A question that has frequently arisen in the minds of those studying the Bible, both laity
and clergy, is: Does God repent, or change his mind? Such an inquiry is the result of the translation of
passages in Scripture that describe God's thinking with the words "repented," "regretted," or "changed his mind."
This question is part of the general subject of God's foreknowledge. That subject has been the
focus of much discussion the past several years by the members of a (relatively) conservative theological
organization, the Evangelical Theological Society. (1) The discussion was
prompted by the fact that some members of the society had adopted the position known as "Open Theism," which
in essence asserts that God does not know everything that will take place in the future. (2)
SpecificalIy with regard to the question mentioned above, if God "repents" or "regrets," that
seems to imply that God at an earlier point in time engaged in an activity with one result in mind. However,
another result, which God did not anticipate and does not like, is the reality, and thus God is sorry that he
came out that earlier activity. If God "changes his mind," the average Bible reader could understand this to
mean that God's final decision on an issue was unknown even to God himself; that God initially had one plan
in mind, but then adopted another. Both the translations "repent" or "regret," and "change the mind," can lead
to the same conclusion: God does not know everything that will take place in the future. That is exactly the
conclusion reached by open theists.
This article will give a brief overview of Open Theism, followed by a short summary of the
orthodox position, and then present considerations concerning translation and interpretation of biblical passages.
In particular, two key passages will be examined in greater depth:
Genesis 6:6 and
1. Open Theism
Gregory A. Boyd has given an articulate presentation of this theological position in his book
God of the Possible: A Biblical Introduction to the Open View of God. (3)
In the introduction he mentions questions that led him eventually to embrace this view.
The most serious questions about the classical view of [God's] foreknowledge... relate to the
Bible. If the future is indeed exhaustively settled in God's mind, as the classical view holds, why does the
Bible repeatedly describe God changing his mind? Why does the Bible say that God frequently alters his plans,
cancels prophecies in the light of changing circumstances, and speaks about the future as a "maybe," a "perhaps,"
or a "possibility"? Why does it describe God as expressing uncertainty about the future, being disappointed in
the way things turn out, and even occasionally regretting the outcome of his own decisions? If the Bible is
always true-and I, for one, assume that it is - how can we reconcile this way of talking about God... with the
notion that the future is exhaustively settled in his mind? (4)
As a result, Boyd writes: "I came to believe that the future was, indeed, partly determined [or "settled"]
and foreknown by God, but also partly open and known by God as such. In short, I embraced what has come
to be labeled the 'open view' of God." (5)
Boyd goes on to explain further the "open view of God," or to use the phrase he prefers, the
"open view of the future." To some extent, he believes God know the future as "definitely this way and
definitely not that way." On the other hand, to some extent God knows the future as "possibly
this way and possibly not that way." Boyd moreover writes that this open view
... does not hold that the future is wide open. Much of it, open theists concede, is settled
ahead of time, either by God's predestining will or by existing earthly causes, but it is not exhaustively
settled ahead of time. To whatever degree the future is yet open to be decided by free agents, it is unsettled.
To this extent, God knows it as a realm of possibilities, not certainties. (6)
Boyd vigorously protests the accusation that he, and other open theists, are denying God's
omniscience. However, in attempting to refute this charge, Boyd engages in semantic shifts and a subtle reworking
of the definition of "omniscience." Notice how he moves from the idea of total knowledge to "perfect" knowledge:
"Open theists affirm God's omniscience as emphatically as anybody does. The issue is not whether God's knowledge
is perfect. It is. The issue is about the nature of the reality that God perfectly knows." With their understanding
of reality, Boyd and other open theists hold that God's "perfect" knowledge means that he knows "the future as
consisting of both unsettled possibilities and settled certainties."' (7)
Boyd does move back to the concept of God's complete foreknowledge, but against the
background, again, of a new definition of omniscience. He writes: "If God does not foreknow future free actions,
it is not because his knowledge of the future is in any sense incomplete. It's because there is, in this view,
nothing definite there for God to know!" According to Boyd, "free actions do not exist to be known until
free agents create them." (8)
Despite what Boyd and other open theists claim, in the final analysis they indeed believe that
God's knowledge of the future is incomplete. In their view, God does not know everything that will take place,
or everything that will be done or said by people. By implication, God does not even know everything that he
will do or say in the future.
II. The Orthodox Position
With regard to the knowledge of God, Scripture teaches that God does know all things,
whether in the past, present, or future. A few representative passages are:
1 John 3:20:
"For God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything" (NIV);
1 Samuel 15:29:
"He who is the Glory of Israel does not lie or change his mind; for he is not a man, that he should change his
mind" (NIV); and
"I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like Me. I make known the end from the beginning,
from ancient times, what is still to come" (NIV). In
Yahweh, by revealing what idols, cannot do, indicates what he can do: "Let them bring forth and
declare to us what is going to take place; as for the former events, declare what they were, that we may
consider them, and know their outcome; or announce to us what is coming. Declare the things that are going to
come afterward, that we may know that you are gods... Behold, you are of no account, and your work amounts to
nothing ...." (NASB). Another passage would be
"For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we
should walk in them" (NASB).
Scripture presents to us God's complete knowledge, including God's total foreknowledge. However,
in revealing himself in Scripture, God at the same time is condescending to our human weakness, since our finite
human reason cannot fully comprehend the infinite, majestic Deity. Because God employs our human language, with
its limitations, he has also adopted our way of thinking and accommodated himself to the laws and ways of human
thought processes. (9)
For example, Scripture speaks of God in a twofold manner: 1) in his majesty as being above
time and space
(e.g. Psalm 90:4:
"A thousand years in your sight are but as yesterday"); and 2) in accordance with our human views, as being in
time and space. God is conforming to our mode of thinking in terms of time and space, cause and effect. Only in
this manner is God comprehensible to us. In fact, when God ascribes foreknowledge to himself, as he does in
he who is outside of time is adapting to the mode of thinking of his time-bound creatures. The Deity enters into
time and space without becoming temporal or local in his essence. (10)
Likewise, God in his being is immutable. Yet we must so think of God, and Scripture portrays
him, as varying from being angry to being merciful according to changes or variations in the object of his
affection. That is how our minds and Scripture handle a God who in his essence remains immutable, but who is
dealing with people who are mutable." (11) Luther comments:
God in his essence is altogether unknowable; nor is it possible to define or put into words
what he is, though we burst in the effort. It is for this reason that God lowers himself to the level of our
weak comprehension and presents himself to us in images, in coverings, as it were, in simplicity adapted to a
child, that in some measure it may be possible for him to be known by us... (12)
That Scripture thus assigns to God the form, voice, actions, emotions, etc., of a human
being not only serves to show consideration for the uneducated and the weak; but we great and learned men, who
are versed in the Scriptures, are also obliged to adopt these simple images, because God has presented them to
us and has revealed himself to us through them. (13)
A discussion of God's accommodations in his word, then, in part involves Scripture's anthropomorphisms
(ascribing human form or attributes to the Deity) and anthropopathisms (ascribing human feelings, emotions, or
passions to God). The ascription of human actions to God can be included under both terms. Referring to both by
the general use of the one term "anthropopathism," Tayler Lewis points out, "Why talk of anthropopathism as if
there were some special absurdity covered by this sounding term, when any revelation conceivable must be
anthropopathic?.. There is no escape from it. Whatever comes in this way to man must take the measure of
man..." (14) John Lange, after noting the necessity of anthropomorphisms and
anthropopathisms, focuses on the latter, observing that if we do not accept them we will "have in the mind a
total blank in respect to all those conceptions of God that most concern us as moral beings."
(15) As he explains:
Talk as we will of impassibility, we must think of God as having παθη, affections,
something connecting him with the human... We must either have in our thoughts [with regard to God] a blank
intellectuality making only an intellectual difference between good and evil (if that can be called any difference
at all), or we are compelled to bring in something emotional, and that, too, with a measure of intensity
corresponding to other differences by which the divine exceeds the human. (16)
Lange concludes: "Without this, the highest form of scientific or philosophic theism has no more of religion
than the blankest atheism. We could as well worship a system of mathematics as such a theistic indifference."
(17) In other words, anthropopathisms, and anthropomorphisms, besides being
the vehicles for communicating to us truths about the Deity, give life to the text. They are particularly
appropriate in the Old Testament, where, Milton Terry writes, they are "the vivid concepts which impressed
the emotional Hebrew mind, and are in perfect keeping with the spirit of the language."
III. Considerations Concerning Translation and Interpretation
Recognizing the accommodations in Scripture, specifically anthropomorphisms and -pathisms,
one could argue that the translations that God "repented," "regretted," or "changed his mind are legitimate.
In those verses and contexts, one could hold, this is what God seemed to do, from the human standpoint. Yet,
at the very least, the translation that God "repented" must be understood in the sense of the other renderings,
namely, that God "had regret" or "a change of mind." God never does wrong; all his thoughts and ways are thoroughly
just, righteous, and holy; there is never any sin or error on the part of God. Also, God's "being sorry," or
"having regret" about something, or his "changing his mind," must be understood within the framework of God's
total knowledge, including his complete foreknowledge, and the related truth of his immutability.
Nevertheless, the position of this article is that other translations, based on the original
language and context, are to be preferred. They are preferable because they will not mislead or confuse the
modem reader of Scripture. For when the reader comes across the renderings that God "repented," or "regretted,"
or "was sorry," or "changed his mind," he could arrive at wrong notions concerning the Deity, as already
discussed (and as exemplified by the open theists).
Two sample passages will be examined, which have been translated by some in just this manner,
and which have figured into studies of God's knowledge, as well as his immutability. Both passages are from the
Old Testament, and both involve the same Hebrew verb used of God: נדזנז nacham, in the niphal stem.
The first is Genesis 6:6:
"Yahweh nachamed that/because he had made man on the earth and he was pained to/in his heart." The second
is Exodus 32:14,
which occurs in the text after God threatened to devour the Israelites because of the golden calf incident, and
after Moses' subsequent intercession on behalf of the Israelites. The verse reads, "And Yahweh nachamed
concerning the harm/injury/disaster that he threatened to do/spoke of doing to his people."
The verb nacham occurs 108 times in the Old Testament, forty-eight times in the niphal
stem, fifty-one times in the piel stem, twice in the pual stem, and seven times in the hithpael
stem. (19) It has a range of meanings, especially in the niphal and
hithpael. Heinz-Josef Simian-Yofre summarizes as follows:
The only element common to all meanings of nhm appears to be the attempt to influence
a situation: by changing the course of events, rejecting an obligation, or refraining from an action, when the
focus is on the present; by influencing a decision, when the focus is on the future; and by accepting the
consequences of an act or helping another accept them or contrariwise dissociating oneself emotionally from them,
when the focus is on the past." (20)
Simian-Yofre observes that the twin factors of decision and emotion are the rule in nacham:
"they are indissolubly interwoven, even when in individual cases there may be greater emphasis on one element
or the other." (21) Years earlier Lange had arrived at a similar conclusion,
specifically for nacham in the niphal, when he noted that the verb relates the dual aspects of
feeling and purpose. (22)
For the most part the Septuagint (LXX) uses παρακαλεω, parakaleo, "to summon, call upon,
invite, urge, request, comfort," and possibly "try to console" or "conciliate," to translate the niphal,
piel, pual, and hithpael of nacham. It uses μετανοεω, metanoeo, "to change
one's mind," "repent," only for the niphal, several times in connection with Yahweh, sometimes with regard to
Israel. The LXX uses ελεεω, eleeo, "to have mercy" or "pity," "be merciful," four times for the piel
and once for the niphal. It uses πανω, pauo, "to stop, cause to stop, relieve" five times for
the niphal. (23)
Interestingly, the LXX uses none of these Greek verbs for nacham, niphal, in
Genesis 6:6 and
In Genesis 6:6
the LXX renders nacham with the verbal root ενθνμεομαι, enthumeomai, "to reflect (on), consider,
think." In Exodus 32:14
appears the Greek verbal root ιλασκομαι, hilaskomai, "to propitiate, conciliate," passive "be propitiated,
be merciful" or "gracious." Further, in the LXX Genesis 6:6,7
are the only verses where enthumeomai is used for nacham, and
the only place where hilaskomai appears for nacham. What this data from the LXX means is uncertain.
Perhaps the translators wanted to avoid the impression in both passages that God regretted, was sorry, or changed
Based on the translation of
that Yahweh "was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth," (24) Boyd
offers the following interpretation.
Now, if everything about world history were exhaustively settled and known by God as such
before he created the world, God would have known with absolute certainty that humans would come to this wicked
state, at just this time, before he created them. But how, then, could he authentically regret having made
humankind? Doesn't the fact that God regretted the way things turned out-to the point of starting over suggest
that it wasn't a foregone conclusion at the time God created human beings that they would fall into this
state of wickedness? (25)
The orthodox exegete can respond by saying that in
nacham is an anthropopathic term describing God's reaction to the horrible wickedness and pervasive
corruption of the human race. The rest of the verse is intensely anthropopathic and anthropomorphic: "He [God]
was pained to his heart." Nacham communicates to the reader that the Deity is not remote, distant, and
uninterested in mankind. Rather, he has a keen interest in, watches closely, and gets involved with, humanity.
Nacham gives the reader the correct impression that God is not static, plastic, both indifferent to and
unaffected by, the thoughts, words, and actions of his creatures. Rather, he is a dynamic, living Being, who
has a personality, and who, to use more anthropopathic/-morphic language, is concerned with, affected by, and
reacting to, how people live their lives.
Because of the preceding context,
and as a parallel to the second half of v. 6-"He was pained to his heart" -the suggestion is made here that
nacham be translated as "He was grieved," or "He suffered grief." Such a rendering fits the context and
avoids the pitfalls associated with the phrases "He repented," or "He regretted," or "He was sorry that." Other
verses where nacham in the niphal, used with reference to God, can mean "He was grieved," or "He
suffered grief," are 1 Samuel 15:11,
where Yahweh says, "I am grieved that I made Saul king";
1 Samuel 15:35,
which reads essentially the same way;
2 Samuel 24:16,
which relates how Yahweh was grieved concerning a pestilence he had sent upon Israel;
1 Chronicles 21:15,
similar to the preceding verse;
where Yahweh suffers grief/is grieved concerning the disaster/harm that he has done; and
a partial parallel to verse 6. A related New Testament verse is
"And do not grieve [λνπεω, lupeo, pres. act. impv., "to cause sorrow, to grieve"] the Holy Spirit of God,
with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption" (NIV). (26)
Intertwined in nacham in
are the dual aspects of feeling/emotion and purpose/decision. When God created the world, everything was very
good. The fist human beings were holy, perfectly in the image of God. They were made personally by Yahweh
(God's personal, covenant name appears in Genesis 2), to be in fellowship with him, and to love and serve him,
and so it was. But then came the fall into sin, and eventually the spread of unbelief in the human race, which
culminates with the scene portrayed in
"The Lord saw how great man's wickedness on the earth had become, and that every inclination of the thoughts
of his heart was only evil all the time" (NIV). This is the reality in Noah's day, compared to what could have
been! Because he had made man, then, Yahweh, who had once been in intimate fellowship with man, suffers
grief. His creatures, who had mutated in such a terrible way, cause him to feel not joy, but sadness.
Also due to the present reality, the holy God decides to wipe out the human race with
a flood. He, who in his essence is immutable, is portrayed as altering in his feelings, due to the change in
humanity, and thus changing in his actions. (27) That decision, in turn, brings
him grief. He has to destroy the work of his hands, the people whom he loves, and with whom he longs to have
(and v. 7) is not to be interpreted, again, as saying that Yahweh "regretted" or "was sorry" that he had made
people on the earth, in the sense that he did not foresee how awful the human race would become, and now wishes
that he had never made man. There is no hint of Yahweh wanting to retract his previous act of creation, since
he now regards it as a mistake. In addition to the matter of the foreknowledge of God, there are other relevant
considerations. How can he regard the making of man a mistake, when he has, from eternity, before the foundation
of the earth, predestined people for salvation, for everlasting life with him (e.g.,
1 Cor. 2:7-9)?
He does not think of the existence of the human race as a regretful error on his part, because he has already
promised to send the Savior to rescue fallen humanity. God loves people so much that he thinks they are worth
saving, at the cost of the life of his own Son, who himself would become a man. There had been many godly people
before the flood who lived to God's glory, as his true servants. In
Noah stands forth, with the believing members of his family, as a righteous man. He walked in close fellowship
with his Creator, as had his ancestor Enoch, whom God took alive to heaven
God, therefore, does not regret having made man.
1. The basis for membership in the Evangelical Theological Society is agreeing with and subscribing
to these statements: "The Bible alone, and the Bible in its entirety, is the Word of God written, and therefore
inerrant in the autographs. God is Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, each an untreated person, one in essence,
equal in power and glory."
2. During its November, 2001 Annual Meeting the society voted, by a large majority, to reject "Open
Theism." In November, 2002, challenges were brought to the membership credentials of certain society members who had
written as advocates of Open Theism. Those challenges are being reviewed by the society's Executive Committee, which
reported, and referred the case for action, to the society at the November, 2003, Annual Meeting. Discussion, debate,
and reading of prepared statements followed. The final result was that neither of the men whose membership credentials
were challenged were removed from membership, a two-thirds vote being required for dismissal. For more information,
see James A. Borland, "Reports Relating to the Fifty-Fifth Annual Meeting of the Society," Journal of the Evangelical
Theological Society 47 (2004):170-173.
3. Gregory A. Boyd, God of the Possible: A Biblical Introduction to the Open View of God
(Grand Rapids: Baker, 2000). Also see, for example, Clark H. Pinnock, Most Moved Mover (Grand Rapids: Baker,
2001) and John Sanders, The God Who Risks (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 1998).
4. Boyd, God of the Possible, 11.
5. Boyd, God of the Possible, 11. In all Boyd references, emphasis is in the original.
6. Boyd, God of the Possible, 15.
7. Boyd, God of the Possible, 16.
8. Boyd, God of the Possible, 16, 17. Thus Boyd can conclude that the "debate between the
open and classical understandings of divine foreknowledge is completely a debate over the nature of the future: Is
it exhaustively settled from all eternity, or is it partly open?" (17) This
article is not so much concerned with the nature of the future, as with God's foreknowledge, and, precisely
speaking, whether or not it can be said that God "repents" or "changes his mind."
9. Francis Pieper, Christian Dogmatics, 3 vols. (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House,
10. Pieper, Christian Dogmatics, 1:440, 451.
11. Pieper, Christian Dogmatics, 1:440-441.
12. Martin Luther, "Lectures on Genesis: Chapters 6-14," vol. 2 of Luther's Works, trans.
George Schick (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1960), John Calvin (Commentaries on The First Book of Moses
Called Genesis, vol. 1, trans. John King [Grand Rapids: Baker, 1966, 249) states: " ... since we cannot comprehend
him [God] as he is, it is necessary that, for our sake, he should, in a certain sense, transform himself."
13. Luther, "Lectures on Genesis," 2-46.
14. Tayler Lewis, quoted by Milton Terry in Biblical Hermeneutics (1885; reprint, Grand
Rapids: Zondervan, 1964), 103, n.1.
15. John Lange, Genesis, or, The First Book of Moses, trans. Tayler
Lewis and A. Gosrnan, 5th ed. rev. (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1902), 288.
16. Lange, Genesis, 288. Italics in original.
17. Lange, Genesis, 288.
18. Terry, Biblical Hermeneutics, 103.
19. Heinz-Josef Simian-Yohe, "נחם," Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, vol.
9, trans. David Green (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 342.
20. Simian-Yofre, "נחם,"342. He states that "most experts no longer accept an original semantic
identification of Heb. nhm with Arab. nhm, 'breathe heavily,' both because of critical objections
to deriving the meaning of a word from its etymology and because the concrete semantic field associated with
nhm in the OT clearly differs from that associated with Arab. Nhm" (341).
21. Simian-Yofre, "נחם,"342.
22. Lange, Genesis, 288.
23. Simian-Yofre, "נחם,"355.
24. Boyd, God of the Possible, 55.
25. Boyd, God of the Possible, 55. Italics in original.
26. A possible translation of nacham, niphal, in Judges 21:6 and 15 is that the Israelites
"were grieved" or "suffered grief" in regard to, or concerning, the tribe of Benjamin. Cf. H. Van Dyke Parunak, "A
Semantic Survey of NHM," Biblica 56 (1975): 519,526-527.
27. Herbert Leupold, Exposition of Genesis, vol. 1 (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1942), 261; John
Davis, Paradise to Prison: Studies in Genesis (Salem, Wisc.: Sheffield, 1975), 116; Lange, Genesis,