Musings on Openness Theology, Part 2: The Odd Case of King Saul

Before proceeding deeper into theological waters it might be helpful to dip into the biblical witness to highlight some issues, problems and tensions. Rather than attempting an exhaustive biblical review, let's just muse over a single biblical story: The rise and fall of King Saul, first king of Israel.

Part 1: Contingent Futures and Impetratory Prayer

The story begins in 1 Samuel 8:

When Samuel grew old, he appointed his sons as judges for Israel...But his sons did not walk in his ways. They turned aside after dishonest gain and accepted bribes and perverted justice.

So all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah. They said to him, "You are old, and your sons do not walk in your ways; now appoint a king to lead us, such as all the other nations have."

But when they said, "Give us a king to lead us," this displeased Samuel; so he prayed to the LORD. And the LORD told him: "Listen to all that the people are saying to you; it is not you they have rejected, but they have rejected me as their king. As they have done from the day I brought them up out of Egypt until this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so they are doing to you. Now listen to them; but warn them solemnly and let them know what the king who will reign over them will do."

Samuel told all the words of the LORD to the people who were asking him for a king...

But the people refused to listen to Samuel. "No!" they said. "We want a king over us. Then we will be like all the other nations, with a king to lead us and to go out before us and fight our battles."

When Samuel heard all that the people said, he repeated it before the LORD. The LORD answered, "Listen to them and give them a king."

Summarizing the relevant details of the story: God desires a future without a king. The people disagree and insist on having a king. God warns them about this but eventually agrees.

This story highlights a few issues relevant to openness theology:

1.) God might have a desire/plan for a future that might not come to pass.

2.) God's plan might be thwarted or at least set aside in the face of human demands/requests/prayers.

3.) God might desire an optimal future but allow a sub-optimal future to come to pass.

In sum, this story seems to suggest that God might see a way forward--His preferred way, and one that is best for us--but set that future aside in the face of human request. Even if this new future is bad for us. Which is scary if you think about it. Rather than Garth Brooks' "Thank God for unanswered prayer", what about "Thank God I never prayed in the first place"!

These questions go to what is called impetratory prayer. That is, as John Sanders frames it, does God ever do something he was not planning to do just because we asked for it?

Some Christian thinkers deny impetratory prayer, stating that God's will never changes. By contrast, impetratory prayer suggests that God might have a preferred future yet set it aside to act relationally with humanity. I Samuel 8 seems to support this view. God did not want Israel to have a king, it was not God's will. Yet, to allow humans input into their future God sets his will aside and allows the future to evolve in a different, even sub-optimal, direction.

Part 2: Does God Regret and Change His Mind?

God, now allowing a king, eventually selects Saul. However, in 1 Samuel 15, after repeated failures on Saul's part, we see God regret and then change his mind as to who should be king:

Then the word of the LORD came to Samuel: "I am grieved that I have made Saul king, because he has turned away from me and has not carried out my instructions."

The word "grieved" is variously translated as "regret" (NRS, NASV) or "repent" (ASV, KJV).

Now the issue, obviously, is why did God not see this coming? Is God really regretting his choice? Did God make a mistake? Was Israel's bad choice--wanting a king--exacerbated by a bad choice--selecting Saul--by God? Or was the future placed contingently in the hands of Saul? That is, the bible seems to blame Saul, not God, for this outcome. If so, God could be properly regretting and grieving the future Saul has selected for himself and his nation.

Interestingly, in the middle of this story we get a counter-testimony about God changing his mind. After Samuel informs Saul that he is no longer to be king, Saul repents and tries to change Samuel's mind. It doesn't work. So, as Samuel turns to go Saul grabs his robe to pull him back. The robe tears and Samuel turns around in anger and speaks these words:

"The LORD has torn the kingdom of Israel from you today and has given it to one of your neighbors—to one better than you. He who is the Glory of Israel does not lie or change his mind; for he is not a human being, that he should change his mind."

Now this is a very confusing passage. God doesn't change his mind? This whole story is about God changing his mind! In the final verse in the chapter, just five versus away from this speech from Samuel, the text says this:

"And the LORD was grieved that he had made Saul king over Israel."

That is, the whole story is book-ended by God regretting his choice about Saul and pulling Saul out of the kingship. Yet, in the middle of the story we get this testimony that God, being God, doesn't change his mind.

I bring all this up to make a couple of observations.

First, it is no easy thing to lift a verse from the bible and make sense of it. A person, in a debate about openness theology, might throw this quote at you:

"The Glory of Israel does not lie or change his mind; for he is not a human being, that he should change his mind."

And yet, this quote is embedded in the very heart of a story where God actually did change his mind. More, God grieved and regretted this choice. Even more, this whole history wasn't even a part of God's plan. This whole timeline--the establishment of a king--wasn't God's will at all.

Second, and this just follows up with the prior point, the biblical witness regarding the openness of God is very mixed. Which is probably why there is so much debate, confusion, and diversity on the matter. At times the bible seems to assert that the future is open. So radically open that God will set aside his plan--No king--and allow a sub-optimal future--King--to evolve. What kind of view of Providence does that set up? And yet, the bible is also clear in saying that God doesn't change his mind like humans do. Hmmmmm....

So what is the answer? I take my cue from theologians like Barth who state that the mixed message we are getting about God in the bible is intentionally mixed. That is, God can't be systematized. God is free. Nothing will interfere with the Divine Prerogative. That doesn't answer all the questions, but it does say that once we make up our minds about what God can or cannot do, God will thwart that theological configuration. So in the end all we have is this:

Does God change his mind? Yes.
Does God change his mind? No.

And we let that paradox dance.

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7 thoughts on “Musings on Openness Theology, Part 2: The Odd Case of King Saul”

  1. Is the Bible intentionally confusing about its description of God? Or is this passage likely a result of the compilers of the OT interjecting there own harmonizing efforts on the stories they were compiling? The latter seems more believable to me.

  2. My humble opinion is that the fact that God is grieved over his choice of Saul as king does not necessarily imply that God would have done otherwise had he "known better."

    Is it possible that this is a reflection of God's emotional state and not necessarily a reflection of a change of intent?

    I have recently been forced to discipline someone - I regret that it had to be done. I wish it did not have to be done. I wish I did not have to do it. But my intent was to do it and I helped to carry it out. Emotionally, it was difficult to say the least.

    Perhaps God's "regret" here is a reflection of his emotional desire that things would have gone differently.

    Whether or not - I agree with you that God is difficult to systemitize. But it sure is fun to try. :-)

  3. I should very much like to see what Jewish study on this matter has to say. To the more well-read readers out there: do any commentators handle this apparent paradox?

    It's far too late on a Finals Week night for me to think, but an idea comes to me: Could it be that God's intent is the thing that does not change, even as His methods do?

    The quantum physicists seem to be making a lot of noise in the direction of multiple (infinite?) universes. If all possibilities coexist on some level, wouldn't this allow for both omniscience and a form of openness? Going from this (dangerously underinformed) angle, we would see here a God repenting of this particular course of events (which has gone more to His liking in infinite other iterations of space and time.)

    (No doubt this was gone over in the comments to the last entry, but this is what we get at four in the morning...)

  4. The question isn't really a yes or no. I believe that G-d's plan for us is to be holy. I don't think that has ever changed. I do, however, think G-d mind changes regarding the best way to implement that plan. The story of Saul is a good example, as well as the story of Nineveh, and even the story of the Hebrew people as a whole. G-d always wanted them to be holy, G-d always wanted to give them the "promised land", but G-d was constantly changing the way that plan was implemented.

    I think that this argument also clears up the inconsistencies in the passage in question. G-d can in fact change methods, which would seem like a change of mind, when in reality the end plan is still the same, it's only the path that's different.

  5. As propositionally stated, what we have is a contradiction, not a paradox. But the narrative the propositions refer to is of course far more supple.
    Seeing as the 'God doesn't change his mind' bit is Samuel's response to Saul begging him for one more chance, in that context, Samuel seems to simply be (hyperbolically) saying 'God is not so easily swayed'. In other contexts, God 'not changing his mind' stands roughly for God not taking bribes (which is why he is unlike human beings who are easily swayed).
    Long story short: the background presuppositions fit better with an oppenness view, in spite of the apparent tension caused by hyperbolic statements of God's integrity (and sovereign freedom, of course).
    Now I'd be interested in seeing an analysis of the degree to which the background picture of God (as planning, changing, grieving, etc.) is anthropomorphic...
    But maybe another time.

  6. This looks like a promising series on openness theology.

    I wonder whether you've ever come across the more radical take of philosopher Richard Kearney? Kearney posits that God's nature is not yet determined; that interactions between human beings and God will ultimately decide what sort of God God will be. I'm curious whether Sanders discusses that position.

    By the way, I've logged in as anonymous because your comment box is configured so that I can only link to a Blogger url.

    Stephen aka Q, Emerging From Babel

  7. Pecs,
    That is a good question. My guess is similar to yours that lot's of stuff is being read back into the story.

    I guess it depends, given this whole conversation, if God knew, beforehand, Saul was going to be a screw up. If he knows this how can he be grieved? But if he doesn't know this then it seems okay for him to change plans. That is, to my mind, God emotions are diagnostic that God will change plans if events unfold in a way that grieves him. To be grieved about something you've planned seems odd to me.

    I oftentimes wish I was Jewish to have their perspective on things. I'm drawn to misrashic approaches but can't find a good entry point into that world.

    I agree. In my post today it's a contrast between specific vs. general sovereignty.

    That does look more like a contradiction! Putting on my Western hat, I was trying to hint at something dialectical. Putting on my Eastern hat, I was going a little Zen.

    Back to the story, I think the background do support the openness view. You analysis (which I think is correct) only highlights how perverse it is to lift a passage out of context.

    Kearney's view looks like process theology to me, a more radical take than openness theology. But one I like. Plus, I'm going to inch close to that view in this series.

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