Yesterday, for the second time, I read Blake Ostler’s article “Hermeneutical Assumptions and Open Theism” and felt that I should respond back.
Many years ago, there was a poetic ditty written to disseminate the concept of eternal progression to young hearers:
“If you could hie to Kolob,
In the twinkling of an eye,
And then continue onward
With that same speed to fly,
Do you think that you could ever,
Through all eternity,
Find out the generation
Where Gods began to be?”
“The works of God continue,
And world and lives abound.
Improvement and progression
Have one eternal round.
There is no end to matter;
There is no end to space,
There is no end to spirit;
There is no end to race.”
I translate the simple LDS words to mean that Life never had a beginning, neither Time, nor Space. So when we approach Genesis 1:1, “In the beginning God” or John 1:1, “In the beginning was the Word,” matter, time, space, and spirits eternally existed with God. Does not the law of eternal progression lock the council of gods with time, and particles and intelligences stretching all the way into eternal past? I conjecture. Perhaps this is why Blake is so emphatic (1) that the “intrinsic properties” of God can change, (2) that God can be influenced, (3) that God progresses within time, and (4) that God is limited in His foreknowledge. Would this be correct or a mere Idaho spud contortion?
Hardly even out of the starting blocks, Blake charges classical theists at the end of his opening second paragraph: “Indeed, it seems that those who critique open theists readings makes several hermeneutical assumptions that are not merely foreign to the text itself, but which assume a view of human knowledge that is both arrogant and impossible from the human stance.” In light of the apostle’s words in John 1:18, I never considered it arrogant to let the words of the text speak in a straightforward fashion, nor found it impossible that God revealed Himself to patriarchs and Israelites “anthropomorphically.” In the first place, this is what made God personal in the Old Testament among mankind until the perfect exegete of the Father came to this earth as a man—the Lord Jesus Christ.
Blake maintains Open Theists interpret logically, utilizing “simple deductive principles,” while the critics are guilty of “scriptural uniformitarianism” (a label that I have never successfully registered among any of my conservative Christian systematic theologies except in debates on evolution). Truthfully, I don’t know much about the logic employed by Open Theists (by no means an expert on their theology). But if Blake considers classical theists void of any logical presentation, perhaps he should more earnestly seek the opinion of James White (though he might appear arrogant in public debate) to the south of us in Arizona or Douglas Wilson just up the hill in northern Idaho or maybe sincerely interact with any of my friends that might appear on this very blog. And I do wonder when reading Blake’s illustration if he does think that Isaiah says something about God that contradicts Moses in Exodus and Deuteronomy. And if the two prophets disagree, then who becomes the authority for Blake?
In this opening post as I seek to converse with Blake, I will not counter any of his logic, for in those matters I am not skilled and would end up only boring the guy; others are far more capable than me. But he has teased me by dangling out some biblical texts, drawing out a response. It is just unfortunate that he didn’t address any biblical data in the Old Testament that declare God does not change. Two verses immediately pop into my mind, Numbers 23:19 and I Samuel 15:29.
After Blake delves into Exodus 32 in sharing how God “repents” (KJV), he notifies us of at least six other passages where God is doing the same thing, relenting, changing His actions or his emotions. “In only two of the thirty-eight instances in the OT is this word used of men repenting” (Walter Kaiser in EBC, 479). And where God is the subject, “The grounds for the Lord’s repenting are three: (1) intercession (cf. Amos 7:1-6); (2) repentance of the people (Jer 18:3-11; Jonah 3:9-10); and (3) compassion (Deut 32:36; Judg 2:18; 2 Sam 24:16)” (Kaiser). And coincidentally, I find it interesting what Kaiser said about Exodus 32:7-10, “God was very angry with the people (v. 10). The God who seemed unmerciful, however, is the same God who had mercifully prepared Moses for just such an occasion as this. So God said, by way of testing Moses, ‘Leave me alone.’ But God would allow himself to be bound, as it were, by prepared persons doing prepared work in God’s way.” Leaving these thoughts on Exodus 32, I am likewise fascinated by the Septuagint translation on Exodus 32:14, hilasthe kyrios, the Lord was propitiated. Where is LXXLuthor for an opinion on the matter?
Turning over to Jonah 4:2, the KJV records, “And he prayed unto the LORD, and said, I pray thee, O LORD, was not this my saying, when I was yet in my country? Therefore I fled before unto Tarshish: for I knew that thou art a gracious God, and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness, and repentest thee of the evil.” There is no doubt that evangelicals would classify this verse among More Hard Sayings of the Old Testament (InterVarsity Press, 1992). Precisely, Walter Kaiser, Jr. shares:
So sharp is the contrast between what God had said would happen to Nineveh and what actually took place that we are left to wonder whether divine words are always fulfilled or whether God is presented as a rather fickle person in the Old Testament. Even though from the start Jonah had suspected, because of God’s gracious character, that he would not carry out his threats against Nineveh, we are still left in doubt over God’s ability to predict the future or his constancy of character . . .
The language of this verse, which represents our Lord as “relent[ing],” is undoubtedly an anthropomorphism—a depiction of God in human terms. Certainly the infinite, eternal God can be known to us only through human imagery, and thus he is represented as thinking and acting in a human manner. Without anthropomorphisms, we could never speak positively of God; to try would be to entangle ourselves in deism, which makes God so transcendent that he is never identified with us in our world. When we rush to get rid of the human forms in our talk about God, we sink into meaningless blandness.
The descriptions of God that have to do with his inherent and immutable righteousness allow no room for change in the character of deity or in his external administrations. His righteousness calls for consistency and unchangeableness.
But such representations argue nothing against the possibility, or even the moral necessity, of a change in God’s carrying out of his declarations in cases where the people against whom the judgment was issued have changed, so that the grounds for the threatened judgment have disappeared. For God not to change in such cases would go against his essential quality of justice and his responsiveness to any change that he had planned to bring about.
If this is the case, some wonder why the announcement made by Jonah took such an absolute form: “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned” (Jon 3:4). Why not plainly include “if the people do not repent”?
This objection assumes that the form given to the message was not the best suited to elicit the desired result. Actually, as the record shows, this message indeed awakened the proper response, and so the people were spared. As delivered, it was a proper account of how God felt and the danger to which Nineveh was exposed.
Of course God’s warnings always carried with them the reverse side of the coin, the promises. This element of alternatives within one prophecy can be seen best in Jeremiah 18:9-11 and Ezekiel 18:24 (see, too, Rom 11:22). The good things promised in these prophecies cannot be attributed to any works righteousness or to any merited favor, but are always found in connection with the principles of holiness and human beings’ obedience to God’s Word.
Does this imply that all the predictions from the prophet’s lips were operating under this same rule, that nothing was absolute or certain in the revealed predictive realm? Far from it! There are portions that may be regarded in the strictest sense as absolute, because their fulfillment depended on nothing but the faithfulness and power of God. Such were the declarations of Daniel about the four successive world empires. All the statements about the appearance of Christ, in his first and second advents, are included here, along with the predictions about the progress of the kingdom of God and promises connected with our salvation.
But when the prophecy depicts judgment, or promised good things to come, the prophetic word is not the first and determining element; it is secondary and dependent on the spiritual response of those to whom the words are delivered.
God changed, but his character and nature as the altogether true and righteous one has never changed. As a living person, he changed only in response to a required change in the Ninevites to whom Jonah’s word was delivered. Thus he exhibits no fickleness or instability. He remains the unchanging God who will withdraw his threatened judgment as soon as the human responses justify his doing so (pp. 255-258).
Would any of these words resonate with Blake or Jacob or others?
On Jonah 3:10, Joyce Baldwin in An Exegetical & Expository Commentary—The Minor Prophets (Baker Books, 1993) shares some thoughts worthy of meditation:
God’s response matches but also goes beyond that of Nineveh. The verb sub (to turn) describes their repentance. It connotes to change direction and so repent from evil ways, whereas when God “repented” the verb is nhm (which in the niphal means “to be moved to pity”). This term, when God is the subject, opens a door through which can be glimpsed the mystery of God’s suffering. “The just and perfectly holy God condemns, and can do no other, but when man repents, when man changes, God suffers for having condemned him. . . . He takes upon himself the evil which was the wages of man’s sin” (Ellul, Judgment of Jonah, p. 99). In Christ he takes that suffering upon himself (2 Cor. 5:19). God’s aim in judgment is to bring about just such a change of heart as had occurred at Nineveh. Thus the city experienced God’s mercy and was spared, whereas Jonah’s own people, despite their special relationship with the Lord, failed to repent and therefore experienced judgment (Amos 3:2; 9:10). God deals with all humanity on the same basis, without partiality (p. 581).
Blake then relates two points about classical theists.
(1) They are “rejecting deductive logic as a hermeneutical tool.”
Whoa. Wait a minute. Doesn’t this seem to be an over-generalization? I have not read Eric Johnson’s essay, “Can God Be Grasped by Reason?” Is there a link somewhere in cyberspace to this? I agree when Blake does assert “such a view does not suggest that we ought to avoid using deductive logic to plumb the meaning of scriptural passages, but only that as we view such passages using such deductive principles we may find views that appear to be contradictory and we must suspend our final view as to how they can be reconciled.”
I don’t think any classical theist is denying the place of our sensory perceptions, reason and conscience (to broaden the scope a little bit) in the science of theology. Seminary clarified this for any conservative Christian. And we can trust the tools of our senses, reason, and conscience because God gave them to us. This all plays out everyday in my life when (1) I read my Bible or hear the Scriptures on an MP3 or radio, (2) I evaluate with logical deductions, and (3) I interpret with my conscience over what God means by justice or love. But most importantly we must realize that the tools have their proper place. They are only tools that I use in my investigation, not my authority. Could Blake answer for me what is his authority?
When Blake summarizes, “We suspect that the inerrancy of the scripture is derived largely from precisely the kind of argument Talbot gives,” my response is why believe in inerrancy on mere sentimental or logical grounds? Shouldn’t we believe in “a fundamental(ist) view of scripture” of “inerrancy, necessity, sufficiency, and clarity” because Christ and His apostles taught such things?
(2) They are “arguing that the scripture does not accurately portray God because it is language adapted to human limitations.”
Blake dogmatically claims that classical theists are bringing in “extra-textual theological commitment or linguistic practices” rather than the text. I simply don’t understand this bold accusation. So when we read of Moses seeing God face to face, how do we reconcile the text in Exodus where God says, “Thou canst not see my face: for there shall no man see me, and live” (Exodus 33:20, I remember studying the preceding verse in Romans 9:15). I have already mentioned John 1:18. What about John 5:37, I Timothy 1:17 and I Timothy 6:16? We are talking about texts not some Platonic speculation among Greeks. And Blake how can God approach Moses and pass by him in sweeping majesty by literally covering his eyes with a “hand”? Would you take the hand figuratively? What about the finger of God in Exodus 31:18?There is reference to John Piper. It is difficult for me to interact on this unless I have Piper’s book. Would it be Beyond the Bounds: Open Theism and the Undermining of Biblical Christianity? How well does Piper address the question—does God decree what He does not desire?Blake concludes: “There are thus four reasons why such an ‘anthropomorphic metaphor’ argument should be resisted. First, there are no competent guides or basis for deciding when texts should be read literally or metaphorically. These texts don’t suggest that they should be read metaphorically but give every indication of attempting to actually express God’s intentions and actions. Second, such a way of reading scripture makes it impossible for scripture to reveal anything about God to us. Rather, we impose a prior understanding on the text and that prior understanding controls what the text can mean. Third, these texts become nonsense when read as a mere metaphor or with assumed implicit conditions governed by classical theological presuppositions. Finally, the text is not allowed to speak but is read in way that requires it to say what it does not.”
At this point let me insert a section from John Frame’s book, The Doctrine of God: A Theology of Lordship (P&R Publishing, 2002):
The Bible often speaks of God as if he were a man, not only by using images that describe him as a king, a shepherd, a father, and a judge, but also by speaking of God as walking (Gen. 3:8), smelling an aroma (Gen. 8:21), etc. Scripture also ascribes body parts to God, including arms (Num. 11:23), hands (Ps. 111:7), a mouth (Deut. 8:3), and eyes (Deut. 11:12).
The DBI writer rightly indicates that the problem of anthropomorphism is a specific case of the broader question of cosmomorphism. Scripture describes God not only as a man, but also as animals and inanimate objects. But as we have seen, all created images reflect God’s nature. So the use of such language is not necessarily inappropriate. We may speak anthropomorphically of God, because he has theomorphized man.
In one sense, as Herman Bavinck puts it, “all Scripture is anthropomorphic.” All Scripture is written in human language, not some divine language. God’s revelation is ‘accomodated,’ as Calvin liked to say, to human understanding. Scripture takes abstract attributes of God, no less than concrete images of him, from human life—words that have uses in our conversation about earthly things. This is the only kind of revelation there is. The purpose of revelation is communication, and so the very purpose of revelation is to get God’s message into human terms. So Bavinck adds, “Whosoever, therefore, objects to anthropomorphisms, thereby in principle denies the possibility of a revelation of God in his creatures.” But we should not object to these, because there are genuine resemblances, amid great differences, between Creator and creature.
Does this mean that God has hands, eyes, and feet? Well, he is certainly able to do everything that we do with our hands, eyes, and feet, and much better than we can do them. But we should draw some distinction between literal [p. 367n12 – Recall chapter 11, where I argued that at least some biblical language about God is literal.] and figurative language, even if that distinction is not a sharp one. Granted that God is not a physical being (as I shall argue later), we are rightly inclined to say that he does not really have hands, though human hands appropriately symbolize the means of God’s workmanship. We distinguish between the literal and the figuratively by employing sound methods of biblical interpretation, particularly interpreting Scripture by Scripture.
These exegetical decisions are not always easy. I will discuss questions about God’s anger, his “relenting” from announced policies, his “grief,” and so on. One thing we must not do, however, is to deny the truth of this language simply because it is taken from human life.
All human language is taken from human life. But all human language is also God’s creation, given to us not only to communicate earthly realities, but also to reveal God to us. As I indicated I chapter 11, we should not think of human language as if it were wholly concerned with the creation and therefore has to be twisted, qualified, or taken figuratively in order to refer to God. All human language is anthropomorphic; but more fundamentally it is, like the creation itself, theomorphic. God is really involved in human life, and so our language naturally refers to him, as well as to created referents (pp. 366-368).
Tell me what you think, Blake, and any of the others at the New Cool Thang.
And now for a Todd Wood side tangent.
Guys over at the NCT know me well enough that I would be totally inconsistent with who I am as a limited human if there were not tangents attached. 🙂
If we are to accept the totality of God as revealed in the Bible as glorified men, if I were a woman, I would revolt. I would be screaming internally over the lack of any revelation from goddesses. I would question whether there has been suppression by the male authorities toward vital, female modern-day revelation. Should there not be in the restoration of all things, the inclusion of the doctrine taught in ancient days by female gods? Questions keep popping up for me when I read things like this, this, this, this, this, this, and this.
Yet the clash does not arise within conservative Christianity because of the Bible’s teaching that men, unlike God, are pictured as incomplete creatures in Genesis. Of course, men are made in God’s image and likeness (Gen. 1:26-17, James 3:9), yet this includes women as well. A man and woman, cleaving together, as an earthly picture (nothing more) point to a brilliant, spiritual unity.
So do you see anthropomorphic language in the current book I am studying during the week and proclaiming verse by verse on Sunday mornings. Take for instance, John 3:3. “Jesus answered and said unto him, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again [born from above], he cannot see the kingdom of God.” In the KJV, Jesus is basically saying that in order for anyone to see God’s kingdom, God must give birth to the person. But does a male god give birth? Since I last checked, no male can literally give birth, only females. In order for the phraseology to be “literal” on this famous verse in John’s Gospel, a person must undergo being beget rather than being born again of the Father. Or maybe someone might boldly though not surprisingly propose Jesus is talking about the work of a mother god in order to see the Kingdom.
Remarkably, George R. Beasley-Murray in the Word Biblical Commentary, rather than accepting this as stated in the KJV, chooses the former solution. “Since anothen relates to God’s action, it is best to translate as ‘be begotten,’ rather than ‘be born” (used of birth from a mother)” (I have replaced in bold the English transliteration of the Greek words, 45).
So do we change all the female anthropomorthic language in reference to God in the Bible? For me, the answer is clear. God is not bound to sexual distinctions, except for what we see in the perfect, visible icon of God – the Lord Jesus Christ. Wouldn’t that help the battle between the sexes along the I-15 corridor knowing that God the Father of lights (James 1:17 – anthropomorphic title) is neither male nor female?