Is God ever Surprised? 1

Is God ever Surprised? 1 January 25, 2011

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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