God in the dock -challenges to his greatness and goodness

Here’s another article “out of the freezer” addressing questions about God changing and having emotions.

We can choose to believe either truth or lies about God. Earlier, we named the lies: that God is not good and/or God is not great/ sovereign. That if there is a God, then he must be either infinite and all powerful, but therefore distant, impersonal, disinterested or even cruel, but certainly not loving, good and kind; or good, loving and personal, but small, ineffective, unable to help.

In fact, some people choose to refuse both options. This is in effect the atheist’s choice.  God is neither good nor great, loving nor sovereign. In fact, there is no being in the Universe that meets that job description for “almighty God.”

Now, we have identified these beliefs as false. We’ve insisted that there is a God who is both good and great.  However, you could argue that all we have done is insist and state. We’ve not argued, refuted, proved our position. We’ve not taken on the arguments against us.  We’ve not done the apologetics.

So this is where we do that!

We are going to look at both challenges. First of all, we’re going to deal with the sovereignty question. We’re going to examine, challenge and respond to Open Theism. Then we’ll go on to look at the argument that God is not good. We’ll particularly be responding to the arguments of modern day atheism – most notably Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins.

You’ll realise at this point that apologetics is not just about responding to objections coming from completely outside of Christianity. Yes, it will involve conversations with atheists and people of other faiths, but it does also include defending a right understanding of who God is within the Christian community. Why is this? Well, error becomes riskier the more subtle it is; the more it looks like truth, the closer to home it gets. Billy Graham once talked about having just enough religion to inoculate you against the real thing. A misrepresentation of Christian belief can be just as deadly as an all-out attack on it.

So when we come to Open Theism, that is the problem.  It comes from within the Christian community. In fact, it comes from within evangelicalism. Its proponents come across as kind, generous of spirit, humble, well intentioned. I personally had the opportunity to correspond with Clark Pinnock via email. He seemed to me to be a very gracious man. There was I, a young Christian emailing a professor of theology, and he took the time to read my emails carefully, think about what I said, answer my questions, consider my objections, concede where he thought I had a point. I respected him for that. Reading the proponents of Open Theism, you can see that their motives are genuine. They want to defend God against the charge of cruelty. They have a pastoral care for those whose real experience of suffering puts up a barrier to belief. 

So as I examine and respond to Open Theism, my aim is to return the courtesy that Clark Pinnock showed me. However, we cannot run away from the problem. Good people with good motives can still go badly astray and that does not make the error any less toxic.

The Challenge of Open Theism

Let’s remind ourselves of what Open Theism is all about. Clark Pinnock explains the origins of the theory as follows:

“In order to bring out the truth of God’s rule over the world, the dynamic character of his nature and the openness of his loving relationships more effectively, myself and some colleagues offered the ‘openness of God’ model, so called because it was an appealing and unused term.  In it we portrayed God as a triune communion who seeks relationships of love with human beings, having bestowed upon them genuine freedom for this purpose. Love and freedom was our central concern because it was God’s desire for loving relationships which required freedom. In a controversial move, we also envisaged God making a world, the future of which was not yet completely settled, again to make room for the input of significant creatures.”[1]

So, as we have seen before, Open Theism starts with the premise that God’s essential characteristic trait is Love. Furthermore, it goes on to offer us a description of what love entails. Love is about the ability to enter freely into a relationship. Therefore, love requires freedom. If God is to genuinely be love, then he must allow us to be free.  If I am not able to make choices and decisions for myself, then I’m not really free.  This causes two problems.  First of all, it suggests that God coerces and controls me, which does not fit with Pinnock’s understanding of love. Secondly, it means that I am unable to exercise freedom and choose to love God back and yet this is what God wants. I cannot fulfil his creation purpose for me.

Pinnock goes on to outline four principle tenants of Open Theism:

“First God loves us and desires for us to enter into reciprocal relationships with him and with our fellow creatures. The divine intention in creating us was for us to experience the triune love and respond to it with love of our own.  In this, we would freely come to collaborate with God toward the achievement of God’s goals. Second, God has sovereignly decided to make some of his actions contingent on our requests and actions.  God establishes the project and elicits our collaboration in it.  Hence there is conditionality in God, in that he truly responds to what we do. Third, God chooses to exercise a general rather than a meticulous providence, allowing space for us to operate and for God to be resourceful in working with it. Fourth, God granted us the libertarian freedom necessary for personal relationships of love to develop. God freely enters into give and take relations with us which are genuine and which entail risk-taking on his part, because we are capable of letting God down.”[2]

So God has limited himself. He allows himself to be constrained by our actions and by an unknown future.  God is now in some way dependent upon his creation.

Now, in engaging with Open Theism, there are four key questions that we need to respond to. The first one is “What does it mean to describe God as “love?” Secondly, does God change? Thirdly, to what extent does or doesn’t God know the future? Fourthly, what type of freedom do human beings have?

Now, the third question “To what extent does God know about the future?” is something that arises out of our understanding of God as eternal and all knowing. If God is eternal and so transcends time and if he knows everything, then it follows from this that God will be able to see the future.  We will return to this part of the question a bit later on because there’s a further piece of the jigsaw to add. We need to think a little bit about what God does as well as who He is and so we will be going into a bit more detail about things like foreknowledge alongside the big questions of election and predestination.  Similarly, the type of freedom we have relates to those questions and so will be treated later.

So, at this stage, we want to focus on two aspects of the Open Theist challenge. First of all, we will revisit the question of God’s Love.  Have Open Theists got the definition right? Secondly, we will return to the question “Does God change” and subject it to a little more scrutiny.

What kind of love is this?

So what is the nature of God’s love? Remember four things at this stage. First of all, that Open Theists are not the only people to be emphasising love as God’s chief essential attribute. Rob Bell and Steve Chalke both make essentially the same move and in fact, as we saw earlier, Bell also equates love with freedom which is a key plank in his argument about hell.

Secondly, we have also argued that love is of great importance when talking about God. In fact, we have argued that this is the right starting point, not because it is God’s only or even dominant attribute, but because it is the best way in to understand God as personal and so to grasping what all the other attributes are about.

Thirdly, we have said that whilst love is important, it is not the only essential attribute. We have described God as simple which means that all of his attributes are essential. This also means that there is a strong connection, overlap even, between how we talk about the attributes. 

Fourthly, we have insisted that we must allow God to define love and not the other way round. God is love, but love is not God. This love is defined and demonstrated in terms of the relationship between the members of the Trinity and specifically with regards to his love for us demonstrated by the Father giving his Son as an atoning sacrifice for us.  This is important and helps us realise why the notion of God’s simplicity is so key. If God has one stand out characteristic, then that attribute becomes elevated so that, in a sense, God is subject to it. God must conform to a rule or principle outside of himself. As we saw when we looked at God’s goodness, this means that God is subservient to an abstract, impersonal principle. This is the very problem with Open Theism and its view of God’s love.  Because Open Theism makes love God’s essential attribute and not only that, goes on to define love specifically in terms of God’s freedom, this means that God’s ability to speak, act, even ‘to be’ in terms of his other attributes is constrained by “freedom.”

Notice please that it isn’t even “love” that holds the highest position in our hierarchy. It is freedom that has control. Freedom is sovereign. Freedom wins. Is it any coincidence that “Freedom” is one of the principle values that modern and post-modern Western society upholds?  I used to own a T-Shirt emblazoned with the motto “Live Free or die.” It was the motto of New Hampshire, but it’s really the motto of the Western world. In the film “Braveheart”, Mel Gibson’s William Wallace cries out “You may take away our lives, but you can never take away our freedom.”

Freedom has become a modern god.  But in fact, it is a far older god than that isn’t it? Our desire to be free goes back to the Garden of Eden. That’s what the temptation was all about. If Adam and Eve ate the fruit, they would be autonomous. They would not only know right from wrong, but have the freedom to choose independently from God’s Word.

But how important is freedom to love? Well, there are a couple of important things at stake here. First of all, when looking at human relationships, we want to emphasise that these should be free from coercion, manipulation and abuse. The principle of consent is an important safeguard against the sinful human tendency towards gaining things for selfish reasons by forceful means.

Secondly, freedom and consent are really to do with equality. It’s about me having the right to say “yes” or “no” to you because you do not have absolute power over me. If I can choose how I respond to you, then I am, at least in some respects, on a level with you.

Thirdly, freedom and consent are actually really important if I’m to know what someone’s will on a matter is. I cannot read minds and hearts. I can try to second guess, but a lot of the time, I’ll get it wrong.  I need you to tell me what is on your mind. I need you to make your will clear.

Now, immediately, we will realise that when talking about human-human relationships, the principle of free consent is pretty much vital. We don’t want to lose it. But the reason why freedom is important is not that it is part of the definition of love, but because it is important to human interactions. It is a safeguard made necessary because of our finiteness and falleness.

However, do these things necessarily apply to a Creator God who:

  1. Is by definition much greater than us
  2. Is completely good
  3. Knows all things, including our innermost thoughts so that he knows me better than I know myself?

But what really are the essential traits of love?  Let’s go back to what we’ve already learnt about love. First of all, if love is seen in the Trinity, then we can see that love is to do with faithful and exclusive intimacy. Why do I say that?

Well, first of all, there is an intimacy seen within the Godhead that enables John to tell us that “The Father and Son are one” and that “The Father is in the Son and the Son is in the Father.”  The members of the Trinity are of one will and they take pleasure and delight in each other.

Secondly, it is faithful. We see this in the way that the Son is obedient to the Father, even to death. We see it in the Father’s commitment to the Son that whatever and whoever He gives to him will not be lost.

Thirdly, it is exclusive. Now, this may be a little bit more implicit, but it can be seen in the distinction between the nature of the relationships within the Trinity and between the Trinity and us. Their relationship is not just about a social union (indeed I wonder when I read Pinnock’s quote again whether Open Theism gets this): rather it is a union based on the persons of the Trinity being of the same essence.  This exclusiveness can also be seen in the jealousy that each person has for the others’ honour and glory.

There’s a little side point here which is that these are the character traits that we also see in a healthy marriage.

Then when we turn to that other demonstration of God’s Love, the incarnation, we see what it means for God to love someone other than Himself.  Here love can be defined in terms of a concern for the other’s well-being resulting in willingness to give sacrificially of oneself for the benefit of another, regardless of whether or not they deserve it.

Now, at this point, I don’t see reciprocal freedom as essential to those descriptions. And why should it be?

Many years ago, our family were on holiday in Wales and on an outing to a viewing point where you could see puffins, I got dangerously close to the cliff edge. Without hesitation, my dad instinctively ran, grabbed me and pulled me back. He may well have put himself at risk of losing his balance and going over the edge. He certainly did not stop to ask me if I wanted pulling back. In fact, as a youngster, I probably had little sense of the danger and my first reaction was resentment at the indignity of it all.  But my dad’s priority wasn’t my free choice; it wasn’t even whether or not I would like him in return. His concern was for my wellbeing.  This concern overrode my need for independence. In the end, love trumped freedom.

And that’s the beauty of the gospel. We crave freedom, we desire autonomy. But God’s love trumps our freedom.  The Gospel saves us from ourselves. To be sure, we are set free from sin, death, slavery and our own selfishness, but we are set free from these things in order to serve the true and living God. We are not left to run free. We are brought home.

An unmoved mover: are we sure that God doesn’t change?

Earlier, we insisted that God does not and in fact cannot change. We said that this was an essential aspect of his sovereignty.  We argued that it was because God did not change that we could trust him to be faithful and dependable.

Not so, respond the Open Theists. God’s loving nature may not change and that’s what we depend upon, but God can change his mind, repent of previous choices and set out on another course of action.

What is more, they argue that when we come to the Bible, we find that this is exactly how God is portrayed. God repents and regrets making humankind (Genesis 6). He listens and responds to Abraham’s intercession for Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 18) and he listens to people of Nineveh when they cry out for mercy, reversing His decision proclaimed through Jonah that Nineveh would be destroyed.  In Jeremiah 18, we find God portrayed as a potter making a pot and then changing his mind and remoulding it in a different way.

According to theologians such as Clark Pinnock and John Sanders, the Bible presents God as someone who interacts with his creation, listens to their pleas, engages emotionally and so sometimes changes his mind. So if this is what the Bible says, how have we ended up with a different view of God? Well, Pinnock reckons that

“Traditional theology has been biased in the direction of transcendence as the result of undue philosophical influences. Greek thinking located the ultimate and perfect in the realm of the immutable and absolutely transcendent. This led early theologians (given that the Biblical God is also transcendent) to experiment with equating the God of revelation with the Greek ideal of deity.”[3]

In other words, we have seen something that is true about God (his transcendence) and thought that we have seen the same thing in ancient philosophy, when in fact it was something different. For the Greeks, the highest entity was impersonal, unknowable, without emotions. This first cause was “the unmoved mover” according to Aristotle.  So, claims Pinnock, we end up with a false doctrine about God that he does not change because he is completely independent from his creation and devoid of emotions. This is sometimes referred to as the Doctrine of Impassibility.  Pinnock comments:

“Impassibility is the most dubious of the divine attributes discussed in classical theism, because it suggests that God does not experience sorrow, sadness or pain. It appears to deny that God is touched by the feeling of our infirmities, despite what the bible eloquently says about his love and his sorrow. How can God be loving and not pained by evil? How can God be impassible when the incarnate Son experienced suffering and death?”[4]

Open Theists are adamant that this cannot be right. Surely, the whole point of the gospel is that God does suffer for us.  That’s what the incarnation and atonement are all about.

“God does not just imagine what it would be like to suffer, he actually suffers because of his decision to love. God has chosen to be open to the world and to share in its suffering because of his love.  God’s transcendence over the world does not prevent him from interacting with the world or from being affected by the world.”[5]

So is God impassible?

It’s worth noting as we start our response that Pinnock and Open Theists are not alone in having a problem with impassibility. John Frame notes that “With regard to divine emotions, we have seen that Scripture ascribes many attributes to God that are generally regarded as emotions.”[6] He even goes so far as to allow that in a sense, on the Cross, God suffered.

“But is there a sense in which God suffers injury or loss?  Certainly Jesus suffered injury and loss on the cross… Christ’s sufferings are the sufferings of God.  The Council of Chalcedon (451), which defined orthodox Christology said that Jesus has two complete natures, divine and human, united in one person. We may say that Jesus suffered and died on the cross ‘according to his human nature,’ but what suffered was not a ‘nature,’ but the person of Jesus. And the person of Jesus is nothing less than the second person of the Trinity, who has taken to himself a human nature. His experiences as a man are truly his experiences, the experiences of God.”[7]

He goes on to suggest that this is a Trinitarian suffering

“Are these experiences only of the Son, and not of the Father? The persons of the Trinity are not divided; rather the Son is in the Father, and the Father is in the Son (John 10:38; 14:10-11,20; 17:21).”[8]

So the idea that God is completely devoid of emotion and feelings and unaffected by his creatures is not one that mainstream evangelicals hold to.  Indeed, you might be forgiven for thinking that a paper tiger has been created here. It is true, of course, that some theologians have ended up pushing God to a distance and depersonalising him, but that’s not how most Christians (including academic ones) think of Him or speak of Him.

So what is it that theologians are trying to say when they talk about impassibility? Well, even Pinnock acknowledges that

“At the same time impassibility is a subtle idea with a grain of truth.  We have to distinguish ways in which God can suffer from ways in which God cannot suffer. God is beyond certain modes of suffering, just as he is beyond certain modes of change.  We could say that God is impassible in his nature but passible in his experience of the world. Change occurs in the world and affects God when he becomes aware of it.  When that change involves innocent suffering (for example), God responds tenderly to it.”[9]

I would argue that it is not that there are ways in which God does suffer and ways in which he doesn’t. Rather, it’s that how we understand and experience emotions as finite human beings is different to how God experiences them.

Let me give you two examples. When Bradford City reached the Cup final a few years back, the fans were overcome with the joy and excitement. They had a positive emotional response that overwhelmed them. Many could be described as delirious, unable to focus on work or anything else. Notice there the idea of being overcome. Their emotions overpowered them even to the point of interfering with their capability to act and think rationally (supposing football fans ever act rationally!) At the other end of the spectrum, if you have seen someone overcome with grief, it is deeply distressing. They find that they cannot cope with life. They are overburdened. Their distress may even affect them physically so that they collapse and even fall ill. 

That’s what we really mean by passibility: it is the possibility that someone can be overcome and overruled by emotional responses. Now, put in those terms, it may seem a bit more obvious why we do not want to describe God as passible.

We would agree that a definition of impassibility which leaves God remote, unfeeling etc. is wrong.  This goes against the Biblical description of a God who is love and who is filled with joy and delight. However, the point of impassibility is more that God cannot be conquered by passions. This is vital. First of all, his joy and delight are never giddy, out of control drunkenness. Secondly, he cannot be overcome by grief to the point that it denies, diminishes or destroys his joy. 

The latter point is important. If we insist that God is passible and so suffers pain that diminishes his joy, what we are really demanding is that God be a victim with us. God needs not only to experience pain, but that pain should take away from his joy. Yet

  1. If we insist that God must be a victim with us, then it suggests a distorted understanding of our own condition. We are not the victims. We are the rebels. Our suffering is just.
    1. To actually want this for God is in fact part of sinful rebellion. I declare my desire to hurt Him.
    1. Those who want God to suffer with us will find that this is not the best solution to the problem of suffering.   A God overwhelmed by grief is not best placed to help.
    1. It is selfish: it requires God to be miserable because I am, but ignores all the other wonderful causes of joy in the Universe. 

Let me expand a little on that last point. Imagine two people having the following conversation (obviously it’s not how an actual conversation would go, but it probably accurately reflects the subtext that can appear in conversations)

Imogen: “I am unhappy so you should not be happy.”

Doris: “But although I am sad for you, I am also really happy at the moment and that is my dominant emotion.”

Imogen: “But how could you be happy when I’m sad because my granddad died?”

Doris: “Well, after years of trying, we finally are expecting a baby.”

Now, whilst we would have every sympathy with Imogen and understand both her sadness and even the awkwardness towards her friend, we would still say that it would be unhealthy for her to keep on insisting that Doris should not be happy for her to truly sympathise.  Yet, this does in reality happen in human relations and it is in effect what we are asking of God if we completely reject the theology behind impassibility.

So, whilst I can see the problems with some of the ideas and concepts behind impassibility, I still think that, properly defined and distinguished as referring not to God’s lack of emotions (passions), but as His immunity to being overcome by them, it is right to say that God is impassible.

Now, this relates directly to the question of change.  Open Theists argue that God will change because:

  1. He responds to emotional stimulate (both His own feelings and ours).
  2. God experiences the future as an unknown and therefore has to respond to new knowledge.

At this point, the best thing to do is to go and look at the specific examples of alleged change cited and see what is going on.

The Bible says…

Richard Rice, one of the other Open Theist theologians, says:

“The Old Testament description of divine intentions also contributes to a social and dynamic profile of God. Scripture tells us that God formulates plans and purposes and he occasionally changes his mind. To use a biblical expression, God repents.”[10]

He then gives us our first example, Genesis 6:6.

Genesis 6 – God’s repentance leads to the Flood

Rice comments:

“Sometimes God rejects something that he has already done. ‘The Lord was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth and it grieved him to his heart.’ (Gen 6:6 NRSV). ‘The Lord was sorry that he had made Saul king over Israel’ (1 Sam 15:35 NRSV).[11]

What does it mean when we say that God repents?  The Hebrew word used is nacham which can mean:

  1. “be sorry, console oneself.”[12]
  2. “be sorry, moved to pity, have compassion for others.” [13]
  3. “Be sorry, rue, suffer, grief, repent of one’s own doings.”[14]

Is this just an emotional response? Well, this is what respected Old Testament Scholar, Gordon Wenham, says:

“’Regret’ or ‘repent may suggest a mere change of attitude, but when God ‘repents,’ he acts differently. Here and in 1 Sam 15:11 and Jer 18:10 he regrets some good thing he has done for his people, whereas in Exod 32:12,14; 2 Sam 24:16; Amos 7:3, 6 he repents of some evil e is carrying out. That God should change his mind might lead to him being accused of capriciousness which Scripture firmly denies: ‘God is not a son of man that he should repent’ (Nu 23:19; cf 1 Sam 15:29). Such remarks obviously raise various questions for the doctrine of divine sovereignty and its correlate human responsibility, but theological systematization is hardly the concern of the biblical narrators. For them divine repentance is a response to man’s changes of heart whether for better or worse.”[15]

In other words, this is not simply an emotional reaction or a moral appraisal of the situation.[16] How God acts relates directly to what has happened. If humans had not sinned, if their filling the earth had brought blessing and caused the earth to be filled with goodness, then God would have acted differently. But Wenham frustratingly refuses to engage with the systematics question “does this equate to a change of mind?”[17]

However, we can engage with the sovereignty issue because there are a number of things that stand out. First of all, even if you think that God’s omniscience does not include future events, we still would not want to go so far as to say that God started out completely ignorant of how things would or might turn out.

Well before Genesis 6, God will have seen that things were going wrong. Genesis 4 saw a family quarrel leading to Adam’s son murdering his brother.  Then Cain’s descendent Lamech also kills.[18] It is not just Cain’s decedents who have inherited a sinful nature from Adam. In Genesis 5, we have Seth’s family tree. Seth was Adam’s third son.  The chief refrain throughout is “and he died.” The penalty of death hangs over all humanity. Only Enoch is singled out as walking with God. So it was already clear, long before Noah, that things were not turning out well.

Back in Genesis 3, God punishes Adam and Eve’s sin with the curse of death and decay. He tells them that life will be hard and then he says two things: First of all he tells the serpent:

And I will cause hostility between you and the woman,
    and between your offspring and her offspring.
He will strikeyour head, and you will strike his heel.”[19]

Then he tells the woman:

“I will sharpen the pain of your pregnancy, and in pain you will give birth.
And you will desire to control your husband but he will rule over you.[20]

In other words, He foretells conflict and strife. Now, going back even before creation, if we believe in God’s eternity and His future inclusive omniscience, then we will believe that God knew how things would work out even before he created Adam.  But even without that kind of foreknowledge, God must have at least known the probabilities and likely outcomes. Now, maybe God was taking a risk, but could hardly complain and throw His toys out of the pram if a predicted set of odds came up. Yet that’s exactly the image of God that we are left with if God’s repentance here means an about change.

The good news is that this isn’t the God we are presented with in Genesis 6. God’s response to sin is to bring catastrophic judgement. The sin of his creatures causes Him grief. Let’s not lose that point. But we also should not miss the point that God does not change His mind about creation and humanity. Through the flood, he delivers animals, birds… and humans. God sticks to plan a.

Genesis 18:16-33 Abraham intercedes for Sodom

Genesis 18 is also often presented as a story about God’s potential to change his mind.  Although in the end, God goes ahead with the destruction of Sodom, there is a point when he negotiates and re-considers. Originally, He planned to wipe the city out regardless of who was there. Here, He opens His mind to the possibility that there might be some good people worth saving the city for. Sadly, there are not enough good people.

But let’s look again. The story is often presented as brave Abraham daring to bargain with God, but is that what happens?

Notice first of all that it is God himself who opens the conversation. As Wenham says:

“It is not that God needs to go down to confirm what he knows, but that he is visiting it with a view to judgement. It sounds like a foregone conclusion (‘deserve destruction’) but the final ‘if not’ gives a chink of hope and on this slender hope Abraham bases his plea. ‘It is God himself who wants intercession made, and Abraham must be the intercessor’ (Jacob, 448-49).”[21]

Then towards the end of the conversation:

“The Lord himself introduces the word ‘ruin’ in his reply to Abraham, whereas on the previous occasion he had used the more colourless ‘do,’ perhaps giving a hint that he cannot be pressed much further.”[22]

So that

“As the Lord had hinted in v 21 that he wanted intercession for Sodom, so he now closes the prayer by going on his way. It was not, as so often suggested, that Abraham did not have the courage to go further and press his case to the logical conclusion: ‘Suppose one is found there….’ Rather, God himself had hinted that he should go no further (v 31), and now he terminates the conversation. Nevertheless, Abraham puts the case so strongly against the indiscriminate slaughter of the righteous that every reader must wonder what God will do if there are fewer than ten righteous in Sodom. The narrator too is aware of the problem: the next few scenes, set in the city itself, will show that there are no righteous in Sodom at all, except for Lot, who is only a sojourner there, not a full citizen.”[23]

Did you get that? This is not Abraham initiating negotiations to try and change God’s mind. God leads Abraham through the conversation. Why does He do that? I believe it is because He wants to teach Abraham several things.

  1. That He truly is righteous and just
  2. That sin is terrible and far reaching
  3. That He is a compassionate and loving God
  4. That He is the God who steps in to rescue His people from destruction and judgement.

God looks at Sodom and sees human wickedness and destruction on a scale that grieves Him. He steps in to judge, but even as He does, He warns. Calls out and rescues His righteous man from among all the wicked people. Now where have we seen that before?  God is consistent in his actions towards evil and righteousness. His will to judge and to save is demonstrated both through Noah’s flood and the rescue of Lot from Sodom.

Jeremiah 18: 1-12 The Potter’s House

Richard Rice says:

“The Bible’s most extensive account of divine repentance deserves careful attention. As recorded in Jeremiah 18, the Lord sends the prophet to the potter’s house, where he observes the man at his wheel, throwing pots and reworking spoiled vessels into other designs.  The Lord declares that Israel to him is like clay in the potter’s hands. Depending on the circumstances, his plans for Israel can change.  He will rework his design in response to the actions of his people.”[24]

Now here is JA Thompson in his commentary dealing specifically with verse 4.

“The precise meaning of this verse is crucial to the interpretation. It is commonly held that the work of the potter was an illustration of the fact that Yahweh would work patiently with his people to make of them the ‘vessel’ he intended them to be.  But the inference to be drawn from the verse, and from the more specific application in vv. 7ff., is clearly that the particular clay that lay on the wheel at that time was not suitable for the vessel the potter had designed, that is, the quality of the clay determined what the potter could do with it. He could make something else from the clay, but not the particular vessel he had hoped for. The clay could thus frustrate the potter’s original intention and cause him to change it. Yahweh the potter was dealing with a clay that was resistant to his purpose.  The quality of the people in some way determined what God might do with them.”[25]

This is important because we can overplay the purpose of the metaphor. The aim of the story is not so much to tell us about how God behaves, but to really draw out the danger of Israel’s position.  Israel (by this time represented by the southern kingdom of Judah) is hardened, rebellious and idolatrous so that:

“They could not be fashioned into the noble shape the potter had intended, at least in the present frame of mind. Only the refining influence of judgement could avail to make them amenable again to the potter’s touch.”[26]

Now, here is the point. When we read through the Old Testament and when we get to the New Testament and read Jesus’ verdict, we realise that God had known Israel’s character all along. He did not choose her because she was great or good. Israel was rebellious and idolatrous from the outset. God knew that all along. Yet despite that, He chose her knowing that she would not be suitable for the job of salvation, knowing that she would have to go through judgement, predestined as an object of wrath and knowing that through the engrafting of Gentile believers into her and through the preservation of a remnant somehow (and at this point in history we still don’t know quite how) He would keep his promise not to give up on her.

Bruce Ware says:

“So, what Jeremiah 18:5-10 is presenting is God’s constancy to act in ways that are appropriate to the moral situations that he faces.”[27]

God’s plan was always to mould another pot: where the first pot is one of wrath, this different pot is one of glory and salvation. God didn’t change His plan. God didn’t change his mind. The plan was always Jesus and the Cross, Christ and the Church.

Jonah

Jonah’s story is well known. A prophet is called to go to Nineveh and tell the people that God is about to destroy them.  Instead, he runs in the opposite direction, boards a ship, is thrown overboard in a storm, is swallowed by a big fish, repents, returns to Nineveh, preaches and then heads out of the city to watch the spectacle from a safe distance. The people of Nineveh repent and cry out to God.  He relents and does not destroy them. Jonah is angry and bitter at God. He says “This is exactly why I did not want to go to Nineveh in the first place. I knew you would do that.”

Rice says that this is an example of God repenting and changing his mind about something he was going to do.

“When the prophet finally reached the great city after his famous detour at sea, he delivered the message that God had given to him. ‘Forty more days’ he proclaimed, ‘and Nineveh will be overturned’ (Jon 3:4). In response to his dire warning, the entire city fasted and prayed. ‘When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he had compassion and did not bring upon them the destruction he had threatened.’ (3:10). This, of course was just what Jonah had feared. ‘I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God,’ he complained, ‘slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity’ (4:2).[28]

But do you notice the big problem with Rice’s use of Jonah? It jumps right off of the page at us. Jonah says “I knew…”

Douglas Stewart in his commentary emphasises the point.

“In fact, Jonah knew very well how Yahweh could do what he had done. He had already known it, but had not wanted to face it.”[29]

So if Jonah knew that that was what God would do, can we really suggest that God didn’t know He was going to do it? Then what is really going on here?  Well, a lot depends on how we read the story. Do we read it as God sending a message (“40 days and Nineveh will be destroyed”) fully expecting that to be the outcome, then being surprised by the turn of events and having to change His plans? Or is something else going on?

I want to suggest that Jonah’s story fits with the picture we have already been building up of God. It’s no surprise then that Jonah expects the outcome. Jonah knows that God is compassionate and faithful. He knows that God loves to have mercy, loves to forgive and loves to save. He also knows that God does judge those who do not repent.  How does he know this? He knows it because he knows his Old Testament history. This is what God did with Israel. In fact, that’s the point in Jonah. The book is intended to be read by God’s people Israel.  It then serves a threefold purpose:

  1. It reminds them of God’s character, His love and His justice. They are reminded of all the times God has sent His prophets to warn them.
  2. It warns them again that they are sinners who need to repent to escape their coming judgement.
  3. It shows them that God’s concern is not just for Israel but for the whole world. They were meant to be a light to the Gentiles.

So what happens in Jonah is that God’s warning of judgement comes with an implicit condition. God will destroy them… unless they repent.[30] God’s very purpose in sending Jonah was so that they would hear and heed the warning. When Jonah tries to get out of it, God persists.  God’s plan was to save Nineveh and God accomplished that plan.

So when we look at these examples, we don’t see a God who changes his mind and has to come up with plan B. We see a God who fulfils plan a. Of course his plan includes the actions and intercession of His people, but that does not preclude the possibility that He already knew and had even planned their response. 

As Bruce Ware comments:

“There are many cases where one wonders why God even told his prophet or the people what he intended to do. For example, with Nineveh, in the light of its wickedness why did God not simply destroy the city without giving Nineveh a forty-day period of suspended judgement and without sending Jonah to tell them that they had these forty days? Or in Exodus 32, when God observed the people of Israel worshipping the golden calf, why did God not simply destroy the people instead of first telling Moses concerning both their great sin and his intent to vent his anger against them?  Since God surely could have acted directly and unilaterally, he purposely chose to involve others in the situation, thus purposely postponing the action he otherwise would have taken. What this allows for, perhaps even invites, is the response of the people who become informed of God’s stated intentions. So when the people of Nineveh hear, they repent. When Moses hears, he earnestly prays. It appears then, that God’s purpose is to involve others, planning that he will ‘change’ when they have acted in the ways he has anticipated they will and given opportunity for them to do.”[31]

Why does all this matter

Well, shortly we are going to reflect in more detail about the pastoral implications of what we’ve discovered about God and his character, but I want to just highlight something very important here.

Open Theism’s aim is to get us to see that God is love and to emphasise the importance of our relationship with Him. That’s a good aim, but I think it is better realised when we acknowledge that God does not change and is not malleable to our emotions and responses.

Why?  Well, if God changes his mind, then our aim in prayer will often be to get Him to do just that. If my friend is ill in hospital, then I will pray for their recovery with a mind-set which says:

“My friend is ill and God is either unaware of this, not actively involved or even intentionally causing the suffering. Therefore, when I pray, I hope to get God’s attention and persuade Him to change His mind.”

Now, when I know that God does not change, then I approach prayer differently. Instead, I should think:

“My friend is ill and God is fully aware and fully involved in this situation. I don’t understand God’s purpose here, but I know that it will be for His glory and our good. Therefore, I want to speak honestly to God, telling him about how I feel and what I would like to see happen. I can do that knowing that God is present, engaged and involved and proactively is drawing in my involvement through prayer.  As I pray, I can expect to gain a greater insight into God’s purpose here. Even better still, I will gain a deeper insight into God Himself and His character.”

Prayer is suddenly not about request lists, not about negotiating. Prayer is about a relationship. It’s about getting to know God better. It’s about experiencing his love and care for us on a deeper level. It’s about expressing our love, trust and confidence in him.

So how we think about God will affect our relationship with Him. It will affect our trust in Him, not just about how we talk about Him but how we talk to Him.  God’s goodness and sovereignty should help us to enjoy our relationship with Him, trusting Him, talking with Him, relying on Him, resting in Him.


[1] Pinnock, Most Moved Maker, 3.

[2] Pinnock, Most Moved Maker, 5. He takes these from his colleague John Sanders.

[3] Pinnock, “Systematic Theology,” 106.

[4] Pinnock, “Systematic Theology,” 118.

[5] Pinnock, “Systematic Theology,” 119.

[6] Frame,The Doctrine of God, 608.

[7] Frame,The Doctrine of God, 613.

[8] Frame,The Doctrine of God, 613.

[9] Pinnock, “Systematic Theology,” 119.

[10] Rice, “Biblical Support,” 26.

[11] Rice, “Biblical Support,” 27.

[12] E Brown, S Driver & C Briggs, Brown Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon (Reprinted Peabody, Ma.: Hendrickson, 2004. Boston, MA.: Houghton, Mifflin & Co, 1906), 636.

[13] BDB, 637.

[14] BDB, 637.

[15] Gordon J Wenham, Genesis 1-15 (WBC 1. Word,1987), 144.

[16] Contra Bruce Ware, God’s Lesser Glory, 92.

[17] The putting up of interdisciplinary borders in commentaries used by preachers and teachers is extremely frustrating and one can’t help feeling a bit of a cop-out. The Biblical scholar does need to engage with and help us answer the doctrinal questions just as the Systematic Theologian cannot be excused for failing to do his homework properly by exegeting texts properly and engaging with Biblical scholarship.

[18] Genesis 4:19.

[19] Genesis 3:15.

[20] Genesis 3:16.

[21] Gordon J Wenham, Genesis 16-50  (WBC 2. Word, 1987), 51.

[22] Wenham, Genesis 16-50, 53.

[23] Wenham, Genesis 16-50, 53.

[24] Rice, “Biblical Support,” 31.

[25] JA Thompson, The Book of Jeremiah (NICOT. Grand Rapids, MI.: Eerdmans, 1980), 433.

[26] Thompson, Jeremiah, 435. The point is made in v 11-12.

[27] Bruce Ware, God’s Lesser Glory, 137.

[28] Rice, “Biblical Support,” 27.

[29] Douglas Stuart, Hosea-Jonah (WBC 31. Mexico City. Thomas Nelson, 1987), 502.

[30] Bruce Ware, God’s Lesser Glory, 136.

[31] Bruce Ware, God’s Lesser Glory, 93.

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