One of the earlier books seeking to articulate the new paradigm of ‘open theism’ was The Openness of God, by Clark Pinnock et al (1994). The following year, Christianity Today published a response from Roger Olson, Douglas Kelly, Timothy George and Alister McGrath. What follows is based on Olson’s response.
In open theism, says Olson,
God is no longer to be understood as an immutable monarch controlling human history and individual lives, but rather is to be seen as a self-limiting, loving, and suffering father who allows himself to be affected by his creatures.
Open theism is not another name for the process theology of Whitehead and others. Open theists are happy to assert God’s omnipotence (i.e. that he is able to do anything that is consistent with his own nature). God, for them, is the creator of all things. God could control his creatures if he wished to do so, but in giving them free will has chosen not to control by force, but to influence through persuasion.
Open theism may be seen as an extreme form of Aminianism. Its proponents seek to derive their doctrine of God from Scripture, regarding classical theism as contaminated by Neo-Platonism and other alien philosophies.
In the minds of Pinnock and others, classical theism over-emphasises God’s transcendence and de-emphasises his Trinitarian personhood. In Olson’s summary,
the effect has been a theology of meticulous providence in which God is supposed to control all events—including the original Fall and its consequent sin and evil. The authors argue that this is simply inconsistent with the overall picture of God given in revelation: a God who repents, grieves, and suffers.
The authors of The Openness of God argue that we cannot regard all biblical references to changes of mind on God’s part as anthropomorphisms, that classical theism makes unbiblical concessions to pagan philosophy, that the Bible portrays God as self-limiting for our sakes, that the theology of divine openness is rationally superior to competing understandings, and that open theology has practical appeal for Christian spirituality.
Pinnock et al place high value on logical coherence in theology: one cannot say both that God knows the future with absolute certainty and that he gives individuals real choice regarding salvation. They take a non-compatabilist view of freedom, insisting that true freedom entails being able to choose between the available options without any predetermination.
For open theists, then, God does not determine or even know in advance what decisions his creatures will make. But if, as open theists concede, God will certainly bring about his kingdom at the close of history, why deny that he will certainly bring about certain human choices and decisions on the way to that kingdom?
Again, if God’s knowledge of the future is incomplete, does this mean that some of his predictions might be wrong? When Jesus told Peter that he would deny him, is it possible that he might not have denied him?
Olson does not regard these problems as fatal to open theism, but certainly sufficient to raise some discomfort.
Douglas Kelly, in his response to this book by Clark Pinnock and others, recognises that it touches on highly important practical issues such as intercessory prayer and how to resist evil.
But, in Kelly’s view, the authors make huge mistake by denying that God can be infinite and personal at the same time. To deal with us personally, they assert, God must either be finite or he must refrain from using his infinitude. He must either actually not know the future or he must voluntarily set aside his infinite knowledge in order to guarantee free and responsible decision-making on the part of humankind.
In the way that they draw attention to biblical passages that speak, for example, of divine ‘repentance’ Pinnock et al have, according to Kelly, failed to think through the profound differences between created and finite being and uncreated and infinite beings. Thus they have assumed that a work which implies certain limitations for human beings must imply those same limitations for God. As Hilary of Poitiers pointed out in the 4th century, human words are subject to God, not vice versa. We must not impose our creaturely limitations on God.
By failing to recognise such important distinctions, the authors of The Openness of God neglect one side of Scripture’s testimony (such as God’s sovereignty) in order to maximise the other side (such as human responsibility).
Timothy George begins his response to Pinnock et al’s book of this title by pointing out that this is a challenge to the classical doctrine of God from within the ranks of evangelicalism, and on putatively biblical grounds.
In George’s view, the authors (like Harnack before them) pit ‘the dynamic, interactive God of the Hebrew Scriptures over against the static, transcendent God of the Greek philosophers’. But in doing so they succumb to an unscriptural process view of reality.
The authors also pit the God’s love against his power. But, says George, ‘the God of the Bible is both personal and all-powerful, a God of covenant relations with his people, and yet utterly fulfilled within his own dynamic, Trinitarian life.’
Furthermore, the authors of this book deny that God’s knowledge of future human decisions can be squared with free and responsible human decision-making. But, again, this is to refuse to let God be God.
In the view of open theists, God cannot know the future with any certainty.
This reduces biblical prophecy to wishful thinking, albeit divine wishful thinking. It also forces the authors to opt for the “oops theory” of salvation history. If Plan A fails, go to Plan B. And it leaves them little to say about eschatology, except for the vague hope that somehow good will triumph over evil.
How could we fall down and worship such a transcendence-starved deity?
Alister McGrath, in his response to the provocative work of Pinnock and others, asks, ‘whatever happened to Luther?’
McGrath notes that John Sanders, in his attempt to correct what he sees as an historical hellenisation of the biblical doctrine of God, has failed to see that the road has been travelled long before, not least by Martin Luther, who set out to rid theology of undue Aristotelian influence, leaving room for him to develop his teaching on the ‘suffering God’.
Noting the strong Arminianism of some of the contributors to the volume, McGrath set out to discover whether a theology of a suffering God can be found in the hymns of that celebrated Arminian Charles Wesley. The answer, of course, is ‘Yes’:-
Amazing love! how can it be/That thou, my God, shouldst die for me?
‘Tis mystery all! th’immortal dies/Who can explain his strange design?
The evidence would suggest that if open theists wish to correct what they see as wrong turns in the historical development of the doctrine of God, they ought first to make themselves better acquainted with that history.