Key issues that the openness debate has raised

This is excerpted from my summary of open theism article.

One of the benefits arising from the openness debate is that a host of important issues have arisen, most of which had not been seriously discussed among evangelicals.

  1. Philosophical Questions

The debate raised questions about nature of time itself as well as God’s relation to time. This led to the publication of God and Time: Four Views (IVP). Also, the decades of work by members of the Society of Christian Philosophers on the divine attributes (e.g. simplicity, immutability, atemporality and omniscience) was introduced to a wider readership. The debate over foreknowledge resulted in the publication of Divine Foreknowledge: Four Views (IVP). These books have evangelical proponents of each view expounding and defending the position so the different views get a fair hearing. Evangelical theologians and pastors finally have to face up to some of the philosophical assumptions behind their theological stances.

  1. How do we decide what God is like?

Another issue that has surfaced is the interplay between natural theology and biblical theology. Evangelicals have typically claimed to simply get their views straight from the Bible, unencumbered by social or historical location. The notion that certain aspects of their doctrine of God were at all influenced by philosophy was not on their radar screen until open theism came along. For instance, that a philosophical heritage had anything to do with the conclusion that God was timeless was not mentioned. Evangelicals were unaware that philosophy colored their interpretation of the few biblical texts they used to support divine atemporality. Now, however, evangelicals are trying to sort out the proper relations between biblical and philosophical theologies. Today I find some evangelical theologians, such as Millard Erickson, admitting that every theology is influenced by philosophy. This is a positive step.

After explaining the philosophical and hermeneutical assumptions of classical and open theists Amos Yong concludes: “Each system interprets the Bible consistently and coherently within its presuppositional framework. . . . factors extraneous to the Bible itself determines how one reads and interprets the biblical text. . . with regard to the doctrine of divine omniscience in particular.”[1] The full import of this has not yet sunk in. Evangelicals have regularly criticized liberal theologians for allowing philosophical commitments to govern their reading of scripture. But if evangelicals do this as well then what does this do to the presumed “objective” interpretation of scripture that most evangelicals think they possess? Ultimately, this means that there is no definitive way to settle the matter and this shakes the strong epistemological foundationalism of many evangelicals.

  1. The Nature of Language about God

Evangelicals who affirm classical theism admit that there are passages of scripture where it looks as though God has emotional reactions, or that God does something in response to prayer, or even that God tests people to learn whether they will obey, but they insist that such texts are “anthropomorphisms” and do not mean what they say. Why should we interpret them as anthropomorphisms instead of straightforwardly as is customary in evangelicalism? Because, we are told these texts are metaphorical, not literal. One thing to notice here is that these evangelicals are unaware that the very literal/metaphorical distinction is a product of philosophical discourse.[2] The very categories they use for biblical interpretation are shaped by philosophy of language.

  1. Hermeneutical issues

Even granting the validity of the literal/metaphorical distinction, why are these expressions metaphorical?  The answer is that if we took the biblical expressions such as God changing his mind literally, then we would be “reducing God to human proportions.”[3] Calvinist philosopher Paul Helm argues that the “clear,” “strong” and literal texts of scripture can be distinguished from the “unclear,” “weaker,” and anthropomorphic.[4] For Helm, the three biblical texts that say God does not change (Num. 23:19; I Sam. 15:29, Mal. 3:6) are the strong, clear texts that provide the truth about what God is really like. The dozens of passages where God is said to “change his mind” says Helm, are the unclear texts that must be subordinated to the clear ones. However, this begs the question for it assumes that a particular model of God is the correct one and the texts that support this model are the literal and clear passages.

  1. The Nature of Biblical Prophecy

Many evangelicals view biblical prophecies as accurate predictions of what will happen and this is then used to prove the divine authorship of the Bible. Open theism raises questions about the nature of the future and points out the numerous biblical prophecies that either did not come to pass at all or did not occur in the way foretold. What exactly is the nature of biblical prophecies and, in particular, how do we decide which ones are conditional and which are unconditional?

  1. Different Forms of Spirituality

Forms of piety differ greatly among Christians. Various faith communities emphasize different kinds of prayer, worship, and have divergent understandings of what it means to live the Christian life. Different forms of piety give rise to different understandings of the divine nature and God’s relationship to the world. The open theism debate has helped bring this factor to light.

  1. Sola Scriptura and the Role of Tradition in Theology

The inability to settle this matter with a simple appeal to the Bible has led many critics of open theism to appeal to church tradition as a way of determining what theological perspectives are acceptable. Needless to say, it has been uncommon for evangelicals to cite “the tradition” as a trump card to settle theological disputes. It has amazed me to hear Southern Baptists, in particular, vituperate against open theism by shouting, “But it’s not traditional!” This brings forth a number of interesting issues. For one, just what exactly is “the” tradition? Has there really been a singular tradition on topics such as anthropology, harmartiology, soteriology or ecclesiology? Thomas Oden’s strong use of tradition led him to say that open theism is a “heresy” because dynamic omniscience is not in line with the theological consensus of the first eight centuries. According to this criterion, however, much of what came out of the Protestant Reformation is heresy and much of what evangelicals believe would fail the test as well. For example, I do not think dispensationalism was part of the early consensus.

  1. How do Evangelicals Settle Theological Disputes?

Accusing fellow evangelicals of heresy has been a customary tactic of evangelicals.  Despite pleas from his fellow evangelicals J. Gresham Machen refused to make room for premillennialism in his movement.[5] Instead, he said it is “a very serious heresy.” Given the popularity of the Left Behind series, this has become one lucrative heresy! Cornelius Van Til called Gordon Clark a heretic and  E. J. Carnell called Fundamentalists “heretics.” Evangelicals have demonized one another over a host of issues rendering Gary Dorrien’s comment fitting: “The irony of evangelicalism is that while it contains an essentially contested family of theologies, it has been poorly suited to affirm pluralism of any kind.”[6]

Because of open theism, once again evangelicals are confronted with the issue of how to handle differences in theology. If the debate cannot be settled by appeal to scripture or tradition then other means must be found to “remove this cancer from our midst.” Evangelicalism is a populist movement, lacking any central source of authority. In such a setting practicing dialogical virtues is not the fastest way to settle theological disputes. In order to get one’s way it is a common tactic to caricature the other view or label it with names that no upstanding evangelical would be associated with or simply use ad hominem. For example, one Calvinist academic wrote that the reason I developed a warped view of God is because I failed to properly cope with my brother’s tragic death. Open theists have been accused of worshipping a “finite god” and a “user-friendly” God. Some say we are Socinian. Others label us process theologians but the process folks say we are really just classical theists.[7] Nobody wants us. The sons of openness have nowhere to lay our heads.

[1] Yong, “Divine Omniscience and Future Contingents: Weighing the Presuppositional Issues in the Contemporary Debate,” Evangelical Review of Theology 26.3 (2002): 263. Yong does not take sides in the debate and his is one of the best explanations of the underlying presuppositions.

[2] Evangelicals have not seriously engaged theories of metaphor, such as cognitive linguistics.

[3] For a full response to this charge see my “Reducing God to Human Proportions” in Semper Reformandum: Studies in Honour of Clark Pinnock, eds. Anthony Cross and Stanley Porter (Grand Rapids, Mich: Eerdmans, 2003), pp. 111-126.

[4] P. Helm, The Providence of God, Contours of Christian Theology (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1994), pp. 51-4.

[5] For this and the following see Gary Dorrien, The Remaking of Evangelical Theology (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 1998), 27, 31, 41, 59, 69, and 73.

[6] Dorrien, Remaking of Evangelical Theology, p. 3. In my opinion, is that branch of evangelicalism that arose out of fundamentalism that is ill-suited because a key characteristic of these “neoevangelicals” is that, epistemically, they cannot be wrong about what they believe.

[7] See David Ray Griffen’s comments in Searching for an Adequate God, pp. 14-24.

John Sanders

John E. Sanders is an American theologian who is a professor of religious studies at Hendrix College. He has published on four main topics: (1) open theism, (2) Christian views on the salvation of non-Christians, (3) Christian views on the nature of hell, and (4) applying cognitive linguistics to theology.

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