Life is not a game of chess

Posted by Dan Martin | Posted in Open theology, Sovereignty of God | Posted on 30-05-2011

Chess Pieces

Is this all we are to God?

OK, so you know by now that the authors of this blog subscribe to the Open View of God, also called Open Theism.  It’s one of the four points of our ROCK summary of faith distinctives.  A key point all Open Theists make is that God does not know a settled, determined future–not because God’s knowledge is limited, but because no settled, determined future exists to be known.  I agree.  But in its place, prominent Open Theists describe God as knowing the vast combination of possible choices his created agents may make, comprehending and planning against these possibilities rather like an “infinitely intelligent chess player” who knows all the possible moves on the board, and has expert strategies to deal with all of them.  I’m not so sure about this part.

Ben said it this way last post on open theism:  “So does God know what i’m going to have for lunch in 15 years. Yep, he knows I will have x, or x, or x, or x, or x etc and he knows I won’t have x, or x, or x, or x etc – absolutely. Divine foreknowledge is foreknowledge none the less regardless of the manner in which it is known.“  Hold that thought…we’ll be coming back to it.

In addition to the incredible resource Greg Boyd’s God of the Possible has been for me, Ben pointed me to two other articles that masterfully lay out elements of the Open View of God, and which I heartily recommend interested readers should check out.  The first is Thomas Belt’s masterful apology for Open Theism, written to the Commission on Doctrinal Purity of the Assemblies of God church.   The second is Dennis Bratcher’s incisive article God’s Foreknowledge, Predestination, and Human Freedom.  To these, I would add a third article by Notre Dame professor Dr. Alan Rhoda, Generic Open Theism and Some Varieties Thereof (Religious Studies 44 (2008): 225–234) as a very interesting analysis of the logic of Open Theism.

Belt and Boyd both use the analogy of the Infinitely Intelligent Chess Player to describe how an omniscient God must know not just a single, settled compendium of future events, but rather all the various possibility-trees that might branch from the infinite combinations of choices we might make.  That’s what Ben was saying about his future lunch.  Bratcher steps back and explains why this discussion came to be, and in the process I think he shines a light on the error in the argument:

The kinds of questions asked in the early church, especially following Augustine in the 4th and 5th centuries, were metaphysical ontological questions about ultimate reality. And those questions were rooted in the Platonic and Neoplatonic philosophies that saw God and human existence in absolute or idealistic terms. God was defined by asking logical questions, and reaching logical answers. Basically, a view of God was developed whereby God was defined in terms of what a god ought to be to be God. While the results may not be totally invalid, they are obviously limited, and a departure from Scripture and God’s own revelation about himself in human history.

This explanation by Bratcher is key.  The very notion of God’s “having” to be omniscient is itself not a doctrine of the Bible, but rather part of Plato’s ideal of what a supreme God must be like–an ideal which Augustine adopted and “Christianized.”  Bratcher goes on to state that all of our beloved “omni-” doctrines (omniscience, omnipresence, omnipotence, etc.) actually arise from the logical conceptions of what God “ought” to be.  As he sums up his own point, I simply do not think these formulations are at all adequate, simply because they are our definition of what we want in a God or what a god by our definition should be, which does not necessarily define God very adequately. They are far too limiting, at the very point that they claim to be all encompassing! In other words, God does not have to be what we say he is, no matter how “big” or “omni-” we try to make what we say.

Now let me hasten to add that there are plenty of Biblical passages that tell us God is well aware of all that happens in his creation–not least Jesus’ own statement in Matt. 10:29.  I am not arguing that God knows less than everything that is to be known.  However, it is important to recognize that insisting on God’s exhaustive knowledge of the future–whether settled OR as possibilities–comes from extrabiblical sources.

It is only once we conclude that our doctrine of omniscience requires God to know everything about the future, that the question of  just what God foreknows becomes a “problem.”  The Infinitely Intelligent Chess Player, it seems to me, is the Open Theists solution to the problem our own logic created…a problem they should have called out at the same time they called out deterministic doctrines of the future.  Failing to do so, they have merely moved the foreknowledge problem down the road a piece without addressing the same flaw in their own logic.  I’m no trained philosopher, so I may get this technically wrong, but conceptually I’m going to try anyway:

Open Theism starts–never forget this–not from logical assumptions, but from observing that the God represented in our scriptures is a dynamic, interactive God who changes his mind, his plans, and his behavior in interaction with his creatures.  This is not wishful thinking and it’s not secular philosophy, it’s how the stories actually read.  Open Theists simply insist that no rationalization or mental gymnastics need be applied to the Biblical accounts of God dealing with his own people.  We do happen to think that this view also makes more logical sense, as Rhoda explains in the paper I cited above (see pp. 3&4).  As Rhoda explains it, Open Theists first of all believe in a necessary God who is maximally powerful, knowing, and good.  Where they depart from other orthodox Christians is in their conception of the future as open in two respects (and here I quote):

  • Causal openness: The future is causally open at time t with respect to state of affairs X and future time t* if and only if, given all that exists as of time t, it is really possible both that X obtains at t* and that X does not obtain at t*. (In other words, whether X obtains at t* or not is, as of t, a future contingent.)
  • Epistemic openness: The future is epistemically open for person S at time t with respect to some conceivable future state of affairs X if and only if for some future time t* neither ‘X will obtain at t*’ nor ‘X will not obtain at t*’ is known by S at t.

Rhoda then characterizes Open Theism as the contention that (1) the future is to some extent causally open (there are “future contingencies”), and (2) the future is to some extent epistemically open for God.

So far, so good.  But when Boyd, Belt, my buddy Ben (sheesh, do you have to have a “B” name for this discussion?) and others state that God has got all the possibilities contained in his (obviously huge) mind, I think they’re just kicking the can down the road a little further.  For all possible contingencies to be known–whether or not they will be chosen–it seems to me that those contingencies themselves have to be pre-defined by someone or something (let us assume that is God).  Taking the chess analogy a little further, every piece on the chessboard is placed in a specific location to start the game, and can only move in pre-determined patterns according to a pre-determined sequence.  There are myriad choices within the game, but no chess player, for example, can move his knight three places forward in a straight line.  A sufficiently-intelligent chess player can indeed keep all those choices cataloged and have a plan or strategy to deal with each, but he can never come up with a new and creative move of an individual piece.

I’m not convinced that’s what our free agency looks like.  True, God does give some binary choices, such as the good/evil life/death choice he set before the Israelites in Deut. 30:19.  But he also allows us freer creativity than that.  I think of the (admittedly maybe symbolic) naming of the animals in Gen. 2.  This story does not have God presenting Adam with a list of names to choose…he said in effect “what do you want to call this one?”  I think in some ways we’ve allowed our minds to become enslaved go good old Greek binary logic:  either this will happen, or it won’t; you can do x or y; this statement is true or false.  We have failed to recognize either the analog randomness (not all is quantum theory) or just plain craziness of humanity, let alone the rest of creation.  The reality, I think, is quite a bit messier than even an infinite possibility tree can encompass.

This is why I keep harping on God’s sovereignty as the lynchpin of my own Open View.  Whatever there is to be known, I agree God knows it, but I don’t think it matters nearly as much as my brethren seem to think it does.  The important thing, both for God’s rule and reign and for our ability to trust him, is that God as Sovereign has both the right and the power to accomplish his will in the world, even while dynamically interacting with a creation that is sometimes random and sometimes downright rebellious. Understanding that this supreme Sovereign has graciously delegated to his creatures, the ability and the liberty to love or hate him, to obey or disobey him, to seek or reject him, is the ultimate evidence that our Sovereign is also supremely good.


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