Think on These Things Articles

Open Theism - Part 4

(August 2002 - Volume 8, Issue 6) 

The Unsovereign God

If God's inability to know the future is the core doctrine of open theism, then God's lack of sovereign power and control over the universe is the foundation of, or better, heart of openism. It is because these theologians want to believe that God is not in authority that they must believe that He lacks knowledge of certain things. Here is the argument: If God reigns supreme in such manner as to always get His own way (as Calvinism teaches), then man's choices are not truly free. Even if God simply knows perfectly the future actions of His creatures (as Arminianism teaches), they are not free because those actions are frozen in future time and thus unalterable. Free choices under Calvinism are a myth and under Arminianism a mirage. What are we to do if we are to maintain both the omnipotency of God and free moral agency of man? Openism's solution is to offer a God that maintains supreme power in theory but is limited by time. Pinnock writes, "I affirm that God is with us in time, experiencing the succession of events with us. Past, present and future are real to God."[1] God is a being of time, as we are, and therefore cannot know the future, except where He has predetermined certain fated events. In this system God cannot know with certainty the actions of any creature until those actions take place. This, in the minds of Pinnock, Boyd and Sanders is the perfect answer for it solves the problem of freewill. Unfortunately it does so at the expense of the sovereignty of God. God, in the open system, is reduced to a responder to the free choices of His creatures. Not knowing the future, and unable and/or unwilling to force His will upon mankind, He finds Himself constantly adjusting and reacting to incidents as they take place. Let's take a look at the impotent God of open theism.

He Does Not Always Get His Own Way

Richard Rice comments, "The biblical descriptions of divine repentance indicate that God's plans are exactly that - plans or possibilities that He intends to realize. They are not ironclad decrees that fix the course of events and preclude all possible variation. For God to will something, therefore, does not make its occurrence inevitable. Factors arise that hinder or prevent its realization."[2] Later in the same chapter Rice continues, "The will of God, therefore, is not an irresistible, all-determining force. God is not the only actor on the stage of history…. To a significant extent, then, God's actions are reactions - different ways he responds to what others do as he pursues his ultimate purposes."[3]

Open theologians believe that God sets forth plans that He hopes will work. When, because of human choices, His plans fail, God changes His mind, adjusts His plan to fit the new situation brought about by our actions and develops a new plan - which may or may not fail as well. Rice gives these examples from Scripture, "God hoped that Saul would be a good king. When Saul disappointed him, God turned elsewhere (1 Samuel 15:35;16:1). God hoped that his chosen people would remain faithful to him and fulfill their mission. When they proved uncooperative, God revised his plans for them (Matthew 21:33-34)."[4] The presupposition of the open thinkers is that God, using the best information at His disposal, appointed Saul as king over Israel , and chose Israel as His people, with every hope that things would turn out well. When both Saul and Israel disappointed God, He altered His plans. But, is it true that God did not know that Saul would fail? On the contrary, He had made plans years before that the king of Israel , and ultimately Messiah, would come from the tribe of Judah, (the tribe of David, not Saul's). In Genesis 49:10 it is prophesied concerning Judah , The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor the ruler's staff from between his feet, until Shiloh [a reference to Messiah] comes. And was Israel 's failure a shock to God? Not according to Deuteronomy 29, which clearly details, while Moses was yet alive, the future disobedience and resulting judgement on Israel . In response to the question of why God's anger had burned against Israel , verse 24 implies, Because they forsook the covenant of the Lord, the God of their fathers, which He made with them when He brought them out of the land of Egypt. Far from being taken by surprise by Israel 's rebelliousness, God predicted it and in Deuteronomy 30 describes His future restoration of the nation upon repentance.

This view of God, that He knows the future and moves all things toward His purposes, is unwelcomed by the open theist. They want a theology in which God has a give-and-take relationship with His creatures. Such a God prompts, encourages and guides but does not rule. This "means that God interacts with his creatures. As a result, the course of history is not the product of divine action alone."[5] Open theism brings new meaning to Spurgeon's old comment that men will allow God to be anywhere but on His throne.

He Has Given Away Some of His Power

If God is at the mercy of the free choices of man, as openism teaches, in what sense is He omnipotent, an attribute of God the open theist claims to support? Boyd gives this novel answer: "Prior to creation, God possessed 100 percent of all power. He possessed all the say-so there was. When the Trinity decided to express their love by bringing forth a creation, they invested each creature (angelic and human) with a certain percentage of their say-so. The say-so of the triune God was at this point no longer the only one that determined how things would go. God's personal creations now possessed a measure of ability to influence what would occur."[6]

God, in the final tally, is not omnipotent after all, but is, as Sanders admits, merely "creative and omnicompetent rather than all-determining and immutable."[7] God is doing His best, and He is the most competent, wise, creative and resourceful being in the universe, but His power to rule supremely is now limited by the free will of men and angels. Boyd writes, "God displays his beautiful sovereignty by deciding not to always unilaterally decide matters. He enlists our input, not because he needs it, but because he desires to have an authentic, dynamic relationship with us as real, empowered persons. Like a loving parent or spouse, he wants not only to influence us but to be influenced by us."[8]

As with all error there is an element of truth in what these men are saying. God does desire our input, if by that we mean He desires to hear our prayers and petitions and even our thoughts. God is also influenced by us in the sense that, in some unfathomable way our prayers are taken seriously and answered by God, yet in accordance to His will and desires. We are reminded of Romans 8:26, 27, And the Spirit also helps our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we should, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words; and He who searches the hearts knows what the mind of the Spirit is, because He intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. This passage seems to have been ignored, for in the open model God is waiting for our feedback, longing to be swayed by our thoughts and ideas. Yet, any honest Christian should realize that this is a step in the wrong direction. What can my contribution add to God's knowledge (cf. Isaiah 40:13,14)? Do I really want God to be convinced against His better judgment? The wise Christian lays his petitions and concerns before the Lord (Philippians 4:6) and then rests in His love and wisdom.

He Is At Risk

In the open system, when God created Adam and Eve, He took a risk. He gave them perfect bodies lacking sin natures, placed them in a perfect world and hoped they would choose to be obedient to Him. He knew there was a chance they would fall, but not knowing the future and not willing to interfere with their free will, God was conscious He ran the risk of them choosing sin. Still, He was surprised and frustrated at their fall and had to adjust His plans for the human race accordingly. This only makes sense, for it stands to reason that if God does not know the future then God is constantly at risk of the unknown. Bruce Ware makes this observation, "The fact is, the God of open theism brings into existence a kind of world in which he exercises largely a power of love and persuasion toward his volitional creatures. All their free decisions, unknown in advance by him, have the potential of either advancing or violating his purposes. The success of these purposes rests, to a significant degree, in others' hands. At this very moment, according to open theism, not even God knows whether his purposes will be fulfilled. The God of open theism truly is the God who risks."[9] There is no guarantee in the open system that God will triumph.

God is willing to take this risk with us because, according to supporters of openism, God's overarching attribute, the one that dominates all others (such as holiness, omniscience and omnipotence) is love. "And love is more than care and commitment," Sanders tells us, "It involves being sensitive and responsive as well. These convictions lead the [open theists] to think of God in relation to the world in dynamic rather than static terms. This conclusion has important consequences. For one thing, it means that God interacts with his creatures. Not only does he influence them, but they also exert an influence on him. As a result, the course of history is not the product of divine action alone…. Thus history is the combined result of what God and his creatures decide to do."[10]

Is human history a giant gamble on God's part? If the weakest human can wrestle control away from God what might we expect from a creature as powerful as Satan? Can we be assured, if the open scenario is accepted, that God has not wagered the destiny of the universe at the roulette wheel of free will? Certainly, God has promised that all will eventually conform to His plan, but if He cannot either know or control tomorrow how can we be confident He can defeat the devil and deliver eternal paradise? The open God lacks the magnificent attributes of omniscience, omnipotence, sovereignty, immutability and eternality. Can this kind of God be trusted? I believe the answer is obvious.

Conclusion

The supporters of open theism have posited it as a paradigm that offers a real relationship between God and His people. Rather than an all-knowing and all-powerful sovereign God, we are presented with a God of give-and-take. Since this God does not know or control the future, the future is open to both Him and us. The Lord really does not know what will happen until it happens - He is experiencing life in the present along with His creation. As a matter of fact, He, like us, is enduring pain and heartache, frustration and disappointment, in a similar manner as ourselves. The open God can drop the ball too. He can make mistakes, after all He is only human (oops!) divine. But we can be assured He is doing His best and would not lead us astray or into an ambush if He had more information. On the positive side, the open God loves to respond to our prayers and is often influenced by them to the extent of changing His own plans to accommodate ours - even though in His wisdom He knows that our plans may be foolish. And you can't pin evil and tragedy on this God because He is as helpless in the face of catastrophe as we are. God may be weak but at least we can rest assured that He is a God of love. We may not be able to trust Him but at least He cares.

These are some of the issues being served on the table of open theism. It might be asked, however, what has motivated these theologians to trade the classical view of God for this insipid version. Ware's opinion is worth pondering, "The culture in which we live, including much of the Christian subculture, has drunk deeply at the well of self-esteem. Where the Bible enjoins unfettered but deeply humble 'God-esteem,' we have been conditioned to think that we should have some of that esteem for ourselves. So, when a theology comes along that says, 'God often doesn't make up his mind what to do until he hears first from you,' or God and you together chart out your course for the future as both of you learn together what unfolds,' or, 'Sometimes God makes mistakes but we need to realize that he was doing his best,' such a view plays well with many in our culture. We feel like we are almost peers with God."[11]

Perhaps the Psalmist put his finger on the real problem of open theology when, in another context, he penned God's accusation upon a wayward people by saying, You thought I was just like you (Psalm 50:21). This is openism's problem; their God is too human.

 


[1] Clark Pinnock, "Systematic Theology," in The Openness of God, ed. Clark H. Pinnock (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1994), p. 120.

[2] Richard Rice, "Biblical Support for a New Perspective," in The Openness of God, ed. Clark H. Pinnock (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1994), p.26.

[3] Ibid., p. 38.

[4] Ibid., pp. 37-38.

[5] Ibid., p. 15.

[6] Gregory A. Boyd, God of the Possible ( Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2000), p. 97.

[7] John Sanders, "Historical Considerations," in The Openness of God, ed. Clark H. Pinnock ( Downers Grove, IL:

InterVarsity Press, 1994), p. 97.

[8] Boyd, p. 96.

[9] Bruce A. Ware, God's Lesser Glory ( Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2000), p. 51.

[10] Sanders, pp. 15-16.

[11] Ware, p. 148 (emphasis in the original)