Woolly Thinking Open theism is like tugging on a thread –– the whole jumper may unravel
Communication is a dangerous thing. Each time we try it, we face the possibility of being misunderstood. Every time we speak, we seek to reduce the gap between what we intend to say and what people understand by what they heard.
We hope that we have understood the proponents of open theism fairly. In broad terms, Gerald Bray (The Personal God, 1998) sums up their intentions as follows:
- Open theism seeks to affirm that the God of Scripture is a God who answers personal prayer. It reacts against a view of God in which God is supposedly so immutable and predetermined as to make it seem as though personal prayer unnecessary (as if to say: “God has foreordained all things anyway, so what’s the point?”). It reminds us of God’s concerned interest in our daily lives. It wants to give us a kinder, gentler God.
- Open theism promotes the love of God as his defining essence. Consequent to this, the love of God is expressed in personal relationships between ourselves and God, relationships that grow, develop and change over time. It seeks to make the concept of love the benchmark for determining what God would or would not do in relationship with us.
- Openness theologians aim to keep theology rooted in the devotional life of believers. They would say: “Let’s keep theology practical, related to life’s issues, experiential. It must not be remote from everyday spirituality.” It accuses traditional theology of creating a doctrinal view of God from texts of Scripture that does not do justice to the living, creative and responsive God of personal relationships.
If this is a fair summary of the intentions of open theists, let’s look at the pitfalls.
Ironies abound in life. Sometimes the things that we consider are our strengths can become our weaknesses. We suspect that the very issues that open theists are striving to clarify have, at the same time, marked its inherent weakness.
First, open theism alters our view of prayer. It changes direction –– subtly at first, but surely!
Scripture teaches us that prayer is the ultimate act of dependence. It’s the ultimate relational connection –– man with God –– and through this connection we learn to appreciate God for his wisdom, knowledge and providence in all of life’s issues. Prayer is joining our spirit to God’s that we may commune with him, begin to fear and understand him, draw strength from his presence and seek his blessing for life.
Open theism alters this communion. Prayer becomes a work rather than a gift of grace. It directs our attention horizontally rather than upward. If God does not know what is about to happen, then God is dependent on us for the outcome. We now are encouraged to pray with ourselves in mind –what good things can we choose to do? We now pray for wisdom to choose good options and to shape a good outcome, rather than for wisdom to understand the mind and purpose of God.
The Christians gathered at their weekly church prayer meeting are no longer to pray for fresh understanding of the inscrutable mind of the sovereign God and for a quiet acquiescence to the purposes of God, but for better outcomes and greater wisdom for making better choices. All this power for fallible mankind! Rather than enriching prayer life, the Christian will become more timid in praying –– fearful of the possibility that we might choose to do things that God never intends to happen! This is disheartening for prayer.
In this way, open theism has the potential to dissuade prayer. Dare we trust a flexible God? Why would we cast ourselves unreservedly into the hands of a God who is in the process of change? Why abandon ourselves to a God who is still growing in knowledge as world events unfold before him? How trustworthy is a God who is constantly learning, is sometimes taken by surprise, and is bound to make a few poor decisions on the basis of insufficient knowledge?
Rather, we are the ones learning, and being surprised and groaning because of poor choices. We’ve had enough of change and reactive process in our own life. We need God to be above all that.
Take away a foreknowing God, a God who has unchangeably decreed the future, and you alter the spirit of prayer and reduce it to something more like wishful thinking. Prayer is a bolder and more powerful means of grace when believers clearly grasp and appreciate the sovereignty of God (for the past, present and future).
Second, open theism leads to a diminished view of God. J. B. Phillips, in an era (the early ‘60s) with far fewer books in print on the subject than today, asked the question: “Is your God too small?” It needs to be asked again. No longer is God seen as the king of the universe –– supreme in power, knowledge and wisdom –– ruling over the affairs of life for good and holy purposes. He is reduced (using Tom Ascol’s imagery) to the status of a children’s book author who creates for the reader a number of viable alternatives for finishing the story. Ultimately, the reader decides.
What God does the Christian church now adore in worship? Who is the subject of songs of praise? A great and awesome God who has purposefully determined all things that come to pass and guides history through them all for good and glorious reasons? A God who is omniscient and omnipotent? A God who is wholly other ... and beyond our imagination? High and lifted up? No, apparently not!
Open theists leave us with an impoverished God who does not know how things will work out, but provides options for us to choose. Why would the Christian church commend this God to others in evangelistic preaching or street witnessing? Why would the church plead with unbelievers to come and put their faith in a God whose best-laid plans and intentions can be reconstructed by the mischievous, selfish desires of men and women? Is such a God worthy of ultimate trust?
In essence, open theism is leading the Christian church to refashion a God of their own choosing. God’s character and purposes are being recreated in the hands of the creature. It’s hard to enjoy the upward dimension (the vertical) in worship when we are inviting the church to worship and adore a God who does not know all things and has his hands tied.
A God who sets aside foreknowledge so he can be a better companion for us is not a God worth adoring in worship. But this is what openness theologians are recommending to us –– a God who has given up his ability to see the future in order to be more relational. It reduces worship. It strangles the sense of awe. Instead of praising and contemplating a God who is Alpha and Omega, who knows the end from the beginning, we are supposed to worship a God who knows only 30 per cent of the future. This is a limited God –– a radically reduced version of the biblical one.
Third, open theism undermines the teaching of Scripture. Operating by different interpretive principles (i.e. a different hermeneutic), it confuses the Christian church with new ways of interpreting familiar passages of Scripture. This is OK if the “new light” is confirmed as true. However, it’s not so much the new understanding (which is always possible) that’s worrying; it’s the different hermeneutic.
This method of interpretation allows incident to shape principle. The incidents that happen to men and women of the Bible are allowed to become the driving principle for understanding the meaning of God’s revelation. So, the incident of God “repenting” (or changing his mind) following Moses’ prayer is to teach the Christian church that God does not know the future at all and has no plan from this moment on to the end of time. This is despite the repeated teaching of Scripture that God knows (and plans) the end from the beginning.
What should happen is the reverse: the principle should help to interpret the incident. Given this “new” teaching in the church, open theists will forge new methods for reading and understanding Scripture. Experience will take the driver’s seat. The problem, as I see it, is that this approach will gradually lead Christians to interpret Scripture from the incidents of their own lives. It leads to a privatised hermeneutic in which the principles of Scripture are reshaped in the light of personal experience. Scriptural integrity is diminished. We gradually become arbiters over the Scripture itself.
In summary, it is the gradual effect of the openness theology that is most worrying to me. When I was young, my mum once “blew a fuse” because I pulled a thread from my knitted jumper. “Just one little thread –– what’s the big deal?” I thought. “There’s so much left of the jumper, no one will notice!” But I’ve learned from experience that things begin to unravel from just a thread.
While it may be true that we’ve still got much in common with Christians who have embraced the teachings of this new theology, this is not a minor theological squabble. Christopher Hall (Christianity Today, June 2001) reminds us that open theism is acting like a strong tug on the thread dangling from a jumper –– how much of the Christian faith will unravel with one pull of the thread yet remains to be seen.