By David R. Bauer
Free Methodists believe that we must take seriously the fact that Scripture presents God as both knowing the future and sometimes changing his mind. Some readers of the Bible take these two descriptions to be contradictory. After all, they would say, how can God change his mind on the basis of something that happens at a point in time if God had had full knowledge of the future and was thus aware of all that would happen? This consideration has led certain readers of the Bible to deny either God’s complete foreknowledge or God’s practice of changing his mind on the basis of what human beings do.
But the Bible affirms both of these descriptions of God, and does not consider them contradictory. Although the biblical writers do not argue explicitly for God’s complete foreknowledge, they do assume God’s foreknowledge and many passages describe God as knowing the future (Genesis 15:13, Daniel 2:21-49, Acts 20:23, 2 Thessalonians 2:1-12). In addition, there are several New Testament passages that represent Jesus as knowing the future (Matthew 24:5-25, 13:11 and 38; 21:18-19).
Other biblical statements describe God as changing his mind on the basis of what humans do (Exodus 32:1-34, Jonah 3:1-10; 1 Samuel 15:1-35, Matthew 2:20-22). The Old Testament describes this divine change as an instance of God’s “repentance.” This language does not suggest that God realized that what he intended to do was morally wrong, and therefore changed his behavior. Rather, it indicates that in response to specific human actions God reconsidered what he had intended to do. God’s practice of answering prayer participates in this broader pattern of God responding to human initiation.
According to human experience and logic, these two perspectives appear contradictory; or they at least seem to imply contradiction. But at this point we must remember the fundamental claim of Scripture that God is holy. God’s ways are not our ways and his thoughts are incomparably higher than ours (Isaiah 55:8-9). Scholars refer to this biblical understanding of God’s holiness as “transcendence.” From the human perspective, there is necessarily a paradox (i.e., an apparent contradiction) with the God who is above time and yet works within the temporal framework. What we humans might consider contradictory may be entirely consistent with God. There are certain cases in which the only way limited humans can approximate an understanding of God is to affirm two (apparently) contradictory things at the same time. Thus, God both knows entirely the future, and God sometimes changes his mind on the basis of what his human creatures do. Therefore, on the basis of God’s holiness or transcendence, we resist the strong human tendency to reconcile the Bible’s paradoxical language on God’s foreknowledge.
Moreover, the Bible does not consider that God’s practice of sometimes changing his mind in response to human initiative suggests a limitation of God’s sovereignty. The Bible indicates that God’s sovereignty is large enough to include a measure of human freedom and initiative. God sovereignly wills the divine-human relationship as described in the Bible, and has thus constituted his human creatures as true persons who possess the capacity for moral freedom.
Free Methodists do not believe that the doctrine of the sovereignty of God means that God has predestined everything, in the sense that God absolutely and directly causes it to happen. Rather, God’s sovereignty means that the universe has meaning and order. There are some things that must happen, such as the fulfillment of prophecy in accordance with God’s purposes. There are many things that may happen, given the freedom God has bestowed upon humanity. But God is sovereignly at work in all these things, so that each in its own way contributes to the realization of God’s good purposes (Romans 8:28). The responsiveness of God, then, expresses God’s sovereignty and serves the purposes of God’s love.