Continuing from where we left off from last time...
3. God knows the future
Another set of biblical passages indicate that God knows the future, not just the past or present. Leaving aside the passages which teach the general doctrine that God knows everything, there are many which explicitly refer to his knowledge of things to come.
The most obvious examples are all the Messianic prophecies which predicted the coming of Jesus, but there are many other examples such as the prediction in the Torah and almost all the pre-exilic prophets that Israel would sin, go into exile, and then be restored.
Sometimes individuals are predicted by name, hundreds of years in advance. For example, the prediction in 1 Kings 13:2 that Jeroboam's idolatrous altar would be destroyed by King Josiah, hundreds of years later (2 Kings 23:15). Or the prediction by Isaiah concerning the rule of King Cyrus, the Persian monarch who brought Israel back from exile. [Update: apparently "Cyrus" was actually a generic name for Persion rulers, meaning Lord. However, this is still an noteworthy prediction since at the time of Isaiah, the Persian empire was not a dominant power in the Middle East.] The context of the surrounding passage compares God to idols and false gods, and in many passages describes God's ability to predict the future as a key divine attribute which distinguishes him:
I am God, and there is no other;
I am God, and there is none like me.
I make known the end from the beginning,
from ancient times, what is still to come. (Isaiah 46:9-10)
Another striking example is Daniel chapter 11, which gives a blow-by-blow account of the diplomatic relationships between the Ptolomies in Egypt and the Selucids in Syria (poor Israel being wedged right in between, geographically), for hundreds of years up to the time of Antiochus IV Epiphanes, the evil king who outlawed Judaism and desecrated the Temple, whose defeat is celebrated by the Jewish festival of Hanukkah.
(These prophecies are so clear, that atheists have no choice but to postulate that these books were actually written after the events in question. So scholars decide that Daniel wasn't written by Daniel in the 6th century BC, but actually by some anonymous person in the Greek dominated period of the 2nd century. Even though, oddly, there are no Greek loan words in the book besides the musical instruments. And the second half of Isaiah was written by somebody else (Deutero-Isaiah) after the return from captivity, notwithstanding the significant literary similiarities between the first and second halves of the book. And the Torah was patched together by several sources during the Babylonian captivity, and somehow the Jews forced their bitter enemies, the Samaritans, to accept this document as the legitimate Torah.
I can understand why an unbeliever would bite these bullets; what I don't understand is why educated Jews and Christians have a tendency to automatically defer to the results of scholarship, even those based on explictly anti-religious assumptions. Just because you're not a fundamentalist, doesn't mean you have to unquestioningly swallow everything the other side throws at you!)
In the New Testament, Jesus makes many prophecies about the future. Humanly speaking, his knowledge of the future was limited in comparison with his Father's unlimited knowledge (Mark 13:32). Nevertheless, he had sufficient access to the divine foreknowledge, that he predicted the circumstances of his Crucifixion and Resurrection, the destruction of the Temple, that Judas would deny him, and that St. Peter would deny him, among other things.
There are also various statements in which God asserts that he knows somebody in their mother's womb, including perhaps details of their future calling in life. The most striking is David's statement, in a song on the theme of God's omniscience, who writes that
Before a word is on my tongue
you, Lord, know it completely. (139:4)
No wait, that may be relevant but I actually meant to quote this one:
Your eyes saw my unformed body;
all the days ordained for me were written in your book
before one of them came to be.
(Psalm 139:16 NIV; some translations differ)
This brings us to the ever-so-slightly controversial topic of predestination. I'd actually like to sidestep the usual debate about this. Regardless of whether St. Calvin and his followers' terrible assertions are in fact correct, it is pretty clear that there is a word (προορίζω) in the New Testament which is translated by the English word "predestination". So all biblical theologies agree that there is such a thing as predestination, which ought to involve, at a bare minimum, God knowing in advance something about what is going to happen. Indeed, St. Paul bases God's predestination quite explicitly in his ability to have foreknowledge about what is going to happen:
And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified. (Romans 8:28-30)
And he is not afraid to talk about all those in the Church were predestined by God, chosen in Jesus Christ:
Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ. For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us for adoption to sonshipthrough Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will—to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves. (Ephesians 1:3-5)
Note that the "time" during which this predestination occurs is before creation. It did not happen in time, but in eternity, which is outside of time.
Once you accept that God knows the future, a lot of the reasoning about how God somehow has to "be in time to be in relationship to us" and be "responsive to our choices" and "learn what we will do" or whatever is undermined. God was already in relationship to us, knowing all about us and calling us, before the first star began to shine! I don't see why God would need to "change" in response to our actions, if he already knew in advance what we were going to do.
At the level of practical theology, it is comforting to know that God already knows the future and that he isn't just guessing what he needs to do to accomplish his purposes in our lives. Also, if God knows the future, then it follows that it is reasonable to pray for a favorable outcome concerning events which took place in the past, since when that event was occuring, God already knew that we would pray. (Here I am assuming there is no weird time travel paradox where we would pray for X to happen only if X did not occur; if so we may be out of luck! Also, I don't think it's reasonable to pray for things not to happen that we know did happen. We are not asking God to change the past like a time traveller, but rather to take into account our present-day preferences back when he first created it.)
4. Supposed counterexamples
Now open theists deny that God has the power to predict the future, at least whenever it involves the free choices of human beings. This is partly based on a philosophical belief, not derived from the Bible, that God foreknowing the future is inconsistent with free will. (I think this reasoning involves a logical fallacy, but the important thing for now is that it is not an argument spelled out Scripture. There are passages which may apprently seem to minimize or deny our free will in the light of God's sovereignty, and there are passages which teach the truth of human free will, but there are none which say that we can be free only if God is ignorant of what we will do.)
Many of the prophecies of the future in part 3 seem to involve events that would normally be considered free choices of human beings, assuming we have free will at all. And, it is easy to see that any small free-will decision I make, by the "butterfly effect", will eventually have a major (usally accidental) impact on the course of the whole world. In fact, none of us would exist if our parents and ancestors had made even slightly different free will choices. Hence, if God cannot predict what people will do, it seems unlikely that he would have any ability to foreknow individual human beings in advance.
Some open theists say that God overrides human free will just in these special cases of prophecy, in order to get the outcome he wants. Leaving aside the unparsimoniousness of this theory—once we admit that God knows some things in the future, it is much simpler to say that he knows them all—it's extremely ironic that this theory, which is supposed to preserve free will, only works by denying the existence of free will in salvation history whenever the rubber hits the road!
For those of us who are not Calvinists, this would also raise very difficult questions about e.g. Judas' betrayal. St. John's Gospel tells us that "Jesus had known from the beginning which of them did not believe and who would betray him" (6:64). He predicted Judas' betrayal in advance, and claims it was forshadowed one thousand years earlier by David in Psalms 41 and 55, presumably based on his own experience of being betrayed by a close friend. (I take very seriously the ability of Jesus to find typological meanings in the Old Testament Scriptures which are not necessarily clear to the rest of us.) Since being Judas was worse for him than not being born, this would raise serious questions about God's justice, had Judas not chosen freely to be the kind of person he was. (Presumably Jesus would not have picked him, if he had not had the potential to become a Holy Apostle!)
Back when I was arguing about open theism with St. Dennis Jensen in this thread, he brought up the scene where God (or rather the "angel of the Lord", but in the Torah this usually refers to a manifestation or vision which speaks directly on behalf of God) says
Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son. (Genesis 22:12)
Supposedly, this implies God did not know it before. That might be a valid Gricean implication if this were the only verse we were working with, but I think it's pretty weak sauce as a counter-argument to the enormous wealth of texts explictly talking about God's foreknowledge of future events. It seems reasonable to me that the function of the "now" modifier is simply to anchor God's knowledge to the actual event that he knew. In other words, I read this as saying: As a result of you doing this, I know (and knew, but that is besides the point so I won't mention it) that you are the kind of person who would choose to do this. God knows that Abraham would sacrifice Isaac because he actually (almost) did so. Had God not tested Abraham, there would have been no fact of the matter about whether or not he would have done it. God knows X because X is true, and "now" is when X occurs, so it is natural to associate God's knowledge with "now", even if his knowledge of it is in another sense eternal.
Also, I can't help but notice that the book of Genesis uses quite a lot of anthropomorphisms in general, including when speaking of God's omnisicence. Remember, this is the same text that says things like
But the Lord came down to see the city and the tower the people were building. (11:5)
“The outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is so great and their sin so grievous that I will go down and see if what they have done is as bad as the outcry that has reached me. If not, I will know.” (18:20-21)
What these passages lack in theological sophistication, they more than make up for in vividness of language. Indeed, they may be taken to teach an important truth, that God's knowledge is not passive observation-from-afar, but rather a living and active presence, keen to work justice and mercy in the earth. But since open theists still believe that God fully knows the present, it seems that they too will have to take these passages nonliterally, just as much as the classical theist. So why can't 22:12 be the same way?
In the Divine Foreknowledge: Four Views book, the Openness guy (St. Gregory Boyd) highlights the passage in Jeremiah where God says
They have built the high places of Topheth in the Valley of Ben Hinnom to burn their sons and daughters in the fire—something I did not command, nor did it enter my mind. (Jer 7:31 + parallel passages)
This could just mean that it didn't ever enter God's mind to command that the Israelites sacrifice their children. (I know we just did the story of Abraham and Isaac, but that was a special test of faith and a sign, not a ritual to be imitated by future generations. And, since God called it off, it seems to me that part of the function of the story is to indicate that God doesn't actually want or need child sacrifice!) But even if we interpret this phrase "enter my mind" more broadly, it could just be a vivid way to refer to God's shock and horror that the Israelites would do such a thing. A similar thing can be said about this more obviously problematic passage:
Have you seen what faithless Israel did? She went up on every high hill and under every green tree, and she was a harlot there. "I thought, 'After she has done all these things she will return to me'; but she did not return. (Jer 3:7)
Here we have God indicating that he had certain expectations, phrased as if they were beliefs, which were not fulfilled. But this can be taken as a poetic way to describe God's frustration. In the same book, St. David Hunt (the guy I agree with), draws this analogy:
Learning that my best philosophy student has plagiarized his term paper, I exclaim, "I can't believe it!" This "can't believe" must be distinguished from the ignorance I was in before the facts came out; it's a disbelief that's possible even when I know the truth. I'm simply dumbfounded that someone with such ability, who did not need to plagiarize in order to write an "A" paper, would stoop to cheating. God must be similarly frustrated that his chosen people, on whom he lavished so much attention, would betray him. "It would never cross my mind that someone with all your advantages would do such a thing," he might say; and he might say it even though he knew from all eternity what they would do. (p. 51 in my paperback edition)
I've mentioned before that I agree with the title of St. John Sander's Openness book The God who Risks, but I don't agree with most of the contents. Sanders claims that passages where God speaks in conditional language, like when he says "if you do A, then B will happen, but if you do A', something else will happen", suggests that God doesn't know the future. I can't agree with this argument. God can have plenty of reasons to make conditional statements to us human beings, even if he knows perfectly well what will happen.
Indeed, in Deuteronomy, God lays out conditional blessings for keeping the Torah, and conditional curses for disobeying, shortly before predicting which of the two outcomes would in fact occur! This does not mean that there was no point in telling them what would happen in the event that they obeyed. As it was indeed in their power to do. (Or was it?) In any case the blessings were hardly given in vain, given that some generations heeded the Lord more than others, and received part of the blessing during that time, before the inevitable happened.
None of us temporal creatures wish to be punished for a sin before we even decided to commit it. So if God wants to warn us off doing something, he had better phrase it conditionally, as "IF you sin, THEN bad consequences will happen." Even if he knows we will, as a matter of fact, disobey, a flat prediction to that effect isn't usually the right way to motivate us to not do it. Indeed, in the absence of a warning, the nature of the decision itself becomes psychologically different. In some cases, people will do what is right only because they were warned about being punished if they didn't.
So it makes sense for God to state his relationship to us in conditional terms, and to wait until we actually sin in order to punish us. (Or he may wait even longer, since he is slow to anger, patient and longsuffering.) Similarly, it makes sense for him to display his wrath towards sin until such time as we repent, and then afterwards restore us to favor. Even if he knows we will eventually repent, it does us no good to receive his blessings until we are ready for them.
Even though God knows what will happen, he also knows what could have happened. So when, in certain biblical texts God says that "perhaps" the Israelites will repent (even though they didn't) this need not mean that he was caught short. Instead it could refer to the fact that the intervention might have been capable, given the situation, of causing them to repent.
I think also explains all the passages in point 1 about God repenting and changing his mind. Even if God is eternal and knows the future, we are finite creatures. I agree that God must adapt some effectively temporal game-theoretic strategies in order to relate to temporal creatures. I deny that he has to somehow strip himself of his eternal existence or foreknowledge in order to do this!
No matter what we say about God and Time, there are going to be some passages which post theological challenges. Some of them may require some creative interpretation, to harmonize with the rest of the Bible. But it seems to me much easier to explain the passages involving God repenting or coming to know things, in terms of the eternal view, then to explain why a God limited to the present would be spoken of as changeless and knowing the future.
And we haven't yet gotten to the best proof-texts yet! To be continued...
Next: Eternity in Holy Writ