Open Theism Pt 2: Responding to Andrew Wilson’s ‘Fourteen Words’

Earlier in the week I responded to Andrew Wilson’s post on why ‘We Need to Talk About Open Theism’. Andrew has now outlined in simple terms (fourteen words) his response to open theism, so I will comment along the same lines. Please bear in mind that this might not make a huge amount of sense if you haven’t read Andrew’s article!

Orthodoxy

The objection that open theism is ‘all-but-impossible to find in the first eighteen centuries of the Church’s history’ is a common one and on one level, quite true. An explicitly enunciated theological doctrine outlining the concepts that we are now calling ‘open theism’ does not exist. But this does not mean that the fundamental assertions of open theism regarding the way God acts within human history are not evident in scripture and early church history, without being joined up and enunciated as a theological/philosophical system. Ancient Hebrews and the early church did not share the systematising approach to theology that has been common in more recent centuries in western Europe, so it should not be at all unexpected to find all the elements that make up open/relation thought without them having been explicitly put together and labelled as a theological ‘position’ in contrast to others.

I see those foundational elements as:

1 God can predict and determine the future, but does not do so exhaustively.

2 God leaves some of the future genuinely open to possibility, including some elements of human choice and some elements of his response to that choice

3 Human free will and responsibility are therefore genuine, straightforwardly understood, and emphasised in this approach

Put more simply: God controls, determines and knows some of the future, but not all of it. It could be a very small amount of the future that is open, or a very large amount, depending on your interpretation of scripture and how far along the open spectrum you are.

I would claim (along with many others) that all three of the above elements are both explicitly and implicitly taught in scripture, and are evident in early christian thought.

139

I do not agree that Psalm 139 poses ‘an enormous problem for open theists’. In the course of my own work on the Hebrew of Psalm 139, it became clear that this Psalm is frequently translated and interpreted in a way that unnecessarily—and in my view, misleadingly—assumes and asserts God’s exhaustive knowledge of every element of the future.

Verse 4 tells us that God knows our thoughts before we speak them, not before we think them. If you want to assert that God knows our thoughts before we think them, you can try with evidence from elsewhere, but you cannot use this verse alone.

Translating the Hebrew of verse 16 involves a number of complexities which mean that several translations are possible that do not suggest God’s exhaustive foreknowledge at all. It is quite legitimate to translate this verse as speaking of ‘forming’ rather than ‘ordaining’ or ‘planning’, as referring to ‘bodily members’ being formed rather than ‘days’ (see KJV), and as referring to a book being continuously and ongoingly written in (a record of human life/deeds) rather than having been written upon in the past.

The emphasis of the verse (and the Psalm) is on God’s close and personal examination and knowledge of the individual at all times and in all places (even the womb), and not on his exhaustive foreknowledge. It emphasises knowledge of the individual in the present rather than knowledge of the future. This kind of interpretation of verse 16 is far more in keeping with the context of the whole Psalm, and in my opinion linguistically and exegetically superior to a number of popular english translations that emphasise foreknowledge. I can only assume these translations and interpreters choose an exegetically weaker option because of theological presuppositions about God’s foreknowledge and therefore what this Psalm must be saying.

Babies

The question babies is as much a problem for augustinian-calvinists as it is for classical arminians or open theists. I am not sure it is actually a relevant problem at all, because the way this question is framed seems to me to have much more to do with theology of judgement and hell than God’s foreknowledge.

If it’s an issue of foreknowledge, surely the open theists are on the safest ground? For augustinian-calvinists God has pre-ordained the fate of the baby whatever happens.  In my opinion, God will not condemn those who have not had any opportunity to respond to his revelation/love (ie babies) and he will judge every individual according to the light they have received. This is not undermined by the idea that love must be freely chosen. The fact that love must be freely chosen does not mean that those who don’t have the opportunity to choose must be condemned.

Exceptions. 

The accusation of sweeping biblical exceptions under the carpet may be deserved by some open theists, but it is not a valid criticism of open theism in general. The point is that scriptural examples of God knowing future human decisions are not exceptions in open theism—open theism asserts that God can and does predict future human decisions—just not every single one of them.

There are two streams of relevant evidence in scripture:

1 On the one hand, the Bible explicitly teaches that God leaves some possibilities open to human choice/response, and that his own action and response will depend on what they do (Jeremiah 18:1-12). Similarly, scripture regularly speaks of God changing His mind/repenting, often in response to human prayer or action (Genesis 6:6,7; Exodus 32:12,14; 1 Sam 15:11; Amos 7;3,6; Jonah 3:9-10, 4:2). God even tells Jeremiah that people have done things that never even entered his mind (Jeremiah 19:5).

2 On the other hand, the Bible also regularly speaks of God predicting and determining things that will happen in the future (if you’re reading this blog post, I’m sure you don’t need me to list examples!) So however we interpret scripture, we must do justice to both these streams of biblical evidence. Augustinian-calvinists as well as classical arminians emphasise the second and cannot (in my opinion) do justice to the first. Extreme open theologians emphasise the first and cannot do justice to the second. The only approach that does justice to both sides of the evidence in a coherent way is a biblically balanced open/relational position that does not shy away from scriptural assertions concerning God’s prediction of the future and involvement with evil human actions.

In answer to any accusations of ‘having your cake and eating it’, you can’t criticise a theory just because it works!

Miracles

The criticism that a God who can work miracles is culpable for not choosing to work them all the time also poses a problem for both sides of the foreknowledge debate. If you’re an augustinian-calvinist, you just have the slightly different problem that he chose not to do them before the foundation of the world!

As for the question ‘why does he not intervene in every single situation to heal/prevent evil’ (my words, not Andrew’s), open/relational theology offers quite a few possible responses.

For instance:

-Because God’s love is primary (1 John 4:8,16), he does not unilaterally and routinely overrule the freedom we have to do good and to do evil. He does however, co-operate with and respond to human faith and prayer, and as a God of love and relationship, therefore allows His action to be limited at times where there is no faith (Mark 6:5-6).

-God has created an orderly world with natural ‘laws’ and boundaries as our environment, and generally speaking allows them to operate without constantly overruling them, even if we act foolishly and come a cropper (for instance by jumping off a building and falling foul of the law of gravity—we do not curse God for allowing us to hit the ground).

-The realities of spiritual warfare, and the impact that Satan (the ‘ruler of this age’, John 12:31; 16:11) and his angels (Rev 12:9; Dan 9:22/10:12-14) and rebellious humans are having, contrary to the will and purposes of God (Lk 7:30; cf Mt 6:10).

I don’t expect anyone to accept these points without question, and they are only a few suggestions among numerous possible answers—I only mention them to show that there is plenty of coherent biblical argument from an open perspective as to why God doesn’t heal all the time. In the complexity of God’s universe we shouldn’t expect answers to suffering and lack of healing to be simple or formulaic (as per God’s admonishing of Job), but this does not undermine open theism, or any other system for that matter.

Sustenance

Is God worse because he is ‘not only choosing not to stop Auschwitz; he is sustaining it’? Again, augustinian-calvinism and classical arminianism are no better off in this respect! There is no doubt that God takes ultimate responsibility for creating and sustaining a universe where all this evil is possible. He does so at the cross. Nonetheless, the possibility of life, love, freedom and all God’s purposes for humanity are worth the risk of extreme suffering. The redemptive hope of the gospel, the cross of Christ and the restitution of all things holds strong even through the horrors of Auschwitz. Calvinists need just as much to cling to the scriptural hope that ‘it will be all be worth it in the end’, however unlikely that sometimes seems (Rom 8:18; Rev 7:17, 21:4).

Names

How can God predict the naming of children centuries in advance (eg Cyrus)? This fundamentally requires the same response as ‘exceptions’ above, except to add the following point: following Roger Forster and Paul Marston, I draw the baseline of necessary human freedom at fundamental moral response toward God—receiving or rejecting his offer of love and relationship, and his call to obedience—saying ‘yes or no’ to the gospel of grace, repenting or hardening our hearts in response to whatever revelation of God we have received (and all are without excuse on the level of conscience and creation, Romans 1:20). This is the fundamental human freedom and the most important choice any human being can ever make.

Beyond this fundamental moral response, God can influence the thoughts, actions and decisions of human beings as much as you would like to imagine. I believe it is the line he will not cross to overrule, whether in Pharaoh or Cyrus’s parents or anyone else. The initiation belongs with Him, the gracious gift of life and even the possibility of knowing and obeying Him—but the response to that grace belongs to us and He will not overrule or coerce us to love Him in return.

Comfort

It is doubtless comforting to many who suffer to think that ‘God knew this was going to happen, and it has not caught him by surprise’. It is, however, not true that ‘“If you are an open theist, you cannot say that; in fact, you will probably assume that he has only just found out, just like you…”

An open theist need not assume anything of the sort—that would be claiming that open theism means “God knows practically nothing about the future or what is about to happen”, rather than “There are some things in the future that God leaves open to possibility” or “There are some very specific things that God leaves up to human freedom”. This may be the approach of some open theists, but it is absolutely not true of open theism in general.

The scenario described presents problems for both sides of the debate, and is an anecdotal and emotional argument. On the same level, some augustinian-calvinists even find it comforting to think that God intended or willed their suffering in some way. For others who face abject and senseless evil in this life, it is horrific to imagine that God meticulously willed, planned and intended the circumstances of their suffering.

Providence

This is fundamentally the same issue as ‘Comfort’ above, but with a scripture to go with it (Genesis 50:20). Open theists quote the same words of Joseph (yes, I’ve heard them do it!), but they mean something very different by them. God frequently uses the evil actions of human beings for good, and purposes to do so in advance. Pharaoh is once again the supreme biblical case study of the way that God interacts with rebellious human beings to work out His own purposes.

As for the Heidelberg catechism, I want to know whether open theism is biblical, not whether it lines up with the Heidelberg catechism or not. As for whether the Heidelberg catechism lines up with scripture, that’s for another discussion.

Agency

I don’t think the apparent contradiction of both God and Satan inciting David to take a census in 2 Samuel 24:1 and 1 Chronicles 21:1 is a deal breaker, as again it poses a challenge to both sides of the debate, and does not affect the fundamental tenets of open theism (see under ‘Orthodoxy’ above) regarding foreknowledge and the future. If someone wants to go beyond these fundamental assertions to claim that God ‘…in no sense wills the evil that is brought about by Satan and/or wicked human beings…’, then it brings us to a discussion which is complex on both sides of the debate as to how God’s will relates to the activity of Satan and rebellious human beings. There is a great deal of diversity of opinion regarding these questions on both sides, and although most open theists take a strong line on it, that does not change the fundamental thesis of open theism concerning foreknowledge and the future.

Trinity

“If love is necessarily risky…then how can the Father, Son and Spirit all love one another?” The fact that loving human beings is by definition and necessity risky does not mean that loving one of the members of the triune godhead is risky. God is eternally faithful and trustworthy, and is certain to be so. Love still makes the subject vulnerable to the treatment of another, it is only that in God’s case, the one you are loving is perfectly reliable. The difference in character of the object of love does not change the definition of love.

Hell

Andrew’s comments raise an entirely new theological question over the nature of hell. As much as I would love to comment, the fact that many open theists take a certain position on hell is not relevant to the fundamental thesis of open theism. We can debate about hell, but that’s not the question in hand. If you embrace open theism, you might find it leads you to reconsider some other things, but that’s not the point—the question in hand is: ‘is open theism biblical?’ Let’s stick to that one for now.

Paul

The fact that God is active within human subjects—involved with, influencing and energising their thoughts and decisions—does not undermine the fundamental thesis of open theism. In fact, Barclay’s term ‘energism’ (literally ‘in-working’ from the Greek) helps to clarify: the fact that God is working in us, influencing and energising us to do good, is very different to the idea that God is controlling or determining what we think and do. It brings us to the far more biblical idea of ‘co-operating’ with God, ie working with Him.

Interestingly, Paul uses exactly the same word to speak of the ‘Prince of the power of the air’ and the  ‘spirit that is now working in [‘energising’] the sons of disobedience’ (Ephesians 2:2). So the Holy Spirit ‘energises’ God’s people to do good, whereas the spirit of ’the Prince of the power of the air’ (no prizes for guessing who that is) energises those who are disobedient. Whether you are obedient or disobedient makes a big difference as to which spirit is working within you, and which spirit you ‘co-operate’ with is very important.

Lewis

As much as I love C.S.Lewis, believe it or not my decision regarding open theism is based not on him, nor on ‘good old-fashioned English common sense’  but on the rule of scripture! I’d rather talk about that than base any arguments on Lewis or common sense.

This discussion touches on some huge topics and disagreements regarding the interpretation of scripture, which have been with the church for centuries, not jut since the 1990s. My appeal is that we focus on the biblical arguments, and judge any later conclusions of church history—whether in the 5th century, the 16th or the 21st—by the evidence of the Hebrew and Greek scriptures.

There are biblical cases to be answered on both sides, and to the frustration of some, I think that for most serious biblically minded evangelicals, this discussion is only just beginning and must not be brushed under the carpet.

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