Open Schmopen

Continuing the thoughts in my last post, it occurs to me how much of the prevalent TE theology appears to be influenced by the Open Theism propounded first by the late Clark Pinnock around 1980, and by other popular leaders such as John Sanders, Peter Wagner and (over here) Roger Forster. This may have been encouraged by the espousal of the new theology by scientists and other writers on theistic evolution like John Polkinghorne, Francis Collins, Karl Giberson, John Haught and Ken Miller. But some similar view of God seems to inform even those who (as far as I know) would not call themselves Open Theists, such as George Murphy in his emphasis on the God-given independence of creation.
Indeed, it almost appears that theistic evolution nowadays is a joint enterprise with Open Theism, a connection that has not, perhaps, received the attention due to it, though it’s pointed out here , here, and here.

As I said in my last post, I don’t consider there is any fundamental reason for theistic evolution to depart from mainstream theological positions, whether those positions are Evangelical, Catholic or Orthodox. The predominance of Open Theology in the discussion therefore creates something of a theological tension for many of us. As far as I am concerned, Open Theism is the logical extension of Arminianism, an extension that was both predicted and dealt with by the great Puritan theologian, John Owen, over three centuries ago.

My main point here is to address OT’s approach to Scripture, which it claims to take more seriously that “classical theology”. At the heart of the matter, people like Pinnock take very literally passages (usually in narrative) in which God appears to relent, change his mind, be surprised by circumstances and so on. By contrast, passages such as those in the prophets which speak unequivocally of his sovereign foresight and determination of events, including the outcomes of human choices and “chance”, are taken to be polemical, for which read “exaggerated”, or conditional.

Reformed theology, on the other hand, takes an opposite view. Direct pronouncements are taken to be literally truthful (with the proviso that anything we say about God is analogical), and the passages suggesting God’s lack of foresight or change of mind are understood to be accommodated to human understanding and God’s ways of communicating with limited human beings.

Both sides, then, claim to be faithful to Scripture, and the OTs particularly are insistent that they fall within the realm of mainstream Christianity on essentials (whilst often criticising their opponents for not taking Scripture seriously enough). So is it possible to decide which side actually possesses the Biblical high ground?

Here are my thoughts on the matter, in the form of a question. Are we, as earthly, sinful humans, more likely to prefer a God made in our image, or a God whose Otherness cuts across what we would like him to be?

The Open Theist view sees a narrative passage and says, “See – God is like us. He is open to change and correction, he is surprised by events, he is wrongfooted by human choices, and he holds hopes for the future which, in many cases, are frustrated.” Then it sees a straight pronouncement of God’s transcendence and says, “See, God is like us – he exaggerates his abilities for polemic effect, and makes absolute statements of intent which, in reality, depend on our choices and the vagaries of random events.”

Traditional theology, on the other hand, sees the same pronouncements and says, “God claims the kind of sovereignty that is radically different from anything else in the world. He even creates humbling mysteries about the limitation of my freedom of will, and even the limitation of physical reality to explain events.” Then, in looking at the narrrative passages it says, “See – God is so different from us that he must graciously stoop to our level to make genuine communication possible.”

That, to me, is the real issue amidst all the rhetoric about freedom, openness, vibrancy and those other buzz-words intended by the open theists to paint their opponents’ God in the category of yet another god-in-our-image – the inflexible, controlling despot who would stultify the Universe by the very act of designing it, let alone creating it to fulfil his divine purpose.

Those two versions of the God of Christianity are, indeed, poles apart. You may guess which seems to me more worthy of worship.

Jon Garvey

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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3 Responses to Open Schmopen

  1. Cal says:

    It seems to me that Open Theism is both a) a logical outflowing of classical arminianism and b) a violent reaction against the fatalism that comes from hyper-calvinism that sort of oozes out as the natural response in neo-calvinist circles.

    I think it is very Biblical that men have a freedom of sorts to choose, even under the weight of sin (don’t mistake this as anyway Pelagian). Yet God is the chief director, He poses the questions and flips the world upside down with a spoken word He delivers to the prophets. Can a man, when reading an adventure book, really say that the author is changing his mind when the man goes through the jungle instead of over the mountain? A simple analogy but the point is made.

    I think Arminianism in most cases is dreadfully wrong, and yet traditional Calvinism is lacking deeply from a combined scholastic systematization and a violent war against deistic enlightenment tendencies.

    I rather liked Jacques Ellul’s discussion on it in his book “The politics of God and the politics of man” in chapter 7 (here’s a link to the online book: http://www.religion-online.org/showbook.asp?title=1506). God is completely sovereign and yet we are still responsible. A dialectic tension surely!

  2. Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

    Hi Cal

    Can’t disagree with most of this. Hypercalvinism was always a fringe, so it’s hard to see why allegedly sophisticated theologians like Pinnock should feel the need to react to the point of throwing the baby (in this case, the entire nature of God) out with the bathwater. Education is supposed to guard you from Groupthink, but it seems whole movements take hold in churches and seminaries despite, rather than because of, the strength of their arguments.

    Amen, amen to your last point. The Bible pretty consistently refuses to resolves that dialectic, saying instead, “He is God, and you a mere man.”

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