A Response to Andrew Wilson on Open Theism

 

I have for some years now been following Andrew Wilson’s excellent ‘Think Theology’ blog site with great interest. I find that Andrew frequently comments on timely and important theological issues with balance, clear thinking and a sharp biblically critical eye. I frequently find his comments incisive and very helpful, and consider him and his work a great gift to the church. It is for this reason that I think Andrew is well worth responding to on a number of subjects, but in this particular case, on the subject of open theism.

I greatly appreciate the fact that Andrew has been willing to give this subject a fair hearing on his site, and was interested to read his latest offering on why it’s important to do so. However, even as he sets out his stall to discuss the subject, he raises one or two issues that warrant a response. I too think it is very important that this subject is discussed and investigated properly by evangelicals, but for somewhat different reasons (I’ll touch on those below).

Firstly, one of the reasons given by Andrew for the need to discuss open theism is that social media has ‘…disempowered the formal gatekeepers of evangelical theology…’ and ‘…tipped the balance in favour of winsome popularisers…’ such as Greg Boyd. I think the first point is a matter of perspective—I for one, am often dismayed by how little voice a strong, biblical expression of open/relational theism has online or otherwise, in contrast to the overwhelming amount that is pumped out from more widely accepted evangelical viewpoints. These are often presented as the only ‘biblical’ or historic options, illustrating a general ignorance as to the biblical and historical basis of open theism.

I also think this assessment is a little unfair to Greg Boyd. He certainly is ‘winsome’ and a ‘nice guy’, and may be growing in popular appeal in certain circles. However, in my experience I have never found Greg to be a ‘popular’ theologian(!), and I have never found open theism to be a popular position to take in evangelical circles! More to the point, however, is that for me personally Greg’s appeal lies in his robust biblical scholarship, thorough research and the persuasiveness and clarity of his theological argument. His research and writing is extensive, deep, and also thoroughly evangelical (evangelicalism properly understood). I for one have never been attracted to his teaching because he’s a ‘nice guy’, but because upon investigation I have found his theses to be well worth serious consideration.

Is there an ‘intuitive “fit” between intercessory prayer…and the changeability of God’, and is this another reason why open theism is growing in popularity and warrants investigation? Well, yes—but on the other hand, it is a far from intuitive step for most believers in a western european context who have grown up on the presuppositions of reformation theology and modern pop-evangelicalism. Again, I am also speaking from personal testimony—it was hard for me to even imagine that some of the claims of open/relational theology could be valid, let alone embrace them. It was only when faced with what appeared to be better exegesis and a better overall interpretation of the biblical evidence that my long established assumptions could be seriously questioned, and only clear scriptural conviction could have made such a sea change in my view of God possible. Yes, what follows is that more and more things line up with reason, experience and intuition (as one would expect with any decent truth-claim), but these were more fruits of biblical interpretation than predisposing causes.

The fact that “Divine impassibility sounds, to many contemporary Christians, like it means God doesn’t care” is certainly worth thinking about. However, the problem with divine impassibility is not ‘what it sounds like to many christians’, but its profound discord with the overall witness of scripture. The fact that it appears to have much more in common with Greek (pagan) philosophical conceptions of god than Hebrew and biblically trinitarian thought is the reason that divine impassibility has a case to answer.

These observations made, it is Andrew’s more specific reason for raising the issue in the UK church context that looks very different from my own perspective. Andrew sees “…charismatic evangelical churches with (generally) a high emphasis on the personal experience of God and (generally) a low emphasis on rigorous theological training for leaders” as ripe conditions for a ‘perfect storm’. I am a christian and teacher who embraces (a particular interpretation of) open/relational theism, and am part of movement of charismatic evangelical churches that embrace and teach relational theology. As a movement, we strive to provide rigorous biblical and theological training for leaders, and in the past have pioneered and led the way nationally in this area—indeed, it is part of my job to provide this kind of training for leaders! What’s more, it is not the lack of rigorous biblical and theological training that has led myself and many others to embrace a form of open/relational theology, but rather the biblical and theological training itself that has caused us to embrace it. Clearly then, I have to take issue with this particular assessment of things! On top of this, as a charismatic evangelical church leader I often wish that members of our congregation were more concerned to pursue a personal experience of God, not less!

Repeating the ‘winsome’ nature of the presentation of open theism as another contributing factor to this ‘perfect storm’, Andrew adds ‘…a Bethelesque insistence that, since Jesus healed everybody he met, God always wills to heal everyone of everything…’, a culture that ‘…finds it increasingly difficult to think of a good Father bringing any sort of pain to his children…’, and characterises the whole lot as “…a weird fusion of Greg Boyd’s Satan and the Problem of Evil, Bill Johnson’s When Heaven Invades Earth and Lou Martyn’s Galatians, with a sprinkling of David Bentley Hart’s The Doors of the Sea thrown in for good measure”. Suffice it to say that I think this summary is more a caricature than a characterisation, and does not represent the best and most biblically balanced expressions of open theism, which I do not believe are susceptible to these criticisms.

Like Andrew, I believe it is very important for the church at large to engage seriously with open/relational theism, but for somewhat different reasons. My own reasons (in order of importance) go something like this:

  1. It is the view of God’s providence that makes the best sense of the biblical evidence as a whole. To put it another way, I believe it is biblically, exegetically and hermeneutically, the strongest view. To put it yet another way, I believe it is the most biblically sound understanding of God’s providence!
  2. Its thesis is theologically and philosophically more consistent and coherent than other views of God’s providence
  3. It has a better claim to historical orthodoxy than many give it credit for
  4. It makes an awful lot of difference to our view of God, which impacts discipleship, worship, prayer, evangelism, how we relate to God and to one another…ie just about everything.

So thank-you Andrew Wilson for raising this issue and for another thought-provoking article, but I hope you can see that things look a little different from our perspective!

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