Greg Boyd’s warfare theology part 5–open theism

Greg Boyd’s warfare theology part 5–open theism March 15, 2015

As I said in my first post in this series, my knowledge of open theism before reading Boyd was primarily dependent on the work of John Sanders and William Hasker (also David Woodruff and Tom Oord). I respect Sanders’ work very much but did not find his presuppositions with regard to open theism convincing. Hasker held my feet to the fire on a number of points of logic in very helpful and challenging ways, but again I found his understanding of God to be on the whole too anthropomorphic and not sufficiently open to mystery. I have been intrigued by Boyd for years precisely because he links open theism with a “warfare theology” that I find intriguing and appealing in principle. Hence my desire to read his work in more depth and understand just what he means by warfare theology and how it relates to his open theism. I have spent three posts laying out warfare theology without bringing in open theism precisely because open theism is, for me, the most clearly problematic aspect of Boyd’s thought. If I can take his insights on warfare theology and leave the open theism, I’ll be happy to do so.

I think the relationship between warfare theology and open theism in Boyd’s thought is best described by analogy with Richard Dawkins’ famous remark about atheism and evolution: that evolution does not require atheism or prove it but makes it possible to be an “intellectually fulfilled atheist.” In the same way, I think, open theism makes it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled warfare theologian. (And just as one can certainly be an evolutionist without being an atheist, so one can certainly be an open theist without being a warfare theologian. Hasker’s theodicy, for instance, does not appeal to a warfare model.) One can, Boyd argues, hold to warfare theology without adopting open theism, but there are various awkward questions one has to answer. Open theism is the philosophical position best suited to warfare theology. Hence, if Boyd’s description of the Bible’s stance on God’s war with evil is correct, open theism becomes more appealing.

Boyd, like other contemporary authors who have written about this issue, distinguishes between three basic explanations of God’s “exhaustive foreknowledge” (i.e., knowledge of everything that has happened or will happen).

1. The Thomist (or Augustinian, or Calvinist) position that God knows things by causing them. Open theists tend to roll Thomism, Calvinism, and other forms of Augustinianism together. It’s a bit more complicated than that. Thomists deny that God causes evil, because (like other traditional Christian theologians) they deny that evil is a thing. Evil is a privation–a lack of a good that ought to be in something God has created. Calvinism is really a theological position, not a philosophical one. Some Calvinists are more thoroughgoing determinists than Thomists are. Some are essentially Thomists. Some hold to some other slightly different way of reconciling God’s sovereignty and human freedom. At least one prominent modern Calvinist philosopher, Alvin Plantinga, is a Molinist. At any rate, for the purposes of this discussion I’ll use the term “Thomist” for the relatively more “deterministic” end of the spectrum (though of course Thomists deny that they are determinists). That is to say, Thomists explain how God knows things by saying that God knows everything as an imitation of his own infinite perfection. God knows possible things as possible reflections of his goodness, and he knows the specific things he creates by knowing the specific ways in which he eternally chooses to have those specific creatures reflect the divine perfection. Aquinas deals with the question of God’s knowledge of free acts by saying that God knows things in the mode in which they exist. So if we choose freely, God knows us choosing freely. Later Thomists have tried to deal with the complexities of this, and I’m not very familiar with these discussions. But obviously open theists find this explanation, however nuanced, less than satisfactory, particularly when combined with the claim that God knows things precisely by virtue of causing them. If God knows my action by virtue of causing it, and knows it timelessly with absolute certainty (more on timeless knowledge in a minute), then what does it mean to assert that the action is free? Furthermore, for Boyd Thomism is a classic embodiment of “blueprint theology,” and he clearly assumes that it is simply incompatible with a warfare perspective. Hence, Boyd does not deal with Thomism in much detail in Satan and the Problem of Evil. Rather, he focuses on the views that hold more potential for compatibility with warfare theology.

2. Chief among these is Molinism. This was proposed in the late sixteenth century by a Jesuit theologian, Luis de Molina, as an interpretation and development of Aquinas’ thought. The Dominicans rejected Molina’s view (and clearly he does disagree with Aquinas on some significant points), and formulated the developed “Thomist” position in opposition to it. Molina’s innovation was to suggest that God knows not only what is possible and what actually exists, but also what would exist if certain other things came to be. (This is called “middle knowledge,” because it’s in between God’s knowledge of what is and God’s knowledge of what is merely possible.) The classic Biblical example cited by Molinists is 1 Samuel 23. David saves a city called Keilah from the Philistines, and Saul promptly gets an expedition together to attack the city and capture David. David asks God whether Saul will attack, to which God responds “yes.” Then David asks whether the people of Keilah will hand David over, and again God responds “yes.” Now in my opinion this isn’t anything like a conclusive. It can be explained in terms of God’s knowledge of the human heart–the people of Keilah actively intend to hand David over if Saul shows up, or perhaps they are simply people of such a character that God knows they will hand him over (this is Boyd’s explanation). But it’s a good example of what Molinists are talking about when they speak of middle knowledge. Since David skedaddles before Saul gets there, there is no “future” event for God to know. But at the same time, the betrayal of David by the people of Keilah isn’t just one among many possibilities God sees–it is a fact about what would have happened.

Philosophically, the classic problem with Molinism is the so-called “grounding objection.” At this point, we’re getting into philosophical waters that are a bit deep for me, but as I understand it the grounding objection means that it’s not clear just what it is God knows when God knows “what would have happened.” The men of Keilah never actually chose to betray David. On Molinist principles, they wouldn’t even have had to think about what they would do if Saul attacked for God to know that they would betray David under those circumstances. Indeed, according to Molinism God knows “what would have happened” from all eternity. His knowledge is logically prior (i.e., not dependent on) anything human beings do. So what is the basis for this knowledge? It isn’t God’s decree. It isn’t a choice that a creature actually makes which God can see/foresee. What exactly, then, is God knowing?

A second objection, related to the first I think, is that Molinism actually is deterministic, though it’s trying to avoid determinism. To say that there is a fact about what I would do under circumstances X seems (at least to me) to imply that my actions are determined by their circumstances. I do not have “libertarian freedom” with regard to possible circumstances if there is only one thing that I would do under those circumstances. But perhaps I just don’t get it. The issues surrounding Molinism are extremely complex, and while I have become much more dubious about the theory than I used to be, I’m not in a position to have a firm view one way or the other.

3. The third and often least understood possibility is “simple foreknowledge.” Now on the face of it this is apparently what a lot of people believe. People speak all the time about God knowing things or foreknowing them, whereas middle knowledge is a rather abstruse philosophical concept. But I think most theists are implicit Molinists–I certainly was. Once the concept of middle knowledge is explained, it makes intuitive sense. If God knows everything, wouldn’t God know what “would have happened”? Only on a bit more thought do the problems with middle knowledge appear (and perhaps–or at least so say the partisans of middle knowledge–with a bit more thought they disappear again!). In simple foreknowledge, on the other hand, God only knows things that actually happen. Those are the only things there are to know. There is no truth or falsehood about the statement, “Edwin would accept a job at Harvard if it were offered to him” or the statement “Ted Cruz would start a nuclear war if elected president.” There may be things about me or Ted Cruz that would make it likely or even morally certain that we would or wouldn’t do these things, and in all the views I’m discussing (including open theism) God would know these things perfectly. But the only things God actually “sees” are the things that actually happen, at whatever point in the timeline of creation they happen.

Open theists tend to think that this view, like all the “exhaustive foreknowledge” positions, is incompatible with free will. But a further objection to this one is that it does nothing at all to explain divine providence. In middle knowledge, God might know that Herod will kill baby Jesus if God does not send an angel to tell Joseph to flee to Egypt. So God sends the angel. But under simple foreknowledge, God knows only that He will send the angel and that the Holy Family will flee. He knows eternally that this is what happens. Thus, this knowledge can’t guide Him in knowing what needs to be done to prevent Herod from killing Jesus. I have been informed that there are responses to this objection, but I have not yet read them. At this point, it seems to me that simple foreknowledge is primarily about the nature of God and says little about how God actually exercises providence.

A fourth position really isn’t an alternative to the previous three, but has traditionally been assumed by adherents of all of them. That is “timeless knowledge”–the view that God exists in an eternal “now” and thus knows everything that has been, is, or will be as if it were present. Many modern philosophers have abandoned this position while still arguing for some form of “exhaustive divine foreknowledge.” Thus, open theists such as Boyd frequently seem to treat timeless knowledge as an extra add-on–a view that proponents of exhaustive foreknowledge may hold but which if so will put extra burdens on their position.

My own view, on the other hand, is that God’s timelessness is the key issue. If God moves through time much as we do, then the open theist position is likely to be correct. I think that open theists have good arguments explaining why, setting God’s timelessness aside, it is not necessary to believe that God knows the future exhaustively. Indeed, if God exists in time, it seems to me to follow almost necessarily that the future does not exist to be known. The only reason to believe the future is real is that God is, so to speak, already there.

Boyd’s philosophical arguments for open theism rest on a reworking of Molinism. Boyd argues that just as God knows the truth of all statements about what is or is not (the basic definition of omniscience), and of all statements about what would or would not be (the Molinist “middle knowledge”), so God knows the truth of “might/might not” statements. In other words, some things exist, and God knows them as existing. Other things would exist if certain conditions were fulfilled, and God knows those things as conditionally real. But other things exist only as possibilities depending on the choices of free beings. God perfectly knows just how probable these things are, because that is all there is to know until the choice is made one way or the other. Again, if divine timelessness is untrue, then these arguments are quite convincing. And if divine timelessness is true, but “simple foreknowledge” best describes how God’s knowledge relates to God’s providence, then for all practical purposes the open theists are right about how Providence operates, even though they are wrong about the nature of God’s knowledge.

One modern scientific theory that is sometimes invoked (by Larry Wood, for instance) to support the traditional view of God’s timeless knowledge is Einstein’s theory of relativity. Does it not appear to demonstrate that time is just a dimension of reality, and thus that the future is real? William Hasker’s response to this is to argue that Einstein’s theory requires total determinism–a “block theory of time” in which the future is unchangeable because it’s just as real as the present. Hasker thus appeals to believe that Einstein is basically wrong about this, although I don’t claim to understand either Hasker or Einstein very well. Certainly open theists have a natural affinity for quantum physics (I’ll deal with that in the next post). Boyd, however, takes a different tack from Hasker, appealing to Einstein to support his position. Boyd argues that God has a “now” that includes the “now” of every creature, even though their “nows” may not entirely coincide with each other. I would argue, on the other hand, that God’s “now” includes every moment of every creature’s life, and that Boyd’s use of Einstein actually works better to defend that position. (Though certainly we then run into Hasker’s determinism objections. . . . )

Biblically, open theists generally seem to think they have a very strong case. Sanders rests his case very largely on the alleged more “Biblical” nature of open theism compared to the Greek philosophy underlying classical theism, and Boyd follows suit. Like Sanders, Boyd points to the many passages from the Bible speaking of God changing his mind or seeking to learn something he did not already know. One obvious, traditional objection to this reading is that this language is anthropomorphic. Boyd, like Sanders, leans heavily on evangelical worries about playing fast and loose with Scripture through non-literal readings. According to the open theists, Christians have been taught to read this language non-literally because of presuppositions borrowed from Greek philosophy. Sanders acknowledges that, in fact, all theological language about God is in some sense metaphorical. Boyd, on the other hand, seems to interpret the language in a more consistently literal way (perhaps I misunderstand him). For instance, while all open theists rest a lot of weight on passages such as Genesis 6:6 which say that God changed his mind, Boyd works this concept (and particularly Genesis 6:6) into his overall theodicy. Boyd seems to believe that God really did regret making humanity and really did initiate a horrific cataclysm that wiped out most of the world, allowing God to start over again. Similarly, as we’ve seen, Boyd argues that God may have done something similar before the creation of humans, in response to the fall of the demons (the “Gap Theory”).

My objection to Sanders’ appeal to a more “literal” reading of the God-changed-his-mind passages has always been that Sanders doesn’t actually seem to want to take the context of these passages very seriously. Do open theists really want a picture of God in which God actually decides to wipe out the chosen people in his anger (Exodus 32:9-10, for instance) and then changes his mind because of Moses’ intercession? It has seemed to me that open theists want to abstract the picture of “God changing his mind” from the actual instances in which God does so in Scripture, and that in fact the traditional understanding of the language as anthropomorphic metaphor is therefore a lot more defensible than the supposedly more “faithful” open theist interpretation.

Boyd, on the other hand, does seem to take the contexts for these passages very seriously. But I still wonder whether a “literal” reading of such language is actually sustainable. What does it mean to say that God really regretted having made humanity? Doesn’t that, in fact, contradict Boyd’s claim that God knows all the odds and is never taken by surprise (more on that later)? And what does it say about God’s relationship to those of us who live after the Flood? Does he still think we shouldn’t exist? Or has he changed his mind again?

In short, I remain unconvinced that this language should be read as indicating a real change of mind on God’s part, and thus unconvinced that it makes a solid case for open theism.

Furthermore, it is striking that the passages Boyd relies on come (I believe exclusively) from the Old Testament. I think Boyd has become aware of this problem more recently, since in a tweet some months ago he appealed to Jesus’ prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane to support open theism. If Jesus is God, and Jesus didn’t know for sure if he had to go through with dying on the Cross, then that’s an indication that the future is open for God. I don’t think that this argument holds up Christologically (it seems to me quite clear that Jesus was there speaking as a human being, and I hold a fairly “kenotic” Christology), but it does represent a move toward finding more explicit NT support for the position.

I think that this point often goes without much notice because the most vehement opponents of open theism are Calvinists, who have a very robust view of the authority of the OT. But if, in fact, it’s true (as I believe) that the NT does not support open theism in the ways that the OT often does, then I think that’s a serious blow against the open theist case for two reasons. First because, according to most forms of historic Christianity, the NT has doctrinal priority over the Old and is the key to interpreting the Old. (I got into an argument about this recently in which a good friend who is an OT scholar accused me of Marcionism, and I hope to write a post sometime soon that defends against this accusation, but this isn’t the place for that.) But furthermore, if your argument is that post-Biblical Christians came to believe in divine unchangeability and exhaustive divine foreknowledge because of the influence of Greek philosophy, you have to deal with the fact that the Greek-speaking authors of the NT appear already to have been “corrupted.”

On the whole, I find Boyd’s philosophical arguments more convincing than his Scriptural ones. Together with Sanders and Hasker, Boyd has convinced me, at least tentatively, that open theism can support a robust doctrine of providence. (More on that in the next two posts.) It does not seem to me that a non-determinist version of timeless knowledge actually provides any significant advantages in accounting for God’s providential actions in the world. Indeed, Boyd argues persuasively throughout the two books that an “open” view of providence accounts best for the Scriptural descriptions of God fighting evil, and gives us more hope than does the view that God has everything under total control. However, I still find the open theist arguments too reductionistic and anthropomorphic. And I do not find Boyd’s arguments from Scripture convincing for this reason, although it may well be that the Scriptural language about God changing his mind speaks to a powerful mystery that our traditional understanding of God fails to grasp.

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