David Cloud recently published a short article as part of his weekly Friday Church News Notes questioning1 the theological truth that God’s knowledge is independent, infallible, and not contingent upon the creature, a statement made in the Second London Baptist Confession of Faith (LBCF).
Specifically, Cloud zeroes in on these words: “...His knowledge is infinite, infallible, and independent upon the creature, so as nothing is to Him contingent or uncertain….” Concluding that the statement is only “partly true, but not exactly,” Cloud spends the rest of his article seeking to prove his point. While not my practice to comment on all of Mr. Cloud’s positions (as we agree in many areas), both the position his article advances and the attack it makes on a phrase in the LBCF compel me to address the article’s arguments.
Cloud's article warns readers about his conception of Calvinism's view of God's sovereignty. As someone who prior to conversion grew up steeped in Calvinism and Reformed theology, I have a reasonable grasp of many of Calvinism’s nuances, and while I join Mr. Cloud in rejecting the errors of Calvinism, I believe his article misrepresents the position he opposes, thereby doing little to refute its errors. Brother Cloud's article on God’s sovereignty and repentance presents a teaching, labels it Calvinism, and refutes the labeled teaching without actually refuting a Calvinistic doctrine. In fact, despite his repeated affirmations to believe in God’s sovereignty and working out of “his eternal plans in accordance with this knowledge,” (an imprecise theological statement in light of the article’s presentation of God’s knowledge2), Cloud argues his point in a manner that will lead readers on an undesirable journey to the doorstep of open theism, even though Mr. Cloud does not hold to such a view himself.3 Cloud’s attack on the Confession’s language concerns me because not only does the Confession have strong Biblical support in this area, but the declaration also comprises a portion of our non-Calvinist church’s doctrinal statement. These reasons have necessitated the examination of the article and its errors with the desire that such scrutiny would not only sharpen our understanding of God's Word, but would mutually benefit and edify those who love the Lord and delight in His knowledge and providence.
First, a word about the 2nd London Baptist Confession of Faith cited by Cloud in his article. Drawn up by one hundred Particular Baptist pastors in England in 1689, the Confession contains significant Calvinistic overtones and, as Cloud noted, finds its roots in the Westminster Confession of Faith, although it more closely follows the Savoy Declaration of 1658.4 The Calvinistic language obviously does not render the Confession wholly unscriptural, and Cloud acknowledges as much in his article. The Confession presents an exalted and Biblical view of God and His will, something absent in many churches today. Because our church uses the Trinity Hymnal – Baptist Edition in our corporate worship, we have a complete reproduction of the confession in the latter pages of the hymnal (not because we requested it – it comes in the hymnal). The section Cloud impugns appears in Chapter II (Of God and of The Holy Trinity); not, as will become important, in Chapter III (Of God’s Decree), or even in Chapter IV (Of Divine Providence). In his article, Mr. Cloud does not indicate why he chose to criticize this statement. The Confession does contain Calvinistic teachings worthy of Biblical examination and rejection, but this affirmation is not one of them.
Two things in Cloud’s article become immediately clear. The first involves his interpretation of the word “contingent,” a word in the confession with which he takes issue.5 Cloud interprets the word contingent according to its current colloquial usage, forcing that interpretation backwards upon the 17th century Baptist confession and committing a basic but destructive interpretative error. The Oxford English Dictionary, tracing the usage of the word contingent through the centuries, demonstrates that the word in its historic usage, refers to something accidental or unknown.6 Noah Webster’s American Dictionary of the English Language (1828), published much closer to the time of the confession’s writing, agrees with the OED, providing this definition for the word “contingent”:
“Falling or coming by chance, that is, without design or expectation on our part; accidental; casual. On our part, we speak of chance or contingencies; but with an infinite being, nothing can be contingent.”7 (Italics in original)
One would hope Cloud does not intend to suggest that God’s knowledge finds itself subjected to accidents or to the actions of men! Yet he argues, “there is a sense in which some things are ‘to him contingent,’ because God made some things contingent upon man’s response, man’s actions.” What examples of God’s knowledge being contingent or dependent upon the creature would Mr. Cloud present to support his refutation of the confession’s statement? Even if we ignore the error discussed in the following paragraph of this article, can Mr. Cloud furnish evidence that God’s decisions depend on man? That man's actions angered God in certain instances does not prove He was surprised by it, nor does it prove His knowledge is not independent of the creature. Which of God’s decisions are uncertain to Him, only becoming certain after man acts in one fashion or another? One cannot separate knowledge from certainty. Uncertainty exists because a lack of knowledge, and God’s absolute knowledge means nothing is contingent to Him, nor are any of his decisions uncertain. That God grants man choices does nothing to prove God’s knowledge is dependent upon the creature, or even, for that matter, that God’s decisions depend upon man. Should we conclude that the Father, in eternity past, having decreed the eternal plan of redemption, depended on the decisions of man to fulfil the details of Jesus' birth, life, and death, merely knowing ahead of time the details of the birthplace of Christ, or crucifixion as the means of death for His Son, all of which resulted from the man’s choices? Were God’s decisions in those details contingent upon man’s actions? Are we to believe that the prophecies about the birth, life, and death of Christ were given by God because of what He knew man would choose, and not because He had divinely decreed them to be so? Did saints for four thousand years before Christ have to depend on the future actions of man, rather than the sovereign eternal plan of God for the fulfillment of the numerous details in their redemption? Surely this turns the Biblical revelation of the accomplishment of the Almighty’s divine plan (in which the smallest details were performed through the actions, decisions, and will of men) into an uncertain contingent plan where man becomes the final say in God’s decision-making. At best, it shifts a Theocentric Scripture record into an anthropocentric one. At worst, it lays the groundwork for some dangerous theology.
Cloud’s second error involves either a careless or an artful switch of the word “knowledge” with “decisions.” The declaration he censures speaks about God’s knowledge. It appears in a paragraph under a chapter heading solely describing the Triune God’s attributes. The phrase Mr. Cloud seeks to rebut forms part of a sentence describing nothing more than the fullness of God’s knowledge. The entire section never makes mention of or even remotely refers to God’s decrees or decisions.8 It addresses knowledge alone. God’s decisions receive no treatment until two paragraphs later in a different section (appropriately titled “Of God’s Decree”), yet Mr. Cloud lifts this profession of God's uncontingent knowledge from its context, calling it a product of “leaning more on Augustine and his disciple, John Calvin,” and dismissing it as “human reasoning” and “theological wrangling.” Whatever a Calvinist may conclude about the effects of God’s absolute, independent and uncontingent knowledge, the chapter itself speaks only of God’s knowledge, not His decisions. Yet Cloud represents it as a declaration about God’s decisions, writing, “While God’s knowledge is most certainly infinite and infallible, His decisions are not entirely independent of man, but rather take into account and respond to man’s actions.” God does, in every generation and dispensation, interact with mankind. No Calvinist would dispute that. The Friday Church News Notes article, however, singles out and rejects an affirmation of God’s absolute independent knowledge, not His decisions. This interchanging of words results in an affirmation by Cloud that does nothing to refute the allegedly controversial wording of the LBCF. At the same time, he alters the LBCF’s wording and intent (as well as this non-Calvinist church's doctrinal statement), labeling it as untruthful and Calvinistic. While correct in affirming God’s interaction with man and his actions, Brother Cloud misrepresents a comforting truth about God’s knowledge, issuing a confusing warning to his readers about those who might teach that God’s knowledge is independent of the creature (which it is).
Cloud points to Genesis 6:6-7 in his attempted refutation of this statement about God’s knowledge. In providing context for the worldwide flood, Moses refers twice to God’s repentance for having created man.9 According to Brother Cloud, this indicates “God reacted to sin in a heartfelt way and repented that He had made man.” Cloud mentions several other verses to support his position, but the Genesis passage appears to represent his strongest argument.10 Mr. Cloud's use of this passage to support his argument about God's repentance (as a refutation of the Calvinistic idea of God's sovereignty) is interesting because if followed to its logical end, it will align with some of open theism’s false tenets and the rejection of God’s absolute knowledge, despite Cloud's claims to the contrary. I am not suggesting Mr. Cloud holds to or supports open theism. I've read enough of his writing over the years to confidently conclude he likely strongly opposes open theism, and rightfully so. Despite this, his interpretation of Genesis 6 and his representation of God’s knowledge creates enough confusion to point a reader in that direction. If one interprets God's repentance in Genesis 6 as referring to an actual change of mind by God about creating man, what must he conclude about God, who “reacted to man in a heartfelt way and repented that he had made man”?11 First, he must inevitably conclude that God, having full foreknowledge of the events of Genesis 6, created man anyway, yet had a “heartfelt change of mind” (regret?) about creating him despite His knowledge of man’s apostasy. He must conclude that God makes decisions fully aware of the consequences and later looks back, wishing He hadn’t done so. This is not theological wrangling or human reasoning. These considerations approach the root of our perception of God, His knowledge, and His will. The interpretation given in Brother Cloud’s article introduces more confusion than it does clarity. A second problem arises in reconciling Genesis 6:6-7 with passages such as Numbers 23:19; I Samuel 15:29; Malachi 3:6 (cf. Psalm 89:34); or James 1:17 where the Scriptures explicitly declare God cannot repent.12 Thirdly, while interpreting the language of these verses as anthropomorphic reconciles any apparent contradictions,13 Cloud’s interpretation raises a question about the hermeneutical approach one should employ in similar passages where the Lord is said to do something to see what was in man's heart (Deuteronomy 8:2; 13:3; II Chronicles 32:31). For example, several chapters after the one under consideration, God tests Abraham on the mountains of Moriah, ultimately declaring, “now I know that thou fearest God, seeing thou hast not withheld thy son, thine only son from me.” (Genesis 22:12). Did He not know ahead of time? Did He learn something by testing Abraham? Or does He rather use language common to man, similar to the anthropomorphic language describing His ears, His eyes, His arms, and His nose?
One cannot carefully study Scripture without recognizing that in the working out of God’s eternal plan, a believer can take great comfort from knowing God’s will is not merely reactive, but proactive. He not only turns and directs man's actions, but often his very will (cf. Proverbs 21:1). Such teachings about the acts and counsel of God’s will consist of more than mere reaction to man’s decisions and works, as Cloud’s article seems to imply. This doctrine, often known as the doctrine of God's providence,14 affords the believer great assurance in knowing that God's knowledge and divine will do not depend on the actions of men, even though the eternal God has, does, and will continue to interact with men through the actions of their individual and collective wills.
Acts 15:18 plainly testifies to the absence of contingency (uncertainty) in God's works: Known unto God are all his works from the beginning of the world. This brings us to yet another important understanding in the consideration of God’s knowledge, touched on briefly in Cloud's article, where he writes that God works “his eternal plans in accordance with this knowledge.” Some may see this as cavilling, but this statement does not properly describe either God's will or His knowledge. I noted this earlier, citing Ephesians 1:11. In fact, the language employed by Brother Cloud here perhaps best reveals the heart of the article's misunderstanding of God's knowledge. Cloud describes God as working things out according to His knowledge, but appears to demonstrate a misunderstanding of God's knowledge by portraying God as making plans based on His knowledge ahead of time of what man will do (as if God's will, decrees, and actions are reactive and contingent on man). Cloud's example of the Flood elucidates this. He describes God as knowing ahead of time that man would apostatize and determining to send the Flood as a result of this knowledge.15 In Cloud’s thinking, God could not have repented if “God’s decisions are independent upon the creature.” Here, though (ignoring the out-of-context use of this quote),we findBrother Cloud labouring under the same erroneous efforts that Calvinists do when attempting to reconcile the knowledge and decrees of an eternal infinite God with the understanding of finite man. God's absolute infinite foreknowledge does not merely consist of looking ahead through the mists of time and determining things based on what He sees or knows, a teaching which suspiciously appears to underpin the article’s representation of God’s knowledge. Human foreknowledge works in that manner, since a finite creature who has acquired knowledge, looks forward from a point in time and makes decisions accordingly. God’s knowledge, however, transcends mere forward-looking, since His knowledge is not constrained by time because of its infiniteness. In other words, God’s knowledge (including His foreknowledge) does not operate on a linear scale, because God exists outside time, even as He operates inside time with His finite, time-constrained Creation. God's knowledge does not involve looking ahead from a point in time (even if that “time” is “eternity past”) and acting based on that knowledge. A knowledge or will like that would be finite, having a beginning even if it had no end. Rather, one ought to recognize a real tension in Scripture regarding the knowledge and decrees of God and the will of man. To dilute the foreknowledge of God into an idea in which He looks ahead and makes decrees based on what He sees ahead of time severely minimizes the Scriptural representation of God’s knowledge and sovereignty. Likewise, to represent God’s knowledge as simply exacting decrees absent His knowledge of the exercise of man’s will does violence to the language of Scripture in other places. A tension exists, such that efforts to reconcile it inevitably lead to incorrect theology.16
The writers of Scripture themselves understood this type of tension, at times employing what we might describe as clashing grammar in describing God's eternality to mortal man. Thus, Jesus makes the “grammatically incorrect” statement that Before Abraham was, I am (John 8:58). He could have said, “Before Abraham was, I was,” testifying to His pre-existence, but He employs an emphatic ἐγώ εἰμι, resulting in a discordance in tense to testify to His eternality. Can a finite creature fully comprehend an infinite God? Can one whose existence requires a beginning comprehend an eternal Being who has no beginning, and therefore is not adequately described in the past tense (e.g. “Before Abraham was, I was”)? Obviously, not. Similarly, aspects of God's will and knowledge, though revealed in Scripture and suitable for man to receive and believe, are likewise beyond man's ability to utterly reconcile in his finite mind.17 Cloud's conclusion that to God, “some things are...‘contingent’” errs in its attempt to reconcile God's infinite, full, and independent knowledge with the actions of men in the same manner that Calvinism's doctrine of double-predestination errs with its conclusions about God’s decrees. The Calvinist tries to reconcile God's infinite knowledge one way; Cloud tries to reconcile it another way, and both do injustice to a real tension in Scripture. Noah Webster rightly acknowledged that things may appear contingent to a finite creature whose knowledge is not infallible or absolute. But to an infinite God, nothing is contingent or uncertain.
A scriptural understanding of God's knowledge recognizes that God's eternal plans involve the purposing to use sinful man's actions, even guiding them as such, to accomplish God's eternal purposes. To man, God’s will often seems reactive. In light of Scriptural revelation, this understanding falls woefully short. Whether one wants to dismiss that as Calvinistic or not, it forms a key part in understanding the often-ignored, yet tremendously comforting doctrine of providence in which God turns the hearts not only of kings, but of sinful men throughout history to do His sovereign will. Historically, such a doctrine has not been dismissed as Calvinistic, but embraced as comforting, as it indeed should be today. Perhaps, if churches gave greater consideration to God’s providence and the absoluteness and infiniteness of His knowledge, they would spend less time wringing their hands about the state and direction of the affairs of this world. They would be strengthened in the face of increasing widespread opposition and would possess a greater assurance by seeing God's hand working actively in the affairs and hearts of all men, including the most wicked and vile. Perhaps believers would better understand how they can rejoice greatly in affliction as they see the most wicked of men desperately seeking to cast off The Lord’s bands and to destroy His saints, yet fulfilling His will even by their raging rebellion.
The believer may rejoice greatly in knowing that God's knowledge is uncontingent, absolute, and independent of the creature. Nothing catches God by surprise and He has purposed to use even the will, wrath, and sins of mankind to do His good pleasure and to bring Him glory and praise. Surely the wrath of man shall praise thee: the remainder of wrath shalt thou restrain. (Psa. 76:10) Praise the Lord for that!
Cloud, David. Things Hard to be Understood, Fourth edition. Port Huron, MI: Way of Life Literature, 2006.
Lowe, Don and Anderson, James N. “A Tabular Comparison of the 1646 Westminster Confession of Faith, the 1658 Savoy Declaration of Faith, the 1677/1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith and the 1742 Philadelphia Confession of Faith.” Proginosko.com. http://www.proginosko.com/docs/wcf_sdfo_lbcf.html (accessed January 9, 2017)
McGlothlin, William. Baptist Confessions of Faith. Philadelphia: American Baptist Publication Society, 1911.
Murray, James A H. A New English Dictionary on Historical Principles. Vol. II. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1893.
Strong, Augustus H. Systematic Theology. Vol. I. Philadelphia: American Baptist Publication Society, 1907.
Webster, Noah. American Dictionary of the English Language. San Francisco: Foundation for American Christian Education, 2012.
 - David Cloud, “God’s Sovereignty and God’s Repentance,” Friday Church News Notes, Vol.17, No.47, November 18, 2016. Since the entire article appears as a single paragraph under its own heading in the newsletter, no further citations will be footnoted. The reader is encouraged to read the article in its entirety [here].
 - See, for example, Ephesians 1:11, where Paul writes that God works out all things after the counsel of His will, not merely according to the foreknown actions of man.
 - Open theism teaches that the future is open. By this, its proponents mean that God does not know every detail of the future, since His full knowledge of the actions and choices of man would mean that man’s choices could not truly be free. This theology elevates the freedom of man’s will above the sovereignty of God, affirming that God’s knowledge is contingent upon the creature. Advocates of open theism conclude that God does not absolutely know every decision men will make; therefore, many of the events of the future are uncertain, and therefore dependent upon man. Open theism has gained traction in recent years, finding little support prior to the 20th century outside Socinianism.
 - As a testimony to the historic Baptist belief in the Bible as the sole authority for faith and practice, the LBCF contains much stronger language about the primacy and sufficiency of Scripture than either of the other two previously mentioned confessions.
 - The writers of the confession say in the following section of the confession, “Violence [is not] offered to the will of the Creature, nor yet is the liberty, or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established, in which appears his wisdom in disposing all things, and power, and faithfulness in accomplishing his Decree.” In other words, even within their Calvinistic framework, they acknowledged God's use of contingencies and man's own will.
 - James A H Murray, A New English Dictionary On Historical Principles, vol. II (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1893), 905–6.
 - Noah Webster, An American Dictionary of the English Language, s.v. “contingent” (New York: S.Converse, 1828).
 - Close examination of the LBCF shows that the writers carefully distinguished between God's knowledge and God's decree, when, under the chapter “Divine Providence,” they speak of God's foreknowledge and decree as separate facets of the “first cause” of his providence (para. 1: his infallible foreknowledge, and the free and immutable Councel of his own will; para. 2: in relation to the foreknowledge and Decree of God...). This underscores the writers’ distinction between God's foreknowledge and His decrees, a distinction erased by Cloud’s article.
 - In his generally excellent book on Bible difficulties, Things Hard to Be Understood (4th ed., pp. 25-27), Cloud cites Bruce Lackey on this passage. Although Lackey references A.H. Strong twice to support his interpretation of the passage, Strong, a Calvinist, interprets the language of Moses anthropomorphically and differentiates between immobility and immutability in a manner different from Lackey’s exposition. For example, Strong opens by instructing the reader to interpret Gen. 6:6-7 “in the light of Num. 23:19,” and explains the wording as illustrative of the necessity for God, because of His unchanging holiness, to treat the wicked differently from the righteous. Lackey and Cloud, on the other hand, avoid any reference to anthropomorphic language, concluding that God did, in fact, repent. Lackey rejects the idea Numbers 23:19 refers to anything other than God’s plan for Israel and his interpretation of Numbers 23:19 is addressed more fully in Footnote #12. The reader is encouraged to compare Strong’s exposition with Lackey’s to see their divergent interpretations. A. H. Strong, Systematic Theology, vol. I (Philadelphia: American Baptist Publication Society, 1907) 258.
 - Two of Cloud’s examples include instances where Jesus expressed amazement and disappointment with men. With this, Cloud introduces references illustrating the human nature of Christ Jesus, subject to birth and time, and interacting with men as a man. One cannot use these passages as examples of God employing contingent decision-making based on the actions of men any more than the cults can use the example of Jesus’ death to argue against His divinity because God cannot die. Such statements instead testify to the presence of both the divine and human natures of the Lord Jesus as the God-man. Ignoring that will tend toward the conclusion that God grows in wisdom, stature, and grace (Luke 2:52), and learns obedience (Heb. 5:8), teachings embraced by the advocates of open theism. Does Brother Cloud really believe God was surprised or perplexed by men's unbelief? Does he teach that the Lord was unaware of the hardness of their hearts?
 - One will have difficulty interpreting the language in Genesis 6:6-7 as a literal repentance. If the repentance described in these verses refers to literal or heartfelt repentance, as Cloud suggests, then God's change of mind didn't produce a corresponding change of action, for despite expressing repentance over the creation of man, God did not entirely destroy mankind. Instead, as threatened in the first establishment of Law (Gen. 2:16-17), God faithfully and righteously exacted judgment upon the majority of men for their continual unrepentant transgression of the law written upon their hearts, but not to the extermination of mankind, as would be required with a literal (non-anthropomorphic) interpretation of God's repentance in these verses. Instead, God saved eight of Adam’s descendants alive.
 - Cloud cites Bruce Lackey who seeks to reconcile these seeming contradictions by suggesting the statements about God not repenting in Numbers 23:19 only refer to God not repenting about his plan for Israel. This interpretation fails immediately. First, Baalam frames his declaration about God not repenting as a description of one of God's attributes. He describes God in absolute terms without qualifying those terms to suggest God's not repenting only applied to His plans for Israel. Second, the statement about God's repentance, appearing as the second part of an easily recognized Hebrew parallelism, comes in direct conjunction with the declaration that God cannot lie. In other words, the lack of repentance with God directly parallels His truthfulness. Should one understand from this passage that God only limits his truthfulness to specific decrees of His, such as His promises to Israel?
 - Both Calvinist and non-Calvinist theologians and commentators have recognized that Gen. 6:6-7 does not record actual repentance by God here, but anthropomorphic language in which God’s actions in relation to man are described in human terms. Thus, commentators have noted the verses do not speak of God changing His mind, but of God changing His course in the sight of men.
 - This doctrine, in my experience, seems to receive insufficient attention in non-Calvinistic churches, perhaps due to a fear that any attention given to the truth that God intervenes in man's will by turning it one way or another will be construed as Calvinistic. However, the Scriptures are replete with specific references to God actively turning the heart or will of a man one way or another to effect God's purpose. Of course, this presents a different perspective about God's involvement in history: namely, that He uses the actions of men and bends their will to achieve His eternal plan, rather than simply formulating His plans according to His knowledge of what man will do.
 - This resurfaces again in Cloud’s representation of the creation of “the church” towards the end of his article. He writes, “God knew that Israel would apostatize and He planned to use this to create the church...” This consistently presents God’s actions as dependent upon man’s, because His will is presented as a consequence of His foreknowledge. Presumably, the intent is to ensure the absolute freedom (sovereignty?) of man’s will is never violated. While God does not author sin, nor tempt man to it, He does bend man’s will, turning it for His purposes, so that one cannot Scripturally conclude that God’s counsel and decrees are frequently relegated to a mere reaction to man’s will and desires. In short, God’s will does not operate as a consequence to His knowledge, but rather in harmony with it, so that attempts to fully explain them in one direction or another result in the theological over-statements found in Calvinist theology and in the theology in Brother Cloud’s article.
 - The framers of the LBCF seemed to understand this tension better than the writers of the Westminster Confession of Faith or the Savoy Declaration. The writers of the two earlier confessions, in a classic case of Calvinism’s overreach in describing the sovereignty of God, declared that God predestinates the elect “without any foresight of faith...” on their part. The writers of the LBCF removed this language, opting for a more general, albeit incorrect, statement in favour of unconditional election. Nevertheless, the LBCF, in changing the language, seems to acknowledge that the will of God does not act independently of His knowledge or foresight; nor can one confess a belief in the absolute knowledge of God while professing that His will operates independently of His foresight and foreknowledge!
 - It follows that man should not endeavour to reconcile those aspects of God's attributes which he cannot properly reconcile due to the limitations of his understanding. As an example, well-meaning men who correctly adhere to Trinitarian doctrine sometimes try to illustrate the doctrine with earthly examples, consequently finding themselves in theological problems resulting from their inadequate illustrations. Such attempts often result in confusion over the understanding of the doctrine of the Trinity and diminish the Scriptural teaching of it, due to the misguided efforts to make the doctrine more understandable by attempting to make it relate better to the hearers.