Note: This article originally appeared in the January 9, 1995 issue of Christianity Today.
The September 1994 issue of Colors, Benetton's oblique, oh-so-hip promotional magazine, began with brief answers to the question, Who is God? The respondents were of all ages and races from around the world; their answers ranged from the whimsical to the blasphemous. "My dad," a six-year-old girl from Ecuador answered. A car washer in Pakistan said that God "designs the lines of a Mercedes." God was variously defined as the wind, a waterfall, a circle, a couch potato. "I believe in science," answered a businessman in Beirut. A journalist in Bombay said, "I am God."
As Christians, we may respond to such answers with a mixture of sadness, anger, and uneasy laughter. Who is God? We know the right answers, the creedal affirmations; and yet that elemental, fundamental question is profoundly unsettling.
In the original preface to Knowing God, written in 1973, J.I. Packer suggested that "ignorance of God—ignorance of both his ways and of the practice of communion with him—lies at the root of much of the church's weakness today." With this issue, Christianity Today begins an occasional series exploring the nature of God. Our first installment considers a book that argues for a significant change in evangelicals' understanding of God's nature—a change, the authors contend, that will take us closer to the biblical conception of God. We have asked four theologically insightful scholars to assess this claim. Future installments will consider the nature of God from other perspectives.
Has God Been Held Hostage By Philosophy?
By Roger Olson
What is happening to evangelical theology? According to Clark Pinnock and his coauthors in a controversial new book entitled The Openness of God (InterVarsity, 1994), it is going through a paradigm shift that begins with the doctrine of God and will have sweeping effects on every other area of evangelical thought and life.
The heart of the change is this: 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. But two caveats are essential: this is not just a lively new version of liberal process theology, nor is it merely a lively new version of evangelical Arminian theology. These authors set forth for the first time a sustained, biblically based, rational argument that the God of the Bible is with us in time and does not know the future in absolute detail.
The new paradigm is variously called "the open view of God," "creative-love theism," and "free-will theism." It is radical Arminianism—and more—but it stops short of process theology or Boston personalism (belief in a finite God). The authors claim that their model of God is not an accommodation to modern thought or sensibilities but is thoroughly grounded in the synoptic vision of the God who reveals himself in the Bible. It is a Hebrew-Christian model of God stripped of the deleterious effects of Neo-Platonism and other Hellenistic philosophies.
According to free-will theism, "history is the combined result of what God and his creatures decide to do," and its God is "always walking beside us, experiencing what we are experiencing when we are experiencing it, always willing to help to the extent consistent with our status as responsible creations of his."
How does this differ from process theology's "fellow sufferer who understands"? The authors of The Openness of God go to great lengths to show that it differs profoundly. Unlike the God of Alfred North Whitehead and other process thinkers, free-will theism's God is omnipotent in the classical sense: able to do anything that is consistent with his own nature and logic. In other words, the God of creative-love theism is the absolute ground and source of all creation (creatio ex nihilo) and could control his creatures if he wished to do so, but he chooses not to control by coercion or force, instead influencing by persuasion.
The overall argument of The Openness of God is that Christian theology has been falsely polarized. For centuries, the doctrine of God (which the authors consider foundational) has been held captive to classical theism, which overemphasizes God's transcendence and neglects God's Trinitarian personhood. 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.
On the other hand, too many theologians have thought that the only alternative to the God of classical theism is a finite God such as process theology promotes. The authors argue that process theology's God is also inconsistent with the overall picture of God given in revelation. That God intervenes powerfully and will bring history to a conclusion in his kingdom—with or without human help.
Pinnock, professor of theology at McMaster Divinity College, Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, and his coauthors make a powerful case for their model of God. In the first chapter, "Biblical Support for a New Perspective," Richard Rice, professor of theology at LaSierra University, Riverside, California, demonstrates convincingly that it is not possible simply to dismiss all biblical references to God's "repentance" as anthropomorphisms. Under the rubric of "Historical Considerations," John Sanders, instructor in theology and philosophy at Oak Hills Bible College, Bemidji, Minnesota, argues persuasively that classical theism includes unbiblical and possibly unorthodox concessions to pagan philosophy. The real heart of the book is Pinnock's chapter on systematic theology, which powerfully portrays the personal God of the Bible as self-limiting for our sakes. The chapter entitled "A Philosophical Perspective," by William Hasker, professor of philosophy at Huntington College, Huntington, Indiana, will be the most challenging for many readers; but for those who persevere, it makes a strong case for the rational superiority of the theology of divine openness over competing ways of understanding God and his works. In the concluding chapter, David Basinger, professor of theology at Roberts Wesleyan College, Rochester, New York, shows the practical appeal of free-will theism for ordinary Christian spirituality.
The authors do not hide their philosophical presuppositions. Readers who cannot agree with these foundational assumptions will have trouble accepting free-will theism. Two basic ones are that logical contradictions—including so-called paradoxes or antinomies—are illegitimate in theology as elsewhere and that freedom means being able to do otherwise. While the authors are not rationalists in the strict sense of that word, they clearly place high value on coherence. That is, truth claims about God that involve logical contradictions are literally nonsense and should not be accepted in theology any more than in any area of intellectual endeavor. Therefore, one cannot say both that God knows the whole future in absolute detail with absolute certainty and that part of it is still open and undetermined (such as individuals' decisions regarding salvation).
The second presupposition of free-will theism is that true freedom means being able to choose between options without any predetermination. This is called a noncompatibilist idea of freedom. It is not compatible with determinism or predestination. It assumes and requires a certain limited independence of the creature from God. Many evangelicals—especially Calvinists—prefer a compatibilist idea of freedom. For them, true freedom is being able to do what God knows and decides is right. Independence from God in any degree is lack of freedom. Of course, proponents of the free-will theism paradigm will object that this is an odd, even unique, use of freedom, quite unlike that word's meaning in ordinary speech, and that it ultimately lands one in incoherence unless one is willing to say God is the author of sin and evil.
A test for how we disagree
The Openness of God is a powerful and persuasive book. It is creative, bold, and Bible based. In spite of its strengths, however, a few serious problems remain that will hinder even some sympathetic readers from wholeheartedly embracing the model argued for. The authors deal inadequately with two major issues. They assert that part and parcel of the open view of God is belief that God does not know future free decisions and actions of his creatures. They struggle mightily, and with some success, to show that this in no way impairs belief in God's ultimate sovereignty and power over the outcome of human history. But a shadow of doubt lingers.
Can a risk-taking, self-limiting God who rarely, if ever, intervenes in the free choices and actions of human agents know that history will end the way he envisions and predicts without having to rob free creatures of their freedom? It would seem that for history to end in the kingdom of God, as these authors insist it will, God will have to exercise more than loving, influencing, persuasive power. While it is consistent with their theology to believe God will do that in order to establish his kingdom, the question arises, Why believe he never or hardly ever does that on the way to the kingdom?
A closely related question concerns God's beliefs and predictions about the future. The authors do not deal adequately with the question of whether God can hold false beliefs about the future. At the very least, they must hold that God predicts the outcome of historical processes involving free agents. Could God's predictions turn out to be wrong? When Jesus told Peter that he would deny him, is it even theoretically possible that Peter might not have denied him? Either way the authors (and other advocates of limited divine foreknowledge) answer this question presents them with some problems.
I am not arguing that these are insuperable difficulties; the authors may have satisfactory solutions. For many readers warmly attracted to their model of God, however, these doubts will preclude their wholehearted acceptance.
Indeed, the open view of God raises many questions, and these will no doubt be extensively explored and debated in reviews, panel discussions, and even book-length responses. One question it raises that should underlie everything else is this: How do American evangelical Christians handle theological diversity? Have we come of age enough to avoid heresy charges and breast-beating jeremiads in response to a new doctrinal proposal that is so conscientiously based on biblical reflection rather than on rebellious accommodation to modern thought? This may be the test.
Roger Olson is professor of theology at Bethel College, Saint Paul, Minnesota, and editor of The Christian Scholar's Review.
Afraid of Infinitude
By Douglas F. Kelly
One of the best things about this most provocative book is its subject: it is actually about God, rather than being another evangelical "how to" or self-help manual. Clark Pinnock is certainly right about one thing: "The concept of God is the most important topic in theology." To their credit, the five authors have done something far from universal among theologians and philosophers; they have written in clear, straightforward English prose. It seems to me that they have been honest and aboveboard in plainly expressing what they think. Even those who strongly disagree with their conclusions will have to respect them for their transparent clarity.
Moreover, one must commend their desire to make their theological discourse practical so that it addresses living issues such as the reality of intercessory prayer, and how to interpret evil and fight it in today's world.
Several of these authors properly point out that the classical tradition has not always done full exegetical, theological justice to the matter of God's impassability. I was genuinely disappointed that, because of crucial, exegetical and central theological weaknesses, these brethren were unable to improve this situation. Indeed, what they have to say on this point and many others constitutes one of the saddest intellectual and spiritual retrogressions I have ever seen outside openly heterodox thinking.
The really crucial weakness that devastates the promise of this volume to present a fresh, more biblical view of God is this: The authors feel that God cannot be infinite and personal at the same time. To deal with us personally, rather than harshly and mechanically (which is how they see "sovereignty"), God either must be finite or, at least, refrain from employing such infinitude. Some of the authors hold that God really is not infinite (e.g., God literally does not know what is future); some of them suggest that he must voluntarily refuse to use his infinite abilities as the price of humankind's being guaranteed personal significance.
As a result of a selective biblical exegesis (that looks only at the human limitations implied in a word—such as repent—and strangely fails to consider the word in the light of the infinite subject to whom it refers) and a failure actually to read the Fathers of the Christian church, these writers attempt to get rid of God's infinity by ascribing it to classical theology's being the illegitimate offspring of the cohabitation of biblical concepts with pagan Hellenistic philosophy.
In reality, a careful reading of the Fathers (such as Athanasius, for instance) would indicate the profound Christianization of Hellenistic terms and concepts. Though they began as Greek terms conveying pagan content, such concepts as creation, being, logos, providence, and person were thoroughly transformed during the first four or five centuries of the Christian era in the light of Old Testament prophecy and the apostolic testimony to Christ.
Perhaps lack of familiarity with this field of study explains why the authors dismiss so easily the entire classical tradition as being no less Neo-Platonic than Pseudo-Dionysius, who in truly unbiblical fashion describes God as "beyond being." But they fail to point out the very significant fact that when Athanasius (long before the time of Pseudo-Dionysius) quotes this passage from Plato's Republic, he changes it to state that God is "beyond all created being"—a profoundly biblical concept (Athanasius, Contra Gentes, 2.2;40.2). This leads us to the heart of their problem.
It seems to me that these "openness" writers have failed to think through the profound implications of the difference between created (finite) being and uncreated (infinite) being. This failure to think clearly is manifestly demonstrated in their impoverished grasp of the relationship of language to being (i.e., epistemology). They seem to work on the assumption of the univocal validity of language for both God and man. That is, a word must mean for God the exact same thing it does for a human. For instance, "before and after" impose on God's experience the same limitations they do on that of humankind.
But one wonders how they could have neglected the church's pivotal teaching on the analogical usage of language (i.e., that there are both similarities and differences when the same word is applied to created and uncreated being). A brief reading of a few sections of Saint Thomas Aquinas's Summa Theologiae or perhaps chapter five of E. L. Mascall's Existence and Analogy might have transformed this book. And long before Aquinas or Mascall, Saint Hilary of Poitiers (fourth century) wisely remarked (in De Trinitate 4:14) that human words are subject to God, rather than God being subject to human words (in the sense of comprehensively defined and thus limited by them). The human mind "must not measure the divine nature by the limitations of [its] own, but must gauge God's assertions concerning himself by the scale of his own glorious self-revelation. … Since we are to discourse of the things of God, let us assume that God has full knowledge of himself, and bow with humble reverence to his words" (1:17).
In other words, the reason the five authors of The Openness of God deny the infinitude of nearly all the attributes of God is their failure to have heard what Hilary (and the whole orthodox Christian tradition) could have said to them. That is, we must not attempt to project our creaturely limitations onto the God who made us (as though we had made him). That would be a violation of the second commandment. Rather, with Saint Paul, let us understand that the analogy (and glorious reality) of God as our Father makes sense because fatherhood is from God (Eph. 3:14-15), as the incarnate Christ and outpoured Spirit have shown us. Hence, as Athanasius says, "God does not make man his pattern, but rather, since God alone is properly and truly Father, we men are called fathers of our own children, for of him every fatherhood in heaven and earth is named" (Contra Arianos 1:23).
Human reason, therefore, must adjust itself to God's being and not the reverse. Repeatedly in this volume, the authors univocally limit the infinite God by what they are able to understand (see, for example, the definition of divine omniscience on p. 136). This short-sighted procedure causes them throughout the book to deny one side of clear biblical teaching (such as God's sovereignty) in order to affirm the other side (such as human responsibility). Sadly, all too little that they write in this volume can be taken seriously either by scholars or by ordinary Christian layfolk until its authors rethink their basic approach. May they be blessed in doing so!
Douglas F. Kelly is J. Richard Jordan Professor of Systematic Theology, Reformed Theological Seminary, Charlotte, North Carolina.
A Transcendence-Starved Deity
By Timothy George
For a generation and more, evangelicals have debated, defined, and defended the teaching of the Bible, assuming all along that the doctrine of God, as received in the historic Christian tradition, was an evangelical essential on which all faithful believers could agree. If that were ever true, the present volume indicates that it is no longer so. The revisionist view of God set forth here is neither new nor all that radical compared to other models one can encounter at, say, nearly any session of the American Academy of Religion. What is significant is that this book claims to be a "biblical challenge" to the traditional understanding of God by a team of scholars well known for their contributions to evangelical journals and learned societies.
These essays are really a form of protest literature. The authors claim to have found the classical doctrine of God, which presumably each of them once affirmed, to be apologetically inhibiting, religiously stultifying, and just plain old-fashioned. But their analysis is based on three false dichotomies.
First, they pit the dynamic, interactive God of the Hebrew Scriptures over against the static, transcendent God of the Greek philosophers. This contrast was given definitive form by Adolf von Harnack, who saw the Trinitarian and Christological consensus of the early church as the ultimate corruption by the alien spirit of Hellenism of the primitive truth of the gospel. To this G. L. Prestige responded wisely, "The Christian doctrine of God is a legitimate rational construction founded on the facts of Christian experience." To be sure, the church Fathers did use contemporary thought forms and even new words such as Trinitas and homoousios, but they did so precisely in order to be faithful to the living God of the Bible.
Theologians should indeed beware of the seduction of philosophy. Augustine could not remain a pure Neo-Platonist once he became a Christian. Luther, among others, protested against Aristotle's undue influence. But the so-called open God is himself shaped by philosophical bias, namely, a process view of reality that has far less biblical warrant than the classical metaphysical tradition.
Second, they posit the God of love over against the God of power. Yet the same New Testament book that declares "God is love" also proclaims "God is light" (1 John 4:16; 1:5), a reference both to God's holiness and his eternal effulgence. It is not necessary to trivialize the noetic and ontic effects of sin, nor to minimize the penal and substitutionary sufferings of Christ in order to magnify the gracious, all-loving character of God. Nor should God's immutability be interpreted as his immobility.
The orthodox doctrine of God affirms both his infinite power and his sovereign love. No less a defender of traditional theism than Charles Hodge wrote: "Love of necessity involves feeling, and if there be no feeling in God, there can be no love." 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. How could Luther, Calvin, even Arminius, accept the former but fail to "see the conflict" with the latter? Perhaps it was because they served a greater, richer, more complex and less threatened God than one devised for modern sensibilities.
Third, they deny that God's knowledge of future contingents can be squared with freely chosen acts. But divine foreknowledge need not negate human responsibility; indeed, as Karl Barth noted, divine foreknowledge is the "presupposition of its possibility," denoting as it does the absolute priority and superiority of God himself to every possible existence distinct from his own.
On the view presented here, God cannot really know anything at all that will come to pass in the future; his knowledge is limited to the present and the past. 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. But the "open God" cannot guarantee that it will. He can only struggle with us against the chaos and keep on trying harder. One might feel sorry for such a God, even sympathize with him in his cosmic battle against the power of darkness. But one would hardly be moved to fall down and worship such an attenuated, transcendence-starved deity. The "open God" is a long way from the awesome, holy, unsurprisable (yet ever-surprising) God of the Bible, the God who "is a consuming fire."
The authors of this book are my brothers in Christ. They have presented their views with earnestness and sincerity, even humility, rightly recognizing that God is far greater than our best efforts to describe him. I applaud their desire to submit every doctrine, including the most cherished and time-worn ones, to the searching light of God's written Word. But in their desire to defend "God's reputation," and to construct "plausible models" and "convincing conceptions" that would make it easier "to invite people to find fulfillment," they have devised a user-friendly God who bears an uncanny resemblance to a late-twentieth-century seeker. They need not be so concerned about "God's reputation." They only need to let God be God.
Timothy George is dean of Beeson Divinity School at Samford University, Birmingham, Alabama.
Whatever Happened to Luther?
By Alister E. McGrath
The contributors to this volume want to purge evangelicalism of the ideas of classical theism and return to what they see as more biblical ideas. This project is hardly new; after all, an integral element of Martin Luther's theological program was to do just that (especially ridding theology of Aristotle's influence). Luther's theology of the Cross represents a classic approach to this issue, which European evangelicals have found of enormous value as we try to ensure that evangelicalism remains faithful to Scripture in its portrayal of God. Luther's superb discussion of the suffering of God remains firmly linked with Scripture and shows a degree of Christological sophistication that leaves many of us breathless with admiration.
A quick read of this volume, however, showed that the contributors seem not to realize that Luther has been down their road long before them. This alarmed me. Why should we trust clarion calls to modify the evangelical tradition if the critics are not familiar with it?
It is in John Sanders's chapter on "Historical Considerations" that the problem is made most evident. There he surveys how the "Greek metaphysical system 'boxed up' the God described in the Bible." Yet the survey Sanders presents is derivative, based on secondary literature. And when we come to Luther, the results become uncomfortably clear. Sanders's entire discussion of Luther is based on one reference to Paul Althaus's Theology of Martin Luther (1963), one reference to a general work on the theology of providence, and a single quote from the 1525 work The Bondage of the Will. The fact that this polemical 1525 work is thought by some Luther scholars to be out of line with Luther's constructive works is not mentioned; in fact, in this work Luther explicitly contradicts Sanders's statement that, for Luther, "there is no God beyond the God revealed in Jesus." What about the theology of the deus absconditus in The Bondage of the Will, then? There is a total silence on Luther's massive contribution to a theology of the suffering God. Yet this theology has had a massive impact on modern Protestant reflection, as shown by the writings of Jurgen Moltmann and Eberhard Jungel, to name but two obvious examples. Where are the references to the Heidelberg disputation? to Luther's superb exposition of the deficiencies of a Nestorian Christology, in which the implications of the Incarnation for the suffering of God are explored?
I found myself outraged by this lack of scholarly familiarity with Luther and his background. However, noting the strong Arminianism of some of the contributors to the volume, I decided to explore whether the theology of a suffering God found in the hymns of the noted Arminian Charles Wesley had been presented.
In the English language, Charles Wesley is probably the nearest thing to Luther in regard to a theology not just of a suffering, but of a dying God. Take, for example, the great hymn "And Can It Be?" with its famous lines "Amazing love! how can it be / That thou, my God, shouldst die for me?" This thought is also expressed elsewhere in that same hymn, as here: " 'Tis mystery all! th'immortal dies! / Who can explore his strange design?" I found that Wesley is not even mentioned in this chapter.
The book asks us to reject a classical evangelical understanding in favor of something else. But why should we abandon this tradition when, in fact, it has clearly not been fairly and thoroughly presented in this book? Modern evangelicalism has often been accused of a lack of familiarity with its own historical roots and traditions. Curiously, this book merely confirms that impression.
Alister E. McGrath is research lecturer in theology at the University of Oxford, research professor of systematic theology at Regent College, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, and lecturer in historical and systematic theology at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford.
Copyright © 2001 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
This forum is being posted today to complement "Does God Know Your Next Move? | Christopher A. Hall and John Sanders debate openness theology."
Roger Olson's "Analysis of the 'Openness of God' Theology" was once available at the Baptist General Conference's "Foreknowledge of God" area, but is now apparently only available through Google's cache.
Other Christianity Today articles on openness theology include:
Truth at Risk | Six leading openness theologians say that many assumptions made about their views are simply wrong. (Apr. 23, 2001)
God at Risk | A former process theologian says a 30-percent God is not worth worshiping. (Mar. 16, 2001)
Did Open Debate Help The Openness Debate? | It's been centuries since Luther nailed his theses to a church door, but the Internet is reintroducing theological debate to the public square. (Feb. 16, 2001)
God vs. God | Two competing theologies vie for the future of evangelicalism (Feb. 7, 2000).
Do Good Fences Make Good Baptists? | The SBC's new Faith and Message brings needed clarity—but maybe at the cost of honest diversity. (Aug. 8, 2000)
The Perils of Left and Right | Evangelical theology is much bigger and richer than our two-party labels. (Aug. 10, 1998)
The Future of Evangelical Theology | Roger Olson argues that a division between traditionalists and reformists threatens to end our theological consensus. (Feb. 9, 1998)
A Pilgrim on the Way | For me, theology is like a rich feast, with many dishes to enjoy and delicacies to taste. (Feb. 9, 1998)
A Theology to Die For | Theologians are not freelance scholars of religion, but trustees of the deposit of faith. (Feb. 9, 1998)
The Real Reformers are Traditionalists | If there is no immune system to resist heresy, there will soon be nothing but the teeming infestation of heresy. (Feb. 9, 1998)