Think on These Things Articles

Open Theism - Part 1

(April/May 2002 - Volume 8, Issue 3) 

Any war is composed of major battles and minor skirmishes. The skirmishes, while often little more than irritants in the big picture, nevertheless cannot be ignored. True casualties are often the result of such conflict and the military ignores them at its own peril. Still, the war is won or lost on the front lines where the primary clash is taking place. So it is on the Christian battlefield. Relatively minor challenges to truth are constant. Overemphasis on this doctrine, ignorance of another, inordinate attention on emotions here, encroachment of the world’s mindset there. Such altercations are disregarded at the high price of casualties among believers and churches alike. While we agree with the Puritan Richard Baxter that "charity should be practiced in all things", we must also recognize that minor attacks on our flank, left unchallenged and uncorrected, tend to evolve into full-blown invasions that threaten the very heart of the church. Such is the issue before us today.

Open theism (also known as free-will theism, open theology and openness of God) was, until recently, a little-known stirring on the fringes of the evangelical camp. In 1980, few noticed and fewer cared about perennial rebel Clark Pinnock and his friends, who claimed they had discovered the “true” biblical understanding of God. But more recently their views have both matured and emerged into the mainstream of Christian thought through the writings of among others, Pinnock, Gregory A. Boyd, professor of theology at Bethel College (Baptist General Conference) and Professor John Sanders. More lethal is the fact that this new concept of God is sneaking in through the backdoor of the camp by means of popular writers such as Phil Yancey, and the influence of men like Gilbert Bilezikian, who, as the resident theologian of the Willow Creek Community Church , wields tremendous power over the minds of many modern church leaders. Others in line with Yancey and Bilezikian include devotional/mystical writer Richard Foster and theologian Donald Bloesch.[1] Particular danger of this latter group is that they may seldom, if ever, admit to holding open theistic convictions but espouse those views in attractive formats (e.g. Yancey’s popular book, Disappointment with God).

DEFINITIONS

Traditional or classical theism has dominated not only most of church history but Jewish history as well. Open theist Richard Rice, although obviously disenchanted with classical theism, captures well the essence of the classical understanding of God when he writes,

This traditional, or conventional, view emphasizes God’s sovereignty, majesty and glory. God’s will is the final explanation for all that happens; God’s glory is the ultimate purpose that all creation serves. In his infinite power, God brought the world into existence in order to fulfill his purposes and display his glory. Since his sovereign will is irresistible, whatever he dictates comes to pass and every event plays its role in his grand design. Nothing can thwart or hinder the accomplishment of his purposes. God’s relation to the world is thus one of mastery and control.[2]

Open theism challenges every tenet of the above definition, denying God’s sovereignty, His omniscience and His glory. Pinnock lays the groundwork with this definition of what he calls 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 a 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.[3]

To some, and at first blush, Pinnock's comprehension of God may sound appealing and refreshing. But let’s unpack this statement, and others to follow, to get a firm grasp on what is being said by the open theist. The major components of open theism, to which Pinnock alludes, and will be further documented in future papers, are the following:

1) God is not sovereign. He is not always and necessarily in control. His will can be thwarted.

2) God is at risk. God responds to our responses. While God is endlessly resourceful, He can make mistakes. He can drop the ball in our lives. Our actions can so affect God as to frustrate His plans and force Him to seek alternatives. To some degree God is at the mercy of His creatures' choices and actions.

3) God is limited in knowledge. Since God does not know the future He seeks input from His creatures to help Him make decisions. He does not know the future because He is subject to time as we are. He is not infinite in knowledge; He is constantly learning. He is not immutable but is constantly changing, not in essence but in understanding. God truly does not know what anyone will do until they do it.

4) God’s ultimate purpose is not to glorify Himself but to give and receive love. His greatest and central attribute is love, around which all other attributes revolve.

We will develop and challenge each of these tenets of open theism, but first it would be wise to examine the roots of the movement.

HISTORY

The first appearance of open theology in modern times dates to a book edited by Clark Pinnock entitled The Openness of God. The book was published in 1980, then republished in 1985 under the title, The Grace of God, the Will of God, a Case for Arminianism. What Pinnock and the other thirteen contributors said about God blazed new territory, but went undetected by most, perhaps because the title implied that the book was a defense of traditional Arminianism. As we will see in a moment, this was not the case, for even though open theism launches from the base of Arminianism, it travels far beyond the Arminian view of God. The theism war did not really explode, however, until Pinnock, Richard Rice, John Sanders, William Hasker, and David Basinger published, in 1994, The Openness of God: A Biblical Challenge to the Traditional Understanding of God. Other influential books have followed, including Gregory Boyd’s Letters from a Skeptic, and more importantly, God of the Possible; and John Sanders’ God Who Risks. InterVarsity Press has been a major publisher of openness books, but Baker Books has recently stepped to the plate. Christianity Today has published numerous articles on the subject and seems to be playing, as usual, the middle ground, challenging both sides to reexamine their positions and “go do our homework.”[4] The Baptist General Conference is in open warfare over the issue since Gregory Boyd is a professor at its Bethel College and Seminary as well as a pastor of a BGC megachurch. Leading the charge against Boyd is another well-known BGC pastor and author, John Piper. At this point the BGC has been guilty of double talk of a nature that would warm the heart of a hardened politician. On the one hand it has passed a resolution stating that the openness view of God is contrary to their fellowship’s understanding of God, but at the same conference (2000) passed a statement confirming that Boyd’s teachings are within the acceptable bounds of evangelicalism. Go figure!

The consistent contention of the open theologians is that classical theism is as much a product of Greek philosophy as of biblical study.[5] This is surely a challenge not to be taken lightly. On the other hand, it seems to have escaped the openness supporters that their views are not free of similar influences. One writer traces open theism back to Socinianism, a heretical splinter group which arose shortly after the Reformation.[6] Of course the real issue is not whether Christian thought happens to overlap with secular philosophy, which of course occasionally happens; the issue is whether a teaching holds water biblically. To the Hellenistic philosophy indictment there is no question that Plato and his cronies got some things right, but that does not mean, necessarily, that our understanding of God is Hellenistic. Douglas Kelly assures us, “In reality, a careful reading of the Fathers (such as Athanasius, for instance) would indicate the profound Christianization of Hellenistic terms and concepts. Though they began as Greek terms conveying pagan content, such concepts as creation, being, logos, providence, and person were thoroughly transformed during the first four or five centuries of the Christian era.”[7] It is because the openness authors lack an understanding of this field of study that they make assertions of this kind, Kelly believes.

DISTINCTIONS

Until recently, most evangelical Christians held a common view of God. There have been, however, and still are, some significant differences within evangelicalism concerning the sovereign actions and knowledge of God. While there are some other theories hanging out on the perimeter of theistic thought, most Christians have fallen into one of two camps until the recent addition of open theism.

Calvinism

When a Calvinist speaks of God’s omniscience he is saying that God knows not only what has happened and is happening, but He also knows the future. In addition, God is all-wise and therefore all of His interactions with His creatures or universe are perfect. But more than this, the Calvinist believes that God determines the future. God is not at the mercy of the choices of His creatures, but is proactive in determining the course of all events – yet He does so in such a manner that man makes choices that are free within the confines of his nature, and is held responsible for those actions. How God can be sovereignly in control and man can be morally responsible is a mystery that cannot be satisfactorily untangled in this life, but since it is taught in Scripture it is to be embraced by the child of God.

Arminianism

Arminians are in agreement with Calvinists that God is all-wise and perfect in wisdom. He knows all things, including all future events, and therefore nothing surprises Him or catches Him off guard. Where the Arminian parts from the Calvinist is in the area of sovereign control. They believe that when Scripture speaks of God’s foreknowledge it speaks of His browsing into the future to see what mankind will do, and then determining the future based upon the foreseen actions of His creatures. In other words, man becomes the first cause, God is a responder. For example, Arminians believe in election, but election is reduced to God choosing to save individuals because He foreknew that they would choose Him. Arminianism attempts to solve the sovereignty/free-will tension by placing heavy weight on free-will to the virtual extinction of sovereign control.

Openism

The open theist believes that both the Calvinist and the Arminian fail to resolve the sovereignty/free-will enigma. Both systems stand guilty of the same crime – man ultimately loses his free-agent status. Open theology levels the same charge against Calvinism as the Arminian does – man is little more than a puppet and God is pulling the strings. But before the Arminian can shout “amen” openism turns the same guns on them and says, “If God’s foreknowledge is infallible [as Arminians insist], then what he sees cannot fail to happen. This means that the course of future events is fixed, however we explain what actually causes it. And if the future is inevitable then the apparent experience of free choice is an illusion.”[8] The openness solution to this free-will dilemma is to limit God’s foreknowledge. God is omniscient in the sense that He knows all that is knowable, but not even God can know the future. He can take incredibly wise guesses but He can be fooled, can make wrong choices, can give false guidance, can be mistaken, and can be resisted to the point of frustration. The open God is a God who not only lacks control, but also lacks knowledge of the future, for this is the only way that humans can be truly free moral creatures. To examine more carefully this radical new understanding of God will be the goal of our next several papers.

 


[1] Clark Pinnock, The Openness of God (Downers Grove, Ill.: Intervarsity Press, 1994) pp. 97-98.

[2] Richard Rice, The Openness of God, p. 10.

[3] Pinnock, The Openness of God, p. 7.

[4] Christianity Today, February 7, 2000, p. 15

[5] See for example chapter two of The Openness of God written by John Sanders.

[6] Robert B. Stimple, “What Does God Know?” in The Coming Evangelical Crisis, ed. by John H. Armstrong (Chicago: Moody Press, 1996) pp. 140-141.

[7] Douglas F. Kelly, “Afraid of Infinitude,” Christianity Today, January 9, 1995, p. 32 (emphasis in the original).

[8] Clark H. Pinnock, The Grace of God, the Will of Man, A Case for Arminianism (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Academie Books, 1989) p. 127.