Greg Boyd and C. S. Lewis on the Open Future

Greg Boyd just posted a short article on his blog: “Does the Open View Limit God?” His thesis is simply stated: open theists do not limit God, as they agree with classical theists that God knows everything that can be known; therefore the open God is properly described as omniscient.

The issue is not about God’s knowledge at all. Everyone agrees he knows reality perfectly. The issue is the content of the reality God perfectly knows—how many things and what kind of things there are on the “plot of land” we call the future. If everything in the land of the future is settled, then we must all grant that God would perfectly know this. But if there are fewer things in the land of the future that are definite and more things that are possible, then we must grant that God would perfectly know this. … Many evangelicals have accused open theists of limiting God by denying that he foreknows the future as exhaustively settled because they assume that the future is exhaustively settled. If this assumption is granted, then of course anyone who denied that God foreknew the future as exhaustively settled would be limiting God. But open theists do not share this assumption. The accuracy of the classical assumption that the future is exhaustively settled needs to be examined in the light of Scripture. [emphasis mine]

There’s something wrong here, perhaps several things wrong here. Unless I’m misreading him, Boyd appears to believe that if we can demonstrate (presumably by scriptural exegesis but perhaps he might also allow philosophical reflection) that the future is not definitively settled, then this entails that God does not foreknow the future—or at least that he does not know the future as definite but only as possibilities. I suppose the argument could also be run from the other end: because God does not exhaustively foreknow the future (though he certainly possesses a comprehensive knowledge of all possibilities and probabilities), therefore the future is not exhaustively settled.  Underlying all of this, I think, is the unstated fear that if God does foreknow the future as actuality, then we are trapped in a fatalistic, deterministic universe.

But it seems to me that Boyd is going about the question all wrong. Maybe there are evangelical “classical theists” out there who begin their reflections with the premise that the future is exhaustively settled, but most classical classical theists do not. Real classical theists begin with the premise that the eternal God is the creator of time and therefore transcendently exists outside of time: hence it does not make sense to speak of God as foreknowing the future, as if  he exists within the world as a finite temporal agent.

Human beings exist in time and therefore apprehend the future as that which has not yet happened. By definition it does not exist. Whether future events are completely determined by antecedent events and conditions is something philosophers and scientists can argue about. But if, as classical theists maintain, God exists outside of time, then it doesn’t make sense to speak of him as foreknowing the future. He does not know things before they happen; he knows them as they happen. With his usual clarity C. S. Lewis faithfully states the classical position:

Everyone who believes in God at all believes that He knows what you and I are going to do tomorrow. But if He knows I am going to do so-and-so, how can I be free to do otherwise? Well, here once again, the difficulty comes from thinking that God is progressing along the Time-line like us: the only difference being that He can see ahead and we cannot. Well, if that were true, if God foresaw our acts, it would be very hard to understand how we could be free not to do them. But suppose God is outside and above the Time-line. In that case, what we call “tomorrow” is visible to Him in just the same way as what we call “today.” All the days are “Now” for Him. He does not remember you doing things yesterday; He simply sees you doing them, because though you have lost yesterday, He has not. He does not “foresee” you doing things tomorrow; He simply sees you doing them: because, though tomorrow is not yet there for you, it is for Him. You never supposed that your actions at this moment were any less free because God knows what you are doing… In a sense, He does not know your action till you have done it: but then the moment at which you have done it is already “Now” for Him. (Mere Christianity, p. 145)

Eternity is quite distinct from perpetuity, from mere endless continuance in time. Perpetuity is only the attainment of an endless series of moments, each lost as soon as it is attained. Eternity is the actual timeless fruition of illimitable life. Time, even endless time, is only an image, almost a parody, of that plentitude; a hopeless attempt to compensate for the transitoriness of its ‘presents’ by infinitely multiplying them. That is why Shakespeare’s Lucrece calls it ‘thou ceaselss lackey to eternity’ (Rape, 967). And God is eternal, not perpetual. Strictly speaking, he never forsees; He simply sees. Your ‘future’ is only an area, and only for us a special area, of His infinite Now. He sees (not remembers) your yesterday’s acts because yesterday is still ‘there’ for Him; he sees (not forsees) your tomorrows acts because He is already in tomorrow. As a human spectator, by watching my present act, does not infringe upon its freedom, so I am none the less free to act as I choose in the future because God, in that future (His present) watches me acting. (The Discarded Image, p. 89)

Lewis speaks of God’s eternal “now,” but he would no doubt agree that the language of “now” is itself misleading, as all of our “nows” are necessarily informed by our experience of time. When we speak of the divine eternity, therefore, we really have no idea what we are talking about. It’s a piece of negative theology. According to Richard Swinburne, St Thomas Aquinas viewed the matter along similar lines:

God, Aquinas held, is outside time. He lives in a timeless eternity. Everything which he knows is simultaneous with his knowing it, for the divine present moment is simultaneous with moments which we call present, past, and future. Strictly speaking, God does not foreknow anything. He knows it as it happens, but there is no moment at which he does not know it. (The Coherence of Theism, pp. 178-179)

Also see two interviews with Eleonore Stump: “Is God Timeless?” and “Has God Settled the Future?

Hence the classical theist has no problem affirming that the future is not exhaustively determined; but he does so not because he thinks he understands the relationship between creaturely temporality and divine eternity—he knows it to be an unfathomable mystery—but because he does not think of the transcendent Creator as a temporal entity who experiences time and history as we do.

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17 Responses to Greg Boyd and C. S. Lewis on the Open Future

  1. “presumably by scriptural exegesis but perhaps he might also allow philosophical reflection”
    Fr. Kimel, these are Evangelicals remember? This philosophical reflection is Aristotelian…no wait! Platonist!

    Any way, reading this post reminds me of why I chose Molinism. With middle knowledge, the future isn’t entirely “settled”. And I’m not sure I understand Boyd correctly either. Much of what he says agrees with classical theists yet at the same time he says he thinks classical theism is bogus.

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  2. Interesting article. I wonder, however, given the implications of your argument, what you would then say about the role of Divine Providence in regards to human freedom. If true freedom is defined not as mere volition, but as human “flourishing,” and if God “sees” an individual heading down a damaging path whose ramifications extend backwards and forwards throughout time (as we experience it) would God merely permit that individual to continue down this path, which by the above definition would amount to un-freedom. Or, alternatively would God invite and encourage that individual to “freely” deviate from the path of unfreedom towards truer freedom? And would this not involve multiple, temporal paths of deviation? And if God is interacting providentially with creation at all in this way, would it not involve a certain kenosis, a limiting of his infinitude by making Himself somehow correlative with time, an “interaction” between time and eternity – Is this not what happens in the incarnation? Sorry if my questions are confusing, but I’m confused!

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  3. I guess, in other words, I’m wondering whether God’s “see-ing” the entire span of my life, without influencing it, ultimately amounts to a kind of determinism by absence. And if God does indeed influence the paths of our future, then doesn’t this implicate him in time, indeed in a kenotic, correlative fashion?

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      I find it all confusing, too, Caleb! 🙂

      The purpose of my article is quite limited–viz., to offer a brief response to the argument presented in Boyd’s blog and to point out that his argument does not touch the God as conceived by Christian classical theism. I do not know who Boyd’s evangelical opponents are, but their views should not be identified with the views of, say, St Augustine or St Thomas Aquinas. Given my article’s limited purpose and scope, I am not surprised that you find it unsatisfactory. I would too! I do too!

      You may find of interest an article I wrote a few months ago: “The God of Open Theism Meets the God of Radical Transcendence.”

      Your comments seem to suggest that you believe that the classical view entails that God is not involved with history but stands at a distance from it. But that would be the deity of deism, not the God of the Fathers. Precisely as the divine Creator who sustains reality in being at every moment, he is intimately involved with everything! See my articles “Double Agency” and the two subsequent articles in that series. I do not pretend to present a solution in that series, as I do not believe that the relationship between transcendent Creator and his finite creatures is susceptible to any such solution. We cannot step outside the Creator/creature relationship and view it “objectively.”

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      • Thanks for your response Fr. Kimel! I acknowledge the ad hoc nature of your post vis-a-vis Boyd; I just found the apparent ramifications a bit disturbing. I’ll be sure to read through the past articles which you’ve recommended. Like the Fathers, I too would want to affirm that God is intimately and intricately involved in sustaining and influencing His Creation, while, at the same time, affirming his ultimate transcendence. I agree with Mina’s construal (below) of God as “a mystery who is both transcendent and immanent.” Though I agree that we can never access God “objectively” I do wonder whether there is a way to satisfactorily rectify, or at least elucidate, this antinomy that moves beyond the apophatic. I think Mina hinted at some speculative avenues that could be explored on this front in terms of a “simultaneous” kenosis and pleroma of the Trinity. I would maybe want to think of God as seeing (from His eternal vantage point) a vast multitude of temporal pathway(s) accessible to mankind, rather than one pathway per person, (as seems to be implied by Augustine?) and actively (co-temporally with man) weaving man’s freely-determined threads together toward a determined end on the loom of eternity. I’m lifting some of this from Sergius Bulgakov who seems to affirm both the inevitable and singular realization of God’s plan for creation, and the multiplicity of pathways available to man.

        Cheers,

        Caleb

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  4. Mina says:

    Caleb, I like your question, because it is precisely that which many theists seem to wrestle with. I think too Boyd asks the wrong question, and I tend to agree with classical theism. Nonetheless, I did hear from some theologians that God who is beyond space and time can choose to be interact fully within space and time. He may “choose” to fully dwell in one infinitesimal space and time and yet still exist beyond it. We all agree that when giving us freedoms, God does freely limit His own powers. He does not lose omnipotence, but He also empties Himself in order that we may freely choose Him. That is the epitome of a loving God it seems to me, a God who is truly “self-sacrificial”. So perhaps the Kenosis of God can be further explored on this front. If God was not able to be kenotic, He would not be able to be incarnate, which is what Muslims contend to believe. The argument here is if God cannot interact with us fully, how can we say He created us, or furthermore even communicate with us? Sounds somewhat deist if we think of God in merely “omni” terms. He is a mystery who is both transcendent and immanent.

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    • Mina, thanks for your response. I appreciate the beautiful way in which you’ve illustrated what’s at stake in the relationship between God and the world. I’m very interested in exploring the dynamics of God’s providential interaction with creation and will be wrestling with some of these questions in an upcoming MA thesis involving Sergius Bulgakov and Fyodor Dostoevsky. From what I’ve read so far, it would seem that both of them would agree with those “theologians” you mentioned. Bulgakov enigmatically talks about God’s relationship with the world as “inseparable and inconfusable” (as per the Chalcedonian Christological dogma).

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  5. tgbelt says:

    Swamped right now. But after the weekend I’d like to chime in!

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  6. tgbelt says:

    There are many side alleys here down which to the chase important questions. None are simple.

    @Newenglandsun. Not sure how you’re using the term “settled,” but with Molinism the future is very much entirely settled. Once God providentially selects from his ‘middle knowledge’ those would-counterfactuals of creaturely freedom which he wishes to actualize via creation, the future of the world God in fact creates is entirely settled (settled in the sense that the truth about precisely how the future will unfold is fixed and unchanging, i.e., settled).

    Boyd does disagree with several aspects of the classical view, particularly God as ‘actus purus’ and whatever is entailed in that, but he doesn’t think it’s all bogus (he agrees with creation ex nihilo, trinity, incarnation).

    @Caleb. I think a big part of the discussion here turns on what sort of creation we believe we live in. As complex an issue as is the question of ‘time’, a lot depends upon the basic choice between two basic options. Do we live in a world of real temporal becoming (i.e., presentism) in which the ‘present’ is the only time at which anything exists (in which the past is no more and the future is not yet), OR do we live in a (sometimes named) ‘block universe’ (or ‘eternalism’) in which past, present and future all equally exist or are equally real and our experience of every particular ‘now’ is purely subjective.

    If the latter view is the way the world is, then open theism is obviously false, for while we are limited to experiencing particular slices of the timeline, God takes in the entirety of it in its actuality and is present to it all. But unpleasant things would (arguably) follow from such a cosmology; namely, Creation would amount to God bringing the entire ‘block’ (the entire timeline in all its actuality) into being, which (arguably) means divine determinism follows, for creatures wouldn’t really ‘cause’ the effects of their choices (in morally responsible ways) since those effects co-exist with the choices that supposedly produce them. This view is analogous to a filmstrip in which all the frames coexist as equally actual but we only experience it a frame at a time. If this is analogous to our world, then I’d (as an open theist) agree—God is ‘outside’ such frame-by-frame constraints and he takes it all in in a single eternal ‘now’.

    With the previous view of time, however, the distinction between past, present and future is objective. The only reality is present reality. The past doesn’t exist in some dimension of block-time inaccessible to our present. Likewise the future—it doesn’t exist ‘out there somewhere’ on a timeline already ‘actual’ to God but inaccessible to us presently. The past exists in its effects in the present, and the future exists only in the causal tendencies of the present.

    While I agree that our truest form of freedom is the final, glorified form of our fulfilled natures in the eschaton, that doesn’t falsify the free exercise of our wills required of us as part of what it means to responsible move toward that end. The Fathers use the term in precisely the sense libertarians mean it—not freedom from all constraint or contextual boundaries, but freedom (or the capacity or power) to responsibly determine ourselves within the given constraints of our not-yet-perfected-natures. I think everybody understands precisely what is meant by freedom here…(continued)

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    • tgbelt says:

      (…continued) That brings us to a few important questions/issues:

      1) Can we be free in this sense if we live in a block universe? I don’t believe so. We can be ‘compatibilistically’ free in the sense (which I think Fr Aidan means) that we are never forced against our will to choose, that we choose in accordance with what we desire. But this is all beside the point if in fact what we desire is either determined along with everything else, or we live in a block universe in which desire, will, choice and effects all constitute one single effect of God’s creative fiat.

      2) If ‘presentism’ is true and we are free in the non-compatibilist sense (i.e., the above ‘self-determining’ sense), then what might this imply about the ‘truth’ regarding creation’s past, present and future? This is where open theists (and Molinists like Craig by the way) are spot on in my view. If the future doesn’t exist ‘out there’ in some dimension of time, it simply doesn’t exist. And it wouldn’t follow from God’s transcendence of creation that it would exist to him as if the block universe were in fact the case.

      3) Can what Orthodoxy seeks to protect about God’s self-existence and the distinction between created and uncreated being be maintained without ‘actus purus’? I think so. This means God knows the world in its temporal becoming while being transcendent of it, but the transcendence doesn’t automatically mean God knows a world of temporal becoming in block-universe fashion.

      4) There’s a real problem with providence if in fact creation’s past, present and future all exist to God in a single, indivisible eternal ‘now’. The problem is that each created ‘now’ is already the result of whatever God has done to bring it about or prevent it. So any ‘timeless now’ would be providentially useless to God. If the Orthodox agree we’re free (in the non-Calvinist sense) and that God is present in our free becoming—but also possesses the entirety of the script ‘outside of time’—then I’ll suggest that (a) such a script is providentially useless, i.e., there’s nothing a God who possesses such timeless knowledge can do which a God who does not possess such knowledge cannot also do, and (b) such timeless knowledge is just pre-recorded open theism. Orthodoxy agrees we’re free and responsible in all the ways open theists affirm, that we’re responsible for the effects of our choices, that the options and alternative we deliberate are genuine possibilities—but it’s all eternally/timelessly known to God. That’s just pre-recorded open theism (in a sense, because it’s not ‘pre’-recorded but timelessly recorded, which just means its providentially useless to God.

      There is one very interesting patristic attempt to demonstrate the providential use of God’s (fore)knowledge (or timeless knowledge) of the world. It comes from Gregory of Nyssa. His On Infants’ Early Deaths (http://anopenorthodoxy.wordpress.com/2013/06/25/on-infants-early-deaths/) is a short essay written to address this very question. See what you think. To me it’s an impossible understanding of the providential use of (fore)knowledge.

      Tom

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      • tgbelt says:

        All this means, of course, that for the open theist God’s experience of the world is temporal (given the irreducibly temporal nature of the world). There are important ways an open theists can qualify God’s relationship to time (God does not come into being, does not age, does not derive his being temporally from some source or ground outside himself as created beings do, and other important ways an open theist ought to say that time ‘flows from God’), but God does has changing states of mind (in knowing the world’s changing states).

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  7. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    Thanks, Tom, for jumping in (I knew you could not resist). But you haven’t commented on Boyd’s article to which I responded. Does my criticism of his argument obtain? We are off to Maryland within the hour to meet our new (rescue) Collie, so I can’t say anything more at the moment.

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    • tgbelt says:

      Thanks Fr Aidan,

      I thought I had addressed that, but I’ll try again. Greg’s view (viz., open theism) is only true if God’s experience of the world is temporal. If that’s granted, and if presentism is true, Greg’s point is that open theism follows: God has changing states of mind in the sense that his knowledge of the world’s changing reality (its ‘becoming’) changes as the world changes. His knowledge is co-terminous (concurrent with) the truth of the world. And if the world’s ‘becoming’ proceeds (partly) along an indeterminate (branching) path, then the truth about the future in this respect is expressed as ‘might/might not this’ or ‘might/might not that’. This is the truth an omniscient God would know.

      Your objection to this, if I’m tracking, is the ‘eternal now’ argument which states that God’s knowledge of the world is UNLIKE the world that is known. The world ‘becomes’ this or that way and so it becomes true that this or that occurs in the world. But the ‘eternal now’ position is that the truth about this is all available to God ‘outside time’ which means outside the very context in which it becomes true that this or that occurs in the world (since the world is irreducibly temporal). The entire ‘eternal now’ argument turns on this, but the logic of it escapes open theists (and others). If the world is irreducibly temporal, and if the truth about the world is grounded in (or supervenes upon) the way the worth is, then the truth about the world is as irreducibly temporal as the world is. How would this truth be timelessly/eternally available to God ‘outside time’?

      You suppose that “underlying all of this [Greg’s view], is the unstated fear that if God does foreknow the future as actuality, then we are trapped in a fatalistic, deterministic universe.”

      Right. It certainly seems to follow that if the ‘truth’ about all my choices is timelessly/eternal and my actually making those decisions is not timeless/eternal, then “I” am not the one determining the truth about my choices (since I’m not timeless or eternal).

      Your point is that “real classical theists begin with the premise that the eternal God is the creator of time and therefore transcendently exists outside of time: hence it does not make sense to speak of God as foreknowing the future, as if he exists within the world as a finite temporal agent.”

      But this (for open theists) doesn’t explain what needs explain. It describes a version of the problem. If God is not a temporal agent, and his knowledge of the world isn’t temporal knowledge, and if the world is irreducible temporal, then (here’s the problem…) the ‘truth about the world’ follows or tracks the temporal world whose truth it is. Supposing God is outside of time creates (as opposed to solves) the problem of how God knows the temporal truth of a temporal world. How would ‘being timeless’ mean God is (simultaneously—but not temporally so) present to all created actualities in their (temporal) actuality IF presentism is true? Granted, if ‘eternalism’ is true, then God would be fully present to all temporal locations along the created ‘block’ which is our entire universe. But if presentism is true, there is no block and being ‘outside’ of time wouldn’t place you at all temporal points in the timeline of the created order—there is no timeline.

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      • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

        Thanks, Tom, for the interpretation of Boyd’s position, but first I need you to go back and read carefully Boyd’s short article. In this piece I do not think he is making the argument that you assume he is making. Your problem is that you have read Boyd too well and too exhaustively. 🙂 I, on the other hand, am not hampered by having read the Boyd corpus. My ignorance is my glory! 😉

        I think you will note that the burden of Boyd’s argument lies on the claim that the future is exhaustively settled, thus entailing the second claim that God foreknows the future, with all of its predestinarian implications. I think Boyd interprets his (classical theist?) opponents as offering the following argument:

        1) The future is exhaustively settled.
        2) God foreknows the future.
        3) Therefore, anyone who denies divine foreknowledge limits God.

        In my blog I simply point out (perhaps not very well) that classical classical-theists probably would not advance this kind of argument because their understanding of relationship between God and history compels them to deny the “fore-” in divine foreknowledge.

        Personally, I am not invested in any particular philosophical construal of the relationship between God and the world, at least beyond the creatio ex nihilo and the creatio continua. If philosophers accept both, then I am content to allow them to argue to their heart’s content.

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        • tgbelt says:

          Fr Aian: I think you will note that the burden of Boyd’s argument lies on the claim that the future is exhaustively settled, thus entailing the second claim that God foreknows the future, with all of its predestinarian implications.

          Tom: Something’s being “settled” can be a bit ambiguous, but I’m pretty sure that when Greg there speaks of the future’s “being exhaustively settled” he means “the truth” about the future is exhaustively settled. “How” it’s settled (whether by Calvin’s divine decree or by virtue of timeless knowledge) is beside the point. When he speaks of “classical” theism he’s referring to the broadly traditional belief (chiefly in terms of viewing God as ‘actus purus’) that the truth about the how creation’s possibilities actualize is exhaustively settled. This is just another way to say God foreknows the future.

          Agreed though; as an incompatibilist Greg agrees that such knowledge is incompatible with our being free (for the reasons I tried to describe in my last post). It’s not that Greg thinks everyone who affirms ‘exhaustively definition foreknowledge’ is a ‘fatalist’ in the formal sense. Greg knows the Orthodox and Arminians both deny fatalist explanations and affirm self-determining freedom (in a qualified libertarian sense). But for Greg all versions within this broadly traditional view affirm EDF (exhaustively definite foreknowledge), and that implicates them fatalist commitments (whether intentional or not).

          Typically, Arminians affirm the same self-determining free will as do the Orthodox, along with God’s timeless knowledge of creation, and they (Arminians and the Orthodox) agree with you that strictly speaking God’s knowledge isn’t fore-knowledge at all (ala the divine ‘eternal now’). Greg’s not unaware of this, but for him it’s all equally ‘classical’ in the sense that it affirms the eternal and unchanging (‘exhaustively settled’) nature of God’s knowledge. Whether by virtue of an unconditional decree (Calvinism) or by virtue of timeless/eternal knowledge (traditional Arminianism or Orthodoxy), God’s knowledge of all creaturely occurrence is ‘exhaustively settled’. The way he’d object to this in conversation with a Calvinist vs a proponent of timeless knowledge is different, sure. But both are equally incompatible (as he sees it) with our being free.

          Fr. Aidan: Personally, I am not invested in any particular philosophical construal of the relationship between God and the world, at least beyond the creatio ex nihilo and the creatio continua. If philosophers accept both, then I am content to allow them to argue to their heart’s content.

          Tom: Save me a Marduro for when I visit VA!

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