The Openness of God

I do not like the Calvinist view of God’s omnipotence and omniscience. To believe that God knows everything because He has predestined it all requires us to dismiss many accounts in the Bible (such as God changing His mind and not destroying Ninevah) as “anthropomorphisms,” even though there is no textual evidence to do so. Not only that, a God who would arbitrarily decide who will be saved from eternal damnation and who will not be saved is capricious and not worthy of worship. Thus, I have always discounted the Calvinist view of God as unbiblical and incoherent.

Nevertheless, I have also always had a problem with the idea that God might not know something about the future. As a result, I have reluctantly conformed to the “traditional evangelical” view of God. In this view, God exists outside of time. As a result, he sees the entire history and future of the universe as if He is looking at the film of a movie. Each “frame” is an instant in the lifetime of the universe, and God sees all “frames” at the same time. Like a film editor, he can adjust specific frames in order to make the “movie” just what He wants it to be. Those are the instants in which God interacts with His creation.

Open Theism offers an alternative to both views of God. Because of that, it is worth considering. A Christian whom I respect a great deal suggested that I read The Openness of God by Richard Rice, Clark Pinnock, John Sanders, William Hasker, and David Basinger. Because I respect her as a Christian, and because I think that Clark Pinnock is one of the greatest theologians/thinkers of our time, I decided to read the book, and I am glad that I did. While I was familiar with the concept of open theism, I had never read a thorough, systematic description of it. Instead, I had just read what those who thought it was “heresy” said about it. As is typical, those who think it is heresy paint it in the worst possible light. As a result, I didn’t really understand open theism until I read this book. If you really want to know what open theism is, don’t read the propaganda from the National Association of Evangelicals or other such outlets. Instead, read this book.

The first chapter of the book (written by Richard Rice) attempts to determine what the Bible says about the nature of God. One of the most important points in this chapter is that God is love. As the author says:

“According to the Bible, God is not a center if infinite power who happens to be loving, he is loving above all else. Consequently, when we enumerate God’s qualities, we must not only include love; to be faithful to the Bible, we must put love at the head of the list.” (p. 21).

The author lists many references to support this view, such as Psalm 108:3, Isaiah 54:8, Jeremiah 31:3, John 3:16. He says that the ultimate expression of this idea can be found in 1 John 4:8, which says God is love.

Most Christians won’t have a problem with this idea until they start to think about what it implies. First, it means God has feelings. This shouldn’t be hard to accept, as the Bible attributes many feelings to God. The Bible says He “delights” (Ps 149:9, Jer 9:24, Zeph 3:17) in people. It says he feels towards His people like a tender parent who longs after a wayward child (Hos 11:1-8). It even tells us that God gets indignant (Ps 7:11), grieves (Gen 6:6), and is jealous (Ex 20:5). While many want to ignore these passages as “anthropomorphisms,” there is simply no textual evidence indicating we should. According to the Bible, God has feelings. This is best illustrated in the life of Jesus. Even though Jesus is fully God, He had feelings, was tempted, and only agreed to the cross after intense prayer and anguish. If we are to look to Jesus as an image of God, why would we ignore the fact that Jesus had feelings while on earth? Jesus had intense feelings while on earth, so it is only reasonable to think that God does as well.

If that’s not “bad enough,” according to the Bible, God changes His mind and actually repents. The best example of this is Jonah’s mission to Ninevah. God says that Ninevah will be overthrown (Jonah 3:4), but because the people listened to Jonah and repented, God

“relented concerning the calamity which He had declared He would bring upon them. And He did not do it.” (Jonah 3:10).

As Rice points out, Jonah actually complained to God about this, basically telling God that he knew God would change His mind if the people repented (Jonah 4:2). Now…if this were the only case in the Bible where God decided on a different course of action after saying that He would do something, you could probably discount it. However, it is mentioned other times in the Bible as well (Ex 32:14, Jer 18:7, for example). Are we simply to discount these instances as well?

According to the author, we should not discount such passages. Instead, we should accept that God does, indeed, interact with His creation, and that such interaction should be expected if God is love. Much like a loving father will lay out a course of action to punish a child but then change that course of action if the child repents, God will change His course of action if it is the loving thing to do. Indeed, according to the author, how could God really be loving if he is not moved and changed by interaction with His creation? While earthly love is only a shadow of divine love, it is nevertheless impossible for me to love my wife without both interacting with her and changing in response to her. Why, then, do we have a hard time accepting this of God’s love?

Now like many overarching Biblical concepts, there are “problem verses” for this concept of God. For example, we are told that God does not change His mind (Num 23:19, 1 Sam 15:29). Rice contends that these passages deal with specific promises, so they simply say that God will not change his mind in these situations. In addition, many verses tell us that God does not change (Mal 3:6, Heb 13:8, etc.) According to Rice, however, these passages are talking about the attributes of God, not His actions.

In the end, the goal is to find a coherent view of God from Scripture. I don’t find that in a God who does not change His mind. I don’t see how you can just ignore the entire account of Ninevah as well as other such accounts. Nevertheless, I am not sure I completely agree with Rice’s view that the unchanging picture that the Bible paints of God applies only to His attributes and some specific promises. In the end, I am not sure exactly where I stand, but I am attracted to this view simply because I do think it gives a more coherent, Biblical view of the nature of God.

If we are to believe that God can change based on His interaction with His creation, how do we deal with prophecy? Calvinists think that prophecy is fulfilled because God preordains everything. Once again, I reject this view as unbiblical and incoherent. Arminianists, however, have a hard time justifying the concept of Free Will with prophecy. If God knows what is going to happen, how can we think we have Free Will when it comes to making choices? Open Theism, in my mind, at least gives a coherent view of prophecy.

According to the author, God prophecies some things because He is going to do it regardless of the Free Will of His creation. In the end, there are certain “nonnegotiable” things that must happen for the universe to fulfill God’s ultimate plans, and thus God is willing to exert direct control in some situations. However, many other prophecies are simply a consequence of what has already happened, and since God knows so much about people, their nature, and His creation, He can say things will happen, much like my wife can say I will never suggest that she and I have Chinese food for dinner. She can make such a “prophecy” simply because she knows me so well and knows that my graduate school experience turned me off Chinese food forever. Finally, both Calvinists and Arminianists have a problem with prophecies such the one about overturning Ninevah, because they want to believe that God always knows the future. In Open Theism, God issues some prophecies of the form, “Unless you do A, B will happen.” I must say I am very drawn to this view of prophecy, as it protects free will as much as possible while still allowing God’s ultimate plan for His creation to be fulfilled.

Now…if all of this has made you uncomfortable, the author of Chapter 2 (John Sanders) tells you why. It is because Christian thoughts about the nature of God have been too strongly influenced by pagan thoughts about the nature of God. The author says that the standard Greek view of God is that He is perfect in every way and thus cannot change. After all, any change would be for the worse. While there were many variations on the Greek concept of God, the overall view was that He is separate from His creation and cannot be changed by it. The author then traces this thought process through the ideas proposed by the early church fathers, showing how this essentially pagan influence forced them to deny the clear meaning of the passages that indicate God changes, has feelings, and interacts on a very basic level with His creation. As the author says:

“Though the tradition, with good intentions, employed immutability and impassibility in order to protect God’s freedom, they were taken too far and left no room for speaking of divine openness where God, in vulnerability, binds himself to others in love.”

Unfortunately, I do not have a thorough understanding of the Greek view of God and how it influenced early church fathers. Nevertheless, I did find this author’s view compelling. It does seem that if we read the Bible at face value, we do encounter a God who is in a loving, mutual interaction with His creation. The idea of God being “outside” of creation and “stepping in” from time-to-time only to answer prayer or ensure specific events seems to be more of a compromise between Greek thought and the portrait painted in the Bible. It seems to me that the true picture of God should have no influence from pagan thought.

The third chapter, written by Clark Pinnock, attempts to systematize this view of God into theology. This work represents Clark Pinnock at his very best, and the entire book is well worth the read just to see how this chapter fits into it. He starts out with the very bold statement that God is both transcendent and immanent. He is both above creation and at the same time in creation. The “theme verse,” if you will, is Isaiah 57:15:

“For thus says the high and exalted One Who lives forever, whose name is Holy, ‘I dwell on a high and holy place, And also with the contrite and lowly of spirit In order to revive the spirit of the lowly And to revive the heart of the contrite.’”

In other words, God is, indeed, high and holy, separated from His creation. However, because of His divine love, he humbles himself and lives among us to revive our spirits and hearts.

If we take this overarching view of God, theology becomes much easier to understand. God is all-powerful, and as a result, He chooses to not be completely in control. He certainly could be if He wanted to be, but because He genuinely loves His creation and genuinely made people in His image, he chooses to let us make our own decisions. From time to time He must intervene to make sure that the universe “stays on track,” but much like a smart cowboy on a long ride, He only intervenes when absolutely necessary. Otherwise, He lets the “horse” choose its own way.

Does this somehow take away from God’s power? According to Pinnock, not at all. Pinnock says:

“God is a superior power who does not cling to his role to dominate and control but voluntarily gives creatures room to flourish…in ruling over the world God is not all-determining but may will to achieve his goals through other agents, accepting the limitations of this decision. Yet this does not make God ‘weak,’ for it requires more power to rule over an undetermined world than a determined one.”

What a truly insightful statement! In the end, it is Pinnock’s contention is that God is more powerful because He voluntarily does not control everything. I am not sure I am completely on board with such a notion, but it is revolutionary to say the least! It also shows the originality of thought that has always characterized Pinnock’s works.

The fourth chapter (written by William Hasker) was incredibly interesting. In the end, Hasker attempts to lay down a philosophy that underpins this view of God. In essence, he says that God has decided to take “risks” for the good of His creation. While he Has the power to make a determined universe, He chooses not to. Just as He has chosen to not do logically impossible things (God doesn’t make square circles), He has chosen to not know things it is logically impossible to know in an undetermined universe. The functional omniscience of God (which He has chosen to follow), then, is that God knows everything it is logically possible to know. However, because He has created a world filled with people who have free will, it is simply not logically possible to know everything about the future.

Like Rice, Hasker likens God to a loving parent. Parents would love to control everything about their child’s life. That way, they can ensure that the child is safe, healthy, etc. However, as loving parents, they know this would not produce a happy, fulfilled child. As a result, they voluntarily “check their power” over their child so that the child can freely develop. They don’t give the child full control, but neither do they take full control. Instead, they gently lead, inserting their overt control only in the most necessary of circumstances. In the author’s mind, this is how God works in creation.

This is another area where Open Theism scores a big “win” over the traditional views of God. In Calvinism, God not only allows evil, he causes evil. Since everything is predestined by His power, He caused the holocaust, He causes pedophiles to rape children, etc. In the “traditional evangelical” view, He allows evil to happen for some specified good. Thus, the evangelical is forced to believe that if the holocaust had not happened, or if the pedophile had not raped the 6-year-old girl, something even worse would have happened. Open Theism will have nothing to do with such thoughts. In Open Theism, the problem of evil is placed squarely on the shoulders of people. God gave us Free Will so that we can flourish, but as a result, we can make mistakes as well. In order to be fully loving, He cannot just step in and protect us from the consequences of our actions. If we “make our bed,” we must “sleep in it.” Evil, then, is a consequence of a loving God giving us Free Will and genuinely wanting us to use that Free Will.

The final chapter of the book (written by David Basinger) deals with the practical implications of this view of God. For example, since God has not preordained all but the most important aspects of the future, He doesn’t necessarily have a “plan” for each person’s life. He is not like the overbearing father who insists his son should be a doctor regardless of what the son wants. Instead, He is the loving father who simply wants His children to be the most that they can be. As a result, His general plan is for us to be fulfilled. He lets us fill in most of the details. The idea, then, that God “speaks to us” by certain events happening just isn’t true, at least not as a general rule. We don’t assume that a university’s acceptance is a “sign” that we should attend that university and its rejection is a “sign” that we should not. Instead, the university accepts or rejects us as a result of its own, flawed process. The Christian makes the most of whichever outcome occurs, trusting that God will intervene if absolutely necessary.

From a practical point of view, that’s the most important issue for Open Theism – the “level” at which God intervenes. Unlike the incoherent Calvinist view, God doesn’t preordain what we will do with our lives, whom we will marry, or whether or not we are part of the elect. Unlike the less incoherent “traditional evangelical” view, God isn’t constantly meddling (opening doors here, closing doors there) in our day-to-day lives to guide us into following “His plan” for our lives. Instead God is intimately involved in our lives on a personal level. He rejoices with us when we are happy and grieves with us when we are sad. Much like a loving parent, however, He does not try to manipulate us into doing what He wants us to do. Instead, He “gives us a lot of rope,” allowing us to make our own mistakes and win our own victories. He is hesitant to step in and take over, as that would not be the loving thing to do. However, when we ask for His help, He gives it, if it the best thing for us at the time. In addition, if the situation is grave, He might even step in without our asking, once again, like a loving parent might do when he sees his child head down a path that would lead to ultimate destruction.

So am I an Open Theist? I have no idea. There are aspects of this view of God that are much more appealing than any other view of which I am aware. I think the main benefit is that some Scriptures I have always been forced to “explain away” (such as the main thrust of the entire book of Jonah ) can be taken at face value in the model of Open Theism. Of course, if I do that, there are other Scriptures (like Mal 3:6, Heb 13:8) that must be interpreted differently from the way I have interpreted them up to this point. There are philosophical considerations (such as the problem of evil) that are easier to understand in this view than the other major views of God, and that intrigues me as well.

In order to help me “flesh this out” a bit more, I have sent this book to one of the most staggering intellects with whom I am acquainted. Once she has read it, I might have a better handle on whether or not I would call myself an Open Theist.