A Challenging Faith
The Bible is certainly an eccentric book. You can find some very strange stories and passages within its pages. It is also a very difficult book. The story of a father who sacrifices his daughter because of a vow; talk of dashing children’s heads against the rocks (Psalm 137:8–9); the parable of the Shrewd Manager; these stories and many more are challenging and answers are not so clearly evident on a first, second or third reading. There is a grappling that is necessary for correctly understanding what is being said. In one instance a passage is obvious; at others, it can be deeply confusing, confining or challenging. As one who has studied literature, I appreciate this. The Bible is not a Danielle Steele novel. The book that God gave us is challenging and thought-provoking. It makes us use our minds and hearts in a way that we don’t normally do. [pullquote]The Bible is not a Danielle Steele novel. The book that God gave us is challenging and thought-provoking. It makes us use our minds and hearts in a way that we don’t normally do.[/pullquote] Most importantly, it forces us to rely on the Holy Spirit with all our being to understand these extraordinary words we read.
In the past, those who maintain an open view of God have taken a beating at the hands of many other theologians and Christian lay writers. This is troubling because in reality the Open View theologians are wrestling with the Scriptures and looking at verses or stories that just don’t fit with what has been taught in the past. Are they correct in every assessment? Perhaps not. However, they are delving deeper into the words God gave us than maybe we have done in many years since. Like Jacob, they are wrestling with God.
One theologian who truly wrestled with the Scriptures was the late Clark Pinnock. A remarkable theologian who was instrumental in clarifying the infallibility of Scripture later in life took on the view of Open Theology. Let’s explore what that exactly is.
So What Did Clark Pinnock Believe?
There are essentially three areas where Open Theism stands in conflict with the classic view of theology, the Calvinist-Augustinian view. The issues below are ones that make classic theists roll their eyes and offer strong disagreement—these three viewpoints: the power or sovereignty of God, the immutability of God and finally, God’s foreknowledge.
a. The Power or Sovereignty of God
The Classic View of God’s power is that God is sovereign and in control of all human and supernatural events. As the Reformed theologian R.C. Sproul has said, “If there is any part of creation outside of God’s sovereignty, then God is simply not sovereign. If God is not sovereign, then God is not God.” (R.C. Sproul, Chosen by God, p. 26) The Classic or Calvinist view holds that God must be in control of all events, in all places and in all times. This is where we get the strong insistence in predestination; that we as each person were either chosen by God to be in relationship with him or not. Our salvation depends nothing on us; it is all up to God. There is no choice and no freedom. We are either destined for heaven or hell; the choice is God’s alone.
The Open View sees things differently. They do not see the use of the word sovereignty as synonymous with control. Beyond that, if we have the choice of freedom in our lives as they believe, it is inevitable that God had to give up some “control.” This is an important summation of this theology—there are always consequences or ramifications to what you believe and these beliefs must be thought out and weighed. When it comes to the doctrine of providence each path leads to places that have troubling repercussions. But right away you may be thinking What?! God is not in control? How could this be? Isn’t this a basic of Christianity? Pinnock insists, sovereignty has to do with rule and authority, not control. He argues in response that God still has control, but not in a way that is deterministic, dominating, and monopolistic. [pullquote]Pinnock insists, sovereignty has to do with rule and authority, not control. He argues in response that God still has control, but not in a way that is deterministic, dominating, and monopolistic. [/pullquote]A word that open theists will use is that God is “omniresourceful.” God at times maybe has to adjust to certain circumstances, because of human free will, but He is ready and has the wherewithal to never be caught off-guard. This, Pinnock argues, is a truly omnipotent Creator.
Yet this does not make God weak, for it requires more power to rule over an undetermined world than it would over a determined one. Creating free creatures and working with them does not contradict God’s omnipotence but requires it…God’s power presently is more subtle, much greater in fact than the coercive power of a puppeteer. Monopoly power is easy to manage—more difficult is power that makes free agents and governs a universe where creatures can disobey. (Clark Pinnock, The Openness of God, 113–114)
b. The Immutability of God
This is not the only place where Open Theists have caused controversy. They also conclude that God can change. The Reformed theologian insists, “How can this be? Scripture upon scripture voices that God does not change.”
Also the Strength of Israel will not lie nor repent; for he is not a man, that he should repent. (1 Samuel 15:29)
Remember the former things of old: for I am God, and there is none else; I am God, and there is none like me; declaring the end from the beginning, and from ancient times things that are not yet done; saying, My counsel shall stand, and I will do all my pleasure; calling a ravenous bird from the east, the man of my counsel from a far country; yes, I have spoken, I will also bring it to pass; I have purposed, I will also do it. (Isaiah 46:9–11)
“If God were to change where would this leave us? What if he decided to change his mind about us, about salvation? No, God never changes,” says the classic theist.
The Open theologian goes even further, he demands that God even changes his mind, he rethinks his thinking! Pinnock reports that by looking at the texts of the Bible, it is obvious from many different references that God did change his mind and continues to do so. In particular, the book of Jonah depicts this forthrightly by saying God actually “repented” of the evil he said he would do. Not only this, this is a God who asks questions (Numbers 14:11), One who regrets decisions (I Samuel 15:11), and One who finds out things (Genesis 2:19). In fact, Pinnock also suggests that God even learns through the process of redeeming the world.
This implies that God learns things and (I would add) enjoys learning them. It does not mean that God is anybody’s pupil or that he has to overcome ignorance and learn things of which he should have been aware. It means that God created a dynamic and changing world and enjoys getting to know it.(Clark Pinnock, The Openness of God, pp. 123–124)
[pullquote]Pinnock is very clear in what he is saying about this. “God is unchanging in nature and essence, but not in experience, knowledge and action.” [/pullquote](Clark Pinnock, The Openness of God, pp. 113–114) He is not espousing that God’s nature or who he is to the core changes or is altered. But with the interaction with his children, God can change his mind as well as what he does.
c. The Knowledge of God
For many, probably the most troubling stance of the open theologian is the view that God is not omniscient in the sense that we have thought about that term in the past. Again, similar to the issue of God’s power or control, classic theists see God’s knowledge as exhaustive and definitive. He knows everything even before it happens. Classic theists argue that this brings comfort and security. If God knows everything, he can control everything. “Again,” the classic theist would ask, “how could you take such a view that God doesn’t know everything? Have you read the Scriptures? Just start with the prophets and you will see that God knows everything that will happen and what will be.” However, open theologians insist that we must think out our theology and understand the ramifications of these beliefs. If God knows everything then that lends itself to everything being fixed. And if everything is fixed then we can not be made as creations of love, but we are simply robots controlled by the hands of God.
The Open theologian would argue an important point, when it applies to God’s limited knowledge, one begins to see this truth when reading the stories found in Scripture. As a past seminary professor once said, those who have an open view of God (or Arminians) lean toward narrative theology; they see the Bible as a tremendous story to be engaged in, not just a list of doctrinal statements for us to abide to and check off.
What does the Bible say about God’s knowledge? It says, for example, that God tested Abraham to see what he would do and after the test says through the angel: “Now I know that you fear God.” (Genesis 22:12) This was a piece of information that God was eager to secure. (Clark Pinnock, The Openness of God, pp. 121–122)
And this leads us to the final point. Open theologians are often accused of over-limiting God’s knowledge. Those with an open view of God insist that he knows what he needs to know, which is most everything. A misconception that some may hold about this emphasis is that God knows very little, if nearly nothing. However, this is not their stance on the issue. Open View theologians maintain that God does not need to know everything exhaustively or in a deterministic fashion-—again, he knows what he needs to know.
How Did We Get Here? What Have We Become?
A question some may ask is: how did this Open View of God come about? Was it just some theologians playing where they shouldn’t? Or did it come about as a real response to something wrong with our present understanding of God?
a. The Influence of C.S. Lewis and Free Will Theism
Other than the Wesleyans, Arminianism has been pretty much a non-issue within the world of evangelicalism. Calvinism or Reformed theology has ruled the day in most denominations. However, it can be argued that one of the most influential “theologians” of the twentieth century has been C.S. Lewis. Many of us have grown up on his books such as Mere Christianity, Screwtape Letters, The Problem of Pain, The Great Divorce and many others. [pullquote]For the evangelical church, especially the American one, C.S. Lewis is our patron saint. Open Theology in some ways came out of his writings and the generations that followed him have been highly influenced by his thoughts and writings.[/pullquote] Lewis often spoke of the free choice we had in our relationship to God. In the classic, Mere Christianity, he devotes a substantial part of the chapter, “The Shocking Alternative” to the issue of free will. Listen to some of his words from this book:
Free will is what has made evil possible. Why then, did God give [creatures] free will? Because free will though it makes evil possible, is also the only thing that makes possible any love or goodness or joy worth having.
The happiness God desires for His creatures is…ecstasy of love…And for that they must be free.
The better stuff a creature is made of—the cleverer and stronger and freer it is—then the better it will be if it goes right, but also the worse it will be if it goes wrong.
Because of Lewis the American church has had a subtle, but strong influence with regards to the issue of free will. Though he was not a staunch Arminian, this view pervades most of his works which so many evangelicals have read. An example of this would be in one of the open theists such as Gregory Boyd. In his books, Boyd often quotes Lewis and you see the influence this Englishman had on him. And this makes sense as well. With regard to the issue of free will, Lewis was not influenced by mainstream American Protestantism; more likely, as a storyteller himself, he was persuaded by the stories of Scripture themselves. With regard to the issue of free will, Lewis was not influenced by mainstream American Protestantism; more likely, as a storyteller himself, he was persuaded by the stories of Scripture themselves. [pullquote]With regard to the issue of free will, Lewis was not influenced by mainstream American Protestantism; more likely, as a storyteller himself, he was persuaded by the stories of Scripture themselves.[/pullquote]
b. One Problem with the Doctrine of Predestination
Open View theologians have made us think out our theology and the ramifications of those beliefs. Each doctrine that we have about God has implications. Yet often we either deny these ramifications or do our best to cover it up with Scripture verses out of context. Sometimes worse yet, we attempt to place the truth of God into an acronym like TULIP (i.e., total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace, and perseverance of the saints) which inevitably cannot hold the intricate truths of the Scriptures. We attempt to compartmentalize God. The Openness of God movement is a response to this. It looks at passages and stories in the Bible that show different sides of God and creation from what we may have been previously taught. When viewed in this way, the doctrine of predestination has some ramifications that simply are not biblical. There are many areas in which the Calvinist/Augustine view of God breaks down. One of the main ones is the problem of evil.
The reason Calvinism does not work in the 21st century is because it is not realistic with regard to the world we live. In particular, it leaves major questions untouched when it comes to the problem of evil. If we live in a determined universe to some extent God is responsible for the evil that happens to us. This is a major problem that Open Theologians have with Calvinism. As one example, when we look at the Holocaust, we can conclude, “Where was God? Why did He allow this? What is the greater good that seven million people were brutally murdered and massacred?” There is none, because God did not ordain the heinous acts the Nazis. Again, this was simply human freedom at its worse.
Open theologians contend that classical theologians have neglected the important fact that we live in a war zone and with that, Open theists contend that with regards to their theology, they leave out a crucial character in the biblical story. This person, of course, is the one we find throughout the pages of Scripture—the angelic being, Lucifer or Satan.
David Griffin makes this point that the “realism of the New Testament image of the demonic is lost in the theology of Augustine and other classical theologians because of their monistic monotheism according to which there is only one central power.” He further notes that “the battle between the divine and the demonic is, accordingly, a mock, not a real battle.” (Gregory A. Boyd, Satan and the Problem of Evil, pg. 61)
God is so in control in the Reformed view that there is no room for the evil one and his plans and activity. Furthermore, just like us, he is simply a puppet in God’s hands. However, this is not the biblical view of his interaction with our world. He is a viable enemy to God and his creation, both to believers and to the lost. He is the “god of this age,” (2 Corinthians 4:4) and who even has the power to offer Jesus the kingdoms of this earth (Matthew 4:8–10). He truly is a formidable foe. Even though he is an ultimately defeated adversary, because of the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross, he still does wreak havoc in the lives and happenings of our world.
Leviathan and Rahab encompass the earth and war against God… “Raging waters” of chaos defy the Almighty and threatening his creation must be kept at bay…A sinister spirit of great power is the “god of this world” and “the ruler of the power of the air.” An evil “prince” owns all the kingdoms of this world and indeed controls the entire fallen world…Everything and everyone under his authority has to some extent been affected accordingly. (Gregory A. Boyd, Satan and the Problem of Evil, pp. 301–302)
There are many theories with regards to the Atonement (i.e., why did Jesus die on the cross?). The most prevalent one is substitution, Jesus died on the cross for my sins. However, another important one is what is called the ransom theory—that is, Jesus’ death on the cross ransomed us from the hand of Satan. [pullquote]There are many theories with regards to the Atonement (i.e., why did Jesus die on the cross?). The most prevalent one is substitution, Jesus died on the cross for my sins. However, another important one is what is called the ransom theory—that is, Jesus’ death on the cross ransomed us from the hand of Satan. [/pullquote]Redemption in this case literally means “buying back,” and this theory of atonement was the main view up until the Medieval Period. There are a handful of verses declaring this, but the main one is found in the gospel of Mark: “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (10:45)
Scripture tells us that we are slaves as individuals and those of us who have given our lives to Jesus Christ are a “bought” and freed people. If this is the case, who were we bought from? This is an important “doctrine” that is rarely discussed, but is crucial if we are to understand the story of God and redemption. Essentially, Jesus bought us from the dominion of Satan. When Adam and Eve said “no” to God, they inevitably said “yes” to the one who beguiled them. To some mysterious extent, God is under obligation to keep this contract, because he is just. This being the case, Open theists maintain that he is limited in control to some extent when it comes to the activities of the evil one.
Can’t We Just Get Along
We know that we all possess knowledge. Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. If anyone thinks he knows something, he has not yet learned it as he ought to know it. But if anyone loves God, he is known by him. (1 Corinthians 8:1–3 ISV)
Alfred North Whitehead remarks, “the clash of doctrines is not a disaster, it is an opportunity.” This is clearly the case when one approaches Open Theology. [pullquote]Alfred North Whitehead remarks, “the clash of doctrines is not a disaster, it is an opportunity.” This is clearly the case when one approaches Open Theology.[/pullquote] We have forgotten something very important. Doctrine is not the hinge pin to our salvation. There will be no true or false quizzes or examinations concerning our beliefs in Calvinism or Arminianism. Is doctrine important? Of course, it is. However, too often Christians believe it is the all in all when it comes to having a relationship with God, and it is not. This is the litmus test that you are either in or out by what you think and believe. Yes, there are some crucial aspects of doctrine that need to heeded, but in large part many theological disagreements are just that, arguments. That is why it is so disappointing and sad that some theologians have said some very hard words when it concerns the late Clark Pinnock. A quote from John Sanders reflects this:
[Clark is] often seen as a threat by the evangelical doorkeepers. In large part this may be because evangelical theology, rather than being innovative and theoretically reflective self-critical, operates more like the practice of accounting in the business field—it insists in proceeding only by pre-approved rules and fixed formulae and formats. (Callen, Barry. Clark Pinnock: Journey Toward Renewal, pg. 4)
Correct doctrine does not give us a right relationship with God. Theological struggles like this when they go awry entirely disarm our message before the world. How does Jesus says that the world will know him—because of our unity and love for one another. (John 17:20–23) They will never know him because of our doctrinal stances and the theology that we hold. If we lose our unity and love for one another and continue to live so dogmatically in our beliefs (I would argue like the Pharisees), the world will be lost on our splintered and unlovely message.
We must become more modest in our claims. I do not have the final answers. Theology is an unfinished task, and all of our efforts at interpretation are limited in insight. As Paul says, “We see through a glass darkly.” There is more to be known about God than any of us presently knows. (Pinnock, Clark, “The Pilgrim on the Way, Christianity Today, 1998)
If you would like to delve deeper in understanding Open Theology, I would recommend the books below.
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