For this final post, I want to interact with Tim Challies’ comments on open theism here. As I said back in the introductory post, my goal is not to “prove” Tim wrong. But I do want to point out some common assumptions and conclusions about open theism that cause much misunderstanding. Tim states that freedom “trumps” omniscience and uses a definition that describes open theism as “sub-Christian.” I think terms like these are overly-aggressive and I get the feeling that this article has no intention of displaying “both sides” of the debate. Yet, those of the Reformed persuasion like Tim are quick to point out how their own theology is rarely given fair representation or explained fully. Let me try to bring some balance to the descriptions of open theism in Tim’s article.
1. In open theism, God’s greatest attribute is love and it overshadows his other attributes.
Open theists don’t believe God’s greatest attribute is love. They believe God is love. All other attributes flow from his love and seek to sustain and support the nature of God as a relational being. Humans make this mistake often in describing love as an attribute - to us, attributes sound like an object we can hold in our hand…apples, for example. We can hold several attributes at a time but when “forced” to choose one, we must let another one go. Our arms are not big enough to hold them all. If love is merely an attribute (as Tim suggests), we conclude that God chooses love over/against other attributes. And that causes us to assume that God has to let, say, “judgment” fall to the side…or in this case “omniscience” or “sovereignty” to embrace love. We do the same with the cross – we act like God “shelved” mercy for a little while so he could pour out wrath. But God’s arms can hold them all. They are not mutually exclusive and therefore, to champion God’s nature of love is not calling for sovereignty’s defeat. If this distinction is not made, then we feel we must defend one aspect of God’s character over another. Comments about a loving God being a “pansy” come from this shallow understanding of God’s attributes. And that is truly the definition of anthropomorphic.
3. In open theism, God is unable to see what depends on the choices of free will agents…
I don’t think this is accurate for open theism either. God could see or could deduce from probability what outcomes exist in the future. He chooses not to do so. Why? Because he voluntarily leverages that ability for the sake of love and freedom. Are there other scenarios that might allow for full disclosure of the future? I imagine so. But in open theism, power is leveraged to express love. God is not “bound” by cosmic laws that forbid him to see. That would make him dependent on creation – something no open theist would ever say. Rather, it’s a voluntary gesture of his goodness and co-habitation with his creation that makes free will fully authentic.
5. In open theism, God learns.
This is a stretch. It conjures up images in my mind of some sort of Hegelian Weltgiest, bobbing from side to side in dialectical fashion, bumbling through time. Silliness. God is fully aware of the range of decisions that are available in each scenario. His choice to allow free will to exist and allow our decisions to impact his relational goals for creation is not weakness. It’s a sign of strength. No one but God could allow the complexity of life to remain intact and still bring about his intentions within it. Just because we can’t doesn’t mean that God can’t.
6. In open theism, God is reacting.
Once again, the inference is that this is some sign of divine weakness. Reactive is not the right word. Responding is. God responds to our decisions after he initiates relationship. In fact, there would be no chance for relational involvement with him unless he first moved in a proactive fashion. From there, in the midst of established relationship, God invites our involvement in the world. That’s not weakness. It’s grace. As his beloved, our involvement affirms our importance to the God of the universe. Don’t think this is a good idea? Ask any married person what they think of a spouse who refuses to involve them in shared life. To expect the relationship, but provide nothing with which to nurture that relationship, is to sabotage the whole affair.
7. and 8. In open theism, God makes mistakes…God can and does make errors in judgment which later require re-evaluation…When God realizes He has made an error in judgment or that things did not unfold as He supposed, He can change His mind.
I take issue with anyone who speaks of God so irreverently for the sake of vilifying a theological position. Tim does this to create outrage in the reader anticipating that they well reject open theism. God does not make mistakes or errors, get caught in his stupidity, and “re-evaluate” where he went wrong. What’s the missing ingredient in Tim’s recipe? Hope. God has hope that even in the most dire of circumstances, humanity will choose “life” over “death.” God bets against the odds in every scenario where the least sliver of optimism still remains. With God having full knowledge of one’s heart, he is not the least bit “surprised” or duped by the decisions of humans to serve their own interests. But part of love is to “keep no record of wrong.” Therefore, God will forever choose to believe the best of those he loves. Openness to the failures of others, does not require the ignorance of the posibility that good will still be done in the end. Bible passages that explain God’s grief are not describing a grief of ignorance, but the grief of a broken heart that sees us make wrong choices. That’s like saying a father who expresses grief over a child who becomes a drug addict had no idea that drugs existed. The grief is for the child, not over shock at the existence of drugs. Tim makes this same mistake when he quotes Boyd and describes God as a ”God who sorrows over decisions He has made as He is genuinely saddened by the results of His poor decision.” God is not grieving over his own stupidity. He’s grieving over “the destruction of his own creation” – exactly as Boyd says.
After dealing with his main concerns, Tim gives us his summary thoughts. My responses follow each point:
“Needless to say, I find this doctrine wholly incompatible with our knowledge of God as presented in His Word.”
See part 1. I think this one is still up for debate.
“While open theism contradicts the understanding of God in every Judeo-Christian tradition, it is most completely at-odds with the Reformed understanding, which teaches the highest view of God’s foreknowledge and sovereignty.”
Trust me - from a church history guy, this isn’t the case. Every century of church history has included well-known ministers, philosophers, and theologians that have held an “open view.” Open theists have compiled lists of adherents for you to review in their books and on their websites. At-odds with the Reformed understanding? Absolutely. But the belief that Reformed theology takes the “highest” view of foreknowledge and sovereignty is also open to debate. Many would say that open theism’s view of sovereignty is stronger and more informed (see posts 2 and 3).
“ This doctrine undermines our confidence in God and erodes our trust in His promises that He always has our best interests in mind. It is a dangerous, pernicious doctrine.”
Ahhh, Tim. Such hostility. Others feel differently. Though Tim encourages you to read Bruce Ware, an opponent of the open view, my studies have taught me that to understand a particular view of any sort, it’s best to go to the sources themselves. Within open theists’ own words, you can hear their struggle to overcome the persecution of peers and see their belief that they are doing something good for Christianity. I’ve seen similar resolve in the writings of Luther, Tertullian, Bernard of Clairvaux, Calvin, Wesley, Bonhoeffer, Schaeffer, and others. Maybe we’ll be saying the same thing about open theists one say.