Open Theism (2022)
NEW PATHS DESPISED
The word ‘new’ is a very popular word, especially in the USA. New products sell well because they are improved, more innovative, more helpful, and more to be desired. New technology continually moves humanity’s civilisations to previously unclimbed heights of togetherness. New scientific discoveries bring humanity ever closer to being a global village of peace. Surely, the future is bright, the future is new. Or is it?
When it comes to theology, new is not good news to a great many people. Those who defend the faith, or at least their version of the faith, often do not like what new thinking and fresh ideas can bring. That which is new is often seen as a threat to the established theological foundations that are ‘right’, and the new is therefore regarded as being an enemy. This has been especially true of what open theism has proposed. Many in the established ways of thinking saw open theism as a great threat that had to be eradicated. But why?
If open theism (or any other way of thinking) could possibly have any merit or benefit for theological thought and discussion, then surely we all owe it to ourselves to consider its merits? If it is untruth, then it will certainly pass out of favour as quickly as it arrived. As Pinnock sensibly said of theologians, they “should not condemn open theism, but consider Gamaliel’s advice in Acts – if open theism was not of God, it would come to nothing.”
Yet, in his own response to open theism, Nicole said, “Open theism is a cancer on the Evangelical Theological Society. That cancer has not been resolved by chemotherapy or radiation. The only remaining option is surgery.” This kind of response demonstrates a legalistic closedness that is dangerous and divisive, and that does far more damage than any newly proposed theology will ever do. Is that really the best way to respond to new ideas and fresh thinking? Is that really a Christian response to other Christians?
As Pinnock had stated, “The truth claims that we make are all open to discussion and we ought to be teachable and ready to learn because none of our work rises to the level of timeless truth.” Amen to that. What the open theologians have declared is not a set-in-concrete finished and polished theology, but an exploration of a new and different way of looking at theology and therefore a new and different way of looking at YHWH.
Pinnock explained that “The open view is a research program, not a settled model clearly defined in every way.” Yet, other so-called theologians were treating it as if it were a finished and highly polished theological model. They were also treating the ideas and concepts of open theology as if they had almost emerged from hell itself. It certainly seemed that they treated the open theism thinkers themselves like that, too, if the vitriol spewing from them was anything to go by.
Open theology was only put forward as a basis for discussion, but other so-called theologians have not sought to fairly discuss and evaluate it, but have only sought to shoot it down in flames. They have treated those who wrote about open theology as if they were virtually emissaries of Satan himself. They launched astonishing attacks upon their fellow Christians and – frankly – they made me ashamed to be Christian if being Christian meant being connected with them.
Yet, those who argued so vehemently against open theology did so from within their own theological framework, and they obviously regard any other way of thinking as almost satanic and therefore to be violently opposed. In other words, they were saying that they and they alone were right and their own theological position proved it. Yet, if open theology is the new and radical theology that its opponents have declared it to be, how can its validity be tested wholly within the framework of existing opposing or different theologies?
One of the greatness weaknesses and vulnerabilities of those who oppose open theism is their total unwillingness to fairly and objectively consider what has been proposed. This is not the way of the scholar, but rather it is the way of the bigot. As Lloyd-Jones declared, “The bigot thinks he is contending for the faith but he is not. He is a man who lacks balance, who lacks discipline, who does not know how to control his own spirit.”
YHWH does not need defenders of the faith, for they do him no favours at all. YHWH is perfectly capable of looking after himself. Lloyd-Jones again: “We are not here to defend Him but to praise Him and to show that we have a knowledge of Him and not merely a knowledge about Him.”
As Strange has said, “This debate has a long way to go and evangelicals are just beginning to tackle it.” Please, evangelicals, by all means tackle the debate, but do not attack those who propose new thinking. Engage with their thinking, and stop thinking that open theism thinkers are enemies to be destroyed.
Let us then now turn to consider the foundations of those who so vehemently defended their own ideas of classical theology, and see what light it may have to shed on this matter for us.
FAITH AND PHILOSOPHY
YHWH’s sovereignty, and his necessary detachedness from our world since he is in a timeless eternity, form the traditional view of God that has held sway for hundreds of years, and is popular still today. In this respect, a charge that open theists lay at the door of classical theists is that their theology is not truly based upon the Scriptures, but upon philosophy.
For example, Boyd declared that “classical theology cannot accept [open theism] because of philosophical preconceptions of what God must be like”, and so he declared that those who read open theism should do so “without reading into the material a philosophical conception of what God must be like”. A fair point, but hard to do?
Boyd and others pointed out that concepts of God such as impassibility, omniscience, omnipotence, and immutability, owe far more to Greek philosophy than they do the Scriptures. Every Christian owes it to themself to constantly examine and re-examine the foundations upon which their faith is built, in order to ensure that their faith is truly based in God, and that it is truly of God.
For example, the classical view that God is omniscient (all-knowing) is one that is puzzling. Did the Logos really learn nothing by emptying himself and becoming a human being? What of Jesus the God-man, and the suffering that he endured. Did God really learn nothing through that suffering? Was that experience a mere formality?
What astonished Pinnock was that “evangelicals, who make much out of their supposed faithfulness to the Bible, can so uncritically swallow the pagan legacy of the absolute immutability of God”. Lloyd-Jones put it starkly when he said that “Philosophy is the greatest enemy of Christian truth”. How long, then, has the tail of philosophy been wagging the dog of theology?
As Cymbala had observed, “The philosophies of men fail, but the Word of God in the demonstration of the Spirit prevails.” Let us then look at the Scriptures and consider what they reveal to us about God and suffering. Do the Scriptures back up the theology of open theists? Does, or did, God suffer?
THE SUFFERING GOD
Pinnock declared that “In the gospel we encounter a God who loves and takes risks, who becomes vulnerable even to the point of suffering, and reveals himself in a man of sorrows who was acquainted with grief.” Billheimer called God the “supreme sufferer in the universe” and declared that “Suffering is an essential ingredient of agape love and therefore of a moral universe.”
Moltmann observed that, according to Greek philosophy, “the divine substance is incapable of suffering; otherwise it would not be divine”; yet he pointed out that “God and suffering belong together, just as in this life the cry for God and the suffering experienced in pain belong together.” CS Lewis summed it up in this way: “Try to exclude the possibility of suffering which the order of nature and the existence of free wills involve, and you will find that you have excluded life itself.”
In attacking open theology, Ware referred at length to the question of suffering, and of the God who could have prevented human suffering but did not; in all this Ware was saying that suffering is to be avoided if at all possible. But it is difficult to read the Scriptures without coming to the conclusion that God did, and does, suffer, and that he suffered more than any of us.
It may just be that human suffering is inevitable and unavoidable because it is part of the nature of God himself, and it is our response to suffering that is crucial, not the avoidance of suffering. Such thinking may turn out to be invalid, but surely it is worth exploring it with integrity rather than just opposing it and violently opposing those who dare to think in that way?
In Genesis, the fall of Adam and Eve is followed by God’s question, “Adam, where are you?” Why did God call out, “Adam, where are you?” Did God really not know Adam’s physical whereabouts? Or could it be that the suffering God was verbally expressing the agony of the broken relationship with his own creation? The man who should have been by his side was hiding from his Creator. God knew the pain and suffering of a broken relationship for the first time.
Consider Jesus on the cross. He called out, “My God, my God; why have you abandoned me?” (The popular ‘forsaken’ translation is too weak.) The God-man knew the pain and suffering of a broken relationship with his Father in heaven for the first time. Is such an experience merely academic for God? Or did the crucifixion bring new experience, new knowledge, and new understanding, for the whole of God in three persons?
At what Lewis calls ‘The Great Divorce’, God’s heart will again know suffering as the relationship, or the possibility of relationship, with many of his created beings is severed finally and for ever. Whatever the truth of Hell, it isn’t my own first choice. But it isn’t God’s first choice either. This brings us to consider the problem of evil.
The problem of evil is exacerbated by the definition that we give to evil, and by the use of the word evil as a description. When a man with a knife attacked another man and severely wounded him, someone was heard to describe the stab wounds as ‘evil’. But the wounds are not evil. They are the natural and inevitable result of a sharp knife interacting with human flesh. Neither is the knife evil. It is merely a knife. But the intent and motive of the person who carried out the attack are certainly evil. This distinction is essential if we are to understand evil.
Any evil that may be carried out against me becomes my suffering. As Billheimer put it: “No-one ever becomes a saint without suffering because suffering, properly accepted, is the pathway to glory.” God makes the evil intent and motive of others into my suffering, and ultimately into my good, because he uses my suffering to mature and perfect my human experience. I would certainly run from evil, but I would not run from suffering.
The existence of evil and its ingrained nature in humanity is part of what Jesus died and rose again to deal with. But let us be clear about this one thing: Evil did not originate in a human being. Referring to the Garden of Eden, Ware calls it a ‘perfect environment’ in which there was no sin, but that is simply not true. No environment in which sin existed could be perfect.
There was certainly no sin in humanity until Adam sinned, but sin, in the shape of the serpent, was already there. There was sin in the garden. The Garden of Eden was not a perfect environment. The enemy of our souls who was and is the very source of sin was already there, and he was plotting the destruction of God’s people, and the bringing down of God’s kingdom. He is evil, as God is love. We must pray that evil be overcome. That brings us to the subject of prayer.
One of the strengths of open theism is the place that is given to prayer. “God wants input from creaturely agents and does not control everything that happens,” say Pinnock, but rather “God invites us to participate with him in loving dialogue, to bring the future into being.” This kind of partnership necessitates a high view of prayer as real, as meaningful, as relationship (not results) based, and as having an impact in changing people and thereby changing things.
But the strange thing is that those classical theists who believed that “The Bible clearly teaches that God has complete, accurate and infallible knowledge of all events past, present and future, including all future decisions and actions of free moral agents” nevertheless believed in precisely this kind of prayer!
This high view of prayer is taken by Billheimer, who declared that “God did not ordain prayer primarily as a way of getting things done, but to enable the church to learn the technique of overcoming; it is his way of giving her on-the-job training in overcoming the forces hostile to God.”
According to Billheimer then, prayer is therefore to be understood as not merely relating only to the here and now, but to the unending ages to come: “Here we are learning how to use the weapons of prayer and faith in overcoming and enforcing Christ’s victory so dearly bought. What foes will be left to overcome in the eternal ages we do not know. But the character acquired in overcoming here will evidently be needed when we have joined the Bridegroom on his throne.”
It is, of course, one thing to speak about prayer in a theoretical or theological way, but what really counts for me is what happens in my own experience of prayer, and it is to my experience that we now turn.
THE GOD OF MY EXPERIENCE
“Don’t we all, as biblical Christians, live as if the open view were true?” Pinnock’s very interesting question struck a deep chord with me, for, when I read in his books about the open God he had experienced, I was actually reading about the God that I also had experienced; he was writing about the God that I knew. Therefore, I could only agree wholeheartedly with Pinnock, when he declared that, “The open view describes our experience so admirably, whether or not we consent to it intellectually, that it commends itself to us on that basis.” Yes, it does indeed.
Which of us ever wanted an earthly father that was distant, remote, unmoved, and uninvolved with us? Neither do I want a God like that. Neither, I suspect, does anyone. I am grateful, therefore, that Pinnock declares that “God does not create a world in which to exercise total control but a world in which loving relations are possible, mutual and reciprocal relations, give and take relations. YHWH is not some remote and uncaring God. YHWH is open to my growing in relationship with all three persons of the Godhead.
To speak of such an open God, is to speak of the God I know. This, I suspect, is both the greatest strength of open theism and, at the same time, the greatest weakness of its opponents. God is, for me, God in practical daily living. God is the God of my everyday life, not a mere concept or image. If my life is real, I need a God that is more real than I am.
Bray declared that “It is hard to believe that in the late twentieth century a few radicals have arrived at a truth which has escaped generations of sincere researchers.” Actually, it is not hard at all. Do we really think that, at any given moment in history, we know all there is to know of God?
“The Author of the Bible is the best interpreter of the Bible. In fact, he is the only reliable interpreter.” So said Deere. And so, one must therefore ask, as Deere does, “Does God give illumination [only] to the ones who know Greek and Hebrew the best?” Is it really all about an academic understanding of God?
“What if the condition of one’s heart is more important for understanding the Bible than the abilities of one’s mind?” asked Deere very pointedly. Is this why some classical theists cannot begin to accept open theism? Is it all about opinion and not about experience for classical theists? Is God to be believed in academically but not experienced in our hearts and lives?
Open theism has many strengths, but its main weakness is that it is not a finished and polished theology, but rather it is the raw material of an ongoing and honest debate. However, that is actually not so much a weakness, as it is an honest willingness to learn more. It is a great pity that all theologians are not constantly willing to learn more by considering other concepts and ideas. It is their loss. Are we open to change?
‘Theologians Reject Open Theism After Heated Debate’, The Baptist Times, No 7896, November 29, 2001
Editors: Tony Gray & Christopher Sinkinson, Reconstructing Theology, (Carlisle, Paternoster Press, 2000)
Paul E Billheimer, Destined For The Throne, (London, Christian Literature Crusade, 1975)
Paul E Billheimer, Don’t Waste Your Sorrows, Pennsylvania, Christian Literature Crusade, 1977)
Gregory A Boyd, God of the Possible, (Grand Rapids, Baker Books, 2000)
Jim Cymbala, Fresh Power, (Grand Rapids, ZondervanPublishingHouse, 2001)
Jack Deere, Surprised By The Voice Of God, (Eastbourne, Kingsway Publications, 1996)
C S Lewis, Selected Books, [C S Lewis Omnibus] (London, HarperCollins, 1999)
Jurgen Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom of God, (London SCM Press, 1981)
Iain H Murray, D Martyn Lloyd-Jones – The Fight Of Faith, (Edinburgh, Banner Of Truth Trust, 1990)
Clark H Pinnock, Most Moved Mover, (Carlisle, Paternoster Press, 2001)
Bruce A Ware, God’s Lesser Glory, (Leicester, Apollos, 2000)