows how things will turn out, simply on the basis of some supernatural capacity to do so. (33)”. If this posts has spun into a debate about Open Theism, so be it. But I believe Goldingay is offering up a genuine “third way” between classical and open theism, which most appear unfamiliar with.

    Parenthetically, Goldingay’s understanding of providence fits very well with theistic evolution, which he shows in his OTT.

  • Barb

    How can we worship a God who needs us to rescue him when he gets out-of-date? There are many mysteries to God, but I couldn’t worship or trust a God who could be surprised.

  • But a “plain reading” knows that “perhaps” implies contingency.

    I don’t want to hijack the thread by discussing irrelevant issues, but do want to point out how much I love this bit. So many people defend traditional doctrines on the basis of “plain reading,” but I’d be willing to bet that few of those people will just readily accept that “plain reading” may well lead to doctrines that aren’t so traditional!

  • John

    Dopderbeck @18 you said God is never “surprised” and His plans are never frustrated or sidetracked by anything that happens in time.

    I find that assertion problematic. The only source we have as to the outline of God’s plans are based on Scripture. Scripture time and again asserts that it is God’s plan that ALL will one day worship on His Holy Mountain (to put it metaphorically) including those who do not understand their right hand from their left (theologically speaking). God’s plan is for our welfare and not for harm, to give us “a future with hope.” God’s plan is that all those who are at the margins will one day share in the full abundance of Creation. God’s plan is that we will all embrace our enemies, that the metaphorical lion shall eat lie down with the metaphorical lamb, and that there will be no more tears. So too there appears to be some suggestion that God’s plan includes eternal damnation for the evil ones, whoever they may be.

    If God’s plan is that all will worship in the holy mountain and yet there is a certainty that some will not, it seems that the plan will be frustrated to some degree. And if you believe that some souls are lost, are you suggesting that when a soul is lost God does not grieve? I grieve, and surely God is more compassionate than I, then should God not grieve more deeply than I.

    (I recognize that I am breaking all the rules against anthropomorphizing here, but if accept that God feels compassion in some ineffable way, I think it is legitimate to do so.)

    If God grieves does this not reflect a disappointed desire or of the Scriptural expectation that all would one day worship on the Holy Mountain, etc., and thus a frustration?

  • Tim Seiger

    Dopderback #44 I agree that the issue is the existence of a future to be known. To do full justice to the issue we would have to define things like what it means to “know.” However, even on its face,with a plain meaning of what it means to know I don’t think the issue is as dire as some might think. God’s omnipotence makes it possible for him to determine a particular course of events and/or and an outcome. In this way the future, as determined by God, is knowable by God but this has almost nothing to do with the omniscience issue.

    Additionally, I would take issue with your characterization of the present as proleptic construction of the future resurrection. The resurrection is not a future reality that looks back. The resurrection, as I understand it, is a present reality that looks forward. Jesus was raised in “time” and from that moment the reality of resurrection was present in our world though the full implications and final consumation of that reality are yet to unfold through time (John 11:25-26 where Jesus tells Martha we live even though we die…).

    This response may not satisfy the misgivings you have with open theism but I hope that it might demonstrate that open theists are not stuck trying to defend a powerless God who is unable to make good on his promises or to secure a future of his own determination. I suspect that for many the issue is a very personal one in which the weight of being truly free is terrifying and the preferred reality is a God who is in in complete control. Of course these are not the only two alternatives but I would suggest that the heart of the issue is not as much theological as it is personal, and understandably so. I too will own the horse I have in this race in that I am personally uncomfortable with the implications of understanding God as completely in control and ordering the world to his design and seeing what we see in the world. If this is the best he could do, well…Again, that is another conversation but I wanted to own that I make no claim to complete objectivity here. But at the same time, I think Open Theism can make a claim to be a Biblically faithful theological expression.

  • dopderbeck

    B (#48) — fair enough, and I wouldn’t be surprised if some of what Godingay is trying to do derives in part from Robert Jenson’s work.

    John (#51) — first, scripture is not the “only” source we have. In fact, our primary source is the incarnation, death and resurrection of Christ – i.e., Christ himself.

    Second, I never suggested God doesn’t grieve. Just the opposite (see my comment #32 in response to Richard).

    Third, scripture simply doesn’t tell the univocal story concerning God’s eschatological plan that you are suggesting it tells. It seems clear to me from scripture that part of God’s eschatological plan is also to preserve the integrity of the free creatures he in love created and to accomplish justice. Thus, if some souls are lost, this is certainly cause for grief, but it is in no sense a frustration of God’s plans. His plans include the possibility that some will make the tragic choice to reject the good He desires for them, and even this freedom is itself part of the good He gives.

  • dopderbeck

    Tim (#52) — the theodicy problem is another conversation, but then it also is the same conversation. I agree that this is what motivates the open theism conversation.

    Not to hijack, but for me open theism makes the theodicy problem worse. In classical theism, our present troubles can be called “light and momentary” (2 Cor. 4:17) in light of the fullness of God’s eternal plans. In open theism, it seems to me, God negligently opens a Pandora’s Box that he can’t really control. Indeed, the myth of Pandora’s Box is a sort of open theistic theodicy.

    Re: the Resurrection: from our perspective, bound in time, we look forward. From God’s perspective, the victory is already won. “It is finished.” And this ties nicely into the Cristus Victor model of the atonement.

  • Susan N.

    John @ #42 and #51 – I echo these thoughts. Earlier, I asked my children whether they thought God is ever surprised, or whether He already knows everything about the future because it has been planned out for us by Him in advance. My youngest’s (10yo) answer was especially to the point. He answered, “I think God *could* but He chooses not to sometimes.” God created us to be thinking beings, in His likeness (spirit). If God were going to control every outcome, why create us with the freedom (will) to choose? For me, this way of viewing God and being in relationship with Him does not present any internal conflict or “slippery slope” of faith. For me, the important thing is knowing that God works all together for the good of those who love Him…for His ultimate glory. Because of Christ, who entered into time and our humanity and conquered death (the ultimate constraint of time and space, if you ask me), I can accept and worship the God who is powerful and big enough to redeem and restore everything — beautiful messes and all. Can God ever be surprised? I suspect yes. Is any surprise ever too much for Him to redeem? I doubt it. My trust and devotion is to this great God who surprises ME and surpasses my imagination!

  • Randy Gabrielse

    I will just comment on one piece of scripture that suggests that God can be surprised.

    In “Scripture, Culture and Agriculture: An Agrarian Reading of Scripture,”A book that I have enjoyed before and am now studying in a seminary class, Ellen Davis looks at God’s repeated statements “And God saw that it was good.” She says, “Yet the goodness of the world is presented not as a simple fact, nor even as an authoritative pronouncement, but as a divine perception…it conveys a fresh response.”

    I find something valuable in a God who can be surprised, acting like an artist crafting his masterpiece, noting only after he has painted a part or the whole. “That is really beautiful, even more so than I thought when I planned it.”
    Randy Gabrielse

  • John

    Dopderbeck @54 I learned what I know of the “incarnation, death and resurrection of Christ” from Scripture. And what I see in Scripture is an Incarnation which is incredibly dynamic, both in what Jesus does, and in how Jesus interacts with the rest of the Trinity. In fact if I want to look for a helpful model I might just look at the interruptive ministry of Jesus. Almost all of his ministry, teaching healing, etc, happens on the way to someplace else, and in response to a serendipitous catalyst. Jesus’ ministry is dynamic to the core.

    And lest I be understood as suggesting that Jesus’ ministry was a ministry ‘on the run,’ I would say instead that it unfolded within history and fully engaged with history, and thus it was adaptive, responsive and dynamic.

    And I see in Jesus’ death and resurrection further evidence of God’s dynamism. God responds to humanity’s failure with both an indictment (the Crucifixion) and an invitation to enter into a new Kingdom (the Resurrection): an indictment and an answer, both undertaken within the context of human history, both responsive to the needs of the Creation.

    Very surprising responses.

  • Tim Seiger

    Dopderbeck- We will probably have to agree to disagree about much of this. Too much needs to be defined and qualified to make this venue an appropriate one to settle this or even to give it the fairest hearing on either side. For example, it seems to me that IF you are correct about the “timelessness” of God the most that can be said would be “he is outside of time.” After that there is nothing in our experience that would serve as a beginning point to formulate anything even resembling a meaningful understanding of what it means for God to be outside of time. But that takes us to epistemology and how it would be possible to speak of something for which we have no category let alone experience of. I do not find it to be a helpful description of God because I can’t make sense of it. Some might argue that just because we can’t understand it doesn’t make it not true and I agree but an appeal to mystery doesn’t make it true either which is what often ultimately happens when we reach this point in the discussion. So, as I began, we will probably have to agree to disagree unless, and I mean this sincerely, you can help me understand how to make sense of what it would mean for God to be timeless given that there is nothing in our experience that could fill out the definition or serve to confirm or oppose the claim. But again that may be to hijack this thread which we probably should not do :).

  • Alan K

    Thanks, dopderbeck, for endeavoring to uphold the Lordship of God. Scot, do you mind doing a series of posts on biblicism?

  • dopderbeck

    John — all you learned of Christ is from scripture? You’ve never met him in prayer, in the sacraments, in the face of a child, and so on? Really?

    Tim (#58) — there is nothing in our experience that serves as a “beginning point” by which we can know anything about God. The “beginning point” is God’s revelation of Himself in Christ. Yes, I am here a bit of a Barthian, and yes, this opens me to the charge of fideism — but this, it seems to me, is the truth. (Another long discussion but I’ll moderate Barth’s aversion to natural theology somewhat — but still, natural theology is never the starting point).

  • Ross (#37) said of me: “First you say you strongly dislike theologians, that this is a ridiculous issue, that you don’t know and don’t care, and that God is laughing at us stupid humans for being so trivial. That was post number 9.

    Then you post some very theological statements that would lead someone to believe that you do know at least something and do care. That is post number 10.

    Which one is it?”

    Ross, did you read the part where I said, “I’m joking, I think.”??? Also, I never said God was “laughing at us stupid humans for being so trivial.” I said “God is probably laughing all over heaven about this one.” Those are two completely different statements. Do you always read into statements what you want them to mean? I meant he was probably genuinely amused because we humans take ourselves so seriously and yet can be (to Him) so funny because of our being able to see only through a glass darkly now. Just the way we laugh at things our children do — not because we think they are stupid or trivial, but because we love them and they give us genuine happiness even in their naivete.

    I’m not saying this right either , but I hope you take away a different slant on what I was trying to say before.

    For the record, I do care.

  • Years and years ago, I heard Norman Grubb say in person, “God must have a sense of humor, or He wouldn’t have given us our funny bodies.”

    This memory is not related to anything in particular except my use of the word “funny” in my previous comment.

  • Luke B

    How do we tell the difference between anthropomorphizing and recognizing a characteristic of God that we humans, created in God’s image, in some way share?

  • Stephen Hesed

    I think Mike at #43 gets it right. It’s all about the old immanence/transcendence duality: God transcends time and space, but also indwells them. Therefore, we interact with God in a time-bound fashion (and indeed there is no other way He could reveal Himself to us), but God Himself is not bound by time. The OT passages are simply God making Himself understandable to us when in reality He is incomprehensible (as the Athanasian Creed states so bluntly.) Consider it a form of Incarnation, if you will.

  • Stephen Hesed

    *Mike at #36. My mistake.

  • John

    Dopderbeck @60

    When I speak with God in prayer it is REALLY HARD to get a straight answer (or even the tiniest hint) on the substance of God’s plans – not that God is so clear on everything else. And when I speak with children and am truly touched by their innocence, I rarely get information that I can wrap my head around with respect to these questions. And while I find the sacraments spiritually nourishing, once again, they do little to provide me detailed information about whether God stands within history or stands aloof from it. Perhaps God has been more forthcoming with others.

  • John

    Alan K@59
    Does the exploration of the range of possible answers to such complex theological questions really challenge God’s lordship? Does only one answer uphold the Lord while all others count as theological treason? Can we not be faithful and still explore questions using the curiosity and insights that God saw fit to breath into us? Doesn’t the investment of time, energy, and reverence by each participant glorify God?

  • DRT

    Randy@65, Thanks for the “and saw it was good”.

    I wish I could have participated with you all today in this conversation, its a favorite topic.

    As much as many things could be considered a mystery, I think this topic is on the top of the list of ineffability.

  • DRT

    …er, 56, dyslexia…

  • Tim Seiger

    Dopderbeck #60. Looks like you’ve alot of responding to do 🙂 so I’ll keep this brief. We agree that God’s revelation of himself is in time and we do have that as a starting point that demonstrates that at the very least God is able to be understood and experienced, in part, within time. However, to claim that understanding what any of the implications of the timelessness of God are because that understanding has been revealed to us in God’s revelation of himself in time, it seems to me, is to beg the question.

  • Sorry, I’m coming late into the fray. Personally, I wonder as to the wisdom of deducing theological statements (classical versus open theism) using a narrative document (the First Testament). Though I don’t deny that the First Testament does in fact make Fact Statements, I think those are few and far between, usually nestled (hidden?) in narratives. It seems as wise to deduce rock-hard theological statements from narrative as it is to deduce scientific theories from Genesis 1-3.

    This is where understanding the author-audience relationship (as well as the God-author relationship) becomes helpful.

    For instance, just because the authors of the First Testament presented God in a way in which it appeared He did not seem to know the future, does not necessarily mean that that is the way God actually is. Similarly, even though the authors used idioms that would seem to put the earth in the center of the universe (at times even putting those words into God’s mouth [or, more conservatively, God putting those words in the authors pens]), it doesn’t make it so.

  • Napman

    It seems clear, to me at least, that the timelessness of God or the openness of God cannot be settled with reference to Scripture. As Jorge points out, any reading of Scripture will be theory-laden with regard to these questions as Scripture is susceptible of multiple distinct interpretations. As with Calvinism and its competitors, preferences in these matters often depend on assumptions drawn from philosophical and theological commitments that help shape the hermenutical requirements the text is read under.

    This can explain why Scripture alone cannot be a guide to our knowledge of God and why Paul says no can say Jesus is Lord except by the Holy Spirit. We must rely on the Spirit revealing the Word, along with the Spirit shaped sacred tradition which constitutes shaped our interpretive inheritance.

    Said differently, nobody has direct access to the Word of God written and the center of our faith is not the message of a book but the God who reveals that message through his self-revelation in Jesus Christ. In this dopderbeck is quite right and I heartily agree with him.

  • Alan K

    Of course the asking of questions can challenge God’s Lordship. Just read any process theologian. In regards to the rest of your questions, of course theological exploration is healthy–if done in a healthy manner. I merely thanked dopderbeck because in this thread he has consistently made his comments in light of the belief that the church has always held–that God is the Lord of time. We cannot read the narrative of Scripture correctly if we put ontology into a suspense account.

  • Jason Lee

    Huh, not what my e. orthodox friends say. Maybe they’re not orthodox orthodox 🙂

  • It was probably said, but it seems that God knows the future – if he has a mind to.

  • Luke B

    Can we characterize the open theists as being in danger of anthropomorphizing God and the classical theists as being in danger of philosophizing God? We need to look to scripture to find our way here. If we say the God in scripture must not be what God is really like, then I think we’re likely to being making the second mistake. It seems to me that Goldingay represents what is in scripture quite well.

  • dopderbeck

    John (#66) — I’m really sorry to hear that, and I’m not saying that to be snarky.

    Tim (#70) — I don’t think it begs the question, or better, I think the “answer” is the incarnation. In other words, the focus of this sort of discussion should be on Christology. All orthodox Christian theologians agree that God in the person of the incarnate Son enters into time and experiences suffering and change. Christ experiences all the human experience of suffering and change because, in the orthodox Chalcedonian formulation, Christ is fully human.

    Does Christ experience suffering and change only in his human nature? This is where Robert Jenson tweaks or extends the Tradition. Jenson observes, with some force, that in the Chalcedonian formulation Christ is indivisibly both fully human and fully divine. Thus what the incarnate Son experiences in his humanity is also experienced in his divinity. And thus the human experience of suffering and change is taken up into the life of the Triune God. And the Father and the Son send the Spirit into the world to heal suffering. (We should note that Jenson’s formulation is contested, e.g. by orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart, who argues persuasively for the traditional view that the Son suffers only in his humanity).

    But God in himself is not a being who suffers or changes. The Father as the Father does not suffer or change. God is the transcendent, sovereign Lord, yet He is the transcendent, sovereign Lord who is also immanent in the person of the Son and who actively sends the Spirit to redeem the creation. This encompasses scripture’s varied witness to God’s changeability.

  • Tim Seiger

    dopderbeck #77 But it does beg the question because the explanation you offer about how we can understand what it means or implies for God to be timeless since we have no exeperience, revealed or otherwise, of timelessness is essentially to state that “since we know God is timeless…” and then conclude all kinds of things about immutability and the certainty of closed/determined future based upon a the very thing in question, namely God’s timelessness.

    In #77 I agree with what you say in the first paragraph and I think with the second. However, in the third paragraph it seems to me that a major move is made that is not warrented by what has gone on in the previous two paragraphs. Again, I assert that you assume the truth of the very thing that is in question (begging the question). Is there something I am missing?

  • dopderbeck

    Tim (#78) it’s not begging the question because its not offered as a proof of God’s timelessness. Rather, it’s rebutting your claim that God cannot be timeless because otherwise we would not be able to know anything about God. The response is that we time-bound beings can know a timeless God because of the incarnation.

    The question of God’s timelessness certainly remains — but that is the point of my reference to the incarnation. The fact that we can time-bound creatures can know God does not defeat the claim of God’s timelessness.

    Regarding my last paragraph in #77, that is a brief discussion of how the traditional approach and Jenson’s approach to this question are coherent within the framework of the doctrine of the Trinity. That is not question-begging, unless you want to challenge the doctrine of the Trinity. I would argue that any position one wants to take here, from the perspective of Christian theology, must be coherent within a Trinitarian framework.

    Many of the openness positions I’ve read, and certainly the process theologies I’ve read, are difficult or incoherent within a Trinitarian framework. If the Father is inherently changeable it is difficult to articulate the differentiation of the Trinitarian persons, and particularly to articulate the nature and work of the Son / Logos. Maybe not impossible, but difficult, IMHO. Whereas, the traditional view and Jenson’s view each preserve both the coinherence and individuality of the Trinitarian persons.

  • John

    Not Snarky. OK then, apparently merely(?) smug. Just to reassure you though, my prayer interactions with Christ are comforting and very fruitful.

    I can say that I have learned this from my prayerlife: God is compassionate, and God hears and responds to prayer. As such God is not impassive and unchanging.

    And regardless of whether one chooses to discount the value of the lessons available from a narrative (i.e. Scripture), the consistent message of Scripture is that God plans, desires, loves, forgives, and generally reacts to the circumstances of God’s creations. The God we worship is involved in the Creation, and not as a lifeless and aloof rock, but as an actor with a voice and an agenda, and with a very personal investment in outcomes – skin in the game so to speak. And God’s reactions are no more fixed according to a pre-determined script than are the actions of God’s creations.

    The main lesson I have learned from nature is the ubiquitousness of change: nothing is ever at rest, and nothing is imperturbable. Everything is in relationship to everything else – “the butterfly effect.” Does this reflect the nature of Nature’s Creator? I think so. And because I think so, I pray, and I am rewarded, and I pray more.

    And from the face of a child I have learned over and over again that an open heart can be captured and it can be broken. The Spirit has taught me that God’s heart has been captured by God’s people and that God’s heart is often broken by what we do, or don’t do.

    So yes, there is much to be learned from sources other than Scripture, but the truth which the Spirit has disclosed to me from those other sources is the understanding that God is not changeless, not implacable, not unaffected by Creation, but very much the opposite. And what I read in the narrative of scripture, no matter how metaphorically one chooses to read it, reinforces the very same lesson.

    So yes, I am certain that God can be surprised.

    (I shouldn’t get preachy here but the suggestion that one’s understanding of God is superior to another’s because of the presumption that one’s prayerlife is more profound than another’s is disturbing to say the least and inappropriate.)

  • Tim Seiger

    dopderbeck #79 Ok, I think I see some of the problem we are having. I think we are rebutting claims we think the other is making but in fact they are not. I am NOT claiming that God is not timeless. I am only claiming that IF he is timeless then nothing more can be said about what timelessness means or implies about God. In addition, I am NOT claiming that if God is timeless we can know nothing more about him. This misunderstanding also explains, in my mind, why I felt like you were ignoring my larger point which is simply that we cannot argue anything from the assumption of timelessness. I wholeheartedly accept that God has revealed himself in Christ, in time, and in scripture and from those sources there is much we can learn and know about God even though God is ultimately transcendent. In fact I suspect, though am not fully convinced, that in fact God is ultimately outside of time. I simply don’t believe we can say anything more on the subject of timelessness except to state it and therein lies my question, “how can you know/reason about what timelessness means or implies given that we have no experience of it from which to even begin to define it and what relationship a timeless being can have with a timebound being?”

    The trinitarian question is a rather big one that I think will have to wait for another time. However, suffice it to say I do believe in the trinity and that it can be reconciled with Open Theism. 🙂

  • dopderbeck

    Tim said: “I am only claiming that IF he is timeless then nothing more can be said about what timelessness means or implies about God.”

    I respond: Why? This would mean we’d have to cut out substantial portions of Augustine’s writings, for example.

    BTW I agree that it’s not impossible to have a Trinitarian take on open theism. I just think it’s easier and more coherent in the context of classical theism.

  • dopderbeck

    John (#80) — it had nothing to do with superiority. You said flatly that you had learned nothing of Christ, nothing at all, outside what you read in scripture. That really would be sad because it would be at best an academic and not a personal knowledge. But now you say otherwise, and I’m glad for that.

    The inferences you are drawing about God’s nature as God from your experiences, I think, are incorrect. I agree, God answers prayers and cares intimately about us. I agree, God has created a dynamic universe. This reflects, among other things, the dynamics of the interpersonal relations of the Trinity.

    But that God is relational and dynamic does not imply that He must be ontologically limited and changeable in the ways suggested either by open theism or process theology. In fact, the Divine perfections are what make His kenotic love in creating and redeeming us precisely what it is: kenotic, self-limiting, self-emptying — and therefore truly, fully, and perfectly love and not “necessity”.

  • Tim Seiger

    Dopderbeck #82- “Why?” Because I don’t think “timelessness”,Augustine or not, is a concept that is able to be defined and therefore not able to be comprehended and if not comprehensible then as Wittgenstein noted “Whereof one cannot speak, one should remain Silent.”

  • dopderbeck

    Tim (#84) — well, given that there are huge volumes of theological reflection on this from the great minds (Augustine not the least), that’s a pretty outlandish claim. Do we also have to dispose of “Trinity,” “Eternity,” and “Incarnation” — and “God” — then? All are subject to the same objection.

  • Tim Seiger

    I don’t think it is that outlandish in that I am not denying the possibility, in fact, as I said earlier, I suspect that timelessness is in fact true of God. As far as the other items you listed, Trinity and Incarnation are concepts that we have actually revealed to us in scripture though not fully comprehensible as is evidenced by the volumes written that reflect some very divergent views of those ideas. But nonetheless those ideas are very clearly “revealed” by God even though not fully understood. Eternity is an idea much closer to timelessness in its inscrutibility but even eternity is an question that has no settled answer. Is it essentially timelessness or is it an endless series of moments of time? The claim is not outlandish because there is a large body of literature that says it is because in fact there is a body of literature that takes issue with the concept and questions if timelessness is a meaningful or possible state of affairs. Again, I am more agnostic than dogmatic about it and I am cautious when it comes to developing a doctrinal position that rests so heavily on a disputed concept. Timelessness of God is at the very least an open question for me but apparently not for you so I guess we have reached an impasse. Blessings 🙂

  • I like to think of the way a good director works a script. The outcome is pretty settled- the script is written. But a good director knows that though the script may be written, how it gets to the end product is a working together of all involved. For example, a good director allows the actors to create the characters themselves, and in fact will let them improv. So a good director is surprised daily by what the actors and actresses bring to the work as the co-create together and work toward the scripted ending. And it goes on to tall of the other people involved- the sound guys, the editing guys, the costumers, etc. All are asked to step in and co-create, and a good director works with the vision those other principles brings to the work and aims it all toward the scripted end. But everything, at least with some of the greatest directors, is left open to the work and gifts and interpretations of all involved. (This is not a perfect analogy, I already know. But just what I have been thinking about that could be similar).

  • Tim Seiger

    Sorry forgot to tag my last post -Tim #86 is in response to dopderbeck #85 if there are others following along. 🙂

  • Tim Seiger

    Cody #87 I think that is a helpful analogy and one that Dorothy Sayers unpacks in her book The Mind of the Maker. Thanks.

  • dopderbeck

    Tim, God’s timelessness seems at least as clear in scripture as His Triune being — which is to say it’s clearly hinted at — and it also is an important part of the Tradition. Perhaps traditional theism has misunderstood all this, but that doesn’t mean it’s inherently unknowable. The “unknowability” argument just isn’t a fair one.

    Cody and Tim — I like Sayers’ analogy. However, I don’t think a good Director is “surprised” at the actors’ co-creative energies. A good Director is aware of those potentialities and creates the conditions under which they can be fully brought out. God never says of us, “my goodness, I had no idea you could do that!” We are co-creators, yes, but that’s because God designed us to be such.

  • Tim Seiger

    #90 dopderbeck- I am not sure that I agree that the timelessness issue is as clearly hinted at as the trinity in scripture. But are you arguing that timelessness is a revealed characteristic of God and that it is in that way that we can at least begin to understand what it means? My original question was simply that, “how can we know what timelessness means without any source of a definition or experience of what it would be like to be timeless.

  • Jeremy W

    Wow, hot topic, judging from the number of comments! And one I have been pondering recently, so it has been interesting to read the post and the dialog on this.

    I’m not a theologian, but a software engineer, so let me try a bit of an engineers perspective on this.

    To say that God is outside of the created time of our universe makes sense. But it does not imply that God does not exist within his own time (or even multi-dimensional time, if such a thing makes any sense). The engineering analogy is a computer simulation of a physical model. I can start and stop the simulation at any time when I want to examine more closely what is going on, and to decide how I might “poke” the model towards some goal. I exist in my own time. The simulation is not aware of the starting and stopping. It’s time is effectively a subset of mine, as I choose. So it is really not so hard to imagine how God might operate outside of our time.

    To resort to the ‘otherness’ of God seems too easy as a way out of the logical and scriptural contradictions of the classical theology where God fully knows the future.

    As indicated by other comments, I find the view (and its scriptural support) that God can be surprised to actually be a positive thing, trusting that he also exercises his sovereignty as needed to achieve the overall plan that he has. It encourages me that the relationship is real, not predetermined, and that my choices and actions really count.

  • Tim Seiger

    Jeremy #92 Thanks for that Jeremy. Interesting thought about God being in a different time frame as opposed to outside of time altogether. And like you “It encourages me that the relationship is real, not predetermined, and that my choices and actions really count.”

  • dopderbeck

    Tim (#91) — the only way we can know anything at all about God is through revelation, because He is entirely other. Even if we learn something about God from the created world, that is a form of revelation. So yes, I think we can know something of God’s timelessness through revelation.

  • Tim Seiger

    dopderbeck #94 Agreed, the only way to know anything about God is through revelation…But as you have noted previously, God’s revelation does not approach an exhaustive explanation of him it is only a small part of what is true of him. And my contention is, and I am not alone in history in making this claim, that even IF there is something of Timelessness revealed by God to us it is of an insufficient amount to say with the certainty that traditional theism has often said, “therefore we KNOW that God…” You think my claim is outlandish and I think traditional theism has overstepped at times and there is much left to be learned about a living personal God who chooses to be relationship with meaningfully free human beings. Open Theism it seems to me is an exploration of the possibility that we have not rightly, or at least not fully, understood even the revelation we have of God let alone what we don’t have. You, as I think I mentioned earlier seem to be satisfied that certain questions are closed. My list of closed questions is apparently smaller than yours.

    BTW, I was checking up on you 🙂 and noticed on your web site that you studied at Biblical Theological Seminary, Me too! Just finished up last Spring. Blessings.

  • Ryan

    Friends, I assure you… The God of the Bible is never surprised and things certainly do not ever work out in a way He did not expect. When we talk about “expectations” we need to make sure we understand what we mean. I can tell my children, “I expect perfect behavior at dinner tonight.” Knowing full well they will deviate from those expectations.

    We can not force God to live in space and time as we do. God sees the future the past and the present simultaneously… He cannot be surprised, it is against His nature. Gods planning is not like that of men… No snags come up in the implementing of His plan, everything comes to pass just as He desires. Romans 9 reminds us that some are created for destruction and some for mercy, some for honor and some for dishonor.

    A contrast must also be made between Gods revealed will and Gods concealed (or secret) will. Gods revealed will is what He says He wants to happen… His secret will is what actually happens. Deut 29:29.