The God of Regret versus the God of the Bible

A quick note. I just read Greg Boyd’s blog piece “God’s Regrets and Divine Foreknowledge.” Does God ever regret his decisions? Of course he does, Boyd avers. The Bible tells us so. The most famous story of divine regret is found in the sixth chapter of Genesis: “And the Lord was sorry that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. So the Lord said, ‘I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the ground, man and beast and creeping things and birds of the air, for I am sorry that I have made them.'” Thanks to the recent movie, we all know what happens next.

In response to the objection that the attribution of genuine regret to God compromises the perfection of divine wisdom, Boyd replies:

If God says he regretted a decision, and if Scripture elsewhere tells us that God is perfectly wise, then we should simply conclude that one can be perfectly wise and still regret a decision. Even if this is a mystery to us, it is better to allow the mystery to stand than to assume that we know what God’s wisdom is like and conclude on this basis that God can’t mean what he clearly says.

In other words, if the Bible says that God regrets some of his decisions and actions, then he does. But the sentence I just wrote doesn’t quite say what Boyd says, does it? What Boyd says is “If God says he regretted a decision …” I’m not sure if there’s a difference here, but I just want to acknowledge the possible difference, just in case.

My question is this: Does the God of the Bible in fact regret decisions he has made? I immediately concede that in some of the biblical stories, the story of Noah being the most notable, the narrated God most certainly does second-guess himself. “I sure blundered making man. Time to reboot.” But do these stories authorize us to infer that the God of the Bible actually regrets decisions he has made? If we interpret these stories along such literalistic lines, how are we any different from the ancient pagans who told their stories of Zeus, Athena, and Ares? Are we not reducing God to a god?

Those of us who cut our theological eye-teeth on narrative theology (think Robert Jenson, Jürgen Moltmann, George Lindbeck, Hans Frei, Ronald Thiemann—just to name those who influenced the younger me) will immediately insist that the narrated God is the God of the Christian gospel. How could he not be? Don’t the stories about God precede all subsequent philosophical reflection? Isn’t the economic Trinity identical to the immanent Trinity? Let’s not confuse the Scriptural rendering of the living God with the static deity of Greek philosophy! Underlying all of this is the grand modern narrative that the Church Fathers corrupted the biblical understanding of divinity. Instead of the God of Greek philosophy getting Christianized, the God of the Bible got Hellenized.

But what if this grand narrative is wrong or at least in need of drastic qualification? The great Church historian Jaroslav Pelikan certainly thought it was. And what if the Church Fathers in fact Christianized not only Hellenistic divinity but also the naïve anthropomorphic understanding of the narrated God? Have we completely forgotten the anthropomorphite controversy of the late fourth century? Take a look at St John Cassian’s discussion of this controversy in his Conferences (also see Mark DelCogliano’s fascinating discussion in his essay “Situating Sarapion’s Sorrow“).

What is so often forgotten in all of this is that the same Church Fathers who are popularly accused of Hellenizing the gospel are also the same Church Fathers who taught us how to read the Bible as Scripture and not just as ancient text. And these Church Fathers certainly did not think that the Bible taught a God who blunders and then regrets his decisions. They would have deemed it anthropomorphic foolishness. As St Ephrem the Syrian declares, “Although in His true Being there is no wrath or regret, yet He put on these names because of our weakness” (On Faith 31.1).

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18 Responses to The God of Regret versus the God of the Bible

  1. tgbelt says:

    I’d definitely like to jump in, but somebody sent me some reading to reviewing, then my wife wants to go out, then I’ve got to winter-prep the yard, then…

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  2. tgbelt says:

    *review

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  3. Eric Jobe says:

    It’s very helpful, in my opinion, to understand the place of these statements about God’s regret (niph’al of the verb nḥm) within the broader mythical world of the ancient Near East. Their conceptions about God had not developed the refinement that we see in Greek philosophy and later, Hellenized religion. The gods of ancient Palestine, including the biblical Yahweh, were temperamental, fickle, and often hasty to execute wrath and violence. That these rather primitive characterizations of divinity appear in our Bible only underscore its iconological nature. What appears in the Old Testament should not be applied too literally, but instead they it should be read as an icon or a cataphatic image of a greater spiritual reality, spiritual realities that are revealed to us through Christ the Logos. So, where God appears to regret that he made mankind or regrets that he made Saul King should be interpreted in light of the cosmological redemption that resulted from the cross and resurrection. Where regret is expressed, we see it only as a preliminary sorrow, where the whole of creation expresses its regret in the voice of Yahweh, moving toward the hope of redemption until the Church sings “All of creation rejoices in you, O Full of Grace.” Regret and destruction create a negative background upon which the light of the revelation of Christ can be seen. Bulgakov and others would understand this to be a part of the “divine darkness” or the antinomy between the absence of God in allowing evil to come into the world and overcome it and the revelation of God through Christ in redeeming it back to himself. There is much within the divine character that we do not understand, because it is hidden from us, though it may be iconologically revealed through such concepts as regret or sorrow. Of course, the destruction of the Flood is iconologically revealed as prefiguring the washing away of Baptism, as we are baptized into the death of Christ, and with that death comes the death of our sins. If we do not have this Christocentric trajectory, we will not be able to see the fullness of biblical revelation, and as I hope is apparent, a bit of critical scholarship may actually help us along that trajectory.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Thank you, Eric, for your comment. Your reference to the antinomy between divine absence and saving presence reminds me of Luther’s distinction between the hidden God and the revealed God: http://goo.gl/BlnqUB.

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    • Grant says:

      I found this reply really helpful (as well as the article itself) and I just wanted to thank you, as I used it to help I reply I was writing on a forum elsewhere to help someone, thank you very much for this 🙂 .

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  4. David says:

    For God (blessed be He), there is just One Eternal Now. For Him all moments, all deeds, all actions (His and ours), are happening all at once, if you will. To even say that everything is foreknown is really off…everything is just known. If God “changed His mind” it only appeared that way to us mortals.

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  5. My argument is more philosophical than scriptural:

    God is love and always acts in/from love. Loving action is never regretted. The result of the action is not the point with which one defines ‘success’. The action of love is all God can do and be because he is love. He may suffer due to his choice to love but never regret loving. He may desire for a different outcome for us: “for all to be saved”, but this is not a regret of love or of God’s action.

    So I disagree with Boyd.

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  6. Mina says:

    I think there needs to be an understanding of semitic culture in these mannerisms. I see the regret as a regret of hyperbole, not an actual regret. Arab parents utilize this a lot when they are irritated at their children. “It is my fault that I gave you the keys to my car!” And yet parents knew the risk, and they gave the keys anyway because they love their children, and to place the regret or blame on themselves only means my parents love me and wished to learn from my disappointment, but I know my parents have no regret or is blameworthy of the accident I caused.

    When we see God in this fashion, it is a moment of God acting like a loving parent, wishing for one last chance all humanity can repent, moving humanity to see His disappointment. It comes from divine compassion, and not some sort of sloppy divine ignorance.

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  7. Tquestion says:

    Interesting post. I take a bit of a different approach. You’ve stated, “If we interpret these stories along such literalistic lines, how are we any different from the ancient pagans who told their stories of Zeus, Athena, and Ares? Are we not reducing God to a god?” The people of the Ancient Near East (ANE) certainly would have understood this narrative in Genesis in exactly this way. The story portrayed in Genesis parallels with the other ANE stories, yet with its own spin. The God in Genesis was one, almost as if the narrative is responding to these other accounts of polytheism. If I’m not misunderstanding you, you seem to be suggesting that if we read the narrative in a such a like manner as the other ANE accounts, then we are misunderstanding the narrative. The problem is that this is exactly how they would have read and understood Genesis then. This is what the author(s) of the text meant to convey. They saw God as one who was able to change His mind as well as relent. If this is the truth they meant to convey, then are we not to see it as truth? Are we to simply say that their understanding was wrong? Or should we be trying to read and understand the narrative the same way (or at least as close as possible to the same way) the ANE and those who read it would have understood it then? I am convinced the latter is a more faithful reading. In addition, I don’t really like the word “literal”. It depends on what you mean by literal. If you mean literal as word for word, surface level, plain reading of the text (as most fundamentalists do), then I would agree that scripture should not be read in this way. However, if by “literal” you mean to understand what the author meant to communicate, then I’d say this is better. Of course, there is anthropomorphic language that attempts to describe God and His character. He’s often associated with a number of different objects as well. Yet, I think we can sometimes get a bit trigger happy to disregard the language used to describe God by labeling it merely anthropomorphic. It the author, for example, describes God using the language of “rock”, then sure, it’s foolish to think “Oh, God must be an actual rock”. We know that this is language used to describe some truth that God is like a rock in that He is strong, firm, unmovable, etc. My question is what truth is communicated if we say that God regrets in that He is only like that of someone who regrets, or changes his mind? What truth is there if we say that God is sorrowful, in that he is only like someone who expresses sorrow but doesn’t actually express sorrow?

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Thank you, Tquestion, for identifying my chief concern, which I expressed poorly in my hastily written blog. I agree with you that original audience of the Noah story would have understood God as truly regretting his decision to create humanity, that is to say, the original audience would have understood the God here narrated as a god (in some sense). And it is at this point that I disagree with Boyd, Moltmann, and others (including one of my fave theologians, R. W. Jenson). My principal criticism is that if we only read the Bible historically-critically, we are not reading it as Scripture—hence the title of my article. To give you an idea of how I am approaching the matter, see these two articles: “When Scripture Becomes Scripture” and “What Does Scripture Mean?

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      • Tquestion says:

        Thank you for addressing this. I definitely see more of where you are coming from now. I read the two articles you referred me to, and I found them incredibly thought-provoking. I especially found the dialogue with Paul in “What Does Scripture Mean?” humorous. I must admit that I am a bit new to this type of hermeneutic – namely reading scripture within the Great Tradition of the Holy Church. I am currently taking a course in the early church fathers, which is from the Gnostic gospels up to Aquinas I believe. My background taught me to take the critical methods seriously, so you can imagine my discomfort towards this way of reading scripture. I am still thinking critically of what I think about this. I suppose one of my questions regarding this way of understanding scripture is why must I read scripture the same way the early church read scripture? Why should I use their methods of interpretation just because they are the early church? You’ve said, “In other words, if with the early Church we are going to confess the writings of the Old and New Testaments as inspired by God, as Scripture, then we must also be willing to interpret these writings according to the hermeneutics of the early Church.” Doesn’t this kind of beg the question? Don’t get me wrong. I am well aware that we all come to the text with our own interpretive lens. But why should I settle for the early church’s methods, when I know that our current methods escape most problems imposed on the text since the Enlightenment? I’m not saying that the Enlightenment possess the only mode of true knowing. In some sense I am a bit postmodern, but I am suggesting that the critical methods of historical interpretation really does address some very troubling issues as well as possess Spiritual meaning. I also think the historical and critical method remains faithful the the scriptures and holds firm to the overarching theme of “God’s work of salvation through Jesus Christ”, as you’ve stated. So, I don’t feel like I really have to sacrifice anything. I don’t believe the critical methods deprive the Bible of any spiritual meaning. If anything, I feel like I gain in understanding. Anyway, I would really be interested in knowing your thoughts on my questions. Thank you.

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        • jrj1701 says:

          Tquestion, just my two cents, yet the way you are talking about approaching the scripture gets the equation inverted. It should be the nous informing and directing the dionoea, the heart over the mind, not the other way around. Please correct me Father Aidan if I am incorrect in this or if I did not give enough info.

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          • Tquestion says:

            Yes, I understand this. But that doesn’t quite answer my questions. I’ve admitted already that I’m somewhat corrupted by the Enlightenment. I also don’t see why we have to make a dichotomy with heart and mind. Why not accept using both equally, each informing the other?

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          • jrj1701 says:

            Tquestion, I do not see a dichotomy with heart and mind, I see a necessary hierarchy of heart over the mind and with that said you can’t have both working together democratically, the heart desiring union with God must rule the self seeking mind. Again I beg Fr. Aidan’s correction and hope that I am open to it.

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        • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

          Tquestion, please do not think that I am denying the value of historical-critical scholarship, but this is a way of reading the biblical writings that can be done by Christians and non-Christians alike. That alone should tip us off that it ain’t sufficient for the the reading of Bible as Scripture.

          So let me pose this question for your meditation: What is the difference between reading the Bible historically, i.e., as artifact, and reading it as Scripture? If there is a difference, who instructs you on how to do the latter?

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          • Tquestion says:

            Fr. Aidan, I do not mean to say that you do not take historical-critical scholarship seriously yourself. I apologize if that was conveyed. I only mean to better understand. I suppose to answer your question I would say that the difference for the Christian is understanding and believing the text to be true and being transformed by it and the work of the Holy Spirit. But I think this can be done while still holding to the historical-critical reading of the text. Concerning the initial issue, I think this article by Dr. Roger Olson may better describe my views: http://goo.gl/LvuHWJ
            Thank you for your responses by the way.

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  8. Jonathan says:

    I think it’s important to realize “regret” doesn’t imply having made an error of judgment or to have misstepped morally. After all, it’s not infrequently that the right thing to do, the best possible action, is nonetheless regrettable. When someone says “I may regret this, but. . .” they do not necessarily mean, “This is mistaken and morally wrong, but I’m going to do/say it anyway.” They probably mean that there will be unfortunate consequences of an action that is nonetheless the best action they can take in that situation. When you get a message that begins “We regret having to inform you. . .” you’re not to assume that the content of the message is understood by the sender to be false or an imprudent idea. “Regret” signifies the recognition of misfortune, not mistake or misbehavior; it means to see and feel the sorrow and pity of something which may nonetheless be a beautiful and good thing. In many of the more profound instances in which we use the word regret, it’s of something good and beautiful at its core that we speak. You “regret” the loss of a loved one, for example. Basically, to regret means to be sorry (etymologically regret means to weep) and being sorry doesn’t mean being in error, although it could have some relation to error. But if God reveals that he regrets something, then at least in English he doesn’t have to be saying “my bad” or “I’ve changed my mind.”

    Regret is different from repentance. Did God regret making man, or did he repent of it? Repentance, as far as I’m able to understand it, is a kind of repudiation, a subjective distancing of the agent from his own action upon subsequent realization of the action’s total moral deficiency. If, given the chance to do a thing over, I would refuse to do it, then it can be fairly said I repent of having done it. The person who, confronted with his tumultuous past, says “Still, I would do it all over again just the same,” might very well regret his life, but he can’t be said to repent of it. Regret and repentance can even be mutually exclusive. If repentance, taken as the Latin for metanoia (which I realize it doesn’t actually translate), means a change of mind or heart, then the beautiful or good but nonetheless sorrowful thing no longer appears beautiful or good to me, so I can’t be regretting it. To regret one’s sins simply because they have brought misfortune, and not because you actually hold them to be sins, is not to repent of them at all. I believe Saint Augustine had a lot of problems with this.

    The KJV uses “repent” to describe God’s attitude to man in Gen. 6:6. But there you have to consider the state of English at the time. “It repented the Lord that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him in his heart” is almost a pleonasm. I think the key lies in grammar. Note the sort of middle voice construction, “it repented him,” no longer available to us, but very close to a construction that is available, “it sorrowed him.” It’s even still possible to say in English, “It regrets me to inform you, etc” instead of “I regret.” The distinction is subtle. When something “sorrows” us, it means we perceive the sorrow in that thing or event that is acting, grammatically, as the agent. Why aren’t we the agent, since what’s signified is our perception? Because we don’t want to see the sorrow, it’s forced on us and we can’t help seeing it, but our knowledge is separate in this instance from our will. So if mankind in a way “repents” God, it means God sees — more fully than mankind can — what it is in man that man ought to repent, but he does not want to see it. Whereas when we actively repent something in the modern sense (“I repent” rather than “it repents me”), our knowledge and will are united. If one were to update the KJV, it would make sense to change “it repented him” to “he regretted” or “he was sorry that” — as indeed translators have done.

    This is all by way of speculation, and maybe it’s not germane to a properly theological discussion. We really need to know about Hebrew, not English. But in any case, the import of the passage heralding the Flood seems to me not so much to do with God’s passibility or sapience, but with the degeneracy of mankind, which is only evident in its full extent vis-a-vis God. Something, however unverifiable, must be said of God in order to say what needs to be said irrefutably of man.

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    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      To go on what may be a tangent from “We really need to know about Hebrew, not English”, this discussion reminds me, generally, of the still-fairly-youngly-Christian C.S. Lewis’s 1934 consideration of the King James translation of Isaiah 13:19-22 – in what would prove his first contribution to The Personal Heresy: A Contoversy (1939) – as an example of “a whole class of poetical experiences”. He contends, “The mood to which we are introduced by these lines was not only not normal in the Hebrew writer; it did not and could not exist in him at all.” And, “It is obvious that no two experiences could be more grotesquely unlike than that of the writer, and that of the modern reader, of this passage. Nor shall we fare much better if we turn from the original writer to the translator.” One reason is, that “as his English version grew he had the Hebrew always before him, and was thus involved in a work of comparison which has no parallel in our experience of the passage.” He generalizes, “wherever we have ancient poetry at all, there will be language which was commonplace to the writers but which time has turned into beauty; wherever we get msunderstanding […] there will be poetry that no poet wrote. Every work of art that lasts long in the world is continually taking on these new colours which the artist neither foresaw nor intended.” The discussion has the limitation – and virtue – of being concerned with “poetry” and “poetical experiences”, rather than theology. But of the KJV translator of Isaiah, he writes, “he worked in fear and trembling to transmit without loss what he believed to be the literal record of the word of God.”

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