How does an Open Theist explain all the prophecies fulfilled in the life of Jesus?
Question: Throughout the Gospels it says that Jesus “fulfilled that which was written.” Some of these prophecies are very specific and involve free decisions of people. For example, a guard freely chose to give Jesus vinegar instead of water (Jn 19:28), yet John says this was prophesied in the Old Testament, hundred of years before Jesus came on the scene. And it was Herod’s choice to slaughter newborn males in Bethlehem that led Mary and Joseph to take Jesus to Egypt. Yet Matthew says this was done to fulfill the prophecy, “Out of Egypt I have called my son” (Mt 2:14-15). How does an Open Theist explain this, because Open Theism holds that future free actions cannot be foreknown?
Answer: Even if we grant that the specific things done to Jesus that “fulfill scripture” had to happen (which I’ll argue against in a moment), this would not present any difficultly to the open view. The open view holds that some of the future is open, not all of it. God can pre-settle as much of the future as he wants to pre-settle. If, in order to fulfill specific prophecies, God needed to providentially orchestrate things so that certain people with evil characters played out their evil intentions in specific ways, he could easily do this, and do so with impunity.
But I have no reason to think God needed to do this, for if we look closely at the evidence within its historical context, it becomes clear that none of the specific things done to Jesus by others had to happen the way they did.
Go back and look at the specific passages that were “fulfilled” when people did things to Jesus. You’ll find that none of them are predictions. For example, in Hosea 11:1, which Matthew says Jesus fulfilled, the Lord says,”Out of Egypt I have called my son.” The Lord’s not predicting anything in this passage. He’s referring to Israel and is simply recalling the fact that he delivered them out of Egypt and led them into the promised land. And in Psalm 69:21 we find David complaining that his enemies, “gave me poison for food, and for my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink” (vs. 21). He’s not predicting anything in this passage. He’s simply complaining about how’s he’s been treated.
There’s nothing remotely predictive about either passage. If Jesus hadn’t gone into Egypt and if no one had give Jesus vinegar to drink, no one would be sitting around wondering why these passages weren’t “fulfilled.” Proof of this is that no one today wonders why no one gave Jesus “poison for food,” though that is mentioned in the same sentence as David complaining because he received “vinegar to drink.” Along the same lines, one has to wonder how the second half of a sentence could be a prophecy that had to be fulfilled, but not the first half!
The reason people today often think that the things “fulfilled” in Jesus’ life had to happen is that we tend to impose an occult, crystal ball sort of interpretation on the word “fulfilled.” When we today think of prophecy and of things being “fulfilled,” we tend to think of soothsayers like Nostradamus or Jeanne Dixon. We then import this occultic understanding into our reading of the Bible. But this is clearly not how ancient Jews generally thought about prophecy or about things being “fulfilled.”
Ancient Jews often said a contemporary event “fulfilled” something written in Scripture when they believed an event paralleled something in Scripture and illustrated in a superlative way the principle found in that Scripture. (This is known as a form of midrash). So when Jesus’ family happened to escape to Egypt and then return home from Egypt, Matthew saw a parallel between Jesus’ life and Israel, for both came out of Egypt. Since part of his purpose in writing his Gospel is to present Jesus as the embodiment of Israel, he points out this parallel and says Jesus “fulfilled” the Hosea passage. But Jesus didn’t have to go to Egypt. And Herod didn’t have to kill the Bethlehem baby boys.
So too, when Jesus happened to be given vinegar to drink, John noticed that this paralleled something that happened to David. Jesus thus illustrates, in a superlative way, the kind of mistreatment God’s servants have always endured. But the guard didn’t have to give Jesus vinegar to drink.
Now, this isn’t to say that there were no genuine predictions made about the Messiah in the Old Testament. Nor is it to deny that there weren’t a few things about Jesus’ ministry that had to happen. For example, I think Jesus had to suffer and die, and I think this was predicted in the Old Testament. But the vast majority of things that were “fulfilled” in Jesus’ life weren’t predicted and didn’t need to happen.