Prophecy and predetermination

Phil Johnson posted a very brief statement about divine foreknowledge on the Pyromaniacs blog today to the effect that Arminians must ‘deny God’s foreknowledge, thereby nullifying God’s omniscience’. The assumption is basically that if God is omniscient, he must also know the future, which means that the outcome of all things is predetermined, to deny which amounts to blasphemy. It was meant to provoke.

The argument has the shape of a formal logic that must leave anyone who dares to think otherwise skewered. But whatever philosophical validity it may have, in a very important sense it misrepresents the nature of biblical prophecy. What follows is a reworking of some observations I offered in this regard, which so far have been entirely ignored, though I realize that may be because they were not very coherent.

To illustrate the point, consider this comment that was made by a contributor to the discussion:

For John to be taken somewhere by the Holy Spirit and shown the future means that the future had to already exist somewhere, possibly in another dimension, for him to be taken there and shown it and come back and wrote about the future that he saw.

I’m not in a position to go through the relevant texts, but surely the appeal of the prophets, including the seer of Revelation, is not essentially to the existence of a predetermined future, to which he has privileged access, but to the character of God.

A prophet does not see future events as though they are out there waiting to be foreknown—as though he has been granted some sort of telescope of omniscience that can see over the horizon of the present into a future that must already exist somewhere out there in an nth dimension. The prophet is not a clairvoyant.

Rather, a prophet is someone who has been told what God will do. The certainty regarding the future event derives from the faithfulness of God: if he says he will do something (judge Israel, deliver the righteous, overthrow the oppressor, etc.), he will do it. It is an issue of God’s character, therefore, not of divine foreknowledge or of the predetermination of all things—and that entirely reframes the debate.

For example, if I promise my wife that I will take her out for dinner—and perhaps even describe the event in some detail, with a splash of apocalyptic colouring—what will be critical to the fulfilment of her expectations is not the foreknowledge (whether mine or hers) of a predetermined event but my reliability—or otherwise. What is at stake is not knowledge but character, and specifically, character in the context of a relationship.

But then since we are talking about biblical prophecy—a matter of telling Israel what God is going to do under specific circumstances—the philosophical insistence on absolute foreknowledge or determination largely misses the point. God does not promise to make every detail of history and life happen. He chooses to do certain things, usually in response to critical developments in Israel’s history; he chooses particular people or a particular people to fulfil his purposes.

And that, I think, is the scope of the theological argument. It is not a blanket, absolute, universalizing doctrine. It describes how the God of Israel behaves in free response to contingent circumstances. Their future is determined only to the extent that God determines to act in particular ways on particular occasions. The rest is merely history.

Travis Greene | Mon, 11/01/2010 - 16:05 | Permalink

Good thoughts. I thunk there's even more to it than that, though. If we think about figures like Jonah, the thing that makes him a prophet is that what he predicts DOESN'T come to pass, since the people respond with repentance. Prophecy in Scripture is rooted in God's character, as you say, but a key attribute of God's character is relationality.

I take your point. There is very often, maybe always, an element of conditionality involved (“if you do not repent, then God will…”) that on the face of it makes a nonsense of the determinist argument. Prophecy is then a call to make a different future. Obviously it could be claimed that Nineveh was destined to repent, but that ceases to be determinism in any meaningful sense. It is merely description.

There is very often, maybe always, an element of conditionality involved

Indeed, and this conditionality goes so deeply to the character of the God revealed in scripture as to go unsaid in places. ("I will destroy Ninevah" is conspicuously missing an "unless...")

The analogy of promising to take your wife out to dinner is a good one. I'll remember that.


From a narrative-historical point of view would this amount to a form of open-theism? I know that this view is more theologically oriented but I’m just curious if this would amount to a historical version of open theism?