California pastor TC Robinson burst on to the blogging scene a few months ago with his blog New Leaven. (I assume he is male, and not a woman using initials rather than a first name to disguise her gender, because he admits to a wife and two kids, but that doesn’t necessarily mean much these days in California!) This is one of the most prolific blogs I read with an average of more than four posts a day. It is also one of the most consistently interesting and thought-provoking, as TC consistently finds subjects which are both serious and entertaining and very often lead to long comment thread discussions. I disagree with TC on a number of issues, but it is always good to discuss them with him and others on his blog.
When I call him TC I can’t help remembering the Top Cat cartoons of my childhood, in which the hero was known as TC. But I don’t recognise Pastor Robinson as the leader of the bloggers’ gang!
Among TC’s posts recently have been several on Open Theism, which is basically the idea that God does not predetermine the future or even know it in advance. So far he has written ten posts in this category. It was partly in response to one of these posts that I wrote my post God the Blogger, to which TC responded.
Meanwhile Jeremy Pierce has reactivated his extremely long running Theories of Knowledge and Reality series, which touches on the same kinds of question. He has also posted an interesting essay on Prophecy in Harry Potter (see also the comments on this one); now I am not much interested in Harry Potter, but in this post issues also come up of whether even God can prophesy reliably about the future.
Open Theism has been rejected by many evangelical Christians, such as Wayne Grudem, because of its apparent implication that not even God knows the future. If not, they argue, how can God fulfil his purposes, and inspire accurate prophecies about what will happen? Surely, these people argue, the future is predetermined by God. This is in effect the position of Calvinists, who believe that God has predetermined who will be saved, if not necessarily every detail of the future. Yet it is difficult to see how this kind of determinism allows for any kind of human free will. But the Bible seems to affirm that humans do have free will, as for example in Psalm 32:9, and as such are responsible for their actions.
A related question is whether Christian prayer can make a real difference to the future. Some may hold that the real function of prayer is to bring us closer to God – and that people should not ask for anything specific, even for God to provide for others’ genuine needs. However, Jesus, especially in Matthew 7:7-11, seems to present prayer as a real process of making specific requests and seeing them fulfilled. But how can this be if God has already fixed the future before we pray?
Now there are very many complex arguments here, into which Jeremy goes in depth, and this is not the place to repeat them. One possible answer is provided by “compatibilism”, which is basically the idea that there are two separate but compatible descriptions of the world, one from our viewpoint in which human decisions are free, and another divine one according to which God has predetermined everything. I can also recommend here a rather heavy book which I have only skimmed but would like to read in more detail: Providence and Prayer by Terrance Tiessen.
I will simply state here where I think I stand at the moment. I’m not sure it is where I will always stand – at least that part of the future is open, or in God’s hands. But this is my present position:
I believe that God is sovereign over everything and quite capable of determining everything that will ever happen within the universe he created. He is eternal and outside this universe, and not subject to anything within it.
I believe that God has freely chosen to allow a real openness about the future of the universe. This is because he has delegated many of the decisions about its future to intelligent created beings, both spiritual ones, i.e. angels, and humans. This delegation of authority was intended to be for his own glory. But for reasons which I do not presume to understand in detail some of these created beings chose to reject God’s good purposes and use their delegated rights to make decisions against God. God could have simply taken away their right to decide, but for reasons hinted at in Psalm 32:9 he chose not to.
Nevertheless God is not bound by the universe or by time and therefore he can see into the future. He knows what will happen. He generally chooses not to intervene to overturn the consequences of human bad decisions, that is, human sin. However, he knows his own long term purposes for his creation as a whole and for particular individuals and groups in it. So he works in generally subtle ways within his creation to bring about his purposes. This may include calling particular people to particular works; but if they refuse to take up their calling, or mess it up, God finds other ways to fulfil his purposes.
Among the privileges which God has granted to those people who are committed to living according to his will is that he has promised to answer their prayers, to give to them whatever they ask for (Matthew 7:7-8, John 14:14). He will indeed do this, in ways which do not conflict with the free will of others, although not always in quite the way his people expect. But if what they ask goes against his general purposes, he will not be pleased with the person asking and may choose to work through other people in future. However, those whose prayers are closely aligned with God’s will, because they know that will and truly want to see it done, will find that God is more than pleased to answer not just the basics of their prayers but to give them abundantly more than they ask. As they live and pray according to God’s purposes they will be able to do great things with him and for his glory.
This post has already turned into quite a long essay. So I will leave it there. I await comments!