There is a medium-sized theological brouhaha stirring within the evangelical academy these days, and, unlike some of the other intra-evangelical debates of recent years, this one is about something really important: God. In 1994 five evangelical scholars, led by Canadian Baptist theologian Clark Pinnock, published The Openness of God: A Biblical Challenge to the Traditional Understanding of God. Since then, a plethora of essays and books have been published in support of “the open view of God,” and an equally impressive number in opposition. The debate has gone public at annual meetings of the Evangelical Theological Society, a learned guild of several thousand theologians, and this fall that body will consider the possible expulsion of two of the original openness thinkers.
I recently overheard the following conversation between two mainline Protestants: “What’s this open view of God all about?” asked one. “Oh,” replied the other, “that’s just the evangelicals playing at process theology.” Well, sort of. It is true that openness thinkers accept, with few qualifications, the process critique of the God of the Great Tradition. That God, they say, is too static, too controlling, too corrupted by the Greek metaphysical preoccupations of the early Church Fathers. They propose a God who is more dynamic, more responsive to His creatures, more open to give-and-take relationships with human beings who “participate with Him to bring the future into being.” Like A. N. Whitehead, Charles Hartshorne, Schubert Ogden, and John Cobb, openness evangelicals also believe that they can better account for the reality of suffering and evil in the world. Indeed, theodicy is the driving engine of the movement.
Still, openness thinkers are not pure process theologians. They agree with the classical tradition that God created the world ex nihilo. They also say that God is omni-resourceful and has exhaustive knowledge of all that has happened in the past and of everything that is going on now, including the motives and intentions of every human being. What God cannot know completely is the future, and this for two reasons. First, the future is not “there” to be known until it happens, not even for God; and second, if God could know the future acts of His creatures, that would destroy the libertarian free will with which He has endowed them and thus absolve them of all moral responsibility for their acts.
On their own grounds, though, it is hard to see how the seminiscient deity of open theism helps much with the problem of evil. If God has comprehensive knowledge of everything past and present, and if He has the capacity to intervene in the course of human affairs, then why doesn’t He come to the rescue as soon as He sees that things have gotten out of hand? Maybe He couldn’t know for sure back in 1933 that Hitler would freely decide to carry out the Holocaust, but when it was well underway a decade later, why didn’t He use His omnipotent resources to bring it to a halt? Did He “allow” it to go on just to preserve Hitler’s libertarian free will? Such a God has just as much to account for as the old-fashioned deity dismissed by the process model. Open theism grants God too much power to get Him off the theodicy hook, but not enough power to support a plausible doctrine of providence.
The openness debate has done one good thing for evangelicals: it has refocused our attention on the character and nature of God, a topic surely more substantive than the relative merit of praise choruses or church growth statistics. Moreover, openness thinkers are right to question certain forms of classical theism that have indeed played down the personal character of God and His interactivity with the world and history. The Nicene doctrine of the Holy Trinity was developed in part to counter the pagan notion of God as a transcendent monad devoid of communicability and love. No one can read Athanasius, Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, or Wesley with any care without realizing how committed they were to the compassionate, covenantal, dynamic God of the Bible, the God who “spared not His own Son but delivered him up for us all,” as St. Paul put it (Romans 8:32). But none of these great teachers of the Church deemed it necessary to deny divine foreknowledge of future contingents (as openness theologians do) in order to affirm the relationality and responsiveness of the one true God.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church has well summarized the “traditional” view of God’s omniscience, a view held by Calvinists and Arminians, Dominicans and Jesuits, Molinists and Jansenists alike, despite their differences on other matters:
By His providence God protects and governs all things which He has made, “reaching mightily from one end of the earth to the other, and ordering all things well.” “For all are open and laid bare to his eyes,” even those things which are yet to come into existence through the free action of His creatures.
C. S. Lewis put it more succinctly in Mere Christianity: “Everyone who believes in God at all believes that He knows what you and I are going to do tomorrow.” Openness theologians are not impressed by such pronouncements, for they believe sincerely that what they are proposing has biblical warrant. What about the passages that say God “repents” of decisions He has made, or changes His plans in response to human choices? The openness discussion has created a hermeneutical crisis for evangelicals. For so long we have read the Bible in exegetical isolation from the gathered wisdom of the fathers, the schoolmen, and the reformers that we have become vulnerable to all kinds of aberrant ideas with alleged biblical support. Shakespeare did not have evangelical wrangles in mind when he wrote, “In religion, what damnéd error but some sober brow will bless it and approve it with a text, hiding the grossness with fair ornament?” but his words are relevant to this discussion. The Arians, Pelagians, and Socinians were all sincere believers in (and heavy quoters of) the Bible, and they were all sincerely wrong about the most important matters of the faith.
This does not mean that traditional theological construals are always right. They are not. But it does mean that we should learn to read the Scriptures in company with the whole Church, knowing all the while that, as John Robinson said to the Pilgrims, “The Lord hath yet more truth and light to break forth out of His Holy Word.” In the sixteenth century, Luther and Calvin did not set forth the principles of the Reformation as findings they had discovered de novo. Instead, they argued against tradition from tradition, or better put, they argued from a shallower tradition to a profounder one. Thus, the recent ECT statement “Your Word is Truth” (FT, August/September 2002) makes a profoundly Protestant point, even if it is also a profoundly Catholic one: “The isolation of Scripture study from the believing community of faith disregards the Holy Spirit’s work in guiding the witness of the people of God to scriptural truths, and leaves the interpretation of that truth vulnerable to unfettered subjectivism. . . . Scripture itself is not understood in a vacuum apart from the historical existence and life of the community of faith.”
Openness theologians can claim biblical support for their dogma of a seminiscient deity only by a hermeneutic of selective literalism. For example, they interpret quite literally biblical statements about God’s repentance, citing this as evidence that God really does not know the future with precision. But they gloss over other biblical texts which say that God also “forgets” aspects of the past, that He does not remember the sins of His people (cf. Isaiah 43:25). Are we to suppose then that God suffers from amnesia as well as ignorance of the future? Openness theism teaches that God cannot know the future (although He can know what He intends to do in the future), for the future has not yet happened. However, Jesus predicted not only the death of Peter, but also the precise mode of his martyrdom (John 21:18-19). Was this just an educated guess, a holy hunch? The consensual wisdom of the Church’s exegetical tradition has been able to account for difficult biblical texts—and let us admit there are some—without breaching the sovereignty of the God who is the Creator of time as well as space, and Lord of the future no less than the past.
As Christians committed to the God who became incarnate in Jesus Christ, we can applaud the open theist rejection of the static, loveless, uninvolved God of Aristotelian philosophy, the God Thomas Hardy once referred to as “the dreaming, dark, dumb Thing that turns the handle of this idle Show.” The open theists are right to protest against such a God. The biblical God is indeed a God of relationships. He is compared to a loving father, a caring mother, a tender shepherd, a faithful husband, a generous friend. But the God of grace is also the God of glory, as that maverick preacher, Harry Emerson Fosdick, put it so well in his great hymn. Divine sovereignty and significant human freedom are not competitive exclusives. It is not as though God and human beings were locked together in a finite room with a limited supply of oxygen—the more God breathes with His big lungs the less air there is for His human creatures. God is not in the suffocating business. We need not bring Him down to size in order to lift up the true humanity of men and women made in His image. God’s goodness is not threatened by His greatness. God’s grace and glory coalesce.
In the course of his long and sometimes bitter dispute with his former fellow-traveler Rudolf Bultmann, Karl Barth once said that the best answer to a bad theology is a better one. Perhaps a better theology of God will emerge from this present debate. In the meantime, Thomas Oden, an Arminian theologian who has encouraged free discussion of openness ideas while showing no sympathy for them, has said that those given to the fantasy of divine ignorance of the future should be resisted with charity. Charitable resistance is a hard thing to come by among evangelicals for whom the more usual expedients in theological controversy are either uncritical toleration or raucous denunciation. But charitable resistance is just what we need right now.
Timothy George, a member of the Editorial Board of First Things, is Dean of Beeson Divinity School of Samford University and an executive editor of Christianity Today.