Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Chips & Salsa, the Church, & Open Theism

Every generation of the Church has been confronted with a current social, political, and/or theological issue, be it the credibility and validity of Scripture (JEDP), Darwin’s evolutionary theory, Homosexuality, Universalism, Abortion, Slavery, and the list goes on and on.

I say all of this because a great friend of mine, Ryan Brumbaugh, just left my house. We had a great time: chips and salsa, chatting with my beautiful sister, laughing at Conan O’Brien, and a great conversation about some of the challenges we see facing the Church in the 21st century. One of these challenges is Open Theism. Sadly, many of us involved in Church have little or no knowledge of this topic. Hopefully this blog will serve as a primer to the discussion of Open Theism and Openness Theology. As well as...serve as another reminder that all good and lasting conversations revolve around chips and salsa.

A Background

Open theism is a relatively new doctrine that has only gained popular prominence since 1994 with the release of the book The Openness of God which was written by five evangelical scholars and edited by Clark Pinnock. What began on the fringes of scholarship has quickly gained a popular following, in part because of the publication of entry-level titles such as Gregory Boyd's God of the Possible and in part because of the acceptance of the doctrine by various popular authors. While many evangelicals do not embrace this doctrine themselves, they may regard it as an optional doctrine that remains within the pale of orthodox evangelicalism.

A Definition

This is a definition that has been adapted from Monergism.com: "Open Theism is a sub-Christian theological construct which claims that God's highest goal is to enter into a reciprocal relationship with man. In this scheme, the Bible is interpreted without any anthropomorphisms - that is, all references to God's feelings, surprise and lack of knowledge are literal and the result of His choice to create a world where He can be affected by man's choices. God's exhaustive knowledge does not include future free will choices by mankind because they have not yet occurred."

One of the leading spokesmen of open theism, Clark Pinnock, in describing how libertarian freedom trumps God's omniscience says, "Decisions not yet made do not exist anywhere to be known even by God. They are potential--yet to be realized, but not yet actual. God can predict a great deal of what we will choose to do, but not all of it, because some of it remains hidden in the mystery of human freedom ... The God of the Bible displays an openness to the future (i.e. ignorance of the future) that the traditional view of omniscience simply cannot accommodate." (Pinnock, "Augustine to Arminius, " 25-26)

Defining Characteristics

Open theism is characterized in several ways:

  1. God's greatest attribute is love. God's love so overshadows His other characteristics that He could never allow or condone evil or suffering to befall mankind.
  2. Man has libertarian free will. Man's will has not been so effected by the Fall that he is unable to make a choice to follow God. God respects man's freedom of choice and would not infringe upon it.
  3. God does not have exhaustive knowledge of the future. Indeed, He cannot know certain future events because the future exists only as possibility. God is unable to see what depends on the choices of free will agents simply because this future does not yet exist, so it unknowable. In this way open theists attempt to reconcile this doctrine with God's ominiscience.
  4. God takes risks. Because God cannot know the future, He takes risks in many ways - creating people, giving them gifts and abilities, and so on. Where possibilities exist, so does risk.
  5. God learns. Because God does not know the future exhaustively, He learns, just as we do.
  6. God is reactive. Because He is learning, God is constantly reacting to the decisions we make.
  7. God makes mistakes. Because He is learning and reacting, always dealing with limited information, God can and does make errors in judgment which later require re-evaluation.
  8. God can change His mind. When God realizes He has made an error in judgment or that things did not unfold as He supposed, He can change His mind.
The most important thing to note is that God knows the future only as it is not dependent on human, free-will decisions. God does not know what any free-will agents (i.e. humans) will do, because those decisions do not yet exist and God cannot know what does not exist. God decided, in Creation, that He would limit Himself in this way in order to give complete freedom to human beings. Therefore, God does not know or control the future - He learns from our decisions and constantly adapts as necessary. He often needs to change His mind or re-evaluate His options as the future unfolds.

Chief Proponents

The best-known proponents of open theism are: Clark Pinnock & Greg Boyd. John Sanders & David Basinger are also known for their work in Open Theism.

I hesitate to put John Eldridge on this list, but I think I need to. Though Eldredge denies he is an open theist, the evidence does not support his claim. Time and time again he speaks of God in ways that can only be explained if you hold such views. While the following quotes are taken from Wild at Heart, similar beliefs are expressed in at least one of his other works (The Sacred Romance). "God is a person who takes immense risks" (p. 30). "It's not the nature of God to limit His risks and cover His bases" (p.31). "As with every relationship, there's a certain amount of unpredictability. God's willingness to risk is just astounding. There is definitely something wild in the heart of God" (p. 32).


My chief concerns with open theism are as follows:

  1. A Denial of Omniscience. While men like Greg Boyd deny that open theism denies God's omniscience, this is simply not true. Even if it is true that the future exists only as possibilities, something that is not adequately proven by open theists, we are still putting a limit on God's knowledge when we state that He cannot know these possibilities. This view of God's knowledge of the future is unique in that it is at odds with every other Judeo-Christian tradition.
  2. God's goodness, greatness and glory are at stake. The God of the Open Theists is, in the words of Bruce Ware, too small. He is not the all-knowing, all-powerful God revealed so clearly in the pages of the Bible. Christians need to always be concerned that both they and God are making poor decisions based on inadequate information. Thus we cannot always count on God to do what is best, because even He does not always know what this is.
  3. The Christian's confidence in God is at stake. If open theism is true, the Christian cannot put his full trust and confidence in God. "The God of open theism will always want our best, but since he may not in fact know what is best, it becomes impossible to give him our unreserved and unquestioning trust" (Bruce Ware, Their God is Too Small, page 20). When hardships arise we will have to ask if God anticipated these, or if He is as shocked and distressed as we are.

My Two Cents

Needless to say, I find this doctrine wholly incompatible with our knowledge of God as presented in His Word--Jesus Christ. Open theism contradicts the understanding of God in every Judeo-Christian tradition, undermines our confidence in God and erodes our trust in His promises that He always has our best interests in mind. It is a dangerous, malignant doctrine. Unfortunately, with it being subtly taught by popular teachers like John Eldredge, it is being introduced to millions of Christians who may come to accept the view of a risk-taking God without understanding the consequences of such a view.

NOTE: This is not meant to be a personal reflection on any one person, or group of persons, merely an insight into Openness Theology.

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