R.I.P. Dallas Willard (and Was He an Open Theist?)
The evangelical Christian community has lost one of its best minds and most articulate writers—Professor Dallas Willard of the University of Southern California’s School of Philosophy (retired), associate of Richard Foster’s in the Renovaré movement, and author of numerous books in the philosophy of religion and spiritual theology. I only had the privilege of meeting him once—when we shared the platform at my final commencement ceremony at Bethel College (now Bethel University) in 1999. He was the guest speaker and I prayed for the graduates. Over the years, however, Dallas and I corresponded occasionally. Most of our exchanges had to do with so-called “open theism.”
Willard was one of those rare intellectuals who could write both for other scholars and for non-scholars. And he was a philosopher who wrote theology (especially spiritual theology) very well. That is, he wore both hats, sometimes simultaneously.
Probably Willard’s most influential Christian book was The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life in God (1998). (I wonder how many readers noticed that he dedicated it to, among others, fundamentalist preacher John R. Rice?) If I can summarize the thesis of the book (428 pages long!): True Christianity is something more than “sin management;” it is the experience of the “Kingdom of the heavens” here and now.
Willard ranged far and wide over Christian theology in The Divine Conspiracy, touching on most doctrines even if only obliquely. What intrigued me most, however, were his reflections on God and especially divine providence (a subject I have written about here often).
In The Divine Conspiracy Willard presented what I have called a “relational” view of God’s sovereignty. On pages 244-253 Willard argued that prayer can and sometimes does change God’s mind about what he intended to do. In a section subheaded “Can We Change God?” Willard wrote “God’s ‘response’ to our prayers is not a charade. He does not pretend that he is answering our prayer when he is only doing what he was going to do anyway. Our requests really do make a difference in what God does or does not do.” (p. 244)
Also, “It was two Old Testament scenes that changed my own mind about these matters and permitted me to enter into the teachings of Jesus about prayer. For I too was raised in a theology that presents God as a great unblinking cosmic stare, who must know everything whether he wants to or not, and who never in the smallest respect changes his mind about what he is going to do.” (pp. 244-245) The two OT scenes are from Exodus 32 and 2 Kings 19. I’ll let you look them up if you’re so inclined.
Further, “God is great enough that he can conduct his affairs in this way. His nature, identity, and overarching purposes are no doubt unchanging. But his intentions with regard to many particular matters that concern individual human beings are not. This does not diminish him. Far from it. He would be a lesser God if he could not change his intentions when he thinks it is appropriate. And if he chooses to deal with humanity in such a way that he will occasionally think it appropriate, that is just fine.” (p. 246)
Willard went on to explain that none of this offends God’s dignity because this arrangement, in which our praying can affect God and even change his intentions and actions (from what they were) “is an arrangement he himself has chosen.” (p. 253) “It is not inherently ‘greater’ to be inflexible.”
On the basis of those statements, many readers, including most open theists, believed Willard to be an open theist—one who believes that God knows everything actual as actual and everything possible as possible but does not know the future exhaustively except as a realm of both settled and not-yet-settled events.
Was Willard an open theist? No. So he said.
But you will have to decide whether he agreed with open theism or not. That will require some fairly in depth knowledge of open theism (not acquired solely from its critics but especially from those who embrace it such as Greg Boyd, John Sanders, Clark Pinnock, et al.).
I wrote two e-mails to Willard asking if he was an open theist. Here are his responses:
March 27, 2000: “I do believe that God does limit himself…and that this is an essential part of what is required in order for him to have a personal relationship with free and historical beings such as ourselves. Many people do not understand that the attribute of omniscience, like that of omnipotence, as a matter of what God can do, not a matter of what he does [sic]. He doses not do everything he could do, and he does not know everything he can know.”
I took that as a “yes.”
However, later, a student challenged me about this and argued that Willard was not an open theist. So I wrote to him again, asking for clarification. I specifically asked him if he was an open theist. He responded and copied his response to several people, so I assume he did not intend it to be kept confidential. And it led to further e-mail exchanges between one of those people (John Ortberg) and Willard and me.
Here is what Willard wrote in response to my question (whether he was an open theist):
“I think I would not be called an open theist by any thoughtful person who knows what I write and say. The points which strike some people as ‘open’ might be these. I believe that God does modify his actions in response to human beings on some occasions: does what he was not going to do or does not do what he was going to do. And I do not think he has to know every detail of created reality to bring it out where he wants it. But there isn’t anything He needs or wants to know that he does not know. The picture of God as a great, unblinking, cosmic stare is a projection upon him of how some people try to deal with control from a human point of view. But he has resources for achieving his purposes that no human being has, and he doesn’t have to be mean or immediately on top of every detail of existence in order to run the universe. He does have considerable help and no need to micro-manage everything. If I leave some things to my helpers, as an administrator, that does not mean that I close off part of the future to my sight. But if I did not limit myself in terms of what I could know, and what I would do, it would soon ruin the operation. Limiting myself (‘holding back’) is not the same as ‘closing it off.’ Omniscience refers to God’s power to know absolutely everything. That I firmly accept. But I believe he does, by his choice, not know everything he could know—without it in any way defeating his purposes—and I also believe that human interaction with him modifies what he does or does not do in the details of individual and group life. Not to believe this seems to me to force one into false interpretations of the wordings of scripture and to make a farce of prayer. I think it is the main explanation of why very few people pray in any sensible and effectual manner.” (December 9, 2009)
In my opinion, this could be fairly called “open theism”—or a version of it. But subsequent e-mail exchanges with Willard made clear that he did not want to wear that label.
One question the above quote raises for me is the extent and depth of Willard’s knowledge of open theism. Did he understand what leading open theists say or was he under some false impression of open theism?
Another question it raises (for me, anyway) is whether Willard’s aversion to being labeled an open theist had to do with the politics of evangelicalism. There is without any doubt a certain stigma attached to that label such that one will not likely be rejected (by moderate evangelical gate keepers) for holding the view but will be rejected for wearing the label. (It’s the same but reverse for “inerrantist”—as I have argued here before. One can deny inerrancy in any normal meaning of the term and be welcome among conservative evangelicals so long as one convincingly applies the label “inerrancy” to his or her theology of scripture.)
I never figured out what to make of Willard’s denial of open theism in light of his statements about God’s self-limitation including of his knowledge and of God’s mind-changing responses to prayers.
At the very least Willard was an ally, wittingly or unwittingly, of what I call “relational theism” and “relational sovereignty” and even of open theism.
I suspect, in my more cynical moments, that many ardent, passionate, conservative evangelical critics of relational sovereignty and open theism loved Dallas Willard because of his profound piety and intellectual support of biblical Christianity (as a philosopher) and, so long as he did not embrace the label “open theism” were happy to overlook his section on prayer in The Divine Conspiracy.