Interacting with a Moral Government Theologian
Note: The following is a detailed response that I recently offered to a newfound acquaintance that holds to a heresy called Moral Government Theology (hereafter MGT). MGT is a real theological mess. It affirms Open Theism, denies mankind’s solidarity with Adam, and adamantly promotes sinless perfectionism. There’s more theological error inherent in MGT, but those three tiers are the major heretical roots in the system that everything else flows from. I take this fellow to task pretty hard on his Openness views by reducing his position to absurdity by demonstrating that he is inconsistent with his own hermeneutic and thus should either (1) reject Open Theism on his own hermeneutical standards or (2) become consistent in his interpretations and start viewing God as a “big chicken man” with literal arms, wings, eyes, nostrils, etc.
I post this because it would be good to be familiar with MGT in general and open theism specifically if you have never wrangled with them before.
As to the various issues related to sinless perfectionism and our corporate solidarity with Adam, please take a look at a few short articles I wrote here, here, and here. These short articles were written in response to a kind fellow that, as far as I can tell, held to some very similar views that you do regarding the relationship of Adam’s sin to our own as well as sinless perfectionism. We had a charitable discussion and I enjoyed interacting with him even though we still disagreed.
As to the issue of holding to Open Theism, I think that this doctrinal position paints a picture of a different god, and not the God of the Bible. Frankly, this is the biggest concern I have with your theology. I too believe that God knows all that can be known; however a sharp distinction must be drawn here as I believe this includes all things, past, present, and future (Job 37:16; Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 46:10; John 2:24-25; 16:30; 21:27; 1 John 3:20). However, there’s more. Several passages tell us that God not only knows everything about everything that is, but He also knows everything that could be but is not. He knows all possible worlds even though He chose not to actualize those possibilities as part of His plan for His creation. These are things that were not planned to happen but would have happened had God planned the events of the universe differently (cf. Matthew 11:21-23). So, to say that not everything can be known, I believe causes the Scripture to contradict itself; However, I believe that this is impossible because I believe that Scripture is infallible. Because my time is limited, lets look at your reference to Genesis 22:12, which states, “He said, ‘Do not stretch out your hand against the lad, and do nothing to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from Me.'”
The question before us is whether God literally did not know what Abraham’s response would be until Abraham made it. Most Open Theists I’ve interacted with will say something like, “The verse has no clear meaning if God was certain that Abraham would fear him before he offered up his son.” Then, they will cite several other Old Testament passages where God tests Israel “to know” whether they would fear God and serve Him. Then it is assumed that these passages cannot be reconciled with the view that God eternally knows exactly what will be in the heart of a person to do.
If we had no other information about God from Scripture regarding His nature and His eternal purposes other than Genesis 22:12 and some of the other passages you listed, then I agree that we would have to grant that these passages seem to teach that God’s knowledge is growing and that God is learning things as history progresses. However, logically speaking, God cannot but know all things as certain, otherwise He would not be “perfect in knowledge” (Job 37:16). If God’s foreknowledge were not eternal, then he must have learned something at some time. And if he learned it, then he must have previously been ignorant of it. If He had been ignorant and learned something, why could He not also forget something after a while? However, I do not believe that God learns or forgets. Does this mean that God did not know for sure what Abraham would do until He saw the raised knife? Does it also mean that God did not know whether or not Abraham feared Him as Genesis 22:12 states? But, the Open theist is presented with a problem because in Openness, God knows all the present completely and totally. If God knows all present things exhaustively, then did God not know the state of Abraham’s heart regarding Abraham’s reverent fear for God? How could He not? 1 Chronicles 28:9 says, “. . . for the LORD searches all hearts, and understands every intent of the thoughts . . .” and Psalm 139:4, “Even before there is a word on my tongue, Behold, O LORD, You know it all.” Since God continually searches all hearts and presently knows even the intent of the heart, and exhaustively knows what words a man will speak even before the words are on the man’s tongue, then surely He knew what the intent of Abraham’s heart was during the three day journey to the place of sacrifice as well as whether or not Abraham feared Him. Again, He would have known that Abraham feared Him and the test was unnecessary to establish this fact.
It is important to also take note here that Genesis 22:5 says, “Abraham said to his young men, ‘Stay here with the donkey, and I and the lad will go over there; and we will worship and return to you.'”“He [Abraham] considered that God is able to raise people even from the dead, from which he also received him back as a type.” This is why comparing passage with passage is so important. This is because when you compare Scripture with Scripture, you learn that God must have known that Abraham was completely trusting in the Lord, or else, Scripture cannot be trusted because it contradicts itself. Nevertheless, in Abraham’s case, we have some “behind the scenes” information supplied by the Holy Spirit who inspired the Scriptures. “He [Abraham] considered that God is able to raise men even from the dead; from which he also received him back as a type” (Hebrews 11:19). Abraham’s consideration that God is able to raise the dead must have existed before he lifted the knife, or else it would have had no bearing on his decision. For God to literally not know what Abraham would do, He would have had to be lacking knowledge of Abraham’s heart and faith, which the book of Hebrews says motivated Abraham’s obedience. As I’ve already iterated, this view must be rejected based on the clear teachings of Scripture. God is said to know the heart: “I, the Lord, search the heart, I test the mind” (Jeremiah 17:10a). In Acts 15:8 Abraham was ready to sacrifice his son and according to Hebrews 11:19, he expected the Lord to resurrect Isaac. The important thing to point out here is that in light of the context of Acts 15:8 God is called the “heartknower” in the Greek. In many passages, He is said to judge according to the heart. Since given this passage and other passages of Scripture, God must have known Abraham’s heart, and because Abraham had faith in his heart that God could even raise the dead if necessary per Hebrews 11:19, God must have known what Abraham’s decision would be. Therefore the clear teaching of Scripture demands that we do not take God’s statement, “now I know” to be a literal declaration of previous ignorance but instead as an anthropopathism.
Because I believe that it is not consistent with the rest of Scripture to say that God did not know what was in Abraham’s heart and that God did not know what Abraham would do, we can conclude that God was speaking to Abraham in terms that Abraham was familiar with. This is not at all foreign to the language of Scripture. In Genesis 3:9, after Adam’s sin, God calls to Adam and asks “Where are you?” Are we to say that God did not know where Adam was in the garden? Of course not. To say such would contradict other clear passages that teach God’s omnipresence, such as this one:
“Where can I go from Your Spirit? Or where can I flee from Your presence? 8 If I ascend to heaven, You are there; If I make my bed in Sheol, behold, You are there.“ Psalm 139:7-8
God makes statements often designed to reveal to us a truth that needs to be presented. In fact, God often asks questions of people that He Himself already knows the answer to in order to call people to account (just like I do with my own daughter when she’s done something wrong – i.e., “Do you know what you’ve done?”). In Adam’s case, the “where” has always been understood by classical theists to be dealing with Adam’s spiritual condition, not his physical location because to say otherwise would contradict other clear passages of Scripture that teach God’s omnipresence. In like manner with Abraham’s situation, God is simply relating to Abraham in terms consistent what Abraham would understand, particularly, after event with Isaac on the altar. It is also important to note that Genesis 22 is rife with types and shadows of the gospel. The Son, Isaac, is offered on wood, on a hill after a three day journey. Jesus, the Son, was offered on wood, on a hill, and was in the grave for three days. In fact, Jesus said in John 8:56, “Your father Abraham rejoiced to see My day, and he saw it and was glad.” The day that Jesus is speaking of is the day of Christ’s sacrificial death. God ordained that the gospel be revealed in types and shadows in the Old Testament and Genesis 22 is a great example of this.
In my studied opinion, God is doing two things: (1) God is revealing the gospel in typological form. (2) God is speaking for Abraham’s benefit; that is, it was Abraham who needed to hear that God was acknowledging that Abraham feared Him. The test was not for God, but for Abraham and the words “Now I know” were not for God (since other Scripture says He already knew – 1 Chronicles 28:9), but for the man who needed to hear God affirm his faithfulness. Abraham is a man locked in time and the act of sacrificing Isaac was important prophetically. But it was also important to us as a testimony of a Godlover’s faithfulness to God.
Thus, in my opinion, the Open Theist position on Genesis 22:12 raises more questions than it answers:
- Did God not know the then present condition of Abraham’s heart since God knows all present things exhaustively according to the Open theist position?
- Did God not already know that Abraham feared Him per God’s exhaustive knowledge of the present?
- God already knew, according to Genesis 22:5, that Abraham expected that God would resurrect Isaac. Did God forget this as He tested Abraham?
- Since the Open Theists states that people have libertarian free will, then what guarantee did God have that Abraham will not become unfaithful in the future?
- If God doesn’t know for sure that Abraham will be faithful in the future then it means that if Abraham becomes unfaithful, God would have made a mistake. Can we trust a God that makes mistakes?
A Very Important Postscript on Hermeneutics
I realize that after all I have said, that you already have a hermeneutical grid to run my arguments through, for all people do. What I now want to get you to think about is the inconsistent and artificial distinctions made by open theists between anthropomorphisms and anthropopathisms. Open theists attack classical theists for not taking the Bible literally and at “face value” when anthropopathisms are used (passions in God, God’s repenting, learning, questioning, changing, etc.). So they adopt a univocal lens with the anthropopathisms and take them hyper-literally, but still inconsistently use an analogical filter with the anthropomorphisms.
So, according to the Open Theist’s hermeneutic, when God is spoken of as repenting, questioning, changing, etc., this is all to be taken at face value one-hundred percent of the time and to suggest otherwise is in their opinion, to manifest a Greek, Hellenistic mindset, as opposed to a Scriptural, Hebraic one.
Yet, a blatant inconsistency becomes evident in the hermeneutic of the Open Theist when God is spoken of as having hands, a mouth, a heart, wings, and as travelling from place to place on cloud, these are to be taken figuratively, metaphorically, and analogically.
I have never read a work by the popular Open Theists Clark Pinnock or Gregory Boyd that has ever given a justifiable reason for taking one set hyper-literally while taking the other metaphorically. Thus, Open theists accuse classical theism of glossing over and ignoring the import of the anthropopathisms, yet they contradict themselves in the next breath when do the very same thing with the anthropomorphisms of Scripture! Thus, the hermeneutic of the Open Theist, even if left unchallenged, even hypothetically granting the distinction they make between mind-statements and body-statements relative to God, still leads to absolute absurdity.
Take for instance Clark Pinnock. He enjoys citing Jeremiah to illustrate divine “openness.” In Jeremiah 32:35 Yahweh states, “They built their high places of Baal in the Valley of the Son of Hinnom, to offer up their sons and daughters to Molech, though I did not command them, nor did it enter into my mind, that they should do this abomination, to cause Judah to sin.” Why take this passage just literal enough to allow an “open” view of the future, but not literal enough to say that not only is the future unsettled, but certain things have not even occurred to God? Is this feasible?Take for instance Clark Pinnock. He enjoys citing Jeremiah to illustrate divine “openness.” In Jeremiah 32:35 Yahweh states, “They built their high places of Baal in the Valley of the Son of Hinnom, to offer up their sons and daughters to Molech, though I did not command them, nor did it enter into my mind, that they should do this abomination, to cause Judah to sin.” Why take this passage just literal enough to allow an “open” view of the future, but not literal enough to say that not only is the future unsettled, but certain things have not even occurred to God? Is this feasible? Does this really mean that the possibility of renewed child sacrifice had never crossed his mind before even as a remote possibility? Unless one is using a classical theist’s hermeneutic, then one of course one must affirm that Yahweh did in fact mean precisely just that.
All of these types of examples are absurd because everyone (except those in the cults) knows that these things are not true of God. However, endless articles have stirred up a tumultuous sound and fury over the repentance passages in Scripture. Yet a principled argument that sets aside one class of statements as anthropomorphic or anthropopathic, and another as “literal” cannot be made. Serious intellectuals in this country are using the “repentance” passages, one metaphor among a myriad of metaphors which, when taken literally, tend to make chaos out of the doctrine of God, to deny that God knows the future.
Can it be more obvious that the only metaphors in Scripture which are taken literally are precisely those metaphors which conveniently uphold the open theist’s agenda of discrediting the notion of exhaustive foreknowledge in order to maintain the philosophical notion of libertarian freedom? That statement was not meant to be pejorative by any means, but based on the Scriptures (the statement to Adam, the tower of Babel, Sodom, Yahweh’s test of Abraham, etc.) as interpreted through by the hermeneutic supplied by the Open Theist, why, should God’s exhaustive knowledge of the present continue to be accepted and believed? Yet no Open Theist has challenged God’s exhaustive knowledge of the present? Why? Because it does not directly threaten the shibboleth of libertarian free-will, which, in their opinion, exhaustive foreknowledge destroys.
As an aside, Clark Pinnock did indeed start to take the plunge into absurdity in his book “The Most Moved Mover” when on page 138 of that book he tentatively puts forward that God indeed has a body of flesh and bones, just like the Mormons teach! At least he’s being consistent; consistently heretical. Thus, this issue is one of the philosophical tail wagging the dog, instead of the philosophy being informed by a rigorous, systematic theology that is guided by a classical, theistic hermeneutic that relies upon the analogy of faith.