Review of “God in Motion” and Thoughts about “Open Theism”
Thanks to Baylor University Press which sent me a complimentary review copy of “God in Motion: A Critical Exploration of the Open Theism Debate” by Swiss theologian Manuel Schmid (translated by Alex Englander) (2021). Here I will not even attempt to summarize the book. I will just say (for now) that anyone really interested in the doctrine of God and especially the concept of God’s “openness” to new knowledge and new experiences ought to read this book. Also, anyone who lived through the harsh debates over open theism within American evangelicalism from about 1995 to about 2005 ought to read it. Schmid has provided here the most exhaustive and yet readable summary and analysis of that open theism controversy which has not gone entirely away.
I must say that I don’t like the English title given to this book which was originally written in German. The German title is: “Gott ist ein Abenteurer: Der Offene Theismus und die Herausforderungen biblischer Gottesrede” (Vandenhock & Ruprecht, 2019). The English title is not even close to an English translation of the German.
Briefly put and in summary, Schmid has here provided a masterful theological and historical account and analysis of the open theism debate but more. He has discussed in depth and some detail other theologians’ views of God’s “openness” and compared and contrasted them with those of the leading American open theists (viz., Clark Pinnock, John Sanders, Greg Boyd, Thomas Jay Oord, William Hasker, Richard Rice, et al.).
I remember when I read the unpublished manuscript (of the English translation) and recommended that BUP publish it, I said that, if it is not too late, Schmid (whose identity I did not then know) add something into the book about the role of German theologian I. A. Dorner, one of the most important 19th century “mediating theologians.” Now that I have the published book in hand, I see a rather long footnote about Dorner and his reconstruction of the doctrine of God’s immutability. (172, footnote 165) I don’t think that was in the manuscript I read before the English publication by BUP and Dorner is not to be found in the index. So I suspect, but don’t know, that my suggestion was taken up by Schmid. I only wish he had recognized and acknowledged that Dorner not only reconstructed the doctrine of God’s immutability in a way that foreshadowed open theism but also affirmed what is now called God’s openness to the future, that God learns some things from what happens in the world that he did not always already know. (I have discussed this in some detail in “The Journey of Modern Theology: from Reconstruction to Deconstruction” (InterVarsity Press).
Back to the book itself: This is not an easy read, but it is an important read for anyone who wants to gain a somewhat comprehensive knowledge of all the “ins” and “outs” of open theism and the debate surrounding it. But even more importantly, in my opinion, the book offers an excellent discussion of German-language theologians and their views of God’s attributes and how they relate, if at all, to open theism. Among the theologians Schmid discusses in relation to open theism are Emil Brunner, Karl Barth, Juergen Moltmann and Wolfhart Pannenberg. I have studied all three of them in relation to open theism. I know Moltmann came to embrace open theism because he told me so in 2000! My study of Brunner’s “Dogmatics” leads me to believe he would be very open to open theism. That comes out not so much in the first volume but more in the second and third volumes. I studied with Pannenberg and listened as he and Greg Boyd debated open theism (and other matters) in my living room in about 1998. Pannenberg believed in God’s “historicity,” but rejected God’s temporality, something I have not been able to reconcile. Most interesting and confusing is Karl Barth’s view of God and time and God’s attribute of omniscience. Certainly, as Schmid argues, Barth was no open theist, but he was influenced by Dorner in his explanation of God’s immutability as his “faithfulness” rather than as his inability to change.
Anyone who reads this book carefully will be taking a whole seminar on the doctrine of God in Christian thought in the last few decades. Schmid makes great use of, for example, Walter Brueggemann’s work on God in the Old Testament. He also discusses Terence Fretheim’s influence on open theism. The book overflows with references to theologians, philosophers and biblical scholars who have worked on the doctrine of God using Christian sources.
I have two disagreements with Schmid about open theism. First, he continues to repeat the old canard that open theism was influenced by process theology. I have had many conversations about the relationship between open theism and process theology with Greg Boyd, John Sanders, Clark Pinnock and other open theists. I am convinced that all came to their open theistic doctrines of God independently of process theology while knowing about process theology.
Second, Schmid criticizes open theists for not developing a comprehensive, systematic reconstruction of the doctrine of God and more than implies that they (with the possible late exception of Boyd in “The Crucifixion of the Warrior God”) are mere biblicists who rely almost entirely on a literal reading of Old Testament texts. While there may be some truth in the criticism, I don’t think it’s a fair one. All the open theists I know (and I know almost all of the major ones) believe their contribution is to reconstruct ONLY the doctrine of God in relation to God and creatures and especially in relation to God’s vulnerability (self-chosen) to creatures. From there they go in different directions theologically, with, for example, the doctrine of the atonement. I see no problem with a theologian choosing a particular doctrine that he or she regards as needing revision and focusing on that. Schmid betrays a kind of Germanic “blessed rage for order”—that is, systematic thinking. In other words, if someone offers a revision of one piece of Christian theology that requires a whole new system. I don’t think so.
In spite of these and maybe a couple other qualms about the book, I cannot recommend it highly enough. Unlike most of open theism’s American conservative evangelical critics (almost all of them Calvinists!), he clearly understands open theism. He has taken the time to study it including communication with many of its advocates. He also understands its critics’ qualms. I only wish he had discussed more that their “qualms” about open theism are little more than regurgitations of “qualms” they have about Arminianism in general.
At the very end of the book Schmid recommends a program of developing a “culture of debate” in which evangelicals (especially but also others) can take on a theologoumenon like open theism and discuss it in a civil and respectful manner—something that did NOT happen among conservative American evangelical theologians and biblical scholars in the 1990s and beyond. Some of them blatantly misrepresented open theism as belief in an “ignorant God,” called it “just process theology,” and argued that it denigrates God’s glory.
Congratulations to Manuel Schmid for his excellent work in this book. Reading it again, in hardcover, was a delight and inspiration.