Open Theism

My friend Matt is the kind of guy we would all love to have in our church. He is one of those clean-cut, all-American, good-hearted young men... an answer to the anonymous poem, "The Boy We Want."[1] He is a loyal, encouraging, faithful servant that makes the ministry a joy. That is what made it so surprising the Sunday he interrupted his pastor mid-sermon declaring from the front pew, "You are wrong!"

What would lead a young man to blurt out such a declaration and disrupt a church worship service? It certainly was not characteristic of his life and he quickly apologized and sought the forgiveness of the church and his pastor for the disturbance. But I am not so sure his comments were out of line.

Matt had been hearing in his pastor a growing tendency to demean the omniscience and sovereignty of God. It had been a growing cloud on the horizon that the two of them had spoken about frankly and privately for several months. But on the Sunday of Matt's interjection, his pastor had finally come out and said, "God is not in control."

Matt's pastor is only one of a growing number of men embracing a new theism called Openness. The end result of this construct is a redefinition of God's knowledge and, some would argue, a redefinition of God Himself. Its effects on practical theology are enormous and its effects on how one reads their bible even greater. It is true that lots of systems of thought come and go, but for reasons that will be expanded below, this is a system that deserves our study.

The goal of this essay is to 1. Accurately represent the Open Theism (OT throughout the rest of this paper) position in terms easily understood.[2] 2. To assess it. 3. To point out its benefits and/or dangers.

 

Part I: Introduction

 

What is Open Theism?

OT is a new theological system developed systematically over the last twenty years. Because it is "new," it has morphed along the way adding and dropping various monikers such as Relational Theism, Freewill Theism, Simple Foreknowledge, Presentism, Openness and some versions of Middle Knowledge.[3] Sometimes, "Openness" alone is used as a catchword to describe this entire "theological family," allowing each sibling to maintain its own distinctives.[4]

The main proponents of this view have been Clark Pinnock, professor of theology at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario; Gregory Boyd, pastor of Woodland Hills Church in Minneapolis, Minnesota and a professor at Bethel College in the same city; and John Sanders, professor of philosophy and religion at Huntington College, Indiana. Other prominent personalities that embrace the view include William Hasker, David Basinger, Richard Rice, Lewis Smedes and Philip Yancey.[5]

As will be seen, OT is primarily a way of understanding God. It is an outright rejection of Classical Theism (CT throughout the rest of this paper) and claims to be a more accurate interpretation of what the Bible has to say regarding the nature of the Trinity and how the Trinity engages creation. It is not so much a redefinition of particular theological compartments[6] as it is a complete remodeling of theology proper. As may be expected, however, a reconstruction of God has incredible corollary effects on these particular sub-doctrines.

 

Why Another Study?

OT switched the Playing Field

Gregory Boyd, in his best-selling work God of the Possible, states as the second goal of his book:

 

"...I also believe this issue is too important and too practically significant to be limited to academic circles... I believe there is currently a need to present this issue in a manner that can include as many laypeople as possible. This book attempts to do just that."[7]

 

In this pronouncement, Boyd has exposed the agenda of OT. Discontent with their negative reception from most evangelical theological institutions[8], Open Theists have abandoned the realm of scholarly debate and councils and are making their case with the church as a whole. Rather than hammering out the position and allowing for a decision in the ring of "academic circles," Open Theists have decided to put the brunt of their energies into getting the teachings of OT to the general populace in its simplest and most appealing forms. [9]

This is dangerous precedent. Worse yet, it means that you and I who pastor local churches must be conversant in the teachings of OT in order to properly shepherd the flock under our care. Open Theists are not waiting for you to invite them in to make a presentation of their views. They are, instead, actively presenting their thoughts in a myriad of popular forms all aimed at the men and women in your pews[10].

Whether you like it or not you are being forced to look at the issues and deal with them in a sane, balanced and, most importantly, biblically accurate way. As former academic resource consultant to Baker Books David Frees comments about Boyd's work: "...although scholars will notice quite a few logical fallacies and pick up on... poor exegesis of Old Testament passages, the average Christian will not."[11] We must not be bamboozled into thinking this will all go away.

 

OT claims orthodoxy

The proponents of OT continually encourage the idea that their view is merely another system within the realm of orthodoxy.[12] In other words, disagreement with them is acceptable, (like a Calvinist would disagree with an Arminian,[13]) while excommunication is not. It seems to me that we have to come to some conclusion on this matter. Our post-modern hesitancy to say anything is wrong may lead us to accept as orthodox what is unorthodox. On the other hand, our strong fundamentalist history may lead us to condemn brothers in the Lord. Where are we to land? Is this even a debate about orthodoxy? We must come to some conclusions on this matter.

 

Where OT takes us

A third reason we need to study this issue is because of its obvious ramifications. An Open Theist and a Classic Theist do not think about God Himself the same way. Indeed, some would venture to say they are not even thinking about the same God! That is because conclusions on the nature of God's knowledge lead you to conclusions on the nature of God Himself. What God knows (or chooses to know) cannot be bifurcated from His entire person. What is more, we cannot ignore the fact that altering our view of God alters our view of reality.

 

What did you say?

There is a certain battle of ideas taking place in this discussion. Open Theists freely use terms like foreknowledge, sovereignty and omniscience, but they have redefined those terms to fit within the construct of the Open View. At worst, this is deceptive. At best, it is confusing. In reality, it is another reason why we need to study the issue and understand what Open Theists mean by what they say.

 

"What it means to me"

Finally, it is necessary to study OT because of the constant claim that it is a biblical position. Unlike some earlier critiques, OT cannot be brushed away with the declaration that it is "just a philosophical system" that does not even reference the Bible. Boyd had the courage to subtitle his work "A Biblical Introduction to the Open View of God" (emphasis mine). Sanders consumes rainforests "biblically defending" the Open View.[14] The same can be said for the other major contributors to the position.[15] This requires us to look at their conclusions and determine if such is true.

Bluntly, the assumption of this author is that if the Open View of God is biblical, then it ought to be fully embraced. This is perhaps the most serious reason we need to examine it. Whatever reason we deem most important, the end result is the same - we need to appraise OT.[16]

 

Part II: A Comprehensive Explanation of OT

 

Defining OT is not easy. Granting that any new idea undergoes certain refinements, it cannot be denied that OT seems to be always changing.[17] Therefore, detailing a specific working model of the system is almost sure to fail... it is outdated, it seems, the moment you print the paper. That being said, this paper will seek to interact with the most recent literature to date and draw from a personal interview with Clark Pinnock, a significant spokesperson for the view.

The basic argument for OT unfolds something like this.

"Because God experiences time like we do and because the future does not yet exist, God doesn't know what the future holds. Although He is aware of the various possibilities of what could happen, the free-will decisions of God's moral creatures are unknown to Him until those decisions are made. In other words, the events of tomorrow remain hidden from the mind of God until tomorrow actually arrives.

As a result, God is left to decide and to act in this world according to what He thinks is most likely to occur. Because He is sometimes mistaken about what He thought would happen, however, God occasionally finds Himself regretting a decision and resorting to Plan B. In this way, God learns from historical events as they occur and actually changes His mind and His plans in response to them. This, say Open Theists, allows God to have a genuine and authentic relationship with mankind."[18]

I read the above statement to Clark Pinnock and asked if it was a fair assessment. He responded that although what the statement said was not inaccurate, he did feel it was unbalanced. As noted above, most Open Theists believe that their view is not being looked at as a whole. In fact, Pinnock suggested to me that it is a tactic of those opposed to OT ("our enemies") to harp on the knowledge issues as a way of distracting from the position without comprehensively engaging it. His complaint with the above statement is that it does not address the concept of God being in real relationship with people and as such choosing to take risks for the sake of love in those relationships.[19]

Thus, John Sanders defines OT giving more of this broader approach:

"... it presents an understanding of God's nature and relationship with his creatures, which we call the openness of God; in broad strokes, it takes the following form. God, in grace, grants humans significant freedom to cooperate with or work against God's will for their lives, and he enters into dynamic, give and take relationships with us. The Christian life involves genuine interaction between God and human beings. We respond to God's gracious initiatives and God responds to our responses . . . and on it goes. God takes risks in this give-and-take relationship, yet he is endlessly resourceful and competent in working toward his ultimate goals. Sometimes God alone decides how to accomplish these goals. On other occasions, God works with human decisions, adapting his own plans to fit the changing situation. God does not control everything that happens. Rather, he is open to receiving input from his creatures. In loving dialogue, God invites us to participate with him to bring the future into being."[20]

In this model, the concept of risk comes to the forefront. Boyd agrees:

"The view simply states that the future is partly open to possibilities, and since God is omniscient and knows all of reality just like it is, he knows the future as being partly open to possibilities."[21]

Thus, God knows some things about the future - things He is really set on accomplishing - but He chooses to not know many things, in order to love His people by entering into a real relationship with them... at least a relationship that appears real since it is most like our human ones.

This is OT in a very small nutshell. Perhaps the easiest way to grasp the position is to start at the beginning and work our way back to the conclusion. Seeing how OT has evolved may shed greater light on what it really is.

 

Love

It seems that all Open Theists lift-off from the same launching pad to arrive at their conclusions. That starting point is none other than 1 John 4:8 (or similar texts), which state: "God is love." This, it is claimed, is the "first and last word in the biblical portrait of God."[22] Love is "the one divine activity that most fully and vividly discloses God's inner reality... [it] is the very essence of the divine nature. Love is what it means to be God."[23] Pinnock adds, "God created the world out of love and with the goal of acquiring a people who would, like a bride, freely participate in his love..."[24]

With love as the supreme definition of God, OT then moves to discover how this love fleshes itself out in the world. It is true, most Open Theists are quick to decry any link to Process Theology, a charge laid against them often in the early stages of the debate. Process Theology suggests a cause and effect relationship between God and the world: God needs the world and therefore needs relationship with people.[25] However, that being said, where Open Theists go next sounds an awful lot like Process Theology, for the next step in the puzzle has everything to do with relationship.

 

Relationship

The logic runs something like this: 1. God is love. 2. Love requires relationship. 3. Therefore, God is in relationship with mankind. Much is said, at this point, about the relationship that exists within the Trinity. This is proof that God in His love needs (without being dependent upon) relationship.[26]

 

Freedom

Moral freedom, free-will or choice is the next step. This freedom, or Openness, or Risk, as it is called gets at the heart of the system. The opposite of love toward humankind would be to create automatons - creatures with no real freedom and hence, no real relationship with their Maker. God would never do this because it would violate love.

To argue in reverse, Open Theists teach that freedom is the meat of relationship (if I don't choose to love you or return your love how can it properly be called relationship?) and relationship (or the availability of it) with our Creator is the essence of love toward us.

This threefold strand of Love, Relationship and Freedom is not easily broken, since it forms the philosophical premise, or at least the propositional presupposition of the entire OT model. [27]

 

Other Influences

Braided into this three-strand cord are two major hermeneutical influences. OT makes much out of what might be called a Trinitarian Theology, that is, finding the explanation for reality within the Trinitarian economy. Reasoning proceeds like this: Since God exists as the "three-in-one," He exists in relationship. Since He exists in relationship, He values relationship. And since "He is love" (above all else), this love within the Trinity expresses itself in relationship. The very fact God has chosen to relate to His creation as "Father" is proof positive of His desire for relationship.

There is also heavy dependence on what may be termed an Incarnational Theology. The incarnation, more than any other theme, serves as a model for openness.[28] The way the Son exhibits emotion, seems to change His mind, chooses to act in history and is ignorant of the future all help formulate a concept of God limiting Himself in certain respects (or, "keeping Himself open to change") in order to exist in real relationship with people.

 

Deconstruction of CT: Philosophy and Hermeneutic

A final weapon in the Open Theist's arsenal is the dismantling of classis theism's view of God. This is attempted in two ways. The first and primary one is to demonstrate that ancient Greek pagan philosophy has more to do with CT than the Bible; the majority view of God has listened more to the voice of Aristotle and Plato than Scripture. The church fathers carried this fallacy forward and ensconced it into the creeds and confessions. This has led the various OT authors to re-examine the Word with a fresh slate and feel free to question all they have been taught by historical theology.

The second front in this battle is the hermeneutical one. In order to properly understand God, theologians need to become more "nuanced"[29] and deal with all the biblical data, not just what fits into their neo-platonic presuppositions. They especially need to deal more with the narrative texts that supposedly teach the dynamic and social character of God. These texts prove that God has feelings, that He has intentions for humanity that sometimes do not work out and that He acts in the world - all of which are signs of His openness. [30]

 

What Do You Know?

It is from this view of God that OT moves to a discussion of how God relates to the world. Since God values real relationship and real relationship must be uncoerced,[31] He has voluntarily given mankind a free will - to love or hate Him. As Pinnock writes, "It seems that God, in deciding to create humankind, placed higher value on freedom leading to love than on guaranteed conformity to his will."[32]

Therefore, in order for the will of man to remain free, God chooses to not know the future, since to know it would be to have decreed it and to have decreed it would be to rob man of his freedom. So, the omniscience of God must be redefined. God knows, not everything; only everything there is to know.[33] Since the future free decisions of men have not taken place, it is logically inconceivable that God would know what those decisions might be. He might have a really good idea, based on His databank of facts of your past life and your patterns of decision-making. He is also a very good guesser, since He has been dealing with humankind for so long.

"...given the depth and breadth of God's knowledge of the present situation, God forecasts what he thinks will happen. In this regard God is the consummate social scientist predicting what will happen. God's ability to predict the future in this way is far more accurate than any human forecaster's, however, since God has exhaustive access to all past and present knowledge."[34]

On the other hand, since freedom means unpredictability, He might be wrong about future free decisions.[35] It is this potential to be incorrect that really makes God open to men. Sometimes He needs to change a course of action based on the unforeseen decisions of men. Other times He has to attempt His goal through other means or other people. This is not a threat to God (since He is God and infinitely resourceful) and should, in fact, lead us to a greater appreciation of His Person:

"The bottom line is that life is all about possibilities. We are thinking, feeling, willing, personal beings only because we, like God, are beings who can reflect on and choose between possibilities."[36]

In this model, God remains "sovereign," even though He has chosen to allow for genuine relationship by not "micro-managing creation."[37] Still, in order to accomplish His purposes, there are some things which God does decree and which He will accomplish even though the "doing" might or will violate man's free will.[38] The cross is sometimes kept in this category[39] and in some respects so is eschatology, although not much has been written on this topic.

The end result then is that humanity[40] enters into a partnership with God to create the future. This future is as unknown to God as it is to us, except that when God feels "things are just right" He will "close the curtain" and usher in the age to come.[41]

 

Part III: Evaluating the System

 

To evaluate OT in its entirety is well beyond the scope and setting of this paper and that is frustrating. I will attempt to appraise a few crucial points, but an entire book would need to be written to adequately treat each section.[42] This means that certain gaping holes will be left and my only hope is that we can cover some of them together in our discussion period.

 

Is Love the Divine Essence?

By positing love as the "very essence" of who and what God is, OT breaks with most orthodox theologies that look at God in a complex or amalgamated fashion. While no one is suggesting that love is inconsequential, there is indeed a valid question to be asked of any system that esteems one attribute of the Godhead over and (in a very real sense) against the others.

For instance, Peter wrote that God is "holy." How is this any less a description of the divine essence than "love?" Why is love more important than holiness? What in the text suggests that it is so? The same book that declares this love of God also proclaims, "God is light" (1 John 4:16; 1:5).[43] Why isn't this the final word on His being? Open Theists never answer these questions, but expect us to accept their proposition at face value.

There is always a danger of compartmentalizing God and thinking of Him only as He appears in His various attributes.[44] An overemphasis on the sovereignty of God has led many good people to morbid and depressing lives. A focus on the mercy of God has led others to antinomianism. One wonders if Open Theists are somehow hanging on to the overemphasis of the 1960's... the love of God?

When God's love is cast in stone as His premier attribute, then all other attributes and all the decisions that God makes must flow out of love. Perhaps this is why there has been little or no discussion of God's punishment and wrath by Open Theists, other than to say that they cannot conceive of a God who would punish for eternity.[45] Yet, the orthodox tradition has been to examine God's attributes individually as a means of gaining a crisper definition to then inject into the overall picture of God. Open Theists suggest that CT has been overrun by neo-platonic thought, but isn't one of the deplorable hangovers of Plato the creation of false dichotomies? OT has partitioned love from the rest of God where there is no textual warrant and has fallen into the trap they accuse others of squirming in.

As a result, God becomes a victim of His own love. He is forced to give mankind a level of freedom that can hurt Him (hence, "the God who risks") and He cannot perfectly know the future since to know it would be to decree it and to decree it would be to rob mankind of all freedom. This would spell the end of love and the end of God.

This is what leads OT into the waters of God's knowledge. It is not just that a few fringe theologians sat around one day and said, "What can we write about to make ourselves really disliked?" No, the OT redefinition of God's knowledge is a result of the love-relationship-freedom paradigm.

 

Relationship and Freedom

Secondly, it must be asked, "Are absolute sovereignty and genuine relationship mutually exclusive?" That is to say, does it logically follow that the moment God removes human freedom He ceases to be able to authentically engage me as a person?

OT argues that absolute sovereignty destroys real relationship since real relationship is predicated on free will. If I am not free to take on the relationship or to reject it then I can have no relationship.[46] The question is, how can a sovereign God really relate to me as a person, if my personhood, by definition, requires absolute freedom. How do human responsibility and divine sovereignty co-exist? This is not a new question and has been answered effectively elsewhere.[47]

It is worth noting here, however, that the very sin OT charges against CT, that of opting out of difficult theological conclusions by resorting to "tension," "paradox," "compatibilism" or "antinomy," is the very sin they feel free to commit at will. With a wave of the hand, the antinomy of Jim Packer's Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God, and the compatibilism of Carson and Piper are sent packing. However, the same kind of solution is allowed with the tricky points of OT. Boyd requires antinomy in his conclusion that God is altogether wise, even though at times mistaken.[48] Pinnock does the same thing, noting a "paradox" between the strength and vulnerability of God.[49] More will be said on this logical fallacy later on, but the point to observe here is that both sides of the debate use the same device.

The complaint against OT is that it does not interact with the genuine solutions offered by Calvinists to the real problem of understanding the relationship between human responsibility and divine sovereignty. Rather, OT rejects the Calvinistic solution to this problem on the grounds that its acceptance is "logically untenable" and leads to "a crisis of faith."[50] Now, these are the kind of useless answers that could be hurled right back at OT. They add nothing to the advancement toward the Truth.

It would be of far more interest to hear how OT thinkers would interact with the biblical notion of "the liberty or contingency of second causes" especially as it is taught in our Baptist confession.

"God has decreed in himself, from all eternity, by the most wise and holy counsel of his own will, freely and unchangeably, all things, whatsoever comes to pass; yet so as thereby is God neither the author of sin nor does he have fellowship with any therein; nor is violence 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."[51]

The phrase "liberty of second causes" means that a man acts without "external coercion" and never does what he does not will to do. Yet, the Lord has predestined all he does. Thus, while God is in no way responsible for the evil actions of a man, He has at the same time decreed them. As Sam Waldron explains,

"...it is certainly true that God is not actively involved in bringing about man's sin in the same way that he is involved in bringing to pass righteousness and salvation. In this sense, we may speak of divine permission of certain acts. On the other hand, we may never speak of bare or unwilling or forced permission with reference to God. God only permits in history what he has already decreed before history should certainly come to pass... nothing conditions God's decree."[52]

The plain truth of texts such as Genesis 50:20 are never dealt with adequately by Open Theists, thus the plain truth of God's eternal decree is never answered. What passages like this clearly teach us is that God can exist in a relationship with humans even though He has predetermined everything in that human's life, including sin.

 

Trinitarian and Incarnational Theologies

Examining the Trinity is never a bad idea and it is true that much can be gleaned from the relational dynamics within the Godhead. I would suggest though, that understanding the Trinity is not that easy. It is naïve of Open Theists to say that God exists in relationship with Himself, therefore He must want to exist in relationship with mankind. It is even more naïve to suggest that He wants to exist in the same kind of relationship with mankind that He enjoys with Himself.

Such thinking does not fully take into account the transcendence of the Almighty and the simple fact that God is not a man - He is the Creator. As such He is entirely different from His creation, even though humanity was created in His own image and likeness.

This error is carried even further with OT's Incarnational Theology. Rice and others have foolishly looked at the Incarnation as a comprehensive explanation of God, not taking into account His pre-existence or His Return. He goes as far as to say that. "...God revealed Himself in Jesus as nowhere else... Jesus defines the reality of God."[53] What is more, he suggests that since God chose humanity to make Himself known, therefore "...the distinctive features of human experience [must be] most reminiscent of the divine reality."

The next stage in this line of reasoning is to make the actions and experiences of Jesus' earthly ministry normative for God. Thus, since Jesus did not exercise coercive power over humans in the gospels, the Godhead never does.[54] This is the proof, you see, that God values relationship and only woos and warns, never effectually calls or punishes.

In other words, Rice is claiming that God became man and not an apple because man was most like Him. This is the cracked foundation of OT. Although Open Theists would deny it, the fact is they have exalted humanity to the position of a new and final hermeneutic.[55] God can only be explained as He fits into my human experience. I relate with people - therefore God relates to people. My life is full of surprises - therefore God's life is full of surprises. Granted that OT still treats God as a different being than man, it cannot be denied that He is much closer to the exalted man-God of Mormonism than the YHWH of the Bible.[56]

Bruce Ware poignantly comments:

"And what's wrong with this? Only that the incarnation marks a historical time when Jesus, the eternal Son of God, veiled His glory (see John 17:5) along with many privileges and prerogatives of deity (see Phil 2:5-8) in order to take on the finitude, weaknesses, and limitations of human servanthood. Incarnation marks, in one sense, a limitation of full divine expression... while it also expresses, in another sense, God's nature gloriously manifest (John 1:14, 18). Therefore, theology proper dare not be incarnational lest we conceive of God wrongly as being subject to experiencing those aspects of human weakness and limitations which Jesus underwent for the purpose of his mission."[57]

The simple fact that Jesus will look a tad different in His glorious Return is enough to show that the Incarnation is an inappropriate sample for determining theology proper.

 

Is CT Flawed? History, Philosophy and Hermeneutic

One of the primary arguments for the demise of CT is that its leans far more on Greek philosophy than the God of the Bible. Is this true? I am not an historical theologian - and neither (apparently) are any of the OT authors. Therefore, I will not attempt to refute their premise, especially since it has been done effectively done in other places. For instance, Alister McGrath comments:

"Why should we trust clarion calls to modify the evangelical tradition if the critics are not familiar with it? It is in John Sanders's chapter on "Historical Considerations" that the problem is made most evident. There he surveys how the "Greek metaphysical system 'boxed up' the God described in the Bible." Yet the survey Sanders presents is derivative, based on secondary literature. And when we come to Luther, the results become uncomfortably clear. Sanders's entire discussion of Luther is based on one reference to Paul Althaus's Theology of Martin Luther (1963), one reference to a general work on the theology of providence, and a single quote from the 1525 work The Bondage of the Will. The fact that this polemical 1525 work is thought by some Luther scholars to be out of line with Luther's constructive works is not mentioned; in fact, in this work Luther explicitly contradicts Sanders's statement that, for Luther, "there is no God beyond the God revealed in Jesus." What about the theology of the deus absconditus in The Bondage of the Will, then? There is a total silence on Luther's massive contribution to a theology of the suffering God. Yet this theology has had a massive impact on modern Protestant reflection, as shown by the writings of Jurgen Moltmann and Eberhard Jungel, to name but two obvious examples. Where are the references to the Heidelberg disputation? to Luther's superb exposition of the deficiencies of a Nestorian Christology, in which the implications of the Incarnation for the suffering of God are explored?

I found myself outraged by this lack of scholarly familiarity with Luther and his background. However, noting the strong Arminianism of some of the contributors to the volume, I decided to explore whether the theology of a suffering God found in the hymns of the noted Arminian Charles Wesley had been presented... I found that Wesley is not even mentioned in this chapter.

The book asks us to reject a classical evangelical understanding in favor of something else. But why should we abandon this tradition when, in fact, it has clearly not been fairly and thoroughly presented in this book?"[58]

Secondly, CT is supposed to be flawed because of its dependence on Greek philosophy. Is this the case? Actually, it is OT that is based far more on philosophy than CT. The OT philosophical assumption that determination erases relationship is never proven! It is a fleshly conjecture that supposedly gives the right for Open Theists to come up with a more "logically tenable" solution. Still, this point alone is the petrol that fuels the OT engine and it leads these men to approach the text with an agenda, not a clean slate. Thus, rather than dealing with the text in an honest fashion they approach it with a goal of proving their assumption that God really must be open and relational (according to their definition of "relational").

The response to this accusation is always the same, "Well, you Calvinists just leave off at mystery. You say there are some things we should not even ask! That is intellectual suicide!" But, as a Calvinist, I would say this is exactly what the Bible teaches. It doesn't even mean I have to like it or that I find it intellectually fulfilling! But where does it say that God owes me the stimulation and satisfaction of my mind. He tells me to love Him with my mind and at some level that has to mean subjecting my mind to His revealed Truth. The accusation that Calvinism ends in mystery because it is a logical, man-made system is a smoke screen. No matter how much Boyd and others mutilate the text, Paul meant what he said when he wrote to the Romans concerning individual (not corporate) election, "...who are you, O man, who answers back to God?"

It appears that Open Theists find their freedom to question "everything" more from the post-modern ethos of relative truth than a desire for biblical accuracy. Pinnock says he does not "reject this as a possibility" but one has to wonder if he and the others have honestly examined the likelihood.[59]

 

A final facet of this supposed toppling of CT is the more "nuanced" hermeneutic of OT to the Bible and the narrative texts in particular. Again, OT fails to make a case. It is telling, in my mind, that no Open Theist has addressed the phrase of Ephesians 1:11 "who works all things after the counsel of His will."[60] Now, here is a propositional text that addresses the heart of the issue of God's knowledge and God's providence head on. Good biblical theology on these issues would entail interpreting the text and showing its relation to the system. OT blatantly avoids texts like these, however, and draws its system from the narrative passages.[61]

Abraham's attempted pedocide, Moses' "calming down" of an angry Jehovah, Hezekiah's extended life,[62] the Lord's "regret" in making man at the time of the Flood, His "wondering" aloud about the future,[63] the prayer of Jesus in Gethsemane - all of these narrative passages are examined and held up as proof that God really is in relationship with us and as such is open to and conditioned by our responses to Him.

Again, as delightful as it would be to show the shoddy exegesis of these passages, space does not permit. However, it is important to note that an appeal to narrative passages can prove almost anything you want - especially when you appeal only to certain verses and statements within those passages and do not consider the parallels.[64]

To be sure, narrative does teach. But the art of narrative interpretation is not some navel-gazing, "here is what it means to me," but a careful biblical theology that holds up propositional truth as an interpretive tool of the story. In fact, without going too far into this discussion, it might be good to say, we have no right to state what the story means unless the narrative itself, or some other correlative passage explicitly states what it means. A quick read of some of the Fathers on the parables of Jesus will show how rapidly the expositor can fall into error when this principle is neglected.[65]

Thus, if the above is true, that is, a) love alone is not the definition of God, b) freedom and sovereignty can co-exist, c) relationship is real even when God is sovereign, d) OT is historically inventive and CT is not built primarily on the bedrock of Greek philosophy, e) OT is built off of philosophy and, f) OT is guilty of an over-concentration on narrative passages, then the conclusions of OT are wrong that, a) God does not know the future (unless it is something He has decreed) and, b) He is not sovereign over the minutiae of life. OT has failed to make their case. God is sovereign, all-powerful, eternal, incorporeal, omniscient and not like us.

 

Closing the Door on Openness

The sheer mass of material pouring out of the OT camp means there are many other features and details that must be ignored in this paper. The reader might be disappointed that some of these issues have not been tackled directly, but I have attempted to include as many footnotes and a bibliography to let you read what others smarter than me have already written.

 

The OT Hermeneutic

There remains one area of concern that no one has addressed thus far, though, and I think it bears at least passing mention. It must not be forgotten that the authors of OT are not coming to the text of the Bible in the same manner most of us are. Pinnock, for example, openly refutes inerrancy,[66] has embraced inclusivism,[67] has defended annihilationism,[68] applauds feminist, catholic, charismatic scholars and only attempts to remain in the evangelical camp because it "is a contemporary revival of warm, missionary, biblical faith which God is still using more than the old-line main-line side-line."[69] In other words, it is the best out of a pretty lousy selection.

Obviously, to arrive at the theological position he has, (assuming that he is fairly normative for the OT movement) means that at its primary level, OT is really a question of hermeneutics. All the authors defend themselves as being biblical, but that can mean a lot of things to a lot of people.

Don Carson, in his book, Exegetical Fallacies, lists a number of ways in which bible students (himself included) can foul up hermeneutically.[70] I counted 7 blatant infractions.

  1. Simplistic appeal to authority. As noted above, OT is prone to make sweeping claims about historical theology and the church fathers. These appeals should never be made without first giving careful study to the subject. Just because you say a particular father said something does not mean he did - and OT authors are guilty of depending on isolated statements and poor second-source works to build their case.
  2. Straw-manning. This is perhaps the greatest offense of OT. The God of CT is caricatured to the point of unrecognizability. Pinnock writes, for example, of the CT God that He is "an aloof monarch, removed from the contingencies of the world, unchangeable in every aspect of being, as an all-determining and irresistible power, aware of everything that will ever happen and never taking risks."[71] Added to statements like this are the plentitude of off-hand misrepresentations like, "a solitary potentate," "an abstraction," "the enemy of human freedom," using the "coercive power of a puppeteer," managing creation with His "monopoly power," a "know-it-all" sitting in heaven "inert and immobile," and somewhat "bored" since He cannot ever "experience surprise and delight."[72] Do Open Theists really expect us to believe that this is a fair treatment of the CT position? No Classical Theist I know would use these terms to describe his God, these are the fabrications of an opponent who is trying to take the focus off the failings of his own position and make it appear stronger next to the easily toppled straw-man of CT he has erected. This is shameful.
  3. Appeal to Selective Evidence. Carson writes: "As a general rule, the more complex and/or emotional the issue, the greater the tendency to select only part of the evidence, prematurely construct a grid, and so filter the rest of the evidence through the grid that it is robbed of any substance."[73] The examples of this offense in OT are numerous but I shall give one glaring illustration. Consider the OT hypothesis that God did not know how Abraham would respond to the command to kill Isaac. Boyd makes much out of this apparent lack of knowledge and even says it teaches that "it was because Abraham did what he did that the Lord now knew he was a faithful covenant partner" (Gen 22:12).[74] Bruce Ware, interacting with Boyd on this issue points out how Boyd has not considered the related texts to this passage, especially Hebrews 11:19, which says, "He (Abraham) considered that God is able to raise men (Isaac) even from the dead; from which he also received him back as a type." Expositing this verse, Ware concludes, "it demonstrates without any doubt that Abraham had a God-fearing heart leading up to his sacrifice of Isaac. Since God knows this (all Open Theists acknowledge He has perfect knowledge of the past and present), it is absolutely wrong to interpret Gen 22:12 as saying that only when Abraham lifted the knife did God 'learn' that Abraham feared God."[75] It is easy to make the Bible say what we want it to say when we only appeal to certain texts and certain parts of certain texts.[76]
  4. Cavalier Dismissal. It has already been noted that OT routinely dismisses the Calvinistic grid of understanding divine sovereignty and human responsibility with not so much as a wave of the arm. Rather than interact with the inner workings of this grid, OT authors simply pronounce it unworkable. The onus of responsibility is on them to defend that remark before going any further.
  5. Falsely Qualify Extreme Statements. Perhaps Boyd commits this fallacy more than any other. He is often quick to add little remarks to the end of long paragraphs that say something like, "but God still could know everything in the future if He wanted to." This is like trying to play tennis with a mango. These grandiose statements about God taking the risk of not knowing what tomorrow holds are always softened at the last minute so as to make them appear less offensive, presumably to neuter the rebuttal. At least Pinnock and Sanders have no such fear of offending!
  6. Exaggerations. One of the premier duties of a good salesman is to make whatever he is selling sound better than it probably is. OT authors fall into this trap often. For example, Richard Rice speaks of the "numerous examples" of repentance texts in the Bible as if every other page had God repenting.[77] He then goes on to list almost all of them, but leaves the reader feeling that there must be many more out there just waiting to be pounced on.
  7. Emotive Appeal. Although very similar to the first fallacy examined in this list, the appeal to emotion does not have to include a straw man of the enemy's position. John Sanders begins his work with a description of his brother's sudden, accidental death and uses this tragedy as proof that God, who is so good and loving, cannot be in control of everything.[78] Boyd gives a lengthy description of an abandoned wife and concludes, "I don't know how one could effectively minister to a person in [her] condition" unless one believed it was all outside of God's plan.[79] Pinnock writes, "I love to think that God is like the partner in a dance. As we act out our steps God is always there, leaping at just the right moments, steadying at others and keeping perfect balance with the living reality that we are."[80] Or, "...we... understand God as a caring parent with qualities of love and responsiveness, generosity and sensitivity, openness and vulnerability, a person (rather than a metaphysical principle) who experiences the world, responds to what happens, relates to us and interacts dynamically with humans... our lives make a difference to God - they are truly significant... we are significant to God..."[81] Well, that is nice. Especially if you want to win a dance contest with your best friend. But which of us would suggest that our lives are insignificant to God? Which of us has written that famous hymn, "Praise to the Lord, the Metaphysical Principle?" Beyond the fact that Pinnock has committed the error of taking words and forcing them to mean the same thing for God that they do for humans, he has also attempted to use emotion in the reader to win their approval. One feels bad rejecting the God of OT simply because that God sounds like a really nice guy! This is the fallacy of emotive appeal.

 

Part IV: Conclusion

 

The Dangers of OT

The greatest danger of OT is that it redefines who God is. The Israelites called the golden calf YHWH, but that did not mean it was Him (Exodus 32:5). Open Theists may use the name of God, but that does not mean they are accurately depicting Him.

Whether they choose to accept it or not, the real motive behind OT is to make a god in the image of man.[82] The God of CT does not act like a man. He decrees things, knows things before they happen and even chooses some people to love more than others.[83] This will not do for Sanders, Pinnock, Boyd and crew! History is revised, philosophy is employed and solid exegesis is exchanged for "nuanced looks at the text." The end result is a kind of self-gratifying theology that demeans God and exalts reason.

It seems to me that this strikes at the heart of OT. The desire of OT is to make the God of the Bible knowable - not to get to know the God of the Bible! Their assumption is that if one's common sense is dealt a blow in the reading of the Bible, this must mean that one has read incorrectly. Now I am sure every Open Theist would vehemently deny this and argue that their only desire is to understand the Word. Well... bunkum.

I question their motives. I question their knowledge of God. I even question their orthodoxy. The God of OT is not the God of the Bible and those who are influenced by it will be led away from their Maker to a deity of their own imagination. May the Lord be gracious to use us to intervene and preach the Truth so that none under our charge hear the mocking words, "You thought I was just like you!" (Psalm 50:21).

 

The Benefits of OT

It may seem strange after the last paragraph to list benefits of OT, however, since I fully believe that God is able to use all things to His glory, I list three.

  1. OT puts into words what a lot of people already think. It might surprise us to read some paragraphs of Boyd's work aloud in our congregation and ask for a vote on its accuracy. I believe this is because OT is the logical conclusion of making a god in your own image. If you only think of God in terms of an exalted man this is what you get. It seems to me that this is part of the reason why the Lord takes such great pains to ask questions of His people like, "To Whom then will you liken Me?" (Isaiah 40:25). The tendency is to treat and think of God as a man, albeit a really large and generally good one ("the big guy upstairs"). But, special revelation is iconoclastic in the sense that it is continually exploding our false conceptions (idols?) of the Lord. OT can be a help in that somebody is finally saying what many already think. Now, we can take what they say and, as a teaching tool show the fallacy of it to our sheep.
  2. OT ought to refine our theology and our hermeneutics. Church history has proven that the best heresies make for the best orthodoxy! OT asks some excellent questions of the Word and of our Calvinism. If you are like me, you do not enjoy studying topics like this and one of the main reasons is that it takes a lot of brain energy! We need prods like this, however, to get rid of some of the mush we carry around in our theological brains. Lord willing it will be replaced by a more biblically refined and crisper presentation of what is true. We can also use a good wake-up call on our approach to the text. The constant tension of any good interpreter is to let the text speak, while integrating what it says into the rest of our theology. This back and forth motion takes great care and time and all of us need to improve at it.
  3. I think the best thing about OT is that it deals a deathblow to Arminianism. Ware makes this quite clear in his work[84] and so do the OT authors. OT is, in one sense, the logical conclusion or outworking of classic Arminianism. Free will and sovereignty are contradictory - on this the Open Theist and Calvinist agree![85] That is why the Arminian side has, in my opinion, offered nothing of substance in defense against OT. They have had the rug pulled out from under them. It may be that the Lord has "permitted" the sudden uprising of OT in order to demolish another pillar in the already shaky foundation of Arminianism.

 

A Final Thought

Open Theists cannot tolerate the Calvinistic view of God. The idea that God has predetermined all of my actions seems to be a total affront to their sensibilities - and I would agree. Such facts are an affront to one's sensibilities. Many of us can recall a time when we hated the thought of a sovereign God. The question then becomes, what will determine, what will mold, what will be the shaping influence of our model of God? We must answer in the line of orthodoxy that the only option is that which God has revealed to us - the Word of God. A careful study of that living document will prove OT fashions a God much closer to Adam than Jesus.

 



Bibliography

(Underlined items can be web accessed)

(Other works not listed here are footnoted in the text)

 

CON

Francis J. Beckwith, "God Knows?" [Review of Gregory Boyd's God of the Possible], Christian Research Journal 22:4 (2000): 54-55.

A. B. Caneday, "The Implausible God of Open Theism: A Response to Gregory A. Boyd's God of the Possible," Journal of Biblical Apologetics 1 (Fall 2000): 66-87.

A. B. Caneday, "Putting God at Risk: A Critique of John Sanders's View of Providence," Trinity Journal 20 NS (1999): 131-163.

D. A. Carson, "God, the Bible and Spiritual Warfare: A Review Article," Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 42 (1999): 251-69.

William Lane Craig, The Only Wise God: The Compatibility of Divine Foreknowledge and Human Freedom (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1987).

William Lane Craig, "Hasker on Divine Knowledge," Philosophical Studies 62 (1992): 57-78.

Millard J. Erickson, God the Father Almighty: A Contemporary Exploration of the Divine Attributes (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1998).

Alfred J. Freddoso, "The 'Openness of God': A Reply to William Hasker," Christian Scholar's Review 28:1 (Fall, 1998): 140ff.

Paul Helm, Book Review: The God Who Risks: A Theology of Providence, Modern Reformation, November/December 1999, Vol. 8, No. 6.

Paul Helm, "The Philosophical Issue of Divine Foreknowledge," in The Grace of God, the Bondage of the Will, vol. 2, edited by Thomas R. Schreiner and Bruce A. Ware (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1995), pp. 485-97.

Paul Helm, The Providence of God. Contours of Christian Theology, (Downers Grove: Ill. InterVarsity Press, 1994).

Paul Kjoss Helseth, "Strange Providence: Pain, Suffering, and the Ambivalent God of Open Theism."

R. Albert Mohler, "Does God Give Bad Advice? New Evangelical View of God Presents a Deity with a Backup Plan," World Magazine 15:24 (June 17, 2000).

Roger Nicole, "Review of The Openness of God." Founders Journal (Fall, 1995).

Robert E. Picirilli, "Foreknowledge, Freedom, and the Future," Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 43 (2000): 259-71.

John Piper, "Why the Glory of God Is at Stake in the 'Foreknowledge' Debate," Modern Reformation 8, no. 5 (September/October 1999), 39-43.

John Piper and Justin Taylor, Resolution on the Foreknowledge of God: Reasons & Rationale (Minneapolis: Bethlehem Baptist Church, 2000). With Appendix by Millard Erickson.

Still Sovereign: Contemporary Perspectives on Election, Foreknowledge, and Grace, edited by Thomas R. Schreiner and Bruce A. Ware (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2000).

Robert B. Strimple, "What Does God Know?" in The Coming Evangelical Crisis: Current Challenges to the Authority of Scripture and the Gospel, Ed. John H. Armstrong (Chicago: Moody Press, 1996), pp. 139-53.

Gene Veith, "A God in Their Own Image: A Return of the Really Old Religions," World Magazine, 15:18 (May 6, 2000).

Bruce A. Ware, "Despair Amidst Suffering and Pain: A Practical Outworking of Open Theism's Diminished View of God." The Southern Baptist Journal of Theology 4/2 (Summer 2000): 56-75.

Bruce A. Ware, "An Evangelical Reformulation of the Doctrine of the Immutability of God," Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 29/4 (1986): 431-46.

Bruce A. Ware, God's Lesser Glory: The Diminished God of Open Theism (Wheaton, Ill: Crossway Books, 2000).

Bruce A. Ware, Book Review: The Case for Free Will Theism. Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 43/1 (March 2000), pp. 165-168.

Bruce A. Ware, Book Review: The God Who Risks: A Theology of Providence, Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, Vol. 43, No. 2 (June 2000).

David Wells, "The Rejection of the Classical Doctrine of God and What It Says About the State of the Evangelical Movement," Modern Reformation (May/June 2000).

Stephen N. Williams, "What God Doesn't Know: Were the Biblical Prophecies Mere Probabilities?" [Review of John Sanders, The God Who Risks,] Books & Culture, November/December 1999.

R. K. McGregor Wright, No Place for Sovereignty: What's Wrong with Freewill Theism (Downer's Grove, Ill: InterVarsity Press, 1996).

 

PRO

David Basinger, "Can an Evangelical Christian Justifiably Deny God's Exhaustive Foreknowledge of the Future?" Christian Scholar's Review 25 (1995): 133-34.

David Basinger, The Case for Freewill Theism: A Philosophical Assessment (Downer's Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1996).

Randall G. Basinger, "Exhaustive Divine Sovereignty: A Practical Critique," in The Grace of God, the Will of Man: A Case for Arminianism. Ed. Clark Pinnock (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan: 1989), 191-205.

Gregory A. Boyd, God at War: The Bible and Spiritual Conflict (Downer's Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1997).

Gregory A. Boyd, God of the Possible: A Biblical Introduction to the Open View of God (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 2000).

Gregory A. Boyd, Trinity and Process: A Critical Evaluation and Reconstruction of Hartshorne's Di-Polar Theism Towards a Trinitarian Metaphysics (Peter Lang Publishing, 1992).

Gregory A. Boyd and Edward K. Boyd, Letters From a Skeptic: A Son Wrestles with His Father's Questions about Christianity (Colorado Springs: Chariot Victor Publishing, 1994).

Robert B. Chisholm Jr., "Does God 'Change His Mind?'" Bibliotheca Sacra 152 (October-December 1995): 387-99

W. Norris Clarke, God, Knowable and Unknowable (New York: Fordham University Press, 1973).

Roy Elseth, Did God Know? A Study of the Nature of God (St. Paul, MN: Calvary United Church, 1977).

William Hasker, "Foreknowledge and Necessity," Faith and Philosophy 2, no. 2 (April 1985), 121-157.

William Hasker, God, Time and Knowledge, Cornell Studies in the Philosophy of Religion (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1989).

William Hasker, "The Openness of God," Christian Scholar's Review 28:1 (Fall, 1998: 111-139).

William Hasker, "Tradition, Divine Transcendence, and the Waitin

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