Posts tagged New Testament

Eternal Now and Theological Suicide: A Reply to Laurence Wood

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by John Sanders
Wesleyan Theological Journal. Volume 45, Number 2, Fall 2010

Although it may not seem so from his article, Laurence Wood’s position has many points of agreement with open theism. Both views are part of what I call the free-will Christian family of theology. Hence, both agree on matters such as: God loves creatures and seeks their highest good; God grants humans libertarian freedom; God does not exercise meticulous providence; and thus, God takes some risks since not everything goes the way God would like it to go. Both positions agree that the watershed divide between free-will Christianity and theological determinism is whether or not any of God’s decisions are responses to what creatures do. Free-will Christians believe that God enters into genuine give-and-receive relations with us, our prayers can affect some of God’s decisions, and, in many areas of life, God takes risks. Hence, God is open to what creatures do.

Additionally, open theism affirms a second element of openness: history is open in that it contains multiple possible futures rather than just one actual future. These two senses of openness motivate open theists to diverge from traditional free-will Christianity on two issues, God’s relationship to time and whether God has exhaustive-definite knowledge of future contingent events.1 Though some traditional Wesleyans have held that God is temporal, the majority have affirmed that God is atemporal. The lightning rod issue surrounding open theism has been the claim that God does not know with certainty what creatures with libertarian freedom will do in the future. In his article, Wood links these two issues in order to argue, as many Wesleyans have done in the past, that, if God experiences all time at once (the “eternal now”), then God bas knowledge, not merely beliefs, of what we will do in the future.

For open theism, God has dynamic omniscience. God has definite knowledge of all the past and present and God knows the future as partly definite (closed) and partly indefinite (open). God’s knowledge of the future contains knowledge of those events that are determined to occur (e.g., natural events and anything God has decreed), as well as knowledge of what may possibly happen, and which of those possibilities are most probable. Though the future is partly open, God is not caught off-guard since divine foresight anticipates what we will do.

Wood implies that open theists affirm a limited omniscience when he repeatedly says that we reject “full omniscience” or “exhaustive omniscience.” This makes it sound as though there are things that God could know that open theists deny that God knows. Wood’s rhetoric suggests that 1 00-proof omniscience includes exhaustive-definite knowledge of the future, with any view which denies this being a watered-down omniscience. This would be like claiming that only transubstantiation is 1 00-proof Eucharist-any other view is watered-down communion. However, both Wood and open theists agree that God is omniscient. The debate is about the content of omniscience (e.g., does omniscience include middle knowledge?). The real focus of Wood’s article is not whether God is omniscient but whether God has definite knowledge of future contingents. In ordinary parlance, the disagreement is about divine foreknowledge.

Traditionally, free-will Christians have affirmed that God knows what we will do in the future. Two different theories have been used to explain how God has such knowledge. Perhaps the most common view has been “simple foreknowledge” in which God “looks ahead” and “sees” what we will do in the future. The second option uses divine atemporality (whether thought of as timelessness or the experience of all time at once) to say that God “sees” all of history at once (the eternal now). This is often accompanied by the illustration of God standing on a mountain which allows God to see everything in the valley of history below. In the second view, God does not have “fore” knowledge since there is no past or future for God. 2

Wood accuses me of “equivocation” when I say that God “looks ahead” because a being with an eternal now does not “look ahead.” Open theists are quite well aware that that, according to divine atemporality, God has knowledge, not “fore” knowledge.3 Perhaps I should have been clearer about the reason why “looks ahead” and “sees” are in quotation marks in my book, even when discussing simple foreknowledge. The language of God knowing and deciding things in succession concerns the “logical” or “explanatory order” of events, not a temporal order. For example, God’s decision to liberate the Hebrews from Egypt is logically subsequent to the divine knowledge that they are in bondage. Reversing the explanatory order leads to the nonsensical: God knew they were in bondage because of his decision to liberate them.

Wood goes with the second option of divine atemporality (understood as the possession of all time at once). He uses the notion of an eternal now/present to explain how God knows what we call our “future” actions. It seems to me that Wood’s key claim is that a Boethian account of divine atemporality gives free-will Christians everything they believe is important for the God~human relationship, libertarian freedom and divine responsiveness to creatures, while also affirming exhaustive-definite knowledge of future contingent events. His arguments in support of this claim, though not clearly stated in his paper, seem to be the following:

1. The Bible supports the claim that God has knowledge of our future.
2. Theological tradition affirms that God has knowledge of our future.
3. If relativity theory is correct, then the future is real. Since God knows all of reality, God must know the future.
4. A God with dynamic omniscience is not trustworthy.

The astute reader will notice that few (if any) of these arguments support the claim that the eternal now supports a responsive God. Rather, the bulk of Wood’s article is spent peppering open theism with criticisms. The strategy seems to be to criticize open theism so that readers will conclude that the eternal now position is correct. Wood repeatedly claims that a “Boethian” conception of eternity allows God to experience before and after, such that God can enter into genuine give-and-receive relations with us, avoiding determinism. However, he never explains how this can occur. He simply repeats the claim over and over in the paper without providing evidence for this claim. Moreover, he fails to address the lengthy discussion in my The God Who Risks of the contradictions between the eternal now position and the core doctrines of free-will Christianity.4

In the remainder of this article I will comment on each of the four arguments of Wood in an attempt to show why the eternal now view is problematic for free-will Christians. Also, I want to respond to a number of his criticisms of open theism. Wood’s article contains many factual errors and misrepresentations of what we have said. Therefore, the reader should be cautious about accepting his word as to what particular open theists believe, or what we believe as a group.5 Now to his main arguments.

First Argument: The Bible affirms that God has knowledge of our future.

Though he could have given more texts, Wood cites only one text from Isaiah with the authority of Von Rad in support of this claim. He says, “Sanders attempts to soften this statement that God knows the “end from the beginning” in Isaiah by saying that it refers to the deliverance from exile …. “Well, it would be softening if it were certain that Wood’s interpretation is the correct one. However, my discussion follows the detailed exegetical work of Fredrik Lindstrom who notes that Isaiah’s use of light and darkness is connected to the beginning and the end of the exile, such that Isaiah is talking about a specific event and not the entire history of the world. 6

The God Who Risks contains a hundred pages discussing biblical texts in support of dynamic omniscience and that God experiences time. Here I can only highlight the types of texts used in support of open theism. The Bible portrays God as:

1. Authentically responding to petitions (Ex. 4, 32; 2 Kings 20; Mk. 2; Lk. 8:48).
2. Grieving over sin (Gen. 6:6; 1 Sam. 15:11; Mt. 23:37; Jn. 11 :35).
3. Expecting something to happen but it does not (Jer. 3:6-7, 19-20; Isaiah 5: 1-4; Mk. 6:5-6).
4. Testing individuals and Israel “to find out what they will do” (Gen. 22; Ex. 15:25; Deut. 13:3).
5. Refusing to change his mind (Num. 23:19; 1 Sam. 15:29).
6. Changing his mind (Ex. 32:14; 1 Sam. 15:11-35; Jonah 4:2; Joel 2:13-14; Mt. 15:21-28) and reconsidering what God had previously promised (1 Sam. 2:30-31; 13:13).
7. Having knowledge of some future events but not others. There are two types of texts about the future in scripture.
7.1 Predicting specific events that do come to pass (2 Kings 20:17-18; Jer. 29:10).
7.2 Predicting specific events that either do not come to pass at all or not in the precise way they were predicted (Ezek. 26:17ff; 29:17-20; Amos 9:11-12 & Acts 15:15-18; Acts 21:11).

Wood correctly says that a God with an eternal now “knows all things instantly.” If so, then how can grief, change of mind, and testing be attributed to such a being? How can God expect something to happen and it not happen? How can a God who knows all events of history simultaneously be said to predict that the city of Tyre will be totally destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar (Ezek. 26) and then later admit that the prediction failed (Ezek. 29: 17 -20)?7 What does Wood do with these texts? He claims his eternal now view can handle them, but he never once shows how this can be done. Wood claims to take the biblical portrayal of God seriously, yet he makes no attempt to explain the meaning of these texts if the eternal now is true. Open theists have developed a view which seeks to explain all the types of biblical texts mentioned above.8

It is part of the core piety and beliefs of free-will Christians that God is responsive. In the book I explained why it is contradictory to say that a God who experiences an eternal now also experiences changing emotions and changing decisions. On several occasions Wood supports his case with the classic article on eternity by Stump and Kretzmann. They are proponents of the eternal now and acknowledged experts on what the position entails. In this article, they say that an atemporal being “has no past or future, no earlier or later. “9 They point out that, if God experiences an eternal now, then “God cannot deliberate, anticipate, remember, or plan ahead.”10 The experts on divine atemporality admit that grief, expectation, and change of mind cannot be attributed to God. Wood, however, says both that God experiences all time at once and also that God has “before and after.” Stump and Kretzmann say that this is contradictory, but Wood makes both claims without acknowledging that there is a problem here, let alone furnish us with a solution to it.

Nicholas Wolterstorff points out that for the eternal now “none of God’s actions is a response to what we human beings do; indeed, not only is none of God actions a response to what we do, but nothing at all in God’s life is a response to what occurs among God’s creatures.”11 This is precisely the reason why the influential Methodist theologian John Miley rejected divine atemporality.12 He understood that it undermined essential Wesleyan piety, such as God responding to prayers.

Wood admits that “outright logical contradictions cannot be affirmed without committing theological suicide,” yet it is precisely at this point that he fails to demonstrate why his own authorities are wrong to claim that it is logically contradictory to affirm both that God is atemporal and also that God grieves. Instead, Wood simply claims that his position contains “tensions” and “mystery.” If there is a contradiction at the heart of his claims, then it is not mystery, but nonsense. If Wood and other Wesleyans do not believe that this position is contradictory, then they need to show why it is not and why the expert proponents of divine temporality are wrong. Wood and I agree that human language is stretched when applied to God, but contradictions do not stretch our language, they snap it in half.

Second Argument: Theological tradition affirms that God has knowledge of our future.

In my own work I have documented that the early church fathers and Wesley affl.rmed divine atemporality and that God possesses exhaustive definite knowledge of future contingent events. Also, I have explained the theological work that they intended for this doctrine to accomplish (e.g., how God could elect people for salvation prior to creation based on “foreseen” faith). So, I agree that the dynamic omniscience view is going against the mainstream of theological tradition. However, dynamic omniscience agrees with the free-will tradition that God does not determine the events because it is our actions which cause God to have the knowledge of what we do.13 That is, God “sees” what we will do in the future but God does not ordain that we do them, as with Calvin.

Though the dynamic omniscience view cannot claim the early church fathers, it has had a few proponents as far back as the fifth century. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the view began to gain a wider following, particularly in Methodist circles.14 On the contemporary scene, Wood lists Barth and Pannenberg on his side, while proponents of dynamic omniscience include Moltmann, Pinnock, Paul Fiddes, Nicholas Wolterstorff, Henry Knight, and Barry Callen. Also, the strong majority of contemporary Christian philosophers reject Wood’s view of divine atemporality, though there are a few distinguished exceptions such as Leftow and Stump.15

Third Argument: If relativity theory is correct then the future is real. Since God knows all of reality, God must know the future.

Wood does not actually formulate the argument as I have stated it, but I am trying to be charitable by developing an argument that would support his key claim that an eternal now is the best solution to the problem. It is unfortunate that the bulk of his article does not actually give evidence in support of his claim. Instead, he concentrates on the accusation that divine temporalists reject relativity physics and thus parallel the fundamentalists at the Scopes Monkey Trial. Space limitations permit only three areas of response.

A. Wood’s statements about contemporary physics. Professor Wood is to be commended for his extensive research into relativity theory. He is much more informed on the topic than am I. However, his statements on this subject are not always up-to-date or as settled as he suggests. For example, he castigates me for separating space and time into different categories. Apparently, what Einstein hath joined no one must put asunder. But a recent development has the physics world abuzz about a new theory of gravity which requires that space and time be separated, at least for high energy events. The December, 2009, issue of Scientific American has an article titled “Splitting Time from Space” in which the new theory, called Horava gravity, is discussed. The creator of this theory says, “I’m going back to Newton’s idea that time and space are not equivalent.”16 Though it is being widely discussed, the theory has not been established as the correct one. Also, this does not imply that everything in physics is in dispute, but it does show that physicists are not as dogmatic as Wood is that time and space are inseparable.

B. Why divine temporalists cannot accept the dominant interpretation of special relativity theory. It seems that the dominant interpretation of the special theory of relativity (STR) entails that all of time exists because there is no privileged present moment; all times are on a par ontologically.17 Hence, “now” is only a word expressing the speaker’s own temporal perspective. The idea of the present has no special status. This implies the “block theory” of time. Think of time as an extended block that includes what we call the past, present, and future. The entire space-time block exists together, and the “future” (from some temporal perceiver’s point of view) is just as much “fixed” and “there” as is the past. In other words, the future is real-it exists ontologically. Open theists agree with the third argument that, if the future exists, then God must know it. We just deny that the future is real.

Why do open theists have a problem with this majority interpretation of STR? For two reasons. First, because if the block of time is real then everything you and I will do in the future already exists on the block, which means that there are no “alternative possibilities” of the sort that are required for libertarian free will. Recorded on the block is a fact of the matter as to what each of us will do tomorrow. There is no possibility that these facts of the matter can be changed. In other words, the standard interpretation of STR is deterministic and that is why not only open theists but all libertarians must look for some other interpretation of the data. Second, as was stated above, the biblical portrait of God and the piety of free-will Christianity require divine responsiveness-which is excluded by the eternal now position. If the block theory is correct, then we do not see how it is possible to maintain these core beliefs.

I and other open theists may indeed be wrong to go with the minority interpretation of STR, but we do so because we want to affirm libertarian freedom and divine responsiveness. Hence, proponents of libertarian freedom should reject the block theory in favor of the dynamic theory of time in which the present has a special status and the future is not ontologically real. According to the dynamic theory, time is actually changing and is not, as Einstein said, a stubborn illusion. There is an interpretation of STR that is compatible with the dynamic theory.18 It is called the neo-Lorentzian interpretation. Though some prominent physicists affirm it, it is not popular among physicists.19 It is empirically equivalent to the standard interpretation of STR and has not been refuted empirically. Wood is wrong when he claims that we do not accept the empirical confirmation of relativity theory.20

C. Wood has a fundamental problem with four-dimensionalism. Wood affirms that, according to the standard interpretation of STR, four-dimensionalism is correct. It entails that the future is just as ontologically real as the past. Wood also acknowledges that Einstein held to the block theory because of STR. However, Wood rejects the block theory in favor of the dynamic theory.21 He does so without even a hint that there is any sort of problem here. The problem is that the block theory is the view that that there is no ontological distinction between past, present and future. Four-dimensionalism and the block theory are one and the same thing. The dynamic theory of time is logically incompatible with four-dimensionalism because, according to the dynamic theory, the future is not ontologically real. Hence, Wood’s position is logically contradictory in that he affirms both that the future is ontologically real and that the future is not ontologically real.

Wood does say that God is infinite and transcends time, but such remarks do not address this fundamental contradiction in his position. Also, Wood accuses me of “dictating to God what sort of world is possible” because I assert that the future is not ontologically real.22 This is unfair because on the very paragraph of The God Who Risks which Wood uses to justify his claim I say, “God could have created a world in which he knew exactly what we would do in the future if God had decided to create a deterministic world.”23 The point is that, if the block theory is correct and the future is an ontological reality, then God would know it, but then we would not have libertarian freedom. I am not dictating to God, I am only claiming that our theological statements cannot contain logical contradictions. Since Wood affirms this very principle, he must either demonstrate that this is not, in fact, a logical contradiction or he must modify his position. Appeals to divine infinity do not remove the logical contradiction at the heart of Wood’s view.

Finally, Wood’s attempt to combine the dynamic theory of time with the eternal now entails a serious theological problem.24 If God experiences all of time at once in an eternal now, then God knows all events that ever occur as well as the order in which they occur. Since there is no before or after in God’s experience, what is “now” for us is simply a set of events which God knows occur in history. However, if the dynamic theory of time is correct, then the God of an eternal now does not know what is happening in history right now because God’s now does not correspond to our now. In order for God to know what is happening right now, God must change, because a few moments ago these events were not happening but other events were happening instead. But, according to the eternal now theory, God cannot change. This means that Christ’s death, resurrection, and second coming are all simultaneous for God. So, when Jesus died, God did not know the event was happening then. God eternally knows that it happens, but at our moment in history when Jesus rose from the dead God did not know it was happening (a very strange idea and certainly not one the biblical writers endorse). The God of the eternal now does not know that Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.

Fourth Argument: A God with dynamic omniscience is not trustworthy

Towards the end of his article, Wood says that a God without exhaustive knowledge of the future “may weaken one’s capacity to trust in the Lord.” He suggests that such a God may “lead us wrongly” and thus be in need of atonement.25 Several responses are in order. According to dynamic omniscience, divine guidance is given on the basis of God’s perfect understanding of all that is possible to happen and perfect understanding of the probabilities of each of those possibilities. God knows what each of us is likely to do but, because we have libertarian freedom, we can, at times, act out of character and do what was unlikely. For example, God says he expected Israel to put away her idols and return to him but they did not (Jer. 3 :7). In this case God knew it was more likely that they would repent, but he also knew the lesser possibility that they would not repent. God did not say that they would definitely repent because God will not definitely believe that something will occur unless it is certain to occur. If an event is not certain to occur, then God knows the degree of probability that something will happen in a particular way. But God will not hold that belief as absolutely certain if human freedom is involved because our decisions, though somewhat predictable, are not absolutely so. When God expresses surprise, it is evidence that the less likely event came to pass, but this is not a “mistake.”

Second, let us say that I advise a friend to accept a job offer because I know the supervisor and that this individual is a wonderful boss. However, a couple of months into the job, the supervisor dies in an accident and is replaced by a horrible person. Is it legitimate to say that I sinned in the guidance I gave to my friend? I do not see any need of atonement in such as case. Gregory Boyd tells the story of “Suzanne,” a woman in his congregation, who was very angry with God because she believed God had intentionally guided her into an abusive marriage.26 From a young age she wanted to be a missionary in Taiwan. When she went to college she met a young man who shared that same goal. For three years they attended church together and prayed together. They consulted with their parents, pastor and friends, all of whom thought they should marry. After college, they married and then attended a missionary training school together. However, at this time her husband had an affair with another student. When confronted, he repented, but then the affair resumed. After a while he became physically abusive to his wife and then divorced her. Several of her friends told her what Job’s friends had told him-that God intended this horrible set of events to teach her a lesson.

Open theists give a different interpretation. At the time of their engagement her fiancée was a godly person with a passion for ministry, so the prospects were good that they would have a healthy marriage and ministry. However, because of free will, he gave in to temptation and resisted the promptings of the Spirit, even after he was found out. Through a series of choices he became what he had not been when they were dating. God’s guidance had not been wrong. What was wrong was the husband’s misuse of his free will.

How would Wood explain Suzanne’s story? Perhaps he believes that a God who possessed exhaustive knowledge of future contingent events would guide her away from marrying the fellow because God “eternally saw” that he would abuse her. That is, a God with knowledge of the actual future would be in a position to guide her so that she would not marry him. This is a common belief among free will Christians. It is also a common belief among critics of Christianity who say that a God who eternally knew Hitler would carry out the Holocaust should have prevented Hitler from doing so. Unfortunately, both sides are mistaken because the eternal now is useless for guidance. To understand why this is so, it must be kept in mind that what a God with an eternal now knows is what actually happens in history, not what might happen. If what God eternally knows is that Suzanne marries him and is abused, then it is not within God’s power to bring it about that she not marry him because that would mean that God’s knowledge of what actually occurs is wrong. By definition, God’s eternal knowledge of the actual future is always correct.

A God with an eternal now knows that Suzanne will be abused and thus cannot use that knowledge to either bring about the abuse or to prevent the abuse from occurring. What God knows is not some antecedent events which, unless hindered in some way, will lead to her abuse. Rather, what God knows is the actual abuse. It is contradictory to suppose that God knows an event will occur and also to hold that God prevents that event from occurring. That is, God knows that Suzanne will be abused and God knows that Suzanne will not be abused. It is logically impossible for God to know that an event will actually happen and that God will prevent that event from happening.

In The God Who Risks and elsewhere I have explained in detail why both simple foreknowledge and the eternal now positions are useless for divine providence.27 It does God no good to have either simple foreknowledge or the eternal now because God cannot change what God knows for a fact will happen. God cannot use knowledge of what we call the future to guide us in the best ways, or to prevent horrible events from happening, or to give predictions about the future to the prophets. Suppose that Tom asks God for guidance about whether or not to accept a job offer. Tom believes that God knows for a fact what will happen to Tom in that job (whether good things or bad), so Tom believes that God is in perfect position to lead him. The problem is that, if God knows only truths about the future and God knows for a fact that Tom accepts the job and endures years of misery while thus employed, then God cannot change that from happening. Once God knows it as a fact that Tom works there, then it is useless for God to give Tom guidance to reject the job offer. It is incoherent to claim that God knows the actual future and on the basis of this knowledge changes it so that it will not be the actual future. A God who eternally knows the actual future cannot answer such prayers.

Philosopher David Hunt, a proponent of the simple foreknowledge view, believes that the “uselessness problem” is one of the most serious objections and needs to be rebutted. If the eternal now and simple fore· knowledge views are useless for providence, then they are worthless for our theology. That is why Hunt has attempted to construct a way in which eternal knowledge could be somewhat more useful for providence than if God has dynamic omniscience.28 To date, I am aware only of the attempts by Hunt and another philosopher to solve the uselessness problem. William Hasker and I have explained in print why these two attempts fail.29 It is disappointing that Wesleyan theologians, including Wood, do not address the problem of uselessness. Wesleyans have sought to argue against the claim that, if God knows the future, then the future is determined but they have not taken seriously this new problem (uselessness) which is devastating to the simple foreknowledge and eternal now positions. Wood claims that his eternal now position is useful for providence, but he provides neither any evidence that this is so or any explanation of why it is not a logical contradiction to believe that God eternally knows that an event will occur and yet it is in God’s power to bring it about that it not occur.

Summary and Conclusion

I have argued that Professor Wood’s position entails three significant contradictions. (1) It is logically contradictory to affirm both that God is atemporal and also that God grieves and responds. (2) It is logically contradictory to say that the future is ontologically real and that the dynamic theory of time is correct (the future is not onto logically real). (3) It is contradictory to suppose that God knows an event will occur and also to hold that God prevents that event from occurring.

Wood says that “outright logical contradictions cannot be affirmed without committing theological suicide.” Appeals to “infinity” and “mystery” can be quite legitimate, but they cannot transform a genuine contradiction into an attempted suicide. Perhaps someone will figure out a solution to these problems, but until this happens the only views of omniscience that are useful for providence, and which are not logically contradictory, are theological determinism, middle knowledge, and dynamic omniscience. The only one of these three which affirms the biblical portrayal of divine responsiveness, grief, change of mind, and is compatible with the core tenets of Wesleyan piety and belief, is dynamic omniscience. If Wood and other Wesleyans are to avoid theological suicide then they must either solve these contradictions or accept open theism.30

Who has affirmed dynamic omniscience and the open future in history?

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John Sanders

Updated April 2013

Briefly, the position is that God has exhaustive knowledge of the past and the present and knows as possibilities and probabilities those events which might happen in the future. God could have created a world in which he knew exactly what we would do in the future if God had decided to create a deterministic world. Consequently, God cannot know as definite what we will do unless he destroys the very freedom he granted us. Vincent Brümmer writes: “God knows everything which it is logically possible to know. But God knows all things as they are, and not as they are not. Thus he knows the future as future (and not as present, which it is not). He knows the possible as possible (and not as actual, which it is not).”1 God does not possess exhaustive definite foreknowledge (EDF) of future contingent events.

Aristotle put forth the problem of the truth value of future contingent propositions (De Interprtatione 9), claiming that they could be neither true nor false. There were questions about how to interpret Aristotle’s remarks which led to lively debate among those who discussed this question. The issues involved in divine foreknowledge were much discussed by philosophers after Aristotle.

The dynamic omniscience view was affirmed by several non-Christian writers such as Cicero (first century B.C.E.) Alexander of Aphrodisias (second century C.E.) and Porphyry (third century).2  Cicero  argued that if God has exhaustive definite foreknowledge (EDF) then humans cannot have libertarian freedom so Cicero denied EDF.3

For the reasons used to support belief in an exhaustively definite future in both secular Greco-Roman thought and in Christianity see “Motivations for Ascribing Foreknowledge to God” by Gregory Boyd on this website.

Commenting on the work of Aristotle, Boethius and several medieval theologians held that statements about the future lack truth value yet they also held that God has exhaustive definite foreknowledge (EDF).4 Also, Boethius (see Consolations, 5.4), Augustine (City of God, 5.9.37-9), Bonaventure and Aquinas are familiar with the dynamic omniscience position of Cicero (see W. Craig, Problem of Divine Forekowledge, 59). Boethius also knows about Alexander of Aphrodisias who produced an argument similar to Cicero’s. Boethius and other Christians were more concerned to deflect the charge that Christianity implied fatalism rather than about Aristotle’s question regarding the truth value of future propositions. It was charged that if the God of the Bible predicts some future events, then the future must be determined.

These authors produce an array of solutions to the problem and those after them critique these answers and either modify them or offer new proposals. Most seem aware of the dynamic omniscience view but think that it either (1) fails to explain biblical predictions or (2) would imply that God has changing knowledge which would undermine their understanding of divine immutability. The great Aquinas (thirteen century) argues that if God is temporal (experiences changes of any kind) then the only options are determinism or dynamic omniscience. He says that a temporal God can only have EDF (exhaustive definite foreknowledge) if all is determined from prior causes. This is why he rejects the simple foreknowledge view because he thinks it removes human freedom. Another factor, for Aquinas, is that “the future does not exist and is therefore not knowable in itself” because it lacks being (Summa Theologica For Aquinas, the simple foreknowledge view of the church fathers (the same view what will become dominant in Arminian and Wesleyan circles) is deterministic. He believes that if God is temporal and humans have freedom then one should affirm the dynamic omniscience view. However, Thomas argues that since God is timelessness God can know an exhaustive definite future without it being determined. The important point here is that Aquinas thought the dynamic omniscience view was a legitimate option and he thought it should be affirmed if God is temporal and humans are free.

After Boethius, the mighty river of EDF followed the channel of divine timelessness though there were a few other channels such as divine determinism. However, in recent Christian philosophy the flow in the channel of timelessness has been seriously reduced in favor of dynamic omniscience and middle knowledge

The earliest Christian proponent thus far found is Calcidius (late fourth century).5 He wrote several books one of which is against fatalism and determinism (this work did not become well known until the middle ages). In it he says that since God knows reality as it is he knows necessary truths necessarily and future contingent truths contingently.6  Some Medieval Christian writers anticipate and seem to affirm an open future: Peter Auriol (thirteenth century) and Peter de Rivo (fifteenth century).

Some Islamic scholars affirmed dynamic omniscience: some in the Qadarite school (eighth century) and Abd al-Jabbar, an important figure of the Mu’tazilite school (tenth century).7 In Judaism the view has been widely held. God’s statement to Abraham “Now I know that you fear me” (Gen 22:12) was much discussed by Medieval Jewish theologians, a number of whom affirmed dynamic omniscience and the open future including the renowned Ibn Ezra in the twelfth century and Gersonides (Levi ben Gerson) in the fourteenth.8

John Miley claims that some of the Remonstrants (Dutch followers of Arminius) advocated it in the sixteenth century.9 The Anabaptist Fausto Socinus affirmed it though he, unfortunately, also denied many traditional Christian beliefs such as the deity of Christ and the trinity.10  If one tries to discredit open theism because a heretic affirmed the same view of omniscience then should the Reformation be discredited because this same heretic affirmed several of the key tenets of Calvin?

In the early eighteenth century, Samuel Fancourt published several works defending the dynamic omniscience view including Liberty, Grace and Prescience and latter, in 1730, What Will Be Must Be. He argues that the issue is not about the scope of God’s knowledge but about the nature of reality: are contingencies real or not? Andrew Ramsay (1748) put forth a variant of this position, claiming that though the future is knowable and so God could know it, God has chosen not to exercise this ability in order to preserve human freedom. John Wesley (1785) reprinted Ramsay’s material on this in Wesley’s Arminian Magazine.11

The position became much discussed in Methodism from the latter eighteenth into the twentieth century.12 In the early nineteenth century the well known Methodist biblical commentator, Adam Clarke (1831), defended it as did the well-known circuit preacher Billy Hibbard (1843).13

Hibbard says that he learned of the view from an article in a Methodist magazine but he develops the position much more than the Methodists before him. In the latter nineteenth century Lorenzo D. McCabe, a Methodist theologian, wrote two large, detailed works covering every biblical text relevant to foreknowledge (for example, Peter’s denial) as well as numerous theological arguments.14 According to McCabe, dynamic omniscience was widely affirmed by British and German theologians of his day and he cites other Methodists who held the view. In America, McCabe’s publications sparked a significant discussion in Methodist circles that lasted several decades.15 John Miley, an influential Methodist and contemporary of McCabe, speaks highly of McCabe’s work in his Systematic Theology (which was widely used well past the middle of the twentieth century). Though Miley affirmed prescience (foreknowledge) he recognizes a key problem that he does not know how to answer: How can God interact with us in reciprocal relationships if God has prescience? He says that if belief in an interactive God is contradictory to prescience then he will give up prescience. He goes on to say that belief in dynamic omniscience would not undermine any vital Methodist doctrines and would, in fact, free Methodism from the perplexity of divine foreknowledge and human freedom.16

Quite a number of articles and books affirming open theism from people in various denominations appeared in the nineteenth century (see the “Open Theism Timeline” chart). These folks affirmed traditional Christian orthodoxy and were generally evangelical in orientation. Edward Pearson (1811). Verax (1818), James Bromley (1820), John Briggs (1825), James Jones (two books 1828, 1829), Onesimus (1828), John Bonsall (1830), Richard Dillon (1834), Robert Bartley (1839), Joseph Barken (1846), William Robinson (1866), James Morison (1867), William Taylor (1868), Hans Martinsen (1874), J. P. LaCroix (1876), J. J. Smith (1885), Thomas Crompton (1879), Isaiah Kephart (1883), B. F. White (1884), J. J. Miles (1885), Joseph Lee (1889), J. S. Brecinridge (1890), W. G. Williams (1891), H. C. Burr (1893), William Major (1894), S. Hubbard (1894), J. Wallace Webb (1896), D. W. Simon (1898), and H. J. Zelley (1900).

In the mid nineteenth century, the great German theologian, Isaak Dorner, argued that “the classical doctrine of immutability” is inconsistent with Scripture, sound reason, and spiritual living because it rules out reciprocal relations between God and creatures. He argues for dynamic omniscience saying that a consistent view of God working with us in history requires that God knows future free acts of creatures as possibilities, not actualities.17

In 1890 Joel S. Hayes published The Foreknowledge of God, a lengthy volume examining the scriptural evidence and theological arguments for foreknowledge and concluded that dynamic omniscience was a superior explanation.18  In the opening chapter, he writes The design of this treatise is to deny and disprove the commonly received doctrine that God, from all eternity, foreknew whatsoever has come to pass. This doctrine, it seems to me, is contrary to reason and Scripture, and is in the highest degree dishonoring to the high and holy One that inhabiteth eternity.” T. W. Brents of the Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement dedicated a chapter of his “biblical” theology to the defense of dynamic omniscience. His book was influential in the Churches of Christ for many decades.19

In the latter nineteenth century many people defended the view including Rowland G. Hazard and the Catholic writer Jules Lequyer.20 Proponents also include less orthodox thinkers such as Gustave. T. Fechner, Otto Pfleiderer, William James, and Edgar S. Brightman.21

Theologians include Jürgen Moltmann, Paul Fides, and Michael Welker.22 Contemporary Dutch Reformed theologians such as Vincent Brümmer, Hendrikus Berkhof and Adrio König affirm it as do the American Reformed thinkers Nicholas Wolterstorff and Harry Boer.23 Other theologians include Thomas Finger (Mennonite), W. Norris Clarke (Roman Catholic), Brian Hebblethwaite, Robert Ellis, Kenneth Archer (Pentecostal) Barry Callen (Church of God), German theologian Heinzpeter Hempelmann and perhaps Albert Truesdale (Nazarene).24 Major Jones claims that the position is well known in the African-American tradition.25

The dynamic omniscience view is exceedingly popular among analytic philosophers who affirm orthodox Christianity. Quite a number of the luminaries among Christian philosophers assert it: Richard Swinburne (Oxford), William Hasker, David Basinger, Peter Van Inwagen (Notre Dame), J. R. Lucas, Peter Geach, Richard Purtill, A. N. Prior, and Keith Ward.26  It is also affirmed by Nicholas Wolterstorff (formerly of Calvin and Yale) and Vincent Brümmer (Dutch Reformed).27 Several philosophers contributed to a book on open theism and science: Dean Zimmerman, Robin Collins, Alan Rhoda, David Woodruff, and Jeffrey Koperski.28  Timothy O’Connor (Indiana University) also affirms the openness model.29 Though there remain defenders of both theological determinism and simple foreknowledge, it seems that the majority of Christian philosophers who publish on the subject today believe that the main options are middle knowledge and dynamic omniscience.

Acclaimed physicist and theologian, John Polkinghorne, holds it as does mathematician D. J. Barholomew and physicist Arthur Peacocke.30

For those interested in biblical support for the dynamic omniscience view, the most important work is by Hebrew Bible scholar, Terrence Fretheim, who has over a dozen publications that document in detail the biblical support for this view of omniscience.31

John Goldingay, professor of Old Testament at Fuller Seminary, has defended it in his Old Testament Theology.32 The work of Boyd and Sanders also contains biblical support.

A number of theologians, philosophers and writers have affirmed the position. Clark Pinnock, Gregory Boyd, Richard Rice, and John Sanders have produced several volumes on the topic.33

Other notable scholars include Dallas Willard, Gabriel Fackre, William Abraham, Paul Borgman, Henry Knight III, Alan Padgett, Tom Oord, and Peter Wagner.34 Researchers and popular writers include Michael Saia, William Pratney, H. Roy Elseth, Gordon C. Olson, Madelline L’Engle, and Brother Andrew.35

The position is affirmed by many YWAM leaders and leaders of the Ichthus church movement in England. Many Pentecostals are supporting it.36 Some leaders in a couple of denominations have spoken in favor of it: the Evangelical Covenant Church and Independent Christian Churches. The organization, Evangelical Educational Ministries, publishes copies of the works of L. D. McCabe and Gordon Olson:

In sum, the dynamic omniscience view was held by a smattering of people until the nineteenth century when serious scholarship begins to be published on it.37

In the latter twentieth century the number of proponents and the amount of quality works setting forth the position has grown exponentially. In part, the view is increasing in popularity in the freewill tradition due to its ability to better explain the biblical texts and give greater intellectual coherence as to how God relates to us.

Some evangelicals do not embrace the open view of omniscience but do arrive at views that have great similarity to it. Gilbert Bilezekian, professor of theology at Wheaton and theological pastor at Willow Creek (he has been Hybels mentor since college) puts forward a view similar to the open view. He claims that God can know what we will do in the future but decides not to know. See his Christianity 101 (Zondervan). Arminian theologian, John Tal Murphy (Taccoa Falls College), interacts with open theism and suggests that though God knows all that will occur in the future God has the ability to “block out of his consciousness” knowledge of what will happen. God can, in effect, “forget” what he knows is going to happen. God does this in order to enter into genuine dialog and interpersonal relations with us. See his, Divine Paradoxes: A Finite View of an Infinite God (Christian Publications, Camp Hill, PA 1998), pp. 49-56. Though I see problems with the views expressed by Bilezekian and Murphy, I am pleased that they understand the problems with simple foreknowledge and, as evangelical Arminians, attempt to find a plausible solution that arrives, for all practical purposes, at a position quite similar to the open view.

In addition, the evangelical Arminian theologian, Jack Cottrell has recently affirmed a temporal version of incremental simple foreknowledge. This view, in my opinion, arrives at precisely the same practical implications for divine providence as the open view. See John Sanders “Is Open Theism a Radical Revision or Miniscule Modification of Arminianism?” Wesleyan Theological Journal 38.2 (Fall 2003): 69-102.

Open Creation and the Redemption of the Environment

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by John Sanders
Wesleyan Theological Journal. Vol. 47 Number 1 Spring 2012

At a conference in Chicago in 2004, and after I had presented a paper on open theism, a Lutheran theologian asked, “What about rocks and trees in open theism?” My response was that the proponents of this model of God would love to apply open theism to such topics, but to date had been preoccupied with gaining a place at the theological table. That was then. Circumstances have changed. The time has come for the application.

The Open Theistic Perspective

Open theism as a theological movement now is sufficiently established that its proponents do not have to spend all their energies defending it. They can now explore the implications of the model for various topics. This is what this essay proposes to do. I will first summarize the open theistic perspective, then examine the nature of creation, the nature of redemption, and conclude with a discussion of the relationship between creation and redemption, with special attention to environmental concerns. Open theism is a model of God which affirms that God, in an act of self-Limitation, created beings ex nihilo with the intention that creatures would come to experience the love inherent in the Trinity.1 Though omnipotent, God exercises a type of sovereignty which grants considerable independence to creatures. God is “open” in two important senses. First, God is open to what creatures bring about-God is affected by creatures. Second, God is open to the future in that, even for God, there is more than one possible future. God has “dynamic omniscience,” meaning that God knows all the past and present as definite and God knows the future as possibilities. Also, God has chosen to rely upon creatures for many aspects of life and history. Consequently, God takes risks because not everything in creation goes the way God specifically wants it to go. God has often had to adjust divine plans and implement flexible strategies in light of what creatures have done with their freedom.

The Nature of Creation and God

With this basic understanding in mind, we can now proceed to a discussion of the nature of creation. Though open theism upholds creation ex nihilo, I want to point out that creation is more than simply the production of matter. In fact, creation should not be understood as a one-time event in the past which God preserves, but also as a beginning with a dynamic structure that enables the creation itself to produce new beings, events, and relations. In the Genesis accounts, the original creation contained some structure and was reliable, but it was not static or complete because God did not desire that it remain as it was.2 That creation is ongoing is seen in the divine can for plants and animals to multiply. With this shaping of the world in ways that are not predetermined, the earth will be different than it was at the beginning. God empowers creatures to bring about states of affairs that did not exist at the beginning. When humans, for instance, begin to occupy .. the land (Genesis 1 :28) that will take on characteristics it did not have on the seventh day. God chooses to bring about a world in which God is not the only one who makes things new and different. In this respect, creation is “open” because God instantiated a reliable but not fixed or static creation, which in some significant respects is open-ended. The empowerment of creatures implies that God is a “power-sharing” deity. God calls upon the waters and the land to produce that which did not exist. Next, God cans upon the plants and animals to procreate. That God does not do the procreating for the creatures suggests that the creatures have now become creators, resembling God in that they also bring forth new beings. Humans in particular are given a vocation to be God’s regents to tend the earth in God’s stead. In this respect, human vocation is necessary for the continuance of at least some aspects of creation.3 God entered upon a journey with creatures, one for which the outcome was neither predetermined nor foreknown. God works with creatures to bring about new realities.

An aspect of divine creation often overlooked is that God is not simply creator in the sense of producing matter. The story of God’s activity in the Bible depicts God working to produce new social, religious, political, and economic realities. That God is creator in these important areas of life will be useful later in this paper to connect the doctrines of creation and redemption. Having discussed the nature of creation we now move to an open theist understanding of redemption.

The Nature of Redemption

God took a risk in granting relative independence to creatures, and the risk has brought negative results. Creation has miscarried. Sin mars all the spheres of divine creativity just mentioned: our relationship to God, to the physical world as well as our relations with other humans.4 Each of the areas harmed by sin requires reconciliation and healing, which is why the New Testament contains a plethora of images regarding redemption and atonement5 Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection are the touchstones by which Christians align their life stories with that of Jesus. Jesus models loving ways of relating to others, overcomes hate with forgiveness, and is the ground of hope that destruction and death can be overcome. The incarnation and resurrection are creative acts of God by which new possibilities for the world arise. The resurrection of Jesus and the sending of the Holy Spirit are indications of an inaugurated eschatology in which the “new creation” has already begun but is not yet completed. The eschatological future has broken in to the present. The renewal of the heavens and the earth and the various aspects of life contained therein are granted the possibility of redemption. Accordingly, I will briefly explore elements of this redemption.

1. Reconciliation of Sinful Creatures. First, redemption involves a reconciliation of sinful creatures to God (not God to creatures) as well as the reconciliation of creatures to one another. Second, redemption is addressed to whole persons and this includes bodies and minds rather than simply “souls.” The New Testament writers did not concentrate on getting immaterial substances to heaven after death. Rather, they were concerned with the welfare of embodied persons as seen by their discussions of such things as food, clothing, and employment Third, sin has infected all of the relationships in which we find ourselves, but God is working to heal the diseased relations by creating communities who work to overcome sinful racial, socio-economic, and gendered structures (Galatians 3:28). Fourth, the renewal which began in the resurrection of Jesus continues to spread and one day will culminate in a renewed heaven and earth in which there is no sin to fracture our relationships. The new creation has been inaugurated and God calls us to cooperate with the mission of God. One day the mission will be completed.

If salvation involves bodies, then it involves the physical order. However, many Christians believe that, although the “new” creation involves resurrected human bodies, it means the destruction of the physical world as it presently exists. Such a view can lead to a lack of concern for the environment. Two points should be made in response to this view. First, redemption is not the annihilation of creation but rather its renewal. Just as human bodies are not annihilated when they experience salvation in Jesus. so the present heaven and earth will not be annihilated but renewed. It is common for biblical scholars to point out that, in the passages about the new creation, “new” means new in quality in contrast to the old. Evangelicals in North America typically believe that ”the earth and the works that are upon it will be burned up” (2 Peter 3:10). That is, God is going to annihilate the present physical creation. However, this understanding is based on a mistranslation because the text should read: ”the earth and everything that is done on it will be disclosed.”6 The Greek word for what is translated “burned up” or “disclosed” is heureskein, which means to find out.7 God is going to reveal the truth about what has happened by refining creation, not destroying it.

2. Don’t Contribute to Creation’s Destruction. The second element of redemption is that, even if one remains convinced that the present world is going to be destroyed by God, there are reasons why Christians should not contribute to the destruction of the environment now. To begin, even if God is going to destroy it, there is no biblical warrant for anyone but God doing so. There is no biblical call to collaborate with God in destroying the planet, but there is biblical warrant for caring for the environment. Also, wanton contamination of the environment conflicts with the mission of Jesus. If Jesus is the model for the Christian life and Jesus healed the sick, then we ought to be involved in healing fractured relationships as well as broken bodies. Contamination of the environment fosters sickness rather than healing. If our discarded electronic devices end up in areas where poor people live and the heavy metals seep into the water supply poisoning the people who live there, then we are helping to make them sick. In the United States, cases of asthma are sharply increasing because of high levels of particles in the air. Coal-fired power plants in the northern United States produce acid rain which pollutes the lakes with high levels of mercury, and this eventually makes its way to humans via fish. Thus, we are slowly making our neighbors sick instead of helping to heal them. With this summary of an openness understanding of creation and redemption in hand, we can now address some specific issues. First, how should the relationship between creation and salvation be understood? Several items come into play here. To begin, creation is not a one time event but is an ongoing process. The history of evolution manifests the ongoing and unfinished nature of divine creation. As mentioned above, God’s original creation included a dynamic infrastructure with its own autonomy that allows for the creation of new beings, events, and types of relations. Next, the freedom of the creation entailed divine risk. The creation has taken some bad turns and now is deeply defaced by sin. Creation is the framework within which sin arises and it also is the framework in which redemption is carried out.

Furthermore, God is creator, not just of original matter, but also in the social, religious, and other areas of human existence. Sin has also distorted these aspects of divine creation. Consequently, redemption is understood as a particular dimension of God’s creative work in order to bring about a renewed creation transforming all of its dimensions, physical and social. Also, according to Paul, the Son of God, the redeemer, is also the one through whom God created the universe (Colossians 2: 16). The trinitarian God who worked to create us is the same God who works to redeem us. God has not given up on his creation but desires to renew it. The spoiled creation is the subject of God’s redemptive work, so creation and salvation cannot be isolated from one another. But neither can they be collapsed into each other because God did not create in order to redeem it. Sin was not part of God’s original design. God has had to adjust the divine plan to include redemption as a means to a new creation.

3. Refuse An Escapist Eschatology. Another issue is how to avoid an escapist eschatology which obliterates hope for this earth. Openness theology affirms the majority of traditional Christian teachings, including the resurrection of bodies to new life. Salvation is understood to include both the redemption of all spheres of life on earth as well as continued life with God after death in the new heavens and earth. Many proponents of open theism are evangelicals and many evangelicals believe that God is going to destroy the earth. Some interpret this to mean that, if God is going to destroy the earth, then it is not within our power to destroy it. Hence, they believe we can pollute and use up the natural resources because God will not allow the planet to be destroyed before the time set for its destruction.

It was mentioned above that this idea of God’s coming destruction of the creation is based on a mistranslation of a biblical text. An additional problem is that this false idea leads many evangelicals to conclude that God will take care of everything, so we need not do anything. God will miraculously overcome any problem we develop. One student voiced this sentiment when he said, “If we run out of oil, God will just make more.” The Calvinist theologian Calvin Beisner defends this notion by appeal to the Old Testament story of how God miraculously created more oil for a widow in order to pay off her debts (2 Kings 4: l-7).8 Because, says Beisner, nature is not a closed system for God, we can rest assured that God will not let us run out of natural resources. I reject such an idea as unbiblical.

4. Polarities To Be Avoided. Open theism seeks to avoid two polarities in this regard. They are the evangelical belief that God will take care of everything and the process theology belief that God will take care of nothing.9 Against the notion that God will resolve all of the problems unilaterally, openness affirms that God has granted a great deal of independence to creatures. Above, it was said that God decided to rely on humans by giving us a vocation that is necessary for the continuance of creation. God bas given us a task and we are failing God in some significant respects. We have seriously damaged God’s work and failed to achieve the mission entrusted to us by God. Yet, God has not thrown in the towel but has chosen to work to redeem creation.

Just as God elected to rely on creatures to continue the work of creation, God has decided to work through us rather than alone (e. g., to evangelize and feed the hungry). This means that God has chosen to be dependent upon our actions for a great many aspects of life. Does this mean that we could contaminate the environment to such an extent as to make life untenable? Since God has not prevented us from wreaking horrible wars, draughts, and the like, this seems a reasonable conclusion. It seems that God has chosen to solicit our cooperation in the divine work of redemption rather than simply doing it by God’s own self.10 Since God decided to make some important features of the continuance of creation dependent upon human vocation, the view that God is in total control and what humans do is irrelevant must be rejected.

The second polarity is process theology’s lack of eschatological hope that God will bring about the new heavens and new earth. The God of process theology cannot unilaterally cause an electron to move, so the preservation of the planet is decidedly on our shoulders, not God’s. The openness of God model affirms divine omnipotence and insists that God can work unilaterally within creation.11 The biblical record testifies that God has historically bought about that which did not exist on a number of occasions. Hence, we are not totally on our own. Proponents of open theism live in the tension between the two polarities of evangelical escapist theology and the lack of hope in process theology.

Salvation and Environmental Threats

How we understand salvation in the context of environmental threats is critical. For open theism, salvation entails both vertical and horizontal aspects. Redemption involves both our incorporation into the divine life and as our relations with other creatures. Again, two polarities need to be avoided: that salvation is only about getting to heaven or it is only about healing the planet. The “Evangelical Declaration on the Care of Creation” says: “We resist both ideologies which would presume the Gospel has nothing to do with the care of non-human creation and also ideologies which would reduce the Gospel to nothing more than the care of that creation.”12 Open theists believe that redemption is about both this life and the next because the salvation already begun will not be complete until God resurrects us to a renewed bodily life in the new heavens and earth. Open theists go beyond the process ideas of ”objective immortality” (God has eternal memories of what we were) or “subjective immortality” (the survival of a disembodied soul). Jesus was raised bodily from the dead confirming both that death has not the final word and that God continues to value physical existence.

ln addition to this eschatological embodiment, open theists affirm that salvation requires the transformation of embodied existence, not just the salvation of “souls.” Salvation engages every sphere of life affected by sin: economic, political, and environmental. James says that true religion is caring for widows and orphans (1:27) as well as feeding and clothing the poor (2:15). Paraphrasing James, we might ask how one can claim to love one’s neighbor while at the same time acting in ways that necessarily pollute the air and water supplies of our neighbors. The redemption of creation includes both salvation of individuals and healing of the environment because God wants to redeem every sphere of life affected by sin. God works to redeem whole persons, and the way we treat the environment affects our embodied neighbors. The renewed heavens and earth means the continuation of God’s physical creation, but in a transformed state in which we, as embodied beings, live appropriately with all other embodied beings. If God cares for embodied existence on this planet and will not give up on it, then neither should we. If divine dominion is enacted not by exploiting the land but by caring for it, then human dominion, which should image God’s dominion, should also care for it.13

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