Apologetics Thursday – William Birch’s Disingenuous Representation of Open Theism

w3gKBYwBy Christopher Fisher

On the 26th, William Birch posted on prayer in Open Theism using Psalms 139 as a prime prooftext against Open Theism. This post is particularly annoying, because I have personally had a conversation with Birch on Psalms 139 (a chapter that is here discussed in full).

The prior conversation seems not to have held in Birch’s mind, nor does it seem to have held on the internet either (as the thread disappeared abruptly and mysterious soon after he showed disapproval of my arguments). I am sure the reader can divine some thoughts on why it vanished. Needless to say, a blog post on GodisOpen is not quite as subject to the whims of people who might wish to misrepresent Open Theism.

As has been explained to Birch before, Psalms 139 just does not hold for the purposes in which he wishes to use the text.

Here is Birch:

When [Open Theists are] challenged by their opponents who quote the Psalmist, “Even before a word is on my tongue, O LORD, you know it completely” (Ps. 139:4), the Open Theist retreats into a defense that we are not permitted to use the Psalms for theological purposes. Evidently, then, the Psalms are not inspired by the Holy Spirit, are not truth as God understands the real world, but are merely benign poetic verses without any real meaning or any genuine connection to the reality of God.

This seems to be a very disingenuous representation of Open Theistic beliefs, even my own which I have communicated to Birch. The Open Theist claim is not that the passage should be discarded or discounted, nor is the Open Theist claim that this verse is not of any practical use for “theological purposes”. No Open Theist would claim that. Instead, this verse is just not useful for Birch’s particular prooftext. Likewise Psalms 139:4 would be a terrible prooftext for God having created the world (something the Bible affirms elsewhere). Likewise, Genesis 1:1 (which is about God creating the world) would be a terrible prooftext for omniscience. One cannot just grab random verses and claim they are about theology they do not depict (and then claim that any disagreement means someone wants to discard a verse for “theological purposes”).

The Psalms verse is just not about concept of omniscience, and drawing those types of conclusions is not warranted (and countered) by the text. Birch assumes that denying his prooftext as a prooftext is equivalent to denying that the verse is useful, a tenuous and ungracious jump in logic. There are several of these tenuous jumps of logic in Birch’s post, so bear with them.

My specific claims about Psalms 139:4 verse are as follows (other Open Theists have other valid objections that fit their own theologies):

1. This verse may not be generally applicable (the fallacy of hasty generalization if Birch assumes it is). Much like a lot of what King David writes, this is more likely contextually only directly applicable to King David. Does Birch assume he has the same type of relationship with God that King David did? I should hope not. Does Birch think all of King David’s writing is applicable to all people on a 1-for-1, direct basis? I should hope not. We cannot just read other people’s mail as if it were for ourselves.
2. Even if this verse was worded to read how Birch claims it is worded, this verse may be hyperbolic (the fallacy of equivocation if Birch assumes his definitive meaning rather than possible others). Hyperboles are everywhere, leading people to not even noticing when they are used. As an example, the last sentence was a hyperbole (“everywhere”). Language is flexible, and we should do well to avoid claiming definitive meanings without strong contextual clues.
3. This verse appears to link God testing David to God knowing David’s words (as evident by verse 1), countering the claims Birch wishes to make about this verse. The direct context points against Birch’s claims.
4. Normal human communication allows people to make these types of statements about people they know (no omniscience necessary). Here is one Open Theist:

Even before there is a word on my tongue, Behold, my daughter knows it all. It’s uncanny. Almost like we have lived together so long she really knows me, who I am, and how I think. She will even say sometimes, ” I know what you are thinking.” And she is right.

Another point is that the entire context of the chapter is very clearly Open Theism. Here is my podcast covering the entire chapter of Psalms 139. God tests to know (found both in the first and the last verses of this very chapter!). King David does not believe in total omniscience of all future events:

Psa 139:1 To the choirmaster. A Psalm of David. O LORD, you have searched me and known me!

Psa 139:23 Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts!
Psa 139:24 And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting!

Throughout the Bible, the consistent claim is that God tests in order to learn about people. Two prime examples:

2Ch 32:31 … God left him to himself, in order to test him and to know all that was in his heart.

Deu 8:2 And you shall remember the whole way that the LORD your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, that he might humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep his commandments or not.

King David did not hold divergent theology from the rest of ancient Israel. King David believes God knows him because God tests him. The knowledge is mechanistic, not inherent! Psalms 139 is just not the prooftext Birch believes it is.

Fast forward to Birch’s second disingenuous (and frankly, inane) point:

Irrelevant, too, is the Psalmist’s conclusion: “You hem me in [like a fortress], behind and before, and lay your hand upon me. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is so high that I cannot attain it.” (Ps. 139:5, 6) Obviously, God cannot “hem me in, behind and before,” since such fortress-like activity requires God to foresee what danger lay ahead, lest this Fortress be caught off-guard, and incapable of “hemming me in, behind and before,” and, thus, protecting me; nor can the benign fiction of Psalm 139:4 be considered “knowledge … too wonderful for me,” since that knowledge is not a reality, but mere poetry signifying nothing.

Normal people can protect other people. There is even an entire profession of human beings called “bodyguards” who literally get paid to protect particular people. They do not do this through omniscience of all future events, but using their own human minds they understand possible and probable risks in order to set up likely defense strategies. They tend to be good at innovation and reading events as they unfold, using their limited perceptions to gather local knowledge in real time.

Yes. God is not weaker than humans, as Birch assumes. Birch holds the very low opinion of God that if God could not see the future like a movie then God would be incapable of very basic tasks. This is just nigh nonsense. Throughout the Bible we see God performing all sorts of amazing tasks, and when Israel believes God is incapable (a belief shared by Birch) the counter argument is always pointing to God’s innovation and power (e.g. “God could raise up children to Abraham from these stones”, “God led you out of Egypt with a mighty hand”).

Birch would do well to quote an actual Open Theist who states that God’s protection in this verse is “poetry signifying nothing.” It seems more likely that Birch has no interest in understanding what actual Open Theists believe, and thus misrepresents them. What Open Theist does not believe God protected David?

Note: King David was anointed by God and literally had conversations with God about the best way to stay safe (such as the incident at Keilah). This is God’s protection in action, protection that David could have shunned. The context of King David’s life does not warrant Birch’s assumptions about the type and extent of David’s protection. Birch would be extremely amiss to believe the same protections God gave to David apply to his own life. Maybe Birch can recount for us the time God spoke to him to warn him of an impending betrayal.

Birch concludes this section with this strange takeaway:

We insist that the portrait of God the Open Theist proffers exists in a perpetual state of being disadvantaged because God cannot, simply, foreknow the future in toto. Seemingly, God understands what events He is capable of bringing into fruition, but that philosophical notion requires that God assumes knowledge regarding a future that does not exist. Now, the Open Theist will argue that we can only maintain genuine free will if the future is not foreknown by God, since that future does not yet exist. However, the Open Theist will also insist that God can foreknow certain events in the future, the events which He will, by necessity, bring to fruition.

Again, Birch assumes God is more incompetent then humans. Normal humans have fairly accurate and widespread knowledge of the future. Just the other day I told an Arminian that I was going to bring my son to his hospital appointment at 9AM, and everything happened as predicted. This is not unusual. Normal people say things like “I know my wife would not like that” or “I know that price controls will cause shortages” or “I know that the football game will be on at 5PM”. In fact, there are complex betting markets on future events, which turn out to be a fairly accurate way to predict major events in the future. This is not even counting the near infinite knowledge of even minor future events that humans possess.

Knowledge of the future is ubiquitous among human beings, without which it would be impossible for us to function. We all operate making countless invisible, true predictions of the future. After all, my knowledge that the roads will not dematerialize as I am driving allows me to drive without fear of plummeting into the void. Birch assumes God is so incompetent that He cannot have similar knowledge of the future. Open Theists reject this claim, and instead portray God as uber-competent.

In order for Birch to maintain his assertions, he must adopt a standard of knowledge which is alien to human communication norms. His idea of “knowledge” seems rooted in the Platonic theory of forms which maintains that eternal truths exist in some sort of absolute realm, perfectly. And that God has access to this realm (the Intelligible). When Open Theists entertain this Platonic idea of what constitutes “knowledge”, we are giving up the farm. Instead, a better standard of knowledge seems to be one of Justified True Belief (or some sort of variation). This is more in line with what common people understand as knowledge.

When we engage in redefining words to engage in theological discussion, we may become prey to what is known as the “worst argument in the world” in which the moral valuation of concepts are transposed onto technical but obscure understandings of those concepts. This allows Birch to appeal to emotions rather than focusing on the text at hand. God becomes “disadvantaged” in Birch’s mind, a prime example of Birch engaging in fallacious Dignum Deo theology (a subset of the moralistic fallacy).

This post is not meant to counter Birch’s post in full (even a brief survey of prayer from Adam to Paul needs a more dedicated post). Instead this post is meant to cover Birch’s misrepresentation of Open Theism, and, frankly, a surprising lack of integrity shown by his recent behavior. Perhaps he will read this. Perhaps he will come to the realization that he cannot misrepresent other’s views unchecked. Perhaps he might even adopt normal reading comprehension as the best way in which to read the Bible. At the risk of sounding trite, perhaps Open Theists should pray for Mr. Birch. After all, the Biblical response is to pray for one’s detractors because the future is not yet set and they still may come to the knowledge of truth.

7 comments

  1. Awesome article but you got one thing wrong though. You said ” Just the other day I told a Calvinist that I was going to bring my son to his hospital appointment at 9AM.” Since I witnessed that conversation I know who you are referring too. He is not a Calvinist, he is an Arminian. :-)

    1. In fact if I were less mature I think I’d share this blog to his personal page hoping he’d realize you were referring to him when you said “Calvinist.” He would be absolutely horrified to know he was mistaken for one. LOL

Leave a Reply