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Fisher Humphreys

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"Trends in Theology Today" Topics:
  Open Theism, Calvinism, Fundamentalism, Forgiveness

by Fisher Humphreys



      Open theism is a Christian understanding of God that differs from classical Christian theism on the subject of God’s attributes. Open theists reject some of the attributes of God that classical theists assign to God and revise the understanding of some of the other divine attributes.

      Most open theists are American evangelicals who are conservative in many matters such as, for example, the inerrancy of Scripture. Some theologians who are not American evangelicals hold similar ideas, among them Jürgen Moltmann and John Polkinghorne. We will give our attention to American evangelical theologians who speak explicitly of the openness of God and of open theism.

      Open theism began to be widely discussed in 1994 with the publication by Inter-Varsity Press of The Openness of God, a readable and authoritative volume by five men. Richard Rice, an Adventist, presented a biblical case for open theism. John Sanders, who was then teaching at Huntington College which is associated with the United Church of the Brethren, presented a historical case. Clark Pinnock, who last year retired from McMaster Divinity School in Canada and was formerly a Southern Baptist, presented a theological case. William Hasker, who has retired from the Huntington faculty, presented a philosophical case. David Basinger, who teaches at a Wesleyan college in New York, described the pastoral and practical implications of open theism.

      Even though the number of theologians who have publicly committed themselves to open theism is not large, the topic has been vigorously discussed in evangelical circles. In Christianity Today, for example, in addition to reviews of books by open theists and their opponents, there have been at least three extended discussions of this understanding of God.

      Open theism created a controversy in the Baptist General Conference, a denomination with Swedish origins and with about 850 congregations. One of the most articulate open theists is Gregory A. Boyd, who is pastor of a BGC mega-church in St. Paul who for sixteen years served also as a professor at the denominational college, Bethel College; one of the most articulate opponents of open theism is John Piper, who is pastor of another BGC mega-church in neighboring Minneapolis.

      Open theism has been vigorously debated also in the Evangelical Theological Society. In 2001 the ETS voted 70% to 18% to affirm classical theism against open theism. In 2002 co-founder of the ETS Roger Nicole called for the expulsion of two open theists, Pinnock and Sanders. That same year a group of theologians issued a statement called The Word Made Fresh. Along with many others, I have endorsed this document, which is a plea for evangelicals “not to reject out of hand constructive theological proposals that are reverently rooted in biblical reflection.” While I am not fully persuaded that open theism is correct, I think it is a proposal that deserves to be taken seriously, and I hope that in our churches and schools it will receive a respectful hearing.

      In 2003 Pinnock and Sanders were examined by a nine-member committee of the ETS, and at the annual meeting the ETS voted overwhelmingly to keep Pinnock as a member and by a thin margin to keep Sanders. In 2004 Sanders was dismissed from his teaching position at Huntington College.

      In 1999 the Southern Baptist Convention adopted a resolution opposing open theism. In 2000 the revised edition of the Baptist Faith and Message added to the article a sentence about God rejecting open theism (the new sentence is underlined):

There is one and only one living and true God. He is an intelligent, spiritual, and personal Being, the Creator, Redeemer, Preserver, and Ruler of the universe. God is infinite in holiness and all other perfections. God is all powerful and all knowing; and His perfect knowledge extends to all things, past, present, and future, including the future decisions of His free creatures. To Him we owe the highest love, reverence, and obedience. The eternal triune God reveals Himself to us as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, with distinct personal attributes, but without division of nature, essence, or being.

Open Theism and the Attributes of God

      In classical theism one attribute of God is timelessness. For God the past, present, and future are all present; of course, God is aware that human beings experience time sequentially, but God does not. As a novelist transcends the time about which she writes in her novel, so God, it is said, transcends the time which is occurring in our world. For some classical theists it is God’s timelessness that makes it possible for God to know the future without determining the future.

      Open theists argue that the Bible does not teach that God is timeless; they also argue that the Bible teaches that God is very much involved in time and history. At least one believer in the timelessness of God has admitted this; in Mere Christianity C. S. Lewis wrote: “This idea [of God’s timelessness] has helped me a good deal. If it does not help you, leave it alone. . . . It is not in the Bible or any of the creeds” (149). It seems to me that he is right, and this has implications for divine knowledge.

      A second divine attribute traditionally affirmed of God is impassibility, which means that God cannot experience suffering. As the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England puts it, God is “without body, parts, or passions.” Open theists argue that the Bible nowhere says that God is passionless and that, moreover, the Bible frequently pictures God as experiencing emotions, including suffering. I think that the open theists are correct about this also. At least three contemporary Baptist theologians have argued persuasively that God experiences suffering; they are Paul Fiddes of Regents Park College at Oxford, Warren McWilliams of Oklahoma Baptist University, and Frank Tupper of the divinity school at Wake Forest University. Also, the Baptist Old Testament scholar Samuel Balentine at Union Theological Seminary at Richmond has made a similar case. Nancey Murphy, a philosopher of science at Fuller Theological Seminary, holds similar views. None of these persons is part of the open theism movement.

      A third divine attribute that classical theists affirm of God is immutability, which means that God cannot experience change. Open theists argue that the Bible teaches that God is faithful rather than changeless. In fact, they say, the Bible teaches that God does change in the sense that God is responsive to the responses that human beings make to God’s initiatives.

      Open theists say that these three alleged attributes of God appear in the Christian tradition not because the Bible teaches them but because theologians in the patristic era imported them into Christianity from Hellenistic philosophy. Classical theism, they argue, is a hybrid created by uniting elements from Scripture with elements from philosophy. Pinnock writes, “The classical doctrine of God has a double origin, in the Bible and in Greek thinking. . . . [it] needs to be Christianized” (Most Moved Mover, 68, 74). Open theists do not claim that in principle it is always wrong to adopt philosophical ideas, but they do say that these three particular attributes of God are unbiblical.

      Open theists are right: Plato and Aristotle taught that God is immutable. Plato argued that God could not change because change must be either for better or for worse; if God changed for better, then God began as less than perfect, and if God changed for worse, then God became less than perfect. And one of Aristotle’s titles for God was “The Unmoved Mover,” the one who, while remaining unmoved, moves the universe by being the object of its desire. Clark Pinnock signaled his rejection of this understanding of God by entitling his most recent book Most Moved Mover.

      Open theists have called for a revision, though not a rejection, of two other attributes of God. One is sovereignty. Open theists affirm that God is sovereign, but they deny that sovereignty means that God controls (decrees, wills, ordains, determines) everything that happens. They reject the kind of theological determinism associated with Augustinianism in the Catholic Church and with Calvinism in Protestant churches. They affirm that the sovereign God has sovereignly decided to create a universe of free human beings with whom God desires to enter into the kind of relationships of love that are possible only with free persons.

      The usual alternative to Calvinism is Arminianism. Like Arminians, open theists affirm free will theism. By freedom, both Arminians and open theists mean libertarian freedom, freedom that is not controlled by God, rather than compatibilist freedom, freedom that is somehow mysteriously compatible with God’s having already decided the choices human beings will make. As Pinnock puts it, “History is not scripted and freedom is not illusory” (36).

      However, open theists believe that classical Arminianism was not entirely consistent, and they move beyond it in their understanding of a fifth divine attribute, namely, omniscience. Open theists affirm that God knows everything there is to be known, which is the classical view. But then they add an unclassical idea, namely, that some things that do not yet exist are not available to be known, even by God. More precisely, future free decisions of human beings do not yet exist, and therefore God does not know them. God will know them when they are made, and will understand them better than those who made them, and will deal resourcefully with them, but until they are made, God knows them only as possibilities, not as actualities.

      Open theists appeal to the Bible for support for their untraditional understanding of divine omniscience and a future that is partially open as well as partially determined. For example, on the web at <www.gregboyd.org/gbfront/index.asp?PageID=507>, Gregory Boyd lists six things from the Bible that support his view that God’s foreknowledge is not exhaustive; he thinks that they are all either ignored or interpreted away in classical theism. First, the Bible says God changes his mind: “And the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people” (Ex. 32:14). God is willing to change if human responses change, and that is a sign of God’s greatness: “Rend your hearts and not your clothing. Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing. Who knows whether he will not turn and relent, and leave a blessing behind him?” (Joel 2:13-14). Isn’t it natural to assume, Boyd asks, that the author of this passage thought that God does not know whether the people will return to the Lord or not? Second, God regrets doing things such as sending the flood (Gen. 6:5-6) and making Saul king (1 Sam. 15:11, 35). Could this be true, Boyd asks, if God had known what would happen when God sent the flood and when God made Saul king? Third, God is surprised at how things turn out: Of Israel it is said that the Lord “expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry!” (Isa. 5:3-7). Fourth, God did not know that human beings would behave as they did; “They go on building the high place of Topheth . . . which I did not command, nor did it come into my mind,” says the Lord (Jer. 7:31; see also 19:5, 32:35). Boyd argues that open theists take more seriously than classical theists the Lord’s words, “Nor did it come into my mind.” Fifth, God tests the covenant people to find out whether they will be faithful under pressure, so that, for example, the Lord said to Abraham, “Now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me” (Gen. 22:12). Sixth and finally, God asks non-rhetorical questions about the future: “The Lord said to Moses, ‘How long will this people despise me? And how long will they refuse to believe in me?” (Num. 14:11). Boyd says that the natural interpretation of passages such as this is that the future is partially open rather than settled, and that God knows it as open. In fact, Boyd writes, “This is the ‘open view’ of God,’ or, as I prefer, the ‘open view of the future’” (God of the Possible, 15).

      It is the proposal about omniscience that sets open theism apart from Arminianism, and it is omniscience that is at the center of the controversy today.

      Taken together, these revisions constitute a major proposal about God. Some of the components of open theism have antecedents in the church fathers who, unlike Augustine, did not affirm theological determinism; Richard Swinburne has said that theologians who hold to libertarian freedom include all Eastern Orthodox theologians and most Roman Catholic theologians after Duns Scotus, and that the Council of Trent in the sixteenth century affirmed libertarian freedom (quoted in Pinnock, Most Moved Mover, 92). Open theism has antecedents in Arminianism, in the theology of John Wesley, in holiness and Pentecostal churches, and in individual writers such as Emil Brunner, C. S. Lewis, and Leonard Hodgson. Nevertheless, taken as a package, open theism is a new proposal about God, a fact that its authors acknowledge, and they argue that Protestants of all people should understand that sometimes the church’s tradition needs to be reformed.


      One way to begin to take the measure of open theism is to see it as a middle position that lies between classical theism on one hand and a finite god on the other.

      We have seen how open theism differs from classical theism. At the opposite extreme from classical theism are theologies that speak of god as finite. An example of this from an earlier era is Boston personalism. Another is process theology, a contemporary view. A popular version was presented by Rabbi Harold Kushner in When Bad Things Happen to Good People. A finite god is neither omnipotent nor omniscient but lacks the power and knowledge needed to prevent the evil that occurs in our world. This god has not created the world out of nothing but has more or less shaped it into its present form. This god needs the world in order to be fulfilled.

      Open theists reject these ideas about God. They deny that God is finite, but they do think that creation “involved a self-limitation on God’s part and an act of self-sacrifice” (Pinnock, 56). “God changed when he became the creator of the world” (86). Open theists affirm that God is omnipotent and omniscient. They say that God created the world out of nothing and that God did this, not to meet God’s needs, but out of love for the creatures. “God did not need to create in order to love. He chose to create in order to share love” (28). Open theists are serious in their rejection of a finite god; some of them have written entire books opposing the concept.

      So open theism lies in the space between classical theism and a finite god. Here is a winsome description of open theism from The Openness of God:

Two models of God . . . are the most influential that people commonly carry around in their minds. We may think of God primarily as 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. Or we may 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 happen, relates to us and interacts dynamically with humans. These correspond to the differences . . . between the God of Greek philosophy and the God of the Bible. God is sovereign in both models, but the mode of his sovereignty differs. . . .

Our understanding of the Scriptures leads us to depict God, the sovereign Creator, as voluntarily bringing into existence a world with significantly free personal agents in it, agents who can respond positively to God or reject his plans for them. In line with the decision to make this kind of world, God rules in such a way as to uphold the created structures and, because he gives liberty to his creatures, is happy to accept the future as open, not closed, and a relationship with the world that is dynamic, not static. We believe that the Bible presents an open view of God as living and active, involved in history, relating to us and changing in relation to us. We see the universe as a context in which there are real choices, alternatives and surprises. God’s openness means that God is open to the changing realities of history, that God cares about us and lets what we do impact him. Our lives make a difference to God–they are truly significant. God is delighted when we trust him and saddened when we rebel against him. God made us significant creatures and treats us as such. We are significant to God and the apple of his eye (103-04).

It is unclear whether open theism will continue to be debated, or prevail, or be forgotten.


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