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Open theism: a test case for evangelicals

Open theism: a test case for evangelicals August 23, 2010

In the January 9, 1995 issue of Christianity Today I reviewed the then new book The Openness of God and ended by raising a question about the maturity of evangelicalism: “How do American evangelical Christians handle theological diversity? Have we come of age enough to avoid heresy charges and breast-beating jeremiads in response to a new doctrinal proposal that is so conscientiously based on biblical reflection rather than on rebellious accommodation to modern thought? This may be the test.”  Needless to say, the next decade proved that to a very large degree significant segments of American evangelicalism had not yet come of age in that sense. 

The controversy has largely died down now.  But there are many stories yet to be told about it.  I believe much of the controversy over open theism among evangelicals was fueled by misinformation, misrepresentation and down right demagoguery.  In many places and at many times open theism and open theists did not receive a fair hearing.  And I know of cases in which evangelical critics knowingly misrepresented open theism in order to create fear of it among the untutored (i.e., people who would enver pick up and read a book by an open theist).

As I look back on that decade long controversy now, my heart is heavy for evangelicalism.  I was profoundly disillusioned by the dishonesty and lack of sincerity of many evangelical luminaries who I know read books by open theists and often talked with open theists about their views and nevertheless went public with blatant misrepresentations.  I was also profoundly disillusioned by the heat of the controversy in which some evangelical scholars and leaders hurled accusations and charges against open theists that were completely out of proportion to the amount of time and effort they had spent in dialogue with their fellow evangelicals who either were open theists or sympathized with them.

One of the most common charges from conservative evangelicals was that open theism simply amounted to process theology.  At one conference I attended a well-known and highly regarded evangelical theologian who had the podium stated simply and baldly that “open theism is just process theology.”  This is a man who should know better; he is widely read and intelligent and a prolific evangelical author.  I stood during the discussion time to explain to him and the audience why it is not “just process theology.”  Before I could say much he told me to sit down because he and I were never going to agree about this.  He was simply rude and closed-minded.  (About two years later he apologized to me and for that I am grateful, but the damage was already done.  I would rather that he publish something rescinding his publicly stated view that open theism is process theology.)

Another well known evangelical theologian and apologetics writer wrote that “neotheists [his term for open theists] admit not only that this is a diversion from the historic theistic position but that it is influenced by process theology.”  He sought to support his accusation by quoting evangelical open theist philosopher William Hasker: “It will no doubt have been noticed that the conclusions we have reached agree, on an important point, with the conception of God’s knowledge developed in process theology.” Even a quick glance at Hasker’s book (from which that quote was taken) reveals that Hasker does NOT admit influence by process theology and in fact goes to great lengths to distance open theism from process theology.

So what are the differences?  All open theists affirm creatio ex nihilo while process theology denies it.  All open theists affirm God’s omnipotence while process theology denies it.  All open theists affirm the supernatural and miracles while most, if not all, process theologians deny them.  Open theists all say that God limits himself; process theology represents God as essentially limited and finite.  The only point on which they agree is about God’s knowledge of the future, but even there one finds profound differences.  For example, according to open theists the openness of the future even for God is due to God’s self-limitation in creation.  According to all open theists, God could know the future exhaustively and infallibly IF he chose to create a world with a closed future (as in divine determinism).

Anyone who doubts or questions these differences MUST read the edited book Searching for an Adequate God: A Dialogue between Process and Free Will Theists.  There the differences come out very clearly; the dialogue breaks down over the points mentioned above.  The two sides start out and end up rejecting each other.  The differences are vastly greater than the minor similarities.

Other accusations against open theism and open theists amounted to pure demagoguery (in my opinion).  One leading evangelical (whom I would rather categorize as a fundamentalist) wrote that open theism’s God is an “ignorant God” without explaining the open theist viewpoint on God’s knowledge or lack of it with regard to the future.  The same man wrote that the open theist God “gives bad advice” without noting that for an open theist God’s advice is always good even if later, because of a creatures’ misuse of free will, that same advice would be bad.  No open theist says that God gives bad advice or that God is ignorant of anything.

Now some may balk at that last statement.  But I ask them: Does God know the DNA of unicorns?  The only honest answer is that he does not because unicorns don’t exist.  (Some have tried to cavil that of course God knows the DNA of unicorns because he knows what it would be if he created them.  But that is simply a cavil.)  Similarly, open theists say God’s lack of knowledge (if one can even speak that way) of parts of the open future lies in the fact that there is nothing to know.  God knows everything it is logically possible to know.

At a conference I heard an influential evangelical philosopher blast open theism for “limiting God.”  I asked him if he believes God can change the past to which he replied no.  Isn’t that limiting God? I asked.  He had no answer; he changed the subject.  My point is that everyone “limits God” in some way.  Even the most radical nominalists of the medieval and renaissance eras and even Luther acknowledged that there are things God cannot do.  (William of Ockham, who believed that God does not have an eternal, immutable nature or character that limits what he can or cannot do, said that God cannot do the logically impossible.  Most theists agree.)

One leading evangelical accused open theism of “Socinianism” which normally means denial of the deity of Christ and of the Trinity.

One criticism of open theism that particularly galled me was the ironic one from some leading evangelical Calvinists that open theism allegedly diminishes the glory of God.  What I want to know is how anything can diminish the glory of God if everything, without exception, is foreordained and rendered certain by God for his glory?  I asked a theologian who wrote a book that revolves around this criticism if he believes open theism was foreordained by God for his glory.  The answer was, of course, yes.  Then, I would like to know, how it can diminish God’s glory?

Throughout this controversy several evangelical thinkers, writers and speakers simply stated to their audiences that I am an open theist.  They had no ground or basis for this as I had never (and still have never) identified myself as an open theist and have always identified myself as a classical Arminian.  At least twice evangelical writers attributed quotes to me that I never said or wrote.  When challenged, they could not show where I said or wrote those things.  In one case, the man wrote me a letter of apology and in another case the man relentlessly defended his attribution in spite of being unable to show where I said it.

One of the worst tactics used by some opponents of open theism was attributing to open theists beliefs they consciously and publicly reject.  For example, some critics of open theism have stated publicly that open theists deny the atonement.  When pressed about that they have explained (too late) that what they MEAN is that open theism, if true, (in their opinion) would make the death of Christ impossible because God would not know in advance what the actions of free agents would be and therefore could not arrange Christ’s death.  Even if that were true, it falls far short of denying the atonement!

I believe this entire controversy proves my claim (made earlier here) that many conservative evangelicals are not really evangelicals in the post-fundamentalist, post-WW2 sense but really fundamentalists (which might be unfair to many fundamentalists!).

So why does all this matter now?  Because the whole controversy poisoned the atmosphere within the evangelical academy.  One open theist scholar was fired from his teaching position even thought the school hired him knowing he was an open theist.  I assume they fired him under pressure from constituents few of who probably understood open theism.

I know many people who are afraid of open theism but have no real knowledge or understanding of what it is.  They have only read (mostly Calvinist) critics of open theism and have closed their minds to it.  They rarely take the time or trouble to read open theists’ own writings.  (In case anyone reading this needs to read a good, brief exposition of open theism I recommend Greg Boyd’s The God of the Possible.  It is the clearest brief statement of open theism that clears up most, if not all, of the misconceptions about it.)

Many evangelical “scholars” and leaders have simply lumped people like me, who defend open theism as a legitimate evangelical option, into the same camp with the open theists–as dangerous subversives of the evangelical faith.  That’s fine; I’ll stand with my open theist friends in that camp over against the neo-fundamentalists who seem to be largely controlling the evangelical establishment today.  I have higher hopes for the future of the evangelical academy and there are hopeful signs (e.g., the new direction Baker publishers is taking).  But I know that many evangelical college and university and seminary administrators are so under the spell of the neo-fundamentalists’ fear factory that they are reluctant or totally unwilling even to consider hiring an open theist.

To me, open theism, though mistaken, is much to be preferred over five point Calvinism, with its belief that Christ died only for the elect.  By historical standards, that doctrine is a novelty.  I have found only one instance of it before Theodore Beza–the 9th century monk Gottschalk who was imprisoned for that teaching (and others similar to later Calvinism).  Even Calvin did not believe in it.  (See the excellent book on this subject by R. T. Kendall as well as the chapter by Kevin Kennedy in Whosoever Will: A Biblical and Theological Critique of Five-Point Calvinism.)  Not only is limited atonement a novelty in terms of church history; it represents a deep deviation from the biblical and historic Christian teaching about the love of God for all people. 

However–both open theism and five point Calvinism exist within the evangelical movement.  All talk about “evangelical boundaries” to exclude one or the other is futile.  There are no such boundaries and no magisterium to enforce them if they did exist.

Debate over open theism is fine; I have no objection to it–so long as it is informed and civil.  But far too much of the debate over open theism in evangelical circles has been neither.

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