Biblical predictions

Ways open theists interpret biblical predictions.

I’ve written in The God Who Risks that most biblical prophecies do not contain predictions of future events. Prophecies are most often about challenging people to walk the path of God. Yet, there are statements in the Bible that predict or seem to predict specific future events. These passages include 1 Kings 13:2 regarding Josiah, Isaiah 44:28 about Cyrus, and portions of the second half of Daniel. Some people use such texts as evidence that these biblical writers held that God has exhaustive definite foreknowledge of all future events. Of course, open theists reject this belief in favor of the dynamic knowledge view of omniscience. Here are the typical ways open theists explain such texts.

  1. Some open theists believe these are actual predictions with specific details of events that were yet in the future at the time the biblical passage was written. They tend to say that God predicted these people and events in great detail because God had decided to bring them about, not because God somehow “saw” the future. That is, God foreknew them because God determined they would happen. God overrode the freedom of some humans to accomplish these events.
  2. Some open theists believe these texts are predictions of future events but that they lack important details. They note that the texts are often rather vague in their descriptions and that names such as “Cyrus” are really titles rather than personal names. The predictions are based on what God believed would happen based on divine knowledge of the past and present. Some proponents of B hold that God overrode the freedom of some humans to bring some of these events about while others reject this and say that a being who knows all the past and present could prognosticate the events using generalizations and poetic license.
  3. Some open theists do not believe these texts are actual predictions. Rather, they are written after the fact. That is, the writer lived after the events and wrote them as if someone living prior to the events had predicted them. Even if we say the texts are written after the fact, it seems to imply that these biblical texts depict God as predicting some future events. Why would someone portray God that way? Perhaps such writers wrongly believed God possessed exhaustive definite foreknowledge or perhaps they believed A or B.

What motivates open theists to take these different responses are beliefs about the nature of the Bible and whether God ever overrides human freedom. When I wrote the first edition of The God Who Risks, I said that God could (on rare occasions) override the freewill of humans and that this idea could be used by open theists to explain some biblical predictions (A above). However, I actually never used this view in the book to explain any of the passages in question. I always sought ways to explain the texts without God determining human actions. In a conversation with Sir John Polkinghorne, he said he agreed with most everything in The God Who Risks but not that God ever overrides human freedom. Subsequently, I have affirmed the view that God never revokes the divine gift of human freedom. So, that leaves options B and C available.

For several decades I taught at evangelical schools where the practice of harmonizing biblical texts was prevalent. The idea is that all biblical texts on a topic must agree with each other. On the issue of divine foreknowledge, this means that all biblical authors agreed that God either has or lacks exhaustive definite knowledge of future contingent events. Hence, proponents of exhaustive definite foreknowledge had to find ways to explain the sorts of texts open theists based their view on such as God changing the divine mind or testing people to find out what they would do. Open theists had to find ways to harmonize texts that seemed to depict God as knowing the future in detail. Motivating the work of harmonization are views about the way God inspired the Bible such that even though various humans wrote the texts, it is really God who ensured that they all agree.

One of the giants of modern Hebrew Bible scholarship was Terry Fretheim. He produced most of the detailed scholarship showing that many biblical writers did not believe God has detailed knowledge of future events. We had numerous conversations and in one of them he asked me why I thought I had to harmonize all the biblical texts. To him, some biblical writers believed that God has exhaustive definite foreknowledge while others did not. When I asked Clark Pinnock about this issue, he told me that it did not matter to him if a few biblical writers thought God had exhaustive definite foreknowledge because he felt most biblical writers affirmed the open theist view: “A few specks of sand in the Parthenon does not ruin its magnificence.” In his, God in Motion, Open theist Manuel Schmid criticizes many scholars of open theism for their attempt to try to harmonize all biblical texts. He suggests open theists would benefit from using mainstream biblical scholarship. It took me quite a while before I affirmed the view that biblical writers sometimes disagree with each other. I now hold, for instance, that some biblical writers believed that God hated non-Israelites and commanded genocide while other biblical writers believed God would never do such things.

For these reasons, B and C are viable options for me today. I realize that this brief reflection leaves many unanswered questions.

John Sanders

John E. Sanders is an American theologian who is a professor of religious studies at Hendrix College. He has published on four main topics: (1) open theism, (2) Christian views on the salvation of non-Christians, (3) Christian views on the nature of hell, and (4) applying cognitive linguistics to theology.

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