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Saturday, December 09, 2006

Open Theism in a nutshell

For the past decade or so there has been a raging controversy about a new theological position known as Open Theism. A couple of years back I did some research on Open Theism and put together a rather lengthy paper introducing and discussing some of the main issues: Open Theism - An Introductory Presentation. My research was based almost exclusively on the proponents of Open Theism, themselves. Due to the polarizing debates I thought it would be best to avoid some of the purely polemical and inflaming rhetoric coming from the opponents of Open Theism.

I would like to break down Open Theism and provide a more concise summary. This summary comes from my paper, which means that it is primarily based on what the Open Theists say, themselves. The main advocates are Clark Pinnock, John Sanders, and Greg Boyd.

It is important to understand that Open Theism, as a theology is rooted in the biblical text. It is, first and foremost, an attempt to take seriously the language of Scripture that describes God and the world as open, changing, and constantly in flux.

The issue of metaphor is important. There are a wide variety of metaphors in Scripture that describe God. Of these metaphors it is important to determine what is being said of God and what is not being said about God. The metaphors in question are those that describe God in some way as changing or being open. How do we take these open metaphors? Traditionally these metaphors have been marginalized as not depicting who God really is. The metaphors are given for our benefit or for various reasons, but the openness metaphors are not depicting who God actually is. The Open Theist tends to differ.

For Open Theists these metaphors are reality depicting. Pinnock talks about taking seriously the “dynamic and relational” metaphor. These are metaphors that depict a dynamic, relational, suffering, changing, and repenting God. Not only are these metaphors that should be taken seriously, but for an Open Theist these metaphors are “controlling metaphors.” A controlling metaphor is “able to bring coherence to a range of biblical thinking about God; they provide a hermeneutical key for interpreting the whole.” (The Suffering God, 11) So, not only are open metaphors taken seriously, but they are also crucial: We must interpret other passages of Scripture in light of the metaphors of openness.

On pages 8-13 of my Introductory Presentation I review Greg Boyd’s interaction with the themes and metaphors of openness found in Scripture. He lists several categories and Scriptural passages that suggest the openness of God and of our world: God regrets, God asks questions about the future, God confronts the unexpected, God is frustrated, God tests people to know their character, God speaks in terms of what may or may not be, and in Jeremiah 18 Boyd considers the flexible potter (for Boyd the flexible potter is one of the quintessential examples of openness). For more on this I will direct you to my paper and also to Boyd’s God of the Possible.

Going along with the Scriptural theme of the openness of God is a philosophical position of free will. More specifically, most Open Theists hold to some form of Libertarian free will or Incompatibilism. Incompatibilism holds that free will is incompatible with determinism. What is determinism? Determinism holds that one’s actions are determined by factors outside or exterior to one’s self. For example, a chain of causes and effects have been put in place so that we could not do other than we did. Or that we could not make a choice other than the choice that we made. Our actions and choices are predetermined. Incompatibilism allows for moments of decision that could, legitimately, go either way. That there are at least some choices of freedom that cannot be determined or predicted. That freedom just is the fact that a choice could go either way, and cannot be predetermined.

Aside from arguing from the biblical text Sanders uses three rather standard arguments for libertarian freewill. Briefly, they are as follows: Libertarian free will is necessary if we are to have genuine loving relationships, Libertarian free will is necessary if our thought is to be rational, Libertarian free will is necessary if we are to be held morally responsible for good/evil in a way that really makes a difference. Furthermore, the libertarian can maintain that God did not want Adam to sin but would not control Adam’s sin. And libertarian freedom must be presupposed in order to make sense of God’s grieving over sin and entering into genuine dialogue with us. You can reference these in more detail on pages 17-18 of my Introductory Presentation.

Open Theists have also called into question what it means that God is “perfect.” What is perfection? Is a being imperfect if they change? If they are open? If they are flexible? Is God imperfect if he is a part of time and space and allows himself to be influenced by it? Clark Pinnock states, “It is tempting to think of God abstractly as a perfect being and then smuggle in assumptions of what ‘perfect’ entails.” (Most Moved Mover, 65-66)

It is sometimes argued that Open Theists limit God’s knowledge or do not believe that God is omniscient (all knowing). But for Open Theists God is all knowing, but because the universe is open and not foreknown or predetermined even God cannot know what will happen in the future. This is a debatable issue, even within Open Theism because as soon as you posit that the future is unknown then it begs the question of how God will fulfill his promises for the future. Or how will God bring about ultimate justice? For the Open Theist these promises and future fulfillments will come about, but it is usually based on God’s superior power to conquer, rather than on God having knowledge of all the details of how things will work out. Because the universe is open and not closed/predetermined even God cannot see into the future. (For more a bit more of the details on the philosophy behind knowledge of the future see my Introductory Presentation, 18-21.)

Thus far we have looked at some of the biblical positions of Open Theists as well as their philosophical positions on certain issues. The final argument developed by Open Theists is an existential argument: Open Theism is presented as a more livable theology. Open Theists argue that often the traditional theological formulations of doctrine develop a tension between belief and lifestyle. For example, a Christian will believe that the future is closed and determined, and yet he or she will be expected to pray for a certain outcome to take place. This begs the question of why one should pray at all if the future is determined.

Open Theists also argue that a theology of openness better allows believers to live with the evil in the world. Traditional theologies have a difficult time excusing God of blame for the evil in the world. If God has predetermined all things, then God has predetermined evil. This is a difficult reality to live with. Open Theism holds that evil exists, not because God predetermined that it should exist, but because God gave humanity free will – a free will that could go either will and was completely undetermined – and that because of free choices evil came into being. As such, evil is the result of sinful choices.

And what about genuine relationships? It is argued by Open Theists that for a relationship to be real both parties must undergo change – they must be affected by each other. This is no different in the God-human relationship. Both the person and God are affected by their relationship. Furthermore, for this relationship to be authentic we must not be preprogrammed to love – love must be a free choice. We must be able to accept or reject our relationship with God and our decision in this matter cannot be predetermined.

Links of Interest:
Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Open_Theism
Open Theism Information Site: http://www.opentheism.info/
Theopedia: http://www.theopedia.com/Open_theism


Melody said...

Hard to comment on something that, for such a complex topic, has such a short summery.

Generally though, from your summery, it appears that Open Theism is dedicated to knocking down a straw man.

Where are these Christians who believe that the future is predetermined? I don't know any.

Rather, most Christians believe that while God knows the future he does not predetermin what it will be any more than I predermin that Christmas shall come on the 25th of the year. It is simply what is.

Because it is widely believed that God does exist outside of time there is no contradiction to believe that he both knows what will happen and responds to what what we do to affect what will happen. Words like "will" being somewhat ineffectual, since there is no future as we experience it, for God.

It's sort of an odd "fate pretzel", but it is much more believable than an omnipotent God that says, "Oops!"

Jesse and Sarah said...

A few comments. In the section regarding God's body of knowledge, I believe an open theist would claim that God in fact knows all the possible outcomes in the future, so although he would not know the actual future because it does not exist, his realm of knowledge is quite larger than opponents of open theism would suggest.
The issue of time is important and I am glad Melody brought it up. It should be noted that God being outside of time is a philosophical assumption that many Christians make, the fact is many Christians are challenging this assumption. I have quoted him before, but again, Paul Helm, in opposition to this idea admits,"the language of scripture about God and time is not sufficiently precise so as to provide a definitive resolution of the issue one way or the other. So it would be unwise for the eternalist to claim that divine timeless eternity is entailed by the language of scripture"(God and Time, p.31).
Final note. Open theism does seem to be a backlash to the extreme Calvinistic ideas, however I think the argument used by open theists for Libertarian freedom still holds for Armenian ideas about how God knows the future. If God knows it ahead of time, is the choice really free? Did God know the future indefinitely when he chose to create? If so, he purposely chose to create damned individuals whether he desired their damnation or not. So Armenianism lacks explanatory power as well in regards to libertarian freedom.

Jonathan Erdman said...

Thanks, Jesse. Those are some good points of clarification.

William Lane Craig is one of a group of conservative Christian philosophers who hold to the view that God is within time in some way. Here are a few links that might be helpful regarding whether God is within time or exists outside of time. They are good introductory essays on the issue of God's relationship to time.
"God and Real Time" where Craig discusses A and B Theories of time:
"Timelessness and Omnitemporality" discusses Craig's view of God's relationship to time and some difficulties he perceives for those who hold that God is timeless:
Here are a bundle of essays by Craig on the topic of God, time and eternity (the ones above are also no this list):

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