Open – but closed for business?

I’m still trying to get to grips with the Open Theism that is the ruling theological paradigm at BioLogos in particular, and apparently amongst theistic evolutionists in genereral.

At the core of Open Theism is the idea that God is restricted to time just as we are, so cannot know the future because it does not yet exist. Time being a physical part of creation, one would be able to ascertain exactly in which time-frame God is working only by learning his velocity. In theory, he would have a completely different sense of elapsed time were he to be managing the affairs of a light-speed photon rather than those of a believer on earth or, yet again, another sentient being on a world moving away from us at sub-light velocity. Open theists don’t seem to grapple with the physics of God, but maybe that’s for another post, or another writer.

Along with God’s space-time limitations in OT comes the idea that, because of his love, he gives sentient beings more or less sacrosanct libertarian free-will (borrowing from straight Arminianism here) and even changes his mind in response to them. Thus prayer becomes literally a powerful weapon, the stronghold it brings tumbling down being, predominantly, the will of God. In some cases prayer is seen as so powerful as to be dangerous – pray hard enough and God is obligated to answer, even if that causes unforeseen harm.

What seems a problem here is that nearly any answer to prayer is likely to involve interference with someone or other’s will. If I pray hard to get a job, omitting (as per the teaching of some OTs) the faithless concept of “if it be thy will”, then presumably to answer such a prayer God would have to move the minds of the interview board, who otherwise may have chosen the atheist next in line. If I pray for the life of a suicidal relative, God has to cut across their desire to die. You may say that the relative is not of sound mind, but OTs accept that all people are sinners, and therefore not of sound mind – and yet they say that God cannot, and will not, compromise our autonomy.

It seems to me such problems of God’s “room to manoeuvre” are far more acute in the evolution field, where Open Theism is de rigeur. TEs are extremely strong on the role of natural processes, in the form (usually) of text-book Neodarwinism, to account for all of life. Over the months I’ve come to see that this is not on the grounds that I would agree with – a strong doctrine of Providence, by which God is so intimately involved in the creation and sustaining of the Universe that nothing occurs apart from his will. Instead, it is predicated on the concept of God’s granting of creative freedom to the inanimate realm of nature. I’ve said elsewhere that in my view this is completely meaningless tosh, but let’s run with it for the moment.

This natural freedom is, if anything, more of an absolute than libertarian free-will is claimed to be. For example, TEs are highly antagonistic to Creationists not just because of their denial of scientific evidence, but because the idea of God’s miraculous intervention in creation is seen as a denial of his liberal nature. But even the more limited claims of ID are anathema, because the whole idea of design in nature is to make God a rigid dead hand on the tiller of life, as opposed to the vibrancy and creativity with which it is actually endowed. So it’s blasphemous (quote) even to suggest that God would be directly involved in the origin of life, highly complex structures, front-loading with design information (even sometimes) or the emergence of mankind itself. The Open Theology God may be keen to change his mind and answer prayer, but discerning his hand in any biological process is an absolute no-no. Blasphemy, in fact.

Note to what detail this extends. The Demiurge Evolution, not God, is accountable for the “egregious design faults” found in organisms, and even in the whole competitive and bloody pattern of life. God would not interfere even if he could. Otherwise, being the all-loving God, he would have changed things, right? Since he hasn’t, it is because he can’t (being little better than us at planning for the future) and because he won’t, the freedom of his insentient creation being more important to him than his own.

There are frequent claims that humanity was not specifically planned by God, and that he would as willingly have stepped in to save an intelligent race of octopi or dinosaurs. He patiently waited for evolution to turn up the rational goods by its own free-will by its creative combination of chance and necessity. For him to predetermine, still less actively create, humans would would be unacceptable interference in the natural order which, for reasons rather vague to me, are as inviolable to him as the glass case containing the British crown jewels.

Equally vaguely, as it seems to me, behind this scenario is the idea that God is so wise and loving that he “uses” these processes to bring about his will – that indeed is pretty well the only sense in which he can be said to be Creator, for most of the heavy lifting is done by chance and natural selection. What nobody ever says is how he uses them, when the theology forbids him to do anything but watch his errant universe unfold. Somewhere in the mix, maybe, is Christus Victor theology, which has Christ’s incarnation eventually put everything right by charming people away from their biological heritage towards a liberal democratic version of Christian virtue.

But hold on a minute. We are not dealing with the Augustinian model of a God outside of space-time, for whom every moment is “now”, and for whom the sending of his Son in the last days is an act in eternity. The Open Theist God, remember, is consigned to moving through time as we are. He’s at least 14.5 billion years old (it’s not clear how he can have existed before time came into existence at the Big Bang). And he’s been watching the affairs of earth unfold for 4.5 billion years, and observing evolution do wonderfully creative, if somewhat deviant, things for 3 billion of those. Perhaps it was very interesting for him.

But before humans arrived, and gave him increasing opportunities to change his mind and answer prayer without stepping on the toes of anyone’s will, what was he actually doing? If you were God (and OT is heavily dependent on the essential similarity between ourselves and God), would you have been content to watch the interminably slow process of evolution introducing all kinds of predation and disease antagonistic to your nature, and yet do absolutely nothing detectable to steer it? Wouldn’t any sentient being get rather – well – bored with nothing to do except wait for an intelligent race to arise to enable ones victorious incarnation?

Maybe I could develop Open Theism a little further along the logical lines of such a scenario by suggesting that God was not only bored, but somewhat peeved, after such a frustrating period of unemployment. Such a God, so like ourselves after all, might well do all the nasty things in the Old Testament, currently dismissed as mythical by the cognoscenti, out of sheer spite. Open Theism is literalistic when it comes to narratives about God’s repentance – perhaps it leads logically to literalism about Old Testament vindictiveness, simply by being more hard-headedly realistic about God’s damaged psychology.

Some may say that such a train of thought would make the whole of Christian theology both incoherent and alien to the Bible’s actual teachings. I can only agree, but say that the rest of Open Theism did the same thing years ago.

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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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6 Responses to Open – but closed for business?

  1. Cal says:

    Very good post!

    However, you’ve mischaracterized “Christus Victor”. That is He has freed us from death and sin, that we’re now free in Him, victorious through His making a spectacle of the powers and princes of this world. This is very biblical thinking, and very comforting indeed. Your problem would be rather Abelard’s exemplary model that we see the sacrifice of Christ as so moving we’re now moved to act, “charmed to liberal democratic values” as you were.

    “Christus Victor” is the King freeing slaves by His cross and His defeat of Sin. Abelard’s theory is rank moralism. Rather than He coming to grab us by the wrist and pull us out of darkness, it is Him courting us like a Plato, telling us how good it would be to follow Him. Yes OT does use Abelard but being such a staunch defender of “Christus Victor”, really reckoning myself dead to sin, I can not abide! 🙂

    Also, I wonder if you’d sort of flesh out the main opposition which is “nature is red in tooth and claw”. I admit it is a decent point made, maybe I’m too sentimental.

  2. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    Thanks Cal. I’d agree with you on Abelard, and I wouldn’t wish to deny Christus Victor as a real aspect of Biblical atonement. What I object to is OT’s:
    (a) excluding other important elements: as John Stott quotes from John Eadie, “Our redemption is a work at once of price and power – of expiation and of conquest. On the cross was the purchase made, and on the cross was the victory gained.”
    (b) tying it to an Abelardian voluntarism and
    (c) making it a victory not so much over sin, guilt and the devil, but over his own wayward creation, of which sin is merely a symptom.

    Regarding nature red in tooth and gene, have you read my series of posts beginning at ?

  3. Cal says:

    Hmm, didn’t consider that. I’m a lover of words and language and I find it a tragedy when groups re-appropriate words and terms to act as a transition into their camp. Christus Victor is so beautiful and if they’re really making it into a moralism, ’tis mighty sad. The same goes for the idea of penal substitution, where the Sacrifice of Christ is merely making God out to be some pagan deity of war and blood who is angry and needs payment, as if sin enough didn’t bring death. We seem to read our own Greco-Roman pagan understanding into the Hebrew system, alas God is maligned but the Truth will prove victorious.

    I like the Stott-Eadie quote. Not only were we bought from slavery, we were made sons. Very beautiful!

    And no, I haven’t read the Theodicy posts, I’ll look into those soon.

  4. Cal says:

    Just read through your post chain and thought it very good and well thought out! Especially the bit of Theory of Mind. Most folks don’t quite understand that most animal life doesn’t feel “pain”, though they do operate for their survival.

    I laughed when you mentioned reading too much into animals too! I recall watching a NatGeo video on Chimpanzees and the anthropomorphizing was astounding! There was one bit, with smoothing eastern music, with a chimp splashing in water and they were saying something along the lines of, “Is it possible even Chimpanzees have ‘religion’?”, I wanted to hop up and say “He’s playing in the water!”

    I do suppose in your last post, and this is somewhat of a nitpick, you said we can’t quite know God outside of metaphor He reveals. I’d say that’s not entirely true because He reflects a nature through Jesus Christ. I’m not saying that God is now melded with Humanity, but I’d say we can understand the mind of God, being that God is Love and Love is living as Jesus did. So in a sense, because God came to us, as one of us, we can understand Him and in Him the mystery of His will was revealed, Christ in us, the Hope of Glory. But yes, unlike those who trumpet philosophical reflections and natural theology, we can not really know God but by His work.

    Also, I read your paper on Romans 8 and it was a very good point. I sort of thought about it as the fact that Creation was handed to us, part of creation but Image bearers, vice-roys, and we sold that birthright by disobeying the LORD, and thus sinning, inviting death by driving us from His presence. Therefore devils have access through this world to cause destruction, bringing destruction down upon us, and so creation is in a sense in bondage to the dark powers, under the weight of sin abusing it through manipulations of principalities and through man polluting and raping it. Still open minded to figuring and discovering it out though! 🙂

    I suppose one thought and perhaps a hope, is that in the age to come, that the passage of animal life will be restored. Not saying animals will receive the Resurrection in the sense of those who belong to Christ and the judgement, but I do hope to see beloved pets again. Again, some sentimentals, but I don’t think one must automatically rule it out and say “dogs don’t go to heaven” (which in itself is sort of foolish because our ultimate destination is bodily resurrection (in the Spirit), not soulish disembodied existence) but rather it is open for possibility. Now you can’t do the flip-side but a man can hope, especially with such a Lord as Jesus Christ. (only Lord worth serving!).

    Thanks for all the writings,

  5. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    My, you have been busy reading Cal!

    Re your nitpick – I’d just say “now we see through a glass darkly”. But my point was another reaction to some Open Theist claims that we can know God exhaustively (in the light of my having picked up some sympathy for Aquinas’s view of the being of God compared to Duns Scotus).

    As for animal suffering and doggy heaven, I’d draw back from asserting exactly what animals can and can’t feel, but rather raised the question as a tentative response to apparent problems with theodicy. However, it is interesting, when one looks, just how sparse Scriptural teaching on kindness to animals is (though a lot of out-of-context quotes are talked up by animal lovers). Yet it’s clearly there in the few places where it is mentioned.

    Of the 5 dogs I’ve owned, I’d be pleased to see 4 of them again, but they might be a bit resentful of sharing me with each other. The fifth was a psychopath, but maybe the new creation would sort that out… It is probably sentiment, though, since I’d also the new creation to contain British real ale, vintage Martin tenor saxes, Marshall amplifiers and egg & chips. It ends up sounding just like the old creation if I’m not careful.

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