Then on Friday I tried to explain how we might harmonise those passages with the seemingly contradictory theme within the Bible of God determining or at least foreknowing the future. This was my conclusion:
It seems clear to me then that the Bible teaches two things about God's knowledge of the future. Some of the future is indeed known in advance by God and even set in advance by him. But not all of it. There are many passages in the Bible that speak of God experiencing time just like we do, having hopes for the future, reacting to events, being disappointed when things don't go according to his wishes. God does know the future but only to the extent that he has settled it.
And yet... Greg Boyd (his book 'God of the Possible' is what's got me thinking about all this) picks out seven ways in which he thinks the open view of God and the future might have a real and positive impact on us. I'll focus on just a couple.
Let's start with our view of the Bible. Many doctrines of Christianity have arisen in order to make sense of apparent contradictions in the Bible. For example, we have the doctrine of God's incarnation as the 1st century Jewish man, Jesus of Nazareth. This doctrine seeks to make sense of the Bible seeming to say that Jesus is both fully human and fully God.
In the same way, the open view of God and the future seeks to make sense of two apparently contradictory threads in the Bible; God has foreknowledge of the future but also experiences events as we do, reacting and making plans in response to them. The open view, says Greg Boyd, 'provides us with a framework in which the Word in its entirety begins to make sense on this issue'. And as we gain a more coherent view of what the Bible teaches, so increases 'our ability to understand God more clearly, relate to him more sincerely, and be transformed by him more profoundly'.
The next practical issue is about prayer. If we believe God sees all of time as settled then what does it mean for us to pray? What difference can our prayers possibly make if we don't really believe that God can change his mind? Christians sometimes talk as if God controls everything, as if prayer is only about conforming our own will to God's will. But, according to Boyd, this 'simply doesn't reflect the purpose or the urgency that Scripture gives to petitionary prayer'. Boyd goes on to say this:
Because God wants us to be empowered, because he desires us to communicate with him, and because he wants us to learn dependency on him, he graciously grants us the ability to significantly affect him. This is the power of petitionary prayer. God displays his beautiful sovereignty by deciding not to always unilaterally decide matters. He enlists our input, not because he needs it, but because he desires to have an authentic, dynamic relationship with us as real, empowered persons. Like a loving parent or spouse, he wants not only to influence us but to be influenced by us.
The Bible consistently speaks of prayer as something that can change God's mind (e.g. see Luke 18:1-8 and 2 Chronicles 7:14), so wouldn't it be great if our theology reflected this?
I could go on. Greg Boyd's book mentions seven practical benefits of this open view of God and the future. Drop me a line if you're local to me and would like to borrow the book; I'd love to know what you think about it all. And if you're still finding it hard to swallow this idea that God doesn't know all that will ever happen, I'll leave you with this from page 86 of God of the Possible:
Classical theology cannot accept this conclusion because of philosophical preconceptions of what God must be like: He must be in every respect unchanging, so his knowledge of the future must be unchanging...
Because of this philosophical presupposition, God is not allowed to say what he wants to say in Scripture. Suppose, for the sake of argument, that God wanted to tell us he really does change his mind. How could he do so in terms clearer than he did in passages such as Jeremiah 18:8 and 10 in which he explicitly tells us, “I will change my mind”? Or suppose, for the sake of argument, that God wanted to tell us he really does regret certain decisions he's made and really does experience unexpected disappointment. How could he do so in terms clearer than he did in passages such as 1 Samuel 15:11 in which he explicitly tells us, “I regret that I made Saul king,” or Jeremiah 3:7 in which he tells us, “I thought... 'she will return to me'; but she did not return”? It's difficult to conceive of how God could be more explicit.
Photograph of Oxford University by ALAMY, taken from the Daily Telegraph