The Virtues Inherent in Open Theism

Address given at the Open Theology and the Church conference. St. Paul, MN April 5, 2013.

“Tyrannical Gods breed tyrannical humans” (Richard Kearney, Anatheism, 138, 147).

This led me to wonder what sort of humans an open God seeks to produce. This paper argues that since the God of open theism exemplifies characteristics such as humility and power-sharing, then open theists should live out the virtues that God manifests. God seeks not only to direct us to a destination on a path but teaches us how to walk the path as well. This has implications for the way we relate to one another in various settings including the way we operate in churches. The final section discusses how we should deal with controversial issues about which we disagree.

The nature of God and God’s relation to creatures according to openness theology:

  1. God of triune love freely creates others with the goal of having them experience the love of the trinity and to establish communities in which this love is manifest.
  1. God does not control humans and so takes the risk that we might fail to love.
  1. God is hospitable in that God gifts a place for creatures to inhabit. The original or initial creation is not completely finished in the sense that God calls creatures to “bring forth” and produce. God calls us, in the words of Terence Fretheim, to become finite co-creators in the divine task. God puts trust in us by granting us responsibilities to care for and extend God’s original creation.
  1. Openness in two senses:
  2. God is self-giving and open to the other.
  3. The future is open with multiple possibilities. No algorithm by which everything turns out according to the code. Divine purposes with open routes. God knows possibilities but not what free creatures will actually do.
  1. Once sin enters the story God does not give up but remains faithful, seeking to restore sinners to the divine household. God forgives and seeks reconciliation.

Virtues associated with an open view of God:

God exhibits the three theological virtues of faith, hope, and love.

  1. 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.
  • 1 Corinthians 13.4-7 Paul characterizes love as: patient, kind, not envious boastful, arrogant, or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. These characteristics have seldom been associated with God. However, the biblical writers assign these characteristics to God as God works with us in history.
  • Also, traditionally justice was listed as a cardinal virtue and love as a theological virtue—two different virtues that have often been pitted against one another. But since love seeks the well-being of the other then love includes seeking justice for individuals and communities. [Wolterstorff, Justice in Love.]
  1. 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. [on the faith of God see the doctoral dissertation by Holtzen, William Curtis. Dei Fide: A Relational Theology of the Faith of God. University of South Africa, 2007.]
  1. 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 is courageous

  • 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. [Jay Wood, Epistemology: Becoming Intellectually Virtuous]

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).

[See Terence Fretheim, God and the World in the Old Testament: A Relational Theology of Creation, chapter 2] [Diversity in our creativity includes the way we conceptualize. (cognitive linguistics and culture. The nature of fathers and heads of households—stuff from my book]

  • 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.

Some applications to Christians

  1. The NT exhorts us to practice faith, hope, and love. The Holy Spirit seeks to produce the virtuous fruit of the Spirit (love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control) in us (Gal 5.22-23). 2 Peter 1.4-7 says that these virtues are associated with those who partake of the divine nature.
  1. A journey with God—pilgrimage. Pinnock spoke of a pilgrim theology rather than a fortress theology. We have a destination and instructions about how to walk the way but the details of what we do are not always clear. Requires courage, faith, and hope.
  1. Just as God called Abraham to embark on a journey without knowing where he was going so God calls us to do much the same. There is no algorithm or detailed script to follow. We follow based on the trust we have in our wise, loving, and competent guide.
  1. We should have the courage to try new programs in church.
  1. We need to be resourceful. We need to develop skills of both improvisation and problem solving. We need to able to both adjust on the fly and to strategize with foresight.
  1. We need wisdom to navigate life. It is divine wisdom that helps us on the Christian path. Someone defined wisdom as “what you get immediately after you needed it.” God seeks to endow us with wisdom for walking the Christian path.Our society is enamored with knowledge, particularly technology, rather than wisdom.
  1. We need competence: both know-how and skill to apply it.
  1. We need openness to the input of others. Humility and a teachable spirit.

In his chapter in The Openness of God, Clark Pinnock said that when discussing the nature of God “humility is essential” since our understandings of God are always partial and in need of revision. In this chapter he places divine openness and human openness side by side (102) and concludes that we should emulate God’s example. “God is the best learner of all because he is completely open to all the input of an unfolding world, whereas we are finite and slow to react, reluctant to learn and inclined to distort reality in our own interest” (124).

The route God takes sometimes has surprising turns in it and following the leading of the Holy Spirit can be challenging even with a biblical GPS. For instance, The OT was read by most Jews of the second temple period as teaching a particular type of Messiah with a specific threefold job description. (1) Political-military: rid Palestine of the brutal military occupation of the Romans, (2) Economic: provide food and well-being for the masses. (3) Religious: purify the temple worship and the corrupt priesthood. Jesus did address each of these but in the way most folks, including the disciples, thought he should. God surprised them in Jesus and those who want to follow God have to learn to listen to the surprising leading of the Holy Spirit.

Another example. [add anti-Gentile biblical texts such as Psalm 79:1-9 were used to support the idea that one had to convert to Judaism in order to be included in God’s chosen people] The Old Testament regulations about what is clean and unclean, ritually pure and contaminated, established those Jews who practiced what God instructed as the people of God and placed Gentiles beyond the boundaries—aliens to the divine household.  Entering the Jerusalem temple required ablutions from pilgrims because they were contaminated by the “unclean” Gentiles. [Brian MacLaren, Why Did Jesus,180ff] The issue of what Gentiles needed to do in order to enter the Jesus community of Jews was one of the central debates among this community. The decisions of Acts 15 and defended in several of Paul’s letters was one of the most significant religious revolutions in history.

The Christian community should embody dialogue and a deliberative process such as that found in Acts 15. Note, however, that the issue was not resolved once for all since Paul confronted Peter in Antioch when Peter refused to eat with Gentiles.

According to Acts 15 the early Jesus community had to “pick and choose” texts from the Bible and select from their experiences on the mission field in order to debate and seek resolution about the direction God was leading. Picking and choosing is part of being responsible (quote of Kearney 198 of MacLaren). The language of “picking and choosing” has negative connotations so we can change the language and say we need to understand how we are interpreting the texts and how we are interpreting the calling of the Spirit. This happens as we dialogue, disagree, converse, and seek to understand. 205 = interpreting the Bible is always a matter of ethics. We should handle the Bible the way Jesus and Paul did. [E.g. Jesus and the Sabbath, eye for an eye. MacLaren 202-6 ]

Christians have rejected some key Old Testament ideas and morals. Iconoclastic controversy. The idonodules said the prohibition against images was prior to the incarnation. See the document didakalia apostolorum for a similar move about the need for water purification for women, etc. as prior to Jesus. Paul rejected male circumcision for Gentiles, dietary regulations and Sabbath keeping even though circumcision is extremely important in OT and Sabbath is one of the ten words.

In church history important decisions were made at councils but sometimes opponents were not invited or rules were in place so they were not given a fair hearing.

Slavery in America was a huge debate about which southern clergy accused abolitionists of rejecting the “clear teaching” of the Bible. Today, we think that this particular “clear biblical teaching” is not so clear. [Mark Noll, The Civil War as Theological Crisis]

We will disagree.

Though God’s route into the future will contain many surprises for us and we cannot predict the precise way God will go, we are not left in the dark. We can be assured that Jesus is the trailblazer we are to follow. God will not lead us in a direction counter to our Lord since God is seeking to produce a Christlike people. During our trek we should expect that Christians will disagree with one another regarding the direction of the Spirit on particular issues. Just as the early Christians had a big brouhaha over whether Gentiles could be included into the body of Christ without first becoming Jewish, so we are likely to have significant disagreements. Hopefully, when such times arise, we can, after much dialog and listening, “become of one mind” as they did (Acts 15:25).

We will be assisted in this endeavor if we keep in mind the values, worship practices, doctrines, etc. that we share in common rather than highlighting our differences. In 1999 the Roman Catholic Church and the World Lutheran Federation signed the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification. They did not reach full communion or even full agreement on justification but does express a unity in difference and a cessation of violent rhetoric and condemnations (Westphal, Whose community? 135ff.]

In this case, it is fellow Christians who are seeking to be faithful to the gospel who disagree with one another.

A teachable spirit requires a commitment to critique—our positions are revisable. This is very difficult for us to achieve since none of enjoys being mistaken or realizing that we need forgiveness. Yet, we must constantly remember that we can’t peek over God’s shoulder. There is no God’s eye view for us so hermeneutics is a lesson in humility.

Note: need to avoid claims to both absolute certainty and absolute relativism. [Kearney in MacLaren 204] Some Christians claim that their limitations have been overcome because God allows them to peek over God’s shoulder so they understand life as it is without question. However, even divine revelation uses human cognitive processes which always remain limited to a species-specific understanding. If we realize that we might learn something from the other we are more willing to engage in conversation that involves reciprocal questioning.  [we never escape interpreting the Bible. See Westphal’s Whose Community? Which Interpretation? 15, 115-116]

Remember: not all difference and diversity is due to sin. We can be creatively different in good ways. Christianity must be indigenized in every culture so we must be careful of the temptation to enforce a homogenous version of Christianity. [Lamin Sanneh, Who’s Religion is Christianity? and Philip Jenkins, The New Faces of Christianity]

Two dominant models of God in America: Nurturant God and Authoritative God

The following discussion combines the work of cognitive linguist George Lakoff [1]  and the work of two sociologists, America’s Four Gods: What We Say About God–& What That Says About Us.[2]

  1. 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.
  1. 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.

The openness of God model coheres with Nurturant model. The moral values and virtues differ in the two models [Lakoff, Little Blue Book 16ff].

God is our example of self-giving vulnerability for the sake of the other. Jesus is the way (John 14.6) and Christians are to “follow the footprints of Jesus” (1 Peter 2.21). Jesus is God’s special exemplar for us regarding how to walk the path. This fits well with a virtue ethics approach.in which morality is like a set of skills we acquire through instruction, modeling, and practice. A good person is one who emulates a moral exemplar. In light of this it seems to me that we should emphasize wisdom as one of the goals of moral education rather than focus on rules. The focus should be on the kinds of people we want to be in community rather than sets of rules established by deontological or utilitarian considerations.

[Warren Brown and Brad Strawn, The Physical Nature of Christian Life: Neuroscience, Psychology, and the Church (Cambridge, 2012), Theology and the Science of Moral Action: Virtue Ethics, Exemplarity, and Cognitive Neuroscience eds. Van Slyke, Spezio et. al. (Routledge 2012)].

Some of the virtues of the Authoritative God model are evident in the titles of books written against open theism: Beyond the Bounds and God on Trial. Proponents of the Authoritarian God model enforce strict rules and sharp boundaries. The God of meticulous providence controls everything and it seems to me that those who affirm such a deity tend to tightly control congregations and institutions. They tend to polemicize and attack first when they perceive a difference. The desire to control does not desire dialogue with those who are different nor does it invite questions and critique.   [Simmons thinks prototype and radial categories helpfully undercuts this approach. Bird or fish at the basic level.]

Brian MacLaren [Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road?] says we need both a strong Christian identity and a benevolent spirit (42). We take stands yet remember that our stands are revisable. We need a “generous orthodoxy” rather than an oppositional identity founded on hostility to other views (57).

The risk we take with such an approach is twofold: by affirming benevolence the gatekeepers on the right will say we are weak on Christian identity and liberal or relativist. If we affirm a strong Christian identity then the gatekeepers on the left will say we are hostile extremists (MacLaren, 71).

There are times to take strong stands against clear violations of the way of Jesus (e.g., the treatment of widows and orphans–those most vulnerable and voiceless in society).  Years ago one of the leaders against open theism said “I am angry at open theism because God is surely angry at it for diminishing the divine glory.” Perhaps this makes sense from the perspective of an Authoritative God who is deeply concerned about any disrespect. The Benevolent God may be disappointed and even angry at times that Christians misconstrue the divine disclosure but it seems to me such moments will primarily be about the way we treat others. Again, this is not to say doctrines are unimportant. But the primary purpose of doctrines is to help Christian communities better live the Christian life.

Christians have disagreed about important liturgical, moral, and theological issues. We will continue to do so. We when disagree we have to negotiate our differences and realize that sometimes our differences are due to legitimate diversity, sometimes to our finitude, and sometimes to our sin.

  1. We need to be open to the other and willing to share power.

Our relationship with God is not egalitarian but the star of the band whose name is on the marquee, is same the one who invites us to play in the band and sometimes to take the lead in a song. God is a power-sharing deity and we should seek to enable fellow Christians to take responsibility as well. Even if we have hierarchical arrangements those in positions of authority over others should emulate Jesus who did not lord his lordship over others.

A congregational life that is more democratic will seek to listen to all parties. It is a deliberative process of a perichoretic (mutually indwelling) community.

  1. We need to be a forgiving and reconciling community.

Mistakes will be made and the way we treat those who mess up communicates much to both those in and those outside the church. God works to return wayward family members and restore them to the household.(2 Cor 5, Acts 15)  [Miroslav Volf, Free of Charge]

God counts on us to participate in the ministry of reconciliation (2 Cor 5) and in the work of establishing communities of atonement [Scott McKnight, A Community Called Atonement]. We need to equip others and give them responsibility. This means they might fail which has the possibility of bringing embarrassment on the congregation (household of God).


[1] George Lakoff, Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002).

[2] Paul Froese and Christopher Bader, America’s Four Gods: what We Say About God– & what that Says About Us (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010).

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.

0 replies

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *