Feast upon the Word Blog

A blog focused on LDS scriptures and teaching

Thus Saith the Lord: Thou Wilt Probably, Maybe, Most Likely…

Posted by BrianJ on May 24, 2009

There are a couple of discussions going on about open theism, Calvinism, and Mormonism right now. The two main ones I’m trying to follow (I’ve gotten behind*) are at New Cool Thang and Heart Issues for LDS. Geoff J is doing an outstanding job articulating concerns and answering questions I have on the subject, but there is one point that still bugs me and I didn’t find Geoff’s answers completely satisfying: the issue of prophecy and God’s foreknowledge.Here’s the setup:

  • Geoff contends that Mormonism insists on a God that does not have exhaustive foreknowledge of the future (because this would be impossible if we really possess libertarian free will).
  • Gundeck asks how prophecies about the future could remotely be considered trustworthy if God doesn’t actually know the future.
  • Geoff replies that God is so super-smart, knowing both the past and the present completely, that he is “the ultimate predictor”. God is also capable, in Geoff’s (and Gundeck’s) view, of actually, you know, doin’ stuff to make sure what he prophesies happens. (My own example: God prophecied some nasty, weird, and impossible plagues in Egypt; we can’t distinguish between whether he knew beforehand that the Nile would be filled with blood the next day or he just made it happen when the time came.)
  • Gundeck denies this “really good guesser” God, and cites one example where God’s guessing either required a) impossibly accurate guessing about the decisions of free agents, or b) a God that actually saw the future—the case study: John 13, Jesus predicts/foresees that Peter will thrice deny him.
  • Geoff reminds Gundeck that God can, you know, do stuff; in this case, God nudged Peter here and opened the eyes of some woman there to set up the situation where Peter would be challenged three times before the night was over.
  • Gundeck scoffs at Geoff’s God, who is nothing but “a scientist standing over a maze of mice, controlling their actions by outside stimulus.”

As much as I disagree with Gundeck about God, I think he has a good point here. As a scientist who works with mice, I hope God’s job is nothing like mine!

What I’d like to ask is whether there isn’t some other explanation for Jesus’ “Peter prophecy.” Geoff says it was a prediction+influence, Gundeck says it was foreknowledge pure and simple, I wonder whether it was a warning with a choice.

Take, for example, Jonah’s mission to Ninevah. “God is going to kill you all dead,” Jonah prophesied, but then those darn Ninevites went off and repented and God had to change his plans—or change the future, or re-see the new future, or update his stochastic predictive algorithms. Or look at the dire future in store for Lot and his family: God was going to wipe out his city! Good thing Abraham stepped in and argued God into a dfferent plan. Maybe there are other examples worth looking at, but the point is: couldn’t some of God’s “predictions” just be warnings? In the case of Peter, could it be that Jesus just looked at him and thought, “Peter, everybody knows you’re my right-hand man, and I know you don’t have it in you to own up to it”? And what would we think if Peter had stuck up for Christ?

“Thou also wast with Jesus of Galilee”

“Darn right I was, and a better man I’ve never known!”

I’ll tell you what we’d think: we’d think that was pretty awesome of Peter and how wonderful it is that people like Peter and the Ninevites can repent and avoid catastrophe. But Peter didn’t confess Jesus and so we view this as foretold. But doesn’t it seem like whether we view God’s words as a prophecy (Peter’s case) or a warning (Ninevah’s case) is determined in hindsight?


* Like I said, I’ve fallen behind in the comments on those threads. It’s possible that my concern has already been addressed and thus this post is a waste of time. In that case, please ask the cashier for a refund before you exit.

10 Responses to “Thus Saith the Lord: Thou Wilt Probably, Maybe, Most Likely…”

  1. I haven’t kept up with all of the comments on these Calvinism v. Mormon Open Theism threads either, Brian, but here’s one theory a Latter-day Saint could use in the case of Peter’s denials: some Latter-day Saints believe that when Christ told Peter “You will deny me three times,” he was commanding him to deny Him so that Peter’s life would be preserved. This theory was held by one of my professors, John F. Hall, who has written articles for FARMS. I don’t have Hall’s book in which he discusses the subject handy right now, but here’s what Huntsman, Holzapfel and Wayment say about it in Jesus and the World of the New Testament:

    At times, the discussion of Peter’s denial has focused on the Savior’s words, “thou shalt deny,” which are a translation of the Greek word aparnese. The form aparnese is ambiguous, being the second person singular of either a future deponent indicative or an aorist deponent subjunctive. In both Luke and John, the verb appears in a temporal clause that requires a subjunctive and can only be translated “the cock will not crow until you deny me thrice.” Matthew and Mark use another construction, “before the cock crows thrice, you will deny me thrice,” which requires the verb to be a future form. Most grammarians coin this usage as a “predicative future.”

    Some commentators, in an attempt to explain Peter’s motivations, have wondered whether Jesus’ prediction included some veiled direction or command intended to preserve the impetuous but loyal disciple from premature death brought about by his desire to defend his Lord. This might be suggested by a classical usage, the “jussive future,” although the equivalent of this in Koine Greek—known either as “imperatival future” or “future indicative for volitive expressions”—generally reflects Old Testament usage and is used consistently in prohibitions such as “thou shalt not” or categorical injunctions such as “thou shalt.” Nevertheless, such imperatival futures do appear in Mark and are common in Matthew.

    Although it is possible that the accounts of Matthew and Mark suggest that Peter felt directed to deny Jesus, other considerations besides grammatical intricacies are significant. Before Jesus’ prediction, he had announced, “All ye shall be offended because of me this night” (Matthew 26:31; see also Mark 14:27). More important, Jesus’ questioning of Peter in John 21:15-19 allowed Peter to affirm his love for the Savior three times, perhaps balancing the earlier, threefold denial. Signaled in Peter’s momentary failure and complete redemption is the full power of Jesus’ loving forgiveness. (p. 99)

    However, even if this interpretation could be used by open theists to circumvent the problem of Jesus’ prediction of Peter’s denial, I think Gundeck still has a point. There are other prophecies in the Bible about the actions of free agents which require God to either have a very specific knowledge of the future or be the one to cause the actions to happen so that the agents aren’t really all that free—which is little more than divine entrapment.

    I don’t feel comfortable enough with all these different systems to play in this theological traffic. Suffer it to say that I’m seeing flaws in all of the above, and it’s giving me a headache.

  2. Matt W. said

    John Hall was here in TX a few years ago, Jack, and I remember him talking about that. (I remember because I was a new RM and I asked if he felt his sort of arguments really had any sort of value in missionary work. We agreed they normally would not.)

    As for the foreknowledge argument,your response is really basically saying that foreknowledge is often created in hindsight by those who write it…

  3. Yeah, he was fond of that theory. Obviously I disagree with it, but I still try to represent the position accurately.

    If I’m reading Brian right, he’s saying examples of foreknowledge in sacred writings could be seen as proleptic.

    (Proleptic is such a great word, we all need to get better at using it.)

  4. Geoff J said

    I want to note that I think this idea about the denial being a commandment is perfectly plausible as well. My main purpose in that debate was to show that between God’s predictive abilities and his intervention abilities 100% of the prophecies in scripture could be plausibly explained. Gundeck in the end agree at least that it was plausible so I was satisfied.

    Of course the follow up is that if it is plausible that we really have libertarian free will why on earth would we still try to flee from the rather intuitive idea that we really do have LFW? What use would exhaustive foreknowledge be to God anyway? No one has ever come up with a coherent explanation for me to that one.

  5. NathanG said

    Brian, I know we have discussed time for God and time for man, and while your thoughts on the subject are nice, perhaps a more traditional interpretation helps answer your question.

    Alma 40:8
    8 Now whether there is more than one time appointed for men to rise it mattereth not; for all do not die at once, and this mattereth not; all is as one day with God, and time only is measured unto men.

    If God sees our time all at once, he knows the beginning and the end and everything in between, I think he can be faithful to granting agency, and know what the outcome is.

    D&C 130 may give more on how God views our existence (although it seems to be directly describing how the angels, or ultimately we, may know of things in the past, present, future, and of higher and lower order kingdoms).

    7 But they reside in the presence of God, on a globe like a sea of glass and fire, where all things for their glory are manifest, past, present, and future, and are continually before the Lord.
    8 The place where God resides is a great Urim and Thummim.
    9 This earth, in its sanctified and immortal state, will be made like unto crystal and will be a Urim and Thummim to the inhabitants who dwell thereon, whereby all things pertaining to an inferior kingdom, or all kingdoms of a lower order, will be manifest to those who dwell on it; and this earth will be Christ’s.
    10 Then the white astone mentioned in Revelation 2:17, will become a Urim and Thummim to each individual who receives one, whereby things pertaining to a higher order of kingdoms will be made known;

    I don’t pretend to understand what all of this means, but it seems that there are means available to God (or at least the angels, and maybe God has an even better way, or maybe it’s all the same) to know things that we don’t have full access to in this life.

  6. BrianJ said

    Jack: I’ve heard that argument about Peter, and never liked it—it feels too much like a stretch of the simplest interpretation of Peter’s apparent remorse following the denials. I think this argument has a brother though: the whole Judas was really commanded by Jesus to “betray” him. It also seems to rely heavily on the exact Greek words Jesus spoke, except that of course Jesus spoke Aramaic.

    As for proleptic: no, that’s not what I’m saying. Prolepsis seems to assume that God has foreknowledge, whereas open theists (I think) would say that he does not. Also, I’m saying that “examples of foreknowledge in sacred writings” might not actually be foreknowledge at all; rather, they are examples of God peering into the past, noticing some similarities between us and some sorry souls throughout history, then saying to us “I’ve seen lots of idiots like you before, and here’s how it ends every time….”

    Matt: “your response is really basically saying that foreknowledge is often created in hindsight by those who write it.” Yes, as long as we’re talking about people who believe in foreknowledge. But I don’t think that open theists can believe in foreknowledge. So for them, both examples (Peter and Ninevah) are warnings (I think). Though I see two types of warnings: one where God is saying, “You’re headed for a cliff so you’d better put on the brakes or you’ll go off,” and another where God is saying, “I’m gonna open up a giant pit in the road right underneath you and I’m gonna cut your brake cables and jam up your car doors so you can’t bail out—basically, I’m making sure that you go off a cliff no matter what you do.” The latter type is what I think Geoff described for Peter.

    Geoff: Thanks for clarifying. I can see now that you were not arguing exactly what God was doing with Peter, but rather using Peter’s denial as a “thought experiment.”

    “What use would exhaustive foreknowledge be to God anyway?” Is it also fair to ask, What use is God if exhaustive foreknowledge exists anyway?

    Nathan: I’m trying to think about Peter’s experience from an open theist point of view—specifically, open theism that denies that God can know the future. Or, to put it another way, I’m trying to think about this from the position that the future does not even exist, and thus cannot be known or seen (by God or anyone else). And the reason I’m trying to look at it that way is because I’m beginning to believe that the “traditional interpretation” creates far too many—and more serious—theological problems than it solves. Could it be that Alma 40:8 is just making the point that God doesn’t die and thus isn’t going to run out of time trying to get his work done like all the rest of us?

    I realize that this idea of the future not-yet-existing is troubling, perhaps mostly because it means that the future must be created at every moment but God is not the creator of it. The notion that something can come into existence without God creating it should bother lots of Christians, but not Mormons; we already accept that many things exist that God did not create.

  7. BrianJ said

    Geoff: If you’re still reading, I have another question for you about “God’s predictive abilities and his intervention abilities.” It seems that there must be some limits on God’s ability to intervene (through nudging, influencing, etc.) or else we’re right back to a Calvinist God—at least in practice. You’re okay with the idea that God could “guarantee” that Peter would deny Christ because God knew that he could poke everyone, including Peter, just right to make sure the denials happened. If God can poke Peter into denying Christ, couldn’t he poke me into accepting Christ? And couldn’t he likewise poke everyone else? And if he can, why doesn’t he?

    I guess I’m still having a hard time accepting the portrait of a nudging God that you painted. I just feel that it makes my LFW shrink smaller and smaller in comparison to God’s that my LFW becomes useless. Again, I realize that your point in painting that portrait was to show that foreknowledge is not required for making 100% certain prophecies. Still, I wonder if you really believe that God can/does do this degree of intervention; i.e., this degree of intervention solves the foreknowledge problem but does it create other problems?

    (I realize that one easy way around this is might be that God only makes this kind of prophecy when he’s certain that his intervention will work, and the fact that this kind of prophecy is rare suggests that God seldom feels so “in control,” but that seems like a cop-out.)

  8. Geoff J said

    BrianJ: It seems that there must be some limits on God’s ability to intervene (through nudging, influencing, etc.) or else we’re right back to a Calvinist God—at least in practice.

    This depends entirely on one’s metaphysical assumptions. Here are my assumptions: Our spirits are eternal and irreducible just like the spirits of the members of the Godhead. Libertarian free will is one of our eternal characteristics.

    So based on those assumptions it is not possible for God to remove our LFW. God can however influence us just like anyone on earth can influence us. It seems to me that critics of God influencing us want to insist God stay out of our lives and have less influence than, say, our mothers or spouses. I see no reason why God would have to avoid influencing us. If your mother can talk you into doing something right when she wants why can’t God? If your mother does it nobody cries “my LFW is being overridden!” so why should we cry that if God talks us into something? Your LFW can neither shrink nor grow in my opinion — it is eternally the same. Stimulus and influences eternally act upon you and you either go with the flow and react naturally or you consciously decide to veto that and act in a different way. All LFW requires is the real ability to make binary choices.

    I doubt God actually intervenes to the level I argued for in that Peter situation. My point was that he could do so if he wanted and it would have zero effect on the LFW of anyone.

    Now if you are asking why there isn’t universal salvation based on God’s ability to influence and teach us himself you are asking the wrong guy because I suspect there might be universal salvation in the eternities to come.

    • BrianJ said

      If your mother can talk you into doing something right when she wants why can’t God? If your mother does it nobody cries “my LFW is being overridden!”

      Well, I think at some point we do cry foul. We all know people who are grown and raising children of their own, yet still are very much under the control of their mothers. We cringe and wish that mother would let go—would let her “baby” who is now 45 years old grow up. While I see what you mean about LFW being irreducible, isn’t there less “meaning” to the LFW of the victim of a Frankfurt example? (A term I might be misusing. I’m thinking about someone who is under the influence of a control device, and he can choose to do the evil genius’ bidding or he can be forced to do the evil genius’ bidding—he still has a choice, but not really.) Maybe I’m straying from my question now….

      Can God, in fact, ever exert the degree of influence you described for Peter? If he can, then I wonder why he doesn’t do it more often (a question very similar to one we would ask Calvinists: Why doesn’t God elect all his children?). If he can’t—meaning, God is not irresistible in his influence—then where does that leave prophecy and other promises God makes? And if I understand your position on universal salvation, then you are still the right guy to ask, because you believe it will take a lot longer for some souls than others.

      critics of God influencing us want to insist God stay out of our lives

      I’m not trying to kick God out of our lives. Rather, I’m trying to say that the degree of influence we normally see around us (or think we see; I realize we could be blind) is the very most God can do and the degree of influence you described in Peter’s case is way beyond God’s capabilities. (Maybe it’s beyond his abilities because it is simply impossible or maybe it’s beyond his abilities in the same way that sinning is beyond his abilities—doing so would mean he would cease to be God.)

      Perhaps my thinking is a misguided attempt to let God off the hook for any evil in the world by limiting his power and therefore his responsibility.

  9. Geoff J said

    Perhaps my thinking is a misguided attempt to let God off the hook for any evil in the world by limiting his power and therefore his responsibility.

    I think you are on to something here. The lesser problem of evil is still a problem for Mormons (Calvinists and other non-LFWers are saddled with a much more severe problem of evil with God actually causing all evil). The problem is conceding God can intervene whenever God wants and squaring that with all the times God doesn’t intervene. Trying to arbitrarily limit God’s ability to intervene doesn’t really work in principle nor does it solve that lesser problem of (non-intervention) evil. I think finding an elegant solution to the problem of evil would probably require much more radical theological ideas.

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