A Mormon Defends Open Theism

The entire article is good and worth a read. There seems to be issues with rendering some text (e.g. ‘ is rendered as â€), which need to be ignored, but the writing is solid. Some excerpts:

Framing the Debate

It is no secret that Open Theists read scriptures with different operative principles of interpretation than those who maintain classical theology. Open theists generally argue that scriptural passages demonstrate that God changes his mind, relents, repents or feels sorrow for things that have occurred. If they are correct, then at least to the extent such scripture is regarded as disclosing what is true of God, then God cannot be, as classical theists maintain: (1) immutable in the strong sense that none of God’s intrinsic properties is subject to change; (2) impassible in the sense that nothing outside of God influences him or otherwise has no feelings comparable to human feelings; (3) timeless in the sense that God is outside of any type of temporal succession; (4) prescient in the sense that God has infallible foreknowledge.

Those who oppose Open Theism argue that the “literal” readings of scripture by Open Theists ignore more general statements about God elsewhere in the Bible; fail to recognize that God adapts himself “anthropomorphically” to speak to mere mortals and that from the divine point of view things look very different than from this view adapted to human weaknesses. We question whether this type of critique of open theists can be coherently maintained. Indeed, it seems that those who critique open theists readings makes several hermeneutical assumptions that are not merely foreign to the text itself, but which assume a view of human knowledge that is both arrogant and impossible from the human stance.

Exegesis of Exodus 32

There are several key points to be made about this text. God clearly declares that he intends to destroy the Israelites who had made the golden calf and to fulfill his promises by raising up a holy people through the lineage of Moses’ descendants alone. Moses, however, contends with God. Moses “begged” God to both “turn” (bwX) his wrath and “repent” (mhn) of his purpose to destroy Israel. (v. 12) The verbs here show that Moses expected God to change what he had declared he would do. He expected God to change his mind. The Hebrew verb nacham means not merely to change, but its primary meaning is to feel sorrow or regret for what one does. Its primary meaning is emotive. It refers to the emotional tone of one’s feelings about one’s own actions. The Hebrew shuv means to turn around, to turn from, to change one’s course or direction. Moses then asks God to remember (rkz) the covenant he has made to raise seed from them as numerous as the stars. God then “repents” (KJV) or “relents” (NAB) or “changes his mind about the disaster he had planned to bring to his people.” (NRSV). While Moses believes that God’s intentions and declarations can be turned away and changed, he believes that there is something that must remain constant: God’s commitment to his covenant promises. Thus, Moses argues with God based upon the unchanging commitment to his covenant with Abraham to make of him a great nation. What is unchanging for Moses in this narrative is not God; but God’s purposes and promises.

On Reading the Bible

The most obvious problem with such a view is that there is no principled basis for distinguishing non-literal or metaphoric readings from those that should be taken as literal. All language is “anthropomorphic” in the sense that it is the tool we use to express, refer and communicate. So all and any language is to some extent “anthropomorphic” or irredeemably limited by our own epistemic horizons and linguistic usages and practices. We cannot escape our own skin. Yet limiting the scripture by denying any conclusion that could be drawn that is not expressed in the very quoting of scripture itself without any grasp of what is asserted makes reading scripture rather pointless. We can read the words, but not grasp or understand in any way what is being said by those words. Thus, all language is metaphoric since the sign is not what is pointed to by the sign or words used. To that extent, this objection is over-broad. Moreover, it would rule out the possibility not only of the deductive conclusions of open theists but also certainly the classical view which is, if anything, even more far removed from the scriptural language.

Moreover, there is no rule or set of criteria provided in the scripture itself to discern whether something should be taken literally or merely metaphorically. When the scripture straightforwardly asserts that Moses saw God and spoke with him face to face, or that God has the form of the appearance of a human as Ezekiel asserted, the traditional views have uniformly asserted that a prior commitment to God’s immaterial nature rules out taking such statements as descriptions of what God is really like. Mormons take these passages literally as statements revealing God’s likeness and image. When the scriptures rather straightforwardly state that God changed his mind, repented or relented, how do we decide that these are not actually statements describing what God actually did instead of some metaphor to human experience to allow us to grasp some bare notion of what God actually did? We suggest that arguments that such passages should be taken metaphorically and not as assertions stating what God actually did are driven by prior theological commitments and not the text. In fact, there is nothing in these texts suggesting merely a metaphorical reading. The explanation that the language is merely metaphorical is thus a conclusion not based on the text from outside the text based on prior commitments that conflict with the text. Yet how could our views of God ever be informed by the text if we read the text in this manner? Such a way of approaching the text is presumptuous because it assumes that we already know more than the text and can correct the text based upon extra-textual theological commitment or linguistic practices.

On Jonah and Exodus 32

Piper applies this reasoning to the text in Jonah and suggests that God’s unconditional declaration that Ninevah would be overthrown was in reality based on a condition of repentance “that if the Ninevites meet, they will be spared.” So Jonah 3:4 should be read with the implicit condition, which if made explicit would say: “Yet forty days and Ninevah will be overthrown unless you repent.” The people of Ninevah repented, so God was not mistaken and the prophecy by Jonah was accurate because, Piper claims, all such prophecies of threat of destruction must be understood to contain such a conditional clause as suggested by Jeremiah 18:7-10. Yet it seems fairly clear that there is in reality no change in God’s intentions as Piper claims. All along God knew that Ninevah would repent and all along he intended that Jonah’s prophecy would be the catalyst to bring about that repentance. God intended to relent when Ninevah repented all along. However, it also follows that what Jonah declared was neither true nor an accurate reflection of God’s intention. Ninevah was not overthrown in forty days, as Jonah declared it would be. Nor did God ever intend that it would be; rather, he intended and knew that Ninevah would repent and that Ninevah would not be destroyed.

Piper’s strategy doesn’t do justice to the text. There is no such conditional stated in the text of Jonah 3:4. What Jonah asserted did not come to pass. However, barring arguments of the uselessness of simple foreknowledge or the circularity arguments against middle knowledge, given the text alone as a guide it is at least possible that God intended the people to repent and knew that his threat through Jonah would bring it about. Perhaps the Israelites had such an implicit understanding as suggested by Jeremiah. The absolute prophecy of destruction of Ninevah may then be read as a conditional because all prophecies are conditional. Even if God knows the future, it may be the case that God knows of the repentance which his prophecy brings about.

However, this strategy fails miserably in the context of Exodus 32. If we alter Exodus 32:10 along the lines suggested by Piper, it reads as follows with implicit assertions made explicit: “Now therefore leave me alone, that my wrath may burn hot against them, and that I may consume them; and I will make of you a great nation unless they repent — and I know that they won’t repent.” There is a problem with Piper’s suggested strategy, however. The Israelites did not repent and if God knew the future, then God knew they wouldn’t repent. However, God changes his intentions anyway. So God’s change of intentions cannot be explained by Israel’s repentance. God’s change of intentions was not occasioned by the repentance of Israel, but by Moses’s steadfast stand for his people and willingness to ask God to relent what he had declared. So the actual change is not about repentance but about Moses’s argument. So Exodus 32:10 must be changed as follows: “Now therefore leave me alone [even though I know that you will not leave me alone but argue against what I am now suggesting], that my wrath may burn hot against them, and that I may consume them; and I will make of you a great nation unless you argue with me to not do so – as you are now doing and I know that I will not do what I am now saying I will.” The problem with amending Exodus 32 along the lines suggested by Piper is that it results in not merely non-sense, but in God flatly contradicting what he declares his intentions to be. It also results in the dialogue becoming disgenuine and contrived.

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