|Bible Research > Interpretation > Caneday|
by Ardel B. Caneday
Trinity Journal 20/2 (Fall 1999) p. 131-163.
John Sanders gained recognition in this decade by association with other "evangelical" philosophers who dispute the "traditional" view of God and argue for the "openness" of God to the future. Sanders contributed to The Openness of God: A Biblical Challenge to the Traditional Understanding of God. (1) Alone, he has published two sizeable books that explore an "open" view of God in two crucial areas. In his first book, Sanders contends that God "takes risks and leaves himself open to being despised, rejected, and crucified" as he works toward the salvation of every person, making "salvation universally accessible even though not all hear about Jesus" (No Other Name: An Investigation into the Destiny of the Unevangelized [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1992] 112, 216). In The God Who Risks (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1998), he attempts to "develop a constructive proposal for a risk-taking God" in relation to the massive subject of God's providence "to carry out his project" (pp. 280, 282). He insists, "God has sovereignly decided not to control everything that happens," because "there is no eternal blueprint by which all things happen exactly as God desires" (p. 280).
Sanders has an emotional aversion to what he calls a "no-risk" view of God. He recounts, from his youthful days, his brother's tragic death:
I went to my room and prayed, "God, why did you kill my brother?" As I look back on that prayer, I am fascinated that I asked God such a question. I was a nominal Methodist at the time, and I did not believe that God caused everything that happened. Perhaps I had picked up from the broader culture the belief that God was the cause behind all tragedies ("acts of God," as insurance companies call them). In years to come many a Christian attempted to provide me with "good" reasons why God would have ordained my brother's death. Those discussions served to spur my reflection on divine providence for over twenty years. (p. 9)
Sanders has forged his view of God in the crucible of his deep personal pain. He describes a similar experience about fifteen years after his brother's death, when he was struck by a pastor's words beside the grave of an infant girl, "God must have had a good reason for taking her home" (p. 10). Sanders explains, "Of course 'taking her home' is a euphemism for God's killing her" (p. 10). Later the parents of the child inquired of Sanders, "Why did God kill our baby girl?" (p. 10). He tells us they were angry with God, but their anger was "directed at a particular model of God," not at God himself (p. 10).
As Sanders came to terms with his brother's tragic death, he chafed under the thought that God had anything to do with tragedy. And he still does. Despite his claims that The God Who Risks only occasionally critiques the traditional and orthodox view of God's providence, it is evident that his youthful anger has turned to scolding and deriding the theologians who, as he sees it, created the God to whom he first raised his voice in anger. Sanders sees two alternative ways to view God, and he strongly dislikes one of them.
Either God does take risks or does not take risks in providentially creating and governing the world. Either God is in some respects conditioned by the creatures he created or he is not conditioned by them. If God is completely unconditioned by anything external to himself, then God does not take any risks. According to the no-risk understanding, no event ever happens without God's specifically selecting it to happen. Nothing is too insignificant for God's meticulous and exhaustive control. Each and every death, civil war, famine, wedding, peaceful settlement or birth happens because God specifically intends it to happen. Thus God never takes any risks and nothing ever turns out differently from the way God desires. The divine will is never thwarted in any respect. (p. 10)
With a touch of mockery, he scolds these "no-risk" theologians,
It is not up to human beings to dictate the sort of providence God must exercise. Instead, we should try to discern what sort of sovereignty God has freely chosen to practice. (p. 11)
What sort of sovereignty does God practice?
God does not have a specific divine purpose for each and every occurrence of evil. ... When a two-month-old child contracts a painful, incurable bone cancer that means suffering and death, it is pointless evil. The Holocaust is pointless evil. The rape and dismemberment of a young girl is pointless evil. The accident that caused the death of my brother was a tragedy. God does not have a specific purpose in mind for these occurrences. (p. 262)
These are the thoughts over which John Sanders has brooded for several years and which he has hatched in several published works, the most recent being The God Who Risks. However, it is not as if Sanders came to his view of God unaided. At least three other factors prepared the way to "make it safe" for Sanders to adopt and publish his bold new view of God: (1) the rise of process theology among liberal theologians since the 1960s, which provides a paradigm of thought; (2) the popularizing of the ideas of process theism by Harold Kushner's When Bad Things Happen to Good People, (2) and (3) validation by "evangelical sympathizers" of process theism, such as Clark Pinnock and Richard Rice. (3)
So, strongly disliking the model of God he inherited, Sanders conceives of his mission as "iconoclastic" (his own term) —to shatter the prevailing concept of "God as king" and replace it with "the metaphor of God as risk taker" (p. 11). Sanders recognizes that many readers will be shocked by his notion of God as "a risk taker" (p. 11), so he promptly seeks to calm some readers. He intends this impact to be reduced proportionally to the degree that one already agrees with his "particular theological model: a personal God who enters into genuine give-and-take relations with his creatures" (p. 12). People who will be scandalized do not embrace "relational theism," which is any view that "includes genuine give-and-take relations between God and humans such that there is receptivity and a degree of contingency in God" (p. 12). Therefore, he expects to scandalize all who cling to "an impersonal deity" (deists) or to "a personal deity who meticulously controls every event" (determinists of all kinds [p. 12]). But he anticipates agreement from "relational theists," who embrace "'freewill theism,' simple foreknowledge, presentism (the openness of God) and some versions of middle knowledge" (p. 12). It seems that Sanders wants to relocate the line of division which he, Richard Rice, Clark Pinnock, William Hasker, the Basingers, and others have drawn between "open theism" and "traditional theism." Evidently the "open theists" initially drew the circle too small when they first circumscribed their views by redefining omniscience to mean, "God's knowledge is coextensive with reality. God knows all there is to know. Since, it is claimed, the future actions of free beings are unknowable, God does not know them" (305 n. 121). (4) They began to find themselves somewhat isolated by their own restrictive designation "open theism," and they found their view of God denounced as "heresy," even by an Arminian theologian who was outside their narrowly defining arc. (5) Understandably, then, Sanders wants to enlarge his theological tent in an attempt to find allies among those who hold to what he calls "relational theism" (p. 12).
While Sanders attempts to soften distinctions between "open theism" and the Arminian segment of classical theism, he exaggerates theological differences within classical theism between Arminianism and Calvinism. He carefully shapes the whole discussion by painting the perspective of his theological opponents flat, with no contours. Their views are portrayed in dark colors, with broad and coarse strokes, while he dips his fine brush in warm hues to provide detail and depth to his own viewpoint. He identifies one element of his opponents' understanding of what the Bible says concerning God, and he isolates it from other elements in their theological beliefs so that he presents them, not at their best, but as holding positions they in fact do not adopt. His book is saturated with appeals to prejudices and feelings (ad hominem) rather than to discernment. It is charged with devices designed to maneuver his own viewpoint into more advantageous acceptance by excluding crucial elements of his opponents' viewpoints (diversion). Consequently he excludes any view that stands between his own and his caricature (false disjunction). Sanders has crafted a prima facie argument to evoke dislike for a "no-risk" view, and thus, by default, to gain devotees for his own "God-at-risk" view. The usefulness of his book is tarnished by the fact that he has reduced even carefully nuanced compatibilism to a fatalism which is "nonrelational." At the same time, from the opposite end of the spectrum, he has drawn a larger arc around "open theism" by renaming it "relational theism." He thereby attempts to relocate the center of classical theism closer to his own position, which he calls "presentism."
Therefore, he projects a new model of God's providence by forcing his readers to view God through his narrow aperture and "through the lens of divine risk taking" (p. 14). With this as his agenda, Sanders brings together philosophical theology and biblical theology to sketch his view of The God who Risks while putting at risk the God of orthodox theism. So,
the portrait of God developed here is one according to which God sovereignly wills to have human persons become collaborators with him in achieving the divine project of mutual relations of love. (p. 12, emphasis added)
This expression, "the divine project," is Sanders's favorite designation for God's providential work with his creation, for a variation of it occurs repeatedly throughout the book. Unforeseen to God, his project aborted (pp. 49, 230). That's no problem in Sanders's theology—God can simply switch from "plan A to plan B" (see p. 64).
Because of considerable repetition in Sanders's book, this overview will be unbalanced, with larger summary given to the first three chapters, where he attempts to deal with biblical evidence for his view of God and the world. It is important for readers of this review to see Sanders's own comments upon biblical texts.
This chapter addresses the crucial issue of metaphors and imagery in theological discussions. Sanders correctly states, "The language of Scripture is 'reality depicting' in that what we understand to be real is mediated through its metaphors and images" (p. 15). However, Sanders does not tether his discussion to biblical "metaphors and images"; his interest is not to develop a coherent portrait of God's providence by examining the full range of biblical "metaphors and images." Rather, when he talks about the "language of Scripture," what he has in mind is the biblical metaphor that is regarded as the "control metaphor" by which we should read the Bible. He says,
When we read the Scripture through the lenses of certain models, we tend to interpret Scripture from that perspective. Thus it is not surprising that someone affirming God as the immutable king would view the biblical texts on divine repentance as anthropomorphisms so that God never actually changes his mind. (p.16)
And so, Sanders explains,
The model of a personal God who enters into genuine give-and-take relations with us—which entails divine risk taking—will be examined to see what impact this model has on important doctrines and practices such as divine repentance and petitionary prayer. (p. 16)
His discussion of the place of "anthropomorphism" in talk about God is engaging. He properly points out that anthropomorphism has both "a narrow and a broad meaning" (p. 22). The narrow concerns specific and well-recognized figures of speech in which human qualities such as arms, hands, and eyes are ascribed to God. In the broader sense, because "all our language about God is human language," it is therefore anthropomorphic. Why? Because, in concert with theologians such as Herman Bavinck, (6) Sanders rightly affirms "we are inevitably predicating properties of God that are derived from human categories" (p. 22). If we want to speak of God, we must choose between using anthropomorphic language or complete silence. So, he is correct to say, "If we think of God as personal, living and interacting with us, then we are speaking anthropomorphically" (p. 23).
How does anthropomorphism disclose God to humans? Sanders says,
Anthropomorphic language does not preclude literal predication to God. ... What I mean by the word literal is that our language about God is reality depicting (truthful) such that there is a referent, an other, with whom we are in relationship and of whom we have genuine knowledge. (p. 25)
He reasons "that Jesus is the consummate anthropomorphism," which prepares for his later literalizing of certain anthropomorphisms (p. 26).
Sanders does not accept any attempt on the part of orthodox Christians to explain biblical anthropomorphism as God's "accommodation" to "our limited abilities to understand" (p. 33). He also discredits any appeal to paradox in an effort to represent human limitations to explain the tension that seems to exist between God's sovereignty and human accountability (p. 35). He thinks all such appeals "fail to take seriously enough the conditions of our createdness" (p. 37). Therefore, according to Sanders, both D. A. Carson and J. I. Packer are guilty of attempting to go beyond what God has revealed when they acknowledge an insoluble tension between divine sovereignty and human responsibility, best represented in compatibilist terms.
In chaps. 3 and 4, Sanders explores "the nature of the divine project" in the biblical narrative and concludes that "there is more than sufficient biblical data teaching that God does not exercise meticulous providence in such a way that the success of his project is, in all respects and without qualification, a foregone conclusion" (pp. 39-40).
Though God created all things, this is no guarantee that the creator will get his way with his creation (p. 43). God's project aborts; "creation has miscarried" (p. 49). "God does not give up hope and will continue his project through Noah's family" (p. 50). God is vulnerable to his creatures. God's test of Abraham really is a test of God, for "God genuinely does not know" whether or not Abraham trusts him (p. 52). He cites Gen 22:12—"'Do not lay a hand on the boy,' he said. 'Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son"'—"He did not know. Now he knows" (p. 52, he quotes Brueggeman). Sanders explains,
Many commentators either pass over this verse [Gen 22:12] in silence or dismiss it as mere anthropomorphism. It is often suggested that the test was for Abraham's benefit, not God's. It should be noted, however, that the only one in the text said to learn anything from the test is God. (p. 52)
Apparently it does not occur to Sanders that he has proved too much for his "open theist" view, because his reading of the text indicates that God does not know the present reality of Abraham's fear until after God tested him. This contradicts his own definition of "presentism," which he defines as God's "exhaustive knowledge of the past and present" (p. 199).
Gen 50:20, a verse that affirms that God effectively succeeds at his plans, has consoled innumerable Christians. But it now means something quite different. Sanders explains,
I take this to mean that God has brought something good out of their evil actions. God was not determining everything in Joseph's life, but God did remain "with" him. (p. 55)
The subject and its verb—"God intended it for good"—has nothing to do with intention at all, but refers to God's ability to mop up the mess, which is "to bring good out of evil human actions" (p. 55).
God does not work "according to some divine blueprint" (p. 56). Otherwise, in the case of the death of the Hebrew infants, that would be an "insufferable objection" that God wanted many to be oppressed and suffer death in order that he might deliver one person, namely Moses (p. 56). Instead God "takes a risk" as he subjects his efforts to the hands of people who "could have failed—they could have acted differently and let the boys die" (p. 57). "God works with what is available in the situation" (p. 57). Later, God tells Moses that Pharaoh will not let the people go "based on his knowledge of the king's stubborn nature" (p. 59). This hardening of Pharaoh's heart "is commonly cited in discussions of divine sovereignty to demonstrate that God is in full control of even oppressive and disastrous situations" (p. 59). Sanders thinks otherwise. (7) Instead, "In making use of the resources available, divine sovereignty does not exercise absolute control over the human order. God does not easily get his way with either Moses or Pharaoh" (p. 60).
Sanders devotes an extended excursus to biblical texts that present God as changing his mind or repenting. He objects to anyone who explains "divine repentance" as anthropomorphic language of accommodation.
On what basis do these thinkers claim that these biblical texts do not portray God as he truly is but only God as he appears to us? How can they confidently select one biblcal [sic] text as an "exact" description of God and consign others to the dustbin of anthropomorphism? (p. 68)
Sanders dislikes John Calvin's explanation of "divine repentance" texts, but he formally finds himself agreeing with Calvin later in the same excursus when he affirms, "Metaphors do not provide us with an exact correspondence to reality, but they do provide a way of understanding reality" (p. 72). Isn't this what John Calvin, Paul Helm, and Bruce Ware (8) also mean when they say, as Sanders paraphrases,
If the Bible in one place predicates a change of mind with respect to God [e.g., 1 Sam 15:11] but elsewhere proclaims that God cannot change his mind because "God is not human" [e.g., 1 Sam 15:29], then the texts predicating a change of mind in God are to be taken as anthropomorphic expressions that are not literally true of God. (p. 67)
Yet Sanders is only in formal agreement with these theologians because he claims that they do not give anthropomorphism its proper due. Sanders believes
A better approach to the divine-repentance texts is to acknowledge that they are metaphorical in nature. Metaphors do not provide us with an exact correspondence to reality, but they do provide us with a way of understanding reality. No single metaphor captures the biblical God. Rather, a number of metaphors are used in order to build up a portrait of God. (p. 72)
Would Calvin or Helm or Ware disagree? Sanders clarifies two essential differences he has with them. First, Sanders elevates "divine repentance" to the level of "a significant controlling metaphor in the biblical narrative" (p. 72, italics added). Though it is true that no single metaphor is capable of disclosing God in the Bible, Sanders does insist that divine repentance, because it is so "pervasive in the Old Testament" (p. 72), should be the aperture through which the revelatory light of the biblical narrative should present itself to the human mind. The second essential difference is that Sanders accepts every anthropomorphic use of repentance to portray God as he really is. God really does change his mind, because these "repentance" texts are not "merely anthropomorphisms" (pp. 67, 69, 72) (9)
Other pieces of this segment beg for attention, but space prohibits. Sanders nicely sums up his conclusion to the review of OT material:
God resourcefully tries out different paths in his efforts to bring his project toward a successful completion. God's activity does not unfold according to some heavenly blueprint whereby all goes according to plan. God is involved in a historical project, not an eternal plan. (p. 88)
The "divine project" is an experiment that has gone awry; it is a divine adventure (cf. p. 260, where Sanders uses these words to describe providence).
Sanders refers to Jesus as "the ultimate anthropomorphism" (p. 90). "In Jesus we see the genuine character of God, who is neither an omnipotent tyrant nor an impotent wimp" (p. 91). He clarifies,
The king of creation does not intimidate us or dominate us, as in the traditional monarchical model of providence. Instead, the king sends his son in order to reconcile us, making us children of the king and siblings of Christ. God is indeed King and Father, though an atypical king and father. (p. 92)
Appeals to false disjunctions, such as these, characterize the book.
Sanders traces select elements from the gospels to make his point: "The way of providence in the life of Jesus did not occur by some predetermined plan. Everything is not being worked out according to some eternal script" (p. 137). "Furthermore, in contrast to the no-risk model, Jesus did not go about cleaning up the mess caused by the disease, disasters and misery that his Father had caused" (p. 138). Truly an amazing caricature of the view he opposes.
Every page of this chapter, along with the endnotes, contains statements that require close attention, but a few citations must suffice. Concerning God's appointment of Mary to conceive and bear the Savior of the world, Sanders says, "God became genuinely dependent" upon Mary and "did not merely work through" her as if she were a "secondary cause" (p. 92). Commenting on Luke 1:26-33, he claims, "God does not unilaterally achieve his goal of incarnation by forcing his will on Mary" (p. 92). So,
If Mary had declined . . . then God would have sought other avenues. After all, it is doubtful that there was only one maiden in all of Israel through whom God would work. God is resourceful in finding people and then equipping them with the elements necessary for accomplishing his purposes. (p. 92)
Sanders tells us it is a mistake to believe that before Creation God planned Jesus' crucifixion. Likewise, it is a mistake to believe that God had previously appointed Judas to betray Jesus to his death. So, when Jesus announces during the Passover meal "that one of the disciples will 'hand him over' (paradidomi does not mean 'betray') to the temple authorities" (p. 98), we are wrong to think that Judas "betrayed" Jesus, and we are wrong to suppose that this is working out in keeping with some grand design that God had previously planned. When Jesus tells Judas, "What you are about to do, do quickly" (John 13:27), Sanders claims Jesus would not have "told Judas to go out and deliberately commit a sin. In this light it is clear that Judas is not betraying Jesus and that Jesus is not issuing any prediction of such activity" (p. 99). Sanders assuredly claims, "A risk is involved here, since there is no guarantee which way Judas will decide. ... None of this was predetermined" (p. 99). Sanders does not account for texts such as John 13:11—"For he knew who was going to betray him, and that was why he said not every one was clean."
According to Sanders, if God has a preordained plan of meticulous providence, then in its outworking he must be a tyrant who forces his will upon people. But if God's plan is only a sketchy framework of general providence, then in its outworking God does not always get his way because he is contingent and dependent upon human choices. Sanders believes this may be seen plainly in the Crucifixion. In the Garden of Gethsemane,
Jesus wrestles with God's will because he does not believe that everything must happen according to a predetermined plan. ... Together they determine what the will of God is for this historical situation. Although Scripture attests that the incarnation was planned from the creation of the world, this is not so with the cross. The path of the cross comes about only through God's interaction with humans in history. Until this moment in history other routes were, perhaps, open. ... Jesus is in the canoe heading for the falls. There is yet time to get over to shore and portage around the falls. Jesus seeks to determine if that option meets with his Father's favor. But the canyon narrows even for God. (pp.100-1)
Incredibly, Sanders tells us the Crucifixion was not part of God's story line until the night before it occurs. For on that dark night in the Garden "Father and Son, in seeking to accomplish the project, both come to understand that there is no other way" (p. 101). But once it is determined that Jesus must die, uncertainty still remains. "Will this gambit work?" (p. 101).
Sanders acknowledges, "The notion that the cross was not planned prior to creation will seem scandalous to some readers" (p. 101). Indeed it will. For most readers will know that there are numerous places in all the gospels that make it clear that the Cross was not planned the night before the Crucifixion, not to mention before Creation. Astonishingly, there is not a hint of reflection upon these texts (e.g., Mark 8:31ff; 9:31-32; 10:32ff).
Sanders makes an effort to quell the doubts of dubious readers who wonder about all those OT texts which they believe prophesy the death of Jesus Christ. He cannot address all the texts, but he considers one—"they have pierced my hands and my feet" (Ps 22:16). One could wish that Sanders had chosen to explain a prophetic text such as Isa 52:13-53:12, the one most Christians probably would think of first, and which the NT writers use to explain the sacrificial death of Jesus. Christians who believe and treasure the OT prophecies concerning Christ's death are given little help in reconciling these prophesies with Sanders's view. To explain the relationship of the Crucifixion to texts long-claimed to prophesy Christ's death, he would probably appeal to his treatment of biblical prophecy earlier in the book. He states,
Texts indicating that a future event is definite suggest that either the event is determined by God to happen in that way or God knows the event will result from a chain of causal factors that are presently in place.(p.75)
Since human decisions were necessary to carry out Jesus' crucifixion, God could not know it until the human conspiracy was actually in place—thus God's resigned acceptance of it the night before it happened.
What about NT texts that seem to say that God planned the Crucifixion before Creation? Passing over his odd reading of Rev 13:8, let us consider his interpretation of Acts 2:23 and Acts 4:27-28. Concerning Acts 2:23—"This man was handed over to you by God's set purpose and foreknowledge"—Sanders says,
It was God's definite purpose ... to deliver the Son into the hands of those who had a long track record of resisting God's work. Their rejection did not catch God off guard, however, for he anticipated their response and so walked onto the scene with an excellent prognosis (foreknowledge, prognosei) of what would happen. (p. 103)
Though Acts 4:27-28 affirms that the conspiracy hatched by Herod, Pontius Pilate, the Gentiles, and the Israelites to crucify Jesus happened in accordance with what God's "power and will had decided beforehand should happen," Sanders sidesteps this text, simply noting the reference in his discussion of Acts 2:23.
Before Sanders concludes his chapter on NT materials, he offers an extended excursus on divine predictions and foreknowledge (pp. 129-37). As expected, he insists that the biblical portrait of God's predictions and foreknowledge is best represented by "the present-knowledge model" (p. 130). So he concludes that there are three possible explanations for divine predictions. First, "God can predict the future as something he intends to do regardless of human response" (p. 136), but this "does not require foreknowledge, only the ability to do it" (pp.130-1). Second, "God may utter a conditional statement that is dependent on human response" (p. 136), but of course, a conditional promise cannot be "genuine if God already foreknows the human response" (p. 131). Third, "God may give a forecast of what he thinks will occur based on his exhaustive knowledge of past and present factors" (p. 136), but such predictions are always open to "the possibility that God might be 'mistaken' about some points" (p. 132). (10) Sanders admits,
It may seem to proponents of exhaustive foreknowledge that the explanations of various scriptural texts discussed above are strained and unconvincing. But that is the way those who affirm presentism regard the explanations offered by proponents of foreknowledge on other texts such as divine repentance. (p. 136)
We leave it to the reader to judge which view results in the greater number of strained and unconvincing interpretations.
Sanders includes this chapter since it is important that any theological proposal be consonant "with the tradition" (p. 140). His real concern is to argue that Augustine corrupted the early theology of the Fathers, who, though they adopted "the vocabulary of Greek philosophy," nonetheless attempted "to articulate what it means for God to be the free Creator and the gracious Redeemer" (p. 146). Sanders claims that the early church fathers believed that God "uses foreknowledge to see who will have faith and then elects those who will," but Augustine "rejects such a belief for two reasons; his anthropology and his doctrine of God" (p. 148). The problem with Augustine is that he "knows what is fitting for God to be (dignum Deo) and uses this understanding to filter the biblical message" (p. 149). Luther, the later Augustinian, comes under Sanders's indictment because he follows this theology when he argues that "God's will is the sole reason for individual salvation." Luther claims that "human wills are so depraved that they cannot choose the good, and thus God must choose for them" (p. 154). But it is Calvin who comes under Sanders's sustained heavy artillery (pp. 155-7).
This chapter is rather dull because it repeats earlier data from his overview of the Old and New Testaments and arranges them according to his philosophical-theological framework concerning divine attributes. He devotes thirteen pages to an excursus on divine omniscience, but Sanders argues that "the key issue is not the type of knowledge an omniscient deity has but the type of sovereignty an omniscient God decides to exercise" (p. 195). So, he attempts to cajole advocates of "simple foreknowledge" to side with him against those who avoid "an omniscient God who takes risks" (p. 195). Thus, he repeats this claim of absolute disjunction: "Proponents of divine determinism hold that God never responds to creatures, whereas proponents of relational theism see God entering into genuine personal relations with creatures" (p. 195). According to Sanders, only his kind of God can answer prayer, for "Only if God does not yet know the outcome of my journey can a prayer for safe traveling be coherent within the model of S[imple]F[oreknowledge]" (pp. 204-5). He tries to annex into "open theism" every theological view that holds some form of divine foreknowledge, in the sense of prescience, while "denying exhaustive divine sovereignty and asserting indeterministic freedom for humans" (p. 206). He aims his whole discussion concerning "The Uselessness of Simple Foreknowledge for Providence" (pp. 200-6) at this conclusion. Thus, Sanders equates "the fellowship model" and "the relational model of God" with "open theism" (see p. 207. He is determined to divide and conquer traditional theists by balkanizing Arminians, who hold to "simple foreknowledge," against the Calvinists, who hold to "divine determinism."
If the previous chapter attempts to rescue the term "divine omniscience" from the accretions of determinism and various views of foreknowledge, in this chapter Sanders beats back those theologians who "attempt to coopt the term sovereignty for themselves, saying it can have only one meaning—theirs—and thus disqualifying from the discussion any position but their own" (p. 208). One of those theologians, R. C. Sproul, claims, "If God is not sovereign, then God is not God" (p. 208). (11) Sanders explains, "By sovereign Sproul means exercising exhaustive control over every detail that happens, and thus God by definition must exercise this sort of sovereignty" (p. 208). Now comes Sanders's coup de theatre, that is, his reversal of the charges. Sanders insists that it is not his view, but the traditional view that diminishes God: "Such thinkers limit God by asserting that God cannot decide which sort of sovereignty to practice" (p. 208). It is not the God of those who believe in "specific sovereignty" who is truly free; he is bound and limited by his inventors. It is the God of those who embrace "general sovereignty" who is truly free. Sanders explains, "God is sovereign over his sovereignty and is thus free to choose what sorts of relations he desires to create" (p. 211). Unlike those who insist that "sovereignty" must mean "exhaustive control" and impose upon God their own "preconceived notion (dignum Deo)" of deity (p. 208), for Sanders, God had exhaustive sovereignty before he sovereignty chose to create relationships that limited him to exercise "general sovereignty."
This chapter sustains his absolute antithesis between his view and the traditional view of God's providence, between "the risk and no-risk, or relational and nonrelational models of providence" (p. 237). He puts his view to the theological test of "adequacy to the demands of life." He raises the questions:
What do these two models of providence have to say about sin, grace and salvation? What insight do they give us into the problem of human suffering and into our experience of evil? Are Christians justified in believing that prayers of petition make a difference to God? Can we ever fail to understand God's guidance? (p. 237)
Briefly, on sin and salvation, the problem with Augustine and his theological heirs is that they believe, "Due to our sinful nature we are only free to sin. We can never desire God because our sinful nature excludes such 'good' desires" (p. 238). For Sanders, a different view of sin and grace is in order.
Since its arrival on the scene, sin has become a universal human experience. Each of us grows up in relation to other sinners and sinful institutions and organizations. Socially, we are born into sin. Individually, we follow our forbears in sin. (p. 243)
He views "sin as the breaking of a relationship rather than as some sort of entity or condition" of the human heart (p. 251). So, Sanders has a problem with Calvin's view that "The very inequality [distribution] of his grace proves that it is free" (p. 242). God freely gives his love and grace to whomever he wills, but "to say that God gives his love freely does not require that God withhold it from some" (p. 242). Sanders contends that Augustine and Calvin "run together" the idea of free grace with the idea that grace is not deserved (p. 242). Instead, God is like a human father whose love is properly doubted if he should deny equal assistance for rehabilitation to his two drug-addicted sons (p. 242). Unlike Augustine's God, who engages in "divine rape" by forcing his will upon the elect (p. 240), Sanders's deity gives "enabling grace" to every human who has ever or will ever live (p. 245). "The love of Jesus elicits our loving response and motivates our imitation of his love" (p. 246). Contrary to Augustine's view of God, Sanders argues that "God does not rape us, even for our own good. ... God takes risks with enabling grace in that people are not forced to believe" (p. 246). His God only enters into a consensual relationship, and when God seeks our consent he always puts himself at risk because "it is possible for us (however unreasonably) to refuse" (p. 246).
God has sovereignty decided not to control everything that happens. Rather God is sensitive to us and has decided to be responsive to us. In some things, God has decided to be conditioned by us. Divine conditionality is the watershed issue between the risk and the no-risk views of providence. ... There is no eternal blueprint by which all things happen exactly as God desires. (p. 280)
Sanders's argument sometimes presumes greater understanding of terms, issues, and historical-theological knowledge than many readers may bring to it. Yet Sanders generally makes his points understandable and clear. (12) However, the argument is so protracted and repetitive that many are likely to abandon the book. His fifty-six pages of notes provide insight, for they indicate who his theological allies truly are; it is frequently non-evangelical theologians to whom he appeals for support. Sanders places some of his more derisive comments in the endnotes (e.g., p. 296 n. 131; p. 299 n. 6; p. 310 n. 79; p. 334 n. 61). He also buries in his endnotes questions that might scandalize some readers. (13)
Only Sanders's sympathetic readers will not be put off by the sarcasm that runs throughout the book. For example, concerning "orthodox Christians" who "claim that biblical anthropomorphisms are 'accommodations' on God's part to our limited abilities to understand," Sanders responds, "Perhaps, but how do they know this is so? Have they found out the God beyond God?" (p. 33). Calvin, in particular, comes under sharp blows for his statement,
God is wont in a measure to "lisp" in speaking to us. Thus such forms of speaking do not so much express clearly what God is like as accommodate the knowledge of him to our slight capacity. To do this he must descend far beneath his loftiness. (Institutes 1.13.1)
Of course, those making such a claim were somehow able to transcend their finite minds in order to know what God is really like. That is, they seemingly believed they could observe God using both lisping and normal discourse and were consequently able to tell the rest of us which forms of discourse were accommodations and which were literal. ... I do want to point out that lurking behind the notion of divine accommodation seems to be the idea that some people know for a fact what God is really like and are thus able to inform the rest of us ... "duller folk" that we are mistaken. (pp. 33-4) (14)
Again, when Calvin explains that divine "repentance" is to be "taken figuratively," as "accommodation" by anthropomorphism for "we cannot comprehend him as he is" (Institutes 1.17.12), Sanders is less than charitable with him by saying,
Of course, one may ask how Calvin acquired the correct knowledge of the God beyond the scriptural revelation in order to know that God was accommodating himself to us. ... [H]ow does Calvin know, if not by divine revelation? If he claims it is taught in Scripture, where does he get his criterion for claiming that texts saying that God "will not change his mind" ... refer to the way God really is, whereas texts saying that God "will change his mind" refer to the way God appears to be to us? (p. 156; italics original)
It does not seem to occur to Sanders that others could ask this same question of him when he claims, "Though God sustains everything in existence, he does not determine the results of all actions or events, even at the subatomic level" (p. 215). How did Sanders acquire such knowledge of God's activities at the "subatomic level"? But, more important, one should inquire how Sanders accounts for biblical texts such as Prov 16:33, "The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the Lord" (NASB). Or, one could ask how he explains that the random slinging of an arrow fulfills the prophesied death of King Ahab (cf. 1 Kgs 22:34; 22:28, 38).
Throughout his book, Sanders sets up an absolute antithesis that misrepresents the views of those he opposes, for he reduces the Augustinian-Calvinistic viewpoint to fatalism. It is apparent throughout that he has an emotional aversion to any "no-risk" view of God's providence. Thus, he claims theologians of the no-risk view "attempt to win the debate simply by definition," because as far as they see it, "divine sovereignty can only mean exhaustive control of all things" (p. 11). Sanders infers that these theologians philosophically forged their definition out of whole cloth and not out of Scripture. He chastens them, saying,
We have to observe what God has chosen to do in history—based preeminently on the history of Israel and Jesus of Nazareth—rather than simply define the type of sovereignty God must exercise. (p. 11)
Anyone who charitably reads the literature that has come from the pens of men such as Augustine, Martin Luther, John Calvin, Jonathan Edwards, R. C. Sproul, Paul Helm, D. A. Carson, John Piper, etc., also knows that while they talk about God's sovereignty in exhaustive terms, they also speak of the significance and responsibility of choice on the part of God's creatures, whether angelic, demonic, or human. In fact, all these theologians carefully insist that both propositions are true and must be affirmed without nullifying one or the other. (15) Carson, for example, nicely lays out the two propositions:
1. God is absolutely sovereign, but his sovereignty never functions in Scripture to reduce human responsibility.
2. Human beings are responsible creatures—that is, they choose, they believe, they disobey, they respond, and there is moral significance in their choices; but human responsibility never functions in Scripture to diminish God's sovereignty or to make God absolutely contingent. (16)
Because Sanders will not say anything good concerning his opponents' views, he insists on enforcing his absolute antithesis: one must believe in Sanders's deity who is "relational" and takes "risks," or one is left with only one other choice, which is a God who is "nonrelational," "manipulative," exercises "meticulous providence," and "rapes" humans by forcing his will upon them. This exaggerated antithesis is present both in his arguments with his opponents and in his handling of Scripture. To the latter we now turn.
Sanders complains that those he opposes misinterpret biblical anthropomorphisms. They dismiss those that do not fit their own view, labeling them as "mere anthropomorphisms" (e.g., pp. 52, 62, 69, 72, 160, 187, 257). And they unfairly elevate other anthropomorphisms to an elite status.
First, he believes that the metaphor of "God as king," has dominated theology long enough (p. 11). It must be dethroned and replaced with "the metaphor of God as risk taker." The hegemony of the royal metaphor must be shattered, and we need to open up "new ways for us to understand what is at stake for God in divine providence" (p. 11). While Sanders properly recognizes that the vastness of God cannot be captured by a "single metaphor" (p. 72), he immediately asserts that one particular metaphor should be recognized as "a significant controlling metaphor in the biblical narrative" (p. 72). Which metaphor is this? It is "divine repentance." Why? Because it "is pervasive in the Old Testament" (p. 72). But what has Sanders done? Has he not committed the same error for which he criticizes traditional theists? If they are guilty of reading the biblical narrative through the narrow aperture of the royal metaphor ("God as king"), Sanders is guilty of reading the Scriptures through the single lens of his preferred "repentant God" metaphor ("God as risk taker").
An illustration of Sanders's procedure is in order. Sanders alleges that traditional theists, particularly of the Augustinian-Calvinistic tradition, read the "potter" imagery "as a controlling metaphor" in discussions that concern divine providence (p. 86). This is a disingenuous criticism coming from Sanders, for while he charges that they are wrong to adopt the potter as the controlling metaphor, he adopts his own controlling metaphor, arguing that theirs has dominated "for so long in theology" (p. 11). He correctly reminds us, "[I]n certain respects God can rightfully be described as a potter, but God is not a potter in all respects" (p. 85). Here, Sanders quarrels with a strawman, for the best representatives of the Augustinian-Calvinistic tradition do not reify the potter imagery (e.g., Isa 29:15-16; 45:9-13; Jeremiah 18) as he alleges. They do not read the metaphor to mean that because the clay represents people, human choice is utterly nullified. They follow Paul's use of such texts. The metaphor does depict God to be sovereign over humans in such a manner that God's plans for humans are not contingent upon human choices (Rom 9:14-24). It is Sanders who mishandles the potter imagery, for he claims, "The fact that Israel can take initiative violates the metaphor, since clay cannot take initiative" (p. 86). Of course "the relationship between Yahweh and Israel is not exactly like that of a potter and clay" (p. 86). But who among theologians he opposes has ever said it is?
Sanders rightly chastens any traditional theist who would elevate one biblical imagery to the level of "controlling metaphor" or to reify such a metaphor, but he fails to heed his own chastening, for he imposes his preferred metaphor upon the biblical text as a grid that controls what the text can say. He essentially admits this in the introduction. He says,
I am examining providence through the lens of divine risk taking and am studying aspects of providence in order to see what should be said concerning a risk-taking God. This will lead some readers to judge the book "imbalanced." (p.14)
Yes, it is imbalanced, because he has imposed his "God as risk-taker" motif upon the Bible. But not only does he force his "God as risk-taker" grid upon the text, he also reifies his "controlling metaphor" of divine repentance.
This raises his second concern with regard to biblical anthropomorphisms. Sanders objects to traditional theists for believing that metaphorical descriptions of God, such as changes of mind, "are not actually to be attributed to God" (p. 20). What he means is that they don't take anthropomorphisms literally, as he does. This is evident in his criticism of how "traditional theists" handle those biblical texts concerning God's "repentance" or his "change of mind." Sanders explains,
Claiming that biblical texts asserting that God "changed his mind" are merely anthropomorphisms does not tell us what they mean. If, in fact, it is impossible for God to change his mind, then the biblical text is quite misleading. Asserting that it is a nonliteral expression does not solve the problem because it has to mean something. Just what is the anthropomorphic expression an expression of? Thus classical theists are left with the problem of misleading biblical texts, or, at best meaningless metaphors regarding the nature of God. (p. 69)
If Sanders had patience to read with charity Calvin's Institutes and others with whom he disagrees, he would discover that they do not, in fact, assign biblical imagery concerning God "to the dustbin of anthropomophism" (p. 68) or dismiss metaphor as "merely anthropomophism" (p. 69) or simply assert that God's "repentance" is a "nonliteral expression" (p. 69). (17) The problem is not theirs; John Sanders has the problem. Why? It is because he insists that certain biblical figures of speech must be taken literally. Note how Sanders lacks caution when he says,
Anthropomorphic language does not preclude literal predication to God. ... What I mean by the word literal is that our language about God is reality depicting (truthful) such that there is a referent, an other, with whom we are in relationship and of whom we have genuine knowledge. (p. 25)
The word "literal" is a slippery term, which if not used carefully will lead to confusion, at best, and to idolatry, at worst. Does Sanders mean "literal" as opposed to "not actual, not real?" Or does he mean "literal" as opposed to "figurative"? He is confused. He correctly states, "Metaphors do not provide us with an exact correspondence to reality, but they do provide a way of understanding reality" (p. 72). However, while Sanders refuses to reify anthropomorphic ascription of eyes and hands to God, he equivocates when "repentance" is ascribed to God (p. 72). He clearly moves beyond equivocation to reify or literalize anthropomorphism when he objects to the way John Calvin, Paul Helm, and Bruce Ware understand texts concerning God's "repenting" (as in 1 Sam 15:11, 29, 35). Sanders objects, "On what basis do these thinkers claim that these biblical texts do not portray God as he truly is but only God as he appears to us?" (p. 68, italics added). Does he mean to say that God really does repent? Yes, that is exactly what he means, because unlike those thinkers, Sanders will not treat the words as "merely anthropomorphisms" (p. 69). He confidently asserts, "If, in fact, it is impossible for God to change his mind, then the biblical text is quite misleading" (p. 69). Sanders makes anthropomorphic "repentance" portray God as he really is. (18) Sanders does not realize that he has reified metaphors and anthropomorphisms concerning God, despite the fact that he says, "It may be objected that divine repentance is literally impossible, since God has exhaustive foreknowledge of future events" (p. 73, italics added). Because he regards "divine repentance" to be a major "controlling metaphor" throughout the biblical narrative (p. 72), as a matter of course, Sanders takes "divine repentance" to portray God as he really is (pp. 75, 77). Therefore,
If God decides to disclose himself to us as a personal being who enters into relationship with us, who has purposes, emotions and desires, and who suffers with us, then we ought to rejoice in this anthropomorphic portrait and accept it as disclosing to us the very nature of God. (p. 38, italics added)
Sanders is rather inattentive concerning his use of the term literal. But to be fair, it does not appear that he is disingenuously exploiting the slipperiness of the term "literal." It appears more likely that he is sloppy in his use of "literal," for he is unaware that his own explanation of figurative language concerning God actually migrates from his mild disclaimer that metaphors do not provide "an exact correspondence to reality" (p. 72). He contrasts his reading of anthropomorphisms with that of those he opposes. While they throw them onto a scrapheap (p. 68), John Sanders believes "all biblical metaphors are to be taken seriously" (p. 72, italics added). It is evident that "seriously" is, for Sanders, another word for "literally." Sanders confuses these two terms throughout the book. For example, he insists that "the Bible does not need to be read as a two-layered cake with the top layer representing how God appears to us . . . and the bottom layer representing how God really is" (p. 187). Interpreted, this means, "There is no need to dismiss as mere anthropomorphisms the texts in which God plans, repents, changes in his emotional state, anticipates or is surprised at our sinful response" (p. 187). Then, without any indication that he realizes that he has reified metaphors and anthropomorphisms, Sanders says, "They are metaphors that reveal the kind of God who addresses us" (p. 187).
So, against traditional theists who understand anthropomorphism to provide an accommodating glimpse of God who condescends in love as an actor in his unfolding drama of redemption, Sanders understands such figures of speech as "divine repentance" to portray God as he actually is. In this, he and his fellow "open theists" have followed the lead of Clark Pinnock, who reasons, "According to the Bible, God anticipates the future in a way analogous to our own experience" (italics added). (19) They have inverted the imago Dei. While the biblical text insists that humans are analogous to God—man was made in God's image—Sanders and "open theists" insist that God is analogous to humans—God exists in man's image. (20) For "open theists," human qualities become the point of reference by which they understand and measure God.
Sanders's interpretation of 1 Samuel 15 is unpersuasive. The story of Saul's demise as king over Israel explicitly disallows his explanation of the two times God is said to "repent." The story includes v. 29 for the express purpose of proscribing a childish and irreverent reading which might presume that the anthropomorphic language of vv. 11 and 35 portray God as he actually is. Over Sanders's intense objections, 1 Sam 15:29 makes this abundantly clear, for the text reads, "He who is the Glory of Israel does not lie or change his mind; for he is not a man, that he should change his mind" (NIV). This text warns Sanders not to do the very thing he does. It warns him not to reason, "When the text uses the same verb in verses 11 and 35 to say that 'God regrets,' the text means that God really does change his mind." Contrary to Sanders, 1 Sam 15:29 must be taken in the most comprehensive sense as an assertion about what the God of Israel is always like (see p. 69). To read the text like this is not a "disparagement of anthropomorphism," as Sanders claims (p. 20). Nor does such a reading "describe an abstract transcendence" (p. 22). The verse expressly characterizes the God of Israel as one who, under no circumstances either "lies" or "changes his mind." (21)
Sanders repeatedly censures his opponents, such as Augustine, for assuming "what is fitting for God to be (dignum Deo)" and then uses this understanding "to filter the biblical message" (p. 149). He argues that such theologians are saying in effect, "Any God worth his salt must conform to our intuitive notions of deity or get out of the deity business" (p. 33). If this is an error for Augustine and Calvin, is it not an error when Sanders uses his own dignum Deo as a lens through which to read the Bible, fitting everything into his own "preconceived notion" of what deity must be like (cf. p. 208)? He correctly notes, "When we read the Scripture through the lenses of certain models, we tend to interpret Scripture from that perspective" (p. 16). Sanders wants readers to believe that his view of God as "risk taker" emerges from the pages of Scripture. (22) Yet, at the same time he admits, "I am examining providence through the lens of divine risk taking" (p. 14). Should Sanders be exonerated for doing the very thing he reprimands in others? Is Augustine's error to use a reading lens, or is it failing to admit, as Sanders does, that he uses a reading glass? One could point to numerous examples to demonstrate how Sanders imposes upon the biblical text his "open theist" view of what God must be like (dignum Deo). To do so would inflate this critique to book-length. Four categories of evidence must suffice.
Why do "open theists" such as John Sanders not reify anthropomorphisms which attribute a mouth, eyes, ears, hands, arms, etc. to God? Why not literalize a metaphor that portrays God as a father? Is it not because there are verses which affirm generalized principles that prohibit such an error? God who made the heavens and earth is not in need of food, though he speaks with his mouth. He does not eat the animal sacrifices required of the people (Ps 50:1-13). The Lord who made the heavens and earth ever keeps watch over his people as a watchman. Yet, his eyes do not grow weary and close in slumber, nor does he refresh himself with sleep (Ps 120:2-4). God who sits enthroned upon the heavens is like a father who has compassion on his children. Yet, he is not like man who flourishes and quickly fades away (Ps 103:13-19). All these passages that use anthropomorphic language concerning God include sufficient information, though not always explicit, to quash reification of the imagery. Certainly, it is not merely because John 4:24 declares, "God is spirit" that Sanders does not actualize anthropomorphisms concerning eyes, ears, and hands. If Sanders insists upon a literal reading of anthropomorphisms "in texts in which God plans, repents, changes in his emotional state, anticipates or is surprised at our sinful response" (p. 187), why is he not consistent? He is sure that Genesis 22 means that "God genuinely does not know" whether or not Abraham trusts him (p. 52). Why not then be honest and admit that God not only does not know the future free acts of creatures, but that he also does not know some of the present secrets in human hearts? If God "does not know" something, the present, and not just the future, is involved. Also, why not be consistent and read God's anthropomorphic question, "Adam, where are you?" (Gen 3:9; cf. vs. 11), to indicate that God does not know at least some things that are in the present? Furthermore, why not read Gen 18:20-21 in the same way? The Lord tells Abraham, "The outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is so great and their sin so grievous that I will go down and see if what they have done is as bad as the outcry that has reached me. If not, I will know." If Sanders is going to insist that his reading of biblical anthropomorphisms is consistent, then he must believe that God does not have present knowledge of the affairs in Sodom, for God was only basing his present knowledge on reports. Thus, God has to find out what is now happening in Sodom. God doesn't know until he goes down there. Open theists dare not be consistent with such texts, because to be uniform necessitates that they admit that there are some things that God does not presently know.
The traditional view of God, which Sanders so dislikes, has prevailed in the church precisely because, as Christians read the Bible, they instinctively recognize two prominent and yet diverse ways in which God portrays himself. First, Christians have always understood that God reveals himself as one who transcends human knowledge (Isa 40:13-14), who ordains all things that come to pass (Eph 1:11), who declares things before they come to pass (Isa 41:26), who purposes to do whatever he desires with no one having the power to thwart his intentions (Ps 115:3; Isa 14:27; Dan 4:35), who ordains the most fortuitous events, including lots or dice (Prov 16:33), who determines when even a sparrow should fall to the ground or a hair should be uprooted from the scalp (Matt 10:29-30). Second, Christians have also read in the Bible that God discloses himself as a person who relates to his creatures, who inquires where Adam is located, who tests Abraham, who is grieved over wickedness, who repents that he has made Saul king, who becomes incarnate as a man. Anthropomorphism and metaphor are crucial, for they disclose things about God that we would not know without them, qualities that we must factor in to our affirmations concerning God. Sanders virtually ignores the first set of passages as he concentrates his efforts upon the latter. Though he honestly believes that his theological opponents have nullified this second set of passages with the first, it is he who has done the converse. This is irresponsible. Those against whom Sanders so vigorously fights have devoted much of their lives attempting to handle these two biblical themes responsibly and even-handedly.
If Sanders restricts the "pancausality" passages, which speak general language concerning God within a given historical context, why not restrict every portrayal of God to a specific historical context, since all Scripture is historically conditioned? When Sanders dismisses the prophet's question, "When disaster comes to a city, has not the LORD caused it?" (Amos 3:6), he must be governed by theological prejudice, for the whole context is full of generalized, not historically specific, cause-effect relationships. Consider also Jeremiah's words: "Who can speak and have it happen if the Lord has not decreed it? Is it not from the mouth of the Most High that both calamities and good things come?" (Lam 3:37-38). Sanders has to oppose the obvious generalized meaning of the text, for otherwise his whole case shatters. Like a child who covers his eyes to disappear, Sanders supposes that restricting these passages to specific historical contexts protects God from being involved in calamity in general (see pp. 83-4, 121). But don't these texts still say that God caused the calamity? Not according to Sanders. The texts don't quite mean what they say, for the "'bad' that has come on Israel is a consequence of sin," not of God's initiation (p. 83).
In The God Who Risks, there is plenty of fodder for D. A. Carson to chew on in his third edition of Exegetical Fallacies. Time and again, Sanders exhibits linguistic deficiency. In his attempt to salvage his restrictive view that God has only present and past knowledge, he commits two fallacies in interpreting the root paradidomi in John's gospel. He presumes that the etymology of the word establishes the meaning (the root fallacy), and he prescribes that one meaning ("hand over") to every use of the word (the prescriptive fallacy) (pp. 98-9). He indulges in semantic anachronism by imposing the current English use of "prognosis" upon Luke's use of the Greek word prognosis in Acts 2:23. Sanders also commits the prescriptive fallacy with regard to the use of the three words (kabed, hazaq, and gashah) to describe God's "hardening" of Pharaoh's heart. He reasons that because the Hebrew words could mean "to make something strong" (p. 59), that this is what the words mean in every context. Thus, "God strengthened Pharaoh's heart" (p. 121). Furthermore, Sanders requires too much of conditional language throughout the Bible. Without showing any reflection on traditional accounts of conditional or contingent language in the Bible and how it relates to God, he uncritically quotes Terence Fretheim, who claims that "if" necessarily "implies a somewhat uncertain future"' (p. 58). (23) Later Sanders claims, because God says through the prophet Jeremiah, "if you repent then I will let you remain in the land" (Jer 7:5-7), "Such 'if' language—the invitation to change—is ingenuine if God already knew they would not repent" (p. 74). Conditional language in itself cannot properly be taken to infer uncertainty or certainty, either for humans or for God. (24) While it is entirely true that the events God has ordained to come to pass are conditional (that is they are ordered in a cause-effect relationship), God's planning of the events is not conditional. That is, his act of foreordaining is not conditioned by the things he decreed, but the things he decreed are conditioned upon the occurrence of their causes. This is so because for every conditioned event, God's foreordination equally determined the cause as well as its effect.
Sanders's dislike of Augustinianism and Calvinism appears to prompt some contradictions, such as when he disallows certain theological distinctions to Calvinists that he himself appropriates when he needs them. Two examples stand out.
Compatibilists have long insisted that God employs means or secondary causes to accomplish his ordained purposes. Because he is so intensely driven by his notion of "libertarian freedom," Sanders rejects the idea of "secondary causes." He claims,
Calvin seeks to deflect the charge that God is then responsible for sin by defining human freedom in compatibilistic terms and by making use of the Scholastic notion that God worked through secondary causes. As long as God does not directly determine events but only establishes the causes by which they come about, God is thought to be absolved of blame. (p.155)
This statement is remarkable for two reasons. First, the latter statement shows that Sanders does not accurately understand Calvin's view. For Calvin had no problem affirming that God in fact predetermined the Crucifixion; God planned both the event and the causes of it. Yet, because God ordained that secondary agents—Herod, Pontius Pilate, the Gentiles, and Israelites (Acts 4:27-28)—should conspire to murder his Son, God is not culpable for the crime. Second, Sanders finds it necessary for himself to retreat to the same concept. Early in the book, as he works with biblical texts, Sanders tries to explain how future events said to be definite can agree with "open theism." He explains, "Texts indicating that a future event is definite suggest that either the event is determined by God to happen in that way or God knows the event will result from a chain of causal factors that are presently in place" (p. 75, italics added). How does his appeal to "a chain of causal factors" differ from the compatibilist's idea of "secondary causes"? (25)
Yet, even after he makes this semi-veiled appeal to "secondary causes," he repudiates the idea of "secondary causes" again only seventeen pages later. When it is both convenient and necessary to make a distinction concerning causation, Sanders adopts the compatibilist's idea of "secondary causes," but he does so with a thin veil by assigning a different name to it. So when he responds to Paul Helm's charge that anyone who believes that his salvation is based on an act of free will has grounds for boasting before God, Sanders answers with a distinction
between the complete cause and the most significant cause. For instance, if an arsonist uses gasoline in setting fire to a building, then gasoline and combustible material are certainly causal factors in the fire. In the moral realm, however, we would look for the most significant cause and that would be the arsonist. God is clearly the most significant cause, but not the complete or sole cause, of the personal relationship. (p. 247, italics added) (26)
Sanders, then, does distinguish between God's action and human action. But by using his designations-complete cause and most significant cause-he assigns too much to humans and too little to God and does not escape Paul Helm's criticism.
Not only does Sanders reject Calvin's appeal to "secondary causes" and then use the same basic distinction for his own advantage, he also refuses Calvin's "non-egalitarian" argument concerning divine providence and then uses it for himself, again, when it is advantageous. Calvin argues against the pagan notion that things happen by chance, without divine causation (Institutes 1.16.2-3). Sanders summarizes Calvin's claim:
In life one person escapes shipwreck and another drowns; one is rich and another is poor; one mother has abundant breast milk and another has hardly any. Calvin says that all these circumstances are expressly arranged by God for some reason. (p. 212)
In other words, Calvin argues that one must not reason that because things appear to happen fortuitously and not with egalitarian equity then God did not ordain all things. While Sanders refuses Calvin any use of this argument, he reserves the right to use it when it is expedient. He challenges Gordon Kaufman's view that God does not do any special acts in human history. Sanders claims,
What Kaufman and others really want is a uniform code of egalitarian relations that God must follow. ... But we have no grounds for believing that a personal God is under some obligation to ensure total equality for us regarding life's circumstances. Moreover, no human has any sort of claim or right to a special act of God. Nevertheless, in my opinion, God is much more active than we can ever identify. But most of his work—like most of an iceberg—goes largely unseen. Theists simply do not know all the reasons behind God's actions, such as why God may act in one situation for one person but not, insofar as we know, in another situation for someone else. Does this imply God's acts are arbitrary? In order to establish arbitrariness we would have to have access to all of God's knowledge and intentions. Critics such as Kaufman utilize the principle of egalitarianism in order to rule out any possibility of divine action and so opt for some form of deism. Those who affirm a personal God who interacts with us will prefer to live with the uncertainty of knowing why God does some things and not others. Admittedly, that God does some things and not others means that providence is not run on a purely egalitarian basis. (p. 261) (27)
How can Sanders refuse Calvin the same basic argument he employs? Three reasons seem apparent. First, Sanders is concerned to preserve his view of "God as personal." He believes that Calvin, like Kaufman, holds to an impersonal God, though one is virtually a fatalist while the other is a deist. Second, Sanders fails to realize that he is using Calvin's argument, simply applied to a different opponent of Christian faith. Third, though Sanders's "open theist" view of God is very defective, he actually mounts a traditionalist and orthodox apologetic defense of the biblical doctrine of God's providence, not realizing that it agrees with Calvin's. Here, compatibilists should rejoice over Sanders's inconsistency.
Because the Cross is central to the Christian faith, it is necessary to point out the gravity of what Sanders is arguing. He plainly affirms that God the Father and God the Son did not plan the Crucifixion before creating all things. Rather, they both came to realize, that dark night in Gethsemane, that there was no alternative left "for this historical situation" (p. 100). One could wish that Sanders would reflect a bit more on biblical texts and be more cautious when speaking of the Cross of Jesus Christ. As he strives to be consistent within his theological commitments, he unfortunately challenges the heart of Christian faith. Apart from God's purposed intention to crush his own Son as the substitute who took upon himself "our transgressions" and "our iniquities" (Isa 53:5-6), Christ's death is a pointless tragedy. D. A. Carson has wisely observed,
If the initiative had been entirely with the conspirators, and God simply came in at the last minute to wrest triumph from the jaws of impending defeat, then the cross was not his plan, his purpose, the very reason why he had sent his Son into the world—and that is unthinkable. ... Christians who may deny compatibilism on front after front become compatibilists (knowingly or otherwise) when they think about the cross. There is no alternative, except to deny the faith. (28)
It is lamentable that Sanders does not back away from this precipice.
After referring to the Cross as a divine "gambit," Sanders backs away from attempting to explain the significance of the Cross, saying, "There is profound mystery in what God was doing on the cross, and I do not pretend to understand it" (p. 104). Nevertheless, he explains, "First, I understand sin to primarily be alienation, or a broken relationship, rather than a state of being or guilt" (p. 105). With such an understanding of humanity's plight, his explanation of the Cross predictably falls short of biblical descriptions. He says, "The cross did not transform the Father's attitude toward sinners from hatred to love. The Father has always loved his creatures—in spite of sin" (p. 104). So, when Sanders goes on with his attempt to explain the significance of the Cross for God and humanity, he does so without a hint of divine wrath, without any allusion to God's justice, and with no clear indication of substitution. The most one can charitably conclude from his discussion is that the Cross of Christ is best viewed in terms of Abelard's "moral influence" theory. There is not even an allusion to the classic text from Paul in Romans 3:23-26.
Whenever Sanders represents Calvinism or compatibilism, he uses highly charged statements with associative significance. He apparently wants to influence his readers to reject the view he scorns and to accept his "open theist" view of God. The compatibilist's God is "impersonal" and "manipulative" (p. 215). This God engages in "meticulous providence," for he cannot bear to have creatures who have "libertarian freedom" (p. 215). Sanders claims that those who hold the "no-risk view" do not believe in the sovereignty of God—they hold to "specific sovereignty" or worse, "the manipulative view of sovereignty" (p. 279). Such a view of God necessarily implies "a great deal of manipulation of humans" (p. 277), because that God is a "nonrelational" deity (p. 237). Such a "God never responds to creatures," but the God of "relational theism" enters "into genuine personal relations with creatures" (p. 195). No wonder, then, those who hold such a view of God are also impersonal and cold: as Sanders characterizes them, "For proponents of specific sovereignty there is no such thing as an accident or a genuine tragedy" (p. 212). Their God "micromanages" human events (p. 235). Not only is the "no-risk" God who exercises "exhaustive sovereignty" (p. 240) unworthy of human love, he also "is incapable of receiving our love because God is impassible and wholly unconditioned by us" (p. 247). Such highly charged statements punctuate Sanders's whole book.
Thus, to Sanders, the God of Augustine, Luther, Calvin, and their theological descendants is just as much a counterfeit representation of the God of the Bible as is the God of process theism. He says,
Such distorted images of omnipotence end up with a loveless power. God is the powerful, domineering Lord who always gets precisely what he wants. In contrast to this is process theism's God of powerless love, who is impotent to act unilaterally in the world in the ways depicted in Scripture. (p. 190)
He argues, if readers repel process theism, they ought to repel traditional theism with equal repugnance.
One simply cannot have it both ways: either God controls everything and the divine-human relationship is impersonal, or God does not control everything and so it is possible for the divine-human relationship to be personal. I have argued that God is wise, competent and resourceful in dealing with us instead of manipulating all that happens. This may seem to diminish sovereignty, but "the sovereignty that reigns unchallenged is not as absolute as the sovereignty that accepts risks." It requires tremendous wisdom, patience, love, faithfulness and resourcefulness to work with a world of independent beings. A God of sheer omnipotence can run a world of exhaustively controlled beings. But what is magnificent about that? (p. 215)
It is one thing to admit one's perplexity concerning how God can be absolutely sovereign over his creatures without, at the same time, nullifying their accountability. Paul acknowledges this difficulty when he says,
One of you will say to me: "Then why does God still blame us? For who resists his will?" But who are you, O man, to talk back to God? Shall what is formed say to him who formed it, "Why did you make me like this?" (Rom 9:19-20)
Sanders affirms that when the compatibilist's God saves people he engages in
divine rape because it involves nonconsensual control; the will of one is forced on the will of the other. Of course, the desire God forces on the elect is a beneficent one—for their own good—but it is rape nonetheless. (p. 240, italics added)
A charitable reader will wince at these words and may even absolve the author for momentary excess, but Sanders presumes upon such charity for he exploits this deplorable image twice more (p. 246). Later he repudiates Calvin's distinction between "remote cause" and "proximate cause" by saying,
If a child is raped and dismembered, there is a human agent who is the proximate cause, but God is the remote cause. The rapist is doing specifically what God ordained him to do. Hence the human agent is the immediate rapist and God is the mediate rapist. (pp. 2556, italics added)
Here Sanders blatantly caricatures the God whom Christians throughout the centuries have embraced by faith and worshiped. Does Sanders represent his "open theist" associates as a spokesman when he speaks like this? If so, are John Sanders, Clark Pinnock, Greg Boyd, David Basinger, and William Hasker consistent when they say that the traditional view of God which they oppose is part of orthodoxy? How can a God who is manipulative, micromanaging, non-relational, coercive, who forces his will upon people without consent, yes who is a rapist, be tolerated by any open theist? How can such a deity be accepted by anyone? It is unconscionable and unthinkable for them to concede that belief in such a God is orthodox. Surely they ought to denounce belief in such a deity as unorthodox, even heresy. Do not such characterizations of the traditional view of God tacitly admit that orthodoxy is at stake in this whole discussion? As characterized, it is no minor issue over which we disagree. The issue at stake entails two radically different views of God, or rather, two very different Gods.
Many readers will cast The God Who Risks aside. Some will do so out of apathy, others out of uneasiness lest their faith fail, and others out of disgust with the view of God presented by Sanders. To the degree that Sanders arrests any whose excessive zeal for Calvinism causes them to slip into a kind of fatalism, may God be praised even for using this book for such good. However, others will be attracted to accept Sanders's view of God. Two kinds of people are especially vulnerable. Many college students whose Christian beliefs are not yet grounded but who already are asking the questions John Sanders raises and attempts to answer are prime targets for this book. Likewise, many who, after experiencing deep tragedies such as John Sanders did with the accidental death of his brother, may teeter on the brink of despising God. They are likely to find Sanders's explanations to be a way out of their dilemma, a dilemma that finds them caught between despising the God who orders all things, even tragedies, and wanting desperately to retain something of their faith. Here is the great danger of Sanders's book. He puts God at risk for these people. Yet no personal loss, however tragic, truly compares with the murderous plot to which God's Son submitted when he offered himself as the acceptable sacrifice to avert God's wrath from his people. At once the Cross and the participants were ordained by God and the players conspired against God's Anointed One (Acts 4:27-28). If anyone follows Sanders's guidance fully on how to understand such events, one jeopardizes faith in the God of the Bible.
I regret that I must put it so starkly, but The God Who Risks is a dangerous book. It is dangerous not only because Sanders forges a God who resembles the image and likeness of man, but also because he builds his argument upon artifice, misrepresentation, prejudiced and selective use of biblical texts, pejorative remarks, and historical selectivity, all intended to induce disgust toward the God Christians have worshiped, from the beginning, and to welcome the deity of "open theism." Anyone who will read The God Who Risks must do so with great caution, for it is a danger zone to Christian faith. It is a crucible in which one's faith in the God portrayed in the Bible will be tested. One will be strengthened or injured to the degree one rejects or heeds Sanders's siren call to put God at risk.
1. Clark Pinnock, Richard Rice, John Sanders, William Hasker, and David Basinger, The Openness of God: A Biblical Challenge to the Traditional Understanding of God (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1994).
2. Harold Kushner, When Bad Things Happen to Good People (New York: Schocken, 1981).
3. See Richard Rice, God's Foreknowledge and Man's Free Will (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 1980). Rice's book was originally titled The Openness of God. See also Clark Pinnock, "Between Classical and Process Theism," in Process Theology (ed. Ronald Nash; Grand Rapids: Baker,1987).
4. More than a decade ago, Clark Pinnock argued, "God is omniscient in the sense that he knows everything which can be known, just as God is omnipotent in the sense that he can do everything that can be done. But free actions are not entities which can be known ahead of time. They literally do not yet exist to be known" ("God Limits His Knowledge," in Predestination and Free Will: Four Views of Divine Sovereignty and Freedom [Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1986] 157). Cf. Gregory A. Boyd and Edward K. Boyd, Letters from a Skeptic (Wheaton: Victor,1994) 30-1.
5. See Thomas Oden, "The Real Reformers and the Traditionalists," Christianity Today 42 (9 February 1998) 46. Oden says, "If 'reformists' insist on keeping the boundaries of heresy open, however, then they must be resisted with charity. The fantasy that God is ignorant of the future is a heresy that must be rejected on scriptural grounds ('I make known the end from the beginning, from ancient times, what is still to come'; Isa. 46:10a; cf. Job 28; Ps. 90; Rom. 8:29; Eph. 1), as it has been in the history of exegesis of relevant passages. This issue was thoroughly discussed by patristic exegetes as early as Origen's Against Celsus."
6. Bavinck asserts that "all scripture is anthropomorphic" (Herman Bavinck, The Doctrine of God [Grand Rapids/Edinburgh: Eerdmans/Banner of Truth, 1951/1977] 86). However, Sanders's reference to Bavinck's statement, "On the one hand God is 'anonymous,' on the other he is nevertheless 'polynonymous"' (p. 90), both disconnects his expression "God is 'anonymous'" from its context and fails to understand his point. See The God Who Risks, 285 n. 29.
7. "God proclaims that particular judgments are coming if Pharaoh does not release the people. If, however, Pharaoh is so under divine control that he can let them go, then God's use of if is disingenuous, for the future is not open. By uttering a conditional, God is saying to Pharaoh that he does not have to persist in his intransigence; he may repent. If, however, God is controlling Pharaoh such that Pharaoh cannot do otherwise, then God's speech is deceitful" (p. 59).
8. Paul Helm, The Providence of God (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1994) 52ff.; Calvin, Institutes 1.17.12; Bruce Ware, "An Evangelical Reformulation of the Doctrine of the Immutability of God," JETS 29 (1986) 431-46.
9. Contrary to Calvin's words (Institutes 1.17.12-13; 1.13.21), Sanders claims, "I believe that Calvin is here following the long tradition of ruling out certain Scripture texts because they do not fit with a preconceived notion of what is fitting for God to be (dignum Deo)" (p. 295 n. 115). Calvin does not dismiss the text; he explains it.
10. Sanders's discussion here shows how much he and other "open theists" stand together. His three explanations of divine predictions echo Clark Pinnock's in his "God Limits His Knowledge," 157-8.
11. Admittedly, Sproul's discussion does move from his concept of what God must be like to what he is like (Chosen by God [Wheaton: Tyndale, 1988] 26). True as this is, Sanders does precisely the same thing from beginning to end of his own book. He is entirely governed by his own idea of what God must be like, and he imposes that idea upon the text of the Bible. Sanders does not read Sproul's book with much charity or kindness, for Sproul goes on to demonstrate his point from Scripture.
12. There are, of course, some grammatical errors (pp. 35, 216) and an unusually large number of printing errors—misspelled words (pp. 56, 68, 331), missing characters (pp. 68, 111), missing words (pp. 68, 70, 158), an incorrect verse reference (p. 83), an unfortunate double negative (p. 267).
13. For example, he comments: "Some people believe that Jesus could not have failed this test [in the wilderness] because he is God. This claim, however, is based on preconceived notions of what it means to be divine instead of paying attention to the actual way of God in the world. How does anyone know that it is impossible for the divine Son to fail a test? Why is it that the Incarnation cannot involve the genuine experience of vulnerability and testing? After all, Jesus' experience in Gethsemane seems to be just that" (p. 300 n. 15). He also questions his dissertation mentor, Adrio König, who claims, "God does not have the possibility of sinning." Sanders responds, "How can König be so sure that God cannot sin, given the total mystery of sin?" (p. 328 n. 47).
14. Sanders fails to note the humility with which Calvin approaches this issue: "Let us use great caution that neither our thoughts nor our speech go beyond the limits to which the Word of God itself extends. For how can the human mind measure off the measureless essence of God according to its own little measure, a mind as yet unable to establish for certain the nature of the sun's body, though men's eyes daily gaze upon it? Indeed, how can the mind by its own leading come to search out God's essence when it cannot even get to its own? Let us then willingly leave to God the knowledge of himself. For, as Hilary says, he is the one fit witness of himself, and is not known except through himself" (Institutes 1.13.21).
15. It is noteworthy that Sanders does not include any reference to some significant writings from either John Piper or D. A. Carson that address the very issues under discussion. From John Piper see, e.g., The Pleasures of God: Meditations on God's Delight in Being God (Portland: Multnomah, 1991); Let the Nations be Glad: The Supremacy of God in Missions (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1993); Future Grace (Sisters, OR: Multnomah, 1995); and from D. A. Carson see, e.g., How Long, O Lord?; and A Call to Spiritual Reformation: Priorities from Paul and His Prayers (Grand Rapids: Baker,1992).
16. Carson, A Call to Spiritual Reformation, 148.
17. No fewer than seven times does Sanders use the expression "merely anthropomorphisms" (pp. 52, 67, 69, 72, 160, 187, 257) in his attempt to devalue his opponents' explanations of anthropomorphic language that speaks of God's "repentance." His disregard for his opponents' careful explanations of such language exposes his bias.
18. On 1 Sam 15:11, 29, 35, Sanders says, "This chapter says both that God changes his mind and that God will not change his mind. In its context the teaching is clear: God reserves the right to alter his plans in response to human initiative, and it is also the divine right not to alter an alteration. Consequently we need not follow the suggestion that one set of texts is literal while the other is anthropomorphic, since both sets portray God in dymamic [sic] relations with humans" (p. 70).
l9. Pinnock, "God Limits His Knowledge," 157.
20. See my paper, "God in the Image and Likeness of Adam—Clark Pinnock's Use of Scripture in His Argument: 'God Limits His Knowledge,'" presented at the Forty-Ninth Annual Meeting of the Midwestern Section of the Evangelical Theological Society at Taylor University, Fort Wayne Campus, Fort Wayne, Indiana, 1996 (available from TREN). Cf. Norman Geisler, Creating God in the Image of Man? The New Open View of God—Neotheism's Dangerous Drift (Minneapolis: Bethany, 1997).
21. All Christian theologians should reflect upon Cornelius Van Til's discussion of anthropomorphism. Cf. John M. Frame, Cornelius Van Til: An Analysis of His Thought (Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R, 1995) 93ff.
22. Cf. his earlier essay, "God as Personal," in The Grace of God, The Will of Man: A Case for Arminianism (ed. Clark Pinnock; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1989) 165-80.
23. Note Sanders's absolutist reasoning concerning Pharaoh. "That the divine strengthening leaves Pharaoh with alternatives is indicated by the conditional language employed in [Exod] 8:2, 9:2 and 10:4. God proclaims that particular judgments are coming if Pharaoh does not release the people. If, however, Pharaoh is so under divine control that he cannot let them go, then God's use of if is disingenuous, for the future is not open. By uttering a conditional, God is saying to Pharaoh that he does not have to persist in his intransigence; he may repent. If, however, God is controlling Pharaoh such that Pharaoh cannot do otherwise, then God's speech is deceitful" (p. 59). Sanders reasons that all suppositional expressions that put humans under conditions necessarily make God contingent upon the same suppositions.
24. See my paper, "Deity, Conditional Language, and Human Response: An Apostolic Grammar Lesson," presented at the Forty-Ninth Annual Meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society at Santa Clara, California, 1997 (available from TREN).
25. This causes a theological dilemma for Sanders's view of a God to whom the future is open. This is so because if Sanders admits that anything in the future is certain to occur, whether by God's own determination or by God's knowledge in advance through observing results of "causal factors," all the causal factors had to be determined in advance also, or at least foreknown ahead of time. If anything is foreseen by God as certain to occur or is by him determined ahead of time to occur, then at least some things in the future really are not open to God after all. And if some things are not open, which things are these? Do any of these things depend upon free human action? If so, how can God know "the event will result" in a particular outcome? How can there be any certain knowledge on God's part without violating human freedom? If open theism admits that God does violate human freedom in one occasion, how does open theism escape the very charges they throw at classical theism, whether of the Arminian or Calvinist variety?
26. He appeals to J. R. Lucas's distinction between "complete cause" and "most significant cause" (Freedom and Grace [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1976] 2-3). Lucas, of course, is on Sanders's side, for their views of God are very similar. For example, he uses Lucas to define omniscience: "We do not regard it as any limitation of God's omniscience that he cannot know that two and two make five; neither should we think it strange that he cannot know what I am going to do in advance of my deciding what to do, since in that case there is nothing for God to know, and so no possible criticism of him for not knowing" (p. 226; cited from Freedom and Grace, 36). Evidently it does not occur to Sanders, or to Lucas either, that such an argument is invalidated by its shifting of categories.
27. Ironically, Sanders's response goes against his own use of this same argument in No Other Name when he insists that God must make salvation universally accessible or else he is both unjust and unloving (see e.g., pp. 71, 172, 216). Sanders concludes No Other Name by saying, "I consider the wider-hope views superior to restrictivism especially because they better represent the loving, saving God we find in Scripture—the God who was crucified for all sinners. Universally accessible salvation theories flatly reject the notion that God created billions of people without any possibility of salvation. ... God may save whom he will, and I believe that he has made acceptance into the eternal city available to every person who has ever lived" (pp. 281, 286).
28. Carson, How Long, O Lord? 212.
Ardel B. Caneday is Associate Professor of Biblical Studies at Northwestern College, Saint Paul, Minnesota.
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