Review: The case for ‘open theism’

19 January 2018

Many Christians today, it seems, are uncomfortable with the traditional view of God as all-controlling, and are exploring alternatives that claim a biblical foundation. The view commonly known as ‘the open view’ of God is filling the gap for many, and this book sets it out. It is:

The Openness Of God: A Biblical Challenge To The Traditional Understanding Of God by Clark H. Pinnock et al (Paternoster, 1994).   

Openness of God #1852It’s a powerful case for the ‘openness’ position. That position holds that God has sovereignly chosen to limit himself in relation to us, his creatures, granting us freedom of choice, and opting to not normally interfere with natural processes or human decisions. At the same time, he is steering things in the background towards the fulfilment of his ultimate purpose of an earth where his will is done ‘as in heaven’. In doing so, he constantly adjusts to human choices and sometimes changes his mind.

The five contributors handle different aspects. Richard Rice establishes the view’s biblical foundations. John Sanders looks at historical factors that shaped the traditional view, especially the harmful effect of Greek philosophy. Clark Pinnock shows how the Open View dovetails with the usual categories of systematic theology. William Hasker considers it from a Christian philosophical angle. And David Basinger looks at its practical effects on key aspects of Christian living: prayer, knowing God’s will, how we account for evil, approach social problems and fulfil our evangelistic responsibilities.

I personally embraced this position some years ago, and recommend this book as a fine introduction to it. It could change your life radically!

[Here are some quotations. The numbers are not page numbers but Kindle location numbers]

People who believe that God cannot change his mind sometimes pray in ways that would require God to do exactly that.  (32)

The Scriptures contain such vast and varied material that it is not difficult to surround an idea with biblical quotations. The crucial question is whether the idea is faithful to the overall biblical portrait of God—the picture that emerges from the full range of biblical evidence.  (109)

The view of God and his relation to the world presented in this book…expresses two basic convictions: love is the most important quality we attribute to God, and love is more than care and commitment; it involves being sensitive and responsive as well.  (114)

Two streams of biblical evidence support an interactive view of God’s relation to the world. One consists of statements that affirm in one way or another that God is responsive to what happens in the creaturely world, that what happens there affects God somehow—by evoking a certain emotion, a change in attitude, a change in plans. The other consists of statements that indicate creaturely freedom in one way or another. These include various divine warnings and promises and calls to repentance, as well as fairly straightforward assertions that presuppose creaturely alternatives.  (147)

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.  (256)

Some construe these denials [Num 23:19 and 1 Sam 15:29] that God will change his mind as general assertions of divine immutability, but this is not the case. For one thing, the word repent in both instances is used synonymously with the word lie. The point is not that God never changes, but that God never says one thing while fully intending to do something else. Only in this limited sense of the word does God not “repent.”  (340)

To summarize, at times God simply does things, acting on his own initiative and relying solely on his own power. Sometimes he accomplishes things through the cooperation of human agents, sometimes he overcomes creaturely opposition to accomplish things, sometimes he providentially uses opposition to accomplish something, and sometimes his intentions to do something are thwarted by human opposition.  (405)

The cross was God’s action. He was working in Christ to accomplish our reconciliation. Appreciating this fact, many Christian scholars now perceive the suffering of Calvary not as something Jesus offers to God on human behalf, still less as something God inflicts on Jesus (instead of on other human beings), but as the activity of God himself.  (500)

While proponents of divine openness emphasize the biblical evidence that God is affected by what happens in the world (suffers) and that he changes his mind (repents), they fully accept the biblical affirmations of divine changelessness. They apply the “changeless” statements to God’s existence and character, to his love and reliability. They apply the “changing” statements to God’s actions and experience.  (536)

The view of God worked out in the early church, the “biblical-classical synthesis,” has become so commonplace that even today most conservative theologians simply assume that it is the correct scriptural concept of God and thus that any other alleged biblical understanding of God (such as the one we are proposing) must be rejected.  (675)

Arguing from what is “fitting” for God to be (theoprepes), significant aspects of the biblical revelation (such as suffering and temporality) were revised to fit this understanding. Though they had good intentions in applying the ideas of immutability and impassibility, they used them in an absolute sense and so distorted the faithfulness and love of the biblical God. In the end the true understanding of the divine nature was derived from metaphysics and the biblical revelation was made to conform to it.  (925)

Calvin followed his feudal culture in interpreting divine kingship as domination and control so that “nothing happens except what is knowingly and willingly decreed by him.”  (1053)

In Christian theology we are not dealing with just any old concept of God, but with the surprising God and Father of our Lord Jesus. This is a God who does not remain at a safe distance, worrying about his own honor, but one who bares his holy arm and rescues humankind through sharing their distress and affliction. We are not dealing with an unapproachable deity but with God who has a human face and who is not indifferent to us but is deeply involved with us in our need.  (1193)

Though no power can stand against him, God wills the existence of creatures with the power of self-determination. This means that God is a superior power who does not cling to his right to dominate and control but who voluntarily gives creatures room to flourish.  (1342)

In an attempt to preserve the notion of God’s power as total control, some advocate what they call biblical compatibilism, the idea that one can uphold genuine freedom and divine determinism at the same time. This is sleight of hand and does not work.  (1362)

To say that God hates sin while secretly willing it, to say that God warns us not to fall away though it is impossible, to say that God loves the world while excluding most people from an opportunity of salvation, to say that God warmly invites sinners to come knowing all the while that they cannot possibly do so—such things do not deserve to be called mysteries when that is just a euphemism for nonsense.  (1366)

Past, present and future are real to God. This underlies the biblical claim that God is an agent who works in history, who makes plans and carries them out, who remembers the past and gives promises about the future.  (1442)

Total foreknowledge would jeopardize the genuineness of the divine-human relationship. What kind of dialogue is it where one party already knows what the other will say and do? I would not call this a personal relationship.  (1458)

Calvinism is distinctly unappealing as an account of our personal relationship with God.  (1724)

Since we believe that God greatly respects our freedom of choice, all of us find it quite reasonable to assume that God will at times refrain from doing all that he would like to do for us until we personally request such assistance.  (1958)

Since we do not believe that God has exhaustive knowledge of the future, it makes no sense for us to think in terms of some perfect, preordained plan for our lives and, hence, to worry about whether we are still within it. Accordingly, we need never feel—no matter what has happened in the past—that we must now settle for “second best”.  (1996)

We, unlike proponents of specific sovereignty, need not assume that some divine purpose exists for each evil that we encounter. We need not, for example, assume when someone dies that God “took him home” for some reason, or that the horrors many experience in this world in some mysterious way fit into God’s perfect plan.  (2068)

In his theodicy Calvin uses circular reasoning and equivocation, resorts to name-calling and, when he gives up on rational argument, appeals to mystery.  (2324)

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Review: Love trumps sovereignty

12 January 2018

Open theism has made a big impact among Evangelicals in recent years, giving a third option alongside the Calvinist and Arminian views of divine providence, and their versions of theodicy. This book is firmly in this third category. It is:

The Uncontrolling Love of God: An open and relational account of providence by Thomas Jay Oord (IVP Academic, 2015).

tuloglargeIt deals with the age-old question of why, if God is all-powerful, does he not prevent the appalling evil that scars our world. Most of the traditional answers are anything but convincing, appealing in the end to ‘mystery’. Oord contends that God, in fact, cannot unilaterally prevent purposeless, gratuitous evil, just as he cannot lie, deny himself or make a square circle.

He grounds this conviction on what he calls ‘essential kenosis’. We normally associate the term ‘kenosis’ with Philippians 2:7, which says that Jesus, in his incarnation, ‘emptied himself’ or ‘made himself nothing’. But because Jesus is the complete revelation of what God is like, Oord contends, God’s essential nature is eternally kenotic. By that he means that God’s love, not his sovereignty, is his defining feature, and love, by definition, does not control. God thus leaves the beloved space to respond willingly to his love and, inevitably, risks being spurned.

God can, of course, work within the created order to influence, call or persuade, but he cannot control, and therefore cannot stop humans killing, raping etc. Nor can he alter the random natural processes that produce suffering and pain, like earthquakes, genetic mutations etc. If he were to interfere, it would be a revoking of the gifts he has given and by which the world operates.

While this approach lets God off the hook for the evil in the world, it perhaps leaves some unanswered questions. How, for example, is God ever going to fulfil his ultimate purpose to make all things new in Christ if he is permanently limited by the shortcomings of his much-loved creation? And while Oord believes in miracles, his explanation of how they fit into the ‘essential kenosis’ scenario is not altogether convincing, in my opinion.

But that doesn’t mean that his book isn’t worth bothering with. It has some fine insights and some interesting angles on particular scripture passages. Well worth a read!

[Here are some quotations]

My overall goal is to make sense of randomness and evil in light of my conviction that a loving and powerful God exists and acts providentially.  (p10)

If we should not blame God when things go badly, should we praise God when things go well?  (p23)

Many Christians have ignored biblical passages that speak of chance. Like Rick Warren, they have believed that accidents are just incidents in God’s predetermined story. For them, randomness and chance are ultimately unreal.  (p30)

Life is an open-ended adventure, not an already settled script.  (p38)

Any design we encounter—and we encounter design often—comes from randomness, regularity and other forces, including God. Because of this, arguments pitting evolutionary randomness against design and organization are usually misguided.  (p43)

Absolute randomness is a myth. But absolute determinism is too…  Chance and lawlike regularity characterize our world. If chance reigned absolutely, chaos would ensue. If law reigned absolutely, order would eliminate creativity. Both randomness and regularity persist in the universe.  (p50)

Libertarian free will supporters are incompatiblists because they believe we cannot be simultaneously free and entirely determined by other forces. In other words, free will and complete determinism are incompatible.  (p59)

Being morally responsible is impossible if free will is an illusion.  (p60)

Most often, believers who wrestle with the problem of evil say God loves perfectly and can control others entirely. Because these believers cannot reconcile their beliefs with the genuine evil they experience, they appeal to mystery…   Those who appeal to mystery still usually say we should oppose genuine evil. “God calls us to work to make the world a better place,” they may claim. But it is hard to be motivated to oppose that which an omnipotent God allowed.  (p64)

If we look for it, we will notice goodness all around. Virtue is far more common than we may realize.  (p70)

I can think of numerous evil events a voluntarily self-limited God should have prevented by momentarily becoming un-self-limited. Victims of horrific evils likely have their list of events too. Saying God allowed or permitted but did not will evil offers little comfort. A perfectly loving God should and would prevent genuine evil if it were possible.  (p92)

The model of God as voluntarily self-limited thinks self-limitation is a free divine choice. It begins with the idea that God essentially has the capacity to control others entirely, and God could choose not to self-limit. But God freely chose at creation or, usually, chooses in history thereafter not to exercise the capacity to control others entirely. The model of providence as essentially kenotic, by contrast, portrays God’s self-limitation as involuntary. God’s nature of love logically precedes God’s sovereign will. This means that God’s self-limiting kenosis derives primarily from God’s eternal and unchanging nature of love and not from voluntary divine decisions. Because God’s nature is love, God always gives freedom, agency and self-organization to creatures, and God sustains the regularities of nature.  (p95)

Forty or more Old Testament passages say God has a change of mind, which suggests God does not foreknow the future in its entirety.  (p110)

By the end of the twentieth century, it seemed the majority of Christian scholars rejected the classical view of impassibility. Most believed God to be relational because God affects others and others affect God.  (p125)

The alternative to a risk-taking God model is some form of theological determinism. Outcomes are guaranteed only if God controls others. Robots can be trusted to comply, but free creatures may hinder divine plans.  (p135)

Sanders’s position seems to imply that voluntarily giving freedom to others is always the most loving thing God can do. But is this true? Is giving freedom when it could be restrained always an act of love?  (p142)

If love comes first and love does not force others to comply, it makes little sense to say “God is free to sovereignly decide not to determine everything.” If love comes first, God cannot exercise meticulous providence or determine everything.  (p147)

I follow the contemporary trend of interpreting kenosis primarily as Jesus’ qualified power, other-orientation and servant love. This interpretation seems more fruitful overall than discussions about what might be communicated between Christ’s two natures, although I think such discussions have their place.  (p156)

Although no translation is perfect, the most helpful rendering of kenōsis may be “self-giving”…   Kenōsis translated as “self-giving, others-empowering love” corresponds well with passages found throughout Scripture.  (p159)

Essential kenosis says God’s self-giving, others-empowering nature of love necessarily provides freedom, agency, self-organization and lawlike regularity to creation. Because love is the preeminent and necessary attribute in God’s nature, God cannot withdraw, override or fail to provide the freedom, agency, self-organizing and lawlike regularity God gives. Divine love limits divine power.  (p169)

Realizing that God cannot unilaterally prevent suffering caused by simple entities helps us make sense of suffering caused by natural malfunctions or disasters. This means, for instance, we should not accuse God of causing or allowing birth defects, cancer, infections, disease, hurricanes, earthquakes, tsunamis, or other illnesses and catastrophes. The degradation brought by such calamities does not represent God’s will. Instead, we can blame simple structures, various natural processes of the world, small organisms or creation gone awry.  (p172)

As an omnipresent spirit with no localized divine body, God cannot exert divine bodily influence as a localized corpus. This means God cannot use a divine body to step between two parties engaged in a fight, for instance.  (p178)

Although Jesus can be angry or even exert strong force on occasion (e.g., clearing the temple), Jesus never acted coercively in the sense of controlling others entirely. The a posteriori evidence of the life of Jesus, whom Christians believe reveals God better than any other person, suggests that God does not coerce.  (p184)

God is almighty in at least three senses. God is . . . mightier than all others. the only One who exerts might upon all that exists. the ultimate source of might for all others…   God’s almighty power in these three senses does not involve coercion. God can be the mightiest without controlling others. God can exert power upon all creation without unilaterally determining any. God can be the ultimate source of power—empowering and enabling others—without dominating any creature or situation entirely. Almighty is not coercive.  (p189)

If God can enact miracles to do good or prevent evil, why doesn’t God enact miracles more often?…   it’s natural to wonder why an alleged consistently loving God enacts miracles so inconsistently.  (p192)

Instead of thinking miracles are entirely in the mind of the observer, I think they are objective events in the world. Instead of defining miracles as violations of natural laws or divine interventions, I think God is already present to and active in all creation. Instead of believing miracles require supernatural control, I believe miracles occur by means of God’s uncontrolling love in relation to the universe and its creatures.  (p196)

We have no evidence on which to argue that God ever acts miraculously in a vacuum. Essential kenosis presumes that creaturely causation of some kind is present in all miracles, even when biblical narratives do not identify the creaturely causes.  (p207)

In this miraculous activity, God’s steadfast love does not supersede the lawlike regularities of nature, and God does not control. But God coordinates creaturely elements in ways that bring about unexpected and good results. This coordination is possible because of God’s omnipresence and complete knowledge of what has occurred and is occurring.  (p209)

Essential kenosis removes the “selective miracles” reason for rejecting special divine action. God never has and never can control others entirely when acting miraculously. God does not selectively coerce to enact miracles for some people but not for others because control-based selectivity is not possible for the God whose nature is kenotic love.  (p213)

Even when we consciously say yes in faith to the divine desire for our well-being, our bodies may not cooperate with God’s healing plans.  (p213)

Essential kenosis offers an adventure model of reality. This model may strike some as a precarious paradigm of providence. Adventures aren’t safe, after all, because they have general goals, not predetermined designs. Adventures involve calculated risks, free decisions and sometimes random occurrences. Love is an adventure without guaranteed results.  (p220)