Challenging Greg Boyd’s Assertions

by Felipe Diez III

In the latter portion of the 20th century, a theological innovation known as Open Theism came to the fore proceeding from the work of American scholars in an attempt to challenge what is known as Classical theism, which is the doctrine that God is omnipotent in every sense, omniscience in an exhaustive manner, and omnibenevolent as He pleases, whether some humans experience His love or not. Classical Theism has sought, especially in its highest Calvinistic formulation, to elevate God’s Sovereignty to levels that make sense scripturally. While Open theists usually do not explicitly deny that God is all powerful they have attempted to re-formulate their terms – often arguing that if freedom of agents is to be properly maintained, God’s Sovereignty must be stated in ways that not only according to them honor the text of the Bible, but do not elevate God to an “unknown impersonal deity” that people may find obscure and even obtuse. Greg Boyd, one of the most vocal proponents of this kind of revised theism, has in mind not only the theoretical aspect of his doctrine, but also takes the pastoral aspect into account as he deals with the suffering of individuals who often ask “Why does God allow me to suffer?” He believes that often times, the transcendence of God is overemphasized in Classical Theism, especially Calvinism, at the expense of God’s immanence. The immanence, which most people relate to in the human level, is what He is trying to emphasize, yet according to his theological system, transcendence is not precluded.

Boyd wishes to retain a strong evangelical reliance on the veracity of the text to explain what God truly is like. He strongly believes that the Bible contains what God truly is like, and that classical theism has, for a very long time, inserted a priori philosophic assumptions into its construct. Other proponents of this theological position include John Hick and Clark Pinnock. However, not all people who hold to the basic tenets of this version of non-classical theism see eye to eye concerning all themes. This short essay will focus on Greg Boyd’s contribution in the book entitled Divine Foreknowledge: Four Views. It will delve into the most important themes presented in Boyd’s essay and give a critical analysis of these. I will then attempt to refute key arguments that Boyd makes. Since his essay deals mainly with Scripture and logic, these will be the main areas I will critique, while concluding with my own remarks about catholicity in theological innovation (and not just a repetition of other scholars’ arguments concerning Boyd’s essay). The body of the paper will be divided into four parts: 1). Interaction with Boyd’s arguments 2). A refutation of some of Boyd’s arguments. 3). A short defense of my views, and 4). Boyd’s position as it relates to catholicity.

Boyd’s Main Arguments

According to Boyd, God is Sovereign and omniscient. However, he believes that the “omniscient” in Classical Theism inserts something foreign to what he believes the Bible teaches, which is that God knows the future exhaustively. Boyd accuses others of bringing in assumptions such as that one, and states that the plan reading of the text does not support exhaustive foreknowledge. However, he is willing to concede that God settles the part of the future that he desires to settle:

“These passages [the ones below] clearly exalt God as the Sovereign Lord of history. This Scriptural motif reassures believers that however out of control the world may seem, the Lord is steering history, toward His desired end. His overall purposes for creation cannot fail, and his eternal purpose for our lives is secure (e.g., Job 42:4; Is 14:27; Rom 8:28; Eph 1:11). This motif entails that much of the future is settled ahead of time and is settled by God as such. Indeed, it clearly demonstrates that God can settle whatever He wants to settle about the future: “The former things I declared long ago;…then suddenly I did them and they came to pass” (Is 48:3).”[1]

So Boyd’s definition of Sovereignty and omniscience is that God does know the parts of the future that He has declared to know, and that this explains passages that seem to suggest that God knows everything exhaustively. During an explanation of Isaiah 46:9-11, Boyd states:

  “One could argue that Isaiah 46:9-11 comes closest to suggesting that the future is exhaustively settled. God describes himself as “declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done.” Yet does this passage teach or imply that everything about the future is settled in God’s mind?…neither this nor any other passage in Scripture says that God foreknows or declares everything that is going to occur.”[2]

Boyd seems to be stating here and throughout his essay that unless the Scriptures of the Bible explicitly teach that God knows everything exhaustively (with that phraseology) then the Classical position cannot say that He does. According to Boyd, “they [people] tend to misinterpret biblical evidence of a partly settled future as evidence for an exhaustively settled future.” Boyd posits that God simply does not know or foresee some or even many events in the future, yet in general, a great deal of the future, including the defeat of evil and our entrance into Heaven, seems to be settled, at least concerning Boyd’s first quote in this essay. Boyd then gives an example of one choosing to purchase a book – one deliberating about it, and in fact having the power to purchase the book, but not knowing every conceivable event concerning the future of the purchase. He says “in other words, to deliberate about a particular matter, we must be freed from deliberating about every matter…we live as though the future is partly settled and partly open.” It seems as though Boyd is likening this to the way God thinks and acts. Boyd anticipates that one will ask about prophecy or even Jesus foretelling the future (Peter’s denial). He states:

       “We do not need to suppose that the future is exhaustively settled in God’s mind to explain this prediction. We only need to believe that God the Father knew and revealed to Jesus one solidified aspect of Peter’s character that was predicable in the immediate future. Anyone who knew Peter perfectly could have predicted that under certain highly pressured circumstances…Peter would act the way he did.”[3]

In other words, God certainly has the ability to control external pressures on Peter, but this knowledge on God’s part is based on the predictability of a present situation (and other situations that pertain to it) to bring about a conclusion that God desires, much like an educated risk-taker. Free moral agency comes in concerning Judas, and I think, with all other free moral agents. Boyd states concerning Judas:

“Jesus tells us that Judas fulfilled Scripture, not that Judas was the individual who had to fulfill Scripture. But, as a free moral agent, Judas tragically chose a path of self-interest and ultimately self-destruction (Jn.17:12). If his choices had been more godly, he would not have been a candidate for fulfilling the prophecy of the Lord’s betrayal. In this case the Lord would have found someone else to fill this role.”[4]

With regard to anthropomorphic language, Boyd disagrees with Classical theism that the language used to speak about God is poetic and therefore not how God really is. Boyd seems to espouse a hyper-literal view of Scriptural language and believes that how God is portrayed in Scripture is how He really is literally. Boyd states: “God asks questions about the future, speaks of the future in conditional terms, regrets the outcome of decisions He has made, changes his mind in response to situations, and so on.” He goes on to say:

“It [Open theism and its view of language] arrives at the balanced conclusion that the future is settled according to the extent that Scripture suggests it is settled and open to the extent that Scripture suggests it is open”[5]

To buttress his point, Boyd exegetes Isaiah 5:2-5 in such a manner where God expects the vine to yield grapes, but it did not, and therefore the Lord is going to remove its hedge “and it shall be devoured.” Boyd’s point is: “why would something come about that God did not expect?”

Refutations of Boyd’s Arguments

Divine omniscience refers to God being “all knowing.” The common-sense definition of this is that God knows and understands every proposition (truth) contained in His universe. If I tell somebody that I am “all-knowing,” it is unlikely that they will infer from this that “I know many or even most things.” If any reading of Scripture is going to beg some questions and defy the majesty and Sovereignty of God, it is likely to be that God’s omniscience carries caveats to it such as “he does not know some things.” But to strengthen the argument, God’s omniscience is a quality of Himself. If God cannot be all knowing in the exhaustive sense, then He cannot be all powerful. If so, then his attributes may be so easily marred, that His infiniteness may be called into question, namely, His power to be and also to create. How could God have created what He did (the universe) with such a limited scope of knowledge and attributes? I do not know if Boyd has thought very deeply concerning the ramifications of this kind of pseudo-omniscience, but due to overwhelming evidence, I would say that his presuppositions are strongly coloring (and for that matter eschewing) the assertions of many texts. It seems unlikely that God would be able to be all good, and then things like chance and the free agency of creatures would compete easily against God, always frustrating His plans.

Can God be sure of any outcomes at all? Is our destiny safe in His hands, as Boyd contends? Boyd does address the theodicy of his system in his essay, giving the impression that creatures must be given freedom in order for God to be just, but no texts are used to support the argument. He paints his system as the best one that deals with evil, since he finds redemptive evil even more discomforting (both decreed or allowed). But these are arguments from emotion. For many, decreed evil has a redemptive purpose. Isaiah 45:7 states that God “creates both peace and evil,” so He is sovereign over all evil in His decrees. Boyd argues that Jesus states Satan is the cause of disease in Acts 10:38, but fails to mention that it is God who controls Satan (Job) according to His decrees. If this is not so, then Satan, chance, and human agency disrupting God’s future plans could easily be thought of as rival gods, with Yahweh being the main one (not too much different from the Greek and Roman pantheons).  Another problem with the language of autonomous “free will” is that it seems like a force that God cannot contend with – a thing He cannot violate, even though Scripture does not give us a theology of the autonomy of creatures, but states that the will of natural persons is in bondage to sin (Rom: 6:6) and incapable of choosing anything but faithless evil (Romans 3:18-29, 8:7, 14:23). It has an inclination dictated by God’s will of decree that everything that comes to pass shall do so (Eph 1), and this includes both particulars and generals, out of necessity. Salvation is not a human choice (John 1:12 Rom 9:16) as Boyd seems to imply throughout his essay, but a transformation initiated by God who is not able to be resisted (John 6:37).

As regards anthropomorphic language, Boyd states that he relies on the veracity of anthropomorphic / anthropopaphic language par excellence while ignoring  basic exegetical considerations that serve to capitulate his system. The Bible is highly contextual and includes poetic, literal, analogical, and parabolic language. If Boyd is true to his exegetical method, he would have to conclude that God has arms, feathers, and wings (Deut. 33:27, Psalms 91:4) and then cannot claim that this is anthropomorphic language. God is knowable and His revelation is comprehensible, but the human element in the inscripturation process is that learned writing styles were used in the Bible to give illustrations of what God is like, but also contains literal truths, depending on the book and chapter. To take this away is to do damage not only to God’s revelation but to His intentions. Boyd would have to literally say that God hated Judas for being a reprobate (Psalm 5:5) and loved him at the same time, but I doubt Boyd would posit something like that. Judas, who was prophesied in Psalm 41:9, was singled out by Jesus in Matt 26:25 even before the betrayal happened, yet Boyd (who only cites John 17:12) states that Judas did not have to do this. Even after having been singled out by Jesus himself, Boyd seems to be implying that Judas could have exercised his free will, made better choices (despite being a reprobate), and paved the way for somebody else to fill his shoes, proving Jesus wrong directly. Also, with the narrative of Peter’s denial, an “Open future” God conceivably could look at Peter’s predictable behavior that might cause him to deny Jesus once, but the number three is a very far stretch, not to mention that also a rooster crows three times, making the chances much more implausible.

Boyd’s example of foreknowledge being somewhat akin to a person wishing to buy a book but not understanding all future details works for man, but if God is in the same position or even a similar one, then is not God a deified man? A God that is bound to the same space-time universe that man is falls into the category of eternal creature struggling against the ethereal timeless nebula of chance, an absurdity. Boyd does not intend to portray God as anything but powerful, but when weighed in the balance with other Scriptures and the ramifications of jettisoning classical omniscience, Boyd’s theology proper puts God on the verge of failure given the superfluously evil world in which we live in. Why not simply accept classical theism and embrace at least Arminianism?

With regard to Isaiah 5:1-5, Boyd is missing the point. Just because one reading of the text can be made to seem as if God did not expect a result that he wished would have been brought about does not mean that the verse supports an open future or the frustrated expectations of God. The expectation of fruit from a vine has to do with God expecting his covenant people to obey as a whole. Isaiah cries out that since they did not, now God is going to let “the vineyard” be devoured. In other words, consequences will be meted out. This is a classical covenant lawsuit. This concerns God’s will of command and the Israelites breaking it. God not only knew all along that the Israelites would break the covenant, as the Lord had told Moses they would in Deuteronomy, He decreed it. Since God’s will cannot have one part to it, both Open theism and Arminianism threaten God’s Sovereignty in the realm of His immutable decrees and end up leaving the issue to God only passively foreseeing the future or in Boyd’s case, not expecting the attitudes of his wily predictable creatures. If, like in Boyd’s essay, Peter is so predictable that he might be the type of person to deny Jesus three times, then how come God could not predict the wickedness of humans from past interactions and know that they would break the covenant?

My Views on Sovereignty and Freedom

My position is that of Reformed theology. I believe that God’s overarching will is one of decree. Everything played out in God’s mind before he created the universe will, by necessity, play itself out in the space-time universe. This includes the committing of evil, redemption from it, and its final destruction. God decreed Adam’s fall, the breaking of His commands, Christ’s voluntary vicarious atonement, the redemption of the elect, and the last things. Sovereignty, omnipotence, omniscience, and omnibenevolence demand nothing less. This leaves room for human freedom only as delineated by God’s decree, which does mean good and evil, and no room for contra-causal power in creatures since the human will is without power unless God inclines it to possess power in order for His decrees to be carried out. Language is necessarily anthropomorphic although at the same time either propositional or reducible to logically stated propositions. In some moments, language expresses how God is (I do not believe in the Thomistic doctrine of analogical language) and in others, how he appears so that man can get a finite and poetic picture of how God relates to people. But by no means is God limited, repentant, and otherwise man-like. The Scriptures do not demand this either at face-value or by virtue of common sense. Any issues one might have with my theodicy and passages that seem to teach otherwise are beyond the scope of this essay, but suffice it to say that God as Reformed theology “constructs” Him is Sovereign in the proper sense of the term, good to sinners, is able to accomplish all He desires, is able to defeat evil, and can maintain integrity and good character since any moral culpability for evil attaches to creatures. Arguments against this view are much more emotional than logical and Scriptural. It is not the easiest thing to believe, but comfort comes from the fact that God is not like people yet is also immanent in that He cares for us and even indwells us – so only in Calvinism is there a balance of immanence and transcendence. Let us suppose that I commit evil, the consequences are fairly mine. After all, I do have a will and God’s decree is moved by His will so that I would do what I desire, and could not have done otherwise. The purpose of the Decalogue (Since God works through means to get to an end) is to show me His holiness, cause me to repent and believe, and walk in His graceful precepts as a slave to righteousness. For the reprobate, the fate is that they walk in evil and truly desire to do it, and are hardened by sin and judged. One group will serve to show God’s justice and another to show God’s mercy (Romans 9). As a divine storyteller, the good God writes His story and remains unstained. If I write a story about two people – one that commits good and receives a reward and one that robs a bank and is put in jail, nobody would tell me that it was wrong for me to write the story. My character is unstained. So when God writes the decree that has “played out” in His head perfectly, nothing illogical or that is contrary to God’s character, happens.

Catholicity and Conclusion

Open theism is unique in the sense that is makes a faithful attempt to stay within the bounds of Scripture, unlike another view that limits divine omniscience, namely, process theology. The latter is more of a metaphysical construct that includes some biblical theology. In that matter, I commend Boyd for taking the time to review the verses and put together his theology as well as his exegetical method that has become somewhat popular in some circles within and without evangelicalism. I wonder how Dr. Boyd deals with the fact that classical theism has been around for more than 1,950 years without much challenge within conservative evangelicalism, and is still quite strong in its presence. One way to test the veracity of a theological system is to see how it (or similar versions) has fared in the past or over time, yet something like Open theism has not really been postulated. It does not really have a history in the early church, the middle ages, the reformation, the enlightenment, post-enlightenment, and up until postmodernity came about, when many divergent views concerning the Bible began to sprout. Reformed theology is certainly not the oldest form of Christianity available admittedly, but 500 years of solid history gives it credibility of being authentically Biblical and also historical. It appears that the catholicity of Open theism is not there. In other words, tens if not hundreds of thousands of scholars – well acquainted with the languages, logic, and philosophy, have and would have strongly opposed Open theism. It is not a strong presence in history or even today. In the developing world it also does not enjoy a sizeable following. I would not say that this is the biggest weakness in the system under scrutiny, but when one stops to wonder whether or not a theological system has been believed in times past, and finds little evidence of it, and not many strengths in contemporary academia, there is not a strong sense that this could be in fact what the Bible teaches. And if it is not what the Bible teaches, it would not be true.

[1] Beilby K. James & Eddy R. Paul. Divine Foreknowledge: Four Views. Downers Grove, IL. Inter Varsity Press, 2001, p.16. Brackets mine.

[2] Ibid

[3] Ibid. p.20

[4] Ibid p.22

[5] Ibid p.24

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One Response to Challenging Greg Boyd’s Assertions

  1. Pingback: Midweek Roundup: What We Didn’t Get Around To Posting | The Confessing Baptist

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