Scripture teaches God’s total control of everything that happens, according to His eternal decree. The Westminster Confession of Faith sums up the doctrine of God’s eternal purpose: “God, from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will freely, and unchangeably, ordain whatsoever comes to pass” (3:1). And it quotes a large number of Scripture verses in support. Among them is Ephesians 1:11: “In whom [Christ] also we have obtained an inheritance, being predestinated according to the purpose of Him who worketh all things after the counsel of His own will”.
Arminianism has always disagreed with the doctrine of predestination, but to do so it has evaded the teaching of Scripture. It claims that God’s decrees are based on His foreknowledge; in particular, that election is the result of God knowing beforehand who will in fact believe. Arminians have historically accepted that God’s knowledge is unlimited – that He knows, not only what is happening in the present and what has taken place in the past, but also everything that is to occur in the future. But the reality is even more wonderful: the infinite God has from all eternity made His decrees and He therefore knows all that is yet to take place.
Systems of error always have a tendency to depart further from the truth. Certainly, some varieties of Arminianism have been more serious than others but over the last 15 years a particularly serious departure, which goes by the name of Open Theism, has achieved increasing prominence. In 1994 the movement’s manifesto appeared: The Openness of God: A Biblical Challenge to the Traditional Understanding of God. The five authors – who include Clark Pinnock, known at one time for his firmly-Calvinistic writings – explain: “In this book we are advancing the open view of God. . . . We believe that the Bible presents an open view of God as living and active, involved in history, relating to us and changing in relation to us.” (1) They deny that God can know the future, arguing in particular that He cannot foresee the future decisions of individual human beings exercising their free will. Accordingly, they even deny that God expected the fall of man into sin, and speak in terms, which one hesitates even to repeat, of the Most High “taking a risk” in the creation of man. No wonder that even an Arminian writer has called Open Theism nothing short of heresy. (2)
If anything is clear from the Scriptures, it is that God does indeed know what is yet to happen. Christ, even in human nature, was not ignorant of the future. We are told that “He knew who should betray Him”. It was not merely because He possessed a greater power than the disciples to discern the true nature of Judas that the Saviour came to this conclusion. Rather, it was because of His divine power to know the future.
Hundreds of years before then, the Lord challenged the idols: “Show the things that are to come hereafter, that we may know that ye are gods” (Is 41:23). The test of their divinity was knowledge of the future. But it was a test which the false deities of that, and every other, generation must necessarily fail. Calvin comments: “It is concluded that these things are peculiar to the Godhead, so whoever it be that knows all things, is justly believed to be God. In this manner therefore the Prophet argues, ‘If the idols which you worship be gods, they must know all things and be able to do all things’.”
Accordingly, if God is the living God, He must certainly know the future. And He does. Thus God makes Himself known: “I am God, and there is none like Me, declaring the end from the beginning, and from ancient times the things that are not yet done, saying, My counsel shall stand, and I will do all My pleasure” (Is 46:9,10). Times without number He has demonstrated that power. From the beginning, as soon as our first parents fell, He made known His purpose to send the “seed of the woman” as a Redeemer, to bruise Satan’s head and to deliver from his evil grasp a great multitude of her descendants. Vast numbers of human decisions intervened between that prophecy and its fulfilment – including the willingness of Rahab to associate with the Israelites invading Jericho and Ruth’s determination to continue onwards to Bethlehem in spite of her mother-in-law’s objections. Arminians would attribute all of these decisions merely to the exercise of human will; they deny God’s power so to order providence that everything takes place according to His purpose. However, the fact is that not only did God foresee every one of these decisions, but they were all part of “the counsel of His own will”.
It is not the purpose of this article to explain how individuals are free in making their decisions, although they are all foreknown to God and indeed part of His eternal plan for the affairs of this world. To supply such an explanation is beyond the power of the human mind. God has not revealed how He brings His purposes to pass, but the fact that He does so is clearly revealed. And if we can see that God’s foreordination of everything that happens has been revealed in Scripture, we will have no difficulty in seeing the fact of His foreknowledge revealed there also.
God’s foreordination is brought forcibly to our attention again and again in Scripture history. “Ye thought evil against me,” Joseph told his brothers after their father’s death; “but God meant it unto good, to bring to pass, as it is this day, to save much people alive” (Gen 50:20). Clearly, God foresaw the desperate need of Jacob and his family in a time of prolonged famine, and the need of multitudes of others in and near Egypt. Many years before the famine came, the Lord set in train a chain of events which were working together towards the fulfilment of this particular purpose: “to save much people alive”. Mysteriously, these events involved the evil thoughts, purposes and actions of Joseph’s brothers among others, but what God foresaw and purposed was what did happen: Joseph was sold into Egypt so that he would be in the very place where he could interpret Pharaoh’s visions, where he could be appointed governor in Egypt, and where he could arrange the storage and distribution of food “to save much people alive”.
Open Theists point, for instance, to the divine declaration to Abraham: “Now I know that thou fearest God, seeing thou hast not withheld thy son, thine only son, from Me”. They claim that the Lord could be assured of Abraham’s faithfulness only after Abraham had demonstrated his obedience. Not so. Such a claim contradicts the consistent teaching of Scripture. As in so many other places, the Most High condescends to speak as man might speak in somewhat similar circumstances. Similarly, when we read of “the hand of the Lord” or “the face of God”, we do not to think of these as physical descriptions, for He has no body; “God is a spirit”. And we are not to read previous ignorance into a statement which God makes about His present knowledge.
One particularly serious aspect of the matter is that the proponents of Open Theism are professed Evangelicals; they claim to subject their minds to the authority of Scripture and to formulate their doctrines on the basis of God’s revelation. Yet their views and their writings seriously undermine the clear teachings of Scripture. This is one more example of how the term Evangelical has become more and more devalued. Whatever their profession, many who claim to be Evangelical are immersed in worldliness and others are scarcely distinguishable in their doctrines from out-and-out liberals. Our watchword must continue to be: “To the law and to the testimony”. We are not to be influenced by those who depart from this law and testimony, for it is given by God and therefore absolutely reliable; “if they speak not according to this word, it is because there is no light in them” (Is 8:20).
1. Quoted in G L W Johnson and R F White (eds), Whatever Happened to the Reformation? p 77.
2. Thomas Oden, quoted in Whatever Happened to the Reformation? p 78.