In John Goldingay’s For Everyone commentary on Genesis 6:5-8 (a text included in this Sunday’s scripture reading on Noah and the flood), Goldingay describes four “astonishing” reactions from God to the world’s violence and sinfulness.
The first is regret at having created humanity. This is extraordinary because you cannot regret something unless you had not foreseen it, which implies that the developments we have been reading about in Genesis have taken God by surprise. Once again, Genesis raises a question about our assumption that God knows everything, so that there is nothing God has not foreseen. The Old Testament implies that God quite often has surprises, usually unpleasant ones. It also makes clear that God is able to know what will happen in the future (and is thus able to reveal it to people), but God seems not always to exercise that capacity and instead lives in linear time with us. God is eternal in the sense of living through all time, but God is not timeless. God mostly lives in the present and thus can be taken aback by things, but God is not caught by events in such a way as not to be able to cope with things. God has infinite capacity to handle whatever happens, and God is involved in a responsive relationship with the world.
I don’t quote this passage because I “agree” that God’s foreknowledge is limited—or even that God places a self-imposed limit on what he knows. But I do agree, along with Goldingay, that this is what the Bible implies. And, by all means, let’s deal, first, with what the Bible actually says (or implies)—before we spackle over it with our tidy theology. I gather that this is what Goldingay would say, too.
When dealing with classic Bible passages like Genesis 6 or Jonah 3—both of which suggest that God changes his mind in response to new information—I would say, and have said many times in the past, that this is simply anthropomorphism: the Bible writers are ascribing to God human personality traits so that we can relate to him better. But darn that Goldingay! He anticipates this response in the next paragraph:
Does the Bible simply speak of God having surprises and regretting things only because that is how it looks to us? Is God simply portrayed as if God were a human being? This seems to involve deciding what must be true of God on the basis of what we think must be true, rather than on the basis of what the Bible says. If the Bible does not mean it when it says God regrets things, why should we assume it means it when it says other humanlike things about God, such as that God loves us?
Deciding what must be true of God on the basis of what we think must be true, rather than on the basis of what the Bible says… Yikes! I have no clever reply to this, except to concede that I’m sure he’s right.
Darn you, John Goldingay! And thank you for challenging me.
1. John Goldingay, Genesis for Everyone, Part One (Louisville: WJK, 2010), 95-6.
2. Ibid., 96.