Open Theism challenges the traditional view of Christianity about what God knows and when He knows it. You can read about what Open Theists believe in the first part of our series. We shared the titles of their books along with one of the leading Open Theism websites and podcasts so you can acquaint read their beliefs for yourself.
In this second part, I want to share a different viewpoint. I am not an Open Theist. Interestingly enough, neither was Clark Pinnock who was a leader in Open Theism until his death in 2010. When I first read Pinnock’s writings after becoming a Christian in 1971, I found him to be a strong proponent of the Sovereignty of God and infallibility of God’s Word. I bring that up as a reminder to myself and others that it would be dangerous to think that I (we) could not change given that someone like Pinnock did change his viewpoint on such an important teaching of the Bible.
An Important Examination
I firmly believe that Christians, especially Christians who teach, write and speak, should examine themselves regularly to make sure we haven’t slipped or drifted away from what we knew to be true in the past. The Apostle Paul wrote the Corinthians that they should examine and test themselves to ensure whether they were “in the faith” (2 Corinthians 13:5-6). Paul also wrote that when we see someone “overtaken in any trespass,” those who are spiritual should restore that person “in a spirit of gentleness.” Why? “considering yourself lest you also be tempted.”
I take Paul’s words to heart, as should we all. We need to be careful that we don’t drift away from sound doctrine and that we are humble and gentle when helping someone who has drifted away.
Clarke Pinnock began drifting in the 1970s and continued in the 80s, 90s and 2000s. His drift was slow, but obvious enough to notice because of his writing. People who write leave an “evidence trail.” That was something I learned to follow during decades of investigative journalism. Follow what people wrote, what they said, how they spent their money, how they used a position of power and influence .. and you will see when and how they change. Change usually occurs over time. It’s rarely something that happens instantly.
People don’t usually go from believing God’s knowledge is limitless to believing His knowledge is limited overnight. Just like they don’t change overnight from believing God’s power is unlimited to believing His power is limited. Those kinds of changes take time .. often years. If those people are theologians, professors, pastors, teachers, authors, etc., we can usually see their slow drift through years of teaching and writing.
I say that to point out the truth that we can help each other on our spiritual journeys as we care for each other. If we love others as we love ourselves, we should want to watch out for how people are doing in their relationships to God and others. If you love God, His Word and His people, you’ll know when someone is spiritually falling away.
I do believe that Open Theism is a falling away from what the Bible teaches about God. That’s not because I don’t know what Open Theists believe and teach. It’s because I do know what they believe and teach. Open Theists are greatly concerned about how people view God. So am I. However, I don’t believe we have to compensate for how some people view God by changing truth about God. God has revealed Himself quite well in His Word. We don’t need to make any excuses for who He is or how He has chosen to reveal Himself and His will.
I believe that many Christians are confused by God’s Nature and His Nurture. By that, I mean the eternal Nature of God and the way God temporarily nurtures His creatures. God’s Word reveals that God’s Nature is settled. It is permanent and unchanging. God is who He is and has always been.
I say that God “nurtures” because He is “relational.” God is Relational. He created human beings so He could have a relationship with them. God is Creator and Father. Creator comes from His Nature. Father comes from His Nurture. Fathering is how He nurtures what He created. God relates to humans as “Father.”
Jesus warned the Jewish people not to be like the Jewish leaders who acted hypocritically in their prayers and charitable deeds. He reminded the people that their Heavenly Father was a rewarder, which is something a nurturer does.
Take heed that you do not do your charitable deeds before men, to be seen by them. Otherwise you have no reward from your Father in heaven. Therefore, when you do a charitable deed, do not sound a trumpet before you as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may have glory from men. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward. But when you do a charitable deed, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, that your charitable deed may be in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will Himself reward you openly. Matthew 6:1-4
Jews knew that God was their Father, but their religious leaders didn’t model nurturing. They were selfish and greedy. They cared little for the people God had entrusted to them. Jesus taught the people to pray in a way that acknowledged both God’s Nature and Nurture.
Therefore do not be like them. For your Father knows the things you have need of before you ask Him. In this manner, therefore, pray: Our Father in heaven, Hallowed be Your name. Your kingdom come. Your will be done On earth as it is in heaven. Matthew 6:8-10
When Moses first met God at the burning bush, he asked God a question that pertains to what we’re looking into today:
Then Moses said to God, ‘Indeed, when I come to the children of Israel and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they say to me, ‘What is His name?’ what shall I say to them? Exodus 3:13
God had already told Moses that “I am the God of your father—the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” God addressed Moses’ understanding of relationship. Moses was a Hebrew from the lineage of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Moses already knew that. Relationship goes to ‘nurture.’ That’s how God nurtures His creatures.
Moses was asking for something beyond nurture, beyond familial relationship. Moses was asking about God’s Nature, His Name.
And God said to Moses, ‘I AM WHO I AM.’ And He said, ‘Thus you shall say to the children of Israel, ‘I AM has sent me to you.’ Exodus 3:14
God’s answer to Moses addressed God’s eternal Nature. God is who He is – I AM WHO I AM – ’ehyeh ’ăšer ’ehyeh. Tell Israel that ’ehyeh, I AM, has sent you.
God is Self-Existent. The power of His existence, His Being, is in Himself. God is Self-Sufficient. He depends on no one for His existence. God depends on nothing for His existence. God is Self-Existent and Self-Sufficient. God is Eternal. He has no beginning or ending. He always was and will always be.
God then told Moses to tell the elders of Israel — “Thus you shall say to the children of Israel: ‘The Lord God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you. This is My name forever, and this is My memorial to all generations'” (Exodus 3:15). Yahweh ’ĕlōhê. God told Moses to tell the elders His “name” — šəmî, which translates to Shem. God actually gave Noah’s son Shem a name that means “name.” The lineage of Shem carried God’s “name” forward to Jesus of Nazareth – the I AM of God.
Open Theism’s Misunderstanding of God
Open Theists are very concerned about how God and humans relate to each other. That, I believe, is the beginning of misunderstanding God. Let me explain why I say that.
Thomas Jay Oord has listed the “core themes affirmed by the majority, if not all, Open theists.” You can find this on Oord’s website:
- God’s primary characteristic is love.
- Theology involves humble speculation about who God truly is and what God really does.
- Creatures – at least humans – are genuinely free to make choices pertaining to their salvation.
- God experiences others in some way analogous to how creatures experience others.
- Both creatures and God are relational beings, which means that both God and creatures are affected by others in give-and-take relationships.
- God’s experience changes, yet God’s nature or essence is unchanging.
- God created all nondivine things.
- God takes calculated risks, because God is not all-controlling.
- Creatures are called to act in loving ways that please God and make the world a better place.
- The future is open; it is not predetermined or fully known by God.
- God’s expectations about the future are often partly dependent upon creaturely actions.
- Although everlasting, God experiences time in a way analogous to how creatures experience time.
Dr. John Sanders agrees with Oord’s first point– “Love. The trinity is the model of love and open theists agree with most Christians in affirming that the key characteristic of God is love. God seeks the well-being of the other.”
Here are a few other points from Sanders:
[Important note: these are Sanders’ beliefs, not mine.]
- Faith. We usually speak of faith “in” God rather than the faith “of” God but God exhibits faith as well. God entrusts responsibility to us and thus has faith in us. God is confident that God can work with us to achieve the divine purposes.
- Hope. God entrusts responsibility to us and does not know for sure what we will do with this responsibility. Hence, God hopes that we will be wise and loving stewards of the divine gifts and calling. Also, God is patient with us when we sin, hoping that we will return home.
- God creates without assurance that things will go exactly as desired. God embarks on a mission with others to whom God grants amazing freedom which entails that there is no guarantee that all will go as God wanted.
- Much of the future is indefinite and open so not even God has a “God’s-eye view of the future.”
- God is resourceful — Sometimes God improvizes (Jazz)—works with what is available to continue the mission. Yet, there is also the need for foresight and problem solving. Anticipation and strategizing.
- God is wise — In GWR I said that the biblical writers emphasized God’s wisdom much more than the amount of divine knowledge, though they were in awe of that. God is adept at solving problems and overcoming obstacles related to the divine mission.
- God is competent — God has the skills needed to work with diverse people to accomplish the divine mission. It is not just know-how but skill (phronesis, practical wisdom).
- God is open to the other — God displays hospitality and trust by inviting others into the fellowship of triune love.
- This makes God vulnerable in some respects. Doctrine of creation: we wouldn’t be here if were not for the creative hospitality of God who is our host. God called the earth to “bring forth” –to produce creatures and called humans to name and care for the world. Creation should not be understood as a one-time event in the past which God preserves but as a beginning with a dynamic structure that enables the creation itself to produce new beings, events, and relations. In the Genesis accounts the original creation contained some structure and was reliable but it was not static or complete because God did not desire that it remain as it was. That creation is ongoing is seen in the divine call for plants and animals to multiply and this will shape the world in ways that are not predetermined—the earth will be different than it was at the beginning. God empowers creatures to bring about states of affairs that did not exist at the beginning. When humans, for instance, begin to occupy the land (Genesis 1:28) it will take on characteristics it did not have on the seventh day. This means that God is open to kinds of diversity that fit with the divine mission (not all diversity is due to sin). Dialogical openness involves both listening and seeking to persuade. God does not simply accept everything we suggest or do.
- God is power-sharing — God places responsibility on us by making us co-creators of the future. We are entrusted with “the possibility of forging a more responsible future” (Dik Allen). It is neither all up to God nor all up to us; God has chosen not to pursue the mission without our participation. God is not manipulative but seeks to empower and equip others.
- God is humble — Phil 2.5-7 says that Jesus did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, becoming a servant. True divine glory is not making sure that everyone sees how great you are. Instead, it is self-giving servanthood which is not arrogant (1 Cor 13) and does not “lord” his lordship over others.
- God is faithful — God perseveres in the face of obstacles. God cares for the beloved no matter what.
- God is forgiving and reconciling — Though not typically included in discussions of the virtues it seems to me that these are crucial to the gospel. These have been emphasized by Christians throughout the centuries and have been hallmarks of open theism.
Open Theists aren’t in the dark about the Nature/Nurture issue concerning God. Sanders titled one section of his online paper “Two dominant models of God in America: Nurturant God and Authoritative God.” Here’s how he explained the two dominant models.
God Is a Nurturant Parent. Divine grace is seen as primary for nurturance. Divine love comes first which results in respect for divine authority. God accepts people into the divine family and through love empowers them to transform sinful ways of living to loving ways. God exemplifies loving nurturance in the history of God’s interaction with people. Jesus is the divine-human exemplar showing us how to live a life of love towards others and the one who overcame the powers of evil to liberate us and return us to God. God demonstrates that God is trustworthy and is a model for humans to imitate. God wants to produce communities where people are nurtured in the ways of grace and love for others are stressed. For the Nurturant God model sin is primarily understood as harming others and atonement is restoration to loving relations.
God Is an Authoritative Parent. God sets out rules that humans are to obey. God wants people to develop self-sufficiency and moral strength. Respect for divine authority comes first and then God rewards those who obey with acceptance. Each individual has failed to obey and so must suffer the consequences in order to learn responsibility. Jesus, however, takes the punishment due each of us and is condemned in our place. Because of this vicarious punishment the divine moral accounting between obedience and disobedience is balanced because someone pays the price and is punished for disobedience. God gives those who accept Jesus’ atonement a second chance. God wants each of us to obediently follow the divine rules and be upstanding children who follow the instructions of those higher up in the social and religious hierarchies. For the Authoritative God model sin is primarily understood as breaking rules and atonement is payment for wrongdoing.
Sanders ended with an obvious conclusion:
The openness of God model coheres with Nurturant model.
I appreciate one of the long-time leaders of Open Theism helping me make the point that the issue we need to address is Nature/Nurture. I don’t necessarily agree with how Sanders explained God as an authoritative parent, but if we understand that the way God “parents” His creation is based on His Nature then we’re getting closer.
The Nature of God must be first in our understanding of God. His Nature is eternal and unchanging. God will never “nurture” in a way that is inconsistent with His “nature.” If we look first at the “nurture” of God to a fallen creation rather than in light of His “nature,” we will misunderstand much of what goes on in the Bible. God “nurtures” His creatures based on His “nature.” That’s basic to “rightly dividing the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15).
We will look deeper into the Nature/Nurture model and points of agreement and disagreement with Open Theism in the next part of our series, Open Theism: God In A Box.
Scripture taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
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