Friday, 6 April 2012

God does know the future

Earlier this week I asked the question, 'Does God know the future?' (Read the post here.) A book I've been reading has made me rethink the traditional view of God's omniscience that says he sees all of time as if it were the present.

The key problem with the traditional view is there are many Bible passages that talk about God being surprised, expressing sorrow, and changing his mind. How can those passages make sense if God does indeed have foreknowledge of everything that will happen? How can a being who has complete, perfect knowledge of the future be surprised?

However, and it's a big 'however', the idea of God having full knowledge of the future appears to have a solid Biblical basis. I mentioned a few passages in my previous post:
You saw me before I was born. Every day of my life was recorded in your book. Every moment was laid out before a single day had passed. (Psalm 139:16)
Remember the things I have done in the past. For I alone am God! I am God, and there is none like me. Only I can tell you the future before it even happens. Everything I plan will come to pass, for I do whatever I wish. (Isaiah 46:9-10)
This is what the Lord says: “You will be in Babylon for seventy years. But then I will come and do for you all the good things I have promised, and I will bring you home again. For I know the plans I have for you,” says the Lord. “They are plans for good and not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope.” (Jeremiah 29:10-11)

Let's see what one advocate of the so-called 'open view' of God and the future has to say about these three passages. That book I've been reading is 'God of the Possible' by Greg Boyd and what follows is all based on arguments from it.

I'll leave until last the first of the three Bible passages above, as the argument from Boyd's book is quite technical and lengthy. The second passage (Isaiah 46:9-10) seems fairly clear, though. God says, 'Only I can tell you the future before it even happens' and 'Everything I plan will come to pass, for I do whatever I wish'. But this doesn't say God can tell all the future, just some of it. And how much of the future God can tell is entirely up to him, for 'everything he plans will come to pass'. I don't see any indication from this passage that God knows the whole of the future.

Next, we have the famous verse from Jeremiah 29:
“For I know the plans I have for you,” says the Lord. “They are plans for good and not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope.”

Just before this verse, we see God stating the Israelites will be in captivity for seventy years. If we're going to take this at all literally then it's clear God has the power to set or at least predict the future. But again there's no sense (is there?) from this passage that God sets or even simply foreknows all the future. Just certain aspects.

As for the 'I know the plans I have for you' promise, is it heretical to suggest that God's plans don't always come to fruition? I feel quite strongly about this point because believing that God's plans do always become reality leads, in my view, to some dangerous places. People are robbed of their free will, for a start, and it makes me wonder what Jesus was thinking when he told us to pray 'May your will be done'.

On to Psalm 139 then. Greg Boyd gives two pages (from p40) of his book 'God of the Possible' to verse 16 from this Psalm:
You saw me before I was born. Every day of my life was recorded in your book. Every moment was laid out before a single day had passed.

I'm going to focus on two aspects of Boyd's argument concerning this passage, starting with some points about the original language it was written in. Boyd says that the Hebrew word translated 'laid out' or 'formed' can carry the sense of being determined in advance or merely being planned. I guess which sense we prefer will be conditioned by what we feel the rest of scripture teaches...

There's more, though. According to Boyd, the Hebrew is not clear as to what the subject is in the sentence. What is 'recorded in God's book' and 'laid out before a single day had passed'? Apparently it could be the psalmist's physical form or the days of his life; either would be an accurate translation. Boyd prefers the former option, that it's the psalmist's body which was recorded in God's book:
[This view] has the advantage of being consistent with the rest of this psalm and especially with the immediate context of this verse. Psalm 139 is about God's moment-by-moment, intimate involvement in our lives. The verses immediately preceding verse 16 describe the formation of the psalmist's body in the womb. Indeed, the first stanza of verse 16, “Your eyes beheld my unformed substance,” also concerns the intimate awareness the Lord has of the psalmist even before he's formed. An interpretation of this verse that continues this theme seems most appropriate, whereas one that inserts an unrelated reference to the psalmist's future seems out of place.

The second point I want to pick out is this. Even if Psalm 139:16 is about the psalmist's life (not his physical body), must we accept that the length of his life couldn't be altered, having been 'recorded in God's book'? If you're baulking at the idea of God's intentions changing, have a quick read of these passages:

Exodus 32:33
Revelation 3:5
Isaiah 38:1-5
Jeremiah 18:6-10

According to Boyd, 'The notion that what God ordains is necessarily unalterable is foreign to the Hebrew mind'. To envisage God as being completely unchanging in every respect is to follow Greek and Roman thought, not Hebrew thought. Those of us who consider the Bible to be 'inspired by God' and 'useful to teach us what is true' (2 Timothy 3:16) mustn't import other philosophies and world-views into the Bible. It's the other way round; we must let the Bible shape and inform our world-view.

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.

So what, though? I do want to explain why I think all this high-falutin' speculation is important but I'll save that for later as this post is plenty long enough already. Watch this space...

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