In recent years there has been a theological debate that has arisen in evangelicalism centered around the idea of an “open” view of God, termed “Open Theism” as opposed to Traditional Theism. This “open” view puts forth the idea that portrays God as someone that created a world in which man has libertarian freedom to decide his own future, thus making it impossible for God to have as traditional theist believe “perfect, exhaustive foreknowledge”, that is that God knows all that has been, is and will be -perfectly (This view of foreknowledge has been held throughout the history of the church and since the reformation era by both Calvinists and Arminians). Open Theists instead believe that God in his infinite wisdom knows all future possibilities.
Open Theism is attractive in the west especially because it is rational, it removes much of the awkwardness from the problem of evil, and it is extremely homo-centric in its focus. Rational theologians that promote this doctrine testify to a sense of relief with no longer feeling the need to defend how God can be good and sovereign and there still be so much evil and suffering in the world.
I will not take the time to go into depth on this warping of the orthodox, biblical doctrine of God. Nor will I take the time to discuss the myriad of problems that Open Theists create for themselves by adhering to this doctrine. One thing that is clear is that like most false teaching that has arisen, especially since the dawn of liberal rationalism and modernity, is that this doctrine is a fabrication meant to save Christianity from embarrassment.
The purpose I am writing this is try to put forth an biblically orthodox doctrinal and exegetical approach to passages of scripture which Open Theist use as proof texts for their theology. I will not take the time here to unpack every passage that they use but to lay out the doctrinal premise behind my approach to these passages and then exam one that is perhaps their most popular text.
The texts that prove the most profound to open theists are the ones that show God as “repenting”, “relenting”, “remembering”. We often find such language in the Bible and especially in the Old Testament. Open Theists believe that they can only take these passages at face value which would indicate that God changes his mind or that he is “open” about the future. They would use these passages to indicate that future is not determined by God’s promises and decrees but by whatever mankind, bestowed with libertarian freedom, chooses to do with it. In such passages that portray God as changing his mind they would say that since God can’t lie (Heb 6:18) that he must fully intend to do what he says and only changes his mind when the unfolding events change.
In regards to the passages that refer to God as “repenting”, “relenting”, or changing his mind, the argument between traditional theists and open theists has mainly centered on whether or not God is speaking in terms that can be taken literally or whether God is speaking in figurative, analogues, descriptive language referred to as the use of words as “anthropomorphisms”. Traditional theist argue that just as God, who is a Spirit, is often referred to in the Scriptures as “seeing”, “smelling”, “striking”, etc… that we must not always assume that when God refers to himself as “repenting” that we should take that to mean that he literally has regret over a decision he made, but rather is using human terms to express the very real posture of God in that situation.
This is not a bad argument, but in regards to passages referring to God as changing his mind or repenting I have found it not helpful to argue primarily on the basis of whether or not God is employing anthropomorphisms. For God in revealing himself to mankind via language is in a sense always using anthropomorphic language by which to speak to us. God in his dealings with us is always reaching down out of his self-sufficiency and speaking in certain terms that we can understand in order to teach us certain objective truths. The Scriptures are what we call special revelation. That is that they are the inerrant, words of God who by his Spirit moved men to write them down (II Tim 3:16. II Pt 2:20). The language that God uses is human language and thus God is perfectly communicating via the medium of imperfect language. The purpose of scripture is to convey to God’s people truth about himself using the medium of human language with all of its nuances and limitations.
With this then in mind when I come to a passage where God is employing human terms to convey truth I must not decide if God is speaking analogously or via anthropomorphisms, for it is clear that he is. In the end what I must do with that passage is decide why (to some degree) God chose to reveal himself in that way, at that time and in that specific circumstance.
The passage that we will look at today is Exodus 32. Moses has just come down the mountain from receiving the law to find that the people have proven unfaithful and turned to idolatry. God in the midst of seeing this says to Moses “I have seen this people, and behold it is a stiff-necked people. Now therefore, let me alone that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them, in order that I might make a great nation out of you.”
God doesn’t lie. Ever. And he never makes empty threats. But here we have an account of God declaring his intention to destroy the children of Israel and to start over with Moses. The problem isn’t so much there as it is with the fact that Moses proceeds to make an impassioned mediatorial plea on the behalf of the people and the result is that “the Lord relented from the disaster that he had spoken of bringing on the people”. Does this mean that God makes empty threats? No, for we have already seen that God can’t lie. Does this mean then that God changes his mind? If we believe the Scriptures then we must also say no (Mal 3:6, James 1:17). At this point it is not helpful for me to consider if God is speaking in anthropomorphisms or not, for we have already determined that he always is in some degree when communicating to man. I can be left scratching my head on why God did not come out and speak in a way, like he does often, that would easily uphold the truth of his immutability (unchangeableness). With this passage in this moment what I should do is decide what God is trying to teach me here. I must look at the problem that is presented by this passage and answer the question…
“How can God be unchanging and yet change his mind?”
The solution is not to sweep one part or the other under the rug but to come to a theological understanding of how we can believe both about God and then decide from that what the passage teaches us. For this we must take time to look at a biblical, theological undergirding for this passage and others like it.
Those from an evangelical upbringing would probably not doubt the idea of immutability (unchangeableness) as an attribute of God. But some if backed in a corner would not be sure perhaps why they believe that God doesn’t change. Let us look at the scriptures and name just a few examples: “God is not a man who lies, or a son of man who changes His mind”(Num 23:19). Here we see two things, an affirmation of the truth mentioned earlier that God cannot lie and also the truth is introduced that God doesn’t change his mind. “…the Eternal One of Israel does not lie or change His mind”(1 Sam 15:29). And also: “For I the Lord do not change; therefore you O children of Jacob, are not consumed (Mal 3:6).
Furthermore, those that can see the redemptive narrative in scripture can see that God is unchanging in His promises. His promise to Eve and the Serpent concerning the messianic seed of the woman (Gen 3:15), his promise to Abraham (Gen 12,15), his promise to regarding David’s royal line. “For all the promises of God find their yes in [Christ]”(II Cor 1:20). The whole scope of scripture then testifies to the fact that the God of the Bible is a God that does change.
God’s Eternal Decree & His Work In Time
In understanding this passage in Exodus 32, and all of God’s dealings with his creation, we must acknowledge that we see in the Scripture the evidences of God working in time, which he created, and working in eternity in which time exists. We refer to the sovereign work of God in eternity, which stretches from eternity past and into eternity future and which includes time, as the eternal decree of God.
The eternal decree of God is his unchanging and inscrutable purposes for which he created the universe. This is sometimes referred to as God’s will of decree. Nothing can stand in the way of it being fulfilled. Some examples in scripture would be that “The Lord has done what He planned; He has accomplished all of His decree, which He ordained in days of old. (Lam 2:17a) Also the Lord declares “I am God, and there is none like me, declaring the end from the beginning, and from ancient times things not yet done, saying “My counsel will stand I will fulfill all of my purpose…” I have spoken and will bring it to pass. I have purposes and I will do it” (Isaiah 46:9-11).
Yet this decree is for the most part hidden from man for “The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law.”(Deut 29:29)
So in God’s dealings directly with creation, in time in order to fulfill his decree, is through his law. This is sometimes referred to as God’s moral will and it extends beyond the mosaic law to all that God has revealed to man to be his will and demands for mankind.
Disobeying God’s revealed will for man is what we call sin. The first example we have of this in scripture was very simple and straightforward “The Lord commanded the man and said “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die”(Gen 2 16-17). Thus God introduced the way in which he would deal with creation in time, that is through a law which established a natural result for obedience and disobedience. We see this continued way of dealing with man throughout Scripture, especially in the Old Covenant. The formula is simple “Do this and live, do this and die.” This is the law that God established. Adam ate of that fruit and sin entered into the world. Thus the natural result of that sin was what God had established, death. “For the wages of sin is death….”(Rom 6:23) There are clear consequences to breaking God’s law and we see the those consequences often in a very stark way for those under the Law of Moses.
So we see that in eternity God decrees all that will exist and all that will be. Nothing can frustrate that work as he, according to his perfect wisdom, boundless power, and absolute authority, works all things to fulfill his will of decree. One of the ways he designed to do this was in his dealings with man whom he created in time in the midst of eternity which he also created (and is not bound to). He “declares the end from the beginning.”
In his sovereignty God is at work in time to bring about his eternal purposes. He gave the law as a tutor, with it rewards and promises of punishment, to teach his people about himself and to ultimately point them to Christ. Yet as we see throughout the history of God’s people, they persist in disobedience. We have learned that the natural result of disobedience is death and destruction. So how does the whole world keep from being swept away? It rightly could have been destroyed as a result of disobedience! So if God promises death and condemnation for disobedience, then how can he be unchanging if he relents from fulfilling his revealed purpose of destruction? Does he simply vacillate on his revealed will in order to bring about his eternal purpose of redemption? Does he patch things up and simply make it work until the time is complete? No!
When we see God relenting from carrying the sentence demanded by his law, he is doing so in keeping with his working in time. For in God’s judicial system there is another actor at play besides the judged and the guilty…
God, according to his decree, ordained that in his natural, judicial process that a mediator may step forward on behalf of the guilty party. In Genesis we see this with Abraham in the account of Sodom and Gomorrah. Every time that God declared his natural intention there was the possibility that a mediator could intercede in order to stay the pronouncement. In Ezekiel 22:30 God is about to pour out his wrath on the land for judgment for their wickedness and he declares “I searched for a man among them who would repair the wall and stand in the gap before Me on behalf of the land so that I might not destroy it, but I found no one.”There was no mediator and so the next verse goes on to tell us of the judgment that came to be. In Jeremiah 11, God forbid that Jeremiah even pray for the people on whom God pronounced judgment. So we see times when God ordains that a mediator stand in the gap and times when he does not raise up a mediator and continues with the judgment, even commanding that an attempt not be made to mediate!
The purpose of all of this is to point to the ultimate mediator “the one mediator between God and man, the man Christ Jesus” (I Tim 2:5). All mediators before Christ, foreshadowed Christ who is the only truly effectual mediator. For all mediators before Christ were meant, like the Levitical sacrifices, to point to Christ and to defer to Christ. For just as the blood of bulls and goats cannot take away sin, so also there is only one mediator who may truly mediate as the one who has passed through the veil. So when God relents of judgment that his law demands, he is in fact not relenting in the since that he is changing his mind or being a “sofety”, but is in fact showing us that the One Mediator bears the judgment instead. Christ, as the mediator, for all the church for all time, stood in the gap not as merely an intercessor, but as one who God necessarily transfers or imputes the guilt and thus the judgment to!
So we can see that through the role of a mediator, symbolic like the sacrifices under the Old Covenant, God does not relent in the sense that he does not carry out the justice that his law demands. But he does relent in the sense that his justice is postponed or imputed on Christ.
Therefore, God works in time without being at odds with his justice to bring about his eternal purposes in Christ.
So if the question is not really about whether or not God is speaking using anthropomorphisms or analogies, for in his verbal communication with man he really always is. And if God has revealed himself to us in His word so that we might know him. Then the question in regards to Exodus 32 that we must ask is since God revealed himself this way, at this time, and in these circumstances, what is he telling us?
We have already seen that under the law the result of disobedience is death and destruction. Thus the natural result of Israel’s idolatry in this instance was that God would destroy them and start over if it pleased him to do so. For God to declare what he is going to do then is simply him stating what his moral will dictates must be done as a “cause and effect” action of Israel going against his revealed will for them. However, God in his decree ordained that in his natural, judicial process that a mediator may come forward, thus foreshadowing Christ, and stand in the gap and make intercession. So God states to Moses what is the expected result of Israel breaking his law (this is his moral will) yet God ordains that Moses be moved to make intercession in order that the wrath be stayed or rather deferred. Thus the purpose of this anthropomorphism portraying God in this way and in this situation is to display in a very human way what the natural result is of going against God’s moral will or law; God is angry and he must destroy you unless someone stands in the gap. In this then we find not a weak, vacillating God who bends to the whims of man, but the God of the Gospel who truly intends that we be damned, who is angry at us in our sin, and yet in his decree he put forth Christ to be that mediator and to take for himself God’s wrath so that the obvious and natural reaction of us rebelling against God’s moral will (destruction) be stayed, in our case via penal substitution.
Christ, once and for all stood in the gap for his people, but God does not lie or change. It is because of God’s immutability in this case that Christ has to die his substitutionary death. God declared from the beginning that the natural result of disobedience be death and God cannot change, so Christ died for those for whom he stood in mediation in order that God could “repent” or “relent” from his very real intent to destroy us, yet remain unchanging!
Anywhere in Scripture where we see God portrayed in very human and moveable ways we must exegete the passage by considering why the immutable God portrayed himself as changing, repenting, and remembering. We know he is unchanging and works all things according to the counsel of his will not just because the Word says so but because the narrative of Scripture is a monument to his absolute sovereignty and immutability. If we do not realize this need for cross-centered exegesis of all of Scripture then in the “openness” debate we will be left with merely firing independent passages in the Old Testament back and forth, arguing over which of these anthropomorphisms are analogues and which are an actual depiction of God’s nature.
We also must remember that God is at work in time but that he is also eternal and not bound by space and time. Therefore, though he deals linearly with us in a way that allows our finite, time-bound minds to see the narrative of his work of redeeming a people for his own glory, we must not forgot that he is at work in a non-linear, eternal setting to bring about the counsel of his will. In time God has given us his word, his law, his revealed purposes and will for his people. We should not from that try to speculate too much or make God too simple. But realizing that God’s word is his revelation to us we should seek to find what God is saying to his church, in our time in the history that God has made. All the way remembering that “The hidden things belong to the Lord our God, but the revealed things belong to us and our children forever, so that we may follow all the words of this law” Deut 29:29
Now, let us praise our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ. He is our mediator. He is our sacrifice. He is God’s ultimate revelation of himself to his people. Fully God, he became also fully man. He walked like a man, talked, laughed, cried. Displayed all the emotions that a man displays. Yet he was the “exact imprint of [God’s] nature“(Heb 1:3). He was and is and ever will be “the same yesterday, today, and forever”(Heb 13:8). The God who does not change.