Earlier this week a friend sent me a couple of really good questions, and with his permission, I’m posting questions and my responses here. The first question has to do with God changing his mind in Numbers 14:11-21 where Moses pleads with God to spare the Israelites. Some have suggested this text and the others like it support the notion of open theism – that God doesn’t know the future acts of free persons (they are unknowable) but is a God who responds to these real choices. I’m not inclined (like, at all) to go this direction, so how do I deal with these passages as a Calvinist? Do these passages challenge my assumptions about sovereignty, God’s foreknowledge, etc.
You run into a number of these kind of passages where God appears to change his mind. Abraham ‘negotiating’ with God; God relents from destroying Nineveh after they repent, etc. A few things have helped me understand these passages. First, the language of God changing his mind is, I believe, anthropomorphic – like God sitting or walking, etc. It puts the workings of God in language we relate to. Calvin wrote of God speaking to his children in lisps and whispers, like parents talk to infants. I think this is an example of this gracious condescension.
Second, it’s helpful to understand that just as God ordains the final outcome also ordains the means he will use to achieve his desired outcome. Sometimes the ordained outcomes are different than God’s stated intentions, so when God pursues his ordained outcome it may appear as though God has changed his mind or ‘repented’. The story of Jonah and Nineveh is a prime example of this. Jonah 3:10 says, “When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil way, God relented of the disaster that he had said he would do to them, and he did not do it.” Of course God’s intention was that they’d repent all along – that’s why he sent Jonah (and Jonah knew it, much to his chagrin – see Jonah 4:1-3).
The same principle appears to be at work in Numbers 14. God’s intentions were to put the people in the land. To wipe them out at this point would be to renege on promises he had made – something God will not do. So God ordains that Moses will act as an intercessor and that He will relent from judgment in response to Moses intercession (to prefigure Christ’s intercession). This is, in essence, how prayer works too. God’s will is going to be accomplished, but he uses means – a prayer warrior, and evangelist, etc., to accomplish his will.
I don’t think these passages challenge (at least they don’t destroy) a strong view of God’s complete sovereignty. God was sovereign even over the kind of prayer Moses offered on behalf of the people and sovereignly determined he would relent in wrathful judgment in response to this prayer.
It is more troubling to consider what God truly changing his mind would mean. How can God be all wise if he changes his mind regarding his ultimate intentions? Was his initial intention wise? Was it right? If so, then how can changing your mind be wise? Right? Open theism opens a scary can of worms unnecessarily and contrary to the overarching teaching of Scripture.